The avocado troll prepared to announce the next act...
The ringmaster cleared her throat somewhat nervously. The ring felt uncomfortably empty. She glanced up at the tiered seats on the far side of the Big Top, shrouded beneath the coiling darkness of the Gods' presence; but there was still no sign of their next act.
The silence stretched out. At the back of her mind she could have sworn she heard high, snickering mockery from somewhere far off and yet horribly close...
::All right, then::: The hostess straightened her shoulders -- at least, as far as her round little shape was capable of doing so, which to be honest was not very far. From the bleachers came a soft hoot of encouragement as the Librarian recognized a fellow creature with similar morphic problems. The orang-utan threw her a bananana.
"Banana skins!" Waiting in the wings for their own act to go on, Gordon and Saville nudged each other, as the same idea sprang into both Pro-Fun minds.
Gordon grinned. "Hey, I wonder if that ape's got any more handy fruit?"
Down in the ring, the ripple of laughter from the audience had broken the tension. The avocado troll skipped a few steps and bowed, flourishing her spangled whip in one hand and newly-acquired snack in the other.
"Ladies, gentlemen, Trolls and Other Entities --" a bow towards the section of the bleachers which held some of the odder new arrivals; another, deeper, in acknowledgment towards the unseen aura of the Goddesses who looked on -- "in the second part of their latest and most audacious act, I present to you... the Magic of the Gods of Ragnarok!"
And with a final florid gesture, she tossed the banana high into the spotlight beam, and stripped the peel from it with a swift flick of her ringmaster's whip and a sparkle of private Pro-Fun magic. The pale fruit flew off into the audience, where the Librarian fielded it with both feet and muffled sounds of enjoyment. The skin descended with a loud splat straight into the middle of her forehead, and plastered itself across her ringmaster's hat like a yellow, slippery cockade.
This time, the ripples of laughter had swelled to a roar. The avocado troll trotted off, waving.
:::Let's see them top that!::: she thought, smiling all over her broad face, as she took her seat among the happy, excited crowd.
For a moment, as the ring remained empty, she even nursed hopes that the Gods were going to forfeit; that the build-up at the start had been a last desperate attempt to intimidate their way out of the fact that they had no performance prepared. But even as the thought crossed her mind, there came a sudden collective gasp from the audience... and the Gods' magician became visible in the very center of the Big Top with a purple flash.
Somehow, by the self-satisfied expression on the blond perfection of his face, she knew that he had been there all along... watching her antics with that same patronising sneer. Our Hostess bit her lip, the warm bubble of anticipation almost all gone.
:::I won't let them get to me::: she vowed, glancing round to see if she could glimpse Imran anywhere. She couldn't; and Curry didn't seem to be in his place either...
There was another gasp from the audience. With a single sweep of his cape, the magician had revealed the beautiful robot assistant at his side... a perfect replica of Zoe. Up in the second tier, Bokman jumped to his feet.
Zoe's hand flew to her mouth.
"Have ye no sense, man?" Jamie caught hold of Bokman and pulled him back down, with the aid of the Second Doctor.
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen." Magician and assistant bowed, as if the ripple of disquiet had been applause. "And for our next trick... the Jumping Jack of Spades!"
Another pass of his cloak, and the assistant was holding a giant deck of cards. She riffled through them in an expert shuffle, displaying the faces of the whole deck; then, one by one, the location of each Jack.
"Ladies and gentlemen, may we have a volunteer from the audience to inspect the cards... please!"
A shuffling in the bleachers. No-one had bargained for this. On the other hand... it was definitely required by the classic rules of the act. And after the gruesome turn of the Gods' last two performances, the clean-cut blond magician and his lovely accomplice -- however robotic -- seemed almost harmless.
The magician spread his hands. "Ladies and gentlemen... would one of you care to assure himself that absolutely no trickery is involved?"
In the front row, Jim Vowles got up slowly to his full height of six feet two inches. "I missed my act - I'll go."
There was a squeak of dismay from the little deputy, who'd been sitting next to him.
"It's okay," he reassured her, bending almost double. "I don't think they're going to try anything that obvious..." And with that, he walked out rather gingerly into the ring.
"Ladies and gentlemen -- " the robot Zoe spoke for the first time -- "a big hand of applause for our volunteer!"
As the clapping died away, a bemused Jim inspected every card before pronouncing the deck complete and apparently tamper-free, and being sent back to his seat with a distinctly unrobotic kiss.
"I don't get it," he murmured to his other neighbor and fellow cat-herder, the shy lurker Ninni Petterssen. "How are they doing it? This isn't like their other acts. It's more creative. It's almost human!" Ninni shook her head helplessly.
The magician held out a hand. "And now... for your amazement... the Jumping Jack of Spades!" The assistant fanned out the deck, face down. With a flourish, the magician picked out one card between finger and thumb. Held it up.
The Jack of Spades. And the little figure painted in the center of the court card was visibly leaping up and down, just like a live image on a tiny television set.
Genuine applause. Nyctolops nudged the hostess, excited. "Maybe we've actually done it?" she whispered, glancing into the wings. "Maybe Sailor Gallifrey's channeled enough energy to slip under the Gods' guard for some real, honest entertainment..."
Holding the Jack in one hand, the magician signaled for silence. With his other hand, he reached over to the fan of cards... and pulled out another Jack. Another Jack of Spades, identical in every way, right down to the rounded leaf-shape of the spear in the animated figure's hand.
This time the clapping was tumultuous. Jim Vowles, grinning, spread his hands in disbelief, shrugging off laughing accusations of connivance.
Meanwhile, the performer in the ring was pulling out and tossing up more and more cards at increasing speed -- every one a Jack. Every one leaping as if in St Vitus' Dance. And a shower of blank bordered cards fell to the sawdust... as the little figures freed themselves and began to dance across the ring, posing and jabbing with their little spears like a horde of goblins.
There were laughs from the audience; then screams. The Jacks had reached the edge of the ring; but they hadn't stopped there. They had begun to climb up into the bleachers, scrambling like spiders. And instead of prodding at each other, they were dancing in and out amongst the spectators... stabbing with blades whose bite itched and swelled like the sting of a horsefly.
Everyone was standing up, trying to get away at once. The benches rocked. Those higher up began to scream in earnest.
Each Jack had vanished after delivering its single sting -- but now the audience was in real danger from its own panic. "Sit still!" the Sixth Doctor bellowed, and, scattered throughout the crowd, the other Doctors added their authority to the command.
"They can't do this!" Nyctolops gasped, frantically clinging, monkey-fashion, to the back of her seat.
The avocado troll shook her head. "They can. It's legitimate audience participation... and we already agreed to that at the start of the act." As the stands finally began to quieten down, disaster for the moment averted, she spared a hand to rub at the swollen bite on her tail, which had already almost subsided.
"They didn't do us any real damage; and if we'd all gotten crushed when the bleachers collapsed, well, I guess that would just have been an unfortunate accident..."
She had no doubt at all that it had been planned as a deliberate attempt at murder; but there was no way she could could cry forfeit. It was clever. Much too clever for what they'd seen of the Gods so far.
The magician was openly laughing, the high snickering sound she'd heard before. "Ladies and gentlemen -- the incredible Jumping Jacks. And no harm done, I hope..."
:::Oh no, you don't::: the avocado troll thought bitterly. She steeled herself. What next -- more attacks on the audience? Where, oh where, was Kid Curry?
"And for our next trick I give you -- the Cloths of Heaven."
The magician turned to the robot-Zoe, who had produced a large top hat. She displayed it round the ring, tugging at the red silk lining to demonstrate that there were no concealed compartments, and held it out as her confederate produced a wand and made a few magic passes.
He reached into the hat. The audience winced... but out of the hat came a great length of shimmering gold, followed by a filmy cerulean blue, a floating swath of sunset crimson, a deep midnight-blue banner spangled with silver, and others in turn. Despite herself, Ninni gasped in pleasure.
As each cloth was drawn out, the magician flung it up into the air, where they seemed to rise and cling against the canvas of the roof. All the shimmering colors of the sky mingled and blended, seeming to glow with their own light. Every face was turned upward; every mouth ajar in wonder.
The magician drew out one final wisp of fabric, and bowed. "The Cloths of Heaven, presented for your delight..."
"I don't get it," Jim said softly again, shaking his head. "How anyone as empty as the Gods comes out with anything this beautiful..."
And then the magician tossed up the final piece he had been holding in his hand. A filthy bandage, smeared yellow and rusty brown. It clung against the rest; and like wildfire the taint began to spread. Colors wept pus and foul matter... died... grew putrid and began to rot. In a matter of seconds, the whole canopy of the Big Top was a mass of stench and decay.
The magician laughed again, high and hateful. "Unfortunately the Cloths seem to have gotten a little tarnished over their long wait... but then isn't that just like Heaven?"
He looked up in mock-innocence. "I'm so sorry. I really must do something to clear this mess up."
He gestured, and all around the tent the weeping sores began to dry up and flake off, leaving the canvas as clear as before. A rain of powdery fragments spattered upturned mouths and open eyes.
Only Finn Fang Foom seemed immune from the writhing revulsion all around. The tongue of the fifty-foot lizard slurped greedily across the faces of his unfortunate neighbors.
"Foom LIKE! Want MORE!"
This enthusiasm seemed to take the magician aback. He gestured again, and the putrid rain abruptly cut off.
"See, I knew Foomy'd come in useful," Bokman whispered to Cameron in the row behind. The big cat was too busy clawing dried pus from his whiskers to give him more than a dirty look.
"Ahem... and now, with the aid of my beautiful assistant --" for the first time, the magician had sounded somewhat rattled -- "I shall proceed to saw the lovely lady in half."
A large wooden box had appeared in mid-ring, floating apparently unsupported two feet above the ground. Robot-Zoe dropped gracefully to her knees and proceeded to roll underneath it, then to climb over the top. She smiled. "Ladies and gentlemen -- as you see, no tricks."
From the recesses of her tight costume she somehow produced a three-foot saw blade and handed it to the magician, before opening the lid of the coffin-like container and lying down inside. Her head hung over one end; after some wriggling, a pair of feet appeared at the other.
The magician reached down and tickled the sole of one foot. Zoe giggled.
A wide gesture up towards the silent Gods. The magician's face was very solemn. "Music... if you please."
A drum roll started, apparently from nowhere, joined by a slow funeral march.
For a moment the Big Top was shrouded in darkness, with only the tingling anticipation of the drums. Then the single spotlight shone out, bathing the center of the ring in crimson light. The saw blade gleamed. Swooped down. The girl in the coffin flashed a smile. Then the teeth began to cut.
A thin patter of sawdust trickled down to join the scuffed coating already on the floor. The magician was breathing hard, muscles standing out on his bared arm like those of a carpenter.
The Third Doctor frowned. "Hang on a minute... he's really cutting into that box. That isn't supposed to happen..."
A scream interrupted him. From the ring.
Zoe writhed, trapped inside the box. Water was pooling at the magician's feet. His teeth were bared in effort. And with every stroke of the saw, the girl screamed.
"Lights!" The magician never missed a stroke. The spotlight changed... from crimson to white. Liquid smeared the saw, soaked into the sawdust, stained the hem of the performer's long robe. Not water. Blood.
Behind Nyctolops, someone was sick. In the ring Zoe had fallen silent, eyes half-open, blood trailing from the corner of her mouth; now, the screams were coming from the audience. As the magician worked, the girl's head jerked limply on its lolling neck.
"It's an act..." Nyctolops said out loud uncertainly, unable to tear her eyes away. "It has to be an act. They're robots..." Someone else had begun to retch, helplessly and continuously, on an empty stomach.
Down in the ring, the magician made his final cut. Dropped the saw. Bowed. "Ladies and gentlemen, as never shown before -- the Lady Sawn in Half!"
At his gesture, the two ends of the coffin swung apart. Displaying the entrails of a butchered body.
In the bleachers the other Zoe screamed and screamed again, unable to stop herself, on her feet without knowing it. "No. No. No!"
"Fear not, gentle lady." The magician's courtesy dripped contempt. "For in the next part of our incredible show... I shall perform a feat without precedent. I shall bring my assistant back to life!"
From beneath his robes he swept out a heavy length of cloth and draped it over the two halves of the box, hiding what lay within. On one bloody hand he held the wand; in the other, a small phial had magically appeared. He gestured, and the crimson light and drum roll began again.
The incantation that followed seemed to involve tufts of white feathers and a brown, smeary substance as well as drops of liquid from the phial. The whisper of the drum roll grew louder and louder. None of the words in the incantation could be made out clearly; but they all sounded unpleasant.
Zoe's screams had subsided to whimpers. She was clinging to Bokman, shivering as hard as if she herself were next to be sawn in half. The Second Doctor, at her side, was muttering under his breath. If the tone he was using had held any magical power, the figure down in the ring would have been incinerated on the spot.
A final gesture. The lights came up. "Ladies and gentlemen... the severed halves reunited!"
The magician flung back the cloth. Opened the miraculously-restored coffin. Held out his hand to the figure that stepped from within, moving like a jerky puppet --
The girl had been reanimated. Inside out.
The magician was smiling. "I have to admit, ladies and gentlemen this trick doesn't always work exactly right -- and I'm afraid tonight is just one of those times."
He put his mouth next to the bloody, earless head of the monstrosity that once had been a lovely girl. "But why don't you take your bow anyway, my dear? I'm sure the audience will give you a big hand..."
The creature lurched to the edge of the ring blindly, and reached out, dripping fluid, before stumbling off. Nyctolops was sobbing. "Oh, how can they do such a thing -- even to one of their own?"
:::But because it was one of their own, there is still no way to call forfeit::: the avocado troll realized unhappily.
She looked round at the drained Hoedowners and their guests, pasty-faced and sickened by what they had been forced to witness. The Gods had played them out to perfection -- catching them unguarded with excitement and beauty, then using surprise to twist the pro-Fun reaction into something they could use to build their own power. She could feel them now, almost bloated with it.
A theatrical cough from down in the ring. "If I may have your attention, ladies and gentlemen..."
::Oh no::: the hostess realized. :::The act still isn't over. And if those were their idea of appetisers... what in the name of Deity are they going to do for a finale?!:::
The magician waved an airy hand, apparently oblivious of the butcher's litter scattered about his feet. "For our finale, I'd like to thank our esteemed rivals for the precedent they set tonight," he began smoothly. "Their Continuity Lantern was a blatant breach of the rules --" Bokman stiffened indignantly -- "contrived in order to bring in outside assistance. We are sure that they will acknowledge that it is only fair we should have the chance to do the same --"
"As if they knew or cared what 'fair' meant!" Jim muttered savagely under his breath. The turquoise deputy hushed him.
"And so, in homage to Bokman, Zoe and their Legos Legerdemain --" the magician was announcing when she could next make out the false humility dripping from every syllable of his words -- "the Gods of Ragnarok present a magic act entitled... the Cave of Annwn."
The mist-wreathed shape of a cave-mouth began to solidify beyond him. Deep within the darkness, there seemed to be the sound of a sighing wind. The hairs on the back of Jim's neck began to rise instinctively. From higher up in the bleachers, he heard a gasp of "Sacrilege!"
In front of the yawning cave-mouth, the magician cut a slim and almost fragile figure. The tawdry fairground patter was more than ever grotesque in its incongruity.
He held up a glass ball almost two feet in diameter with exaggerated care, still smiling. "In this sphere of mystery and illusion we have captured the force that has powered our entire act. A force so powerful we could never have obtained it for ourselves but had to wait for it to drop into our lap. I give to you... a fictive paradox!"
Two faces came slowly into view as he passed his wand across the surface of the globe. One silver-pale. One dark. One young and female. The other, male and wary.
"Oh no." The hostess couldn't believe her eyes. "No. Allie... Kid Curry... no. No!"
For a moment, she could have sworn that the magician's mocking smile was directed to her alone.
"A failed Muse who wanted to be a princess... and an outlaw from a land of legend who thinks he's still alive. Paradox. Creativity. Power. Everything we needed to invoke the potential of human imagination... now brought together in our final magical presentation. Ladies and gentlemen, in my last act of the evening -- and thanks to your generous aid -- I bring to the Psychic Circus... the Cave of Annwn!"
He stepped aside. The faces in the glass were swirling, unclear, from one angle set and defiant, from another seeming frozen in despair. Beyond them, the great cave lay silent yet breathing. A cold wind had begun to blow. The little deputy could have sworn the the mouth was getting wider.
"Allie..." On TYA's stage, Philip Cotterell stared at the vocalists in dismay. "All that gross stuff came out of Allie's imagination?"
"Not this Allie." Yokoi sprang to the defense of her friend.
"That Allie," Tessa nodded, pointing. "The weak one. The selfish one, who went to the ball --"
"That's not true!" Allie was gazing at her shadowy counterpart, silent tears running down her cheeks. "She's part of me. She's as good and as bad as I am -- and Kid went to save her, and now they've got him too --"
Allie. Kid. She should have known. The hostess bit her lip, hard. She had known.
That last act -- the beauty and the horror both -- she'd sensed all along that it didn't belong. It was human, all too human, where the Gods of Ragnarok were sterile and empty. They'd been drawing on a human mind -- human weakness, human nightmares -- channeling it all through the power of a Muse. Even a partial Muse...
And now they had the power. Now they were swollen with it like oozing venom, ready to strike... What would come out of the cave?
Then she remembered.
Too late, as the Gods unleashed their stolen power at last, and the cave-mouth came rushing up towards them all.
Nothing -- and no-one -- ever came out of the Cave of Annwn. Not when they had once gone in...
Kid Curry watched with clenched teeth as the ghost girl tried to scramble to her feet for the dozenth time. That gown and slippers of hers might be fine-looking maybe, but she couldn't run in them worth a dime.
"Where you are, there's dirt to stand on and some kind of direction to go. Seems you fix things for us, least enough so as we can travel.
"Out there on my own I got nothing. No firm ground, nothing to see. Can't even remember who I am. No way I can make it through alone -- we both got to go together or not at all. And we got to move fast --"
"Kid, I can't keep this up much longer." She was half-sobbing. "What's the good, anyhow? What makes you so certain we can get out? Maybe this place just goes on for ever..."
He nodded. "Guess it does. But there's a way out, sure enough -- the way I got in. There's a bridge there'll take us back -- thing is, it's closing..."
He could feel it, like an ache in his throat. Didn't know what was missing there; but he knew where it was. Could feel the power calling.
But he'd drifted far -- so far -- before Allie'd found him. If they didn't make it soon, he reckoned there wouldn't be a way back no more.
Meanwhile, the Hoedown is in real trouble...Previous chapter Next chapter