Though Aeris ascended with him towards heaven, an angel would be the very last thing she’d used to describe Nicodemus Craven.
His long, sharp fingernails pushed violently against the fabric of Aeris’s blazer.
Spit flew from his mouth, and she could feel his cold, clammy skin against hers.
The Fourth Beat’s thrashing, scratching and struggling was so fierce, in fact, that she could begin to feel him drawing blood beneath her clothes.
Between that, and his horrid epithets that insulted both her purity and her family, Aeris was tempted to let go and leave to fall below to the ocean depths.
Instead, Aeris continued to hold on tight, flying higher and higher as her crystal blue angel wings flapped with determination.
She hadn’t yet looked up to see the expression on his face, but judging by the fact that he hadn’t simply broken her neck with Psychosocial by now, Aeris could guess that the windforce was more than enough to keep his eyes strained.
When the wind chill became truly noticeable, and Aeris’s latent song effect had to work to adjust to the atmospheric conditions, she knew they had reached a height that would almost certainly kill.
Her wings unfurled as she stopped in the air. She beat them slower now, hovering in place and no longer concerned with flying any higher.
There, she held onto Craven by the collars of his long black cloak, which caught tightly onto his skin and just barely held him aloft.
She stared him down, no longer afraid of the mere sight of him.
He shook his head, listening to the sound of her wings beating back and forth as his vision refocused.
Then he narrowed his eyes, unimpressed.
“Hmph. All of this for your little friends. If they only knew the truth about you, you…you little who-”
Thankfully, Craven would have no time to finish that particular insult.
Aeris’s fist smashed against his face, bruising his left eyelid in the process and stifling his focus with Psychosocial further.
With Craven was busy reeling from the blow, Aeris took a quick glance downwards.
She noted that from this height, a drop would not only kill him, but would almost certainly break his Z-Phones on impact.
As she thought over it, Craven soon turned back to her, eyes widening as that red psychic focus overcame them.
Aeris felt the tug of a knotted black rope on her neck, only for her to punch him twice more in succession before he could so much as lift a finger.
Now in even more pain than before, Craven swayed back and forth.
His hands grabbed at the girl’s shoulders, but the grip was weak and almost infantile.
She hit him again. All of her anger seemed to seep out of her blows.
The abuse and domination he’d subjected her to flared in her mind. Whether or not she wanted to admit it, the sheer violence was becoming euphoric.
His eyes flickered, and try as he might, Psychosocial’s power was unable to truly manifest the more she beat on him.
He groaned in pain, not moving as much. His nose was bloody and both eyes were bruised now.
Aeris looked back down, still holding onto him.
An icy shiver went up Aeris Fairfield’s spine at acknowledgement of what she was about to do.
At this height, high among the clouds, Nicodemus Craven would split upon hitting the sand, and only possibly survive if he hit the ocean instead.
Either way, if he died or not, it would be beyond painful. More importantly, his Z-Phones would be done, and his threat as a Music Master finally diminished.
Aeris’s grip began to loosen, and by now, Craven had given up all attempts at trying to catch her with Psychosocial.
She let go of one of his collars, holding him just barely now by the nape of his cloak.
Scourge squawked, flapping his wings in the air beside him as if somehow sensing his master’s impending doom.
His bird could do little to save him, but Craven remained unafraid.
“Here’s your satisfaction, Aerie-bird.” Craven said through a pained laugh. “Here’s your happiness.”
“It couldn’t come sooner.” she told him, mercy devoid in her tone.
Her eyes narrowed as she started to allow her fingers to slacken.
“You deserve so much worse.”
He smiled, in the way a father might smile with pride for his children.
“Not a white knight like Michael, I see. You learn quickly, Aeris.”
He moved to touch her face, and amazingly, Aeris didn’t move as one of his ghastly fingers caressed against her cheeks.
A single tear flowed down, as his touch reminded her of every horrible thing he’d put her through in these past weeks.
Holding the lives of her family in the balance, subjecting her to his personal domination, and just today, maiming and nearly killing the friends that she so deeply cared for.
“Don’t cry.” Craven assured, in that sickly sweet tone. “I know you won’t ever forget me.”
His eyes moved down towards the Cypress tattoo, its black ink design a permanent fixture on her arm.
“No matter how hard you try.”
Quite satisfied, his finger now inched towards that single tear falling past the skin of her cheek, as his lips twisted with disgusting hunger.
But he would have no more opportunity to touch her further.
With stone cold eyes, Aeris finally let go.
Not bothering to flail or struggle, Nicodemus Craven fell, wind speeding past and blowing his hair up as his crow flew downwards to follow him.
But even as he fast approached the danger of the ground below, a satisfied smile slowly formed on his face.
Aeris wasn’t looking down on him, but he was looking up at her.
His tone became loud and commanding, as the Z-Phones responded to a voice line he had not used in a very long time.
“Oh Aeris! Didn’t you know? You can’t kill me! I’m immortal!”
Music surged from down below, starting with low, eerie singing before eventually bursting into a loud and frenzied scream of rage.
Having caught her attention now, Aeris’s eyes widened as malignant light shone from where Craven was once falling.
Her wingspan diverted as she flew downwards, intent on reaching him as quickly as possible.
She had made it within about ten feet of him, when a musical explosion of red and black light made her flinch and stop in place.
Aeris put her hand up to her eyes, trying to stifle the wretched light as Craven’s song effect began to change the very physical form that made up his gaunt and debased body.
Air swept past her long blond hair as the clouds themselves seemed to part to make way for the horrid thing that was took shape.
Under the influence of Immortal, Craven had shed all former vestments, and his body elongated and shifted as the song effect screamed over his once human form.
Skin turned charnel grey as jet black feathers became entrenched in his pores. His eyes grew in size, irises now a piercing aterial purple instead of red.
Craven’s mouth also grew in size, incisors becoming longer and far more deadly as horrifying black feathered wings sprouted from his now twisted spine.
Scourge was gone, but that familiar sound of his squawk was now present in the man’s voice.
His tone came out demonic and guttural, now fused like a cut track with the noise of his beloved bird.
“Aerie-bird…AERIE-BIRD…” Craven growled, fully changed and strangely majestic in this new and ghastly form.
He grinned right through his sharp teeth, before flying forward with murderous intent.
Aeris had just barely enough time to move aside and dodge. She avoided the deadly rake of knife-like claws that could easily behead her with little effort.
Then, as quick as he came, Craven was gone.
A breeze swept past as Aeris looked from side to side, not seeing Craven but hearing the echo of his horrible, bird-like laughter just close by.
She searched and searched, but nothing. No hint of him even in her peripheral vision.
But he was there. She could feel that monstrous and predatory gaze.
He was upon her like a living shadow, claws glinting and aching for the caress of flesh.
Aeris could just barely react, and not fast enough, as she was left screaming in pain the moment one of his claws hit home and cut deep into her left pant leg.
Blood came out profusely, and if her wings weren’t carrying her, she might have simply collapsed from the pain.
He swiveled in mid-air, stopping for a moment to savor the rich taste of iron within her life essence.
His voice remained garbled and monstrous.
“Should have stayed with me. Less painful. So much less painful. Now I tear you apart.”
He came at her again, forcing Aeris to put her hands up in an effort to defend herself.
The timing would have to perfect, just as Kim taught her.
Any one of those claws would bisect her with ease.
She caught his wrists within her gloved hands just in time.
Aeris and Craven struggled with one another, diving and rising in the air, wings slamming back and forth as Aeris tried to shake him off.
Her vision spun as either one fought to gain the upper hand over the other, still falling and ascending with each passing moment.
Despite the chaos of motion, it was at this moment that Aeris finally realized how Paul Mercury must have felt before when facing her.
But as the two continued to clash, a risky idea entered Aeris’s mind.
She thought about how long it might take to hold on discharge electricity into Craven, and if she’d have enough time to switch back to her previous song effect and prevent herself from falling to her death.
As they dueled like raptors, and Aeris felt another long slash come down, this time on her right forearm, she knew there was little time for her to mentally debate.
With all her might, Aeris slammed her head into Craven’s, ignoring the horrible pain that accompanied their skulls banging together.
Craven screeched like a banshee, holding onto to his forehead as his more sensitive, hollow bones were beat upon.
He was open, and the blond Audio Knight didn’t waste a moment.
She had already pressed fast forward on her prized blue music player, switching to the first song of her youth and moving to Harmonize with it.
But even as she prepared to free fall, the air around her changed, as Craven’s horrible wings beat forward and he gripped a large talon-hand around her throat.
The danger of falling was gone, just to be replaced by the threat of his claws shearing her to pieces.
And Aeris could hear this Fragile Breath playing in her ears, but Craven’s crushing grip and horrible visage made it impossible to focus and Harmonize fully.
Only tiny sparks of lightning leaked from her fingers; ineffectual and useless in her hour of need.
“I’m not afraid to die.” he growled, his face and demeanor so far from human. “Are you?”
His grip tightened, and Aeris’s breath no longer came to her.
She choked, wheezing as her legs dangled and she wondered if falling to her death would be a better way to expire.
Her limbs twitched, and her chest heaved as Craven chose the slow and painful route as opposed to just shoveling her guts out.
Perhaps he just wanted to see that satisfying look in her eyes when she died.
Even in this unholy form, Craven could recognize the unmistakable beauty of death when he saw it.
Then he remembered what she’d done before when he was momentarily distracted.
His lust would have to wait, lest it cost him everything.
Craven moved to finish her, closing his claws so they would slice right into the vulnerable skin of her neck and the treasured carotid artery within.
Bloodthirsty beyond words, he salivated at the mere thought of that slick of red that would coat his talons in but a moment.
When she’d made the decision to bring Craven up into the sky and face him alone, Aeris Fairfield had long since accepted the idea of her own death.
It wasn’t so horrible to think about, in hindsight.
She might leave her friends behind, but she would be with Grandma, and supposedly, her mother and father.
And if those things she believed as a child were indeed true, then there was a warm and pleasant heaven where all three of them waited for her.
It would be a place far from Craven’s dark influence, and far from all this violence among Music Masters.
No longer willing to struggle, Aeris emptied her mind and relented to his choking embrace, waiting as she felt sharp claws preparing to cut her neck to ribbons.
The song still played in her ears, as her mind went backwards in time.
The lonely ranch and swing set were as clear as yesterday.
Her mind gleamed with the memory of the very first time she’d used This Fragile Breath, and the immeasurable pain that came with her palms becoming permanently scarred.
But Aeris had no more fear in her thoughts.
The pain of the past was a part of her as much as her blond hair and the Fairfield blood that ran through her veins.
For the first time in a long time, Aeris felt a golden sense of peace.
If it was her time to die, she was ready.
Her song seemed to respond to that last, selfless thought. Within the confines of her headphones, an echo of sound rumbled.
Then, her music suddenly erupted past eleven and onwards.
A brilliant flash of shocking blue accompanied the sound of her song quickly increasing volume, causing Craven to retract his claws just in time as otherworldly light came over Aeris’s body.
The symphony of the universe seeped into her, manifesting as a black shroud that covered her from head to toe. It avoided only her eyes, granting them the same blue sheen that was present in the lightning that she could once again produce from her fingers.
Focus reigned in Aeris’s mind. She was a living silhouette, as the state of Perfect Beat completely encompassed her body and mind.
Without hesitation, Aeris put a hand on Craven’s wrist, and charged a vicious bolt of lightning fat enough to power a city block.
Feathers scorched and skin burned as he screeched in pain, ripping away from her and freeing Aeris from what might have been his deathly embrace.
Backing up and cradling this new injury, Craven expected to see her fall to her doom, only to be sorely disappointed.
Under the influence of Perfect Beat, the sky was like a second home now.
She hovered under the cushioned magnetic embrace of her silver-blue lightning, staring him down like an angered goddess of the storm.
Lightning pulsed and cracked around her wrists, large, arcing bolts quite capable of killing scores and decimating Sentonals with minimal effort.
Then the Lord of Cypress felt the air around him change, quite literally.
As he tried to ignore the pain of his burnt arm, he could see stray sparks colaescing around him as the sky became populated with dark and ominous storm clouds.
Rain began to fall, wetting his feathered wings as booming thunder foreshadowed the inevitable.
Aeris just continued to focus on him, and her vision was perfectly laid out before her.
Like a system of connecting pathways, she could see the pockets of lightning surging across the sky.
And when she put her hand out to reach them, she knew in that instant that they would bend to her command.
But the danger was the last thing on Craven’s mind. He still longed for blood.
Roaring in anger, he bared his claws before flying right for her.
But whether he moved or stayed, it mattered not.
Aeris’s glowing blue eyes stayed perfectly focused, and she raised her hand as if conducting an operatic masterpiece.
Arcs of lightning that could total a house came at Craven from all sides.
The first one sent Craven spiraling out of control, further strikes hitting him with an excess of power capable of knocking out a city.
His skin burnt and rent as the punishment of nature’s fury bore down upon his unholy form; shattering bones, tearing flesh, and practically roasting him alive.
Thirty seconds of this passed, until Aeris stopped the onslaught and looked to see what was left.
There, smoking like a doused fire and flapping on almost skeletal wings, was half of what Craven used to be.
His skin was charred and black beyond recognition, and most of his feathers burnt off completely.
He was in the most horrible pain imaginable, but somehow still found the strength to smile.
Aeris soon could see why.
The song effect did not falter, meaning his headphones had yet to break.
And that wasn’t even the worst of it.
Slowly but surely, his skin returned to the charnel grey of before.
Burnt skin reformed, healing as feathers grew back and pulled themselves out to cover his ruined wings.
His scarred face even reconstructed itself, reforming an entire eye where there had been a gaping, black hole before.
In the span of twenty seconds, he regenerated back into the same monstrous form as before.
And at the sight of this, even through the detached mask of Perfect Beat, Aeris felt the smallest hint of fear.
“Didn’t I say before?” Craven announced triumphantly. “You can’t kill me.”
His song seemed to answer him in tandem, as he flew forward again with claws outstretched.
Undeterred, Aeris threw lightning, aiming for his face and managing to burn off the entire left side of it in the process.
She missed the Z-Phones attached to his head just by inches.
What did it matter? If the combined lightning of a thunderstorm couldn’t short them, an empowered bolt probably wouldn’t either.
And he couldn’t be hurt permanently.
No, it seemed he was simply unkillable.
Her mind cycled through options.
Just as Lily had advertised, Z-Phones were just as shock-proof as she’d originally demonstrated, even more so perhaps.
But below them, a sea of conductive, salty water might prove just enough to strengthen the electricity and allow her to fry the hardware inside.
As Craven slashed at her stomach, only grazing her thanks in part to Perfect Beat’s black shroud, Aeris knew exactly what she had to do.
Even if she had to go with him, there was only one was to declaw him now.
Grabbing onto his torso, Aeris forced the two of them upside down to the point where they were soon skydiving downwards.
She ignored the slash on her right shoulder, knowing that Perfect Beat could protect her just long enough for them to reach the waiting sea below.
“No…” Craven growled, among the surging wind as their speed increased.
“…this chapter doesn’t end. I will have my unholy night!”
She ignored his debased words, holding on tighter as they moved faster and faster.
Craven’s vocal command responded, automatically changing the song playing through his headphones in the next instant.
Even as they fell, Chapter’s Four’s influence materialized around Craven, black tentacles wrapping around every part of Aeris’s form in an effort to pry her off of him.
But she held on with fercious tenacity, fighting back with electricity and pushing her muscles to keep Craven restrained.
The stress began to break her, and her breath quickened even as a tentacle soon snaked its way up her body, past stray lightning as it wrapped around her neck.
Craven whispered as she felt him choking her.
It was the one thing Perfect Beat couldn’t protect her against.
“Stop this.” he seemed to plead, despite his actions and despite their mutual descent.
“I’ll forgive you for all of it. Come back to me. You will be mine forever, and want for nothing.”
Aeris ignored him, fingers curling around his back as the sea approached faster now.
Blue energy enshrouded them, and together they were but a missle of light as Aeris’s lungs struggled and the breath of life began to leave her.
“My dear, listen to what I am saying! You’re mine! You will always be mine! I am IMMORTAL! I will NEVER leave you!”
No response. She was finished listening to his cursed speech.
The sea was so close now.
Its blue waters were clear and inviting, a solace from the darkness and misandry that Craven represented.
“AERIS!” Craven roared.
The tentacle tightened, and her lungs seemed ready to burst.
Craven screamed at his absolutely loudest now, crying out but finally realizing it was all futile.
“YOU LITTLE HARLO-”
No time for him to finish. Water splashed violently around them.
With it, electricity sparked loudly as the sea ate up its energy like some greedy leviathan.
Then came a flash of brilliant light that encompassed the two struggling Music Masters completely.
It expanded in mere moments.
Soon enough, Craven’s screaming faded away to nothingness.
Then Aeris’s vision went white.
No longer hearing his awful voice, she smiled to herself.
It was then that she allowed herself to float towards infinity, as her limbs relented and she finally let go.
“Calvin! Calvin, slow down! You want to hurt yourself worse or what?”
Michael’s cautionary words were just about ignored, however, as Calvin Altberg splashed along the shore, eyes scanning every inch of beach for any and all signs of life.
His arm was still very much broken and in ungodly amounts of pain, but that was the least of his worries.
Moments before, all three Audio Knights had watched Aeris and Craven divebomb from the sky above into the ocean below, after witnessing bolts of lightning and thunder that seemed to rent the very sky itself open.
They crashed into the deeper water, creating a nova of shocking blue energy that sent waves of water out for more than a mile around, before both of their playing songs vanished into silence.
“I don’t care, man!” Calvin said, his voice on the verge of cracking.
“Aeris…I can’t lose her…I can’t, Mike…”
He kicked up sand as he dashed towards the old wooden docks up ahead.
Michael followed, clearly strained and not knowing if he could say anything further to help his blond friend’s situation.
Next to him, Kim winced slightly. Injured, but very much alive, she somehow still had time for the usual monotone comment.
“No way that Craven guy could live through that.”
Michael gulped. “Yeah, I hope. But Aeris?”
Kim turned away, clearly trying to avoid the question.
“I don’t know, Michael. Honestly, I feel like I just don’t know her at all anymore.”
“Then let’s find her so you two can talk it over, okay?” her afro-headed friend assured, and the two of them followed Calvin to the far dock.
The breeze was strong this late into the afternoon, as the sun began to set over the horizon.
Lapping waters wet sneakers and boots alike as the three Audio Knights searched for any sign of their friend.
It was Calvin who stopped first, leaning down and wincing as his arm was agitated by all his frantic movements.
With his working one, he picked up something shiny that had washed ashore.
It was a ruby red amulet, glinting against the light of setting sun with repressed malignancy.
There was no question who it belonged to.
But Calvin still didn’t even give it a second glance. He tossed it aside, focusing on finding Aeris again as Michael watched it float by.
“That can’t be a good sign. You think…?” he asked, only for Kim to put a hand on his shoulder in an effort to reassure him
“Hey. If that psycho crawls out of that ocean, I promise you, we’ll make sure he stays there.”
Kim smiled. “We can take him. You’re something else, Afroboy. I mean that.”
Michael grinned. That was enough to wash all his panic away.
It wasn’t every day that Kim said something like that and wasn’t being sarcastic, after all.
“GUYS! I found her!”
Both Kim and Michael turned towards Calvin’s yelling, and they could see him now running headlong despite the pain of his broken arm.
Just up ahead, washed up right beneath the shadow of the old docks, Aeris could be seen lying prone on the sand. Water flowed past up to her waist, but she remained still even as Calvin finally got to her on the beach.
“Aeris!” Calvin shouted, leaning down on the sand as he looked over her silent form.
“Aeris, I’m here. I’m right here.”
No response. Calvin’s eyes narrowed as he feared the worst.
He flipped her over, seeing tears in her clothes, scratches, and a long slash in particular on her pant leg.
She was indeed bleeding, but Calvin averted his eyes and leaned down to listen.
Focusing, he found that he could hear only the faintest breathing beneath her chest.
Calvin’s face became drawn as the world suddenly became distant and unimportant.
His fingers twitched with fear as he found himself on the verge of falling apart.
A world without Aeris seemed like a world no longer worth its weight in gold.
Then, he heard a loud, coughing sputter, as water was fully dislodged from her lungs and Aeris was startled awake in the process.
“Yes. Justice be damned.” Calvin said, a small smile forming on his face as he helped Aeris sit up.
She blinked more than once, consciousness returning to her as the first thing to greet her was Calvin’s face.
His lips were quivering, but he somehow managed that cocky smile, looking back at her as if she was the most wonderful thing he’d ever laid eyes on.
He put a hand to her cheek, now no longer in control of the stray tears of happiness that flowed down his face.
There was only one thing he found himself saying, despite how close all of them had come to death.
“How you feeling, Bright Eyes?”
She stared back at him, and only now just realized that she was still alive.
No music played through her ears. Her headphones were almost certainly shorted out by the electricity and conductive ocean water.
She’d be lucky if her prized blue music player still even worked.
But that meant her gambit had indeed paid off.
If they were lucky, Craven’s madness was now left to sink down into the dark depths of the sea, forever to be forgotten.
But how did she feel, truly?
As she thought on those words, a few feet away, an excited and happy Michael was waving and yelling as Kim worked to keep up with him.
Her afro-headed friend had been right.
This had all been one white knuckle ride, just as he had said, from the moment she’d first met him at Audio Empire to this moment of perfection as the sun set on the beach in a vista of gold-red splendor.
One thought spoke loudly in her mind more than any other.
She was a dwelling place for demons no more.
Calvin’s question then pushed its way through again.
How was she feeling?
The answer should have been simple from the start.
Aeris moved forward, squeezing herself around Calvin in the fondest embrace she could muster.
Her eyes grew wet, and Calvin laughed with joy as he tried his hardest not to think about the pain of his arm as he gladly accepted her hug.
“Wonderful.” Aeris finally replied, her voice glowing with absolute happiness.
If she could stay in this moment, forever with Calvin, Aeris might consider it.
“I feel absolutely wonderful.”
She was crying too now, but the empty sadness from before was a world away.
Somehow, she was still here. Wonderful was only way to possibly describe all of it describe it.
No music could ever compare.
BEAST AND THE HARLOT: