Kid sat at the edge of the ring, watching the others practicing their acts, elbows resting on knees, his chin resting on his fists, only his eyes moving, and his mind somewhere else entirely.
The sky battle.
Now that his feet were back on solid ground, his stomach had found its home again, and his limbs had stopped shaking, the events of those few terrible minutes played themselves through his memory with greater clarity than when they were actually happening.
The gryphons' death blow to the kites, and the moment right before, when eye met eye -- that flash of blue light. Blue -- just like when he put the Contessa's charm in the water.
"Yes, you can do something for me, Curry: keep your eyes open." The Contessa's voice was so clear in his mind -- the rich, measured honey of it, that he straightened momentarily, and looked over his shoulder. But of course, she wasn't there.
Slowly, he returned to that memory of the gryphon's eye. At least, that's what he wanted to remember. But his mind skirted around of it, lingered at the shadowy edges of it. And with a shock that made him gasp, he realized he had met the eye of one of those kites, too. Like looking down the shaft of a well, it was. No. Not like that. The walls, the edges, were spinning, threatening to pull him inside.
Kid's arms ached. He realized that he'd been gripping the edge of the bench he was sitting on until his knuckles were white, just like he'd hung on to the White during the battle. He took a deep, shaky breath and forced himself to relax.
It wasn't like looking down a well, he realized. It was like being high above the clouds, and looking down the funnel of a tornado -- or those life-sucking twisters of the Monitors: the "tornado blight" that was heading toward Vortex City.
Suddenly, the noise of all their voices and the heat inside the tent made him feel lightheaded, and he went out to get some fresh air.
Dusk was falling. The gryphons were nowhere to be seen. They had all flown away after bringing them back to the Psychic Circus' big top. Back to the mountains, Mags had said, where they nested. She thought maybe they had come just to fight with the kites, and now that that battle was over, there was no reason for them to stay. Kid was not so sure. But he was glad they were no longer hovering. Even though he had seen for himself that the gryphons fought on the side of the hoedowners, he didn't trust their ferocity, or their sheer power.
If a guy could ever break one of those to the saddle, he'd have one hell of a mount -- but he hadn't needed the Doctor's warning to know that would never happen. He'd read it himself in the creature's eyes. Monster maybe, but no dumb beast -- and more ornery than the stubbornest bronc. Oh, they'd oblige Mags, he guessed, once in a while, when they'd a mind to. But a man could no more bridle and stable a gryphon than he could make a house-pet out of a cougar -- both ways, he'd end up with his fool head bit off some day when he let his guard slip...
After the battle, Kingpin had given the avocado troll a ride back to her TARDIS in that crazy painted bus of his. And the circus wagon stood there now, its twelve android horses standing motionless and unblinking, without so much as the flick of an ear.
He realized then, what he needed. He went into the stable and saddled the brown. Leading him back outside, under the light of two unfamiliar moons, he mounted, and rode off at an easy jog. The folks back there, they didn't need him. And he had spent far too much time in tight, enclosed places, far too much time with the voices of strangers in his head.
His mind needed room to think, room to work out what all this meant. He dropped the reins, and let the brown go where he wanted, shifting from walk to jog as his body needed it. He trusted the horse's judgement for finding their way, more than his own, anyway. The horse didn't have the memories to contend with, didn't have the demons.
The brown followed the scent of water, of green growing things. He found both at the edge of a lake, where the ground rose slightly under his hooves, and great, rounded stones, like the backs of turtles, pushed up from the earth. He stopped by the edge of the lake, lowered his head, and drank. He expected his man to dismount. But that bundle of confusions just sat there, as if unaware that they had stopped. The horse shifted his weight, stamping with his right hindleg, rocking Kid ever so slightly in the saddle, and the man came back to himself.
Kid woke with a start -- or he would have woken, if he'd been asleep. Had he been asleep? He couldn't be sure. It took him a moment to realise his horse had stopped moving. Then, slightly embarrassed, he dismounted.
It was truly night, now, and Kid noticed with alarm that the ground was hilly, here, and that great boulders, the size of small sheds, stood silhouetted against the sky. His horse had carried him into the foothills, near the mountains where the gryphons nested. Kid muttered curses at the animal, and the horse shifted his ears toward his voice, but didn't stop grazing.
Well, Kid thought, he's not skittish, that's something. Maybe the gryphons had gone to other mountains, somewhere else. Sitting down on his haunches, Kid pulled the bead from under his shirt, and looked at it, really looked at it -- for the first time since the Contessa had given it to him.
Holding it before him, with the night sky showing though its hole in the center, it really did look like an eye: the translucent blue stone like an iris around the eye's black pupil. Like the blue light swirling in the gryphons' eyes. Then Kid saw something else, too. It looked like the vortex, like looking down through the center of the vortex -- a spiral was carved around the hole, trailing out toward the corners of the eye. Then he saw both at once: eye and vortex, vortex and eye. Both at the same time.
This vortex, though, was like that one he'd first seen in the desert, after his hand had slipped on that box -- it pulled the life together, held it in the balance.
He started shaking when he realized the power he had in his hand -- literally. He couldn't help but wonder why the Contessa would trust such a treasure to a thief the likes of him.
His gaze was drawn to the hole in the center -- through the hole. And, almost as though he were straining to see through a keyhole into a richly furnished room, he had the feeling that if he looked long enough, or hard enough, or in just the right way, he could see whole worlds through that tiny hole. He wondered if this is what the Contessa felt, when she gazed into that crystal ball of hers.
But he was distracted by a movement behind his left shoulder. Turning, he saw the White Gryphon standing not twenty yards away. Kid's head snapped around to check on the brown. But the horse was still grazing, unconcerned. Kid then realized that it wasn't the prospect of a meal that had brought the monster to the lake -- it was the charm. Attracted to interdimensional gateways, the troll and the Doctor had said, whatever that meant. Could the charm be such a gateway? Or the key to one?
Slipping the charm back around his neck, Kid stood slowly and turned to face the gryphon. No way was he going to remain with his back to such a creature.
They stood there, man and monster, staring each other down. The gryphon's stare may have been inhuman, but Kid recognized it well enough: he was being sized up -- judged. Suddenly, the gryphon threw back its head and clicked its beak loudly three times -- a signal -- a call, or a warning, Kid didn't know which. The sound echoed like gunshots among the stones, and this, at last, sent the brown skittering away a short distance before he, too, turned to face the gryphon.
Then the White launched himself in the air, circling once around them, low overhead, before rising higher and disappearing into the night sky.
The horse became antsy, then, trotting back and forth, finally nudging Kid in the shoulder, butting him in the back. It was time to return to the Psychic Circus. Kid swung himself into the saddle and they were off.
Back in the ring:
'Milkshake?' Imran said.
'Thank you!' our hostess said happily, taking a sip.
Imran grinned. 'Hey, it's been a long day. Gryphon fights, debates about the nature of the Omniverse, joining the circus...'
Our hostess grinned. 'It has rather... Did anyone say which planet we've arrived on?'
'Not as far as I know,' Imran said, piping some cream out in preparation for the next shake. 'Kingpin and Mags will probably know for sure.'
'The Gods'll probably arrive at midnight. Or the middle of the night, if this planet doesn't have a 24 hour day,' our hostess reflected.
'Because it's dramatic?'
'Because they're unimaginative,' our hostess said. 'Arriving precisely at the stroke of the middle of the night...' She shook her head. 'It abuses a perfectly reasonable dramatic convention, simply because they don't have the imagination to do otherwise.'
Imran looked amused. 'Yes, I suppose so...'
Our hostess looked around. 'Where's Kid? I thought he was watching us rehearse...'
'Think he went for a walk outside,' Imran said. 'Maybe he needed to clear his head - especially after all he's been through.'
'Oh dear.' the hostess said. 'I do hope nothing happens to him.'
'He should be all right...' Imran reflected. 'But... I dunno, I can't help feeling he's missing something, like he's just being swept along by things, and not getting a say in what happens.'
'Yes...' our hostess said. 'I get that feeling too. And this confrontation with the Gods, circus to circus - it doesn't really seem like there is anything he could do.'
'There were sharpshooters,' Imran said.
Our hostess looked at him curiously.
'At the sideshows. They used to - may still have, as far as I know - have sharpshooters demonstrate their skill with the gun. Demonstrate what they could do.'
'Mm.' our hostess said. 'Maybe he would be... no, it just doesn't seem to fit him. We need to encourage him to find something he can perform, something that he enjoys... something fun.'
'Help him find a role?' Imran said. 'His own special take on things?'
'Exactly.' our hostess said.
'Mmm... The Bookworm - we - told you how Allie and I met, didn't we?'
'If my wonky memory's working today,' our hostess said wryly, 'you said Allie was on work experience.'
'She is,' Imran said, whisking up another milkshake to make it foam. 'Allie got assigned to me on work experience - she isn't a full Muse yet.'
'Uh uh. She submits quarterly reports back to the Collegium... so far, it's still pending.'
'Why?' our hostess gasped. 'Ye gods... if it hadn't been for her, we wouldn't have made it to Titan 3, let alone meet up with the Circus!'
'Allie was... at least as far as I understand it, which isn't much... a difficult student.' Imran said. 'Brilliant, intelligent, enthusiastic about being a Muse... but she just didn't seem interested in the actual coursework.'
'So they put her on fieldwork,' our hostess realised.
'I think so. And I was the author they assigned her to.'
'Imran...' our hostess asked carefully. 'Has it occurred to you that if Allie becomes a full muse, she might be assigned to a different author?'
'Yes.' Imran said quietly. 'But she could ask to stay assigned to me - if she so wanted.'
'You said she was a difficult student,' our hostess pointed out. 'Could she be afraid to ask? No matter how well she does? Could that be why she's still on work experience - because she wants to stay with you?'
'Yes.' Imran said flatly.
'Then why don't you encourage her to make that request? To stay with you as a full muse?'
'I do,' Imran said. 'But...'
'She's still afraid.' our hostess realised. 'But... why?'
'Who is in charge of the... Collegium, you said?'
'Yep. Calliope. The Muse of Epic Poetry.'
:::And, the troll thought, ever since July 4, 1956, the muse of circuses, carnivals, and generally shameless and loud fun. Maybe tonight, with their call of fun and creativity going out across the Omniverse, Calliope herself will hear, and be in the audience. If so, she might be impressed enough to grant Allie full status as a personal muse -- or her presence might make Allie so nervous, she'd freeze. She didn't mention these thoughts to Imran, though. No reason for giving them both the jitters::::
Instead she murmured: 'One of the Nine... A goddess. A goddess. No wonder Allie's too scared - it's not that she's scary, or intimidating, or someone to dread - but she's one of the first. A goddess.' She shook her head. 'It's something to meet a goddess...'
Imran grinned. 'Yeah. Meeting Eris was fun...'
'...but to know one on a professional basis,' Our hostess shook her head again. 'I hope you do manage to encourage her...'
'Mm. Look at Kid,' Imran said. 'He feels guilty about what he's done, ashamed... maybe afraid? I don't know. And so he's letting events sweep him along. Doesn't act... maybe he's seen his actions lead to tragedy, and he just doesn't trust himself, his ability to choose anymore. Maybe I'm just pop-psychoanalysing.'
'Mm.' Our hostess doubted that. Something in what he'd said rang a bell with her.
But what could she do?
Maybe, she thought, after a bit, there was nothing she could do... If she tried to convince Kid to join their circus, and he did, then wouldn't he just be reacting again?
She was sure that he had a key role in all of this. He was the odd man out -- the catalyst for change. It was his actions, not theirs, that could swing the pendulum either way. But it had to be up to him. If only he would realize the power he held....
Nyctolops sticks her furry little head up again. "Like being in charge of a monkey riding a big cat act?" she asks, hopefully. Thinking that of all the others only she and Cameron have nothing in particular to do yet. "Please. we want to help so much. I could stick my head in Cameron's mouth, even." Nyctolops shudders at the very thought, because she ran away from Cameron's growling stomach only a short time ago. She is absolutely desperate to help with the circus acts, though.
"Oh, I don't think you'll have to go that far," the avocado troll said, taking another sip of the magic milkshake Imran had given her.
:::I should have asked, she thought, exactly what sort of magic these things contain... would be kind of awkward if she turned into a sparrow, or something, at some unexpected moment. Still, it was very tasty. So she took another sip, anyway:::
She thought a moment. "What we really need," she said, "is to organize all the separate acts into a coherent whole. Maybe you could help me figure how to do that."
Nyctolops' face fell. She'd really wanted to do something in the center ring. Still, it was something, and maybe, while she was working on it, she'd get a spectacular idea for an act nobody else had thought of. She sighed. "What do you have in mind?" she asked.
"We need the energy of one act to feed into the energy of the next in such a way that it will be funneled toward the Gods of Ragnarok and ... 'tickle' them, so to speak -- to untie the bonds they continue to hold over this part of the Omniverse, and thereby break the conduit through which whatever-it-is is stealing energy from the stories. Gordon and Alryssa's / Sailor Gallifrey's standing up to the Monitors did that, on Titan Three. But I suspect each Conduit must be broken in a different way."
"And how much time do we have to figure all this out?" Nyctolops asked.
"I don't know, honestly." She flagged down Mags. "How long 'till the stroke of midnight?" she asked.
Mags peeked out through the main entranceway at the sky. "I'd say about six Jubilganzian hours," she said.
The troll chuckled. "So this is planet 'Jubilganzia'?" she asked. "Let me guess -- a combination of 'jubilee' and 'extravaganza'? Did you settle here because of the name?"
Mags shook her head. "We named it ourselves," she said. "This planet didn't have any technological civilizations living here when we arrived... That's one reason we came. Most established governments frown on circuses staying too long. A brief diversion is fine, but too much clowning around, and they feel threatened -- so they set up a labyrinthian system of permits and licenses -- much easier to be the first ones here."
The troll nodded. "So how long, exactly, is a Jubilganzian hour?"
"In comparison with --?"
Mags thought. "Roughly 3/4ths," she said.
:::So, the troll thought, we have about 4 and a half hours to get everything ready. Sounds like a lot, but... :::
"Come on, Nyctolops!" she said. "We'd better get ready!"
Just then, they heard the rattle of galloping hooves.
The turquoise troll clapped her hands. "Kid's back!" she said.Previous chapter Next chapter