The Contessa stares into her crystal ball...


Contact. At last.

  -Yes? What do you want?

Wordless, sharp query, across the link...

..mutual recognition. Condescension. She bristled.

{ -Ah, the little Contessa... { -Why have you not come?

Silence.

She had traded favors with the Monitors -- on her own territory, always. Had allowed herself to be betrayed into seeing them as equals, as individuals... and this one in particular as sparring-partner and friend. Now, extended coldly across space and time, it was made pitilessly plain to her just how wide was the stage upon which they viewed the world; how petty and obscure the puppet-like actors with whom perforce they dealt. Empires crawled like dust-motes against the waning backdrop of the stars... and beyond it all the Monitors moved, slow like the aeons, faceless and emotionless as the balance that weighs the life of a planet against a hair's-breadth of necessity and finds it lacking. What was one city, one world, one Fictiverse worth... in that scale? What to them was one forgotten exile of Gallifrey -- that she should dare to hold them to a bargain not of their choosing?

She was nothing, the vast collective awareness gave her to know: a spider's breath, an eye-blink, a dying quiver at the heart of a sun...

  -Stop it!

The Contessa clawed herself violently free from the mind-trap, shaking. She clung to that spark within her that had enabled her to resist, shielding it, feeding the tiny flow with the fuel of her betrayal and fear. Sent them back that defiant image in reply; the single wavering flame in the dark -- flaring up -- catching -- spreading from mind to mind -- a roaring, dancing life that leapt all confinement, woke in heart after heart where long-banked embers were all but dead...

  -All from one, she flung back at them. -All from one. One spark, one mortal, one despised grain of dust. All it takes is one. For we create, we give birth to life of which you cannot dream -- one story, one legend to wake a whole sterile world and resonate down the ages in a hundred thousand tales --

She could breathe again. And in the new-found awareness she had forced, she could sense the lie in what they had shown her. The cracks in the face of the monolith they tried to present.

They had been riven by their own petty factions. Welded together now in temporary alliance that wished for nothing more than to disown all responsibility for what had passed... what was still going on. Even now -- linked once more to the senses of her distant body -- she could feel it, the dulling and the draining. The sterility. Who could know that better than she, who had been a fugitive first from the tyranny of technology and then the unchanging dominion of pure mind?

  -So, with one hand you promise me aid, and with the other you yourselves aid those who would destroy us all!

Silence. But the texture now was different. If she had any longer believed it possible, coming from the one she had thought her friend she would have called it shame.

  -We may not help. We may no longer interfere.

She sent fierce demand, hard-edged and clear, forcing it onto the personal level they sought so hard to disclaim. Their weakness, not hers.

  -You owe me.


  -The power is yours.

A tiny, humbled thread of meaning, so slender she could barely accept it, let alone understand.

Insistence, pressing against disbelief. Stronger now.

  -Already yours. Have you not seen?

The image of a blue blaze across the link, almost blinding in its glory. Then a hard dark face, closed in and wary-eyed; Kid Curry.

He looked lost and weary -- weary to the bone. Even on that night when he had first come to seek her help, she had never seen the demons that drove him lie so close under the skin. He bore the mark of a man who begins to perceive himself, dimly; and fears what further he may see...

Those around him, discerned dimly through his shuttered gaze, were bright -- bright and eager, with joyous powers that called to her own. She caught snatches of their plans, grasped at the nature of their adversary, felt, above all, the focus that surrounded this place. The Omniverse itself held its breath. How could they not sense it? The tiered benches might be all but empty... but tonight there would be an audience such as the Psychic Circus had never seen.

And in the center of it all, the bright circle -- spangles, music, lights, fun -- brave panoply flaunted before the gray invader... oh, and it would not, could not be enough.

Her soaring heart turned over at the sickening realisation. She could feel the powers swelling against them, taste the devouring strength, probe even as they did around the rim of that golden ring -- and seize upon the same dark flaw. For one link was broken.

Silent and wary, the outsider still -- always -- he sat, as ever, apart from the others, watching. Waiting to react. Laid open by those very defense barriers he so prized. When the Gods of Ragnarok came, they would find him only too apt to their hand. He had walked in ways of destruction for the forty years that he knew, and the countless more since that he did not know he had lost; and the scars were on him, body and soul.

The charm she had given him beat fierce at his throat, impotent, its power locked to his hand alone by her own unthinking act. An ancient battered thing she had thought it, of sentimental value to her only in its link to times past; it was on those old memories that she had meant to draw. She had sought to seal into it a wielding of joy and home, as a shield in the badlands to a wanderer more rootless even than most; and yet something, somehow -- some rejoicing rush of vitality -- had waken long-locked powers deeper than even she had ever known or guessed.

  -But he will not act. The others would act for him, but they cannot -- and whether he wills it or no, that power will draw the Eaters of Story down upon them all like flies to a carcase. Oh, you chose well, little Contessa, did you not?

  -I did not choose him for this...

It was almost a desolate cry. She watched through his eyes as a merry little Ringmaster trotted to the center ring (tailed by an even smaller creature holding a spangled whip), took her gaily-sparkling lash of office from her deputy with a smile and a whispered word that had the little one wriggling with pride, and raised both hands in the gesture of a conductor waiting to begin.

She felt the queer twist of yearning in his throat. He would aid them if only he could -- but he had been a loner so long, and he did not know how... The taste in her own mouth was bitter.

  -I would not have wished this on you, my friend.

She could feel the beat of his heart; the harsh rasp of his jaw against the collar of his shirt as his sat crouched and watchful; the circus-scent that teased at the edge of his awareness. How could she be so close and yet unable to make him hear her in his turn? She probed for the image of herself in his thoughts; shrank back from the tangle she found there. Not fair to use that -- oh, not fair at all --

"Listen to me, Curry. Listen!" She tried to make it sweet and measured, to equal his memories. "We have no time -- and they are coming..."


And back in the ring...

Finally! the avocado troll thought, it was all starting to come together.

Each of her guests had declared an act, and regardless of how well rehearsed they were, they were all eager to begin. Daibhid, the Fifth and Seventh Doctors were practising a trio juggling act (while Daibhid's rucksack had joined with the cats in Jim's and Nyctolops' semi-trained animal act), Bokman and Zoe were doing a prop-filled magic act, and Imran was doing a potion-filled one. The Fourth and Eighth Doctors were doing a choreographed fencing demonstration, and Gordon and Saville were doing an act with Dancing Zombies (the Zombies being hidden away in a wagon draped with dark purple velvet, on which silver and gold stars had been embroidered). She herself had unhitched the twelve white android horses from her TARDIS wagon, and they stood prancing and ready, with Mags and Kingpin ready to lead the equestrian act (unlike the robot clowns of the Gods, she'd realized, when she decided to include them, they were an aspect of her TARDIS itself -- a living, sentient machine with her/its own sense of fun and mischief, and who, ever since meeting Compassion last year, has wanted to play a greater role in adventures than just playing ferry). And last, but not least, were the new pop singing trio TYA.

The First Doctor volunteered to man the lights and the Second volunteered to play the organ. Third agreed to be Narrator, and Sixth, who still insisted that he didn't need an act, said he had something else up his sleeve, and the troll thought it wise not to press the matter.

All that was left to do now, was to get them to line up to practice the opening parade. The avocado troll took her official Ring Master's Whip from her deputy, and raised her arms.

She was about to call out to get their attention, when she felt an incredible buzzing inside her head -- so intense, it felt like her skull was vibrating like a tuning fork -- like an alarm. The buzz radiated outward: to the tips of her fingers and toes, and the very end of her tail. She lost her balance, and landed, ungracefully, on her seat, but she hardly noticed. The buzzing clarified itself, transforming into a voice: a woman's voice, at once beautiful and strained -- panicking:

"Listen to me, Curry. Listen! We have no time -- and they are coming!"

And then it was gone.

She shook her head, to clear it. And became aware of her guests gathered around her, the concern clear in their faces.

"Are you all right?" Jim asked, shooing a few cats off her lap and helping her up.

"I - I'm fine, I think... Or I will be, once we win this battle." She had felt the Contessa's fear, of course, felt the dread. But she refused to accept it, refused the inevitability. Otherwise, they would lose before they even began.

"What happened?" Imran asked.

"That divination potion of yours," she told him, "packs quite a wallop."

"You pick something up?"

She nodded. "But it wasn't something meant for me." She looked over at Kid. He was sitting upright, now, straining to see what the commotion in the center of the ring was all about. But he was making no move to join them... eternally the outsider.

He was someone, she realized, who'd locked himself in a prison cell (figuratively speaking), in a moment of panic, perhaps, when his world had gone crazy, in a moment when a prison cell was the safest place to be. Perhaps he'd locked himself in as a small child, before he'd really learned to play. But he'd dropped the key outside the door. It was right there, a mere inches away. He needed someone else to unlock the door. Once the door was open, it was up to him to step out, into the sunlight. The question was: would he?

She handed the whip to her deputy. "Take over for me, please," she said, "I need another talk with Kid. I have a message for him that was ... misdelivered."

He slumped back into himself as she approached, but she didn't let that deter her. Not this time. The urgency in the Contessa's thoughts didn't allow for skirting around Kid's fears. "The Contessa needs you -- we need you -- to act, Kid," she said flatly, sitting on the bleacher next to him. "What happens next is up to you. You know that, don't you?"

He shook his head, his face a blank mask of incredulity -- as if she'd just told him that trees plant their roots in the clouds. "I can't."

The troll grunted in frustration -- a harsh sound, bordering on anger. She wanted to shake Kid -- shake him hard, until he felt the alarms in her brain that she just had. She felt all eyes turn to her: Kid's, the Doctors', her guests' -- even the eyes of her TARDIS' android horses -- felt the surprise, the worry, just like when she'd fallen over in the ring a moment ago.

Slowly, she told herself. Don't smash your skull in, trying to break down the door. The key. Find the key.

She took a deep breath. "What happened when you rode out tonight, Kid?" she asked. "What did you see?"

He shrugged, at first, muttering about "Nothing much, except --" And then the story came, word by word, slowly, quietly, almost casually, until he had relayed every detail -- right down to the way the moons' light looked as it glanced off the White's talons, and the way the horse had urged him to return.

The avocado troll's jaw was hanging open by the end of it. "You ... met ... the gryphon's ... gaze?!"

Kid nodded, innocently, a questioning look in his eye.

"Don't you see?" her words, her thoughts, were racing through her brain, and she struggled to slow herself down enough to get them out. "Gryphons are guardians -- they separate the worthy from the unworthy. A gryphon found you -- with a treasure of its own domain -- and judged you worthy! If that isn't a sign -- a fifty foot, red-lettered sign -- that you were brought here to Do something, I don't know what is!"

But Kid still shook his head. "Then the thing was wrong. After all I've done, all I am --"

She interrupted him. "What you've done, and what you are are two different things. Gryphons are creatures that travel between dimensions, remember," she said. "When they see something, they see the whole of it -- the future, the past, the inside, outside, and sides we don't even have words for. You have done evil, in the past, I won't deny it, and there's no erasing it. But it's clear you have the potential, at least, to do more good than all that evil, combined. But it's up to you to do it."

"Yeah? Well, how are you so sure that thing judged me worthy?" he challenged. "How do you know it didn't decide that I was nothing?"

"You've seen those talons, Kid. You've felt the power of that beak, and the speed of the gryphon's strike. If a gryphon found you unworthy -- especially if it found you unworthy of an interdimensional key -- your remains (if you could call them that) would be scattered across no less than fifty miles, right now."

Kid opened his mouth, as if to protest again, but no sound came. "So what do I have to do?" he asked, at last.

The troll allowed herself to smile. "That, I don't know ... exactly," she said. "But I do know that the Contessa is trying to contact you, through that charm --"

"Is that what happened, over there?" he asked, nodding to the ring.

"Yes. And she's desperate, Kid. Terrified. I suggest you listen to her, keep your mind's ear open, so to speak."

"Terrified?" Open concern spread across his face. "Of what?"

"That the Gods of Ragnarok will use you as their puppet. Whatever you do, don't let them."


He reached up then, touched the charm - a gift, it had been, a warding - 'Gryphons guard-'

'-if a gryphon found you unworthy-'

Contact.

'Curry?

'Curry, you have to listen! They're coming - they're looking for a flaw, something they can use. They're looking for you.'

'Lady already told me that.' he told her. 'These Gods, looking for a puppet, and they think I'll be the one.'

Startled. 'You know?'

'Said your message went astray,' he said. 'It went to her, and she told me. Looks like you weren't kidding when you asked me to keep an eye out for you - I have been, ain't I?'

Flustered now, desperation quickly overriding it. 'Listen. If you don't-'

'Yeah? I'm guessing pretty much what'll happen if I don't do nothin', now. Not without my choice.'

'Oh?'

'Yeah. I'm guessing if I say "hell with it", these Gods are gonna smash us down - they're like that, near as I can tell. Find a flaw, they'll use it. This time... this time, looks like the spirits are coming for me.' He laughed hollowly. 'Took them long enough, all I can say. And what was that you told me? Anger the spirits, and even infinity's too short to run.

'Now, if I say I'm in - hell, we lose, we win, I figure that's gotta be better odds than just waitin' for them to come along - and maybe this way, some of us get out the other side. Left enough bodies in my path for one life.'

'You're getting canny in your old age.'

'Learned from the best. And I'm figuring, from what she told me, I'm not the only one keeping their cards close to their chest.'

A little gasp inside his mind.

'See, she told me that you were scared of these Ragnarok Gods. And the Doctors - they recognised this -' he held up the charm '- from back where they came from. Said it was a Sisterhood thing, from way back when.'

'...It was a heirloom,' she said finally. 'Passed down through the generations, always in the House. A small thing. I tried to make it a shield - a warding for you against the badlands, against the evil that was coming, that you would face. I never realised...'

'You knew,' Kid said, his thoughts betraying only plain fact. 'Something bad was coming. Something nasty. Only you didn't know what, or where it was coming from. So you asked me to keep an eye open, see what I could see. And looks like I saw too much for someone's taste. Ever hear tell of the Master?'

'...Yes,' she said. 'I could hardly do otherwise. Gallifrey's most famous renegades always left their mark.'

'Mm. Met him along the way - and he wasn't happy, not happy at all... Then I land up with them, and now I'm figuring - what if he wanted me to meet up with them, forget what I'd seen and heard - bring the Gods down on our heads? What if I'd been meant to meet them one way or the other? Playing a big game, Contessa...' No recrimination in his thoughts, and that was scaring her, scaring her more than she cared to admit.

'Looks like none of you took your world's destruction easy...'

A tiny sound. 'Gallifrey...'

'Boom,' he said. 'Didn't say how, or who - but a year or so back, their time. Gone. All of it. Barring you.'

Silence in his mind.

'...no,' she finally whispered. 'No. This is my home now. No.'

'And someone wants to tear it down.'

A nod, slowly. 'Yes. Yes, I knew. I had to send you - someone who didn't know, who would see with only their own eyes, no-one else's. Who could see, and react.'

'I'm not the only one. Things calling themselves the Monitors - they saw me, too. Reacted pretty damn quick. And then these gryphons - fact they didn't react's good, way our ringmaster tells it.'

'Gryphons...?' she whispered. 'Gryphons?'

'Recognised this,' he said.

'Gryphons recognised...' Her voice trailed off.

'So. Time for runnin's past. Nothing left to do but face these Gods. Question is, what do I have to do?'

'You know,' she told him. 'You made your decision - to stand and defend the ones you're with. You are the defender - their ward against whatever the Gods may throw at you. That's the part you play. You know deception, and trickery, and bullying, and simple evil - known it all your life, in ways the gryphons do not know. As the others perform, so will you - protecting and defending. That's your role - to defend them from what even the gryphons may not. To join in, and help make sure they're free to perform. The key to the whole affair.'

He sighed, then. 'Yeah. Guess it's true. First time... first time ever found something more than nothing.'

'The first?' she asked quietly.

'Maybe not the first,' he told her. 'But the first time I knew...'

A quick smile, unseen.

A gentle touch, deep within his mind....

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