Imran's 'magic act' begins...


Click.

Reality unfolded.

A piece of the night took form in the centre of the ring, stars glimmering within.

And a cloaked figure stepped out.

As the spotlight came up, it could be seen that the figure stood behind a cauldron, filled to the brim with a bubbling liquid.

'Double, double, toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble.'

The figure paused. It could almost be imagined it was smiling.

'I love the classics, don't you?

'Ask not for whom the cauldron bubbles. It bubbles for thee.'

A bubble broke free from the cauldron, and rose into the air.

It hung in mid-air, as if awaiting a word, or a sign.

'But who am I?' the figure continued. 'Am I the great wizard Narm, perhaps? Adept with the ways of magic - and the knowledge of enchantments?'

As the figure spoke, the bubble slowly grew bigger, until everyone within the audience could see clearly within it.

The figure shook its head. 'Alas, no.'

And suddenly-


The Troll Princess and her friends - the Lords of Time, the outlaw Curry, Alryssa, now creativity incarnate, the half-crazed warrior-mage Gordon, even the Muses themselves - have come to the land of Jubiliganza, to learn who seeks to drain the life from their land, and to aid the King and Queen of this land.

Here, in the great palatial hall, they face the Dark Ones, the Mazoku Lords themselves, in a contest of champions.

In the hall now stands a figure in a wizard's cloak, a hooded mage.

A bubble rises from his hand, depicting a most wondrous and terrible illusion...


The bubble floated away to the edge of the ring, the image within playing on.

'I am not Narm, as you can tell.' the figure said. 'Perhaps then, I'm a mad scientist. Perhaps I'm a Doctor. Doctor Tayani...'

The audience leans forward to see the bubble.


Onboard the starship Hoedown, a motley band of renegades and outlaws are fighting for their lives against the forces of the Alliance.

The band's leader, the legendary Eloise, has laid down a challenge to the leaders of the alliance, after her band's defeat of the Alliance's dreaded Monitors - a challenge, one on one. And should she win, she and hers will go about their business unmolested.

The Alliance's leaders, pushed to the brink, have found no other course but to agree.

Now, Dr Tayani, mad scientist, quiet and ever-constant in the starship's background, steps into the spotlight, his lab coat flapping around him, to demonstrate the many and varied technologies they and theirs have created.

A transparent globe hangs in the air above his hand. Within it, a hologram forms...


'No,' the figure said. 'Not Tayani, either... Maybe I'm a writer, hmm? A writer looking for questions and answers about life, and fun, and creativity. Trying to sort out the mess of his life, to work out what he's going to do next, what feels right, and fun, and enjoyable. Who writes stories that as often as not get ignored, or get praised.

'But he doesn't stop writing. Because he enjoys it. Because when someone's reply to his story comes in, and they praise it, or constructively criticise it, he knows that he's managed to make a connection - and that counterbalances the silence, the silence that can leave him unsure. Uncertain as to what that silence means, whether it was loved or hated, or whether they simply didn't like it enough... that response balances that silence.

'And he continues writing. Because it's fun.'

Another bubble rose from the cauldron.

'Writing about the Doctor, and his many worlds...'


In the Darkling Zones, there is a circle.

A circle of stone.

In it stands perhaps one of the greatest of mages, Lord Quiquaequod himself. His robes are blown and buffeted by a wind, though there is no sound.

- You stand alone, little wizard.

'Perhaps,' Lord Quiquaequod says. 'Perhaps. But someone must take a stand. Defy you even here...'

- Guilt... sweet guilt. Your apprentice lost on your last journey into these lands, and so you come to pay the price for your failure... So sweet. And so, you stand alone, little man...

'No.'

Someone steps into the circle. A knight, his armour battered and in disrepair.

'Sir Gerald...' Quiquaequod whispers.

The knight bows. 'I am ever at your service. Even if the forces of darkness stand against us, I stand with you.'

His voice lowers. 'As do the rest of us.'

'Why?' Quiquaequod whispers. 'Why?'

'Because we trust you, and because you fail. Because you make mistakes... and though you know that, you still continue.'

'We may all fail this day.'

'Then we shall fall alongside you. This is our choice to make - as Fey's decision to journey with you was hers. An accident, Qui. She would know. It was an accident - and none of us can escape them.'

'No...' Lord Quiquaequod smiles, underneath his beard. 'No. Not even they can escape that. So we stand, and so we challenge, and so you will be cast down...'

A blue nimbus forms around his hand. He raises it to the sky.

'And so let it begin!'


Tardis Tails pulls at the lapels of his frock coat.

The judge peers at him over the top of his glasses. 'Mr Tails, you do not seem to be taking this very seriously.'

'Taking what very seriously?' the fat feline asks, his tail waggling behind him.

'This case. This court.'

'Ummm... he got a point there, Tardis...' Lizzy says, tweaking at his sleeve. 'Maybe...'

'No, no and no again!' Tardis proclaims. 'I shall refute these worthless allegations made against my good person-'

Lizzy taps his sleeve nervously.

'-and that of my compatriot Lizzy, who has ever been a rock against some of my more... extravagant indulgences!'

The lizard blushes - a blush surprisingly obvious on Lizzy's green face.

'I shall demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt the malicious, and indeed vengeful, nature of these accusations, and the clear enmity this person holds against myself!'

'Mr Tails...' the judge says. 'May I remind you that you are on trial for the theft of fish, not hammy acting. If you were, I would have no choice but to find you guilty on the spot!'

'Then by all means, m'lud, let us proceed...' Tardis proclaims. 'Let us proceed!'


The Man in Black is out there, somewhere. Waiting. Watching.

But that's not what's on Doc Gallifrey's mind at the moment.

He can see the twisters from here.

Can barely remember the last time he saw twisters this big

He can see the hooded figures, coming at the edge of the storm.

Riding the storm - and the devastation it brings.

You cannot hope to fight the storm... the Man in Black's voice whispers, in long ago memories.

You cannot hope to fight the storm - but you can fight those who ride it, who would turn it to their own purpose.

And so he is here. Watching those who watch the storm. And waiting.

For the moment. For the place.

A showdown. A showdown with the riders of the storm.

And perhaps...

...you cannot hope to fight the storm...

...but perhaps it can be turned aside.


The Doctor - the Eighth Doctor - readies his sword.

Sometimes, these days, he forgets where he learned how to use a rapier, where he picked up his skills at fencing, which come so surely to his hand.

Then he remembers, and from that, his meetings with Cyrano de Bergerac, his visits to the French courts, and the Musketeers, and the doomed Queen herself, Marie Antoinette...

And now, as on Tara, he must turn that skill to active use. To the defence of innocents, of the Hoedown, and, this night of all nights, the Omniverse itself.

And the friend who now maintains that self-same Omniverse.

He gives the rapier one final polish, in readiness for what will come.


'They are all the Eighth Doctor.' the figure said quietly. 'They aren't parallel to him. They are him, what he is, and may be, in universes and multiverses far from here. Diversity and singularity. One and many. A contradiction, and a true thing. Many multiverses and universes, moving in and out and across, intersecting and joining and separating... Many places, linked to one place...'

The figure fell silent.

'The centre of it all. The gateway,' the figure finally said. 'The Glory.'

For a moment, a symbol hung in the air above the cauldron. A circle, equally divided between light and dark, a complex pattern of circles and squares held within.

'And so we return,' the figure said. 'As a wise man said, one measures a circle beginning anywhere. Everything is connected - that's the principle of continuity. And that-'

The symbol rose into the air.

'-should never be forgotten.'

The symbol exploded in a burst of white light, dazzling everyone in the Big Top.

And when their eyesight cleared...

...the figure, and the cauldron filled with milkshakes, had gone.

And slowly, growing more enthusiastic, and ever louder...

...the audience applauded.


...At least, the pro-fun side did, but then again, they would.

On the other side, the multitude of Gods of Ragnarok merged into a single, giant entity, with a single, giant voice:

"You Dare to mock UsMe, to mock this very challenge, with your so-called 'act'?!"

"Bu-but there was no --" "I didn't mo --"

Our ringmaster and Imran spoke together, in rather small voices.

"WeI desire to bring OurMy grievances directly before The Powers that be! Let Them decide!"

There was a flash of light so bright, it struck the eye as darkness. The Big Top -- no -- the very sky -- split open.

They -- the pro-fun performers, their guests in the audience, and the Ragnarok Entity, were no longer on Jubilganzia.

They were -- No Where, No When.

"No, not this..." First and Second Doctors said together, quietly. The others looked glum and worried.

STATE YOUR GRIEVANCES a voice (or was it voices?) said, so large, it was heard through the marrow of the bones, rather than through the ears.

"We have three: OurMy -- adversaries -- " the Entity spat out the word as though it were defilement itself, "have mocked UsMe, and this challenge, by reducing it all to a mere story -- a fiction -- for their own entertainment."

SO NOTED. WHAT IS YOUR SECOND GRIEVANCE?

"They attacked OurMy performer, before the act could be completed."

"But They --" our ringmaster protested.

SILENCE!

WHAT IS YOUR FINAL GRIEVANCE?

"That they violated the laws of Ragnarok, by giving one of OurMy creatures free will. Only Gods are allowed this."

YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO DECLARE THIS CHALLENGE NULL AND VOID. DO YOU CLAIM THAT RIGHT?

"No."

:::Of course not, our ringmaster thought. This circus is their chance to try and destroy us.:::

WHAT REDRESS DO YOU SEEK?

"WeI seek only another chance to perform, to answer the mockery of our -- adversaries."

SO BE IT. FROM THIS MOMENT FORTH, THE GODS OF RAGNAROK SHALL BE THE ONES TO ANSWER EVERY CHALLENGE.

"Now wait just a minute!" our ringmaster said, finding the courage to speak. "Aren't you going to listen to our side of the story?"

FROM HERE, THERE IS ONLY ONE SIDE.

"oh."

THE DECISION HAS BEEN MADE. LET THE CHALLENGE RESUME.

And, suddenly, they were back in the Big Top.

Our ringmaster was standing in the center ring, a microphone in her hand. "Ladies, Gentlemen, and other beasties. I present to you the Otherworldly magic of the Gods of Ragnarok!"


'IMRAN!!'

'Unkkk...'

'Imran, are... are you okay?'

'Uhh... Uh. Oyy...'

'...Imran?'

'Allie? Ooh... Now there's a response you never wanna hear.'

'Are you okay?'

'Fine... I think I am... Did they like it or not?'

'Well, we did...' Allie said.

'Oooh.' Slowly, Imran stood up. 'Thanks. But what'd they think of it?'

'Well, they were complaining you'd turned it into a fiction...'

'Excuse me?' Imran said. 'Excuse me?!'

'Turned it into a fiction,' Allie said.

'...I'm almost offended!' Imran complained.

'More than that,' Allie observed.

'...Yes.' Imran nodded.

- this mockery of an act.

- this mockery...

'I told them,' Imran whispered. 'I told them how it could be turned against me - and us - told them my weak spot... If silence has one effect, and praise another... what about complaining...?'

'Not all your weak spots,' Allie put her arm around him. 'Like you showed us - you're fallible, you make mistakes. You couldn't have seen what they would do.'

Imran sighed. 'Yeah. But I gave them an opening...'

'You couldn't have seen that!' Allie said. 'There's no way you could have seen that! Stop punishing yourself over it!'

'It's a bit hard when they call for an appeal right after your act...' Imran said sardonically. 'And even harder when the PTB actually agree with them. The PTB must have been pissed - they're usually a voice inside. Not yours, or anyone else's... theirs. For a manifestation that extravagant...'

'Actually, that doesn't surprise me.' Allie said. 'After the Monitors - and with the current crisis - I'd have been surprised if they weren't...'

'Oh goody...' Imran muttered. 'Brilliant. Just brilliant. And I thought having a parent mad at you was bad enough...'

'They saw a chance, and they took it.' Allie said quietly.

Imran frowned. 'Why didn't... well, why didn't you three complain?'

'US?!' Allie squeaked.

'You are under Calliope's aegis, yeah? You could've asked in her name...'

'ASK? IN CALLIOPE'S NAME?'

'All right, all right, it was only a suggestion...'

'ASK THE PTB?! IN CALLIOPE'S NAME?!'

'Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. In and out. In and out.'

Allie slowly returned to her normal colour. 'Sorry. Panic attack.'

'Mm...' Imran said non-committally. '...Okay. That's the situation we're in. Now, we've got to work out what to do next...'

'A fiction...' he muttered. 'A fiction. Just because I showed them what was happening in other multiverses, told it as a story, they called it fiction.'

'Nothing wrong with fiction,' Allie said. 'I should know... And everything's real, somewhere - but you end up deciding how to portray it. It was fiction. It was real, too. That was the point... wasn't it?'

'I'm not likely to say otherwise...'

'So...' Allie started. 'So what are you going to do?'

Imran sighed. 'The act's done... why am I not surprised the Gods missed the point... I'm going to check on Kid, see how he's doing.'

'...Okay,' Allie said. She hugged him a little tighter. 'And stop hurting yourself over this, okay? You don't deserve that.'

Imran half-smiled. 'Heh. You too. Go out there and knock 'em dead.'

Allie winced.

'Sorry, bad choice of words.' Imran apologised.

'You're telling me...' Allie said. 'See you later.'

As Imran left to check on Kid...

...it might have been imagined that his cloak glowed a little brighter.

Or perhaps it was only a trick of the light.


Our Ringmaster stepped in front of him, blocking his path. "Whoa, whoa, whoa, Mister Man! Where do you think you're going?"

"I, erm, I was just ..." Imran sighed.

"Yeah, well. You know the set up: after your act, you go into the bleachers to be in the audience. We need as many people up there as possible, transforming the energy the Gods send at us. It's your magic cloak, after all. Remember? And we need magic more than ever, now that the Gods have the last word on everything."

Imran winced.

"Look, I think I figured out what's happened," she said, gently herding him back toward the seats. "Quite simple, really. It was our side who started it, remember -- when Gordon raised the Sword of Authority. Because we raised the grievance against the Gods attacking us with their kites, we got to dictate the terms of redress. Now, they claimed grievance, so now they set the terms."

"Yeah, but it was after my act -- it's my fault."

"You're an author," she reminded him. "Did you really think you'd go your whole life without getting a bad review from a critic who just didn't 'get it'?"

"But they said it was a mockery!"

She smiled wryly. "Look who said it," she said. "I doubt the Gods of Ragnarok ever look at themselves from any other point of view than their own. And I doubt the Gods want to be reminded that their little universe isn't the only one there is. At least you know that your magic was true enough to hit a nerve -- that's something. Now, get into the audience, and enjoy the rest of the show."

She gave him a final shove toward the bleachers, and squinted toward the ring. She'd already announced them, but the ring was empty. The performer wasn't invisible, as Imran had gone at the end of his act. There was no presence there.

She smiled wryly, to herself, this time: They really weren't planning an act, before, she thought, and now, they had to make one up. She wondered if they would dare to attack the audience, now that they had called attention to themselves from the PTB.

What really worried her now, was that the Gods were going to do the finale, not TYA. She winced as a thought struck her: If only we'd called a formal grievance after they'd attacked Kid Curry.

She sighed. Hard to play by the rules, when you don't know what the rules are.

Better get in there and keep her eyes and ears open. Maybe the Gods would leave them an opening.

She hurried back to the edge of the ring.

And as the Gods began to prepare their revised magic act...

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