Michael Kay found it hard to believe at first, but he counted nine Music Masters now situated in the living room of the Sound Loft.
And though he blinked twice as if to will it all away, the situation did not in fact change.
This was no lucid nightmare, and certainly no lucid dream.
It was all very real; a combined prophecy of all of Kim’s fears now fulfilled.
Aeris was nowhere to be found, and the might of the combined Pop 5 threatened to take down what was left of the Audio Knights right where they stood.
But all was not yet lost.
Michael glanced across the room, watching the tall and gallant form of his uncle Rob as he stared down a strangely anxious Ollie.
“Keep the sharkbait busy.” Ollie demanded, gaze frozen on Rob Prototype and not leaving him for a second. “The bass warrior’s mine.”
Realizing the meaning of his words in an instant, Michael, Kim and Calvin said nothing to one another, instead simultaneously focusing themselves on the enemies before them.
Their individual fights destroyed what was left of Rob’s furniture, lest they find their own lives extinguished in the process.
Calvin dodged a swipe from a massive wolf claw that could have easily torn him in half, while Kim ducked just underneath Nathan’s titanic microphone-flail that soon proceeded to make a veritable crater in Rob’s floor.
Then there was Michael, caught in another dance of death as brilliant pink fire flashed around him as Lily threw die after die with intent to vaporize him.
Performing a quick cartwheel to put distance between Lily and himself, Michael soon realized that his human form would prove to be too prone to exhaustion if he kept going in this fashion.
He switched right over to Dancing Machine, the change occuring in no time as his mouth vanished and silvery disco ball facets encompassed his form.
Lily approached undeterred however, ignoring the brilliance of Michael’s new form, a multitude of dice splayed between her fingers and ready to explode at a moment’s notice.
Beyond her, Michael caught glimpses of green and gold flashes as the sound of Kanye West’s Stronger joined the cacophony of songs already present in the air.
From what Michael could see in between dodging more of the LoveGame-borne glittering heat, even with the enhancements granted by Stronger, Ollie was unable to lay so much as a hand on Rob.
A smile might have grown on Michael’s face if he still had a mouth with which to make one, but the moment of distraction would cost him.
As he gyrated and moved with disco perfection, two dice rolled just beneath his feet and a few inches behind him.
He turned just fast enough to avoid the brunt of the blast, but the explosive force sent him flying back towards the direction of Calvin, Paul and Denny.
Michael landed with a thud at the foot of Rob’s now torn and ravaged coffee-coloured couch, but as his body worked to get itself back up, Lily’s command was loud and quick.
“Denny! Keep the disco boy down!”
Having said nothing this whole time, and with a conflicted look in her eyes, Denny simply commanded her Sentonal in turn.
“Price, paw.” she said, and the huge undead werewolf obliged, placing one massive paw on top of Michael’s chest and thus applying just enough weight to keep him sufficiently pinned down.
He couldn’t yelp for help or even cry out in pain, and no amount of robotic twisting or turning could free him, lest Price push any harder and cave in the delicate metallic facets that now made up his chest.
All he could do was look straight into Price’s muzzle. As Calvin and Paul dueled a few feet away, Michael was left staring at one living eye, and one dead socket just above snarling, sharp teeth.
Denny made only a single statement, barely more than a whisper.
It was all Michael needed to hear to know Denny wasn’t ready to kill him, but of course it still did little to help him in his current situation.
Trying not to stare too hard at Price’s lack of an eye, Michael instead focused on the purple flashes signifying a most important fight up ahead.
Tonight, Rob Prototype might in fact be their only hope.
For the last minute, it appeared that Rob’s initial goal in fighting Ollie was to frustrate him to no end.
Stronger’s effect was its namesake; it made him faster, stronger, and more durable to a superhuman degree.
Ollie could rip out a stop sign and use it as a baseball bat, jump over twenty stories in a single bound, and take a cannonball to the chest without so much as flinching.
But for all these incredible feats, he still had no answer for the instantaneous teleportation that Rob’s Travelling Without Moving allowed.
Though this new bass guitar was not fully Synkronized, he could still outmaneuver Ollie completely despite the second delay that came with using an instrument he still wasn’t completely used to.
Ollie held back the urge to spit out curses and insults as he rushed to strike Rob at every turn. But it was as if Rob was reading his mind, dodging punches and kicks with calculated ease.
When that proved to be fruitless, he tried waiting to see where Rob might appear next, only to be fooled completely and misdirected into wasting more energy in the process.
After a little while, as the other fights raged around them, Ollie found himself tired for the first time in months.
Even as he moved as but a purple blur, Rob always appeared to be a step ahead.
Ollie wasn’t sure what pissed him off more; the fact that Rob was silent and stoic despite all this, or the fact that he’d made no attempt to strike him despite all the opportunities to do so.
Finally, Ollie stopped in place, swiveling around as the purple energy aura of Stronger pulsed around him.
“Come on! Is this how it’s gonna be? The big bad bass warrior is afraid to fight?” he shouted, ignorant of the other battles going on around him.
Rob’s voice echoed in the air. It was almost as if he was in two places at once and speaking in stereo because of it.
“You really do need things done your way, don’t you? I expected more from the leader of the Pop 5. Seems like their faith in you is misguided.”
A flash of green and gold threads followed Rob’s words, and he materialized right in front of Ollie, fingers just above the strings of his bass as he finished playing.
The song effect came and went as he chose, and Ollie knew for a fact that he could bring out any one of his many abilities with just a pluck of his fingers.
Unfortunately, the combination of his anger at the mess that this operation had become, the revelation of Denny’s duplicity, and this game Rob was playing had become too much for the normally stone-faced and calm Ollie.
Anger had washed over him completely, and he took the bait in an instant.
“Come on, Ollie. You break this bass, and you win. Simple enough, isn’t it?”
Rob’s words were peppered with confidence, but Ollie just gritted his teeth and charged.
The aura around Ollie shifted as his momentum increased, eventually focusing into one bright nimbus that flared around his outstretched fist.
But no matter how fast he was, and how much his anger drove him, Rob was quicker where it counted.
He moved his fingers with deftness, conjuring up a song previously unheard to any of the denizens currently occupying the Sound Loft.
It was a low, mysterious bassline that echoed Rob’s early days; the times he’d had with Lex and Talulah, back when he was just a mere space cowboy.
There was no visible, outward effect, and to the average Music Master, it seemed Rob had done nothing.
It was only when Ollie’s fist connected with the front of Rob’s bass guitar did all of it become exceedingly clear.
Where once the fretboard would shatter and metal strings pop apart, the bass became like unbreakable diamond, absorbing Ollie’s powerful blow within the confines of its very being.
Every ounce of kinetic energy flowed through Rob’s rainbow Warwick bass, lighting up its colors like neon lights as Ollie felt all of his energy momentarily drained.
He blinked, as Rob raised the bass up like a baseball bat, and in the manner Seth had taught him all those years ago, went for the home run.
If Ollie wasn’t under Stronger’s influence, the blow that crashed into the bridge of his nose would have cleaved right through his skull and killed him outright.
Thankfully, Rob had figured out that Ollie could take his own punishment, and remained silent as Ollie flew back into the kitchen as if hit by a freight train, slamming hard into the fridge.
His increased durability caused him to warp the metal and ceramic, wedging him in good as he fell quickly into unconsciousness.
The blow delivered, it only took a few seconds before it became obvious that Rob had sucked all life out of the room.
Nathan and Paul stopped in their tracks, the color drained from their faces at the sight of their leader demolished so fast. Lily’s snide smile vanished, and Denny’s eyes widened in shock as Ollie remained unmoving within the warped thing that was once Rob’s fridge.
The Audio Knights were similarly stunned, and Rob wasted no time in his next action.
Power still gathered within the bass, he struck downward on the floor, causing a multicoloured shockwave that sent everyone in the living room completely off their feet.
Switching to Travelling Without Moving with the speed of a virtuoso, Rob teleported right at the center of Michael, Kim and Calvin respectively.
“Everybody to me, now!” he demanded quickly, as the members of the Pop 5 shook off headaches and throbbing pain alike.
Michael scrambled to his feet even as Price shook his furry head and tried to focus again. Kim barreled towards Rob as well just as Calvin had touched his outstretched palm.
A moment later, and the three of them made contact. They could all feel the air around them pulsing, like water moving to fill a space, as Rob worked his instrument.
Rob strummed on the bass with his free hand, and a flash of gold and green threads followed, and then, they were just gone.
It took about another two minutes for the remaining conscious members of the Pop 5 to get back up and on their feet.
When they were reasonably situated, both Paul and Nathan leaned into the kitchen to survey the damage.
Ollie appeared to be breathing, but was very much out cold. Stronger had ended, saving his life but also effectively keeping him stuck within the warped fridge.
For the first time since Paul had known him, he heard what sounded like fear and uncertainty in Nathan’s voice.
“Boy, is he gonna be majorly pissed when he wakes up.”
He leaned back and shouted at Denny in turn. “You’re done! D-O-N-E! No more Pop 5 for you, girl!”
Just as he started laughing, Paul pushed him hard. Nathan almost tripped in the process, as the normally quiet and composed English boy got right up in his face.
“That’s quite enough. Thankfully, that’s not up to you. Not now, not ever.” he reassured, as Nathan just kept quiet, not at all used to the meek Paul saying much of anything.
Paul looked down at Ollie’s fallen form. “I texted Helia and Renaldo. Once Ollie wakes up, we’ll meet with Craven.”
His eyes, full of sadness and even a hint of regret, focused on Denny now. “At this point, it’ll come down to his say. I’m sorry, Denny.”
By now, Denny had turned off her song and Price was gone in turn. She sighed deeply, smiling for some reason even though she felt anything but happy.
Michael, Kim and Calvin were gone, and with them, Ollie’s only chance at taking down Rob Prototype.
Though she had some elation at the thought of Michael’s safety, that feeling vanished quickly as she realized her own safety would soon be in jeopardy.
Even surrounded by the rest of Pop 5 and not wanting to embarrass herself, Denny’s face still cracked as tears threatened to overtake her.
She waited for more of Nathan’s jeers and insults, but all that came for her was Lily’s hand, which rested comfortably on Denny’s shoulder.
The last thing Denny ever expected to hear from her came out of the girl’s snide lips in the next moment.
“Maybe we don’t have to tell Craven everything.”
She was quick to seemingly defend her line of thought. “I mean, not just for Denny. For all our sakes.”
Nathan raised an eyebrow, his voice getting loud and aggravating again. “Are you kidding me? She’s a freaking traitor! We all know, hell, I knew this whole time!”
Paul came up right behind him. For some reason, the boy’s aura was suddenly intimidating.
“What? You knew this ‘hole time and you didn’t tell the lot of us?”
Lily made her next point quickly, tapping her finger on her chin as she sounded suddenly wistful. “If you knew, then that makes you just as guilty as Denny. I wonder what Ollie will say when he hears about that. I mean, he really doesn’t like you already…”
“Okay, I get your stupid point.” Nathan said, quickly fed up with being talked down to. “But whether I say anything or not, she’s not getting a free pass. Craven doesn’t roll that way.”
Denny wanted to speak out at this point.
She wanted to say she wasn’t afraid of Craven in the slightest, and that harboring Michael and letting him live was no big deal.
But she knew better.
Her step weakened, and her mind closed in on itself as the black fear of their master attacked her thoughts.
She was on borrowed time now.
This was the first time Kim Ramone had ever been translocated under Rob’s song effect.
And when the four of them arrived at the destination in his mind, she soon found herself hoping it would be her last.
When the material world returned, it hit them like a wave.
Kim in particular keeled over the minute she got her footing again, as Calvin and Michael watched her just about retch on the carpet of this new and unfamiliar place.
Calvin was the first to chime in, turning to take in the decor and colors of the apartment Rob had just brought them into.
“Thanks for the save, Rob.”
Rob nodded. “Of course. We’ll stay here for tonight. I’ll make some calls in a few.”
Michael was busy crouching. Slowly, he put a hand on Kim’s shoulder, a clearly concerned look on his face.
“You okay, Kim?”
She was breathing heavy, but thankfully, she didn’t vomit. “I guess. Not really used to being ripped out of this dimension.”
Rob took his cap off, finally putting his bass guitar down as he allowed his body to relax.
“Not many people are. But at least everyone’s in one piece.”
Michael stood up, as Kim regained her composure and put a hand on a nearby dresser to pull herself up.
“I don’t even know where to start, Rob. If you weren’t there, we would have been toast.”
Rob didn’t seem to want to dwell too much on that particular thought. “Good thing I found about the Pop 5’s little excursion when I did. You can thank your little friend Denny for that.”
At the sound of the blond’s name, Kim’s eyes widened with rage.
All of a sudden, she forgot about her previous woozy feeling, and she remembered the words exchanged between Ollie and Denny just a little while before.
No longer distracted by the chaos of combat, Kim was soon moving with violent intent as she proceeded to grab Michael by the collar.
Before Rob and Calvin could do much to stop her, Kim had Michael pinned hard against the wall, piercing green eyes just about burning through his soul.
“You better do some serious explaining about that, Afroboy, cause I have half a mind to rip that hair of yours out right now!”
Michael grinned, but it was a half-hearted attempt to calm Kim down.
He could feel her grip tightening around the collar of his tie dye shirt. To say that his award-winning smile wasn’t working would be an understatement.
“She’s a friend, okay? She’s not like those other guys! If it wasn’t for Denny, I would be dead, Kim.” he argued, but of course, Kim didn’t want to hear it.
“So what; you couldn’t tell us you had a spy within Zero Beat? We get ambushed by the Pop 5, Aeris is nowhere to be found, and yet you still thought playing dumb about it all was a good idea?”
Calvin put a hand on her shoulder. He knew it invited Kim the opportunity to bite it off, knowing her, but he didn’t care.
“Hey. We’ve all had our mistakes. Right now though, we have more important things to worry about. Like finding out where Aeris went, for one, or if they took her. And I doubt the Pop 5’s going to stop coming for us. Not unless we give them a reason to stop.”
Kim shrugged Calvin away, but thankfully let go of Michael in the process. “Don’t touch me. You’re the reason behind most of this. You should be glad I don’t just beat you unconscious and leave you on the street.”
Her stress and anger was coming out loud and clear.
Between the revelation of Michael’s secret, and the fact Calvin was defending him, Kim didn’t know who to be more mad at.
Her eyes shifted, as she finally acknowledged where they were and the significance of it all.
“So where the hell is this place? Where did you take us, Rob?”
She answered her own question as her eyes settled on a picture nearby. It was a copy of a photo she already owned; the same one of her as a child, a younger Billy on one side, and Seth Ramone on the other.
Rob picked up the picture in its frame, looking at it with fondness in his eyes as he remembered what was once a better time.
“This is Seth’s place. He left it to me, if anything happened to him.”
He pulled his cap up, quite serious in both his gaze and his tone.
“Things are about to get heavy. After tonight, you three are going to learn what happens with Zero Beat when you call yourselves Audio Knights.”
Michael gulped at the sound of that, as Rob’s words didn’t hold back for a moment.
“For better or for worse.”