The Sirens have conceded victory in the song battle...
Eloise held her breath, waiting.
Watching the sirens. Leucosia had just finished plucking her lyre -- the sound had not yet left the strings. Parthenope's lips still held the shape of the last syllable. Pisinoe still held the Libyan flute to her lips.
It was only for a split second, but they seemed frozen in time forever -- like a half-remembered photograph from long ago (was it a photo of an Attic Vase painting she had seen once? Eloise wondered).
Then, as one, they spread their wings and rose toward the big top canopy. They turned transparent as they rose -- as transparent as a ripple on the surface of the sea -- and flew through the mesh of the song web that the hoedowners had raised, leaving bits of themselves behind, as morning fog is caught by the strands of a spider's web.
(!) The web of song was still there -- and the power of the sirens -- the originals -- was now part of it!
Did this mean that The Powers That Be had decided in the Pro-Funsters' favor? Had they really and truly won?
Into the absolute hush that now filled the tent a new sound struck their ears -- from outside: a bird singing.
Morning had come.
Eloise began to let out the breath she'd been holding. But before the air was out of her lungs, the Gods of Ragnarok struck.
The Gods had taken the bait, taken that moment of victory....
And now the darkness was threatening to consume them all. A nanosecond was all it would take to win the Gods their unrighteous victory...
Time for the Doctors slowed, as they saw the wall of death that screamed towards their friends...
face your fear and embrace it, for it is part of you
it is time
fight not with rage but with truth
It is time, Senshi
The staff drove into the ground between the Hoedowners and the Gods, and time resumed once more. The Gods howled as their effort was repelled, its energy dispelled harmlessly into shadowy fragments that littered the circus ring like candy from a pinata. A muted sigh of relief from the hoedowners, but that relief was short-lived, as they seemed to be drawing themselves up to another attack....
"I don't think so."
From between the bleachers, the slender figure of Sailor Gallifrey emerged, her walk slow and deliberate as she made her way to the centre of the ring. She gently touched each person as she passed, a smile and a nod, leaving in each hand a red feather.
The Eighth squinted, as if not seeing correctly. There was something different, not quite...
"Now that I have your attention, it's time for the judgement."
She plucked her staff from the ground.
Felt the energy surge.
Was afraid, just for a moment...
Oh gods -
Imran stared, wide-eyed. Tessa's eyes bugged.
"Oh boy," muttered Gordon.
The feather of Maat was floating gently above the palm of her right hand.
Eloise gasped. Was that really -- no, it couldn't be... could it?
But before she could fully register her surprise at what she saw, she was in for another one. And from the reactions of those around her, she could tell she wasn't alone.
The feather in her hand came alive -- buzzing like a fly's wing. She opened her fingers and, like the feather of Ma'at, it rose. But unlike the feather of Ma'at, it kept going. As did all the feathers Sailor Gallifrey had given to them.
Like rose petals (or rose-colored snowflakes) falling upward, the feathers floated toward the song-web suspended above them. And as they rose, they lost their physical form, becoming tiny spheres of red light (echoing the red lightning the Gods of Ragnarok had used against them).
When the lights-that-had-been-feathers met the web, they, too, entwined themselves with it, joining the light of happy dreams, the dark of nightmares, and the glimmering allure of the sirens' song (the second prize given in the victors in the second song battle -- this time, given freely, and thus, more powerful). Soon, the whole web shimmered with red and silver light, bathing the faces of all who were gathered there in a soft glow.
(The Gods of Ragnarok fought desperately against the bonds Sailor Gallifrey had placed on them, seething with a palpable rage. But their fate was as sealed as that of a fish caught on the barb of a fisherman's hook. Eloise almost felt sorry for them. Almost).
The feather floating above Sailor Gallifrey's palm thrummed softly, then slowly drifted down toward her hand.
And the song web, following suit (as if laden down to its limit at last), began to sink, ever so slowly. It drifted over the bleachers where Gods of Ragnarok had stationed themselves.
Then, with the suddeness of any sprung trap, it fell upon them.
The angry howls of the Gods screeched through the big top like hurricane winds.
All the hoedowners and their guests (except perhaps for the three goddesses) averted their eyes. There were some things mere mortals simply could not see.
So no one actually saw what happened next. But they felt it. Felt it in their bones, like a change in air pressure or in gravity.
The vortex -- the gateway -- opened: a rent in the fabric of space-time itself. The Gods of Ragnarok were sucked through it. And the soul-numbing cold that the Gods had brought with them, that had settled on the shoulders of the pro-funsters since midnight, rushed past them -- like the air in a room when it is opened to a vacuum.
One by one, they cautiously opened their eyes and looked around them. Their faces were still bathed in a soft, rosy light, and for a moment, Eloise thought the magical, tiny feathers of Ma'at had returned. Then she realized it was the light of Jubilganzia's sun, filtering down through the red and white striped canopy of the big top.
Outside, in the shelter of a canyon wall, Curry's brown whinnied a welcome to the morning.
'In their prison,' Shayde said.
'And their prison?'
Shayde lifted the crystal globe, darkness boiling inside it.
'They are trapped here, in the prison they created. Trapped by our dreams, trapped in their dream. The solution to the riddle.'
The darkness raged inside the globe, wanting, reaching for the light -
Alryssa raised her staff. 'No more of this.'
The Gods were held, the darkness seething.
'Now... Yokoi, the final phrase?'
Life is a mystery.
The darkness quavered, trembled, knowing what came, the trap they had built, now their cage -
And the crystal became opaque, a silver globe.
'What happens to it now?' Eloise said. 'What happens to them? If someone decides to free them?'
'Someone will,' Shayde agreed. 'That is the way of things. And I would not say that the binding is irrevocable. They were freed once, they may be freed again.'
'But there are safe places... places where it would take a god's will to free them. Perhaps even more than that... And after this night's work, no god will come for them,' Shayde continued. 'The Grey One has readied a place for them.'
He raised the globe. 'Go then, to the Grey One of Gallifrey. To the place that awaits you.'
The globe seemed to waver in the sunlight -
- and disappeared.
Eloise breathed out. Done and done. Gone. Where they wouldn't escape.
Kid Curry shakes his head, dragging the back of one hand across his eyes like a man waking from a dream he doesn't understand.
All round him the Hoedowners are starting to exchange disbelieving grins, thumping one another on the back, sharing hugs and a few grateful tears.
Gods... gods were never his line of country. What happened?
He finds the ringmaster in the crowd. Shies away a little from her enthusiastic greeting.
"Lady -- was that it? Your side... won?" Not quite what he wants to ask. Not quite right. "Is it over -- the grayness, the draining?"
Their eyes meet: and in them he can see that she has guessed what it is that really matters. He'd have hated that -- once. Hated her for knowing... for reading him too well.
Yesterday, maybe. Last night. All of eight hours... and a very long time ago.
Eloise met his eyes. Saw the confusion, the exhaustion. She sighed. "This round. We've won this round. Whoever -- whatever -- was draining the energy from stories ... from ... everything ...".
Now that she had to explain what happened -- slow down and think about it, the exhaustion was catching up with her; she barely had the strength to get the words out. She took a deep breath, tried again. "Whoever's behind this has merely been using the Gods of Ragnarok, the Monitors, as tools, as -- conduits. Like water pipes, in reverse. The Monitors -- the ones who planted those boxes in Vortex City, who kidnapped Sailor Gallifrey ... some of them were willing puppets, but some were unwilling. The Gods -- they were all too willing, that's why they were so much harder to fight. We've broken both those conduits. Now, we have to go back to the source -- stop them -- stop it -- before new conduits are found. Then ... then it will be over." She took another deep breath, and felt a smile spread across her face as if of its own accord. "But yeah. Our side won. It's a new day, and we're still here."
She looked up into Curry's eyes. She could read some of his thoughts there. His face was more human, now, than it was when he first stumbled into the hoedown -- less of a dazed, stony mask. But she could not read as much, she suspected, as he thought she did.
The road of fate that led him to this point had come to an end. The tornado blight of the Monitors that chased him to the hoedown, the Contessa's eye charm that led them to Jubilganzia, his own nightmares, the illusion that he was an ordinary man (even if he was a bad man) from an ordinary Western town, were all gone -- each surrendered, one by one, as part of the battle just past.
The road of fate, that he had hurtled along like a freight train on its track, had come to a sudden, definite end. Where he went from here was entirely his own choice.
And that was the one thing Eloise could not read. And it was the most important thing of all.
Kid Curry looked up overhead, at the long splashes of sunlight across the canvas. The shadows there of the mountains were shortening almost as he watched.
There was a new aroma drifting in amongst the close, stale scents of the circus ring; the fresh dampness of rising dew. The roof of the tent creaked gently, far above, the upper panels tautening as they began to dry in the warmth of the sun. Across the ring, the flaps of the main entrance were stirring with the morning breeze.
He turned swiftly, without a word, and thrust his way though the crowd out into the open. The cold air was like water on tired eyes. He drew a deep breath, and knelt to rub the dew over his face, scowling at the coarseness of stubble against his fingers. Given the choice, he'd have gotten cleaned up before paying a call on the Contessa... but there hadn't been no choice, and it hadn't exactly been a social call...
His mind shied away from the thought of Sandra as she was now. He took another, deliberate, breath and glanced up to gauge the state of the sun.
Later than he'd thought, by the way the shadows were falling -- but this wasn't his world, and he could only guess at the hour. Mid-morning, maybe. If time ran steady between here and Vortex City -- and it didn't; he'd swear more time had passed for them, over in the City, than could be accounted for by the two circus acts he'd missed... yeah, well -- by his best reckoning, the night would be all but over. The small hours before dawn.
And if the Contessa had been feeling even half as rough as he did -- he caught back a yawn -- she'd be fast asleep by now. Deep in a feather bed, wrapped in a froth of lace and ribbons, with her long lashes down on her cheek and just a curve of one shoulder showing...
Best not to take that line of thought any further, perhaps. He caught up another handful of cold dew and dashed it across face and neck.
She was safe. He'd gleaned that much from the little hostess, at least. No more draining, not now. Not ever, if they could track this back to the source, put paid to the mind behind it, before any more trouble could come.
A new day.
A new journey.
More time... to make the decision that had to be made: what next. After this was done, after the Hoedown was over -- what next?
He glanced all round swiftly, almost as if afraid someone could overhear his thoughts by looking at him. But even the gryphons seemed for the moment to be out of sight, doing whatever it was that gryphons did of a morning... and the only sound was the soft ripping of grass under the horse's teeth.
The brown grazed quietly, rested and ready to go. Too much horse-sense to let the lights and goings-on inside the tent spook him any, by the looks of it. He'd gone right on dozing on his feet -- the only one of them to have gotten in any sleep to speak of. Something to be said, after all, for being a dumb creature.
Kid Curry sighed, and went over to loosen up the picket line. Horse was happy enough anywhere, provided there was grass, and a feed of oats now and then to keep the heart in him... Never thought about the next day, or the day to come.
A man could live that way, too. Lose a hundred years from day to day and never see them pass... no better than a beast, maybe. Maybe. And maybe something less.
The Contessa's voice, softly: "And those who had, once, another life... begin to remember. For a while."
For a while. Until the stories were stronger. Until it was safe to go back.
Go back -- and forget. Forget who he'd been; forget those he'd known, and lived alongside; those who'd stopped a bullet in his place, and those who'd stopped a bullet at his hand; those who'd cheated him, and those who'd stared, all those long months in the Knoxville jail, like children poking sticks at a caged coyote to make him turn and snap... He'd pulled the blanket over his head, in the end. Sat tented up in the stifling dark, hunched and sullen, while the voices beyond the bars murmured and laughed.
Forget them all. Those who'd mocked, and those he'd lost, and those he'd murdered. Half-remembered, haunting his sleep even in the City... but no more. No more bitter dreams. That weight had gone, gone with the lidless hatred of the Gods as they dwindled away under the woven net of dream. Nothing left of his past, at all. If he went back.
The stories would take him then, he guessed; take him altogether. He'd play out his part, to whatever end would come. Never aging. Never dying, for as long as he could keep ahead of the law. It was the world he knew -- a world that had been all but over in the land of his birth, even in his own day.
He'd seen it go, bit by bit, as the telegraphs and the lawcourts spread, and numbered banknotes laid a trail that could take the wariest outlaw, hide as he might, the minute he tried to spend his gains. A world of stooping clerks and soft-handed men. Of judges who could no longer be bribed, and sheriffs no longer scared enough to look the other way. A world with less and less place for one of his kind... even then.
The bells that rang the old century out had been ringing in the end of the life he'd known. The start of the road that had driven him south, and south -- that led at last to Corcovado. Even if he'd known the truth of Vortex City, that last night... he'd have sold his soul itself to get there.
Only, that was before he'd lived -- really lived -- at the mercy of stories. Stories that led, always, to the noose, one way or another -- or to the shot in the back, or the damn-fool faceoff out in the street with no cover, up against some sharp-shooting would-be-hero with the story on his side -- and when you tried to twist out of one, why, there was another just laying in wait to trip you up.
Another memory -- his own voice, half-crazed and bitter: "You don't go down for all the stuff you've done; no, you go down for the one time you tried to do right, or the one time you didn't aim to shoot an old man and maybe should have..."
Go back -- to that?
..and yet, what else, really, had he ever known?
They'd left Aunt Lee's for Montana, the four of them, still wet behind the ears, to set up for themselves, ranching. And it hadn't paid. Maybe they'd been too green. Maybe the day of the small ranchers had already been over. It hadn't paid, any way they'd tried -- until they'd gotten into rustling.
Golden years? Could be. If he'd had the chance to go back, that's where he'd go. Lonie and Johnny still alive, and Hank too, in the beginning -- and leave Landusky be. Let old man Pike bluster out his righteous rage, down in Jew Jake's. Ride back up to the ranch instead, that day after Christmas, with the whiskey hot inside him and the air cold as the snow, and keep his fists back from the old man's face...
But he'd been on the wrong side of the law, even then. Living on a knife-edge. All it would have taken was one nosy neighbor -- Jim Winters, maybe -- to cast an eye on the brands of the rustled steers they'd been running. And they'd all have been hunted men -- or in jail.
What else had he ever known?
And the City... held the Contessa. A warmth that drew him, moth-like, quickening his breath when he even thought of her.
Not his. Never his. Beyond his touch. A moth -- yeah, beating himself against a window-pane.
Hell, she was no more human than the Doctor she'd taught him of, in her stories... and at any rate she'd never looked at him twice. Not in that way.
Not human... and if he'd known, would it have made a difference? He guessed it would. But he hadn't known... no more than he'd known what he felt for her himself.
There'd been women, before. Not that many -- but enough. This one --
So. Go back? Close enough to see, once or twice a year -- but never to touch -- and wait for this burning to fade, as all bitter knowledge told him it would?
Stay? Leave? Go? -- and go where?
He straightened up, slowly, the peg that held the picket line twisted, forgotten, between his fingers. His muscles were stiff.
"You would age again, from the moment you returned..." Words whispered in his mind.
Already, he'd never see forty again. Fifty, coming into sight. Sixty, in the end. If he didn't go back to the City -- how long would he last? And if he did -- how long would that life seem worth the living, now?
His own world was dead... dead as Gallifrey. Him and the Contessa, exiles both; with Vortex City all they had as home.
Kid Curry unsnapped the picket line from the brown's halter and slapped it across the horse's shoulder, tugging his head round towards the circus wagon. Time to get packed up and get going... and right now he could use a shave. Most of all, though, he hankered to stretch him out somewhere soft -- quiet, noisy, he wasn't too particular -- and sleep. Quit thinking about this last journey's end until he'd got started, at least, upon its beginning.
But the wagon was locked. Leastways, he couldn't seem to get the doors open.
He bit back a tired curse. Leaned against the side of the wheel for a moment, eyes closed. Then turned back across the sunlit grass towards the circus tent.
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