Silently, efficiently -- without any of the humming or friendly pats on the console they'd come to expect from the Doctor, the Master activated his TARDIS, and the ship responded in kind, its time rotor rising and falling with a military precision, the sound of dematerialization a steady, harsh pounding, hardly alive at all.
The party guests who had volunteered to work with the Master in the laboratory (more for the love of the kitties than for any thing else) sat on the floor, their backs against the walls of the console room. Concern for the four Doctors, and the guests, who had vanished was compounded by their fear and mistrust of the Master himself. This led to a very glum silence, indeed.
Nyctolops opened her mouth to speak, almost uttering a theory as to what might have happened, and what they could about it, but the words never came.
Ninni noticed this, and their eyes met, briefly, and then both looked away.
Each one of them were sharing the same thought (although they didn't know it, of course): They were spending an awfully long time in the vortex for such a short journey....
The little turquoise troll worked up the courage to look at the Master, to see what could be taking so long.
He was walking around and around his console, studying first one readout, than another. The little troll had never had much experience reading the Master's face (for which she was eternally grateful), but he seemed to be experiencing a mood to which he was unaccustomed: worry.
"I-is something wrong?" she asked, at last, very quietly.
He turned abruptly at the question, as though he'd forgotten there were others with him, this time. The troll flinched in spite of herself, bracing for an attack -- verbal or physical.
But instead, he answered her question, the concern clear in his voice. "I've got my TARDIS locked on the Doctors' temporal signatures," he explained, "all of them are somewhere in the caves, quite close to each other, except --"
"Except?" the little troll prompted.
The others lifted their heads, their attention grabbed by the tone in her voice.
"Except for the Eighth," the Master said.
The turquoise troll waited. When nothing more came she prompted again: "Well, where is the Eighth Doctor?"
The Master shook his head. "I don't know."
"B-but I thought you said you've locked your TARDIS onto his signature."
"I have. And he is simply Nowhere -- and Nowhen. It's like he's completely vanished from Space-Time."
A common groan rose from the guest-hostages.
"Well," the Master said, after another minute of studying his gauges, "we won't find him by hovering in the vortex forever." He flipped a switch, and his TARDIS materialized.
As the roar (scream? rumble? all of these?) passed at last, Kid stood there a moment, unsure which direction he should run. It was probably only a second of indecision, but it felt like an eternity.
Just as he was about to move his feet, however, there came a second sound -- A machine sound, this time -- like the pounding of a locomotive's engine. It wasn't half as loud, but twice as frightening. It was close by, right in front of him, in fact, in a space with nothing there.
Only, there was something there -- maybe -- a shift in the shape of the tunnel walls, or a new stalagmite rising from the floor. Kid couldn't be sure what it was -- couldn't see it with his eyes, but he could sense it -- he knew there was something, someone, new in the tunnel.
There was a moment of silence, and then a wall in the tunnel shifted. And the one he'd heard the green troll call "The Master" stepped out in front of him.
For a brief second they stared at each other. Then the Master took another step forward, forcing Kid Curry to look up if he wanted to match his gaze, crowding him. "Where's the Doctor?"
There was a hint of impatience in the cold scorn of his voice, but more than that - none too skilfully hidden - there was also an uncertain edge. It was clear that whatever he'd expected to find, it wasn't this. Behind him, in the room that hadn't been there, some of the guests from the hoedown were visible, sat down against the walls. None of them looked any too happy about it.
"I don't have the time to pander to the culture-shock of some down-at-heel primitive. Where - is - the - Doctor?" The Master's eyes narrowed into the kind of flat stare you could see coming halfway across a crowded saloon. No need to ask quite what that device that had suddenly appeared in his hand was aiming to do - Kid Curry got the general drift just fine. It was a situation he'd seen a time or two before, but he'd liked it a good deal better when he'd been on the other end of the gun and the questions....
"Down that way - mister." He jerked a thumb straight towards the source of that latest dreadful sound. "All of them." With a certain grim satisfaction, he watched the Master stride off swiftly on Zoe's trail. Right into the jaws of whatever-it-was, maybe.
The next moment, he had to drop to a crouch to catch the little turquoise troll, stopping her from following. "You don't want to go that way, lady," he told her, somewhat surprised - this time, she'd actually looked relieved to see him.
The rest of the party guests were beginning to emerge, most of them looking pretty worried. From the direction in which the Master had disappeared there came the sound of a distant, echoing crash. The tremor shook the walls.
Elsewhere, the Eighth Doctor has found Alryssa...
'Ah. Hello, Alryssa.' The Doctor looked around. 'Hmm... so this is where everything happens.'
'And you must be the Monitors. Or speaking for them, at any rate...'
'It's alright, Alryssa.' He turned his gaze on the two figures. 'They can't touch you. Or me. Or anyone in this Universe. One of the laws the Powers That Be set down...'
'The... Powers That Be? The Gods?'
'No.' The Doctor looked thoughtful.
The Doctor turned on the figure. 'I am filling my friend in - something you have significantly failed to do.'
'Remember the Guardians? White and Black? Order and Chaos?'
'Together... the six-'
'-Guardians created the Key to Time. To keep the universal balance. Six parts - one for each Guardian.'
The Doctor paused. 'But even the Guardians must answer to someone. At least... that was the rumour I heard in the Matrix - that an authority exists beyond even the Guardians, something even they must answer to...'
'Eris?' Alryssa said.
The Doctor smiled. 'The Goddess of Chaos obeys only the rules she creates. She could defy the Guardians one minute, be their loyal servant the next. She is Discordia. No... the rumours I heard suggested something else... '
Alryssa nodded at the two figures. 'And are they...'
'We are not,' the second figure said. 'We are the Monitors.'
'It was said...' The Doctor frowned. '...If I could remember who said it... it was said that the Powers That Be created the Monitors, as their executive arm. Working to correct the balance, where the Guardians - or the Key - could not. Keeping the Gods, the Great Old Ones, the Eternals, the Chronovores, the Sidhe, the Society... keeping them in check, Not only in this universe, but across the Universes...'
'The Omniverse was winding down...' the second figure said. 'You were there. You helped the cycle begin again.'
'Oh, I get it...' The Doctor smiled darkly. 'You're angry because I helped set the Omniverse on a path of multiplicity and diversity. You wanted death, nihilism, stasis...'
'They did...' the second Monitor said.
'What are you talking about?' Alryssa said.
The Doctor hesitated. 'Some time ago... in one of my Fictiverses... the... the force, the mind, that maintains the Omniverse - the totality of everything that exists - it was dying. Because of my companion's intervention, a new mind - another life - was chosen to keep the Omniverse going. And shortly afterwards... you - Sailor Gallifrey - were created. A champion of creativity... after seeing how close the Omniverse had come to stagnancy and death. I rather suspect the Monitors made the decision off their own bat...'
'That's why...?!' Alryssa gasped. 'I'm... what, the regulator for the Omniverse?'
'You are what you will make of the rôle,' the second Monitor said. 'You are Sailor Gallifrey, the champion of creativity. What that rôle means is your choice.'
'But being Sailor Gallifrey wasn't...'
'We know.' the second Monitor said. 'You were the person, in the place, at the time, with the capacity. In your terms, we had... we had a fraction of a second to choose, because the opportunity would not come again. We lacked your time.'
'I can't go back,' Alryssa whispered. 'You made me something else, you took the life I had away...'
'Would you have seen this happen to someone else? Would you ask someone else to do this?'
Alryssa hesitated. 'I...'
'No-one asks for this level of responsibility...' the Monitor said. 'Those who do, are those we would not choose. Those capable of understanding, though, they we select.'
'You may set it down.' the first Monitor said. 'You are Outside. Here, it is possible. You can go back to your ordinary life, be an ordinary human once again. You can set it down. Complete this adventure, bring the Feeders on Story back in balance... and we will make you normal once more. And your friends will remain safe. Sailor Gallifrey will end with you.'
'Is that your bargain?' Alryssa demanded.
'It is not mine.' the second Monitor said. 'That is why you are here, Doctor. For the second bargain.'
The Doctor raised an eyebrow. 'I think I know... You need someone who will advise the next time the Omniversal cycle slows, someone who knew what happened the previous time, and can let them know what is happening.'
'That is part of it,' the Monitor acknowledged. 'Alryssa...'
'Alryssa, my bargain is this. I cannot promise your friends will be safe. All I can offer you is advice. Advice on the capabilities you possess, that you may decide how best to use them. If you accept my bargain, you will never be able to set down the mantle of Sailor Gallifrey. Not until such a time as there is another who can take it up, one who will have the choice you were denied.' The Monitor hesitated. 'That is why you are here, Doctor. If she accepts my bargain... because you have a link to Gallifrey... you will be the one to offer the next choice. To offer the decision to become Sailor Gallifrey to her successor. To speak on Gallifrey's behalf. Are you willing?'
'I am,' the Doctor said. 'But... Alryssa, the choice is yours.'
Alryssa looked between the three of them, dumbfounded.
Meanwhile... the despair begins to spread.
A figure walks alone, deep among the caves. A figure with a cuddly toy on his head. He didn't want to leave the others, but this wasn't quite as pro-fun as things were supposed to be. The rest could have some daft runaround among the cave system, he was sure that if nothing else, his brother's recent appearance could add just enough uncertainty for things to happen in a fun way.
Other trolls had shed their human guises when they had arrived. He had disguised his. The frail, human self was his real form, not the performance he put on to try and interact with life.
He took the cuddly toy off his head and twisted it, unfolding it into a black top hat. From the hat he pulled out a large piece of black material which he whipped round to form a long coat. He put them on. He felt more comfortable like this nowadays. The constant attempts at pro-fun activities had ground him down.
"It's stopped being fun?" asked his muse.
"Yes. I'm sure it wasn't meant to turn out like this. I only caught the tail end of last year's hoedown. I only saw the silliness and hilarity. Was there an underlying sense of dread and doom back then too?"
"I dunno, wasn't here..."
"That's not exactly surprising, you never are..."
"Oh no, here we go again," his muse muttered.
The Avocado troll sniffs the air. "Uh-oh," she said to the folks assembled on her team. "I smell an Internal Critic. ... Wait a minute ... Where's Gordon? ... He was here a minute ago. I'll be right back," she said, and trotted back down the tunnel, calling: "Gordon! Gordon, are you here?"
At last, she found him. The plush Gengar no longer on his head, and instead he was dressed in a black top hat and cape, like a magician signed up as the main entertainment at a funeral. His muse was with him, and the two were in a heated, socco voce, discussion. Still, with the way the tunnels carried sound, she couldn't help overhearing.
"We create facsimiles of ourselves with all the best intentions. But we put them through hell. Why? I'm even doing it just now..."
"Yeah, well you can't blame me this time. I'm right here, standing next to you."
"The others are possibly wondering why you don't seem to have a name. Why they've found it impossible to describe you."
"Yeah, well you haven't given me either of those, have you?"
"Why do you think I haven't bothered giving you a name or a description? You keep deserting me, leaving me adrift. You only turned up after I'd had to make up an excuse for my lack of activity."
"You know I only scraped a pass in the Muse Inspirational Course on an appeal..."
"Oh yes, I've got plenty of ideas, I just can't translate them into words. I end up being reactive rather than proactive because I have to wait until someone else inspires me to respond."
He looked at his muse accusingly. "I don't know why I bother keeping you around sometimes. Better just to give up and not even try than to try and have to give up along the way."
"You can't blame me for everything!" cried the muse, who was now the muse, not his muse. "You're scared."
The lone man turned away, he knew this to be true.
"You have all these ideas, but you're scared people will take one look at them and laugh. You're scared people will think you're just another enthusiastic amateur who isn't good enough to do real writing. You're even scared to follow up other people's work because you don't think you're up to the job!"
"Aha!" the troll thought to herself, "I was right! An Internal Critic of draconian proportions!" And without another moment's hesitation, she ran up to the two of them.
"Excuse me, I don't mean to interrupt," she said to his muse (a slight figure, whose gothic makeup would make her seem grim if it weren't for the long, brightly colored patchwork coat she wore), "but I couldn't help overhearing, and I think I have something Gordon might find useful in the next part of his adventure."
Turning to Gordon, she patted him on his arm in what she hoped was a reassuring manner. "You're just suffering from attacks of an Internal Critic," she told him. "The bad news is, such a beast doesn't go away. Even wildly successful writers like Steven King and Neil Simon have one nesting in the back of their minds. The good news is that, with practice, the I.C. can be tamed, and only let out of its cage for the final draft, when you need to check your spelling and punctuation. You just need the right tool for the job."
"What am I?" his muse asked, an offended tone rising in her voice, "Chop Suey?!"
"No, not at all... You're very important to him. But you can't be responsible for everything, can you? Some battles, he has to fight for himself." So saying, she reached into a vest pocket, and pulled out a sword hilt.
It was of heavy gold, faceted, and set with rubies and amethysts, so that it glittered, even in the dim light of the cave. Perhaps it was coincidence, or perhaps it was the Magic of Storytelling, but it was perfectly color coordinated with his muse's coat.
The avocado troll handed it to him. "It's the Sword of Authorial Freedom," she told him. That ruby, right under your thumb is really an 'on/off' switch. Try it."
Tentatively, Gordon pushed the button. The blade of the sword flashed into existence, shining like a light saber, but with the traditional shape of a broadsword.
"There!" the troll said, happily. "Perfect for fending off a dragon-sized Internal Critic. The next time that whiner starts nagging that you're not good enough, just threaten to shave his whiskers with that, and tell him to 'Shut the F*** Up!!!'" She grinned. "It'll work in any story, or poem, or essay, or whatever, too. It's especially good," she added, with a wink, "at whupping some Monitor butt. Carry on, I believe you have some work to do."
And she began to trot back up the tunnel to see how the Doctors were coming at discovering the location of Mother Beast.
"How did you know I just can't resist swishing things like that about and making whooshy buzzing noises? :)"
The Avocado Troll winked, and her Pro-Fun Birthday Hat changed instantly into a Pro-Fun Wizard's hat (dark purple with silver stars and sparklies). She wiggled her fingers in the air: "Oooh-Whoooooo!" she said, in her most theatrical spooky voice: "That's the Magic of Storytelling!"
"Hey!" shouted the Jim troll from quite a long way away, "That's my proper wizardy hat! Where did YOU get it?"
"Hey, Jim!" she said, waving to him, cheerily. "I thought you were with the Mast-- Uh-oh, is he here, too?"
"My hat?" Jim reminded her.
"Oh, this? I don't know how I got it," she tried to sound innocent... "I just winked, and there it was!"
Then things got interesting.