The Contessa has managed to create a telepathic link with Kid Curry...


'Go,' she told him. 'You know what you have to do.' He nodded.

Opened his eyes.

And stood up.

Almost lost his balance, for a moment. He shook his head, blinking. The wood of the benches above was rough under his hand -- hard, real -- where he'd caught at it to keep from pitching down into the ring. He tightened his grip, felt splinters bite.

He could still taste her presence in his mind. So close, it had been, he could almost feel the brush of her sleeve against his arm as she leaned across that little table of hers; hear the dancing trace of accent that coloured the velvet darkness of her voice; glimpse the shimmer of gold at her wrists in the lamplight. Like waking from a dream... Without thinking, he'd more than half-expected to find himself back in her parlor.

But the prickle under his clenched fingers was real, and the vast shadowed height of the tent above. And somewhere outside were wild gryphons, and a night with two moons -- and far far away, way out and yet also somehow rushing up, faster almost than he could understand, like the sharp rocks at the bottom of a long fall... the unknown threat they called the Gods of Ragnarok.

Like walking through the Contessa's wildest stories, all come to life. His free hand stole up, in a gesture that was fast becoming habitual, to touch the blue charm again, briefly, as if to bring her nearer. Voices in his head... He'd heard her -- more than heard her -- as if she'd been close at his side... Deep down inside, he could feel a helpless grin starting up.

In the ring below, the avocado troll was doing her best to get the beginnings of a parade into order. Guests were struggling into costumes, chasing after props, scooping up cats... no-one glanced up. Kid Curry jumped down the last few steps of the bleachers, light-footed as a boy, and slipped out past the heavy flaps at the main entrance.

The cold air hit like a steadying hand. He took a couple of deep breaths, out there in the dark -- then let the grin rip anyhow, laughing silently, joyously up at the two moons. Couldn't recall when he'd last felt this good in a long, long while.

The brown nickered from out on the picket where he'd tethered him (no point spooking the pony with the wild goings-on inside). Might as well pay him a visit while he was out here, Kid Curry told himself. Fool horse had always liked his forehead rubbed... not too much, mind, can't afford to spoil a working horse like some kind of pet...

They leaned against each other in the dark, listening to the chatter and nervous laughter floating out from inside the great tent. Crazy folk -- but they sure got things done. Ten dollars to a dime, not one of the guests had been on the inside of a ring before tonight; but he'd lay even odds that somehow they'd pull off a show all the same that would have the Gods themselves reeling.

At the thought of the enemy his face hardened, lengthening into set lines. These Gods of Ragnarok were out here somewhere -- he could feel it like a prickling on the back of his neck, an oncoming storm -- and while the Hoedowners would put out everything they'd got, he guessed there was no way the Gods would fight fair.

Hell, he sure wouldn't fight fair, in their place... He felt a cold touch at that thought. The Contessa was right. Him and the Gods, they had way too much in common.

Yeah. That's why they need you, remember?

He touched the charm again, for reassurance. Out here, it was warm to the touch... or maybe it had always been warm.

That's why they need you. You know dirty fighting. You know how to spot what they'll try. You know how to face down a bluff, and spot the guy with a knife waiting on the sidelines...

Somehow, he didn't think there'd be anything as simple as a knife in play tonight. If only...

He sighed, and went back to the main entrance, hunkering down for a long wait, letting himself slip into lookout mode; mind all but blank, focused on eyes, ears, breeze on the skin... waiting for the change that meant they had visitors. Must be nearly midnight, now. He guessed they wouldn't be too long coming.

And then the horse screamed.


The avocado troll moved among her guests / performers, relieved that they'd finally gotten through dress rehearsal of the opening parade. They were talking quietly with each other in groups of three and four, each sipping a custom milkshake from the cauldron of Imran.

There wasn't anything they could to do now except wait for the Gods to arrive. And that's the surface mood of confidence and friendship was a thin and fragile as the surface tension on a pond -- underneath, she could feel that they were all afraid, on edge.

I wonder how close we are to midnight, Our Hostess thought to herself. I wish there was a clock here, so I'd know for sure. No, I don't! Oh, dear. Oh, dear. I wonder where Kid's gone, she wondered.

She'd seen him go into a trance-like state, shortly after she had her talk with him, and she was sure that he was communicating with the Contessa. What she could not know was what he had learned from her. But she saw him, out of the corner of her eye, get up and go outside, after that. But although she knew he had a key role to play, she couldn't figure what it was, or how he would do it. All she could do was wait and see.

The silence of the night outside was shattered by Kid's horse, crying out in terror in a voice that sounded almost human. Then an icy wind rose from nowhere. It circled the big top tent as though it were a madman, running in circles. Swirls of black sand, a color totally alien to Jubilganzia, crept under the sides of the tent where the wind blew them inward.

The Gods of Ragnarok had arrived.


'Allie...?' Imran whispered.

When Allie turned to face him...

...it wasn't the pain-wracked Allie of the stagnation.

Wasn't the dark silhouette - the transparent figure - of the draining.

It was all the more horrifying... because she still looked human.

With an expression that belonged on nothing human.

'I can feel them, Imran.' she whispered. 'Their age... their terror...

'Their hunger. They're so hungry... Hungry for me. For my kind. For the stories... They could drain the Omniverse dry, and never be satisfied. That's what they are... never satisfied, wanting the original, the new... only because it's original and new - not because it's entertaining, or enjoyable - but because they can feed on it...'

She shook herself.

'Are...'

'I'm... I'm ... no, I'm not all right. It's like having a man-eating tiger waiting outside - something you know wants to eat you. Consciously wants to eat you, and leave nothing behind.'

'Allie...' Imran said, hesitantly. '... there'll always be something of you, with me. Always. In our stories - in what you helped me create. Without you... the stories wouldn't be what they are. I wouldn't be what I am - and neither would you.'

Allie's returning smile was wistful. 'Thanks... Thanks. One Hades of a way to go though. My first assignment, and it ends up against the Eaters of Story.... They'd be writing epics about this for ages...'

'If we're going to go out,' Imran said. 'we're going out the only way we know how - with one hell of a show.'

'Damn right!' Gordon proclaimed. 'Like we're gonna roll over and die and let those stonyfaced, humourless buggers eat everything!'

'And as long as we're around,' Alryssa said, 'that's not going to happen.'


Kid saw them coming.

The black twister coiling and twisting - a dark, poisoned conduit following in their trail. Heralding their approach.

From here, it was the size of one of the twisters he'd seen back in Vortex City.

If that's what it's like from here... he thought.

My God.

Thing must be the size of a city...

Around his neck, the charm began to glow a soft blue.

Almost as if in response, declaring a challenge, the twister flickered red - a streak of dark lightning streaking out from its eye.

'We're here, you bastards,' Kid whispered. 'We're ready for ya. And we ain't gonna back down. We laid down the challenge - we ain't gonna walk away now, no matter what light shows you throw our way.'

The blue light grew stronger.


Inside the Big Top...

Allie looked down at herself. Her robes had started to glow blue.

Yokoi's coat was luminous, its many colours sparking and iridescent..

Tessa's hair radiated a soft red glow, a halo of light framing her features.

'It's time,' Allie whispered.


-Little thing. Little one. We have arrived.

Cold voices. Stony voices. Voices that had forgotten any other feeling but hunger a universe ago - if they had ever known any other.

'Yeah? You gonna show yourselves?'

And then he saw it.

A corruption - a twisting - of the Hoedown cart.

Six skeletal horses led it, twisted metal and rust their bodies.

At their reins... a man, his features a ghastly yellow, marked with the death pallor. A dead man walking.

And the cart... the cart itself was a broken, mangled thing - a grotesque, dreadful parody of the Hoedown cart, in pallid, drained greys and whites.

Kid clenched his fists tighter. Not here, not here...

A screech echoed out across the land.

A battle-cry, against everything that the dead circus stood for. A willingness to defend, to champion, the cycle and the balance. It reverberated with passion, with energy - with creativity.

And the White Gryphon alighted in front of the cart.

-You have no place here, the Gods said.

The White raised its head. Its eyes flickered blue.

-They have challenged us. We have accepted that challenge. You may not bar us.

The White held its position for a moment.

Then it roared.

And the other five Gryphons alighted, taking their places alongside it.

-This is their challenge, and theirs alone. None may aid.

-Not even you, Sixfold One. You know the rules.

Then Kid realised where the gryphons had taken their positions.

Three by one side of the entrance. Three by the other.

Guarding the Big Top.

Guardians.


The Sword of Authorial Freedom shone with a silver light.

The Staff of Harmony blazed in a kaleidoscope of colour.

And the wizard's cloak Imran wore took on sudden depth, its pattern of stars, planets and comets becoming a true night sky, stars gleaming against the blackness, nebulae forming in the void.

Our hostess watched, watched all of it.

And deep inside, the flame - the wish to celebrate and defend Pro-Fun, the many reasons she'd created the Hoedown, the desire to encourage and defend others' enjoyment and excitement - that flame began to reassert itself, to become stronger....

'Everyone ready?' our hostess asked.

Everybody nodded.

'Then take your places.'


-Little man. Stand aside.

'No.' Kid said.

-What?!

'I said I'd defend these guys. That's what I'm gonna do,' Kid said to the Gods. 'You want to get them... come through me.'

-As you wish.

A bolt of dark lightning flashed from the cart.

And struck the charm.


'Oh my Gods...' Alryssa whispered.

Dark energy leaped across one member of the Circus to another, crawling, searching, looking.

Looking for a way in.

Then, with a sharp crack, it grounded itself in the centre of the ring.


Kid reached up. That bolt should have left him a cinder on the ground.

Instead... instead, he was still standing. Untouched.

But for a moment, for a moment... almost, it had almost found a way in.

But it hadn't.

And something deep within the charm - within Kid - awoke.

To itself. To its true power.

-Very well. Announce to Eloise that we have arrived.

'Lady?'

'Let them in,' the hostess' voice said from inside the tent.

'You heard the lady,' Kid said. 'Go on. What you waiting for, a signed invitation?'

The Gods said nothing.

Instead... there was a focusing of intensity, a coldness, a thickness in the air.

-This is not over. Not by a long way.

And then their presence was gone.

Inside.

Inside the Big Top.


The lightning struck.

Then they were there. In the stalls.

The Gods of Ragnarok.

Three Gods of hunger. Of entropy and destruction, devastation and ennui. Of stagnation and famine.

The Psychic Circus turned to face them.

-We have arrived, Eloise. Begin.

-Announce us.

The hostess took a deep breath, and stepped into the spotlight.


The charm flashed, flared in a single burst of electric-blue light -

And the Big Top was enveloped in a web of light.

A shield.

Holding the Gods within - and the Circus with them.

Holding everything else without.

On one side of the shield, the Big Top.

On the other, the Omniverse.

The show was about to begin.


The hostess saw Kid standing at the entrance.

He nodded.

She let out a breath she hadn't even realised she'd been holding.

'Ladies and gentlemen - welcome to the biggest show in the Omniverse!' she announced.

But one of the opening performers is getting a little nervous...

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