When the first few seconds passed, and Michael could see the brilliant lights of song effects clashing against the endless blackness of Craven’s tentacles, he truly assumed he was going to die.
There was no question to it really. Michael was always the optimist, but months of spending time with Kim and facing off against other Music Masters had finally given him some small dose of reality.
So when he slashed with his right hand, cutting through a huge tentacle of darkness with the red-orange shimmer of Canned Heat, he gauged that each passing second was just more borrowed time.
The sand below them shook as gigantic black limbs shuddered and coiled in an attempt to crush the Audio Knights utterly. Somehow though, through their combined lightning, claws, neon squares and heat, they were just barely able to hold it all back.
More than twenty feet away, well-protected behind the canopy of darkspawn, Nicodemus Craven waited with unusual patience.
For each passing moment, he could command each of his dark, sinuous tentacles with but a thought. Whether it was now, in five minutes, or even an hour, eventually all of the Audio Knights would be caught in their deadly snare.
Kim and Aeris stood back to back, slashing and shooting lightning in tandem. They said not a word to each other, but fought with perfect teamwork.
If only for a moment, Kim forgot that the girl next to her had betrayed them only hours before.
Meanwhile, two tentacles were busy dragging Calvin in the air in order to tear him to shreds, only for him to be saved at the last moment as a beam of Michael’s Canned Heat cut through the darkness and freed him.
The blond fell back to the sand hard, shaking his mind loose as he focused on the task at hand.
But of everyone, Kim had figured out what was going on first.
She was as monotone as she was direct.
“He’s trying to tire us out. We can’t keep up like this forever.”
Kim slashed more oncoming limbs, disintegrating them under the purple threat of her claws.
A plan formulated in her mind. They had the number advantage in this situation. If they could force Craven to focus on two separate fronts, it might split his power just enough to allow one of those fronts to break through.
“Michael.” Kim said, quick as she could.
“We need the big guns. Bring out the Big YMCA.”
His free hand moved quickly to his music player, Canned Heat cutting another swathe through the oncoming tentacles as he moved to switch songs as quickly as possible.
“You two.” Kim said to Aeris and Calvin, eyes serious.
“Go for Craven while we keep his menagerie busy. I don’t care what you have to do, but make sure when he goes down, he doesn’t get back up.”
Back up and ready, Calvin didn’t even bother getting the sand out of his hair. “Alright. You ready for this, Aeris?”
She nodded with confidence. “Yup. And I got just the thing for the occasion.”
More of Craven’s tentacles surged in their direction, but thanks to the brilliant forces of This Fragile Breath and Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger, they were held back just long enough for Michael and Kim to switch songs.
It was at that point, when both Blitzkrieg Bop and YMCA blared in the air, and their respective Sentonals now towered over the beach with menace, that Craven finally became mildly annoyed.
His tentacles stopped attacking, slithering and twisting in the air as if waiting for something.
And that was just enough to put just the slightest, cocky smile on Calvin’s face.
“Not so tough now, huh?” Calvin called out.
But there was no response from Craven, save for the fact that shadow of his tentacles grew larger as they absorbed light and soon grew gargantuan in size.
There were only seven of them now, but each had the size and girth of a small whale.
At their master’s command, they flung themselves with crushing weight at the assembled Audio Knights, only to be held back at the very last second as both Michael and Kim’s Sentonals fought against them for dear life.
Sand kicked up as the ground shook from the monstrous bout of music, and though the Sentonals seemed outnumbered, their line managed to hold.
It was just enough.
Calvin and Aeris had the moment they needed.
“He’s playing with us. He’s not even trying to hide it either. I’m guessing he knows that our odds aren’t too good.”
But unlike Calvin, Aeris seemed far too busy to worry, as she focused her breath and Harmonized with her next song.
She was done just as she answered Calvin, the Sentonals protecting them for attack all the while.
“Then we take advantage of that. It’s just like you said. We can take this creep.”
Calvin opened his mouth to say something further, but Aeris put a hand up to cut him off.
She then motioned to the thing now waiting on the sand for them, a appropiate product of her new song effect.
“Even if we need a little help.”
Glistening like greased lightning in front of them was a sleek race car. Clad in the colors of orange, blue and silver, it rumbled anxiously despite the lack of a driver.
Calvin had to take a moment to admire it, even as the car itself made an obnoxious hum in an attempt to beckon him and Aeris inside.
Its headlights blinked and moved with human-like intention, showing clear impatience within them.
“This thing’s a Sentonal?” Calvin asked, admiring the sight of this vehicle before him. “Now I’ve really seen it all.”
But Aeris just pushed him forward, even as the car opened its doors right open for them.
“Less talk, more action. Ace doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
She shut her driver’s side door manually. As Calvin tried to buckle himself in on the passenger side, he realized there were no seatbelts to be found.
“Don’t worry.” Aeris said, noticing his apprehension. “He’s a good driver.”
“…he?” Calvin said, only for his body to jar forward as the car suddenly moved.
There was a loud grinding noise as the tires skidded against sand, just before the car backed up and proceeded to face the ensuing chaos before them.
Its engine revved loudly as those same headlight-eyes focused on their enemy; the form of Nicodemus Craven that lie just beyond dueling Sentonals and titanic black limbs of destruction.
“Okay. Let’s do this.” Aeris declared, and Ace obliged, accelerating with purpose as its tires crystallized the sand below.
Somehow, despite the uneven ground, its speed remained consistent.
Weaving back and forth with all the skill of a daredevil driver, Ace dodged tentacles and all manner of darkness as the form of Craven grew closer and closer.
Aeris didn’t even have to lift a finger as they got within thirty feet of where he was standing.
“Ram him!” she exclaimed. “I don’t care how hard! Just do it!”
Ace hummed through his engine, increasing speed in response, as Calvin just held on for dear life.
The distance between Craven and them was almost non-existent now.
Time seemed to slow, but Craven showed no worry or fear on his face even as the speeding car prepared to ram him into oblivion.
They had just about made it, when something pitch black and massive slammed into Ace’s left side.
Any other vehicle might have been completely pulverized by the blow, and Aeris killed instantly, but being a sentient Sentonal certainly had its perks.
Somehow deflecting the hit, the car was sent spinning wildly, kicking up sand and just about tumbling over completely.
But even as Aeris grabbed onto the steering wheel in front of her out of instinct to try and regain control, it was soon obvious that it was a hopeless gesture.
There was no time to get away, as one of the large, whale-sized tentacles creeped over to downed vehicle like lurking predator.
The car’s sidings buckled as a dark arm more appropriate for a giant octopus grabbed hold.
With terrifying ease, it hoisted said car high up into the air, taking a moment to try and crush it one last time.
But the frame held, despite the immense pressure and enveloping darkness. In the driver’s seat, Aeris seemed beyond confident.
“He’s wasting his time. He can’t hurt us in here. Long as I’m inside, Ace is practically indestructible.”
Then the tentacle stopped its crushing grasp.
It swayed for a moment, before suddenly tossing the entire vehicle up into the air, past the shore and towards the waiting waters of the sea below.
Air rushed past, and soon water, as the car plummeted into the depths of the Jones Beach waters and began to sink fast.
Calvin pressed his fingers against the glass, unsure of what to say, and if would even matter.
Bubbles of air went past, as slowly but surely, water began to leak in various places of the vehicle.
His tone was obvious and right to the point.
“So I’m guessing you don’t have waterproof headphones?”
Aeris shook her head. Her gloved hands gripped the steering wheel with clear discomfort as they simply sunk further.
Indestructible or not, they could still drown, and their headphones could still short out from water damage.
Trying to calm his rapidly beating heart, Calvin just took a quick breath as he pulled out his music player, searching as quickly as he could for answer out of this crisis.
“I see. Yeah, neither do I.”
“Please tell me he didn’t just throw them into the sea.” Michael said, completely unable to hide his worry.
With Kim beside him, the two of them stood steadfast behind their Sentonals, and despite the battering tentacles and clear threat of a painful death, Kim somehow was still unafraid.
“He did. Focus, Michael. Unless you want to just lay down and die now.”
In front of them, Kim’s Sentonal blasted tank shells from its cannon arm, clawing at any tentacles that survived the blast. It even chomped down with huge dagger like teeth, content to rampage in effort to protect its beloved Music Master.
Right next to it, the more colorful and simple Big YMCA pummeled again and again with all six of its arms, even as Craven’s horde of tentacles seemed without number.
But it kept up with the onslaught, despite everything, Anything less than its six arms working in defensive tandem, and it might have soon been overwhelmed.
Then, when the onslaught seemed at its absolute worst, and their wall of Sentonals might no longer hold, it all suddenly stopped.
Chapter Four ceased as Craven paused the song, and clear sunlight returned to the sky above but a moment later as every hint of the summoned darkness vanished.
Michael had to put his hand up to block the sudden influx of light.
“Did…did we do it?”
Craven answered him, as a new song came to unnatural life in the air.
“No. I just thought it was time for a change of pace.”
A loud, thrashing guitar exploded around the Fourth Beat, creating a vista of energy and colors as it summoned something new into being.
Then, right at the foot of the two huge Sentonals, a smaller, seemingly innocuous figure fully materialized.
Only just a bit taller than Craven himself, it was dressed in the fashion of a plague doctor; sharp-beaked mask, black gloves, and a dark brown, stained robe that covered all of its form.
It was humanoid, but just barely.
In its hand, it held on tightly to an ancient looking rifle. On the very end of it, a rusty bayonet with dried blood seemed ready to stab at anyone who came too close.
“That’s it?” Michael said, wrought with surprise.
“Whatever. I’m not taking any chances.”
Kim tried to speak, sensing something off, but she was far too late.
His mental command had already zipped to his Sentonal before he could even dwell on it.
Obliging, the Big YMCA reached one massive gloved hand towards this new opponent, intent on quickly crushing it in its grasp.
But Craven just smiled, and his Sentonal raised its rifle towards the incoming enemy.
It waited for just a second, just as the Big YMCA’s fingers had almost closed in, before letting loose a single, green-tinged bullet from the muzzle of its gun.
At first, the attack seemed inconsequential. Beyond a tiny hole within the middle of its Y, the Big YMCA appeared unaffected, simply moving closer until its fingers were inches away from grabbing its target.
Then, as quick as a heartbeat, those same giant fingers began to crumble.
From the end of its white gloved hand all the way up to its arm, until the necrosis spread to its entire letter-form body, Michael, Kim and Craven all watched as Michael’s Sentonal soon fell apart into a mountain of gray-tinged dust.
No mental command could urge it further, and Craven laughed with satisfaction just as his loyal humanoid pointed its gun at Kim’s huge skeleton monster.
“What a wonderful little virus my friend can share. Particularly deadly and quick to its fellow Sentonals, I’ve found. If only it was as quick with the Music Masters themselves.”
There was no time for Kim to issue any sort of command. Another shot rang out, and the bullet him home right in her Sentonal’s mohawk-wearing skull.
It was still in the process of raising one huge combat boot to crush its attacker, when the virus fully overtook its music-borne form. Bones crumbled from head to toe, until the once proud punk rock monster was reduced to a pile of gray ash.
Michael and Kim were left truly defenseless now, with scant time to switch their song effects even as Craven and his own Sentonal closed the distance.
“Michael!” Kim barked, knowing time was of the essence. “Dancing Machine, now!”’
Michael said nothing further, pressing fast forward and switching the song on his playlist.
Harmonizing a little over a second later, he had only a moment to spare as a rusted knife came within a hair of piercing his now facet-covered skin.
Thankfully, it was far from fast, and for Michael, dodging each of these successive stabs was hardly difficult.
Behind its beaked mask, the plague doctor-thing breathed heavily, as if each effort to stab with the bayonet caused it horrible pain.
Distracted now by a disco-using opponent, Kim had exactly the time she needed.
With Craven now wide open and his Sentonal busy, she charged like a mad dog, her own hydra-arms following her as Walking Disaster blared in her approach.
He smiled at her rampant approach.
“Ah, the little warrior. Bringing all your anger right to me. Fortunately for you, I hardly find it attractive.” he mocked, even as grasping claws reached for a stray limb, the edge of his cloak, his bird, or anything else they could grab onto.
But amazingly, Craven just dodged and ducked right underneath all of them, delivering a hard punch just underneath Kim’s jaw in the process.
He put all his power behind the blow, holding her down by the shoulder just to make it that much worse.
Her teeth clicked painfully, and blood filled her mouth before the Fourth Beat grabbed her by the arm and tossed her over his shoulder.
Painfully, Kim landed in the sand, spitting red and rushing to get back up even as Craven was already focusing his attention on Michael.
She could hear the ticking of a clock in her mind as she watched from a distance.
Michael could continue to dodge the Down With The Sickness-borne Sentonal, but would have little time to react as Craven himself grabbed him from behind. He had one arm looped around Michael’s neck, and the other at his side, locking him in place.
“No squirming. We don’t want this to be too quick, my little disco boy.” Craven whispered in his ear.
Of course, Michael could give him only a muffled, digitized groan in response.
And all Kim could do was widen her eyes in panic, seeing the horrible sight of Michael struggling, unable to yell or scream in his robotic form.
In front of him, the plague doctor Sentonal raised its bayonet and prepared to plunge it into Michael’s vulnerable body.
Kim didn’t even debate the next thought in her mind.
She dove across the sand, her hydra-arms propelling her with all their might.
Slamming her shoulder right into the plague doctor-thing, Kim tackled it into the sand and startled both Craven and Michael in the process.
Punch after punch flew out, and Kim could only see red even as the Sentonal stabbed in her direction.
Dazed and in pain, Kim’s body caught up with her but a moment later. Finding her arm suddenly numb as she got up, her breathing quickened as the Sentonal also got to its feet.
Kim looked to her left arm, and there she could see a fresh, long cut from the bayonet blade.
Slowly but surely, the skin around it was beginning to turn that same, ashy gray as with their Sentonals before.
“Michael!” she roared, her hydra-arms surging past and grabbing at Craven’s Sentonal anywhere they could. “Take the bastard down! Take him down now!”
Even as they were being swept and cut aside, Kim used her own body further as a barrier.
She ignored the world around her, even as the bayonet slashed again, right across her shoulder.
Pain throbbed at more than one spot on her body, and Kim’s vision began to falter, but she willed herself to stay in place, holding onto the Sentonal with all her might in effort to keep it still.
Her words to finish Craven echoed in Michael’s ears, but all he could see was that gray color invading her skin.
Every moment, it got closer and closer to overtaking her completely.
Behind her, Craven laughed loudly.
“What are you waiting for? You heard what she said. Take me down, Michael.”
But Michael couldn’t move.
All he could see was the most horrible image of Kim collapsing into dust.
Unable to say a single word, his bright green eyes widened as he continued to watch Kim suffering.
She was enduring only more slashes to her bare skin, and that chalky gray had covered most of her body, and was now slowly inching over her face.
“Just so you know, she’ll be dead before you can even get to her.”
Scourge squawked in response to his master’s observation. That was all Michael needed to hear.
He was set into a mad run, determined to make it to Kim just as the music-virus was seconds away from covering her nose and finishing her.
But he never made it. He was interrupted as a loud roar of monstrous proportions ignited the air.
Craven’s smile vanished, and Michael watched as Calvin, now in his Genesis kaiju form, had pulled the plague doctor-thing away and bitten right into its shoulder with his jaws.
Against Calvin’s monstrous strength, the plague doctor-thing could neither move nor adequately struggle, and made just a hoarse, bleating noise before Calvin tore it in two.
Battered and hurt, Kim finally collapsed at its constituent parts vanished, with Michael catching her in his arms just before she hit the sand.
Having paused the song and returned to his human form, he surveyed her injuries as quickly as he could.
Her shoulder was cut, bleeding, along with various slices all around her neck and collarbone, but they were minor things in contrast to the disease that had nearly overtaken her.
With the Sentonal destroyed, its influence was reversed, and the gray necrosis had left Kim’s complexion with centimeters to spare.
“Idiot.” Kim said under her breath, pushing Michael away as she fought through the pain and stood up. “I didn’t say to come back for me!”
“Don’t care.” Michael insisted. “I would do it again.”
Kim looked away, hiding the smallest gleam of gratitude as she focused back on Craven despite all of her pain.
Craven, meanwhile, was far more concerned with the sight of Aeris and Calvin, who seemed no worse for the wear despite how easily he’d thrown them aside into the depths.
“How…” he grumbled under his breath. Calvin just growled in response, and Aeris seemed all too eager to answer for him.
“Too bad for you, but let’s just say he came together just at the right time. No way am I letting you pick us off.”
The Fourth Beat could feel stress bubbling in his stomach.
That horrible, unfamiliar sensation of complication began to come over him.
Craven’s hands were already going for his music player, but it was clear Calvin would give him no such opportunity.
Bounding with primal fury, he roared like the monster he was, claws bared and ready to tear the lord of Cypress asunder.
Some time before, Aeris felt soaking into her socks as Ace seemed to only sink deeper into the depths.
No matter how much he tried to moved his wheels, it would be useless in this watery realm.
Worse than that, he was filling up fast.
By now, escaping would be an easy matter. The only issue was escaping without shorting their headphones in the process, and thus practically handing Craven their lives on a silver platter.
“I need an idea, Calvin, and I need one fast!” Aeris demanded, as the blond boy next to her scrolled through songs in hopes of finding something of value.
His eyes finally stopped, though he dwelt on the idea before committing to it.
It was a huge risk, but truthfully, what other options did they have?
“I think I got something.” he admitted.
“Aeris. This is going to feel really weird. But when I say to tell Ace to open the doors, you do it, okay?”
The water was coming up to her waist now. “Sure, sure! Whatever it is, just do it!”
Calvin nodded, then pressed play.
As it had done many times before, We Come Together and its techno melody filled the air.
The song was encapsulated within the interior of the car, bumping its beat as Calvin’s entire body soon morphed into tiny, pixelated squares.
All Aeris could do was watch in wonder as they came around her like a cloud of insects, forming a protective, airtight balloon as a digitized voice wailed from within.
Aeris sent the mental snap, and both car doors opened in tandem.
As water rushed in, Calvin’s form rushed out, keeping Aeris dry and protected within.
Under his power, they surged upwards, past the ocean surface, into the dry air above, and back onto the sandy shore no more than a minute later.
When it was all said and done, he deconstructed himself, reforming next to her from the bottom up.
Amazingly, when came back together, he was still dry, and his headphones still working and intact.
Aeris just looked around, wide-eyed and still going over what had just happened. “You were right. That was pretty freaking weird.”
Calvin snickered. “Oh, the jokes I could make.”
He narrowed his eyes, spotting the plight of Kim and Michael just up ahead.
“But now’s not the time. They need us.”
His fingers already moved to his music player, pressing fast forward as another song overtook him.
His muscles bulged, his teeth grew pointy, and scales formed on his skin as the animalistic urges overtook his very mind.
But right now though, against someone like Craven, to call Calvin a monster would be the most minuscule of insults.
It seemed for a brief moment that Craven found himself without a song effect, and facing all four Audio Knights at once on top of that.
But he was nothing if not patient, waiting till the very last second to unleash his song despite the two-ton monster-man lumbering his way.
One of the perks of being a Trackmaster; the ability to Harmonize in a split-second.
He always had the initiative, even when it seemed impossible.
So when Calvin felt like he was close enough that Craven had no chance to react, he was surprised to hear a new song effect in the air, and Craven’s unholy gaze focused right upon him as the guitars attacked before a singer wailed like a dying man.
Time seemed to stand still, as Calvin Altberg was stopped in mid-run.
His arms were suspended, and try as he might to move, even his larger reptilian muscles were sufficiently restrained.
Just above his right shoulder, Calvin could see the form of a knotted black rope, which appeared responsible for holding him trapped.
He roared in defiance, pushing as hard as he could.
In front of him, Craven seemed beyond delighted, never failing to marvel at Psychosocial’s power no matter who he used it against.
As everyone could see, the front of Craven’s forehead pulsed with malign red light as his eyes seemed tinged under the same abyssal influence.
Impressions of a much larger brain could be seen practically pushing out of his skin, but he didn’t appear bothered by it in the slightest.
Unable to move and strike the Fourth Beat, Calvin knew he had only one other choice.
He opened his mouth, a sonic scream accompanying the neon orange blast that he soon planned to unleash.
It was far too little far too late.
Craven tipped his hand, and there was a horrible crack as Calvin’s reptilian eyes widened with the sensation of sudden pain.
Looking to his shoulder, his arm was now at an odd angle, broken quickly and cleanly.
Calvin groaned loudly, his neon blast stifled as the pain shot through his arm to his shoulder with unbearable intensity.
The Lord of Cypress smiled through his teeth, even as the other Audio Knights moved to respond.
“CALVIN!” Aeris screamed, only for her to be caught in Craven’s gaze and tossed backwards like a rag doll.
As her vision spun and she hit the sand, all she could think of was that look in his eyes.
That pure, merciless focus, and just how easily he had maimed one of their closest friends in one strike.
Aeris rushed to get up, only to see that Craven had thrown Kim and Michael aside in a similar manner. He was now standing in front of Calvin, hand raised, and from what she could see, another black rope knot on him.
This time though, it was poised around his scaly neck.
“You’re a smart one. I’m sure you understand how this works?” he asked her.
She didn’t answer, but made no attempt to even try to press play, instead approaching him with hands up.
“That’s a good girl. At least you remember how fragile lives are.”
He looked at Calvin again, and with his other hand, he flicked free the boy’s headphones.
In an instant, Calvin was back to his human form, now gifted with a painful and very much broken arm.
“Goddamn it!” he yelled out loud, holding his injured limb as he remained kneeling on the ground.
Craven didn’t move his eyes away from the boy for a second, even as he continued to speak to Aeris.
“Quiet. This might be the only personal time Aeris and I have left. I want to savor it.”
He beckoned her, spider-like fingers calling her to their sick embrace.
But she ignored his words, instead focusing on his actions.
His gaze, she realized.
The power had to do with his gaze.
Aeris looked down at the surface below them. It was the perfect tool in which to stifle someone’s vision.
And if she was fast enough and his gaze was interrupted, then she might finally have the smallest window of opportunity.
Aeris gulped, then took a deep breath as she approached slowly. Craven kept his hand poised and his gaze still on Calvin, but did not yet make a move.
She leaned down, giving her blond-haired friend the most encouraging expression before looking back up at Craven.
“If I come with you now, you promise to let him live?”
Craven twisted his lips into the worst smile imaginable.
In his distraction, Aeris’s free hand grasped a small amount of sand in her palm.
“Perhaps.” he said, clearly relishing the moment. “But how about you come here? I want you to crawl on your knees.”
Aeris nodded, much to Calvin’s horror.
Like the seductive thing Craven imagined her to be, she came towards him on all fours, fluttering her eyes and swaying just enough to make him forget that they were fighting, if only for a moment.
So when she threw the sand in his eyes, it was the last thing Craven had expected.
He simply screamed like an injured animal, flailing as his stray fist slammed right into her cheek in the process.
Calvin craned his neck in the next second, able to move again as Kim and Michael came to his aid.
As Nicodemus Craven rubbed the sand out of his eyes, trying to regain his telekinetic focus, Aeris had already pressed play on her music player.
Blue wings surged out of her back, as Angel in the Morning’s heavenly chorus served to empower her.
With a power like this, he could kill Michael, Kim or Calvin with but a flick of the wrist. It was far too risky to face him in this state.
There was no question of what to do next.
She turned to her three friends one final time, eyes sincere as possible.
“I’m sorry, but I’m taking him from here. Stay safe, guys.”
Calvin was no idiot.
He knew what those words truly meant. The pain from his broken arm almost vanished in that one moment.
Not knowing what else to do, he reached his free hand out, voice panicked.
“AERIS! Aeris, WAIT!”
But his words fell on deaf ears, and the rest of the Audio Knights could only watch as she flapped her wings and charged headlong into the recovering Craven.
Looping her arms around his torso, she picked up speed as she brought the two of them up into the sky above.
Even as he clawed and scratched against her, spouting curses and the most horrible things in her ear, Aeris narrowed her eyes and held tight as clouds approached.
For her friends, for her brothers, for her grandmother, for even the Pop 5: she would end Craven’s nightmarish existence today.