Everywhere she went, Aeris Fairfield could feel the shadow of Nicodemus Craven and his Cypress weighing heavily on her body and in her mind.
Even dressed in her normal checkered blazer and ripped jeans, wearing her sliver lightning bolt earrings, Aeris’s mind was still devoid of all peace and sanctity.
As she stopped in a convenience store to pick up a bottle of water and a snack, Craven’s gaze was on her back this entire time.
Her stomach growled with pain. She hadn’t eaten in almost a day.
But as she picked at a sparse bag of peanuts, her appetite quickly fizzled away.
Hungry, depressed and now frustrated, she threw the half full bag on the sidewalk as she left the store.
She’d wiped that accursed black mascara off of her face, but she could never wipe away Craven’s perverse hold on her conscience.
At this point, Aeris couldn’t bear looking in the mirror, fearing that she might have taken on that same gaunt and dead look that was her new master’s trademark.
Aeris’s skin wasn’t cold at all.
It was more numb than anything. Winter or summer were meaningless now.
For the first time in months, Aeris had her checkered sleeves out to her wrists.
As she made her way along the sidewalk, the bright sun absorbed through the black in her hair. And with her sleeves out, not a single pedestrian would see the infernal tattoo now permanently etched on her forearm.
There was no happiness, no energy, and certainly no hope in Aeris’s eyes.
It begged the question in her mind, as the Sound Loft’s building came into view up ahead, of why she was doing this in the first place.
Was it because Craven had told her to do so?
Had she truly become his servant, bowing to his will whenever and wherever he exerted it? Had her mind become numb to his every dark wish, waiting to be lost forever the moment he decided to take that one last glimmer of innocence she had left?
Aeris cautiously walked up the stoop into the lobby of Rob’s building, her thoughts a rampant tornado within her mind.
No, she was numb to many things now, but that didn’t mean she was without a soul just yet.
The more likely truth, the one that spoke of the idea that she simply wanted to see her friends one final time, became more and more apparent the higher Aeris ascended up flights of stairs.
When she finally reached the right floor, Aeris’s expression began to shift as she approached the Sound Loft’s door.
That blank, defeated look melted away from her face, replaced by a calm expression that might almost be appropriate.
Her hand moved to knock, only for her eyes to spot the doorbell instead. She pushed it a moment later.
She’d finally answered Kim, but couldn’t find the heart to say another word to Calvin.
No doubt they’d be waiting here for her, under the assumption that she was back for good and no worse for the wear.
Aeris looked down, a single tear leaking down her right eye as the phantom pain of Craven’s oppressive shadow returned.
She didn’t even bother trying to wipe it away.
This was the end.
The end of the Audio Knights, and the end of everything that Aeris Fairfield could be.
“So please enlighten me, Michael. What exactly was so important that you had to miss training? It’s not like I didn’t remind you about it three times.” Kim exclaimed, to a surprised Michael as Calvin tried his best to not be involved.
“I told you, Kim. I just had a thing.” Michael replied. “Besides, Aeris wasn’t there, and I don’t see you getting on her case.”
Michael’s poor choice of words was obvious to anyone. Calvin would back up if there was anywhere to back up to on his loveseat.
In response, Kim slammed her fist down on Rob’s small coffee table, a vein just about popping on her forehead.
“Don’t you start with that! She’s not the issue here! I swear Michael, if you’re ducking out like some lazy bum…”
It had been awhile since Calvin had seen Michael and Kim bicker like this, but he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t happy to not be the target of her rage for once.
They’d been at it for the last ten minutes, since before Calvin arrived.
His one declaration of Michael’s innocence had earned him a bark of anger from Kim, and successfully kept him silent since.
It was no skin off his back that Michael was getting chewed out for once.
After all, he was far more concerned with Aeris, and if she was really coming to finally meet with them after so many days of radio silence and uncertainty.
“What are you so worried about? The Pop 5 came and went. We beat that crazy Ayla chick, me and Rob took care of Nagataki X, and Calvin’s family won’t dare mess with us.”
Michael shrugged, smiling through his teeth in his attempt to lighten the mood. “Face it, Kim. We got nobody left to fight.”
Kim shot up from her seat, fists clenched at her sides as she yelled down at Michael.
“You moron! That’s how it always seems, huh? The comfortable calm before the storm!”
She narrowed her eyes. “We always need to be ready for the worst. That’s why you don’t miss training. You do it again, Michael, and we will have a problem.”
Michael put his hands up. nodding as he spoke. “Okay, okay. I get it. Now let’s try to not scare Aeris away before she gets here.”
The doorbell to the Sound Loft rang just as Michael finished his words. Calvin’s eyes brightened in an instant.
“Speak of the devil, that must be her! I got it!”
He was up on his feet and at the door within a few blinks.
Both Michael and Kim watched with subtle interest as Calvin swept his shaggy hair back before opening the door; revealing Aeris standing there for all to see.
“Hey.” Aeris said, waving lightly as Michael and Kim were up and out of their seats and now just a few feet behind Calvin.
“Hey.” Calvin greeted in tandem. His eyes drifted towards the black dye now covering her bangs. “Your hair. That’s different.”
He caught himself a second later. “I mean, it looks nice.”
Aeris’s voice was low, and as grateful as she could muster. “Thanks. I needed a change of pace.
That was all she could say, before the two of them shared a short and clearly bittersweet hug. When Calvin returned it, he couldn’t help but notice that Aeris felt weak, even cold to the touch.
She pulled away before he could wonder on it any longer, bringing her attention towards Michael and Kim.
Kim was the first to speak, and just as Aeris had expected, she never minced words.
“You ready to tell us what’s going on now?”
“There’s nothing to tell.” Aeris said, not smiling and quite serious in her declaration. “But I was hoping I could crash here tonight. My brothers are away for the week, and I don’t want to be home alone.”
Michael beamed at this. It was everything he wanted to hear.
“Oh, totally! You should have said so sooner! Rob’s gone too. Some gig uptown, so we got the whole place to ourselves tonight.”
Aeris smiled now. It was small and thin. “Good. I’ve missed you guys.”
With that, Kim said nothing further.
Perhaps she was just glad enough to have Aeris back with them, but that usual striking urge to accuse and pester was gone for the moment.
She noticed the change in her hair, and even more noticed that Aeris’s sleeves were pulled out now.
Even in all the cold of these last three months, not once had Aeris gone out without rolling up her checkered blazer.
To her left, Calvin, feeling a bit out of place, looked for a distraction immediately.
“Hey Mike.” he said. “Let’s make sure the guest room looks nice. I have a bad feeling we’re gonna be stuck out in the living room tonight.”
Michael nodded in agreement, having quickly and painlessly resigned to that fate. “Oh, yeah. Definitely.”
The two of them were off to their own devices soon enough, leaving Kim and Aeris alone. They stood by the kitchen entrance, and the apprehension on Aeris’s face was obvious to anyone.
“Black, huh?” Kim observed. “I never would have thought you’d go for that.”
Aeris’s heart skipped a beat, but thankfully, her voice was still composed well enough.
“I thought Calvin might like it. I should probably talk to him after what I happened. I was really stressed.”
Kim kept her arms crossed. “You should. Are you sure you don’t want to talk with us about whatever’s stressing you out?”
Aeris shook her head. “No need. It’s not important. I think what I really need is to relax. It’s been a whirlwind of stuff these last few months.”
Kim smirked, hoping to calm the now anxious girl down in the process. “Well, I did tell Michael we can’t be slacking off, but I know how hard you work. Everybody needs a break at some point.”
“I was hoping you’d understand.” Aeris replied.
Based on the punk girl’s expression, that appeared to be enough to satisfy her, at least for now.
That didn’t stop Aeris’s heart from pounding any slower in her chest, however.
There was nothing that could scream betrayal any louder than the mere fact that Aeris stood among her friends like everything was peachy and perfect.
The fact of reality remained, staining her hair with its black color and staining her skin as well.
Craven was the devil on her shoulder. It didn’t matter where she went.
She could go back to Texas, over to Tennesse, all the way down to Georgia, and he would still be there.
As long as he had her brothers within his killing grasp, she would be at his beck and call.
The thought struck her mind like a lightning bolt. Her next few words were quick and low.
“I need a cold shower. I’ll talk to you later, Kim.”
“You do you.” Kim said. “Hope it helps.”
With a small bag of things slung over her shoulder, Aeris lumbered towards the bathroom without second thought.
She shut the door behind her, but when she tried to sigh with relief, her breath just didn’t come out.
Emptiness prevailed over her like some incurable disease.
Even after she’d disrobed and was under the spray of water, that dark feeling in the pit of her stomach had yet to go away.
The water was cool and refreshing, but it might as well have burned away at Aeris’s skin with boiling heat.
Nothing could wash away her guilt, her sadness, and most of all, her fear.
And as she stared at the Cyrpress tattoo still on her forearm, drops dripping down and leaving the permanet black ink untouched, Aeris finally realized she belonged to Nicodemus Craven for good.
Aeris’s eyes snapped open. Sleep had eluded her all this time.
Closing her eyes was but a feeble attempt to get some rest, as true sleep would only invite horrific nightmares.
It was past midnight, and the moon shone brightly through the window of the Sound Loft’s guest room.
Leaning up on the king-sized bed, Aeris brushed her unruly hair away from her face. She had laid alone, as Kim had so graciously allowed her to have the space to herself and took to the carpeted floor.
Aeris checked her phone, and grimly realized that the hour of damnation had finally arrived
She stepped out of the guest room as quietly as she could. On the floor, half bundled in blankets and snoring up a storm, Kim Ramone slept in relative peace.
Aeris could just barely glance at her.
She quickly looked away, a vain attempt to shield herself from further shame.
Aeris’s intention was to rush out of the apartment, to get as far away from all of this as possible. But when she got to the living room, she stopped at the foot of where Michael and Calvin were both sleeping.
On the floor, Michael laid in a sleeping bag, a big smile on his face as his afro cushioned his head against a pillow.
She could only imagine what he was dreaming about. He was always the optimistic one; believing in everyone no matter what.
No doubt he believed in her, even as she prepared to sign his death warrant the moment she walked out of this apartment.
Looking at Michael’s dumb smile became painful. She averted her gaze.
Before long, Aeris circled around to the other side of Rob’s coffee-coloured couch.
She leaned down, now admiring the stoic, sleeping form of Calvin.
There was a hint of discomfort in his closed eyes, as if something was hurting him but he fought to hide it.
Aeris held back a flood of tears.
Who else could hurt him besides her?
Her fingers just barely touched his hair, moving it away as she leaned down to kiss him on the forehead.
Her arms trembled as she moved away, trying to hurry out as quickly as possible lest she burst into sobbing and wake them all up.
Calvin deserved so much more.
Quiet and crushed, Aeris left the safety of the Sound Loft and quickly made her way down flights of stairs.
The night air was cold and unforgiving, but at least being out of the Sound Loft meant she could push away awful associations from her mind.
Aeris was outside now, but of course, anything but free.
Taking out her phone again, she dialed the number given to her days prior, waiting for only two rings before the speaker on the other end answered.
He wasn’t screaming in rage this time, and she easily recognized him as the aforementioned leader of the Pop 5.
“Are we good?” he asked, straight and to the point.
Aeris took a deep breath. She didn’t even bother to hide it.
“We’re good. Kim and Calvin are there.”
No further answer from Ollie. He simply hung up.
Aeris thrust her phone back into her pocket, pulling out her music player and untangling her headphones as she began to put distance between herself and the Sound Loft.
She’d left out the fact that Michael was with them.
It made sense, considering the Pop 5 thought he was dead.
For all of her double-crossing tonight, it might be the one thing she could give back to her afro-headed friend.
It was their one chance; something the Pop 5 wouldn’t expect and thus might be the edge to stop them from bowling over what was left of the Audio Knights.
She clicked play as she popped in her baby blue headphones. Music had always been her comfort food, and even a dark and depressing night like this was no exception.
A new song, full of equal parts sadness and righteous anger, blasted through Aeris Fairfield’s ears.
Craven had forced upon her many things, but his taste in music was the one thing he hadn’t pushed down her throat.
This was a song she had chosen on her own.
It was a fitting post-script to end a tale as debased as hers.
The devil had come, and he’d claimed her.
There had been no vibrant fiddle duel where she was pronounced the victor. He didn’t leave with his tail between his legs, and a golden fiddle in his wake.
No, reality was a much more cynical place, and it would be that way for as long as Nicodemus Craven drew breath.
So a song like this was now a comforting ballad where once upon a time it would grate away at Aeris’s ears.
She would leave the Audio Knights behind, and in exchange, her brothers would live.
She could only hope that her single parting gift, that one parcel of veiled knowledge, might be enough for her friends to prevail without her.
They would need everything they could to weather the coming storm.
Aeris laughed to herself when she thought over their plight.
Jealousy didn’t even begin to describe how Aeris felt.
Because right now, knowing she was trapped in Cypress, trapped with Craven, just made her want to die.
THE DEVIL WENT DOWN TO GEORGIA: