The Eighth Doctor's companions are showing Xeffy round the Circus...


'Can you see the others?'

'Over... there, I think.' Izzy said.

Xeffy peered at the group sitting in the bleachers. 'Those are your friends?'

'Yep.' Fitz said. 'In short order - the reptile guy in the helmet and armour's Ssard, he's an Ice Warrior, the blonde woman in the pink jumpsuit's his wife Stacy...'

'Mm-hmm.' Xeffy said.

'The girl in the camouflage trousers and T-shirt's Sam, the guy in the black bodysuit with a black crystal globe for a head is Shayde...'

'Mm-hmm.'

'The girl in the steward's outfit...' Fitz frowned. 'Hmm... Yeah, that's Charley - short for Charlotte - the redhead with the cynical expression is Compassion... personally, I think she's faking a good chunk of the cynic attitude, and don't mention her crush on the Doctor... and the woman in the casual suit, black hair, can't miss her, is Anji.'

'Mm-hmm. So... are you this Fictiverse's Justice League?'

Fitz spluttered. Izzy concealed a grin.

'You're dressed for it,' Xeffy pointed out.

'I wish...' Izzy said, grinning. 'No, we hang out together - well, at least at points our Fictiverses collide. Not all the time, though... but we decided to drop in on the Hoedown.'

'Actually, the Doctor dragged us along.' Fitz muttered under his breath. 'And I just knew this was gonna get weird - the Doctor can't cross the street without getting into an adventure.'

'XEFFY?!!?'

Thud.

'Umm, could we get some water over here?' Tessa said. 'Allie's fainted.'

'Interesting definition of "glad to see you",' Fitz observed.

'Is it any wonder? She's been rollercoasting on emotion - panic, terror, hysteria, stress... She had to let it hit sometime.' Tessa observed.

'She is okay, right?' Xeffy hunkered down next to Tessa.

'She'll be okay. She's just had her emotions - and exhaustion - catch up with her.' Tessa brushed Allie's hair back. 'And fighting off an attempted soul capture...' Tessa closed her eyes. 'She had to rest.'

'What?'

'The Gods were trying to capture her soul,' Tessa said quietly. 'Together, she and her writer managed to break the illusion, stop the capture... but even resisting it took a lot of effort.'

'Her... soul?' Xeffy whispered.

A reflection in the window. A silent scream against the glass.

'Please...'

'Where's her writer?'

'Is she okay?' Imran asked, huffing slightly.

Tessa nodded. 'Exhaustion. She needs to rest for a bit.'

Imran nodded.

Then double-took on Xeffy.

'You're her sister...'

'Good guess.' Xeffy said. 'What the hell'd you do to Allie!?'

Imran's voice lowered. 'Nothing. I did nothing to her.'

'Then why'd she collapse?'

'She's exhausted.' Imran said coldly. 'Tired. Worn out... She needed to rest.'

'Yeah? You haven't collapsed yet.'

'Believe me, I'd love to.' Imran said. 'This isn't "Writer sits back and lets his Muse do all the work" - so don't try to make it that way.'

'Xeffy,' Tessa said quietly. 'Both of them need to rest - they've undergone a lot of stress.' She looked up at Imran. 'Don't go falling apart on us just yet.'

'I'm saving that for the big climax.' Imran said drily.

'Hmm.' Fitz said. 'Hmm... Why don't we look after Xeph?'

Tessa bugged. 'You?'

'We were the ones she met first,' Izzy pointed out. 'We can watch her. And anyone trying to attack her's going to have to go through an angry TARDIS.'

'A what?'

'Compassion.'

'Oh.' Xeffy frowned. 'Is she some sort of super-powerful entity, then?'

'You might say that,' Fitz murmured.

'We'll look after her till you or Allie are okay, okay?' Izzy suggested.

Imran let himself sink to the ground. 'Okay.'

A young troll came up. 'Umm, Eloise was wondering if you could give these a look over before her act?' He handed Tessa a sheaf of paper.

Tessa raised an eyebrow. 'Hmm. A hymn to Epona... We should be able to manage one of these.'

'Thanks!' the young troll said.

Yokoi read over Tessa's shoulder:

"Upon a mare white as the moon She keeps a stately pace, And though we chase fast as we can, She always wins the race -- She always wins the race. "Train my heart to your saddle gold, My mind to your silver rein And out upon the trail we'll go, a-Hunting for our dreams, a-Hunting for our dreams."

http://www.bhfh.fsnet.co.uk/epona.htm

'Excuse me?' Xeffy said.

'Um... where did you want to sit?'

'Could I stay with her?'

Imran raised an eyebrow. 'Could she?'

'Until the act begins,' Tessa said. 'This is a triad - it's going to need all three of us to sing it.'

'She can't.' Xeffy protested. 'She's a wreck!'

'Who's a wreck... Xeph?'

'ALLIE!'

'I should have known,' Allie said from her position on the floor. 'I should have known. You manage to get even here...'

'Well, it was your bag of sand that did it.'

'My what?'

'Your souvenir? From the Shifting Sands?'

'That wasn't a souvenir I got...' Allie frowned. 'In fact... no, sure I never got it.'

Xeffy un-prised her fingers from around the bag. 'This ring any bells?'

Allie lifted her head up. 'No... not mine.'

'So where'd it come from?' Xeffy demanded. 'The Sandman?'

'The Sandman?' Imran said quietly. 'As in Dream of the Endless?'

'Well... oh, you know who I meant!'

'I have a bad feeling I do.' Imran murmured.

Xeffy pocketed the pouch. 'Hnh. Okay, find out where it did come from...'

'Better get to our seats,' Fitz said. 'I think she's just 'bout ready to go on...'

Tessa nodded.

'See you later, 'kay?' Xeffy said. 'And look after yourself.'

Allie managed a grin. 'Ladies and gentlemen, my sister the nanny.'

'Uh-huh,' Xeffy said. 'And who ended up being my babysitter?'

'Much as I enjoy sibling rivalry...' Tessa noted.

Fitz nodded. 'Come on.'

Muttering under her breath, Xeffy followed Fitz and Izzy out to the bleachers.

"Hi," said Nyctolops. "Here have some Audience Cloak." Without further ado Nyctolops gathered up a handful of starstuff from her own cloak and handed it to Xeffy, who didn't know quite what to do with it, but it folded itself to her shoulders nonetheless.


Moments later, Allie, Tessa and Yokoi were in their ring, Philip ready on guitar.

In the wings, Imran sat back against the wall.

No magic there. The plain milkshake - and Xeffy's arrival - seemed to have bolstered Allie's resolve that little bit more, just enough...

But what was Xeffy doing here? And what about the bag of sand?

Hmm...

Keeping another eye on her wouldn't hurt.

He hauled himself up, and out to the bleachers.

The Second and Third Doctors were doing an encore of their light and music act... Originally, there was no intermission planned for this spot, but the Gods' swordfight had made a complete mess of the ring, and her deputy and a pair of younger trolls had been recruited to rake the surface smooth again. They moved in the shadows, while all eyes were directed upward. And she thought she caught a glimpse of Mags hurrying around them ... setting up ... props? :::I wonder what they're going to do!::: she thought, excitedly.

Eloise noticed another flurry of activity in the wings -- near TYA's stage. It was hard to make out what was being said above the organ music, and most of the humanoids there probably didn't hear anything at all. But her ears could clearly tell that something was wrong. Imran, especially, sounded like he was about to break.

:::Just hold on a little while longer::: she thought. :::Whatever happens, dawn is almost here. And then this, at least, will be over:::

The final notes and lights faded away as Second and Third finished their act. Then a bell sounded, announcing that it was time for the next to begin.

With a case of butterflies almost as intense as if she were getting ready to perform herself, Eloise trotted out to the single spotlight that awaited her.

"Ladies, Gentlemen, trolls, and Deities: The amazing equine magic of The Twelve Sweethearts!" and she hurried to the sidelines to wait, barely able to stand still.

The spotlight shining on the center of the ring switched off, and the Big Top was plunged into total darkness. And stayed that way. But this wasn't like the darkness of the Gods of Ragnarok -- this was like when a friend blindfolds you, leading you safely to where a Big Surprise is waiting.

She could feel the anticipation building in the audience -- the whole audience. Perhaps it was the pro-fun energy that the hoedowners had been sending at them that was finally beginning to take hold; perhaps it was the energy they had stolen, backfiring on them; perhaps it was simply that their hunger for entertainment had finally overwhelmed them, but she could feel the malice of the Gods of Ragnarok begin to crack, and a little bit of curiosity begin to seep through.

TYA began to vocalize, harmonizing a slow melody in a minor key. It began so quietly that the sound barely tickled the ears and slowly grew louder.

Then the darkness was pierced by the orange light of a flaming torch, which seemed, at first, to float through the air. But as her eyes adjusted to the light, she could see that it was held aloft by Kingpin, dressed as a jester -- except that every detail, right down to the bells that adorned the tassels on his collar and his cap, was black. The checkered pattern of his motley was achieved with texture: corduroy, denim, silk and velvet, rather than color. He had even blackened his face with burnt cork, like the figure of Black Pete from ancient pantomime. In the ruddy, flickering light of the torch, he seemed as ghostly as an after image burned on the retina, or a nearly forgotten dream.

He began to dance, clockwise, in time to the music, pirouetting every fourth step, describing a circle half the size of the ring itself. The light trailing from his torch traced ghostly spirals through the dark, drawing all eyes and minds into the dance with him. As he circled, he came to other torches, which he lit as he passed by. When the circle was completed, the eight outer corners of an equal-armed cross were clearly marked. And from her memory of how the light had passed that day, Eloise was certain that the four arms of the cross aligned perfectly with the cardinal directions.

Kingpin continued to dance, spiralling out to the edge of the ring itself, where eight more torches, twice as tall as the first, awaited to be lit. When he had finished this last circle, a crossroads was etched on their collective imaginations, as clear as if the roads had been paved and signposted by the Highway Department -- the perfectly balanced meeting point of Dream Way and Reality Avenue.

Four tentflaps, aligned with the torches, opened simultaneously, letting the cool, pre-dawn breezes sweep through the Big Top, sending a cascade of sparks swirling through the air.

And the TARDIS team entered, three horses to a side, wearing silver bridles and reins, and golden, empty saddles, glittering in the torchlight. They cantered toward the center of the ring, changing which foreleg they led with every other stride. The overall effect was that the horses appeared to be skipping, as a child would, for sheer joy of it. They didn't slow one iota as they went, and a collective gasp rose from the audience as a massive collision seemed inevitable. But with the fluidity of a whirlpool, the horses serpentined around each other until the leaders of each line had crossed the full diameter of the ring. Then, as one, they each did a half pirouette, and faced the center of the ring. Only then did they slow their pace, switching fluidly to a highstepping trot, pausing for a split second at the top of each stride, so that it seemed they were moving in slow motion. When the last horse of each line was half way between the inner circle and the outer circle, they trotted in place for eight beats, then stood stock still, not twitching a single ear.

:::Eloise knew that all the horses were really one being with a single mind, but she was still impressed. It was as if a person with twelve arms were juggling 48 pins, and not missing a single beat. She began to realize the mental and physical flexibility Sweetheart needed to juggle all her inner dimensions for the troll's safety and comfort, and was immensely grateful:::

TYA stopped vocalizing and sang first verse of the hymn:

(Upon a mare white as the moon
She keeps a stately pace,
And though we chase fast as we can,
She always wins the race --
She always wins the race.)

And as they returned to vocalizing, the horses began moving again, trotting diagonally, this time, across the ring. Again, as they came toward the center of the ring, they serpentined around each other, moving with the precision of a line of Ziegfield Follies dancers, coming at last to stand three abreast in the spaces between the arms of the cross. Again, they turned to face the center of the ring, and stopped on a dime.

Mags entered from the wings, dressed as a tramp clown, with a broom for a hobby horse, the bristle end facing forward. And as with Kingpin's costume, every detail, even the head of the broom, was black, except that Mags was wearing whiteface. She romped around the ring, waving to the audience, and miming laughter. She mimicked, with perfect comic sense, each of the moves the horses had made.

After the graceful, solemn tension of all that had come before, laughter came easily.

Then Mags herself turned solemn, "riding" to the center of the ring, while TYA sang the second verse:

(Train my heart to your saddle gold,
My mind to your silver rein,
And out upon the trail we'll go,
a-Hunting for our dreams --
a-Hunting for our dreams)

Mags circled the midpoint of the crossroads, clockwise, three times, then went to stand beside the team leader, in the northeast quadrant.

TYA fell silent. The only sound now was the wind blowing through the Big Top. The audience shifted in their seats. Was that it? The end? Eloise could feel that even Sweetheart was uncertain. The Gods of Ragnarok began to grow restless, but not with the same malice she had felt before. This time, there was a distinct sense of nervousness mixed in with it.

Then it happened. She appeared, as intangible as a ghost, and as solid as a steamroller: a goddess cloaked all in black, riding bareback and asideś, on a horse even whiter than Sweetheart's team. The horse was walking, yet moved so quickly it stunned the mind, travelling east to west, just ahead of first light. This was Epona, letting herself be seen for a moment, as she journeyed through all the worlds, dispensing dreams. Red rose petals trailed in her wake like clouds of steam, with the life-affirming brilliance of which the Gods' blood red lightning was a twisted shadow.

ś Not a typo. As though with a sidesaddle -- only without the saddle :-)

Then she was gone. All that remained were the rose petals, scattered across the ring, the scents of apples, fresh baked bread and wine, and the knowledge that she had been there -- giving her blessing, and her warning.

The Gods of Ragnarok hissed angrily, as though burned by the sparks from the torches. For the first time since this showdown began, she could feel that they'd been knocked off balance. The hoedowners hadn't won, yet, she knew. Much danger lay ahead. But for the first time, she truly felt that they had a chance.

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