Pain barely registered in Denny’s mind, as a sinuous black tentacle wrapped around her neck and pushed her hard against the wall.
Her head throbbed painfully like a bell ringing, legs dangling and long ponytail swaying as she fought against her captor to no avail.
Around her, seated in their usual spots in the war room, the rest of the Pop 5 watched in apprehensive silence.
Neither Lily nor Paul could hide the horror in their eyes.
Ollie sat at the head of the table, hands clasped and a strangely satisfied look on his face. On his right, Nathan made no effort to hide his most nasty smirk.
Of all the faces Denny thought of seeing before she died, that was certainly the very last one on her list.
The tentacle squeezed tighter around Denny’s delicate neck.
Where before it was just holding her up in air, now she could feel her airway closing and the light of world bleeding away.
In front of her, Nicodemus Craven observed like a vulture waiting for a prey item to perish.
“Have I not reminded you of this again and again and again?” he declared, as Denny coughed and struggled to take in a breath.
He turned back to the rest of the Pop 5, brushing some of the hair covering his left eye aside.
“Have I not treated you all well? Given you all the luxuries you could have ever asked for?”
Without even looking at the girl, Craven mentally commanded the tentacle holding her to slam her against the wall again. She squeaked in pain, just barely able to inhale now.
“Loyalty is all I expect. Do you know how much it breaks my heart…to know that one of you was capable of such treachery? After all I’ve done?”
He turned back to face Denny. The tentacle tightened further. Now she couldn’t breathe at all.
“You had so much potential, Denny. It’s unfortunate that your flame will have to snubbed out so prematurely.”
The tentacle squeezed tighter than she imagined possible. Denny could feel the life leaving her now.
Memories of Michael, of her beloved music, of home in San Diego, of becoming a Music Master; all melded into one as the pain became absolutely unbearable.
And then, it just stopped.
Denny landed on her bottom, sputtering as the world’s essence flooded back into her lungs.
She blinked, looking up under Craven’s shadow as his song effect dissipated and he turned off the music that had powered it just moments before.
“But perhaps I am not completely without mercy. Love makes one commit quite heinous things, so let this be your only warning.” he told her, as Denny caressed her neck and wondered how he hadn’t snapped it in all that time.
Craven turned towards the rest of the Pop 5, some of them nearly jumping out of their seats in the process.
“Let that be a warning to all of you, in fact. I ask you to do something…you do it. Loose ends creates complications for me, and I detest complication.”
He leaned down now, his face only inches away from Denny’s now as she recovered from having her life almost ripped out of her.
“Are we understood, my dear?”
Craven’s voice echoed in her mind. He spoke the same way she’d remembered him addressing her from the intercom above all those months ago.
Denny nodded weakly as she stood up on shaky knees.
“Y-Yes, Lord Craven.”
He narrowed his eyes, as if her answer wasn’t anything close to what he wanted to hear.
“Beautiful. Now get out of my sight. All of you.”
Without words, the rest of the Pop 5 obliged, eager to escape any possible extension of the Fourth Beat’s wrath.
They were out and gone in the span of five minutes, leaving the lanky, black-haired Music Master alone with naught but his crow as company.
It was amazing to think even someone as cold as Ollie could be pushed in the right direction if sufficient fear was involved.
Craven sat down in an empty chair, contemplating everything that had been relayed to him in the last hour.
For the most part, the operation had been a success. Aeris was under his thrall, goaded by the lives of her brothers held so delicately in Craven’s fingers, while Kim and Calvin were now secure and in custody deep within the Symphon situated in the underbelly of 5 Records.
And like a proverbial cherry on top, Rob Prototype had been delivered to Zero Beat alive. As of this moment, he remained imprisoned within the depths of the Symphon until the appropriate tangent of Zero Beat came to retrieve him.
For the crimes he’d committed, there would certainly be an enormous price to pay where Zero Beat was concerned.
It would have all been perfect in Craven’s eyes, if not for one tiny issue.
Against all odds, despite the numerous attempts made to kill him or otherwise, Michael Jason Kay had escaped.
As the last surviving Audio Knight and the one who specifically landed on Zero Beat’s radar for his use of disco music, Craven would never have true peace with Aeris and his Cypress until the afro-headed boy was finally dealt with.
And Denny’s revealed infatuation and failure to kill him when she had the chance only made things more difficult.
Leaning back in his seat, Craven exhaled loudly. Scourge made a low squawk on his shoulder, as if he completely understood his master’s plight.
Michael would be found eventually, but the frustration that came before all of that was something Craven wasn’t looking forward to in the slightest.
But as he looked up at the ceiling, he remembered that look of fear on Denny’s face, and it made him smile from ear to ear.
That look of fear that had dropped the moment he put her under the impression that her life was in fact not yet forfeit.
How wonderful it was to give her that false hope.
Craven’s teeth showed now, and he had to control the urge to laugh out loud.
Once Michael was found and finished, Denny would be next. All of the Pop 5 would be.
He had Aeris now, and their time had finally run out.
In the end, Paul Mercury couldn’t be Denny’s hero. And even if she didn’t hate her as much as before, Lily still wasn’t coming to Denny’s defense either.
Neither of them wanted so much as a taste of Craven’s wrath. It was understandable.
The normally bubbly and upbeat Denny found herself sad and exhausted today, as she flitted through the aisles of Audio Empire’s basement and wondered to do with herself.
Michael’s friends and uncle were now fully in Zero Beat’s clutches.
Only Michael himself remained at large, leaving Denny to wonder his fate.
She’d sent four texts in hopes of reaching him, and gotten no response whatsoever.
With so little energy left in her, she hobbled back and forth, looking aimlessly through records.
What was the point of going back to 5 Records now that Craven knew of her duplicity? While he might not kill her, Denny would constantly be under his watch now.
And in the eyes of Zero Beat, he would make sure that she was no longer trusted. All of her work to get into the Pop 5 would have been a complete waste of time.
She had no one to support her or come to her defense. Right now, the Pop 5 was as close to being her friends as Michael was as close to being her boyfriend.
All in all, Denny was truly alone.
She might have collapsed from pure sadness if not for this distraction she forced upon herself in searching for records that didn’t exist.
Still, her sense of self wasn’t completely gone, evidenced when Denny bumped into the only other person browsing down here.
So enamored in sudden depression, she hadn’t noticed him at all before, and her response was tone-deaf as she turned to apologize.
“Oh, excuse m-”
Her eyes widened. She caught the familiar appearance in an instant, starting up high with his black afro and ending with his hot-rod red sneakers below.
“…Michael?!” she said quite loudly.
He shuffled, blinking through bloodshot eyes that had not known the peace of sleep for almost a day. Headphones plugged into his ears, Michael put his hand up, the sound of Canned Heat blaring in the air as the red-hot aura appeared just inches from Denny’s face.
“Be quiet.” he said, stone-faced as he held his hand so dangerously close. “I really don’t want to have to use this on you.”
Denny looked back at him incredulously. She held her hands up in a show of surrender.
“Please, Michael, it’s just me. You know I’m on your side!”
She was getting louder again. Frustrated, he shushed her, not wanting more attention.
“Lower your voice! You’re gonna bring them right to me!”
The heat coming from his hand pulsed brighter. Denny could feel beads of sweat forming on her brow from just how close it was.
“You sure that you’re really on my side?” Michael asked, quite accusingly.
Even she could see the exhaustion and stress drawn on his face and present in his voice.
“Zero Beat got all my friends. They got my uncle. They just about got me. I know you don’t have a choice, but how do I know you’re not here to finish the job?”
Denny smiled, through her panic despite the clear threat before her. “I warned you that we were coming. And I’m unarmed too. I would never, ever, ever want to hurt you, Michael. I swear.”
There was a clear sense of longing in her eyes, and Michael sensed enough of it to finally lower his dangerous palm.
Seeing him alive and well again was everything Denny needed.
Energy rushed through her, and she found herself wanting to hug him and never let go.
Michael, however, had other plans.
“This is the last thing I need right now. Please, just go away and leave me alone. It’s because of your stupid Pop 5 that my life is ruined.”
“What?” Denny said, her voice on the edge of cracking. “But I thought we were friends.”
Michael furrowed his brow, clearly angrier than he’d ever been up to this point.
He unleashed it all within a single statement.
“I don’t have any friends left.”
Denny tried to smile, but it was obvious that alone was a struggle.
Crushed beyond words, her expression shifted from a smile, to a half-frown, to a broken look of confusion and anguish.
Before Michael could say anything more, she fell down onto the floor, arms at her sides as tears began to stream down her face.
Her voice was far louder than he wanted, of course.
“I’m s-s-sorry, Michael. I didn’t mean any of it. I just wanted you to like me. If you hate me too, I don’t…I don’t know what I’ll do.”
She was hollering now, in the manner of a child who’d been put into time out. Michael erupted into wakefulness, as he put his finger over his lips and tried his best to quiet her down.
“Denny! Denny, please!”
Her sobbing continued. She wasn’t even looking at him now, fists balled as all of her accumulated stress flowed out at once.
“Look, you’re my friend, okay?”
Denny stopped now. She wiped away some stray tears, as Michael stooped to her level and spoke as honestly as he could.
“Really?” she asked, and he nodded.
“Really.” He looked away for a moment, clearly apprehensive. “It’s just…”
“…I’m not doing too great right now. Everything kind of sucks, Denny. And all of it feels like it’s my fault.”
He gave a big sigh. Exhaustion had clung to him like a parasite, and for the last day, he had wandered in the bowels of Audio Empire with no rhyme or reason as to what to do next.
Perhaps Denny was exactly what he needed right now. A friend among the sea of enemies that had all come to kill him.
After all, if she really was here to kill him, he wouldn’t have seen her coming.
“Hey.” Denny said, her face brightening as she realized the answer to Michael’s unhappiness. “Maybe I can help.”
Michael looked back at her, confused. “Help? You don’t mean what I think you mean, do you? Those guys…aren’t they your friends?”
Denny laughed. “The Pop 5? No, not really. And if they are, I can’t tell.”
She put her hands out to stop him. “Here, check this out.”
Denny pulled her phone out, showing Michael a detailed diagram of a building floor that he didn’t recognize in the slightest.
“Uh…I don’t get it.”
She zoomed into it closer with her fingers. “It’s the layout of the 41st floor of 5 Records. It’s been under construction for two months now. And it’s got no alarms. If you want a way inside, this is your ticket.”
Michael scanned the diagram, understanding now exactly what it all meant.
There was no question in his eyes, only in his voice.
“You sure about this, Denny? Do you know what they’ll do if they find out you helped me…?”
Denny just laughed again. Being with Michael again was all she needed to lift her spirits.
“Ah, whatever. I don’t care anymore. You need help if you’re gonna get your friends and your uncle back. I know the Symphon like the back of my rhinestone glove.”
She looked at him with confidence. “The only question is…are you game?”
At the sound of those words, Michael’s mind shot backwards to tap into old memories.
He remembered all of his time with Denny, from the first time they met to their night in karaoke to the day he’d introduced her to Colleen and Rob.
He grinned, for the first time in what felt like an eternity.
The chance to save his fellow Audio Knights, Rob included, was right in front of him.
“Totally. When do we start?”
Denny smiled wide, her cheeks aglow.
This was the Michael she had so dearly missed.
Compared to that golden smile he gave her, the Pop 5 and Zero Beat couldn’t be any less important now.