The Gods' act is due to start, the Librarian is on the trapeze, but...
"Has anyone checked on Sailor Gallifrey?" Imran suddenly wondered aloud, his mind still reeling with the recent events.
Eloise gasped. "Oh my gosh... "
Xeffy looked at Imran. "Is she that Senshi you were telling me about?" A nod. "Things here are just getting weirder and weirder..." she said, shaking her head.
Eloise broke into a run as she headed for the backstage area, looking desperately for her friend, looking for that familiar glow that would tell her that she was still in her circle, protected from the chaos that ruled without.
The closer she got, the more fraught she became. There was no noise, no sense of power, nothing.
Oh, please, let the Gods not have found a way to get to her while we were all distracted... she thought, panic teasing at the edges of her mind.
She found the spot where the Sailor had been, sitting in her circle, surrounded by the Major Arcana cards.
She was gone.
The cards lay scattered around, in disarray. The energy was gone, and Sailor Gallifrey with them.
Frantic, Eloise ran past the circle, looking for clues, anything that might tell her where she had gone. As she passed through the stage props and sets that lay backstage, she spotted something.
A white glove.
She bent down, picked it up. It was hers, all right. Oblivious to the commotion going on in the rings, she stumbled on, and almost missed it.
The senshi's wand.
She frowned, picking it up, feeling its vibrant energy humming within it.
Where is she? she asked the wand.
The wand had no answers.
She went further. A second glove. A bit further. Her tiara. Her choker. Her boots. And, finally... her fuku.
Then she made the connection.
Seven things, discarded before the Seven Gates. Like Inanna, descending into the Underworld to rescue her beloved.
But there was no time to investigate. The Gods were waiting...
As she reached the center of the main ring, the lights came up. One column of light gilding the sawdust at her feet, waiting for her to step into it. And a web of spotlights far above, picking out the swinging bars and the acrobats. Poised and waiting now on the two high platforms; inhumanly still, inhumanly sculpted, inhumanly perfect.
Revealed for all to see on the lower trapeze -- the hostess almost groaned -- was a large ginger ape. Scratching, vigorously. A few wisps of hair detached themselves and floated down into the light. The Librarian bared his teeth in a wide grin of approval.
"He's doing it on purpose!" Allie whispered behind her in despair. "What happened to Granny Weatherwax? She's good with animals --"
"Off with the Norns -- wherever they went," Imran whispered back. "Anyway, he's not an animal --" He broke off.
In a quite different tone: "Wait a minute. Allie --"
But the hostess couldn't wait to hear any farther. She stepped into the central spotlight, turned to the audience, and took her bow. She tried to take heart from the sea of half-glimpsed faces, row upon row, all turned upward. Friends from across the universe, across the Multiverse... the audience almost filled the Big Top, now. That counted for something, surely... didn't it?
She made her other, punctilious, bow. To the one empty section of the bleachers. The one part everyone, as if by instinct, had kept clear. The malevolence of the Gods beat down upon her, muted now, but waiting its turn. High above her, the trapeze still swung. To and fro... to and fro. The towers and trail-lines were rigged; but there was no safety-net strung between them. No safety-net above the ring at all.
A throat was loudly cleared in the audience. "Well said, that man."
The avocado troll sighed. She could take a hint.
She cleared her own throat, and raised her whip. "Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you -- the Daredevil Duo on the Flying Trapeze!"
An insistent correction drifted down from above.
"Ook ook OOOOK."
As the spotlight snapped off, the hostess put one hand over her eyes. This time she really did allow herself to groan. Softly.
"All we need to do is get the Librarian's attention, right?" Imran's words were tumbling over each other. "And there's one sure way of doing that..."
"Oh, no. Oh no..." Allie backed off, hands held out defensively in front of her. "It was your idea, Mister Man. You have the bright ideas -- you take the consequences."
Author and Muse looked at each other. Imran took a deep breath. "Okay -- okay. But you'd better be around to pick up the pieces and calm him down afterwards..."
Allie grinned. "Sure. Tender loving care guaranteed --" she glanced across at Sandra -- "isn't that right, Shadow?"
Sandra squinted at her. "Have I got this straight? You're going to call him a --"
"No, Imran's going to!" Allie removed the hand she had hurriedly slapped over Sandra's mouth. "Get it?"
"Got it," her twin shot back.
Xeffy looked from one big sister to the other and made a disgusted noise. "Honestly, that one's so old, it's got whiskers on..."
"Well, time for something even older, I think," Imran said ruefully. He swept the three of them his best seventeenth-century bow. The cape swirled. "Ladies, have mercy... morituri te salutant."
"Ouf!" The avocado troll, making her way off to the wings, almost ran into Imran coming in the other direction at a dead run. "What --"
"No time to talk. Tell you later." He was pushing his way along the front rows of the audience. As TYA and their backing guitarist began to segue into a fast rock number for the start of the trapeze act, he stepped backwards, over the barrier, and held up his arms to signal silence.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry for this interruption -- but before we start the act, please could the Archchancellor have the goodness to remove his monkey from the ring?"
Sudden, ashen quiet, broken only by an inexplicable spasm of shuffling among the wizards. The Librarian, who had been performing complicated evolutions around his bar with all four hands, had gone ominously still.
"Er... I don't think he meant that quite the way it sounded," the Chair of Unseen Studies said nervously into the lengthening pause. "Did you, son?"
If Imran swallowed, only the avocado troll saw it. "It's quite simple," he said loudly. "Just get rid of that monkey..."
She was never quite sure what happened next. But when the sawdust cleared, the lower trapeze was hanging empty, just in time for the Gods' acrobats to flip down onto it for the opening sequence of their act. The trail-rope beside the edge of the ring was still quivering, as if someone had slid down it very fast. And Imran was being bounced, head-first, against the ground by an angry-looking orang-utan who had him firmly by both ankles.
Nyctolops had been so enthralled watching the Librarian's antics that she had forgotten that she was on next. Nyctolops turned to the turquoise troll. "I better get back to the wings and get ready for my act with Cameron," she said. She took off her Cloak of Audience and touched it to the troll's cloak, which reabsorbed it.
As she made her way back to the wings, she realized that her courage milkshake had worn off, but it didn't worry her. She shouldn't need it anymore. Cameron had said that he would be gentle with her. She put her red vest back on and collected Cameron's leash.
'He knew it going in,' Xeffy said.
Sandra nodded. 'You do not call the Librarian a monkey.'
'But it was the only thing that was going to get his attention,' Xeffy said.
The Librarian paused. '...Ook? OOK!'
'Sorry,' Sandra apologised. 'Why did you want to get them mad, anyway?'
'Oh. That makes sense.'
'Um...' Imran said, upside down. It was about all he could say, having been nearly concussed by the Librarian.
The Librarian let Imran go.
'We've got a problem,' Eloise said, huffing as she ran up.
'Apart from the fact that my big sis's - both of them - author was having his head beaten against the ground by an enraged orangutan?' Xeffy asked.
'Much bigger,' Eloise said quietly. 'Sailor Gallifrey has disappeared.'
'Disappeared. Alryssa has disappeared.'
Eloise took a deep breath. 'If I understand the symbols... She's gone into the Underworld.'
'A regular revolving door...' Sandra murmured.
She frowned. 'I wonder... The Norns and the Lancre Coven have disappeared off somewhere too. Seeing a man about some Gods... I thought they meant the Master. Hmm... At the place all roads lead...'
'I think I know where they've gone. In symbol and reality,' Sandra said. 'Alryssa has gone there in symbol - the others are there in reality. For different reasons... but all roads lead to the same point.'
Sandra nodded. 'Tessa would know - but they're busy at the moment.'
'Can we leave them?' Sandra indicated the act.
'Kid and Gordon are out there. They should be able to take on whatever comes up.' I hope, Eloise added to herself.
'Okay. Remember back on Titan 3, and the Monitors' cave?'
'Imran mentioned the Rule of the Odd Trio. When two of them are together, the third usually turns up.'
'And when one sets out looking for one of the others...' Eloise began.
'...They'll usually succeed,' Sandra completed. 'It's their own weird set of rules.'
'They're the Odd Trio. They have to be a Trio, it wouldn't work as the Odd Duo - so they stick together.' Sandra grinned. 'And we formed the Odd Muses - we stick together, too...' She trailed off. 'Wait. Gone into the Underworld? How? Orpheus?'
Eloise shook her head. 'Inanna.'
'The Seven Gates. Leave something behind at each gate... until you're left with nothing,' Sandra breathed. 'Oh no...'
'Unnnggg....' Imran said. 'Woaw. That's one hell of a ride...'
'Sure... Wow, how many of you are there?' Imran said.
'Um, I think we'd better let him rest...' Xeffy suggested.
'We may not have time,' Eloise said. 'The climax is coming up, fast.'
She took a deep breath. 'Kid didn't want this back. Not yet.
'And I could see why.'
Sandra stepped back. 'Do it.'
Eloise took it out of her pocket.
Blue on blue. A blue eye set in a blue crystal sphere.
Dream surrounding, encasing the charm, burning brightly within.
Carefully, she placed it in Imran's hand.
His hand tightened around it, clenching it.
For a moment, the stars in his cape shone blue.
And then his eyes opened.
He breathed out.
'Thank you,' he said, returning the crystal to Eloise.
'No worries,' Imran said. He grinned. 'It was for a good reason, after all... Now... What's happening?'
Eloise explained what had happened to Alryssa.
'Right,' Imran said. 'And you need me to be sure we find her.'
'That was the idea...' Sandra murmured.
'Then let's get going. To the place where all roads lead. To the crossroads.'
Xeffy turned to look behind them, into the ring, where the Gods' acrobats continued their act.
'Daredevil Duo. Hah,' Xeffy muttered, turning back to the others. 'I'd like to see Batman and Robin take care of them...'
'Which one?' Imran asked.
'Which Robin? Well, both Dick and Tim would be hacked off... hmm. Maybe Batman, Robin and Nightwing?' Xeffy mused.
'Comic menks,' Imran explained. 'Sorry about this...'
Eloise shook her head, grinning.
'Well, here we go... You coming?' Imran asked.
Eloise shook her head. 'No. I...' She shook her head. 'I haven't eaten since you gave me that milkshake. My stomach's really grumbling at me now... I'm going to pop back to Sweetheart, see if I can pick up a bite to eat. Hopefully, I should be back in time for the end of the act. Gordon, could you and Kid keep an eye on things while we're gone?'
Gordon nodded. 'No problem.'
'Will Kid be okay?' Sandra asked.
Eloise nodded. 'He's found something he can use against them. At least, that was what he said...'
'Here's hoping,' Sandra said quietly.
As they set off, behind them, the acrobats continued their graceful, emotionless movements.Previous chapter Next chapter