Allie needs a rest...


Bag of sand...

Heh. Allie really was on an emotional high after that...

Emotional rollercoaster, was what Tessa said. She needs a plateau, some stability, a quiet spot.

Hell, most of us do.

We might be reaching the other extreme - burning out, forcing ourselves to keep going, to keep up the fight.

But we're not doing this alone. We can step back for a while, let the others step forward.

I can step back for a while - a little while, but still. The other Cloaks of Audience... everyone in the audience now has one, even Xeffy...

But Allie... How much more of this can she take? She needs a rest - even Muses can't keep this up constantly.

But how? TYA're part of the web - their backing music's building up to the finale, they can't lose the rhythm.

Imran stood.


'Hi.'

'Oh, Imran! Where've you been?'

'Watching the show. Listen, I need to ask you something.'

'Mm-hmm?'

Imran took a deep breath. 'Allie. She's... you saw what she was like before the show; I'm not sure how long she'll be able to keep this up before she burns out completely.'

'Are you asking about the Zero Room?'

Imran hesitated. '...Yes.'

'It's available to anyone who wants it,' our hostess said. 'We all need to rest sometimes, so we don't end up self-destructing. So we can relax, and just let ourselves be for a while.'

'That's the problem...' Imran said. 'If she steps back for a while... I dunno, I'm just worried that TYA would lose their rhythm before their big climax.'

'But if Allie burns out before then, there can't be a big climax,' our hostess pointed out. 'Let her rest. She's earned it - more than that, she needs it, that's what matters.'

'So who're we going to get to replace her?'

'Excuse me,' a quiet voice said.

Compassion stepped forward, her cape swirling around her.

'You?'

'Me.' Compassion half-smiled. 'Something in the family, I think... If the other Muses do not object, might I fill in for their missing member?'

'Ummm...'

'Of course! As long as the others are happy with this, then go ahead.' our hostess said. 'And...'

'I'll make sure Allie gets there.' Imran said.

'I know. What I was going to say was, let Xeffy know what Allie's doing. She's here because she's worried about her - let her know what Allie's doing, so she understands what's happening.'

Imran nodded.

'Ah, there she is,' Compassion said. 'Excuse me.'

She walked over to where Yokoi was chatting to Gordon and Saville, and tapped her gently on the shoulder.

The two of them started talking quietly.

'Right...' our hostess said. 'Compassion's taking care of that side of things... you see to Allie.'

Imran nodded again, and went over to where Allie was sitting, slumped against the wall.

After a whispered conversation, Allie nodded, and stood up, with Imran supporting her. Together, the two of them headed for Sweetheart's cart.

Whew. Mmm... oh, she could really do with a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies right now, our hostess thought. But... was there time?

They'd really knocked the Gods off balance with their act - how would they respond?

Compassion looked over at her and gave her the thumbs up.

Our hostess returned it. Good, that was that taken care of.

Now... on to the Gods' response.

What would they come up with?

And how could the hoedowners prepare?


In a small secluded area backstage, something was stirring.

Not life. Not death. But something.

And in the eye of the something was Sailor Gallifrey, surrounded by the Major Arcana of the sacred Tarot. As she was picking each one from its pile, she was releasing and harnessing its energy. The energy that could either kill them all or save the universe.

22 cards, 22 energies, 22 ways it could all go to hell in a handbasket.

And she knew something was trying to break her concentration, her mental walls, trying its best to make her doubt herself, her friends, reality as she knew it.

She focused on her next card: The Moon. Illusion, transformation, deceit, games, dreams, power.

Felt it move. Felt it surge forward, sensing her hesitation.

She couldn't afford to lash out, let the Gods know what she was doing. She grimaced, trying to keep control on the new energies flowing through her body, while keeping it at bay.

Dammit, leave me alone!

It was laughing.

Getting stronger.

Feeding on her frustration.

She knew she needed help, but she couldn't break the circle, not now!


Out in the ring...

A distant sound of thunder...

No, something else, thundering yes, but not the sound of a massive electrical discharge striking.

The thundering of hooves.

Many, many hooves.

The hostess moved over to the tent entrance and sneaked a peek around the curtains.

A cloud of dust was heading their way, glimpses of shapes could be seen within the dust, but whatever it was threw the ground up around it, making it look like some dark shadow moving across the landscape.

The cloud of dust neared, and then the shapes burst out of it. Grotesque creatures that may have once been horses and men, an army of the undead. The horses pulled chariots made of bone, the figures within mostly wore gladiatorial armour, but the bodies within were decaying, some were nothing but skeletons anymore.

The hostess scarpered out of the way as they burst into the tent at full tilt. For a terrible moment, it seemed as if they would head straight into the audience.

Then they stopped. No slowing down. They stopped dead.

The horses and gladiators breathed, their hot, rancid breath forming clouds before them. They didn't need to breathe of course, but they did it for the effect.

"They're twisting our ideas again..." Gordon sighed.

"Not an original thought between them," grumbled Yokoi. "It's kind of sad in a way."

"They're even using zombies, just because they know we're using them as well."

"Look at them though. All our ones are of people who died while doing what they did best, bringing joy and laughter to people. I mean look at him," she indicated a large, slightly untidy man wearing a fez. "He's enjoying himself."

She pointed at the gladiators. "They didn't die happily."

In the audience, that look appeared on Barry's face again. He was thinking.

"Hold on, they can't race in here, the ring's not big eno..."

Something shifted.

Igor looked at the ring, now enormous, with a giant pedestal at its centre, where the Gods Of Ragnarok sat.

"The ring's as big as it needs to be."

The gladiators lined up in front of the gods.

Everything stood motionless, silent.

A noise, movement.

The horde shot off around the ring, moving in an anti-clockwise direction. Less than halfway round, the first rider had fallen to the ground and been mangled underneath hooves and wheels.

"This is sick..." said a quiet voice backstage.

"It's an act of the Gods. Of course it's sick." Imran replied.

They rode faster, their vaporous breath streaming behind them as they rode round and round, round and round.

One by one, horses and riders fell. Others crashed into them, not even bothering to get out of the way, running over them, through them, adding to the carnage every time. They got more vicious and more bloodthirsty with each circuit of the ring. A few took out swords, trying to attack the riders or their horses.

A scream came out from the audience as some poor unfortunate soul found a decapitated head flying into their lap.

Faster, louder, harder.

"They're trying to build up power again. It's like some kind of dynamo..." whispered the hostess.

"Or an evil hamster wheel..." Saville muttered.

"A wheel of misfortune?" ventured Yokoi.

Everyone stared at her for a second.

"What? Puns are fun. There's always time for puns."

"I think you're beginning to get puns drunk..." said Gordon.

"They're either trying to build up their own energy or drain the audiences?" the hostess pondered.

"The more death, the faster they go." Gordon observed. "The more, for want of a better word, anti-fun energy around here, the less pro-fun, there's usually a balance between the two I think. We're see-sawing in each direction and sooner or later, one of us will tip it far enough to stop the other."

"But can we stop this?" Saville asked, indicating the oncoming storm.

"I don't know, I'm kind of out of ideas right now..." he looked round, "Where's Yokoi?"

He caught site of her standing just inside the curtains at the entrance to the circus, holding something in her hand, talking into it, holding it up to her ear. A mobile phone? what was she up to?

Back in the ring...

One chariot caught its wheel on a couple of unidentifiable bones lying on the ground, it spun and cartwheeled, a section of the audience ran out of the way as it smashed into the ringside barrier.

"They're trying to take out the audience again!" Yokoi shuddered.

Only two remained. One, pale skin almost falling off, still had an unnerving sense of bloodthirst in those dead eyes. The other, now nothing but bones with one or two ribbons of organic material hanging off them, looked as if he was smiling, despite having no face.

The last two rode faster and faster, the sawdust rising from the ring, swirling around it. The dust swirled faster and faster, faster and faster, the wind howled. The audience held their hand up in front of their faces, ducked down under their seats, anything to get away from the stinging strikes of the dust.

"They're trying to take out the audience again!" Yokoi shuddered.

"They just don't give up do they?" shouted Gordon over the noise of the storm. He suddenly pointed to the maelstrom. "Hold on, what's that?!?!"

A shape appeared in the storm. A regular, empty space. Even through the scream of the storm, the sound of reality being lightly shoved aside could be heard.

An art-deco wardrobe suddenly appeared amidst the storm. the doors slid open and a figure walked out. Wearing goggles, and wrapped up in layers and layers of protective clothing, it was impossible to tell who it was. If you looked closely, one of the figure's gloves was larger than the other, covered in runes and circuitry. A thin cable ran from it back inside the wardrobe.

The figure waited for the gladiators to round the curve. It picked up some of the little sawdust that remained on the ring's floor.

"I offer you fear in a handful of dust!"

She blew the dust out of her hand, just as the glove flashed.

Normal everyday dust is mostly harmless. It collects on things, maybe makes you sneeze, but on the whole, it's pretty safe stuff.

Dust in a dust storm is a different matter. Accelerated by high wind speeds, it scratches at your face, you have to wear protection or your eyes will be damaged forever. It hurts. It can even strip paint in extreme cases.

So, picture if you will, what a handful of dust will do when accelerated to near lightspeed by power taken from a fully functional time/space machine...

The gladiators didn't so much shatter, as dissolve in mid-step, the dust impacted and the shockwaves blew the undead warriors apart. The heat of the friction sending the remaining particles flaming backwards, like a firework display in miniature.

The screaming stopped, the wind died. The dust settled. A few flaming embers lay scattered around the ring.

The figure took off the goggles. Almost feline eyes regarded the Gods with disgust. The figure removed its headgear.

"Although I admit that due to my scientific curiosity, I'm interested in what exactly would happen if the universe ended, I'd much rather you stuck to the theory and left the practical work alone," said the Rani.

The Gods looked down. With a scream of anger, the pedestal shot up, the Gods retaking their position high above the audience. Unreachable? Untouchable?

"If there's one thing I can't stand it's enthusiastic amateurs," the Rani mumbled dismissively. She looked at the assembled forces of fun peeking out from backstage. "But I suppose this time, it's all we've got."


She walked outside, into the twilight that was descending over the little patch of forest outside. Grinning.

Safely out of eyesight, she removed the rest of her protective gear and revealed a buccaneer outfit underneath. High boots, tight trousers, a tight-fitting velvet jacket with slashed sleeves, a big white shirt underneath...

...and a 1600's corset.

With a Cleavage of Evil.

After removing the obligatory rubber mask and wig, revealing green eyes under arched eyebrows and a mane of red hair, it was clear that, yes, bloody hell, the Rani's new incarnation had been Auntie Krizu all along!>:)

Grinning, she walked back to her torture chamber in the woods and greeted the chained and lightly tortured Masters with an Evil Cackle(TM).

"I still have plans for you, my darling guinea pigs," she purred, stroking AinleyDoc's beard gently with a long, purple-painted fingernail. "You boys will help me in defeating the Gods of Ragnarok whether you want it or not. I happen to enjoy pleasure and Pro-Fun is the ultimate force of pleasure in this universe."

The Rani licked her lips, resting her eyes on her delicious captives.

"And, of course, I'm quite prepared to believe that you boys are quite fond of pleasure as well."

Smirking evilly, she picked up an ostrich feather and walked across the line of her prisoners, tickling each of them as she went, back and forth, relishing in their "argh"s and "curses, foiled again!"s, chuckling with pleasure.

"Yes, you can join me in these... pleasures if you help me defeat the Gods of Ragnarok."

Caressing her victims with a riding crop now, she knew she didn't even have to ask them yes or no, the "yes" was quite... evident in the beads of sweat on the Masters' faces and the apparent, shall we say, discomfort in their trouser region.

The Rani laughed a bubbling, heartfelt laugh of joy. She went back into the woods and out again, shouting to the Pro-Fun crew:

"I'm ready--and so is my army of pantomime villains!"


Gordon stared at Yokoi.

"And exactly how long have you had the Rani's mobile phone number?"

"I don't know what you're talking about..." she grinned as she wandered off, singing a little tune to herself.

The hostess looked back at the ring, which had returned to its normal size. The audience were beginning to settle back into their seats, still a bit scared, but too caught up in what was happening to even think about leaving.

"I'd better go out and introduce the next act..."

She brushed the last of the zombie dust from the sleeves of her ringmaster's coat, and shook out the Handkerchief of Audience.

"For beings who take their name from Norse Mythology," she muttered, "they sure do seem to have a thing for first century Romans."

Then she heard the gasps and exclamations from the pro-fun audience -- happy gasps and exclamations, and little murmurs, and ooh-look-at-that's.

The others standing in the wings must have heard them, too, for they all turned to look at the audience, and then they turned to look where the audience was pointing.

Epona's rose petals, like corks floating to the surface of the sea after a storm has passed, were resurfacing in the ring, as brilliant and shining as when they first appeared, trailing behind the goddess.

"Of course!" Eloise said. "Why didn't I realize it sooner? The calling of Epona was the first thing we'd done that knocked the Gods of Ragnarok off balance, so ... "

"So they wanted to obliterate her influence," Gordon finished for her, " -- get the thorn out of their side, so to speak."

Yokoi winced. "Really!" she said with mock disgust, "of all the cliches..."

"Appropriate, though," Gordon said, with a wink.

"Hmph!"

"They may have tried," Eloise said, a broad, toothy grin stretching her cheeks, "but they didn't succeed. Look!"

The ring was filled with rose petals -- even more than when Epona had first arrived. More than bright, they were luminescent. The shimmered with every color she had ever seen in a sunset or sunrise.

The audience -- the pro-fun audience, at least -- didn't care that no act had yet gone on. They were entranced by the spectacle before them. The Gods of Ragnarok, however, were fuming. They were also cowering -- like a snarling tiger afraid of the trainer's whip. It seemed that they had met their match.

Their match -- if the circus duel remained a shifting balance of power, it could, quite literally, go on forever. That might be enough to distract the Gods (or whoever was their puppeteer) from sapping any more stories, and killing the omniverse. So the omniverse would be saved.

But. But that would be a pretty grim fate indeed to have to do this forever.

What they needed was something to shift the balance of power in their favor. But what?

But Eloise couldn't concentrate on that question. There was no doubt about it. The petals were multiplying. Why?

She went out into the ring to have a closer look.

What she saw made her gasp again.

The zombie charioteers had succeeded -- but their success was also their failure. The horses' hooves, the chariot wheels, and bits shattered bone had cut the rose petals to shreds. But each shred -- each shred of a shred, was growing into a whole new rose petal -- a truly new rose petal, not a simple clone, each with its unique color (or colors, in some cases).

Like when Heracles cut off the one of Hydra's heads, seven more heads grew in its place. Like how one story can tickle the imagination and spawn a thousand and one more. Even when a story has been forgotten, torn to shreds by war or famine or cultural oppression, there is always something left: a turn of phrase, a striking motif, the memorable quirk of a character, something left to inspire a whole new story.

She reached down to pick up one of the petals for a closer look. As soon as she touched it, the petal grew into a rosebud, which opened and bloomed. And as it was blossoming, a stem grew from its calyx.

"Ow!" she exclaimed, as a thorn grew suddenly and pierced her thumb, drawing a large drop of blood. Without thinking, she stuck her thumb in her mouth to staunch the bleeding.

And suddenly, she knew how they were to defeat the Gods (for this was a rose of knowledge). Still, the hoedowners couldn't just jump ahead -- they still had to work their way to the finale. But at least, now, she understood what they were building toward.

She picked up the rose from where she had dropped it, carefully avoiding the thorns, this time, and breathed deep.

The scent was as sweet as honey, as intoxicating as claret, as refreshing as sleep, and as sustaining as dark bread. She smiled.

And picked up another petal, which blossomed into another rose. And another. And another. And another.

The hoedowners cheered. This was better than any clown act.

Soon, her arms were full of roses -- as much as she could carry. She tossed all but two into the audience, and the people laughed and cheered as they leapt to catch them.

The last roses, the biggest of them all (a white one and a bluey-pinky one, each with a blossom the size of a dinner plate), she brought to Imran.

"One for you," she said, "and one for Allie. I think she'd appreciate it if you brought them to her."

And so Imran goes to see Allie in the Zero Room...

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