Elsewhere, as the Hoedowners plan their acts...


Between times... between places...

There was a sudden whip-crack, and a rattle of hooves and wheels from further down the street. The Contessa, skirts caught up in one hand, swung round swiftly, stepping up onto the sidewalk. Halfway across the road beyond her, another woman glanced over her shoulder and began to hurry, a little girl clinging to her hand.

A second volley of cracks from the lash, followed by a cheerful yell as the buckboard swung into view around the slow-moving traffic. Al Hainer's pure-blood team were being driven at a flat-out pace, showing off their speed, and the driver was laughing, reins dangling loosely from his hand as he leaned over to trade jokes with his partner, riding behind.

Down in the road, Mrs Mallory took one look and broke into a run, half-dragging her daughter behind her. As she sprang up onto the sidewalk, the little girl lost her footing and fell, losing her grip on her mother's hand and smearing her frills with dirt. Her mouth opened for a forlorn wail; then she caught sight of the team and buckboard bearing down on her and drew breath to scream in real earnest.

Instinctively, the Contessa began to dart out into the street. But the mother moved faster, catching up the child in her arms, snatching her away both from approaching danger and from the contamination of the other woman's touch. Back on the sidewalk they stared at each other for a silent, hostile moment as the swaying rig raced past, barely a foot away, wheels obliterating the memory of the child's small body in the dirt.

Lucy Mallory's mouth was tight with unshed tears. Finally, she made a brief, painful nod of acknowledgement and brushed past, gathering her respectable skirts around her. The child, too young to understand, turned in her mother's arms, one chubby hand reaching out towards the lady with the gold in her ears and the pretty pearls.

The Contessa, shrugging as always, smiled back. Then she froze, dark eyes widening.

After a moment she moved forward, slowly, and laid her fingers on the pole that held up the awning. Three inches of solid timber... and the little girl's trailing hand had brushed through it as though she were no more substantial than a wreath of smoke. Almost unwillingly, the Contessa turned, watching her neighbor's straight-backed progress. Twenty yards down the street, Mrs Mallory's skirts caught against an overturned milk-can -- and glided on through. The other woman, watching, felt her breath catch in her throat.

And so it had started. Even here in the city, and in the heart of her own power. And so the stories fade... and those who never lived, live a little less every day. And for the rest of us -- for Al Hainer, Kid Curry, herself maybe -- the world is drained a little thinner, a little greyer, a little closer to the long-gone reality we once called home. For we cannot go back... and in the end, no matter how far we run, without a world we cannot live.

One hand had risen, unbidden, to her throat. She swept round almost angrily, small, uneven teeth fastened in her lower lip, walked the half-dozen steps to her own side door, taking care not to run, and let herself in.


In the warm, kerosene-scented darkness of the front parlor, she threw back the drapes on the table on which her crystal ball stood, and ran her fingers over the hidden controls. No more coy temporal glimpses, a week, nine months into the future -- her hands slid across the carved wood, working by touch -- she needed to reach out across time, across the universes.

She had the coordinates still, but it would take power. Power of the sort she had shielded, hoarded away, hiding herself for so long. Power of the kind that would have betrayed her to her own people once, not so long ago -- when her birth-place had still been there, far off and despised, to reject her and give her the chance to reject it in turn...

She was no wanderer by choice. It was the wanderers who came to her, from across the worlds, finding refuge and brief comfort in the shadow -- paying her in cash and in kind; sometimes with no more than a glimpse of a monstrous face in a dark alley when it was needed. She gave them tales, and a place to come. She gave them the reality she had worked so hard to find -- moments of home.

Her home now. Her neighbors, her people -- the proud little Mallory and her strait-laced friends, the street-girls and the outlaws, the cowboys and the gamblers and the drunks -- living on stories, all of them, even as she did. The only difference was that she knew it, and they did not.

She had not created this place. She would never belong. Not her Fictiverse to rule; not hers to protect, and her power was not of that kind, never had been-- But it was her home. And it was being used -- used up...

And what did she have, really, now to lose? She had bargained for help; had done her part, in the darkness, in the background as always. They owed her, one more debt in her life's woven tangle of bargains -- and soon it would be too late. Time at last to blaze out, maybe? No time to wait again for them to contact her; no more time in which to hide.

The Contessa sank down behind the table, cupped jewelled hands around the crystal ball, pressed... and almost gasped as the scanner cleared.

Power, blue, incandescent --

her power, her charm --

Kid Curry, forgotten, forlorn hope --

but greater than anything she had ever dared give him --

tapping, somehow, back to the source of its makers.

One hand crept up again, without her willing it, to touch the pearls at her neck. She leaned forward, staring into the scanner, coordinates forgotten, her lips parted. Somehow... somewhere, beyond any dream or hope of her own... someone had linked the charm into the metadimensional circuits of a TARDIS.


Meanwhile, back in the TARDIS...

Our Hostess smiled to herself as she walked around the dance floor, checking in on each of their plans. Their combined energies would certainly do much to create the energy needed to replace that which had been stolen away, and even, perhaps a little more.

But.

But this was more complicated a problem than tickling the darkness out of someone, as they had last year. While her guests focussed on generating fun and energy, creating the synergy that would counteract the entropy sapping the omniverse, someone had to figure out how to use that energy, where to direct it, and how to reverse the damage already caused by the "tornado blight" before it was too late. She realized, with a slight sinking of her heart, that that would probably have to be her. (Times like this, she thought, I wish I'd done better in science class).

She left Doctors Four and Eight at their dueling practice (after all, the two of them together had enough exuberant energy to make up for any flagging spirits among her guests.). But she searched out the other Doctors and called them into a meeting, along with Kid Curry (truth is, she couldn't really see Kid performing a circus act, and she had suspicions about that charm he was wearing that she needed the Doctors to verify).

She led the seven of them back to her "puzzling" room, which was mostly just a space for a massive, round, oak table, surrounded by hard-backed armchairs that were surprising comfortable. The vaulted ceiling seemed miles above them (but she secretly guessed that that was just her TARDIS having a little bit of fun with her dimensional mapping capabilities). Somewhere up there a wind chime hung, and every once in a while, as if in response to a thought, its quiet melodic tones would echo down to her. The highest roundels gave off a bright white light, but they gradually grew dimmer on the lower walls, until, at slightly above eye level, they gave off a soft amber glow. The overall effect was of sitting in a well protected grotto, with soft, hazy sunlight filtering down from above... Only here, she had a place to write notes, and set down a mug of something, if that's what her thoughts required at that moment.

Several notes were, in fact, carved and doodled into the table top itself, like the tracks of long dead creatures fossilized into stone. If there had been such a thing, a paleontologist of the mind might have been able to trace the evolution of her thoughts by reading them.

She traced one of her long, troll fingernails along them now as she spoke, repeating, for those who hadn't heard it yet, her theory of what was happening. It was, by her estimation, the third time she said her ideas out loud. And she was hoping that the third time would be the charm, hoping her theories could crystalize into some plan for action.

But nearly every time she paused for breath, it seemed, one or more of the Doctors would interrupt, debating with her and with each other about what was really going on. And even though they all shared one life (and, presumably, their memories overlapped), none of them could agree on how to interpret the events so far. As the minutes passed and the words grew more heated, alliances began to make themselves clear. First and Fifth found themselves agreeing more with each other that it all led to a fundamentally mathematical model (First drawing on his experience with the Toymaker, and Fifth on Castrovalva). Second and Sixth argued for the mass hypnosis, or nightmare scenario (drawing on their experiences in the Land of Fiction and the Timelords' Matrix). Three and Seven bounced between the two sides. Three kept insisting that whatever universe was sapping energy had to be a close parallel to this one, as that was what it was like when his TARDIS did that weird hop between the two Earths. Seven kept interjecting with: "Excuse me, but we are going to be facing the Gods of Ragnarok, and I am the only one here who has actually met them yet, so can I get a word in edgewise?"

Our hostess gradually slumped down in her seat, traced the doodles of old, and tried to keep herself from getting a massive headache.

"Excuse me," First said, interrupting the argument he was having with Sixth, leaning over the troll's shoulder, "but what are you writing?"

She looked down. Without thinking, she had left off retracing old marks, and was carving a new design into the wood, going back and forth over the same shape, and the scratching was getting deeper and deeper. "Oh," she said, blinking, as if stepping from a dark corridor into a brightly lit room, "I'm, ah --". She cut herself off. What was that? she wondered. It looked vaguely familiar, but where had she seen it? Then, the lightbulb went on. "It's the glyph I saw carved on Kid's charm!" she exclaimed.

"Yes! I'd been meaning to ask about that," Three and Seven asked, in unison, each glaring at the other for stealing the words right out of his mouth.

Seven completed the thought, while Three harrumphed. "What exactly happened back there, when you connected the charm to the TARDIS' circuits?" he asked. "The result was -- remarkable -- to say the least."

"When Kid connected the charm, actually," our hostess remarked, wanting the credit to go where the credit was due.

Kid shifted in his seat. She could almost feel the embarrassment rising off him.

"Excuse me!" First said, haughtily. "Let us deal with one question at a time, shall we? I believe I asked her first."

The others slumped sulkily back into their seats, like chastised schoolboys (which was ironic, she thought, since by most people's way of reckoning, it was the first Doctor who was the youngest).

"Now, young lady," he said, turning back to her. "You say this symbol is carved as a glyph on a charm?"

She nodded. "The charm that the Contessa gave to Kid," she said.

The First Doctor turned to the outlaw. "Now, m'Boy," he said, holding out his hand, "let's take a closer look at that charm of yours, shall we?"

Without hesitation (the troll noted with a slight pang of jealousy), Kid took the charm from around his neck, and let it drop gently into the Doctor's waiting palm.

"Well, well, well. I never! This explains much about that 'result' you were so interested in. This charm was made by one of the Sisterhood!"

"The Sisterhood?" Sixth asked, coming around the the table to peer over First's shoulder at the small blue bead, "The ones Rassilon exiled to Karn?"

"Just so."

With those words, the other Doctors got up from their seats and crowded around him, each jostling with the other for a better look.

"From the look of it," First continued, "I would say this is an ancient one, too, passed down from generation to generation -- or stolen. It appears to be from the era of Rassilon himself."

"But I don't understand --" Seventh said.

"No, of course you don't," First muttered, under his breath.

"Why would a charm made before the time of TARDISes -- a superstitious bauble -- react with a modern TARDIS the way this had?"

"Bah! 'superstitious bauble' indeed! You know as well as I do that below the surface of animosity between the Timelords and the Sisterhood, the two groups hold a great debt to each other -- so great, in fact that it is never spoken out loud."

"But Rassilon," Second countered, "had to banish the Sisterhood, and undo their ritualistic way of doing things, before he could establish our space-time traveling technology."

"Bah!" First said again, dismissively. "That's the official line. But ever since that lecture by Professor Uytheys in Ancient History, I've had my suspicions that Rassilon conveniently 'borrowed' many of the teachings of the Sisterhood, reworded them a bit, and re-presented them as his own 'scientific' theories."

"I have not!" the other Doctors answered, in unison.

First sighed. "Regeneration may have its uses," he said. "But it often leads to small, uncomfortable memories slipping through the cracks."

"That may well be," Third snapped back. "But it doesn't explain what one of the Sisterhood is doing in Vortex City, or why she gave Kid here such a powerful charm."

First shrugged. "That, I can't answer for certain," he said. "But really, do you think we're the only renegades in exile in time and space, ostracized or on the run from our overly regimented, ritualized society?"

"So," the troll said, breaking into the long, uncomfortable silence, "if you're certain that charm is from the Sisterhood --"

"I am."

"Then what does it mean? Now that we know that, how can we use the information to bring the omniverse back together again?"

Another long silence.

Broken by a cough from Kid Curry.

Seven pairs of eyes turned to him in surprise. He'd been so quiet that they'd almost forgotten he was there.

"Forgive me, Ma'am, Sirs," he said. "I may be overstepping my bounds, here, but..."

"Go on," the avocado troll encouraged.

"Well, truth be told, I never had much schoolin', and I can't say I understood but half of what's been said here, but..."

"Stop apologizing," Sixth said, impatiently, "and get on with it!"

"Well, it seems to me that each of you," he looked up at the Doctors and scanned each of their faces in turn, "are lookin' at the same thing from two sides -- like with the university trained doctors with their instruments and such, and the shaman folk with their songs and prayers." He paused, and chewed thoughtfully on one corner of his mustache, and let his eyes drop, and his voice dropped too (the troll was sure that all of them stopped breathing to make sure they heard what he said). "Just like these Timelords and the Sisterhood, or a world made of numbers or of dreams. "Perhaps the whole thing is fallin' apart 'cause the two sides have been kept separate for too long... Maybe when that charm there came together with the TARDIS, the two sides were reunited, and that's where the power came from... Maybe we got to figure out how to make that reunion big."

As one, they breathed again. The wind chime high above them, sang out.

The troll smiled.

Now, the only question was of how.

Meanwhile, the Odd Trio have been in a discussion of their own...

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