“What have you done Steve? What have you started?”
The squirrel stared at me through the haze of smoke and grinned around the glowing stub of his cigar. He and three other strange figures sat at the coffee table in the middle of the main room of the suite, and Steve was dealing cards to each of them. All four had a pile of chips in front of them; the smell of fried potato was what had brought me out of the room in the first place.
“Relax Max!” he said, and blew out another cloud of smoke. “Me and the boys thought we’d just have a quick game. You want in?”
The squirrel gestured to the space between him and Feathers McGraw, a small hippo wearing a green waistcoat, a green bowler hat and who had a monocle clamped in one eye.
“No I don’t want in, Steve!” I resisted the urge grab him by the fur and shake him. “You can’t play a game now, the guys will be here in a minute!”
Furiously I waved at the cigar smoke that was rapidly filling the room, and moved to the window and thrust it open, gulping in the cold night air.
“What are they coming here for?” Steve demanded, sounding annoyed.
“Band meeting,” I told him. “We’re on in two hours, for Christ sake!”
“That explains your crazy get up then,” muttered Captain Squizzletips, delicately picking his nose with the tips of one of his tails.
“Says the bright blue monkey with three tails and yellow feathers!” I said, and snatched a magazine from the table by the window and threw it at him. “And don’t you dare wipe that on the sofa, use a tissue!” I turned back to look out the window, breathing deeply. I didn’t need this, not now. Not before a show.
I heard the soft scuffing of feet on the carpet and Sally came to stand beside me. She was the tallest of them, but the top of her head only reached my waist. I stared out at the city below, and then I felt a small clawed hand tugging at the hem of my shirt.
“Are you alright Max?”
Sighing, I looked down at her; her curious, crocodile-like body was covered by the brightly coloured summer dress, and I’d helped her cut slits in the back so that her white feathery wings could fit through.
“I’m alright,” I said. “I’m just… This is the last one, you know? Last Flight of the Demonstar…”
“But that’s good, isn’t it?” she asked, her eyes full of confusion. “You get to rest for a month or two, and then it’s back in the studio with the guys!” I shrugged, and the confusion changed to concern. “What is it?”
I shook my head, unwilling to voice the thoughts that were preying on my mind. I flashed her a grin, and turned back to the room, seeing that Steve and the others were still gathered round the table.
“Steve, I mean it!” I groaned, by body sagging with despair. “You can’t play now!”
“Just a quick one,” Steve said, not looking at me, “I’ve got a killer hand here…”
Just then there was a thumping at the door to the suite and Jake’s voice shouting through the door.
“Come on then, dickhead, let us in!”
Feathers let out a very un-hippo-like squeak, and ducked under the table. Steve threw his cards down angrily, glaring at the door.
“Who the hell is that?” he demanded. “What do they want?”
“It’s the rest of the band,” I told him. “Band meeting, like before every other show we’ve ever done!” I snatched the bin from beside the sofa and hastily swept the piles of chips off the table into it, leaving greasy smears across the expensive coffee table. Steve tried to protest but I pushed him away from the table. “Come on, you need to get out of sight!”
Grumbling incoherently Steve stomped across the room and threw himself into an armchair as the Captain and Feathers started to pick up the cards that had been dealt. I hissed at them to leave them and moved over to the door, turning to speak quietly over my shoulder before I opened it.
“Don’t worry, just keep out of the way, alright?”
They nodded, retreating to the same chair Steve was sulking in. Captain Squizzletips climbed up to perch on one arm, while Feathers scrambled gracelessly up to sit on the other. With a fluttering of her white wings Sally flew across the room and sat herself on the back of the chair. The chair was out of the way, and they should be safe enough there. Thankfully Sally’s wingbeats had also managed to banish the last of the cigar smoke from the room as well. I grinned at them and then opened the door.
“Hello lads,” I said, and grinned at my bandmates. Jake (lead guitar) stood with his fist raised ready to hit the door again, the rest behind him; Eric (rhythm guitar), Mikey (bass) and Pegs (drums).
“What took you so long?” Jake demanded as they passed by me into the suite.
“Sorry, was getting dressed.”
They moved to the sofas by the coffee table and arranged themselves in their usual places. The hotel suite, the city, even the country might be different each time, but this was Asteroid’s tenth world tour. We knew each other and we knew our routine. I moved to the wide black armchair between the sofas and sat, ready to start. Before I could speak, however, Pegs piped up, sniffing the air.
“What’s the smell?”
“Bloody cigars again, I’ll bet,” said Mikey. “You’re an odd one, Max. Why do you only smoke them when no one is here?”
“For the millionth time, Mikey, I don’t smoke!” I said, exasperated. I risked a quick, dagger-filled glance across the room to Steve, who stuck his tongue out at me. “Sometimes I light one and let it burn, that’s all. I just… like the smell.”
“Whatever you say…” Muttered Mikey, shaking his head. Then Pegs cut him off.
“And why does it stink of chips in here?”
“And there’s grease marks all over this table you know,” added Eric, and I laughed.
“Blood hell guys! Look, I was hungry, I ordered some chips from room service!”
“Didn’t they come on a plate?” Asked Pegs as he idly drew rude pictures in the grease marks.
“Oh fucking hell, enough!” Shouted Jake, and we all raised a middle finger in his direction. “Come on though, we’re on in two hours! Less, now!”
“Calm down dear,” Pegs mocked him. “You’ll still have time to do your hair before the show!”
We all laughed; Jake had a mane of blond hair he was very proud of, and we’d been late starting a gig more than once because he took so long to get ready. Still grinning, I shifted forward on the chair, perching on the edge and resting my hands on my shoulders.
“Jake’s right,” I said. “Time to put our game faces on.” The rest of them nodded, and I smiled. “So this is it guys; last one. Last show. It’s been a good one, and I don’t think we change anything tonight. The album speaks for itself, the songs work, I think we just give it everything for this last one.”
“What about the finale?” Eric asked. “We doing anything special?”
“Actually, yes,” I said, and four sets of eyebrows rose in surprise; I was never the one to suggest a finale, I usually left it to them to choose. They were intrigued, and so I did my very best to keep a straight face as I continued. “We’ll have to wing it, but I’m thinking we offer up an epic, fantasy thrash metal take on The Birdy Song.”
I grinned, waggling my eyebrows and waiting for the tirade of abuse, but the four of them sat there in silence. And then after a moment, all four of them nodded as smile spread over their faces.
“Nice,” Pegs said, “that’ll be fucking mental!”
“Guys… It a joke.”
“Oh,” said Eric, and all four of them looked slightly disappointed.
This is what it’d always been like with us; despite everything I seemed to manage to be the down to earth one, even with Steve and Feathers and the rest of them mucking about. Back when we were starting out, trying to come up with a band name, we were talking about our influences. We all agreed we were trying to create a kind of sound that was somewhere between the bands Thunder and Rush, both of whom we all worshipped like gods. So I jokingly said, if we’re aiming for a merging of the two, why not call ourselves ‘Thrush’.
I was expecting some rolled eyes, maybe a groan or two, but all four of them looked at me like I’d had the best idea in history. Took me half an hour to convince them I wasn’t being serious, and come up with something better… In the end I’d suggested Asteroid, and they’d all liked it; it was a nod to our geeky side, and also symbolic of the impact we wanted to make on the scene. Also, of course, it just sounded cool.
Back in the present moment, Eric leaned forward and grabbed a few of the cards that were scattered across the table and looked at them idly as the others were discussing songs for the finale. No one had an idea that felt right to everyone else, and in the end they looked to me again.
“Well,” I said quietly, “I thought maybe we hit them with a second go at Flight of the Demonstar.”
It was the main track of the album, a solid nine minutes of awesome; Demonstar, the reluctant hero of the story, tries to flee and outrun his destiny, but the Lord of Shadows, the antagonist, catches up with him and in the end he has no choice but to face him. It culminates in an epic crescendo of drums and guitar and towering vocals from me and a choir of vikings we’d brought in for the album recording, and who’d agreed to tour with us too. All of us agreed it was our best song, our best album.
“So that seems the only choice,” I continued. “But we really fucking smash it out, even more than usual. Make it an epic last flight for us and the fans too.”
No one spoke, but they were all nodding, faces split by wide grins. Across the room, Steve and the others gave me eight thumbs up. Well, Captain Squizzletips used his feet too, so technically it was ten.
“Fuckin’ yes,” Jake breathed. “Let’s do this!”
We talked about a few other things, but in a few minutes the guys were rising to go. We each had our own little routines before we did a show, and we knew they were important.
Eric was still holding the cards as he rose.
“What’s with the cards?” he asked, his eyes curious.
“I was playing solitaire earlier, that’s all.” Eric raised his eyebrows and dropped the cards onto the table.
“That’s an odd deck for solitaire,” he murmured. I looked down at the cards and saw they were an odd lot indeed. Some of them were ‘normal’ playing cards, a few were a DC Bombshells set (specifically Poison Ivy and Catwoman), and a few others appeared to be from Uno, and still others from Happy Families… Steve, you bastard, I thought furiously, but I shrugged and grinned.
“And it’s an odd hunger that makes you order a fuck ton of chips only to throw them away,” said Mikey, staring into the bin by the sofa. I shrugged again, wondering frantically what I could say, when Jake chimed in, chuckling.
“Hey, let the man be eccentric,” he said. “Whatever goes on in that crazy head, out of it come the songs that made Asteroid fucking legendary.”
“Speaking of which,” Pegs added, “what’s next? Got anything yet?”
I tried to ignore the cold weight that settled in my stomach and forced myself to relax. I shrugged and smiled.
“Not sure yet. Got some ideas, but nothing sure as yet. I mean, part of me even wonders…” Everyone was silent as I trailed off. I felt eight pairs of eyes intent on me; my band mates and my… Other friends. The words were there, but I couldn’t release them. Not yet. So I just shrugged and grinned, and my band mates relaxed.
We said our goodbyes, agreeing to meet in the lobby in an hour to head to the stage. As the door closed behind them I heard the flapping of wings and scurrying feet. In moments I was assailed by Steve and his companions.
“What the hell was that about?” Steve demanded and I shrugged.
“Nothing much. Just a thought I’ve been having. But we can talk about it after.”
“What is it, Max?” Sally asked, and once again her voice was concerned. I smiled and told her it was nothing, and wandered into the bedroom to finish dressing. Soon enough I was stage-ready; black boots, dark jeans, renaissance-style shirt and long black coat, a strange crossbreed of duster and pirate coat. As I turned away from the mirror I saw all four of them standing in a row, watching me with wide, worried eyes.
“What?” I asked, but neither of them spoke. I sighed. “Come on guys, I don’t have time for this.”
“We ain’t stupid you know,” Steve said, and Captain Squizzletips nodded.
“You might fool Jake and the others, but you can’t fool us.”
“Something’s wrong, Max,” Sally said. “We know it is. Talk to us.”
I tried to laugh it off, but it sounded hollow and false even to me. With a resigned sigh I sat on the edge of the bed and looked at them each in turn. They were an odd lot, to be sure, but they were also my friends. They might even be a part of me, though I still hadn’t come to any definite conclusion about that. It didn’t really make a difference; they’d always been true to me. They deserved my honesty. I look up at the ceiling for a moment, searching for the words to begin.
“I just keep thinking about what comes next, you know? I mean, everyone seems pretty unanimous that Flight of the Demonstar is the best thing we’ve ever done, and is truly one of the great albums in music history. And it’s true; I’m not being egocentric, but the fact is we were all at the top of our game creating it, and we’ve smashed this tour every single show.
“So I keep wondering, how do we follow this? How do I follow it? I don’t know if I can write songs like this again. And what if I try to, and it doesn’t work? What if we try and top this album, and we crash and burn?”
It sounded petty even as I was saying it, but Steve, Sally, Captain Squizzletips and Feathers McGraw all looked at me with sympathy and understanding. They got it. Sally stepped forward and gripped my hands with her scaly claws.
“Self-doubt is natural, Max. It’s a part of the creative process. But you can’t let it wipe away your self-belief. Look at what you’ve got; you’ve got a great band, you’ve got friends back home, you’ve got a home when you get to stay there. You’ve got your health.”
“Physically, at least,” Steve muttered, and Sally whacked him with one of her wings without turning from Max.
“You’ve got us four…” she finished. “You’ve got a lot to believe in.”
“Joking aside matey,” Steve added, “you’re where you are because of who you are. And you’ve got more songs in you. As good, if not better I reckon.”
I smiled, but before I could say thank you Feathers stepped forward. He held up two digits of his grey hippos paw and looked serious. I’d never heard him speak, never heard him make any noises beside the occasional un-hippo-like squeak in fact, and I was pretty sure he couldn’t.
“You have two things to say?” I ventured, and Feathers nodded. He pulled his small notebook and pen from his waistcoat pocket and scribbled for a moment, then he tore out the page and handed it to me. I read it curiously:
The unwise man
is awake all night
worries over and again.
When morning rises
he is restless still,
his burden as before.
“So you’re saying worrying about it isn’t helping me?” I asked, and the small hippo nodded. “Fair point. And the second thing is…?”
I was expecting a second note, but Feathers pocketed the notebook and pen again and took off his green bowler hat. He reached inside and pulled out a battered, slightly squashed, yellow and brown banana. He held it out to me, and gingerly I took it.
Feathers nodded, looking very pleased with himself. His three companions looked as puzzled as I felt.
After a moment Captain Squizzletips shook his head and spoke up.
“Look, I think what we’re all trying to say, albeit in very different ways, is we understand your worries. But we don’t think you should let them be the reason you stop doing what you love.”
The four of them nodded vigorously and I couldn’t help but smile.
“Thanks guys,” I said quietly, and they each grinned back at me. Then Steve pulled another cigar seemingly out of the air and planted it firmly in his mouth.
“Now get downstairs you great lump,” he said. “Get on that stage and sing your bloody lungs out!”
So that’s what I did.
* * *
Asteroid was famous for epic shows, and this latest tour was the biggest yet. There was video projection, animatronics, dancers, actual real Vikings… All this, and the five of us all loving every second of it. It was a show, a story, a journey we went on every night, telling the epic saga of Demonstar; a man of no consequence who stood alone against the vile Lord of Shadows, and did not quite die. Having fought his way back from the underworld he found that the world had united behind him, begging him to lead them to freedom. Fearing the responsibility he tried to run, until the love of a fearsome warrior princess and the sacrifice of a friend gave him the strength to face his destiny head on. It was epic. It was absurd. It was fucking glorious and the crowd, not to mention we, loved every moment of it. Finally the last chords faded to silence, and then the joyous screaming of the thousands in the audience crashed over us.
I shared a grin with Jake and the rest of the band, and then stepped to the mic. The crowd hushed quickly; usually we just launched into the encore, but this time I wanted to say something.
“Hey,” I said, and a roar went up. I grinned and rolled my eyes, waiting till it died away. “Thanks for coming. This is going to be our last song. Last song on our last show of the tour. So we wanted to finish on something… pretty epic.” Another roar crashed and faded. “It’s been an amazing journey for us so far, and who knows what comes next. But this tour has been something special, so we’re going to finish with…” A count of three… two… one… and I shouted “The Last Flight of the Demonstar!”
The crowd erupted, but their noise was drown as thirty actual Vikings started chanting the opening of our best ever song.
Steve and the others had watched the show from the side of the stage as they always did, but as I launched into the first verse they ran out on stage to join me. As Asteroid gave the best performance gave the best performance of our lives I danced and capered with Steve, Sally, Captain Squizzletips and Feather McGraw. No one else could see them, I probably looked like a madman, but I didn’t give a damn; they were my friends and this was the greatest night in the world.
All too soon the song drew to a crescendo, and Jake, Eric, Mikey, Pegs and I stood together as I belted out the final chorus, thousands of voices raised to join mine:
The Lord of Shadows is coming for you
The Night of Endings is starting for you
Dance away your final night
Raise your sword and show your might
Time to save the world again!
The music faded into the euphoric roar of the crowd as the epic show came to a final close. I hugged the band, I hugged my friends, and I walked to the front of the stage and stood, feeling the noise of the crowd buffeting me. I couldn’t stop grinning. This was it. I opened my eyes and saw the Captain, Steve and Feathers running across the crowd, hopping from head to head as Sally glided over them. And in the night sky above them, nestled amongst the clouds, a great serpentine head looked down at me.
“A star dragon,” I murmured. “Star Dragon and the Night of Storms…”
It was no more than a title, not even an idea, not yet. But as the crowd’s roar crested again I looked up at the midnight blue dragon and it winked at me.
You’re probably wondering how does a rock and roll man like myself find time to stay sane in body and mind? The answer is… Well, one out of two’s not that bad, is it?