The Hoedowners need some kind of shield against the Gods' attacks...


'I think I have one...' Imran said. The others turned to look at him.

'What?!'

'It's just... where the hell did you get a shield?'

Imran patted at his cloak. 'If I'm right about what this is - if this is a cloak of audience - then audience interaction might be affected.'

'Pardon?'

'I get it...' our hostess said. 'The Gods have made themselves part of the audience. If they're not on stage, and not in the backstage crew, then...'

'Then they've put themselves in the audience. The cloak made me a member of the audience, seeing what was going on and accepting it as part of my worldview.' Imran said. 'Not trying to destroy or disrupt it - but let's see if I can get it to do something different...'

'Such as?'

Imran paused. 'Well, the Gods pretty much define 'audience rage'... If that rage could be directed elsewhere... Hmm...'

He took the cloak off. 'But it needs to be worn by someone who's going to be in the ring longer than I am - long enough to protect all the acts. Which means one of the jugglers, one of the Muses, or you.' He indicated our hostess.

'So... what's going to happen when we go out there again?'

'The Gods will - eventually - try an attack on the ring,' our hostess said. 'A direct attack on our performers. The cloak... well, if Imran's right, we should be able to get the cloak so it contains all the coldness and anger - all the attacks - the Gods in the audience throw at the performers - hold it in potential until it can be redirected... and redirected as Fun.'

Imran held the cloak up. The cloak was a window into a true night sky. Not the cold darkness of the Gods - the cloak seemed to hold potential; it held the welcome and safety that could wait in the night. Imagination and dream.

Our Ringmaster appeared lost in thought, her eyes staring into the depth of that starry night sky. A slow grin spread across on her face.

"I know that look," Yokoi said. "You've got that dangerous twinkle in your eye! What do you have in mind?"

"Well, it appears that, according to how the rules of this challenge have been set up --"

"Set up by whom?" the deputy asked.

"I don't know -- the Monitors? The Intelligence of the Omniverse? Maybe we'll find out after we survive this... Anyway, if the Gods are playing by the rules (and if Imran is right, they have no choice), than the audience is allowed to transform the energy of the acts going on in the ring and send it back to the performers."

Imran nodded. "That's what all audiences do, I think," he said. "Every reader makes each story their own; every fan has their own theory of continuity. ...And that's why no two live theater performances are ever the same."

Our Ringmaster nodded. "The Gods of Ragnarok have been transforming our energy of Fun into fear and loneliness. But we --"

"Could transform their fear and loneliness into Fun!"

"Exactly! If the fear energy they send at our performers could be absorbed by the dark of the cloak when they try to attack us, transformed into fun, and then sent out through the starry bits of the cloak back at them as light and fun when they perform..." her voice trailed off and she shrugged. "I don't know," she concluded. "It certainly works on newsgroups. Nothing diffuses a flamewar, or takes the wind out of a nasty troll's sails, than to take flamebait, turn it inside-out, bring it on-topic, and adding some tickle to it. And in the ordinary world, the only way to control darkness is to shine light into it."

"That gives me an idea!" Nyctolops said, running off.

"Hey! where are you going? You're almost on!"

"Be right back!" Nyctolops assured her. "Just a quick costume change!"


Imran held out the cloak...

'So... who wants to take this?'

"I will," the deputy said. "I've finished my act. I'm free to sit in the audience, now. I'll sit in the bleachers across the ring from the Gods. M-Maybe the cloak will attract the negative energy away from our performers, like a lightning rod."

The avocado troll looked at her. "Are you sure? You've already sustained a direct hit."

"I wasn't prepared," the troll admitted. "I wasn't thinking about transforming the Gods' negative energy -- wasn't thinking about them at all. This time, I will be," she said, resolutely. "I'll have the cloak to protect me, and magic hot chocolate inside me."

She reached out to touch the sleeve. As she did so, the cloak came alive: cloning itself like an amoeba, pouring itself like water over the little troll. Soon, she was clad in a second starry-night cloak that was a perfect fit, while Imran still held the original.

"What the --?!" he asked.

"I get it!" the avocado troll said. "That cloak really is like the world of dream and imagination -- limitless, there to fit everyone who reaches out to it!"

She turned to the little troll. "You won't be alone for long," she assured her. "I'll send each of our performers to join you, as soon as they've finished their acts. By the time TYA goes on for the finale, we'll be a galaxy of Fun in the bleachers!"

"I'm back!" Nyctolops called, taking her place at the edge of the ring.

Nyctolops was nervous and a little scared, but she put on her costume -- a little red vest with mirrors sewn into it that she had found among the costumes of the Psychic Circus.

"Oh, my!" Our Ringmaster said. "It certainly is shiny!"

"Well, you said we had to shine light into the dark, and nothing can redirect light into cramped and dark corners like a mirror."

"Well, that's true!"


Nyctolops thought through her act as she watched the Gods' acrobats mechanically go through their act, without joy, without feeling, without soul, and suddenly she began to feel a little better. Suddenly she felt a warm surge of courage fill her and her nervousness and fear dissipated. That was what had been in Imran's milkshake. She had felt a little of it before, but now it positively filled her. And with courage came an idea.

She whispered to the avocado troll, "I just had a thought. If that darkness comes during my act, why don't you all try to counter it with clapping, shouting, whistling, laughing, any joyful noise? The Gods are solemn and mostly silent, maybe happy sounds could counter some of their magic."

With that Nyctolops took a running leap and curled up into a ball in midair, flying into the ring looking like a furry cannonball flashing sparks. She landed on her feet, then began doing handsprings, cartwheels, walking on her hands and other tumbling acts. She thought to herself, "Maybe if I keep moving fast enough, the Gods won't be able to catch me."

Then she felt the cold begin and sensed the blackness forming at the top of the tent. Then her courage spoke up, "Running won't do any good. You have to confront it."

Nyctolops looked up and saw a tightrope high above the ring. She clambered up a guy rope and began walking across the rope on her hands, switching to her feet a quarter of the way across, then bouncing, nearly falling and catching herself with her tail. She heard gasps and appreciative laughter from her friends and hoped that the avocado troll had passed the word. In the middle of the tightrope, she looked up and saw the darkness descending. She stood on the rope, bounced up and down twice, then sprang directly into the blackness.

She curled into a ball, hoping that the mirrors on her vest would catch and magnify any stray light. The cold was numbing to both body and mind, but the mirrors seemed to hold a little light, at least. She fought the numbness of mind with warm feelings about her friends and their stories and all the stories to come.

Soon she began to hear muffled sounds. It was working. All the Pro-Fun Trolls were hollering and shouting and clapping and blowing noisemakers and the cold was becoming more endurable. Slowly, slowly, it seemed much too slowly, the darkness and cold retreated. Finally, Nyctolops found herself alone in midair, high above both the ring and the tightrope. She was exhausted, but she managed to snag the tightrope with her tail and one hand as she fell. She hung limp for a moment, almost too tired to climb back onto the rope and safety, but she managed to haul herself up. Then she crawled along the rope on all fours until she reached a guy rope and slid down. Safely back on the ground, she aimed a cheeky bow at the Gods' side of the ring, then scampered back to her friends.

:::Jumping up and down:::

"Yay!!! Yahoo! Yippee!!!"

:::Whistle:::

"Damn! We're good!!"


The hostess caught Kid Curry's eye. She was grinning from ear to ear and yelling out encouragement and pure glee in the direction of the little spider-limbed troll up on the high wire -- but somehow the edge of meaning in the look she gave him was still quite clear. He cleared his throat, shuffled, and managed a couple of whoops of his own. What came easy and natural when a guy was liquored-up and riding through on the street was somehow kind of harder to do in cold blood -- even with a bunch of others hollering like crazy in his ear...

But it was working. The black cloud up at the top of the tent was starting to break up, and he could almost feel the anger and bafflement of the Gods as the cheering got louder. Without thinking, he let out a final full-throated yell of triumph and joined in the storm of clapping that greeted the little red-vested acrobat as she slid to the ground and bowed.

The avocado troll glanced at Kid in surprise and admiration. She'd only hoped, when she'd given him that look of encouragement, that he might join in the applause a little.

He'd spent a lifetime on the run, in hiding, in the shadows. On the path he trod, his life depended on silence. She'd known a cat like that: a stray, born at the zoo, whose mother'd been killed by the zookeepers before she was fully weaned -- that cat never meowed, never used her voice until she'd had kittens of her own.

Yet here Kid was, whooping and hollering like there was nothing in the Omniverse to hold him back.

Maybe there was hope for him, yet.

That applause didn't last long, though. He couldn't seem to get his mind off the swelling fury that brooded up in the stalls, where the Gods hid themselves in emptiness and threat. Way things were going, the Gods were bound to lose. Even he could see that -- and he figured there was no way the Gods would have been dumb enough to let themselves get suckered onto a losing roll like this one without some kind of plan to turn things round.

With the two Circuses trading acts back and forward, the one who went last got to cap anything the other could try. It was like a game where one gambler kept the deal and the other was forced to call first on every hand. Maybe the Gods of Ragnarok just hadn't counted on any real opposition -- or maybe they reckoned their grand final act would wipe out the Pro-Fun Circus before any come-back could work -- but Kid Curry, for one, had learned the hard way never to count on the other side's knowing when they were beat...

They couldn't win, by the rules. Imran had this theory that both sides just naturally had to stick to the layout of the challenge and the hostess seemed to reckon he was right; but -- no offence meant -- they were all way too civilized and trusting for the outlaw's liking. If the other side couldn't win by Pro-Fun rules, sure as blazes they'd break them. And make out to be keeping them until the moment that suited best...

He scowled unseeing down at the ring. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe sweetness and light would win out. Maybe there were some laws that couldn't be stepped around. In fact, for once in his life, he sure hoped so. But no way would he be counting on it.


Philip Cotterell, who has been running around just trying to keep up with everybody ever since Titan 3, finally seems to have got a grip on things again.

Having managed to not get himself on the list of acts for the circus, he's just standing around looking thoughtful.

With the air of one who's reached a decision, he pulls another one of those APM stunts, reverting to the denim-clothes-and-electric-guitar ensemble he briefly tried out before originally entering the Hoedown.

He walks over to TYA.

"Hullo, ladies - need a backing musician? I've convinced myself that in this particular fictiversal reality I can play whatever I need to (though it would be nice if we could do a proper rock-'n'-roll number at some point)."

Allie opens her mouth.

'Here you go,' Imran interrupts, handing his Muse a milkshake.

Allie looks down at the drink, then back up at her author, and blinks.

She shakes her head. 'Anyway... Oh yes. A backing musician? Yep, no problem...'

Yokoi hastily shoves the Karaoke machine out of sight.

'And I think we can slip in one or two rock numbers... right, guys?' Yokoi says.

Tessa and Allie grin.

'Need a drink?' Imran suggests, offering Philip a milkshake. 'Looking a little worn out.'

'Just been trying to get a grip on things...' Philip says. 'Umm... are there any drugs in this?'

'Nope.'

'Ah.' Philip considers this, then drinks the milkshake. 'By the way, where're you getting these?'

'Bottomless cauldron. Got it out of my magician's cabinet.' Imran says. 'Amazing what a little magic can do...

'How're you doing all this APM stuff?' Philip asks curiously.

Imran coughs. 'Well, most of the abilities I've been manifesting're from the cloak of audience -' he flourishes the cloak, '- or from my connection to Allie.'

Allie takes a little bow.

'This, however...' Imran holds up a milkshake... 'is my own little magic - a few magical drinks to help us out.'

Philip looks down at his empty mug. 'I thought you said -'

'I did. There are no drugs in the milkshakes. Just magic. That one's a Restful milkshake.'

Philip raises his eyebrows.

And then asks: "Any chance your bottomless cauldron does whiskey as well? Nice as the milkshake was - it doesn't really fit my rockin' image!"

Imran considers this.

Then he reaches into the cauldron, and rummages around.

'I know I had the switch around here somewhere...'

'Umm...' Allie says, pulling a bottle of whiskey out of her robe. 'Did you want Scotch or Irish? And was it a single or double malt?'

'Allie, how did -?' Imran begins. '...Never mind.'

'Any chance you could get me something?' Yokoi says.

Allie winces. 'I'm gonna regret this...'

'Oh?'

'You'll see.' Allie says.

Yokoi looks offended. 'It's not like I'm that bad.'

'No? The 'Round's Proprietor still shudders whenever they mention your name. And whipped cream...'

Philip takes the bottle. 'Thanks. You're a life-saver.'

Allie opens her mouth. 'You should see -'

'Not a word...' Imran advises. 'Not a word.'

'Come on,' Tessa says. 'Time for the third act - the Gods of Ragnarok and robot poodles, followed by Jim Vowles and the semi-trained cats - and don't say a word...'

Philip looks innocent.

Imran looks around. 'Hmm. Still no innuendo police...'


Nyctolops accepted the congratulations of her friends, as she shed the little red mirrored vest. Then she brushed her hand across the hem of the Cloak of Audience, and she, too, was clad in the starry cloak of the night sky.

She hurried up to the bleachers, and sat down next to the little deputy troll.

The troll was glad to see her. "But you're not done with your acts yet," she said. "You still have the Wild Cameron act coming up."

"I know," Nyctolops said, "but I can be in the audience for a little while, at least. And besides, there's a much better view of Second and Third's music and light show, from up here."

"Yes, there is," the little troll agreed.

"Don't you just love the sequins in Third's cloak?" she asked. "...Almost like the stars in ours."

Nyctolops nodded silently, her eyes following the swooping circles of colored light that seemed to be dancing in an intricate ballet in perfect time to the music that Second played. It was a beautiful piece of music, too -- jolly, and yet... calm... at the same time, leaving her in a state of perfect balance between wanting to dance, and wanting to dream.


Meanwhile, Kid Curry was alert for trouble...

The intermission was going on. The three scantily-clad girls who'd been harmonizing along to the various acts were taking a rest, chatting with another of those tall skinny kids from the audience. And going by the instrument slung over his shoulder... looked like the kid had plans to join in.

Right now, though, the air in the great tent was swelling with a different kind of music and stabbed all across with beams of light, like a magic lantern show gone wild.

The Second and Third Doctors were doing their light and music act. Both were in costume, the Second Doctor dressed up in what looked like some kind of fancy waiter's outfit, with his coat-tails flung back from the stool as his fingers vamped up and down the keyboards, pulling knobs here with a flick of one hand and nudging levers there with his knees, apparently at random. But the Third had really gone to town.

His coat and pants were a rich plum color, cut in a cloth that caught the light for all the world like velvet. His vest -- what was visible of it -- was buttoned across in a snug shimmer of tawny gold. But most of the front of his costume was totally hidden by the flamboyant froth of lace at his throat, ruffle after ruffle of flowing cravat; and, nestling in its very centre with a rainbow glitter that held all eyes, a pin that held a vast and ostentatious diamond.

The cloak that swirled back from his shoulders was almost filmy by comparison. But it was scattered with hundreds of tiny sequinned stars, and by some trick each seemed to be glowing with its own light. As the Doctor moved, the stars glittered about him like a dancing cloud of fireflies.

The intermission was coming to an end. As Third gestured, six beams of light swung up to meet in a glowing peak high up in the roof of the Big Top, and the music dropped into hushed anticipation of the climax. All eyes turned upwards. And, gathering above, the familiar clinging darkness began to descend.

"Uh, oh," the little turquoise troll said, "get ready for some major absorption!"

But then:

Kid Curry's fists clenched. "No. This time it stops!"

The Gods never even blinked. Darkness swelled, slowly, like a spreading stain...

- This time it stops!

He flung everything into it -- out through the eye of the charm, across the ring almost without thinking, just as he had acted to break the barrier that held the Tarot-teller out of time -- and felt his opponents' shock.

- We warned you, little man. You dared to oppose Our will...

- No more attacks on the ring!

Kid Curry could feel the vastness of the Gods' attention swirling round, beating down on his mind... but out in the ring as their focus switched, the darkness was dying. So they had a limit, after all. They couldn't mount two attacks at once. He savored a fierce inward grin.

- No more attacks on the ring, he stated flatly. Try that one more time and you will have to come through me.

No reply. But a vast gathering threat that prickled like the tension of lightning before a strike.

"It's breaking up!" Nyctolops murmured in amazement.

"It's Kid! He's drawing their attack away!" The little troll pointed at the bright blue glow at the outlaw's throat.

"I hope -- " Nyctolops started, and stopped, shuddering as the coldness of the Gods' threat filled the Big Top.

- You tried that last time, remember? Guess it still won't work...

For a moment he almost faltered as the power threatened to swamp him. The charm burned brightly at his throat. He reached up to touch it, a brief caress, and it was as if he dreamed the ghost of a woman's laugh.

- I'm not saying you can't fight back, he flung at them, suddenly light-hearted. Hell, I'm not even saying you can't cheat! Just quit using that one trick, OK? Maybe no-one ever had the guts to tell you before, but it gets kind of boring after a while. Why not show us something new? You think you're so great -- then show us just how good you are!

Outrage, crumbling away into helpless disbelief. Finally, the scattered power began to pull together into a hissing, mounting threat.

- You will regret that taunt. You will all regret that...

And then the connection between them was abruptly cut off, like a knife-slash across a rope pulled taut. Kid Curry stared across the ring, his skin belatedly crawling. Just what can of worms had he opened this time?

But the Gods' revenge, when it came, would take an entirely unexpected form...

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