“I can’t remember the last time I’ve had a girl tell me that. Seriously, you have all of my sympathy, Calvin.”
Rob Prototype sat with his arms crossed, green baseball cap pulled down as he and his nephew had just finished listening to the story of Calvin Altberg’s most recent plight.
The three of them were in the living room of the Sound Loft, and just fifteen minutes before, Calvin had arrived with Michael after being so quickly and brazenly kicked out by Aeris.
With his childhood home destroyed by Denny, she’d been his last hope lest he become homeless. Unfortunately for Calvin, it appeared that his sweet Bright Eyes wanted nothing more to do with him.
He tried his best to not look so bothered by it, but it was bad enough that even Michael noticed.
Rob pondered deeply over the situation. When he did speak, his tone of voice was somewhat accusing.
“Are you sure you didn’t do anything to justify her sudden anger? There’s really nothing else you’re keeping to yourself? Honesty here is key.” he asked quite frankly.
Calvin just looked up, sadness clearly drawn over his eyes.
“Nothing, I swear. I mean we kissed, but she said she liked it. You can have Michael fuse with me again if you don’t believe me. When he reads my mind you’ll have the truth I’m already telling you.”
Next to him, Michael listened intently but hadn’t said all that much, preferring to allow Rob his time to take the reins.
Rob rubbed his chin. “No need. I believe you. On another note, Mike says you need somewhere to stay?”
“He does.” Michael chimed in, not of course realizing the redundancy.
Calvin just smiled. “I do.”
He might be oblivious, but at least Michael was always dependable, Calvin thought.
Next to Calvin, Michael spotted what appeared to be uneasiness in those eyes just under the rim of Rob’s baseball cap.
“He can use the guest room, Rob. At least till Aeris gets over whatever’s going on with her. I’ll keep an eye on him, for real.”
Calvin raised a cautious eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
“Like as a friend. I’m just looking out for you, man.” Michael explained, his words going at a mile a minute.
Rob put a hand up as a sign to silence them both.
He lifted the brow of his cap, showing his brown eyes and speaking as sincerely as possible.
“You can crash here for now, Calvin. That’s not the issue. If anything, I’m more concerned about Aeris. All of this seems very unlike her.” he observed, as Calvin laughed in an effort to offset the mood.
“You’re telling me.”
Rob said nothing further. Instead, he focused on the present issue at hand, his thoughts eventually focusing on the smartphone that had been waiting patiently this entire time.
Perhaps a little digging was in order. He stood up, fixing his cap as he reached one free hand into his pocket to pull out his phone.
“You two chill for a bit. I’m going to check up on some things.” he told both Michael and Calvin, who nodded with understanding before Rob left the living room, heading into the sound studio and closing the door shut behind him.
Calvin glanced back, listening to the lock click as Rob left them to their own devices.
“Why do I get the feeling your uncle is always hiding things from us?” the blond Music Master asked as he leaned back on the couch and propped his feet up. Michael could only shrug in response.
“It kind of seems that way, doesn’t it?” Michael replied, running a hand through his orb of black hair as his own thoughts drifted towards the topic of Aeris. “But he’s got his own way of doing things. No matter what though, Rob’s got our back. Don’t ever doubt that.”
Michael put on a more serious face now. “Anything else you want to tell me about what happened with you and Aeris? You know, besides what you told Rob?”
Calvin just about hit his own forehead, quite tired by this point of being doubted. “Seriously, Mike, I’m not lying.”
He took a deep breath before unleashing the next stream of consciousness.
“But if you really need to hear it again: she tells me I can stay with her, invites me over, her brothers are out, we kiss, she says she’s going to get something, then she comes back out and tells me it’s not going to work out and I have to leave. And then I left. It was awful.”
Michael made a sad face. “Ouch. I think it hurts more to hear it the second time.”
Calvin leaned back, staring up at the ceiling as he tried to alleviate the weight of stress on his chest.
“You wouldn’t understand. You don’t know how it feels to like a girl, to think she likes you back, and then have it all crushed in your face.” he declared, sighing deeply at the very end. “I swear, it feels like the freaking end of the world.”
Michael thought over Calvin’s words. He meandered on Denny, and that kiss, only to find himself in complete agreement.
“You’re right. I don’t really get it.” he replied. “But what I do get is that Aeris is our friend. If something’s going on with her, then that’s our business, I think.”
Calvin leaned forward, clearly in a bit of disbelief. “Who are you, Kim? Maybe it’s not our place to pry. Now I know for a fact that she doesn’t completely trust me. How do you think she’ll feel if I go snooping into her affairs? She just kicked me out of her place, Mike!”
Michael put a finger to his chin, lowering it quickly as he realized what Calvin was saying.
“Oh. Good point. This is a tricky situation…”
His eyes lit up excitedly at a sudden thought. “Maybe we could ask Kim to talk to her! You know, like an ambassador or something. Maybe Aeris will tell her what’s going on. They’re both girls, so…”
“Don’t bother. The minute she finds out it’s cause of me, she won’t do it. Kim hates my guts.” Calvin pointed out.
Michael just grinned at him uneasily. He could only lie so much.
“Huh? No way! If I asked her, she totally would. She doesn’t hate you…she just…doesn’t like you very much.”
Calvin listened with a knowing nod, scrolling through his phone and checking for new texts but spotting nothing.
“That’s basically the same thing.” he told Michael, before swiping his phone locked and putting it down on the coffee table before them.
“Let’s just face it. Aeris wants to be left alone. We’re better off if we just leave her be for now.” Calvin said, in an attempt to finish their entire conversation.
Michael seemed to finally get the hint. He didn’t want to acknowledge the possibility of Calvin losing out on someone so important to him, and even more so, he didn’t want to entertain the thought of losing an Audio Knight and friend yet again.
But there was a limit to prying, and Aeris had made it clear in the past that she didn’t like intrusions in her life.
“Okay. We’ll give her space.” Michael agreed, eyes directed towards Calvin as looking for their next plan of action.
Calvin responded with a small smile. Of all things that Michael had over him, it was that boundless optimism that never seemed to fail.
Rob was still in the sound studio, and perhaps out of pure coincidence, a thought settled itself in Calvin’s mind. It was something he had not even a moment to think over, but it made itself relevant again the moment Calvin remembered their short bout with Nathan of the Pop 5.
He said it sort of automatically, catching Michael completely off-guard in the process.
“So whatever happened with that girl you were going to see? Denny was her name, right?”
Michael’s brain just about froze. His gaze stayed stuck forward, as he mentally played out how this situation could go depending on how he would answer.
Michael never was much of a thinker. His answer was predictably quick.
“Denny? Uh, I forget…oh yeah! I kept knocking and knocking and nobody answered. Had to take the bus back from 5 Records, and then that’s when that guy Ollie jumped me in Harlem.” Michael explained.
In his own mind, he sounded confident, but to Calvin, he might as well had lie detector cathodes attached to his forehead.
“So you haven’t heard from her since? She blew you off, just like that?” the blond inquired further.
Michael nodded quickly. “Yup. I have no idea why, but I guess that’s just how it is. It sucks, huh?”
Michael grinned wide, usually a telltale sign that the afro-headed boy was clearly hiding something.
Calvin certainly debated questioning him further, but then he remembered how much Michael had stood up for him.
He remembered listening to Michael vouch for him at every turn, and right now among their group, he was the only one who seemed to truly believe in him. Part of it of course was based on the fact Michael and he had literally fused, but in the end, it was the principle that mattered.
And so, Calvin decided to just leave it at that. Whether or not Michael was still seeing Denny, he was still clearly alive, so the danger of it all seemed non-existent.
“I see.” Calvin finally replied. “Correction; I guess maybe you do know how I feel.”
“Yeah, it’s a bummer.” Michael said quickly, now trying his best to change the subject.
He stood up, stretching his arms over his head as he shook away any sense of depression or malaise that might try to overtake him.
“But the last thing I want right now is to feel down. You hungry? Let’s grab some halal around the corner. I know Rob hasn’t eaten all day, so if we get him something he’ll probably appreciate it.” Michael suggested, which was thankfully enough to put a spring in Calvin’s step.
“Well, if you insist.” he said, shooting Michael a knowing smirk. His stomach growled audibly. He really hadn’t been thinking about food this whole time.
Michael put an arm around his friend’s shoulder, waving his free hand in the air.
“Just think…I bet by tomorrow, Aeris will be back to her old self.”
“You think so?” Calvin asked, not breaking from Michael’s friendly embrace as the two of them headed towards the door.
Michael grinned knowingly. “I know so. She likes you, Calvin. I can tell for sure.”
Calvin looked to one side. Even if Michael didn’t know everything, his supportive words were still helpful either way. The blond chuckled, his tone lowering just as Michael opened the front door.
“I just hope she’s okay. You’re right, it’s probably nothing. Like a kid who thinks they’ve got a monster in their closet.” he said.
Michael laughed in tandem.
“Ha! Everybody knows that monsters don’t exist.”
Over the twenty years since becoming a Music Master in 1994, Nicodemus Craven had been called many things.
Among them all, one title in particular remained dear to his heart.
“It will be done swiftly, master.” said the black-haired, wiry woman who bowed before leaving him.
Craven didn’t even nod, instead acknowledging her with his eyes before taking a quick sip from the wine glass in his hand.
That word was nothing less than music in Craven’s ears.
It meant control. It meant power. And most importantly, it meant the domination of his will.
To Nicodemus Craven, there was no sweeter sensation than having that sense of control. Beyond the process of obtaining that control, and breaking the person in question to do so.
A few hours earlier, he’d sufficiently broken Aeris Fairfield with the threat of killing her dear siblings. Like the little mistress he envisioned her to be, she followed him wordlessly back from 5 Records and to a new destination that was had been his familiar home for years.
Here he was now, among the denizens of his personal Ensemble of Music Masters, known far and wide as Cypress. They made their home in an old mansion at the edge of Greenwich Village; a dark, decrepit place that seemed more appropriate for a cabal of ghouls than a few Music Masters.
Craven waited by a corner in the lower hall, leaning against the wall and barely able to contain himself.
Today was a particularly special day. It would mark the induction of their newest member, and Craven counted exactly two hundred and seven days since they’d last brought someone within their circle in Cypress.
Mona, the girl he’d just spoken to, was in charge of one of the first processes required for all members of Cypress; the dyeing of one’s hair in some manner of coffin black.
It was a simple and relatively easy process, but far from optional. It was a mark for all of Cypress’s members, who all happened to be female beside Craven himself and who all marked their hair with that color of the night that he loved so much.
Craven took another sip from his wine glass. He’d been away from Aeris since she’d been brought back to his humble abode, and she’d said not a single word to him since then.
There was a part of him that wanted to savor the incoming moments of her despair; one that preferred not to see her visible emotions when they put her through all facets of the induction process. He could be patient and enjoy the aftermath, leaving the rest of the terrible details to his imagination.
But then there was the part of himself he knew best. Craven’s weakness had always been self-control.
Of course, he’d gained much in all these years of being a supposed monster. With time and the right moves, he’d landed himself his current position in Zero Beat, as the feared Fourth Beat whose eyes kept watch over all of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut combined.
Craven licked his lips. This wine tasted cheap, despite its actual price and how long it had been sitting and fermenting in the basement.
He longed the taste of sweet fear instead, and the pure expressions that came along with said fear.
Craven moved from the wall, heading towards the preparation room some odd doors down, where Aeris Fairfield was being attended to.
What kind of fool what refuse themselves the satisfaction of watching a new induction?
Not him; not now, not ever.
When Craven entered the preparation room a few minutes later, he arrived just in time to see the first fruits of Mona’s labor.
There she stood, her fingers working meticulously as Aeris sat silently in a tall, black wood throne that no doubt was far from comfortable.
Just above her forehead, her dangling bangs no longer gleamed with that sunny yellow she was so recognized for. The locks were pitch black now, and the tips of Aeris’s hair would follow as Mona continued her work.
Aeris’s bright eyes only moved ever so slightly to acknowledge Craven’s presence when he entered the room, but she otherwise said nothing.
From where he was, it appeared she was trying her best to withstand the mental struggle that was allowing someone to defile her hair like this.
For Craven, to watch her ordeal was quite wonderful, made only all the more wonderful by the fact that everything in this room was recorded.
Which meant that even after this terrible memory was over for Aeris, he could relive it whenever he pleased; again and again and again.
And he could make her relive it too, if he so desired and she displeased him enough.
Mona said nothing still as Craven approached, eventually stopping to lean against the wall a few feet away and admiring Aeris from his position.
His eyes were just as intrusive as always, and all Aeris could do was face forward and make her best attempt to pretend he wasn’t there. The room itself was fashioned in dark arterial red and black colors, with sparse furnishings but a myriad of candles set up all around and a massive inlaid design of a dead tree on the wall ahead.
Being a Music Master at a time like this became akin to a curse. Aeris’s sensitive hearing made the sound of Craven’s vile tongue drinking wine so close to her hard to ignore.
“Don’t look so gloomy.” Craven reassured as he noticed her stress. “Black looks very good on you. I might go so far to say anything looks good on you.”
Aeris didn’t reply, and Mona kept working in dutiful silence.
Aeris had already tried to talking to her, and it had been a wasted effort. It was clear she would only speak if addressed directly by Craven himself.
Craven smiled perversely through his full teeth. Unclean thoughts began to run through his own mind as he mused over his own words.
“You look so good with anything, I imagine you’d look just as good with nothing too.”
He got no response to that, of course. Her silence did little to discourage him, unfortunately.
Satisfied for now, Craven just stayed quiet for the next ten minutes, until Mona put the finishing touches of the dyeing process.
“It is complete, master. I await your command.” she informed him, stepping away to show Aeris in her new splendor. Aeris herself glanced at the a tall mirror propped up against the wall, now able to get a good look at the changes to her once pure blonde hair.
Both of her sharp bangs were now colored Craven’s favored coffin black, along with the tips of hair that passed all the way below her waist. Craven eyed her from top to bottom, admiring the work as he admired Aeris at the same time.
His gaze was lecherous in the most horrible way possible. Frustrated and mentally drained, she finally spoke.
“Are we finished here? I don’t want to see you unless I have to.” Aeris asked, quite loudly and with a poison very unlike her.
Mona kept her distance, noting that Aeris’s gloved fingers were clenched into angry fists. Unseen to Aeris, the girl had a look of fear on her face as she feared sudden and angry reprisal from her master.
Craven, however, wasn’t baited to anger. Instead, he smiled and took this as the most perfect of learning opportunities.
She was not as broken as he’d thought. Craven would certainly savor that fact for as long as he could.
“Finished?” He stated, before letting out a low laugh. “My dear, we may never be truly finished. You lack one more thing before I can call you mine. No one can pass through Cypress without it.”
Aeris began to stand up, as Mona continued to keep a safe distance. “Yeah, I can. I did the stupid hair dye, you sicko. I’m sure the rest can wait until tomorrow, and unfortunately, you’ll live to see it then.”
Aeris didn’t have time to move any further. With sudden, deadly speed, he pushed her back down into the wooden chair. He was leaning over her, a physical threat that he made no effort to control in the slightest.
She was left staring into his ruby red eyes, as Craven spoke to her face to face now. She trembled every so slightly, especially as Craven’s voice grew uncomfortably soft and smooth.
“No, Aeris. It can’t wait. I won’t be able to bear it. This is the most important part of all.”
He directed her gaze down towards his right arm, where she could easily see the large and intricate black tattoo fashioned in the form of a dead tree.
Craven’s smile grew wider as the fear washed over Aeris’s blue eyes. The horrible realization became clear on her face, and he felt a rush of warmth surge through his very core as her blatant fear fed his sick desire.
She tried to get up and run, but she found herself held down as Craven himself put both hands on her arm to keep her in place. His motioned to Mona with his eyes, who nodded as she reached for the long, metallic tattoo needle that waited patiently nearby.
Aeris struggled again, trying to yell but finding herself stifled as Craven put a long-fingered hand over her mouth. He shook his head slowly, and that was enough to prompt her to stop for the time being. He was stronger than her, without a doubt, and she could only imagine how much worse this could all become if she resisted further.
Mona pulled out her left forearm, and Aeris could do nothing but look away and try to hold back tears as Mona pushed her blazer sleeve up to further expose the skin. Then with precise silence, she found her spot and pressed the needle down and began the delicate but painful ink work.
Craven, meanwhile, just held Aeris steady and made sure to keep her gaze focused on him.
“Get used to this, Aeris. You are mine from the moment you chose to call me master. And when that mark on your arm is finished, you will remember that for as long as you live.” he told her, enjoying every wincing expression she made as Mona continued to push ink beneath her skin in order to fully illustrate the dark majesty of Cypress’s tattoo.
Aeris said nothing, trying to focus herself away from the prickling pain of a process that would no doubt take hours. Tears streamed down her face. And when she saw hints of Craven’s tongue behind his teeth, she could hope that he didn’t decide to conduct further debauchery.
She felt like a child, facing the monster from her closet and feeling virtually helpless.
More than anything, she wanted the warmth of her Grandma, along with the kind reassurance that she would never leave her alone.
But Grandma wasn’t here. She wasn’t coming to save her. Neither were her brothers, wherever in this horrid place Craven kept them prisoner.
The monster in front of her wasn’t going away, no matter what she did.
The tears ceased, as Aeris resigned to her fate for the time being.
Mona continued to work on her arm, and it no longer mattered in the slightest.
Aeris Fairfield had never felt so alone.