Confrontation remained an old friend to Kim Ramone.
All her years of teenage dysfunction had never left.
Confusion and frustration, the kings of contradiction themselves, had been with her since the day her brother had painfully exited her life.
They were with her when she met Michael Kay for the first time, and they were with her when Helia and Renaldo had first attempted to strong arm her into Zero Beat.
So this moment was no different. The air seemed ready to ignite with flames as Kim stared down the object of all her rage and venom.
Despite Kim’s rigid stance, Ayla Syntara had made no effort to move even the slightest from her lounging position in her throne. Instead, she flicked her tongue along the back of her teeth, debating options in her mind.
Kim’s eyes wandered towards the crawling denizens around her, since Ayla herself seemed unwilling to make any move.
They kept their distance, snarling in low volume. On all fours, they crowded around Ayla’s throne like a pack of hyenas, and Kim’s fingers tightened as Walking Disaster swayed around her defensively.
She calculated their numbers in her mind, knowing that she would be able to disable most of them if they did indeed attack en masse.
As if reading her thoughts, Ayla finally moved, putting up a few fingers as a signal to order her minions to stop.
Under a less obvious telepathic command, they did indeed freeze right in their tracks.
There was a moment of indecision on what might happen next, until through a positioned scout, Ayla sensed the incoming disturbances that had been clawing their way through her Greatest Show Unearthed all this time.
With a flick of her mind, the attention of her Beautiful People was elsewhere, and they scrambled off outside of the tent in search of these unwelcome guests.
“I figured,” she began, sitting up and crossing her legs. “That you wanted some alone time with me.”
Ayla smiled wide as Kim held back the urge to strike. Even in all her anger, she knew there was closure to be gleaned from all this.
“If you’re trying to make yourself look like a defenseless victim, save it. You and me both know this isn’t going to end well.” Kim threatened, but Ayla seemed content in the mocking tone in her voice.
“Oh, you’re right about that.” Ayla quipped, now standing up.
Ayla put a finger to her chin, her smile never wavering.
“But the real question is, do your friends know that?”
Kim’s eyes narrowed, but her face remained unchanged.
Whether or not this was a bluff, or if Michael, Aeris and Calvin really were nearby, she wasn’t going to let it distract her. Instead, she began to step forward, her hydra-arms following along as she stretched her fingers in preparation of what was to come.
Ayla seemed pleased, the insanity ringing in her voice as she went on even as Kim approached.
“You know what I love most about the circus?”
A second passed, and Kim’s boot stamped into the sandy ground. No response.
“It brings out the best in people. Even in the middle of an audience, drowned in noise and lights, if they’re shaking in fright, it never gets past me.”
Ayla smiled wistfully as she continued, and Kim remained only a little more than ten feet away.
Ayla then laughed, and Kim’s vision focused in on her deranged expression. In the very same moment, her fingers were already clicking away at her music player.
When Kim was a mere five feet away, she let loose the worst of it.
“But you know, when it comes to putting someone under, there’s really no comparison.”
Kim’s eyes widened in the instant Ayla flashed a grin and those hated words squirmed out of her mouth.
“Crashing into a tree, in the middle of New York City? Is that a freak accident, or what?”
Her laughing came out in hectic spurts. It echoed throughout the big top tent, and she seemed so into it that she had forgotten Kim’s very presence.
But Kim was anything but gone. She was already bounding forward, gritting her teeth as her hydra-arms clawed at the air, seemingly ready to tear Ayla apart.
But Greatest Show Unearthed had already been playing even as Kim was close to grabbing Ayla, and Ayla’s decades of experience allowed her to switch to another song in the time span of just a mere second.
A slash in the air accompanied the sound of raspy rapping as Ayla’s song effect manifested into being.
Kim skidded against the sand, the thinnest slice now on her right cheek as she was just inches from being beheaded.
Her hydra-arms were not so lucky, and they twitched erratically from being suddenly bisected, before disintegrating in their entirety.
Ayla tipped her top hat, now guarded by a monstrous clown that was armed with a gigantic broken beer bottle. The product of her song effect bore it’s huge teeth towards Kim, salivating profusely as fresh meat presented itself.
“What, did you really think you’re the first Music Master wanting a piece of me? Then again, I’m all for uninvited guests. They make good guard dogs.” Ayla exclaimed, before her Sentonal stomped forward, one huge dirty hand reaching for Kim.
Luckily two of her hydra-arms had survived the sudden attack, and they pulled down on the titanic fist lest it smash Kim into paste.
She took a quick breath, noting her surroundings.
Even with the change of song effect, the big top tent, and Ayla’s personal saw-throne remained unchanged. The switch clicked in Kim’s mind, and she knew that if Michael and the others were coming for her, then at least they might have a moment of respite from the insanity of her song-effect borne carnival.
“I have been pretty bored lately.” Ayla said, her Sentonal slamming down and crushing one of the arms holding it as easily as it might crush a small insect. “It’s been awhile since I’ve watched him eat a live one. Must be your lucky day, Kim.”
Another slash of its broken beer bottle, and the last of Kim’s Walking Disaster was gone. She stepped back, but the huge clown stepped forward, opening its jaws as it intended to devour her whole.
Kim’s eyes focused on Ayla’s long, indigo headphone wire, and then towards the monster clown blocking her path.
She’d faced multiple physically imposing Sentonals like this in the past, and the one thing they all seemed to have in common was a definable weak point.
Kim’s eyes settled on the most obvious of places. It would be a gamble, but she didn’t have much of a choice.
Her fingers went for her music player, and even as the song began to switch to Desolation Row, and the purple energy claws formed around her hands, she had already made her leap of faith.
Time stood still as Kim slashed down hard at the large, bulbous red nose in front of her. Though she could see the stained glass brown of the broken bottle approaching, she knew she’d made the right choice when Ayla’s expression visibly sank.
There was a loud pop, and Kim was sent flying back as air rushed from where the monster clown’s nose once was.
Down on the sand and looking up at the monstrous Sentonal, she witnessed it have but one confused moment to grasp for its empty nose, before it violently exploded into a rain of pitch black confetti.
Once the monstrous clown was gone, the volume of Ayla’s music lowered considerably, much to her visible disappointment.
Left somewhat wide-eyed and surprised, she was unable to put up much resistance as a Desolation Row-empowered Kim bulldozed into her within the next second.
The two Music Masters soon went down into the sandy ground, with Ayla struggling against Kim’s now iron grip. She quickly realized how useless it was to resist, sighing with almost joking resignation before cracking into a smile again.
“Okay, okay, you got me.” Ayla declared.
Kim didn’t say a word as she hoisted her up by the back of her collar, before roughly throwing Ayla back into her saw-shaped throne.
Kim’s eyes glowed with eldritch purple light as she spoke with a familiar reverb in her voice.
“I’m going to make this simple. You answer my questions, and I’ll think of leaving you with a few incisors.”
Ayla’s eyes wandered towards Kim’s newly formed energy claws. Never one to fear much, she leaned back in her chair and took in a deep breath.
“Not gonna just kill me, huh?” Ayla laughed. “You’re no fun.”
Kim’s eyes widened in the next instant, and one of her clawed fists went for Ayla’s throat.
Keeping just the right amount of pressure, Kim leaned down and stared her eye to eye. Ayla’s voice came out somewhat hoarse, but at least she could still breathe for now.
Still, as she glared back at Kim, the fingers of her right hand had been steadily inching towards the music player tucked away in her lower jacket pocket. They only stopped when she felt a metallic, dusty sensation.
Kim’s gaze didn’t drift for a second. “Don’t even bother. Your wire’s cut, and you’ll be cut if you don’t behave yourself.”
But even with her headphone wire sliced, Ayla never seemed to lose her jubiliance.
“You really are nothing like Seth. He’d probably get a kick at the sweet apple you turned out to be.”
Kim’s grip tightened at the sound of her brother’s name coming out of a mouth so toxic. Ayla could only wheeze now as Kim began to speak again.
“Why did you do it? Why did you kill him?”
The words flowed out with every ounce of anger and rage that had been packed inside of Kim for the last decade.
To Kim, Ayla’s answer might be the most important question answered in her life up to this point.
Even underneath the cold darkness of her affected eyes, Ayla could still sense all of Kim’s vulnerability. She could practically taste the flavour of all her fears.
And so, her careful and calculated response showed not even the slightest hint of remorse.
“Eh, I just sort of felt like it.” Ayla giggled, much to Kim’s sudden surprise.
But she only had a few seconds to continue laughing, before Kim slammed her hard by the neck, stifling all further noise by doing so.
“You WHAT?” Kim growled in response, only just barely holding back the urge to cut Ayla’s jugular in two.
“What, were you expecting something more complex?” Ayla asked, but this time Kim didn’t choke her in response, instead allowing her to continue.
The crazed woman looked on somewhat wistfully as she began to reminisce. “Well, there’s a little bit of a story to it. I barely knew who Seth was. All I knew is that he won Audio Supremacy back in 2000, and he beat the living hell out of my ex with his guitar in the finals.”
Kim began to open her mouth, but Ayla seemed far from finished.
“Oh, but you want to know the best part? I haven’t talked to Trey, my ex, in forever. I just happened to remember Seth when he was in Coney Island one summer. He was with his girlfriend, Billy was her name…I think.”
Ayla smiled to herself as sickly sweet memories began to drift back into her mind.
“I never liked him from the first time I saw him in the flesh. That goofy grin, his stupid hair, that idiotic happy-go-lucky nonsense he spouted. You know, he just oozed out that he wasn’t going to let anything get to him.”
Ayla leaned in towards Kim, as much as she could despite the claw still latched around her neck.
“So to answer your question, you could just say that I didn’t like the look of him. I wanted to kill him. No, I had to kill him. He was practically asking for it! You know how freaking hard it was to not just kill him right then and there?”
She licked her lips at the thought, all while Kim remained oddly silent. Her expression was beginning to show signs of strain even as Ayla continued.
“But I waited. I waited till he drove back home, dropped his girlfriend off, and saw his little sister for the last time. And when he was walking back to his car, all alone…”
Ayla’s eyes glittered with insanity as she saw the scene play out again in front of her.
“…that’s when it was all said and done. Truly, there’s nothing more satisfying than taking someone away from a life where they had everything. It had to be at that perfect moment, when I could hear the twisting metal in my ears when he smashed himself against that tree…”
Finally, after holding in all of the fire building up inside her in these last few minutes, Kim’s voice practically exploded as she suddenly and violently threw Ayla out of her throne.
“SHUT UP! JUST SHUT THE HELL UP! You…you crazy bitch! Do you understand what you’ve taken away from me?”
Kim heaved through her next breath, her body shaking as rage spread from her very core.
“Everything about my life…everything going downhill…is all because of you.”
Ayla tumbled onto the sand, shaking her head as she sat up and just smiled back through her teeth.
“I know. You think I didn’t expect you’d coming knocking one day? Heck, I’ve been kind of excited about it for the longest time.”
This time Kim didn’t let her get another word, instead running forward before kicking her hard in the face with her boot, knocking her tophat clean off.
There was a snapping noise as blood gushed from Ayla’s nose, and one of her long sharp front teeth flew out of her mouth and onto the sand.
Kim stomped forward, not even giving Ayla the chance to catch her breath before kicking her hard in the stomach.
Ayla spat out blood onto the sandy ground, but otherwise made a hoarse laugh even as Kim leaned down and grabbed her roughly by the back of her green hair.
Slowly, Kim pulled Ayla’s head back, placing the sharp finger of her left energy claw right on the skin of her neck.
“Do you know how easily it would be for me to split your neck open? I could watch you bleed to death right now. No one would miss you.” Kim asked, her grip tightening on Ayla’s dyed follicles.
“Not like Seth, am I right? Well, here I am.” Ayla announced, clearly still relishing the situation. “Hey, if you off me, you’ll save me the trouble of going to the dentist!”
Kim could feel Ayla’s pulse pumping through the veins in her neck, and for a moment, she found herself wanting to cut right through. She could see herself watching Ayla’s blood fountain out from her neck like a billowing red geyser.
But then she thought back to how badly she’d beaten Helia.
She thought back to Aeris’s words, to the restraint she’d showed with Michael when they first met.
She thought back to her own words to herself, that more than anything, she wasn’t a killer. No matter how hard to she wanted this, she knew that if this line was crossed, it would damage her forever.
And so, in what turned out to be one of the hardest things in the world for her to do, Kim pulled her deadly claw away from Ayla Syntara’s exposed neck.
Still holding tightly onto Ayla’s hair, she proceeded to address her as calmly as she could muster.
“No. You won’t get that satisfaction from me.”
Ayla sneered through a sharp-toothed smile, but Kim no longer found infuriating like before.
“Whatever game you think we’re playing, we’re done. You’re done.”
Slowly but surely, Kim could feel a release spreading throughout her body. Her own words began to comfort her as the reality of the situation dawned upon her.
Kim’s muscles began to finally relax, and with her headphone wire cut, Ayla was little of a threat now.
There was of course still the matter of her supposed servants, but Kim was ready for them if and when they decided to come back.
Slowly, Kim moved her grip off of Ayla’s hair and onto her shoulder, though Desolation Row still remained active as she debated what course of action to take next.
It would be in the next moment, where Ayla’s expression lit up, and Kim’s eyes widened at the sight of newcomers running in through the big top entrance, that would decide everything.
For Michael Kay, the next fifteen minutes flew by like cars speeding past a yellow light.
Reunited with Aeris and Calvin after braving Ayla’s house of horrors, the three Music Masters wasted no time in heading towards the big top tent ahead.
There, presumably, they would find Ayla Syntara, and more importantly, their friend Kim Ramone.
But the night seemed far from over just yet, and Michael found himself standing underneath the shadow of the Big YMCA as it held off a pack of hungry monsters that seemed determined to tear him and his friends apart.
Beside him, Aeris and Calvin unleashed sparking lightning and neon pain respectively, dodging claws and bites as they fought off beings that appeared to blur the line between man and beast.
“Of course it wasn’t going to be that easy! This whole place is just brimming with crazies!” Calvin exclaimed, just barely ducking as one of Ayla’s Beautiful People leaped at him, claws cutting into the air. Two more bounded at him from one side, and he focused his stream of colored squares into them with the force of a high-powered hose.
As they were sent flying back, Aeris’s fingers crackled with the threat of This Fragile Breath’s lightning as three of these same monsters circled her like encroaching wolves.
They waited for a moment, before all three dashed towards her with intent to savage her very being.
They only made it a few feet before she arced the lighting in their direction, painfully chaining it through each one until they were all down for the count.
Feeling safe for but a moment, Aeris glanced back. Their surroundings had gone from the insane and lively carnival before to the detrius and age of a rundown amusement park.
“Whatever’s happening here, Ayla must have had to change song effects. We can probably thank Kim for that.” she pointed out.
Michael nodded in response, and the Big YMCA responded to his will by slamming aside what remained of their attackers as easily as someone might swat away a fly.
With such a titanic Sentonal towering over them, what remained of Ayla’s followers cowered in fear as they began to back away. Michael grinned in satisfaction, and the Big YMCA comically cracked its knuckles.
With Ayla too distracted to command them further, this was all it took for her Beautiful People to take off for the ancient innards of the amusement park.
Aeris gave it a few seconds before she allowed herself to breath, and thus she was sure they were gone and their momentary respite had come.
Calvin was the first to speak between a few laboured breaths. “So…anybody notice that those things showed up just before the carnival changed back? Maybe I’m imagining things, but that’s two song effects at once.”
“What? That’s impossible!” Michael said, clearly a little high on their victory. “You’d need like four ears for that.”
Aeris was quick to bring them back to reality. “Guys, not important! We’re here for Kim, and it’s now or never!”
She motioned wildly towards the big top entrance, now just nearby.
Despite it all, it appeared Ayla’s extravagant tent was still a very real part of this place.
Michael nodded, and the three made a run for it as their goal lie just up ahead.
The afro-headed teen, perhaps powered by his desire to make sure Kim was safe, made it in first, his shoes slipping slightly once they reached the sandy ground.
He spotted Kim in an instant, her hand on the shoulder of a kneeling woman that they’d seen advertised all over the park. Even in all his obliviousness, he knew it must be none other than Ayla Syntara.
“Hollywood Swinging, Kim! You okay?” Michael shouted, much to no one’s surprise.
His eyes scanned all over, noticing the blood on the sand below Ayla. Through her deranged smile he could easily see her now missing front tooth, which laid in the sand just a few inches away.
A wave of relief spread though Kim at the sight of her companions, and just the smallest smile was allowed to form on her face as she addressed Michael with a familiar sardonicism.
“Nice to see you too, Afroboy. Could be worse, I guess.”
Kim’s grip slackened, and Ayla felt it in a heartbeat. She had now betrayed herself with distraction, and Ayla knew her chance had come.
She smiled as wide as ever, her face forming unnatural curves as Aeris began to realize just what was about to occur.
“You’re right about that! Showtime, boys and girls!” Ayla screeched, as one of her free fingers clicked down on a previously hidden backup music player in her jacket breast pocket.
But even as Aeris realized what was going on, and tried to step forward, Ayla moved quicker where it counted.
She shifted herself quickly, catching Kim by surprise as she grabbed her forearm with both hands, and proceeded to bite down with all the savagery of bull shark.
Kim gasped audibly as she felt the blades that were Ayla’s teeth slice deep into her skin, pulling away seconds later just as Ayla’s jaws allowed her freedom.
Blood washed down her skin, and in a haze of pain, she couldn’t react fast enough as Ayla stood up and pushed her aside.
Just as Ayla expected, Michael was running forward, ignoring all pleas from Aeris to stop.
He was focused on Kim, even as the Big YMCA followed him through the draped entrance inside, its fists balled with all intent to defend her.
But it didn’t matter that his Sentonal could fit within the spacious tent, or that Michael was ready to defend Kim with his life.
He’d failed to see the tiny wireless earbuds hidden underneath Ayla’s larger headphones, and had been too focused to hear her incoming song effect.
The crooning singer seemed to beckon the emergence of a ghostly teal light, which zoomed straight at Michael even as the Big YMCA moved to try and stop it.
It would be nowhere near fast enough, and Michael stopped in mid-run as he watched a ghostly, worm-like creature stop just at his stomach. It squirmed horribly, before proceeding to dig deep into his skin.
There was no pain, and no blood, but Michael felt his body shut down in the next instant. His neurons sparked, and his vision clicked in and out as his bodily functions were stolen from him.
Suddenly, he now found himself looking at his body from outside, watching as his very form became attached to descending turquoise puppet strings that worked to keep him in place.
No matter how much he willed it, he couldn’t move an inch.
Like a wayward spirit locked out of his own form, he found himself helpless as all he could do was watch the scene before him unfold.
Under Ayla’s command, the Big YMCA stepped one huge sneaker down in front of Aeris and Calvin. They were only inches away from being crushed, but more than anything now blocked off from Michael.
Simultaneously, one of its titanic hands came down to block Kim’s path as Ayla strolled towards the now frozen Michael.
Ayla inspected him from top to bottom, her grin growing as she bathed in the sensation of using this cherished song effect again after all these years.
As comfortable as ever, she put both hands on Michael’s shoulders, leaning over him as she addressed Kim, who only now had stood up as blood flowed freely from her bite wound.
“And now it gets worse!”
Ayla laughed as she cracked her knuckles, and Michael did so in unison.
Above them both, the Big YMCA raised four of its arms into fists.
All present could see the huge teal puppet strings now hovering above Michael’s beloved Sentonal, and immediately understood the danger it represented.
Kim winced at the pain, even as a white hot rage welled up inside her at the sound of Ayla’s threat.
It sounded all too familiar, even through her now bloodied, shark-toothed smile.
“Ladies and gentleman…who wants to die first?”