Michael felt his heart beat rapidly against his chest like the drum of a trance beat, eyes wide as the horror that was Nicodemus Craven now stood before him.
But it wasn’t so much his gaunt face, sullen eyes, skeletal body and twisted lips that bothered Michael.
Nor was it his black velvet-laced voice, which seemed more appropriate on some back-alley predator than a high-ranking leader in Zero Beat.
No, it was the fact that he had so casually entrapped the Pop 5 within the grasp of his song effect, and how casually he was clearly killing them in the process.
At the moment, all four of the Audio Knights stood almost motionless, powerless to do nothing but watch as Craven slowly strangled the life out of their beaten opponents.
Not to say that the Pop 5 were prepared to go out without some sort of fight, as evidenced by their leader at the forefront.
But no matter how much he pushed against it, without the sound of Stronger, Ollie couldn’t move the heavy darkness killing him by even an inch.
Behind him, Paul and Lily tried to call out for help as they struggled, only for their voices to be muffled as Craven willed his tentacles to keep them restrained.
Meanwhile, Nathan banged violently against the floor, raging against Craven’s grip like a wild animal. He tried biting his way out, but to no avail, as Craven simply called out more tentacles to keep him down.
And then there was Denny. She was closest to the Audio Knights, her wrists bound and a tentacle wrapped across her body like some massive serpent. It ended draped over her mouth, cutting off her cries as tears began to clearly drip down her cheeks.
She could do nothing more than shoot a tortured look at Michael, who had to force himself to keep his eyes forward lest he look away from the nightmarish vision of her suffering.
“What…what are you doing? You’re killing them!” Aeris said first, dredging up courage in the face of the man who had tormented her all this time.
“Yes, well, that is my intention.” he replied, quite happily, in fact. “They’ve had this coming for quite awhile now. Do you know how much of a nuisance it’s been to watch over these children? How much of a distraction it proved to be? How much time I’ve wasted that would have been better spent on my Cypress?”
Craven stepped forward, stopping in front of Denny and taking a moment to wipe his finger along the tears coming down her cheek.
“Don’t get me started on this one in particular. So much potential, but a head full of nothing but air.”
Disgustingly, he pulled his finger to his mouth, licking the tip with all the charm of a reptile.
“But at least her anguish remains delectable.”
With an angry stomp, Michael moved forward.
Mad beyond words, Michael gritted his teeth to the point where they might chip from the pressure.
He’d seen and heard more than enough.
“Hey sicko! You get the hell away from her!”
His threat was amusing at best. Craven smiled back at him, almost as if he was looking back at an old friend.
“Or what? You’ll beat me up like you beat up Ollie?”
Craven turned his head back towards the trapped Pop 5, and in response, his tentacles dragged their leader upwards into the air for all to see.
There he was suspended like a puppet, given a brief moment to speak as Craven unlatched the tentacle around his mouth and nose.
“…you freaking psycho! I knew something was wrong with you! What the hell is this? You’re supposed to be on OUR side!” Ollie roared through labored breaths, only for Craven to silence him again with another tentacle.
He shook his head with disappointment. “So much for the big bad Ollie. All talk, it seems. Can’t even take down the one Music Master he was supposed to.”
“Okay, so you’re actually crazy. Even they don’t deserve this.” Kim finally asked, just a hint of concern in her voice.
“No…we should have seen this coming.” Calvin added. “This is how Zero Beat treats failure. This is exactly why everybody hates them.”
“Well, no, actually.” Craven exclaimed, perhaps with too much excitement.
“I’m tired of babysitting. I’m tired of children who don’t listen and backtalk. And believe me, I’m tired of being reminded of the disco boy and his merry little band. So once I’ve had my fun, I’m going to wipe the four of you off the map and be done with the Audio Knights once and for all.”
Michael stepped forth again, hand poised over his music player as he prepared to charge.
“No! Not on my watch!”
But Craven put his finger up, and in response, dozens of tentacles rose up from the pooling darkness around him. He shook said finger as he taunted Michael in particular.
“Ah, ah, ah! Not so fast. Take another step and I snap little Denny’s neck before you can even press play.”
His eyes drifted towards Denny’s form as he made a cruel smile. “A little too quick, if you ask me.”
Despite the man’s sick words, everything in Michael’s being willed him to move forward, to channel Canned Heat and use it to knock Craven right into the adjacent wall.
But when he saw the look in Denny’s eyes, and the expressions of pure pain written on the faces of the rest of the Pop 5, Michael realized that charging in headlong would only be signing their death warrant.
They might have fought, they might have even tried to kill Michael more than once, but that didn’t mean Michael was going to be the same.
So he stopped himself, much to Craven’s delight.
“Please, don’t worry yourself, Michael. You’ll have my full attention in just a moment. All of you will.”
He narrowed his eyes with lascivious intent. “Especially you, my misguided little Aerie-bird.”
Craven raised his hands, moving his fingers back and forth as he fully immersed himself in the upcoming atmosphere of death.
In response to his dark thoughts, the tentacles tightened further around the necks of all of the Pop 5, preparing for that one final and deadly twist.
“Tonight, it’s two for one. No more Pop 5, and no more Audio Knights! No more distractions!”
He laughed, loudly and horribly as he was but moments from enacting that final, fatal snap that would end the Pop 5 once and for all.
But fortunately, it seemed someone else had been listening.
As if from the void itself, the disembodied voice of Rob Prototype answered Nicodemus Craven’s declaration.
“Yeah. I don’t think so.”
Craven’s eyes widened with surprise, and he immediately looked up, as if expecting Rob to be just above him and lying in wait.
But there was no Rob to be seen, even as his tentacles moved in tandem and presented the perfect opportunity in the process.
The green and gold flash appeared but a split-second later, awing everyone as it deposited the noted Trackmaster in its wake.
Rob Prototype had materialized into existence at the epicenter of the pooling darkness created by Craven’s Chapter Four, cap pulled down and rainbow Warwick bass guitar at the ready.
He didn’t even skip a beat.
Raising his guitar like a baseball bat, he went directly for the home run on Craven’s face.
Blood split from his lip, and pain shot through his head as the butt of the guitar hit home and sent the leader of Cypress flying into the adjacent wall.
Upon impact, his shadowy tentacles shivered and contracted, providing just enough give for the still struggling Pop 5 to pull free.
Suddenly, Ollie, Nathan, Paul, Lily and Denny found they could breathe again.
But they only had a moment to take their gulp of air before Rob promptly called out to them.
“Listen up! If you five want to live; to me, NOW!” he shouted, as serious and genuine as he could sound.
Only Ollie seemed conflicted at the decision, and only for a moment.
Just as Rob expected, all members of the Pop 5 clambered his way in effort to escape a cruel end.
As Craven shook his head from a painful daze, they had just come in contact with Rob the moment Craven had regained control of his song effect.
Rob tipped his hat as the Pop 5 held onto him, giving Michael and his friends a quick glance and even quicker words.
“I’ll be right back, Mike. I promise.”
He said nothing more, and strummed on his bass.
Green and gold light sparked in response, zapping all six Music Masters from this plane of existence.
Try as he might, Craven was left grasping at nothing but empty air, green and gold threads just serving to mock him further.
“NO! THEY WERE MINE!” he screamed in a mix of anger and anguish.
His rage didn’t seem to last too long, as soon he had his attention right back on the Audio Knights.
His chest heaved with stress, but somehow, Craven managed to keep a deranged smile on his face as he gathered further darkness around him.
Above, the lights flickered as their very essence was siphoned in an effort to make Craven’s song effect that much more powerful.
He didn’t move just yet though, preferring instead to direct his gaze at Aeris in particular.
There was a clear sense of longing in his tone, and even worse look in his eyes.
“Aeris.” he began, as if talking to his own daughter. “Please reconsider my offer. Siblings or not, I really do mean it when I say that you’re beyond important to me. Because of that, I’ve decided…to give you one last chance.”
He put his arm out, clearly beckoning her to come forward.
“Come back, and I promise you that I will only kill Michael. The rest of your friends will be spared.”
Kim answered first, with clear sarcasm.
“Wow, I’m floored. I didn’t think anyone could be so generous.”
Aeris just looked at him with complete disbelief. “What kind of choice is that? No, you monster! The answer is no!”
Calvin narrowed his eyes, cracking his knuckles as he felt confidence overflow in his voice.
There was four of them and only one of Craven. Whatever he was, and whatever he could truly do, these were exactly the kind of odds Calvin liked.
“He’s clearly sick in the head. Guys, we don’t need to wait for Rob. If you ask me, we can take this creep.”
There was silent agreement among the four of them, and they readied their stances and song effects as Craven began to chuckle.
He put a hand on his forehead, clearly enjoying himself far too much.
“You’re actually serious? Please understand; this isn’t going to be like your other misadventures. All four of you are going to die.”
His eyes widened, focusing on the group of teenagers before him with predatory intent.
In response, Craven’s tentacles grew to massive size. They were soon more akin to heavy, tree-trunk like appendages, which soon completely surrounded Michael’s group. Like the heads of a hydra, they covered a wide space and cut off any chance of escape in the process.
“I truly wish you would not throw your life away so easily, Aeris.” he said, now clearly disappointed. “We could have had something so special.”
But despite the clear, overpowering threat, Aeris remained steadfast and unafraid.
With everyone here, the shadow of Craven was something she could finally face head-on.
“With you? Honestly, I’d rather just die.” she told him.
Craven shook his head.
It was the exact answer he didn’t want to hear.
“How sad. So be it.”
His tentacles began to move, each one easily able to crush a car under its weight. The lights in the training gym were almost non-existent now.
But despite the gloom and doom, the Audio Knights seemed prepared to face the very worst, song effects not even active as gigantic tentacles surged forward to crush them.
There was another brilliant flash, and the sudden burst of light caused the attack to retract as Rob Prototype made his promised return.
He didn’t need to say a word, and for Michael, the world moved in slow motion as he, Aeris, Kim and Calvin all knew they just had to come within touch distance of his uncle.
There was another mad scream, as Craven bounded forward like some rabid wolf, clearly unwilling to let his prey escape.
Scourge flapped his wings anxiously but somehow remained on his master’s shoulder, as Rob brought his fingers down to strum up Travelling Without Moving and bring them to apparent safety.
A split-second passed, but even as Rob’s played the start of the bass line, one of Craven’s darkforce tentacles slipped past and wrapped itself around the neck of the bass guitar.
There was no time to do anything further.
Another green and gold flash came, just as Rob had wanted.
This time though, the training gym beneath the Symphon was left silent and completely empty in its wake.
Michael’s senses were on overdrive, as he rolled and tumbled uncontrollably through a chaos dimension of colors and sounds.
All sense of gravity was gone, and everything moved far too quickly for him to even focus.
All he could hear was Rob’s faint voice calling out to him, but neither his friends nor his uncle were nowhere to be seen.
Just as the blinding lights and horrid cacophony of noise threatened to destroy his sanity, like a pause in a song, it just abruptly stopped.
Gravity returned as the real world did, and Michael felt himself lying face-down on some sort of ground.
He sputtered, his face half-buried in sand which he rubbed out of his eyes before calling out to his uncle and friends.
Michael got to his feet, but his uncle did not respond.
“Calvin! Kim! Aeris! Anybody?”
He turned, and Michael’s worry thankfully melted once he spotted the sight of his blond, shaggy-haired friend, caught in a similar state as him and just in the process of coming to.
“Present.” Calvin said jokingly, as he was quick to try to help Kim up, only to be pushed away in the process.
“Save it for your girlfriend. I’m good.” she growled, and Calvin tried to oblige only to find that Aeris was already up and about.
“We’re fine, Michael.” she assured him, looking around and noting their surroundings. “But where the heck are we? Where’s Rob?”
They were on sand, overlooking the ocean adjacent to lonely, rickety docks just some distance away.
The breeze was quite cold, and no surprise, the beach was completely empty this late in January.
“Jones Beach, it looks like.” Kim answered, as Calvin looked at her with amazement.
“How could you possibly know that?”
She pointed forward with one finger. “The sign, moron.”
Low and behold, a sign with Jones Beach plainly stated upon it sat within the dunes nearby.
Calvin ran his hands through his hair, surprised but not all that worried.
“Ah. Guess we got knocked off course. No big, we just catch a train home.”
Michael, however, was nowhere near as carefree once he realized why they’d been abandoned at this seemingly random location.
“Guys.” he said, panic clear in his voice. “You seeing what I’m seeing?”
His friends looked back in unison, noting the sight of Rob’s guitar alone in the sand between them. Quickly, Michael picked it up, as Calvin’s previously upbeat tone all but disappeared.
“Oh. That can’t be good.”
A voice answered him, wrought with decadence.
“There will many worse things, I’m afraid.”
The voice was unmistakable, of course. But Kim’s training had at least given the Audio Knights reflexes.
Their headphones were in and song effects were at the ready before Craven could even cross a distance of five feet.
He didn’t seem to mind, however, evidenced by the long, creeping smile now plastered on his face.
“There’s nowhere left to run from me. Rob Prototype cannot save you now. No one can.” he announced, through the drone of the ocean’s waves behind him.
“And I promise you; your deaths will not be quick.”
Having put the bass guitar behind him, Michael closed his fists, Canned Heat soon overtaking him.
For Calvin, Aeris and Kim respectively; Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger, This Fragile Breath and Desolation Row followed shortly after.
Clashing against each of their respective tracks, Chapter Four emerged again in the air, hoarse, threatening lyrics that served to illustrate Craven’s words further.
The encroaching, ominous guitars followed his steps as his dark tentacles pulsed and slithered in anticipation of bloodshed.
“This is it, everyone.” Aeris declared, charging up as much lightning as possible between her fingers, but knowing it might not be enough. “No holding back with him. I mean that.”
“You’re telling me. This is not the way I imagined I’d go out.” Calvin added, smiling despite it all.
“But if it’s with you three, maybe it’s not so bad.”
His neon squares popped and shrunk around him, buzzing like angry hornets in the process.
“Shut up. I’m not croaking today. He’s leaving disappointed, among other things.” Kim cut in, her voice changing as purple energy claws sprouted around her hands. She dug her boots in the sand, quite ready for the worst.
Michael took a deep breath, Canned Heat channeling through his heels as the sand below them soon turned to glass.
He focused on Craven up ahead, unafraid even as his tentacles grew in size to the point that their shadows and sheer volume might even blot out of the sun.
It was clear that everything had been building up to this point.
Rob’s words, his warnings, all of the accumulated experience of being a Music Master would now matter more than ever.
But grim as things might be, Michael still grinned wide as he looked back at his dear friends.
“Guys.” he said, as sincere as ever.
“It’s been one white knuckle ride. Just want you all to know that.”
They said nothing in response, but just by their expressions, Michael knew they all felt exactly the same.
And that was all he needed.
Despite all the enemies collected in these past few months, despite all the stress and complications of being a Music Masters, despite the Pop 5 nearly killing him, and Craven about to kill him now; for just this moment, this one small moment. Michael Kay felt on top of the world.
Canned Heat in his heels, he threw his caution to the wind, shouting in defiance as his fellow Audio Knights followed right in his wake.
The tentacles descended in response, and Craven smiled, fingers on his chin as Scourge continued to sit on his shoulder.
He just about hissed through his teeth as his song effect greedily absorbed the latent sunlight all around, darkening the entire stretch of beach in the process.”
The time had come to pull the needle off this disco record for good.