In virtually any other situation, Aeris Fairfield might have actually enjoyed the sound of this particular song.
Context, of course, was like the devil himself smugly sitting among a chorus of angels.
The singer crooned lyrics that echoed in her thoughts, as a cello thrummed through her ear canals, and in hindsight, the song could have almost been soothing.
But it wasn’t. All Aeris wanted more than anything was for the song to end, and for the ultimate meaning of all of this to be finally made clear to her.
It was a painful few minutes, but when it finally came to the piece’s close, Aeris kept her ears open as her hearing picked up a light breath in the audio that was obviously not a part of the original track.
Like some sort of impromptu intermission, a slick, venom-coated voice emerged beyond the music to address Aeris Fairfield directly.
“I hope you enjoyed the song, Aeris. Something from my personal selection, and quite appropriate, if I may say so myself.”
Aeris clamped her mouth shut.
She almost wanted to scream at the speaker in response, but that would do little against a pre-recording like this.
Instead, she listened intently, trying to gather as much information as humanly possible.
“My name is Nicodemus Craven. You will soon call me a great many things. I’ve been observing you for some time, and I’ve been quite taken by you. Naturally, I needed something to get your attention. Hence why I now have possession of your dear siblings.”
Aeris’s grip on the music player tightened at the sound of Craven’s cursed words. Her heart skipped a beat in her chest as she feared the worst.
“Rest assured; they’re quite alive and intact for the time being. Let’s think of them as a sort of insurance policy. I’d like very much to meet with you. There’s quite a bit for us to discuss, and a future that will be greatly beneficial for the both of us.”
Craven’s words flowed out like poison, but Aeris let them through her mind unabated.
Anything to make sure that Isaac, Cory, David and Spencer remained safe.
“I expect you at 5 Records tonight, so we can speak more comfortably in person. I’m confident you will keep this arrangement between us, lest I forget to allow your brothers their breathing privileges. It is so difficult sometimes when lives are concerned.”
The music player almost cracked under pure strain as Aeris threatened to shatter it within her fingers. She held back her every urge of extreme anger and violence, just as Craven’s recording came to a close.
“I imagine our first meeting will be quite unforgettable. Please don’t keep me waiting, Aerie-bird.”
Like someone pulling the needle off a record, the track finally ended. Aeris was left wondering, especially over the fact that he finished his words with a nickname that only one person in Aeris’s life had ever called her.
He was some unknown Music Master, who knew something about Aeris’s grandmother, and more importantly, knew quite a bit about Aeris herself.
Aeris felt like someone had placed a vice clamp around her chest, and now she could barely breathe.
She ripped off her headphones in an effort to further dispel the horrid quality of Craven’s words.
Aeris sat down on her bed nearby, springs making audible noise as she cradled the black music player within her hands and wondered what to do.
This was the one thing she’d feared this entire time. Since the day she first met Michael, and told him she wanted it all this Music Master business kept on the down low; this was the singular doomsday scenario that scared her more than anything else.
There were no real options beyond giving Craven what he wanted.
Aeris wanted to believe otherwise, of course.
She wanted to think that she could just go out and tell Calvin what was going on, then call Michael and Kim, and then together the four of them would go gallivanting to save her siblings.
But that nothing more than a wishful fantasy. To be so reckless was to practically ensure her family’s demise.
There was a price to be paid for getting herself involved with Michael and his gang, and that price had now finally reared its ugly head.
Calvin, Michael and Kim were her friends. She cherished them, and they’d been through much together.
But compared to her family, they were something that would have to be foregone.
Family was something she had so little of as it was. Since Grandma passed away over two years ago, Isaac, Spencer, David and Cory were all that Aeris Fairfield had left.
The horrible truth couldn’t be changed. She would have to walk into this nightmare, and no one would know about it except her.
When that fact really dawned upon her, Aeris could feel her eyes wetting as they threatened to flood with tears.
But then she shook her head before her mind collapsed, pushing away all manner of resignation as she tightened her resolve.
Aeris stood up, throwing the black music player into a garbage nearby as she headed for the door.
Now was not the time to sit on her bed and cry like a baby.
If there was anything Kim Ramone had taught her in all their time together, it was that mental resolve was key. If she didn’t have that, she might as well just lay back and wait for her maker to come for her.
Aeris stopped for a moment in front of her door. As she debated all of her next possible actions, she put one gloved hand on the door itself.
Calvin was the only thing on her mind as she rested her forehead against the door and sighed deeply with frustration.
Calvin waited outside in the living room. He hadn’t called for her even once despite her being gone for almost fifteen minutes.
Normally, Aeris would show her appreciation for such patience with a most appropriate reward.
Unfortunately for Calvin, today was not the day.
She emotionally steeled herself for the next few minutes as she finally opened the door.
Perhaps one day, he might be able to forgive her for what she was about to do.
Today, Aeris was pretty confident he’d hate her.
And if that kept him out of her hair, then so be it.
When Aeris Fairfield finally walked out, Calvin was greeted with the sight of empty hands, and the promised Charlie Daniels Band live DVDs nowhere to be found.
He’d sat diligently waiting for her; his mind pulled in fourteen different directions, thirteen of them related to the sweet kiss they’d shared only minutes earlier.
Now, Aeris seemed anything but happy.
She was stone-faced as she approached him from the corner of the living room.
“What happened to the stuff? Did I really mess with your head that much?” he said with a laugh, hoping to elicit some sort of positive response in turn.
But Aeris didn’t even smile. Instead, she said nothing before stopping at the arm of the couch, eyeing Calvin with clear uncertainty in her eyes.
He could feel his heart rising up to his throat before she even opened her mouth.
“I need you to pack your things up and leave, Calvin.”
Calvin laughed again, louder this time. There was a clear aura of disbelief in his voice.
“Seriously? Look, don’t tell me your brothers saw that. Four against one really isn’t fair, you know.”
No warmth came form Aeris, and once he realized that, his jovial tone began to sink away.
“This isn’t a joke, Calvin. I’m sorry, but you staying here is not going to work out. I need you gone.”
Calvin’s smile vanished, and he stood up, now beyond confused.
“Look, if that kiss was too much, I’m sorry, Aeris. I just though-”
He was cut off, her patience wearing thin. She was relentless now.
“You thought wrong, okay? Just go, please. Go now and maybe I’ll see you some other time. The longer you stay, the worse you’ll make everything.”
Calvin narrowed his eyes. Every paranoid thought rushed into his head at once.
He should have known better. It was foolish to think that trust was something that could be so easily earned back.
Hurt more than words could show, he struggled to control his biting tone, even as he picked up his single backpack and prepared to make his exit.
“Alright, alright. I get the picture. It’s not like I needed to stay here anyway.” he shot back with insult, before turning around and heading for the door.
Aeris remained silent as he left, even as she heard more stinging words come from under his breath.
It took all of her willpower not to react, and for her not to show the breaking sadness that came from treating him so unfairly.
“I thought I only had Kim to worry about. Thanks for proving me wrong, Aeris. Looks like Mike’s the only guy I can trust these days.” Calvin exclaimed, before opening the door without tact and shutting it just as hard behind him.
His steps were quite audible even from inside, until a few minutes later he was out of earshot and gone.
Aeris waited just a minute longer than that before she allowed herself to relax, and even then, it was still practically impossible.
She pursed her lips with visible pain, before falling back on the couch and wondering why the world had presented her with so many complications so suddenly and so mercilessly.
After everything that happened, and everything he’d done to try and prove himself, that was the last thing Calvin needed.
But knowing him, there was no doubt he would try to tag along and insist he could help her save her brothers despite all her best warnings.
Aeris had no idea who this Nicodemus Craven was, and exactly what he was capable of.
He was a literal wild card, and right now, a knight in shining armor was the last thing she needed.
So if Calvin left in a huff, under the impression she didn’t want to see him, at least that would buy Aeris time to handle this problem without any interference.
It would secure Calvin and her family’s safety, and when this was all said and done, she’d apologize for to him for everything.
That was what Aeris Fairfield kept telling herself, at least.
She touched her jean pocket, making sure her music player was exactly where it was supposed to be.
As Aeris checked her phone, she had a feeling her song effects would almost certainly come into play later tonight.
It was four o’clock now; if she hurried, she could get to 5 Records within an hour, and have this entire situation hopefully settled before the end of the night.
Aeris narrowed her eyes as she headed for the door, fists clenched as she ran the situation through her head again and again.
Whoever this Craven character was, and whatever sick game was planning, he would get his meeting with her soon enough.
And if Aeris found out that he touched even a hair on any of her brother’s heads, she’d pump him with so much lightning that he’d never bear children for as long as he lived.
Fear for her own safety was the last thing on Aeris’s mind.
So when she walked into the huge lobby that served all manner of people coming and going through 5 Records, Aeris showed not a hint of fear in her expression when she spotted the familiar face of Lily nearby.
The Pop 5 member was standing by the large lobby windows, smiling with some small satisfaction. It was clear she’d been waiting up here for Aeris this entire time.
Aeris remained silent as she approached, hands at her sides and fingers unfurled to show that for now, she would be of no threat.
Lily turned her head up from her phone, now acknowledging Aeris’s presence. It was obvious though that’d she chosen to wait the extra minute just to be that more frustrating.
“Oh wow! Look who crawled out of the farmhouse! Didn’t think I’d see you anytime soon. Not that I’d want to. The very sight of you bothers me.” she told Aeris quite indignantly, while Aeris just replied as matter-a-factly as possible.
“The feeling’s mutual. I’m not here for playful banter. I’m here to meet with Craven.”
Lily nodded. “Duh. You think I don’t know that? He told me himself.”
She snickered through her full lips, and her tone of voice was anything but welcoming.
“Tell you what, Aeris. The faster you can follow me, the faster the two of us can go our separate ways. Easy, right?”
Aeris ignored her taunting. There was no need to exchange further words.
She just followed in Lily’s wake, as the girl led them out of the spacious lobby, pass security guards who ID’d her by sight, and through a winding series of hallways until they finally approached an innocuous pair of elevator doors.
One button press, and said doors opened.
Lily entered first, with Aeris following shortly after. The doors closed shut automatically behind them.
Without a word, Lily stepped towards the button layout nearby, tracing her fingers into the shape of a Z, thus causing said buttons to light up with a white glow.
In the fashion of some kind of mechanical wonder, they shifted under plates and gears, eventually forming into a small set of headphones that jutted out from the elevator panel itself.
Leaning down to fit her head snugly within their metallic embrace, Lily held down the emergency call button and lobby button with two fingers, closing her eyes intently as she listened to the incoming noise that would serve to open their path.
From where she was standing, Aeris could hear hints of a horrible cacophony of sound that seemed to make no sense.
Amazingly, even to a Music Master like her, it remained distant and contained to the headphones.
A few seconds later, and the deed was done.
Lily opened her eyes, pulled away, and inputted the same Z formation again.
The headphone contraption shifted back into the wall, and in response, there was a whirring noise as the elevator was activated and thus began to descend.
Even Aeris couldn’t just simply stay silent.
“What was that all about?” she asked, curious despite the fact that she knew she would almost definitely get a snide response.
“That information is on a need to know basis.” Lily told her. “And no surprise, you don’t need to know.”
Her mistake for opening her mouth when she knew better. Aeris said nothing further.
More than anything, she held back the urge to simply clock Lily in her know-it-all face.
Though the violence might be monetarily satisfying, it would destroy any further effort to get close to Craven and get to the bottom of this entire situation.
So, Aeris allowed Lily her victory in dialogue, following her without a peep after the elevator opened to reveal the Zero Beat Symphon beyond.
Below 5 Records, built within the old foundations of the previous record building from all those years ago, was the powerbase of Zero Beat that was responsible for overseeing all of the Tri-State area.
Aeris made no eye contact with anyone, as she passed First Beats on guard duty, Second Beats who served as receptionists in various offices, and other non-ranked members who handled day to day duties and kept up with monitoring known Music Masters and any issues they might cause.
Lily led her along for a good five minutes, through various sterile white halls of no particular note, until they eventually stopped in front of a dull black door inset with the design of a dead tree.
In comparison to the pristine white decor of the rest of the Symphon, this entrance was incredibly hard to miss.
“Here we are. It was a blast while it lasted.” Lily stated with satisfaction, and though Aeris didn’t laugh, she somehow remained polite.
“Thank you.” She said, an honest attempt to show legitimate gratitude.
Lily didn’t smile, but instead put on a somewhat apprehensive expression as she pressed on the call-button nearby.
She spoke clearly as it came on.
“Lord Craven. Aeris Fairfield is here.”
There was but a second’s pause, before that same slick, venomous voice from before answered back.
“Perfect. Send her in.”
His response was followed by the sound of shifting metal.
The door split into two halves, bisecting its own tree design and thus allowing Aeris entry into the dim darkness that was Nicodemus Craven’s office.
On some level, Aeris expected to hear another snide remark as she entered the waiting gloom and left Lily behind in the process.
Instead though, Lily’s voice was anything but rude, and if Aeris didn’t know any better, she could almost hear a hint of concern in her tone.
“Watch yourself in there.” she said in a low tone, as the doors closed and Aeris was left seemingly alone.
The office was deathly silent. There was a morbid quality to it that was only accentuated by its decor.
Aeris turned her vision ahead, adjusting to the lighting and now truly noting her surroundings.
From what she could see, everything in this room had a skeletal theme of sorts. The chairs had skull armrests, there were paintings of macabre undead soldiers along the wall, and even Craven’s bookcase nearby appeared to be carved from some white, bone-like material.
His chair was one of the sole outliers to this osteo-theme; a black, morbid thing that towered over the desk like a domineering taskmaster.
For now, it was empty, its master currently away.
Looking down, Aeris could see another note. It was written the same way as the first, and clearly addressed to no one but her.
She read it quickly, trying to keep her composure in the process.
– Thank you for coming, Aeris. If you would turn your attention to exit stage right –
Once she was done, Aeris sucked in a quick breath, scrunching the paper of the small card within her fingers as she turned her gaze as directed.
To the right, another black door waited, but this was one in a more traditional fashion and clearly ajar.
She approached with cautious steps, pushing it open to reveal a contrasting white space beyond.
What waited beyond the door was a huge gym of sorts, presented with a metallic silver-white sheen and positively spotless. The space itself went up higher than Aeris could guess, almost to the point where even Michael’s Big YMCA could feasibly fit within.
She had little time to gander, however, as a voice spoke through a loudspeaker above.
It was a voice she knew all too well now.
“Aeris.” he said, excitable in the most unnatural way. “You made it. I’m so thrilled.”
Aeris’s expression shifted to pinpoint anger. She raised the volume of her own voice in an effort to show Craven she was beyond serious.
“I’m here just like you said. You tell me where my brothers are. I’m not here to play your sick game, I’m here for them. Tell me now, and I promise I won’t hurt you.”
There was no answer for a few seconds, and Aeris was left standing by herself in the midst of the vast white training gym.
Then Craven finally replied, amusement coating his tone of voice.
“Starting with that fire. Good. I don’t mind being hurt from time to time. But as for your dear siblings, you’re in no real position to make demands. You’ll get your spotlight, Aeris. All in due time, my dear.”
The lights in the gym began to dim.
Then, without warning, they snapped off entirely.
Aeris was left in pitch black darkness, and she frantically reached for her music player even as Craven’s voice transcended the loudspeaker as he spoke again.
“I’ve been so patient. It’s been so unbearable. I’m so glad we can finally begin.”
Her headphones were already in her ears, but Aeris’s eyes widened in fear as she could just barely see in the darkness.
She could just make out a tall, lanky silhouette just in front of her. Some sort of cloak draped his form, and the squawk of a crow on his shoulder further signified his prescence.
More than anything, his voice was a picture perfect match to the very same one that delivered that audio threat. Aeris’s fingers clenched as rage erupted in her mind.
Nicodemus Craven was right in front of her.
And as the lights slowly came back on, and he was finally revealed to her in all his splendor, it was clear he was smiling wide for all to see.