As the Odd Trio begin to realise where they are...
Just then, a sound: equal parts familiar and strange, assaulted their dazed minds, and they spun around to look behind them again.
"Is that wheezing-groaning?" Gordon asked, shaking his head as if he had water in his ears.
"Sounds more like a rusty barn door banging in the wind," Imran commented, rubbing his temples.
Then, it seemed as if something materialized, but their eyes couldn't quite find the edges to focus on (a bit like one of those "magic eye" pictures).
Just when the Odd trio were about to mutter new obscenities yet unspoken in any language, a familiar, grinning face appeared out of the something.
"There you three are!" Eloise said, peeking around Sweetheart's door. "So! Did it work? Did we arrive just in the nick of time for whatever-it-is?"
"Erm.... ah... well," Imran sputtered, pointing at what had gotten all their attention before the hoedown arrived.
"Ouch!" Eloise exclaimed, following his gaze. "I guess the answer is 'yes'." She called back over her shoulders to her guests. "All hands front and center!" she announced. "The final battle is about to begin!" ---
'Where are we?'
'At the centre,' Imran said. 'At the gateway to the first truth. We're standing on the Glory.'
'My God...' Gordon whispered. 'You can see them all...'
Radiating... there was no better word for it, since no word in human language can actually describe just what they were doing....
Radiating outwards from the giant circle, and the pattern inscribed on it, that they all stood on...
Universes. Myriad upon myriad of universes.
All connected to this point. To the 'centre'.
To the Glory.
And from many, so many of them...
...dark conduits snaked to the circle, draining the energy, the creativity, from the universes.
Draining it into the centre.
Around the edge of the great circle lay scattered piles of debris - matter which'd survived the journey through the conduits. Much had been damaged so much, any purpose they might have had seemed impossible to guess. Some were of designs and geometries unthought of in the universes they knew, their purpose equally as unguessable. And some were easily recognisable artifacts - furniture, vehicles, ornaments, electrical circuitry.
None of this was what held the Hoedowners' attention, though.
The circle was beginning to crack, under the forces exerted by the conduits.
To fracture, to crack from side to side.
And at the centre of the circle stood a man.
A short, dark man, in the ornate robes of a Time Lord.
He bowed to them.
'That's the Master. The latest Master...'
'Eloise?' Eighth said quietly.
'I need you, Kid and Izzy front and centre with me.'
'Izzy?' Eloise echoed.
The fish girl looked at him. 'Doctor...'
'He's going to find out sooner or later, Izzy. And he will make the connection between the human girl who faced him alongside me last time, and the girl who faces him with me now... He will find out. That's why we have to be front and centre with it now.'
'Doctor-?' Eloise began.
The Doctor looked at her. 'Izzy and I were the ones present when all of this began. We're going to be here for its ending. But when Izzy faced him the last time...' He closed his eyes. 'When Izzy faced him last time, she was human.'
'She was what?!'
'She became a fish girl, it's not something I can reverse, or do anything about, for the moment. No, it wasn't because of the Master - this happened afterwards, and the Master is going to recognise her no matter what...'
He turned, then.
'I thought so. I thought I knew who was behind this...'
'I'm not surprised,' the Master said.
'Who was behind all of this, and why.' The Doctor's face was cast into relief. 'Do you want to explain it all, or shall I? You've always enjoyed your expositions.'
'Tell me,' the Master said. 'Allow me to see whether you truly have learned.'
'All right. Let's start with what happened after the last time we met. The Omniverse had been restored, things set back on course. And you had been sent - banished, like Rassilon banished you - elsewhere in space and time. I don't know where... but I know where you eventually arrived.
'I imagine you weren't that surprised. You'd already surfed the omniversal spectrum beforehand, it wouldn't have been that hard. A Fictiverse, a subverse, an Outside Dimension, based on the stories of Earth's Wild West. And you would have known of the renegade - the Sisterhood's renegade - who lived there. The Contessa.
'You would also have known about my facet there. Doc Gallifrey.
'It would be simple enough to bring someone, someone from an Inside Dimension, into it. Simple enough... for a Time Lord. Perhaps it was the Contessa's doing, perhaps yours... who knows?
'Then you discovered them. Impulses. Instincts. Psychic remnants.
'The Glory has turned since before time began. Many have taken up its maintenance. Many have left something of themselves, still resonating with the universes.
'You discovered the remnants they had left - or they sought you out. Like calling to like.
'The impulse, the urges... Death. Destruction. Self-destruction.
'Together, you could work something neither could apart. You could attempt to destroy the Glory - destroy it, and with it the Omniverse it maintains.
'Draw energy from the universes. Draw off their creativity, their life-force, to fuel your purpose.
'With their aid, you could travel the spectrum once more. Acted as a carrier, influencing the agencies of destruction to begin the premature destruction of their home universes - and siphoned off the energy for the ultimate act of destruction.
'I wonder how you reacted when you discovered Sailor Gallifrey.' The Doctor allowed himself a grim smile. 'After the Glory, the Monitors decided to create a new force to keep the universes in dynamic balance - to find a way of preventing, or at least mitigating, the imbalance, the turbulence, to maintain the balance - and so they created Sailor Gallifrey, to be their hands. You couldn't have that, whether she was an agent, or independent. Fortunately for you, a good number of the Monitors wanted a static balance - a stagnant, crystallised universe.
'Easy enough to set things in motion. The Monitors were conflicted among themselves, of course... still...'
The Doctor stepped forward. 'And then, back in Vortex City... some of the Monitors were there, too. The Contessa had felt the first rumblings, had developed an intimation of what was happening. She sent Kid Curry out to learn the truth. But you needed Kid safe... and well away from the Contessa, so that she wouldn't learn until it was perhaps too late. So you pulled him out of the City... and sent him to us.
'After all, you could rely on me/us to take care of him...' The Doctor's eyebrow arched. 'Nurturing was never the biggest part of your personality, was it?
'We felt what was happening, realised what was happening. We needed Sailor Gallifrey, to help us work out how, and why, this was happening.
'The Monitors... or perhaps it was your doing... set up the mindtrap on Titan 3. The Gods' agents would have captured her, but it was the Monitors who set the psychic trap in motion - preventing anyone from attempting to stop this.
'And the Gods of Ragnarok... Oh, how you must have felt when you discovered that universe. A universe where the Gods had broken free, and despite my - and your - best efforts, we failed to stop them. I'd imagine you hated what that Master represented to you...
'So you brought the Gods into our universe. Willing allies in your plan. The Monitors would serve to take care of those who tried to stop you, but the Gods would drain the energy.
'But the Monitors were conflicted... that little bit too close to the knife edge. And that helped us break free of the trap. Alryssa stepped beyond being their agent, confronted them on level ground... and it was they who directed us to the Gods.
'Gordon laid down the challenge - and the others assembled the component pieces of the Gods' prison, where they'd come from... the missing pieces of the puzzle.
'I imagine ... actually, I can't. They're things of instinct, aren't they, the things that found you? Instinctive. They found a point where Alryssa was vulnerable, and tried to distract her, to make her make things go wrong... you hadn't counted on that, but I'm willing to bet you've allowed for it. Shayde and Mnemosyne confronted them before they could do much else - and they retreated back here, back to you.
'Then we defeated and bound the Gods... and you knew we would be coming. Opposition. Yin and Yang,' the Doctor said softly. 'We're bound together like this, neither winning final victory. You knew we would come...'
'So,' he finished. 'Anything you want to say?'
The Master chuckled softly. As though he were genuinely amused by the Doctor's exposition. "So close. And yet so far. You really were a brilliant student, Doctor, back in the day. But so undisciplined. You leap about from idea to idea like a cricket. And you never stop to think any one of them through.
"Yes, I wanted to destroy you, bit by bit -- start so small, you'd barely even feel it, but oh, so painful near the end, when it is too late to do anything about it. What was it you said, once -- 'a pang of cosmic angst'? Multiply that by hundreds. But start with your doubles, in parallel universes -- parts of yourself you're not even fully aware of ... Doc Gallifrey, for just one example, in Vortex City."
Eloise could feel the rage radiating from Kid Curry, standing beside her, like heat rising from a skillet. "Easy, Curry," she murmured, under her breath.
That drew the Master's attention. He looked Curry over from head to toe with an expression of complete disgust, before dismissing him completely and turning his attention back to the Doctor. "You think I actually cared what happened to that two-bit rag of an outlaw? He was perfectly suited to my purpose, true -- so mad, in the end, that his companions felt the need to hunt him down like a rabid dog. He didn't even recognize reality while it was slapping him in the face, much less notice that he'd been taken out of it. He just continued on, living his sorry little life day to day, and tearing through the web of Vortex City in the process -- and he did it blindly -- that was even better.
"But when the Contessa sent him out, and the blindness started to lift, then he was more of a liability than an asset. And he needed to be gotten rid of -- permanently. No great loss though. The job of destroying Vortex City was nearly done -- it was already starting to fall apart from the inside out... past the point of heat death. It was only a matter of time -- if things could be left to run their course, without any outside meddling. ... I would have used my Tissue Compression Eliminator on him... but then, someone might have found the body, and gotten suspicious. So much cleaner to take him out the way I put him in. No one would mourn if Kid Curry simply vanished, or even spend much time wondering why -- not with those dust storms out in the desert. There's a wonderful little black hole I know of that would've been perfect for him.
"Only a meddler was already at work -- the Contessa. Maybe she knew, or maybe it was that confounded Sisterhood Intuition of hers. But that so-called 'charm' is actually a piece of sophisticated technology -- ancient even in Rassilon's time -- something he secretly 'borrowed'. He tried to build a replica, and fiddled and tweaked, and eventually came up with something even more powerful -- the Eye of Harmony."
A little surprised noise escaped the Doctor's lips.
"Ah, yes," the Master explained, reveling in his superior knowledge. "The technology that holds the power of the black hole in balance is based on the general principle behind that charm. Didn't you ever wonder why the Eye of Harmony is called 'the Eye'? It doesn't look like one. But it was based on something that does. ... As soon as the Time Scoop veered off course," the Master continued, "I knew a very powerful wrench had been thrown in the works. But not powerful enough to thwart my plans.
"For now, you have been so very kind as to deliver the Contessa's 'charm' back into my hands --" And with this, he looked square at Eloise. "I know you still carry it in that breast pocket of yours," he said. "I will have it, and with it, I will finish what I set out to do."
The Seventh's eyes widened.
'I know it now. I know. So does he...'
'Barely aware of?' the Doctor said. 'Barely aware of? Perception and awareness... that was what I was charged to find, that was what I found. We're not parallels, the Doc and I. We're facets. Aspects of something greater.'
He looked into the Master's face. 'And so are you. You're eradicating your other aspects... the Man in Black, Koschei the Deathless... You're trying to eradicate yourself.'
The Master chuckled - a perfectly normal chuckle. 'I will survive... isn't that what I promised you the last time we met? I will survive, I will fight to survive, no matter what. I shall destroy the Omniverse... but not myself with it.'
'With the temporal instability surrounding the Eye of Harmony, it's unreliable...' the Doctor realised. 'The Eye wouldn't protect you...'
'But the charm - the original eye, the Sphinx's eye, which sees the pathways of the future - would,' the Master completed. 'The Pythia's legacy, from before the Intuitive Revelation, from the Old Time. But you would know about that, would you not?'
The Doctor's face closed off. 'You wanted the charm, Kid held the charm...'
And Eloise realised something.
The charm - the eye, the Sphinx's eye - had been changed. Merged with a dreamrose to become... something else.
The Doctor looked up. 'You couldn't take on the Glory's power, not when Kroton had already entered it. You couldn't reorder the Omniverse to your will... so you're going to destroy it, and recreate it in your image. And the Sphinx's eye will provide just enough power for you to survive that. The power of a black hole wouldn't be enough to destroy the Glory, not even with the stresses you're placing on it.' His eyes narrowed. 'You're eradicating... or is it amalgamating... your others into you, while eradicating mine.'
'The final battle, Doctor.'
'It must have been a stroke of luck when you realised Kid had survived... and so had the charm. A fortunate twist. I wonder... Kid's memory was altered by you, you must have suspected - or feared - some interference, so you added that to the mix. I rather suspect it was the charm itself that saved him, that brought him to us, disrupted the Scoop... then you realised he held the charm, that it would suit your purpose if he survived, that the charm would be brought to you... so you adapted to fit. You needed the City's destruction accelerated... because then, one way or the other, the Contessa would have had to resort to the charm, whether she knew what it did or not...' The Doctor's eyes sparkled. 'And you would finally know where it was.'
'You see, I know something you don't. Even to us, there is a point where magic and technology are one and the same... and the charm is a product of that. Magic or technology? Even I don't know.'
'Magic is illusion, Doctor. Imagination-'
'A myth. We've been here before. Your mind, and your mind alone. Eloise wondered why anyone would want to destroy something they were part of - that should have tipped me off right there. You always wanted to survive, to have the universe under control, one mind's control, so that nothing could go wrong.' The Doctor's face closed down even more. 'I saw what that control would become, when you reshaped Earth's history.'
'What... Oh my God...' Izzy gasped. 'Oh my God. I saw that...'
The Master looked at her then.
'So... It is you. The human girl...' The Master raised an eyebrow. 'You were there, I see it now. Welcome, Miss S.'
'Don't you dare...' Izzy hissed. 'Don't you dare.'
'Very well, Isabelle.'
'No names. No names. Not from you...'
'How do your partners feel about this?' the Doctor wondered.
'As you said, Doctor... they are instinctive. They simply seek the Omniverse's end. After that, nothing else matters. They will be gone.
'Now... the charm.'
'And if I don't?' Eloise said.
The Master shrugged. 'Then we will all be destroyed when the Glory is. Give it to me... and something will survive.'
:::So wouldn't it be better,::: she wondered to herself, :::to have nothing survive, than to have the Master in charge of a new beginning?:::
The Doctor turned to her. 'Do it. Please.'
The little troll took a deep breath...
It wasn't like the Doctor to surrender. Like the captain of a crippled jet, he kept his hands on the controls until the end, fighting to survive, struggling to save all the lives in his care. :::He must know something,::: she thought, :::or at least suspect.:::
... and reached into her waistcoat pocket. Brought out the small crystal eye, blue on blue, that the charm had become.
'Reconfiguration...' the Master murmured. 'Whether it's altered the eye's necessary abilities...'
She didn't look at him, but she could feel Curry's eyes on her -- pleading, desperate -- silently begging her (and she knew how hard it was for him to ask for anything, even silently) not to.
But she had an advantage that he had lost over the years: friends she knew she could trust. And the Doctor was one of them.
Before she quite knew what she was doing, Eloise threw the charm at him-
-And the Master caught it one-handed.
'Thank you. Doctor...'
'This is your small mercy, isn't it?'
The Master nodded. 'A quick death now, rather than the slow, painful death you would experience as the Glory is destroyed... and with it, all your facets. One final mercy.'
And Eloise realised what hung in the air above them.
:::Another cheat of language, though. There was no "above" here, just as the was no "center" ... But it was the best her mind could do to hold the idea:::
Presences. Dark presences. Impulses of anger, fear... impulses of sheer destruction, of self-destruction. Finding childish pleasure in tormenting, in hurting - themselves and others.
The Master's partners.
Butchered memories, trying to stir.
Shabby old negro in a rundown street. A tug on his sleeve...
Not shabby, though. Not any more. Wearing that crumpled face now like a second skin -- and underneath, barely even out of sight --
Old -- but not human old. Old like the bones of the rock. Old and strong and full of spite...
Rocks'd kill you, if you fell. Smash a man against their strength. But they couldn't feel. Couldn't burn like this man was burning -- the same fire that lit the Contessa -- only she burned dark and rich and warm. Not this cold intensity of mind; this dry and logical hate.
It was the Doctor he wanted. All of the Doctor, all his selves; but especially the eager, loose-limbed man who confronted him now. Not the little troll. Not Kid Curry --
'Two-bit rag of an outlaw... living his sorry little life from day to day... the job of destroying Vortex City...'
Like a blow to the outlaw's face. The final piece in the shattered mirror of his memories. He'd come to Vortex City. He'd never known how -- or why. Now the Master tossed the knowledge to him, casually. Flung it in his teeth.
He'd been used -- used against the Contessa, against the City. Despised and thrown away, like a tool between those pink-skinned palms. Used to betray the Contessa, to destroy her home; all to bring to light the one poor treasure she had.
And the little hostess had given it away for the asking --
Remembered anger, boiling up.
'The world stole your mother from you --'
What did she know of what drove a man to run with outlaws -- hell, how could she dare --
Simple answers. Always looking for simple answers.
'The world stole your mother... so you turned thief yourself.' Sure. Yeah. At nine years old.
Ma turns the wagon over, taking it down the bank -- the team spooks, lashes out --
Not the first to drown that way. Not the last, either. These things happen. You lived with death, back in the day... and the world went on. Bible class every Sunday. The preacher droning out the hereafter. "Defend and provide for the fatherless children and widows..."
And the Master looked up.
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