The avocado troll's attempt to warn the outlaw has backfired disastrously...


In the shadows behind the bleachers, jaw clenched until it hurt, Kid Curry tried to fight down the familiar black rage that had left a bloody trail across the pages of his life. It wasn't an exercise he'd ever seen fit to set much store by. A handful and more of hasty graves could testify to that.

She'd been nosey-poking into his private business -- making out to be the Contessa, even using her name for him -- setting up to catch him out, watch him make a moon-calf out of himself -- Yeah, that'd be something to see, wouldn't it? Another notch marked up on the Pro-Fun belt. Guess she'd been fixing to 'reform' him all along, ever since he'd been fool enough to invite himself through her doors.

Hey, come and look, Hoedowners, our own pet outlaw's gone soft! He choked back a snarling curse at the thought. Just how long had they all been laughing at him?

Out in the ring, the next act was going through its paces with machine-like perfection. Caught up in the black seduction of his own fury, he barely spared them a glance -- a pack of fluffy toy dogs, like a rich ladies' tea-party.

He was through with Pro-Fun. Nails bit deep as his fists tightened. He was through with trust, and promises, and trying to help out...

Yeah. Mighty fine words. His mouth twisted. Excepting he didn't exactly have much choice. He'd been lost since before ever he'd stumbled on the Hoedown -- lost since the preacher'd stolen his mind -- and he was out of his world and out of his depth. No place to run.

And if you walk out now -- it was like an icy gust rushing in on him, cold unaccustomed sense draining out the drunken warmth of his grievance -- if you walk out now, reckon there won't be no city left to go back to anyhow. Could even be too late already. You felt the fear in the Contessa, and she don't scare easy.

But if she was here, she'd be out there laughing and clapping and weaving a web with words and hands fit to charm a smile from the Gods themselves -- not hiding in the shadows from a maybe grin on the face of a three-foot troll. She'd be out there fighting for her life with everything she'd got.

You walk out now -- you break the circle -- and you haven't got a hope in hell alone, and you know it. And no more does she. Or any of the others. Or anything you ever cared for. You really want to see her sucked dry and cast off, like the eyes in a snake-skin with nothing looking back from behind?


Kid Curry blinked, slowly, shaking himself like a man coming out of a dream, and took a deep breath. Over to the side he caught a glimpse of the Ringmaster trotting out to introduce the next act, and despite himself began to turn away, biting his lip against the high colour rising again to stain his face. But it looked like she wasn't just announcing... looked like she was actually going on.

He frowned, eyes narrowing, as her words sank in. First Gordon was out; now Jim Vowles. And so the cold grasp of the Eaters of Story reached out across the worlds, to lay its claws on lives that thought themselves secure, even as his own, all unknowing, had been twisted...

He could feel their hate now as the act began to go wrong; hate and anger that dwarfed his own and yet reached out to it, seizing weakness, trying to feed. Their power arched over the ring, towering, breaking, falling -- and nothing he could do would stave it off, defiance splintering like dry reeds --

And the Contessa's charm was dead. Dead and cold, an old dry bone.

Whatever power had woken there at the touch of the water in the hostess's barn; whatever link with the past, whatever song of joy it held; whatever secret strength the gryphons had sensed within him, to be forged anew in the face of the Gods' dark bolt... it was gone. Killed by the roiling violence within him. He had been rejected.

...

As the fury of the Gods of Ragnarok was washed away on the wings of laughter, with cats, kittens and dog romping in the ring, Kid Curry sank to his knees, unnoticed, where the shadows met the light. For a moment he stared out across the tent, eyes wild and hopeless; then, as if struck by a blow to the belly, he doubled up, sobbing for breath. In the hidden darkness of his own hunched body, his face twisted into a cry of silent despair.


Red lightning crackled across the roof of the Big Top, forming a twisted reflection of the pattern the cats had traced.

And then it struck dead centre at the middle of the Big Top.

There was silence.

Then, a low, dark, rumble of thunder, almost deafening those who heard it.

And then slowly, everything returned to normal.

'What was-?'

'I don't know.' Imran frowned. 'I honestly don't know.'

'Might - whatever they've just done - could it have some effect on the performers in the ring? Either helping the Gods or working against us?'

'If it does...' Imran said, '...well, we'll find out. And then... Maybe a few magical milkshakes should help deal with that- AAAGGGHH!'

The cloak flickered, and dulled. Then brightened again, but dimmer than before.

'What's he done?! WHAT HAS HE DONE?!' Imran screeched.

'What? What's wrong?'

'Something's gone wrong...' Imran whispered. 'Something's gone wrong... That was... that was the release of something. Whatever they did, they did it before your act. That was... The lightning confirmed whatever they've done...'

'But what?'

'One of the protectors. They've struck at one of the protectors...'

Our hostess peeked her nose out. Daibhid and the Muses seemed okay... She looked back at Alryssa. Nothing wrong there - and she was sure the gryphons were capable of handling whatever the Gods threw at them.

Her deputy waved at her from her seat. Grinning, our hostess waved back.

Wait. Wait. Oh no. Oh no.

'Kid...' she whispered. 'Where's Kid?'


They found him hunched into a ball, silent tears trickling down his face, in the place where the shadows met the light.

'What... what happened?' Imran whispered.

Our hostess noticed something.

The absence of something.

'The charm,' she breathed. 'Look at the charm.'

The charm was lifeless and drained, devoid of energy. Dead.

'Oh no...' Imran whispered.

'Kid... Kid, what happened?'

The outlaw didn't notice, was oblivious, lost to his own private grief.

'We'd better get him back to the wings,' our hostess decided. 'Maybe we'll be able to find out what happened to him there - and what we can do about it...'

She thought a minute. "And try to get some food into him. I don't think he's eaten anything since he first arrived at the Hoedown... and that must be the equivalent of ... three days by now. Hunger may not be his biggest problem, right now, but it certainly can't help. And, Imran," she added, embarrassment and shame flushing her cheeks, "no magic, this time... He's had more ...outside influence... on his mind than he can handle as it is."

'I wasn't about to suggest it,' Imran said. 'The condition he's in...'

He shook his head. 'Whatever else happened, he's had a massive shock. Not even magic's going to make shock go away quickly - especially now. Ordinary hot chocolate, maybe with a dash of whiskey in it. That should at least help him calm down. But I don't think magic will solve the problem - this won't be a "click your fingers and he's better" solution...'

He frowned. 'Um... Is your cart inside the gryphons' circle of protection?'

Our hostess nodded. 'Of course. Kingpin and Mags are doing the equestrian act, along with my TARDIS' android horses... Ah. Ah, I see.'

She beckoned another troll over. 'Could you pop out to my TARDIS, and see what Chef's got in the pantry? Hot soup, a bit of bread, maybe even some baked beans. Nothing too heavy - we don't want him eating more than he can handle, or getting a stomach ache.'

She looked over at Kid. 'Especially not now.'

The junior troll nodded, and hurried off.

Gingerly, Imran hooked one of the outlaw's arms across his shoulders.

Kid didn't resist.

And that scared Imran more than any protest, any defiance, would have.

Standing slowly, supporting the outlaw, Imran regained his posture.

'Both of you all right?' our hostess asked.

Imran nodded.

And slowly, very slowly, the three of them made their way back to where the others waited in the wings, our hostess and Imran supporting Kid along the way.

And by the time they reached the wings... the Gods' next act was ready to go on.


The hostess hurried out to the ring to introduce the Gods' act.

She pulled Daibhid aside just before she went in. "Get all the guests who aren't performing into the bleachers," she told him. "And ask them to touch either my deputy's or Nyctolops' Cloak of Audience when they get there. That should give them one of their own. The Cloak itself may have lost some power, but we may be able to make up for it with sheer numbers."

She could feel the Gods mounting impatience, and she strode hurriedly into the center of the ring and picked up the microphone.

"Ladies, Gentlemen, Trolls and Other Beasties," she began.... "The Otherworldly Magic of the Gods of Ragnarok!" And she got herself out of the ring as quickly as she could.

Daibhid looked after her, then stared at the whirling balls of energy orbiting him almost of their own volition. "Er..." he said.

Okay, he thought. I obviously can't just drop them, or anything might happen. In fact, if I stop juggling at all, anything might happen.

Now that he was thinking of the juggling as a problem, he noticed his arms were getting tired. He wasn't sure if he could keep this up long enough to think of a solution. He could pass them to the Doctors, but they seemed to have more items than were feasible anyway, having continually pulled things out of their pockets as they went. As he looked the Seventh Doctor's umbrella performed a neat parabola and was followed by an open, but miraculously unspilling, bag of jelly babies. He wasn't sure he even dared attract their attention with that little lot to focus on.

Suddenly he remembered something he'd been practicing before his earlier attack of nerves. "Rucksack!" he called, "Catch!"

The Rucksack bounded up, and flipped onto its back. Daibhid tossed the balls towards it and the bag effortlessly bounced them off three of its hundreds of legs, onto another three and so on. The energy seemed to remain stable.

That sorted out, Daibhid went off to gather an audience.


The avocado troll focussed her gaze on the faces of her hoedown guests, barely visible beyond the lights, now filling a good quarter of the seats, at least. Thinking of them, of the sheer numbers of people who answered her open invititation, ready to be creative and have fun, calmed her a little, and helped to quell the rage she felt toward the Gods of Ragnarok. She couldn't be sure, but she wouldn't be surprised if Kid's rage, that she had felt right before he'd broken off contact, had drawn the Gods' attack upon him, and she'd be damned if she was going to let the same thing happen to her.

It was then that she noticed that she had, quite unconsciously, taken up Kid's post at the edge of the wings, where the light met the shadows. At first, she was flustered by this realization, but then she squared her shoulders and accepted her role as the defender of their defender.

Kid Curry, she knew, was vital to them now, but would be even more so in the next battle they faced (she wasn't sure what role he would play, exactly, but she was as sure of his importance as she was of her next breath). If the Gods (or their puppeteers) thought they could defeat the Pro-Funsters before that battle even started by eliminating the key player on their side, then they'd have to go through her, first!

She squinted against the glare, and turned her attention to the 'magician' in the ring.

He hadn't actually started his act yet, really, but was only making flourishes with his cape and hands. The audience, pro-fun and GoR alike, however, sat in rapt, silent attention.

Too silent.

Our Ringmaster could feel the little hairs at the end of her tail bristling. Something was wrong.

Then she heard the soft growling from the section of the bleachers where her deputy and Nyctolops were seated, and realized that it was Number 5, who must have joined them after the semi-trained cats act. She looked in that direction, and indeed did see two sets of eyes glowing in the darkness: the round eyes of a dog, and the almond shaped eyes of a cat -- so Wolsey was up there, too.

5's growling got louder, and she realized what had provoked it: the 'Magician' in the ring wasn't preparing to perform -- it was preparing to attack the audience -- to wipe out all the pro-fun hoedowners in one fierce blow. Now that Kid Curry and the Charm of the Eye were out of the picture, they felt free to do that.

Our Ringmaster drew on every ounce of strength she had, reaching down even to the tips of her toenails, and bellowed:

"Forfeit! Forfeit! Forfeit!" over and over.

It was nothing, she knew, in the face of the Gods' power -- she had neither shield nor charm to protect her. But it was enough to draw her audience's attention away from the deadly spell being woven in the ring, enough for cracks to form in the Gods' smug concentration.

Her audience took up the chant, and soon, the whole Big Top echoed with the protest of: "Forfeit!"

The Gods ... did nothing. They recoiled into themselves, and stayed there, for what seemed like a very long time.

But our ringmaster knew they were only waiting, preparing to strike.

And then, it all happened at once:

Blood red lightning flickered and crackled around the outer edges of the Big Top tent, as though defining the horizon of the world.

Five leapt from the stands as if she had wings, and pounced on the magician, standing over him and growling.

The lighting spread upward across the interior of the Big Top -- a fine lacework of blazing unlight, until it reached the center of the cupola. Here, the lightning converged into a single bolt and shot straight down at the ring.

But Number Five caught the bolt in her teeth, and shook it like a snake. Released from her existence as an automaton by the powers of Fun, the dog had sided with the hoedowners as her new pack, and was defending them against attack.

But more than that, the same powers that had transformed Ragnarok-robot into dog now seemed to be working through her, and transforming the lightning as well. As she shook it, the lightning changed from red, to blue, and finally, to white before it dissipated in a shower of tiny sparks, which rose up to the peaks of the Big Top, and drifted back down to the audience in the bleachers.

When the sparks fell upon the Gods they hissed like embers hitting ice. When they fell upon the pro-funsters, they entered into the Cloaks of Audience, reigniting the dimmed stars.

The magician pinned under the dog's paws melted away like an icy fog in the sun.

The poodle gave a happy little half-bark and bounded toward our ringmaster, shoving her nose under her hand, seeking praise.

The pro-funsters cheered. But the Gods seethed with anger at having their second act in a row thwarted by fun.

It was all within the parameters of the rules, she knew (or at least suspected), but that wouldn't stop the Gods crying "foul" to the Powers That Be if this trend kept up... And she couldn't be sure which side the PTB would favor.

Now, it was time for Imran's act, and she hadn't seen him since he'd taken Kid to safety.

Was he ready?

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