The Fourth and Eighth Doctors' mock-duel has just finished...


'This isn't going to be good...'

Our hostess turned around in surprise. 'Imran?'

There was an odd cast to his face - red, flushing - as if he'd just been laughing very, very hard. The look on his face, however, was serious.

'This is going to get nasty.' he continued. 'Look.'

Two figures stepped silently out of the night.

Our hostess' eyes widened. They wore the uniforms of Roman legionnaires - but battered, twisted and rusted. Armour long-discarded, long-forgotten.

And under the helms, she could see nothing. Nothing at all.

Automata. Automata animated by the power of the Gods of Ragnarok. 'A gladiator battle...' our hostess whispered.

Imran nodded. 'Twisting it. No displays of talent, no showing off. No dramatic announcements, no playing to the audience. They'll simply battle - until one or the other goes down. No pride. No honour. No mercy.'

'My Gods...' our hostess said quietly. 'Wait. Wait... we have Mnemosyne with us, don't we?'

'The Muses were worshipped in Greece,' Imran pointed out.

'But there would have been Romans who knew of them,' our hostess said. 'The Roman Empire did include Greece... And what they're about to do out there will be a twisting of memory.'

Imran looked thoughtful. 'Hmm... Better get out there. The Gods may get a bit too impatient.'

'Yes...' our hostess mused. 'That is odd, though. They've been very quiet - ever since the fortune teller, in fact.'

'I wonder...' Imran said quietly.

'Calliope!' our hostess said, clicking her fingers. 'Muse of epic poetry... Is this going to be a slap in the face to the Greek epics?'

'I wouldn't put it past them.'

'Then I think it may be time to call upon the presence of one more goddess - and hope she answers.'

No, the silent voice said.

Mnemosyne's voice.

My daughter already waits outside, barred by the web.

She has come in answer to her pupil's call.

'Pupil?' Our hostess frowned. That meant Tessa, Yokoi or Allie. And as far as she could tell, none of them had called her...

In answer to Alisandra's call. For the answer she finally received to her memory... She waits outside, to face whomever shall win the challenge.

'Is there any way she could come into the tent? Or at least lend us some of her power?'

She may not enter. Only a God may break the web's bonds, may enter before the challenge is over - and then, only when called, as you called upon us. My daughter is a demigoddess.

Her power is already with you - she is wellspring to all the Muses in her care.

'Our Muses.' our hostess realised.

A thought was tickling at her brain. Something she'd heard, something...

Or perhaps something Sweetheart had picked up on, something she'd sensed.

Hm.

'Maybe,' she said. 'Maybe...'

She shook her head. 'I'd better get out there. I mislike that silence...'


"Leave it be," Kid Curry said softly from behind them. "Maybe that's the test. Leave it be."

He was looking across into the ring, eyes narrowed, one hand hooked through his belt, considering. There was a strange kind of peace on his face that Imran wasn't sure he'd ever seen there before. The cowboy didn't seem at all spooked by the creaking armour. Maybe he didn't even recognise it.

"No men in there -- no-one gets hurt. Just a puppet show. And if you don't scare -- then they lose."

Both Imran and the hostess were looking at him now, shocked. Kid Curry shrugged. "Let 'em knock each other to bits. They can't hurt you -- and sure as hell they can't feel it."

He nodded towards the wings, where Mags, in full costume, was busy with the white horses. "Use the time. You got a horse act to get on with --" a glance upward, as if to pierce the canvas -- "and if the sky out there's anything like the one back home, guess the night's running kind of short on you."

His mouth tightened beneath the heavy mustache. "Some things, you just got to let go by. Maybe I never learned that till now. Maybe I should have."


"Perhaps you're right," Our ringmaster said. "Still, the Gods have used their act to directly attack the audience, twice already. The second time, they nearly succeeded. I wouldn't be surprised if they tried a third time -- it's just their style to do things in threes. Stay on your toes."

She sighed. "Well, I've got a job to do." and she went out to the center of the ring. "Ladies, Gentlemen, trolls and Gods, I present to you a historical tableau of the Roman Empire!"

She hurried back out to the wings, eager to leave the space before they started hacking at each other.

Kid was right about one thing: dawn was coming up fast, and this would be coming to an end, for one side or the other.

The way things had been going, she wouldn't be surprised if simply outdoing the Gods weren't enough... The Gods had to be rebound -- returned to the dimensional cage they had been released from. And that would have to be done by the pro-funsters alone, without divine help.

But how? What sort of key had opened that lock? And how could they find it?


And meanwhile...

A brief - and possibly tangentially relevant - interlude.

Subreality City.

Xephanya watched the rain falling outside.

In Subreality, everything, even the weather, was usually subject to the writers' wishes.

Not tonight, though.

Tonight...

...stormclouds bordering on Subreality, rolling in from the Mists.

Storm front. A storm at the border.

Subreality was still protected - so many writers, characters and Muses in one location, it couldn't help but be.

The storm... part of the storm was directed elsewhere, its effects weakened. At full strength...

...things would've been much harder by now. Much harder.

And if it did focus its full strength, if it succeeded...

Subreality, which depended on Imagination and Reality, would be devastated, drained, eliminated.

Drained. An appetiser.

And Imagination would fall next.

The feast.

Then... only one story left. The story of the Story Eaters.

And Allie... Allie was out there, trying to fight them, stand against them.

Allie. Her sister.

Bragging rights at the school, she could imagine it now. 'Oh yeah? My sis faced off against the Gods of Ragnarok, won, and saved Subreality to boot!' Hah. Take that, Chloe, you bitch. Always going on 'bout her big brother, and what he'd done with his Writer. Well, try topping that one...

Teen queen. Yeah. For a month. At least.

She blinked. For a moment there, she'd seen...

She looked closer at the window.

And saw it.

Silent scream, a silent impression against the window.

'Please...'

Then gone, lost in the rain.

'Allie...?' Xeffy whispered. 'Allie, what...'

No reply. The window showed only the rain, and her own frozen, terrified reflection.

'What happened?'

Trouble. She's in trouble.

But... what am I gonna do? I'm not a Muse...

Who can I tell? Could tell Dad, but... what could he do about it?

Have to do something...

What if it wasn't her?

Then why? A trap? Yeah, right. How'm I gonna fall into a trap I can't even get into?

Have to. This isn't the way it usually goes - someone answers a ghostly cry for help. Not watch, while Allie screams and screams and...

But how?

Needs help. Okay. Sorted.

Screaming. Hurt, or trapped, or threatened...

Need something.

Xeffy looked around her room.

Posters. CDs. Clothes. Doomed makeup experiments. TV. Couple of books. Wall mirror. Bed. Desk.

Need something... Mum or Grandma must've picked up something useful. Must have. Thousand years - lots of chances to pick up something, right?

But... Mum hadn't had that many souvenirs. Neither did Grandma, none that she left to them...

Come on, come on... this is when the lost thingie reveals itself, and that it's got some awesome, earth-shattering power...

Nope.

This is Subreality! Xeffy almost wailed. Where's the story?! Come on. Something that'll get me there...

Need something...

Teen queen, remember? You can take this on.

Something, at the corner of her eye.

Nah. Must've imagined...

Xeffy blinked. Hnh?

A tiny little pouch sitting on her desk, underneath the mirror. Easy to miss; Dad was always losing his keys somewhere, to her constant teasing.

Maybe one of Allie's presents while she was at college? Could be. Or something like that, anyway. Allie'd kept leaving her fieldwork and notes round the house, would be just like her to leave something in her room and forget about it.

Allie'd probably kill her. Then again, if it turned out to be something that saved her... Xeffy figured that ought to cancel it out. Allie wasn't gonna be that unreasonable. Well, not usually.

She picked up the pouch, pulled its drawstring, and looked inside.

Sand. Pouch of sand? Must've picked it up from the Shifting Sands. Souvenir.

She idly poked at the sand. Well, that wasn't gonna be much help - not unless she threw it in someone's eyes and it stung. Or poured it down their pants...

Xeffy winced at a certain set of painful memories.

Hmm. She pinched up a bit and considered. Keep it back for another rainy day? Sprinkle it on Allie's food, maybe?

She let the grains slide out of her fingers, fall to the floor.

When they did-

-barely time-

-realising-

-she was-

-falling-

Xeffy's last conscious thought before she was swept away in a tumult of sand was:

Saving her with her own bag of sand. Allie is so gonna hear about this...

When the sand finally settled, only a few scattered sand grains remained on the bedroom floor to show Xeffy, and the pouch, had been there.


Meanwhile, back in the Big Top...

The two fighters battled each other tirelessly, never ceasing. Neither gaining the upper hand.

'This reminds me of something...' Imran murmured.

Robotic. Mechanical. Patterned.

Something nagging.

Darkness underneath the helms.

Silence from the Gods.

One struck at the other...

Silently waiting?

Autonoma, animated by the will - and power - of the Gods of Ragnarok.

How much power?

Combat has power. A ritual.

Feeding the Gods. Feeding the vessels of their power.

The combat was feeding the fighters.

Build up the power until it can be released.

In the final stroke.

Oh no. Oh no.

'Oh no...'

'What?'

The other fell to the ground.

The one on top lifted a sword, to deliver the final blow.

'EVERYBODY DOWN!!'

Impact.

The automaton exploded in black light.

The victor was consumed in the dark fire.

Darkness scythed across the ring - an expanding ring of black

The audience dived beneath the bleachers, just in time.

(Everything happened so quickly, and yet, seemed so drawn out...)

A loud, crackling hiss echoed through the air as the expanding un-energy hit against the protective web of energy outside, and bounced back inward.

:::The Gods are trying to cut through the web separating us from the Omniverse, the avocado troll thought. Their minor victory with the Powers that Be, must have made them impatient.... tPTB must be pissed at them now:::

And the Gods reabsorbed their grudgingly given power - and the power the ritual combat had given them.

Out of the corner of her eye, our ringmaster saw Curry on the ground beside her, arms protectively over his head. She saw the charm flicker more brightly for a split second, as though it were absorbing a power charge. He got to his feet quickly, finding his balance again. Of all of them, he undoubtedly had the most experience diving out of the way of a line of fire.

'Ummfff!!'

'Sorry...' Imran apologised, lifting his elbow off the ringmaster's back.

'That was close...' the little ringmaster said, readjusting her hat. '...What was that, anyway?'

'A win-win situation. Ritual. A ritual to gain power. Ritual combats served to reenact ancient battles of the gods, ancient triumphs. Reaffirm the gods' power.'

'And the Gods were using this combat to reaffirm theirs,' our hostess deduced. 'If they could take out the audience, they won - and even if they didn't, they still gained more power from the ritual.'

'Exactly.' Imran said. 'A small victory for them.'

'A victory for us, too.' our hostess pointed out. 'If we hadn't realised in time what they were doing, who knows what that darkness of theirs would have done to the audience?'

'Quick and brutal,' Imran murmured. 'Not surprising..'

Our hostess frowned. 'But why? Why the need to reaffirm their power?'

'It could be we're getting to them,' Imran offered. 'Or... they need that power for later use. Or both.'

'But what would they need that power for?' our hostess wondered.

She looked out again.

The Gods were still silent.

But now...

...their silence seemed to hold a near palpable malice.

A malice directed against the others within the ring.

Our hostess shuddered, and drew back quickly.


Outside the Big Top...

'Iz, you feeling okay?' the tall, thin man with stubble still on his face asked.

'I'm fine, Fitz.' the fish girl reassured him. 'Just needed a quick dip in the barn's swimming pool. I was drying out.'

Fitz looked back at the tent. 'Why the Doctor volunteered our services to help out with the horses... I swear one of them gave me a tail flick. Deliberately.'

'Come on,' Iz said. 'I'm sure her TARDIS isn't out to get you.'

'Izzy, lemme have a little paranoia, okay?'

'Okay.' Izzy said, grinning.

She started whistling 'I'll Be Watching You'.

Fitz shot her a dark look. 'Anyway, better be-'

'Oof!'

'We've been travelling with the Doctor too long,' Fitz observed. 'Because that didn't worry me in the slightest.'

'Seeing a girl tumble down a sand dune out of nowhere?' Izzy said, as they walked over. 'We really need to see someone about that... I mean, we're from different continuities, and we still get it...'

By the time they'd reached her, the girl had picked herself up, and was trying to work the sand out of her eyes.

'Umm...' she said, blinking furiously to get the sand out. 'Is it time for the big battle yet?'

Fitz and Izzy blinked.

The girl had long brown hair, some of which was braided behind her, with the rest was left free, big blue-grey eyes, and looked to be around twelve.

'Umm... not yet.' Izzy said. 'Give it another few acts...'

The girl looked relieved. 'Oh good. Umm... so umm, do you know an Allie?'

They nodded.

'And she's in trouble, right?'

'That depends on your definition of trouble...' Fitz said cautiously.

'She is.' the girl said. ' 'Kay, point me to her.'

'Who are you?'

'I'm Xeffy? You know, her brat kid sister?'

Fitz put his hand over his eyes. 'I knew this was going to be a long day when I woke up...'

'Ignore him.' Izzy said. 'I'm Izzy, and he's Fitz.'

'So what trouble is she in?'

'Apart from singing on stage with the Gods of Ragnarok in the audience?'

'Oh.' Xeffy looked almost disappointed. 'You're sure? Nothing else? Nothing really, spectacularly bad?'

The other two nodded. And raised their eyebrows (or eyeridges, in Izzy's case).

'Wonder what that was about...' Xeffy murmured.

'What what was?'

'Oh, nothing... Okay. Point me to her.'

Izzy and Fitz exchanged glances.

When someone says they're thinking about nothing... it usually turns out to be something important you really should have known right then...

Then they shrugged in mutual resigned acceptance, and followed Xeffy back to the Big Top.

But Xeffy was not the only unexpected arrival...

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