Once More, With Feeling: Part One
On many nights in the Haunted Woods, there is a degree of silence – just the right amount to unnerve travellers before a sudden howl, creak or scream sends shivers down their spine.
It wasn't one of those nights – that night was noisy. Quite apart from the ghouls going about their business, in a small corner of the woods, a building was having a concert.
The sounds of the heavy drum beat echoed far into the surrounding woodland, disturbing many of the locals, including the dead.
Eventually, near midnight, the music subsided, the voice from the stage shouting "Thank you, Haunted Woods!"
A thin level of applause came back from the limited crowd. Despite the volume, there simply weren't a lot of people there. The four piece band trooped off the stage, attempting to keep their faces happy and optimistic, but as soon as they were backstage the skunk Buzz's face fell.
"You!" he shouted threateningly to the brown Gnorbu he had spotted. "You said tonight was going to be sold out!"
The Gnorbu put on his best waxy smile, "I'm just as disappointed as you, boys, really. I've only just heard that Neovia's been quarantined, an outbreak of Neggitus. Otherwise I'm sure the place would have been packed. Trust me, when have I ever lied to you?"
The small silver Grundo standing behind the Buzz piped up, "Well, there was that time you told us we were going to play to thousands on Krawk Island, Mr. Juniper."
"And didn't you?" the Gnorbu asked.
"We were busking!" the Buzz hissed.
"There were still thousands of people there, though," Juniper said quickly.
"What about the time you said we had a gig in Maraqua?" a Tyrannian Draik asked.
"In Maraqua, a few miles above Maraqua on the surface, what's the difference?" Juniper said dismissively.
"And the time you said we'd got an award," a fire Krawk added.
"The Mystery Island Tombola Booby Prize is a valuable accolade!" Juniper insisted.
"The point is, Charles," the Buzz replied. "That you've been the manager of Animated for three years now. When we signed up with you, you said we'd be playing in the Tyrannian Concert Hall to legions of fans before we knew it – and in three years we've yet to play for an audience of more than fifty!"
"It's not as easy as just walking into the Concert Hall and playing, boys, trust me," Juniper told them. "You think the Twisted Roses just turned up one day? You've got to put in the hard slog before you get your big break."
"Well, maybe other managers might have gotten us to this big break quicker," the fire Krawk growled.
"Boys, boys! We're close, I can feel it!" Juniper pleaded. "Your next gig's already lined up in Altador, and this could be the one! There are talent scouts in Altador, always are, before you know it you could have a global record deal. You'd be fools to walk away now."
The Krawk exchanged looks with the other band members.
"Alright," the Buzz agreed eventually. "We'll play Altador, but if it isn't any better than this, we're finding ourselves someone else to represent us."
"Good, good, I knew you'd see sense," Juniper smiled. "I've rented you a coach that's waiting outside. Load up your stuff, and get underway. The gig's at the Olive Leaf club in Altador tomorrow night."
"Tomorrow night!?" the little Grundo spluttered. "We'll never make it to Altador by then."
"You will if you go fast," Juniper replied. "So get going and don't dawdle."
The band members rushed off to recover their instruments from the stage. The Buzz lingered behind.
"Is there anything else, Throw?" Juniper asked.
"You're not coming to Altador with us?" the Buzz asked.
"I'll see you there, I've got some business to attend to in Neovia first," Juniper replied. "I'm taking a Shenkuu ship in the morning."
"I thought Neovia was quarantined?" Throw asked, the spark of anger returning to his face.
"My business is on the outskirts," Juniper replied quickly. "And before you start about me taking luxury flying cruises while you take the overnight mountain coach, there's no other way for me to get to Altador in time, and we can't afford tickets for us all."
"No," Throw said sceptically, "I'm sure we can't."
Juniper excused himself and Throw went off to help the band pack away the drum kit.
They were Animated – a fledgling rock band that had been touring for three years, with no successes to note. This was almost entirely to blame on their manager, Mr. Charles Juniper, who had been a titanic failure. Many times they had tried to leave him, but somehow he always managed to keep them on for just one more night, over and over again.
Exiting the building to load up their waiting carriage, the Buzz came across their only real success – their loyal, and ultimately only fan, a stout blue Skeith.
"Alright, Tony?" the Buzz asked.
"Yes, thanks, Mr. Beret," the Skeith beamed. "Would you sign this for me?"
Tony presented a T-shirt and pen.
"I've told you before, Tony," the Buzz said. "You've followed us around for so long now, you can call me Throw."
"Thank you, Mr. Beret," Tony said, ignoring the advice. "It was a great show, as usual."
"We're off to Altador now," Throw told him. "Playing at the Olive Leaf club tomorrow night."
"Altador?" Tony asked, slightly shocked. "That's a long way to go in a single night. I'll have to get passage on a Shenkuu ship or something, but I'll see you there!"
Throw smiled as the Skeith went off into the Woods. Tony hadn't missed a single gig since the band had formed. From what the band had gathered since then, he had once been one of the most successful young bankers on the Neopia Central stock market, and had amassed quite a fortune before he gave it all up. Now he seemed to spend his ever decreasing wealth following Animated around the planet and buying T-shirts for them to sign.
"Throw?" the voice of the little silver Grundo asked. "Can you help me with this?"
The Buzz rushed to help his friend load the drum onto the back of the carriage. He was Richard Parsley, known as Slightly Small Richard on stage. He was the band's lead guitarist and more than made up for his small stature with his impressive musical talent.
"Thanks, Throw," he said once the drum was secured. "I'll drive tonight."
"You sure?" Throw asked. "I'm not that tired."
"No, it's alright," Richard insisted. "I slept late on the way here this morning anyway."
Before long, the other two band members joined them and they set off up the rocky road that would lead them over the mountains to Altador.
The Buzz sat in the back of the carriage, surrounded by instruments and luggage, as around him the rest of the band snoozed.
He himself was Throw Beret, an unfortunate name that he had his parents to thank for. As he often pointed out when meeting people for the first time, his parents had been less than typical Neopets, who had left Neopia Central to live in a tipi on the Endless Plains. Whilst they had criticised what they saw as the evil of Neopia Central's consumerism, Throw had headed straight back to the city as a teenager as soon as he was able. Whilst there was a lot that Throw blamed his parents for, in a way it was their constant campfire songs that had led Throw to become a singer when he decided to get into the music industry of Neopia Central.
And that's where he had met the fire Krawk that was snoozing opposite. Marc Bow had grown up in Neopia Central's docklands slums, and when he left home he pawned most of what he owned for a bass guitar, which he had travelled with for many years before meeting Throw. Together, the two had formed Animated, and soon after advertising for other members they met Slightly Small Richard playing in a smoky Neopia Central club.
It wasn't long before the trio became a quartet when they met the final member of Animated, Stark Malarkey – the Tyrannian Draik who served as their drummer. They had met quite by chance while attempting to play at the court of King Roo on Roo Island, and since then the four of them had never looked back.
Which was just as well really, because looking back might have shown them what a titanic failure their musical careers had been to date.
Throw was brought out of his daydreaming by a sudden rocking that roused the other two Neopets from their sleep.
"What's Richard playing at?" Throw demanded, leaning forwards to bang on the carriage wall.
Before he could, another rock shook the carriage, as if they were heading over particularly bumpy ground. Outside, Richard let out a loud yell, and suddenly the entire carriage was thrown forwards, equipment and luggage pinning the band to the front wall of the carriage.
"We're falling!" Stark hissed as the three felt the press of gravity against them.
Outside, they could hear the whistle of the wind as they fell down the mountainside, and then the carriage caught a rock which sent them all spinning in the air.
At last, the carriage fell to the ground with an almighty bang that buckled the walls and sent wheels flying off into the outskirts of the Haunted Woods.
Throw's eyes flashed open and he took a deep breath that didn't seem to help at all. He could feel part of the drum kit pinning him down, and behind him the carriage wall had splintered, the wood sticking into his back. Oddly, he didn't feel the pain, just a strange discomfort.
"Is everyone alright?" he groaned.
Beside him, he heard Stark coughing, "How far did we fall?"
"Must have been all the way down the mountain," the croaky voice of Marc came from nearby. "I can't move, something's holding me down."
Outside, a voice was steadily growing closer, "Guys! Guys!"
"Richard!" Throw shouted, "We're still in here! Help us!"
"I'm coming!" the Grundo's voice came back.
Above them they heard the remains of the carriage door opening, and Richard began to move their luggage out. Gradually, he dug them all out until they were stood in the clearing the carriage had formed when it fell.
"What happened?" Throw asked.
"I just lost control," Richard explained. "The Whinnies slipped their reins and the carriage just carried forwards over the mountain edge. I was thrown well clear."
As the Grundo talked, the moon came out from behind a cloud and shone some light on the clearing. The eyes of the other three band members gradually widened as Richard finished speaking, quickly followed by his own as he looked at his friends.
Their skin was rapidly fading in colour, and as Throw hastily put his hand to his chest, he fell to the floor in shock.
"No heartbeat," he whispered as the others reached the same conclusion. "Guys, I think... I think we're dead."
To be continued...