The TARDIS' dressage act has succeeded in invoking the power of the goddess Epona...
Gordon had to dodge out of the way as Yokoi enthusiastically bundled backstage. She ran around him several times, grinning like a loony.
"Wasn't that just great?!?!?!"
"I think we may have actually hurt them..." Gordon mused.
Yokoi spun round and round. "Which is good, yeah?"
"I hope so, I just wonder what they're going to follow it up with."
"Oh stoppit Mr. Grumpy. You and Saville are up after whatever they throw at us, and knowing what you two are like, I think the Gods are gonna have probs..."
"Actually", says Bokman, waiting in the wings, "I was told me and Zoe are supposed to go on after their next bit. They do another magic thing, we respond, if I'm not mistaken."
The deputy troll (on her way to retrieve the torches and rerake the ring) shook her head and tapped the clipboard. Everything since the God's first magic (non)act had been crossed out and rewritten.
"There's been a change, remember -- the Powers that Be switched our performing order. We go first, now, and the Gods respond. You and Zoe are up immediately after the God's next act." She shuddered. "I'll hate cleaning up after those horses," she added.
She looked out at Kingpin's and Mags impromptu intermission: "Jester and tramp fight over who gets to ride the hobbyhorse next", and smiled. Hippies they may have been, once, but they had made a life of this. Now, they were artists.
"Well," she said, glancing down at her own Harlequin costume, "let's make it a trio!" and she went out to join them, real and true.
Yokoi hits the button on the retcon-o-tron(TM)...
"Oh stoppit Mr. Grumpy. They get a go, then there's Bokman and Zoe's magic act, then you and Saville are up after whatever the Gods respond to that with, and knowing what you two are like, I think the Gods are gonna have probs..."
"As long as the innuendo police don't cart us all off, we should be okay."
"Don't you worry about them, I stuck 'em in the room with no doors."
Me looked at Yokoi for a few seconds.
"Stop that, you're scaring me..."
Yokoi just giggled.
"But just in case, and I'm not saying whatever you and your brother have planned won't be enough, I've called in a few favours and organised one or two little, teensy weensy things that'll just add that finishing touch..."
"What exactly have you done?"
"Oh nothing, just scooped up a few peeps to help us out."
Yokoi grooved mightily on the spot, grinning.
Gordon looked incredulous, "You used a Time Scoop?!?!?!"
"No, I used the Tim Scoop, it's much safer and doesn't suffer from the causality tweakage problems the Time Scoop did."
Yokoi stopped grooving and looked Gordon straight in the eye. "You don't trust me?"
"Pinata. Custard. Explosion. Mexican border patrol."
"That could have happened to anyone."
"It was pretty funny, I wonder if they ever got the stains out?"
"Anyway," she said, poking him gently in the ribs. "Don't. You. Worry. If nothing else..."
Minds touched, concepts, ideas, thoughts, slipstreamed around them, not plan A, or plan B, this was the whole alphabet at once. Brainstorming, redemption, devices, transference, shift, chances.
"I suspected as much."
"Yeah, well I'll help out if we need to do that. We'll just grab the first person who comes along to finish the routine, I'm sure they'll understand."
"Player One ready!" smiled Gordon.
"Player Two ready!" grinned Yokoi.
"Player Three ready!" beamed Saville.
"Wizard has shot the food..." mumbled Igor as he loped past.
"This is getting silly..." muttered Saville.
"Oh, we're just getting started." Yokoi promised.
Gordon took the Sword of Authorial Freedom out of his pocket.
"In case of emergency, break laws of physics...let's do it!"
When a strange, gawky girl-child came tumbling into the tent with one of the weirder guests at her heels, Kid Curry couldn't help but notice. Couldn't hardly help but tense up, either, when first Allie then Imran hit the floor when she was around.
The brat sure didn't look like much, with those long skinny arms and legs sticking out of her skimpy clothes, and those big round "don't pick on me, I didn't do it" eyes. Kind of reminded him of little brother Lonie at that age, in fact -- who'd been a regular hellion for trouble, and the only one out of the four of them who never took the whippings, after...
Yeah, well. Big strong Henry took a cold in the lungs and died, down in Steamboat Springs. And brother John got the wrong end of a shotgun blast from a neighbor, up on the ranch in the Little Rockies they'd worked, on and off, the four of them, since Lonie got big enough to quit school and lend a hand.
He'd paid the guy his own back -- for the water, for the ranch, for John. Waited years to settle the account -- but he'd done it. You didn't get away with crossing Kid Curry. Not once, not ever.
(Hadn't always been 'Kid Curry' back then, though. Hadn't ended up then as head of the family...)
And then it had been just him, and little brother Lonie. Oh, Lonie'd run with him a time or two, out on the trail, but the little'un had gotten himself that saloon... not so little by then, either. Guess it was hard to realize, sometimes, when your kid brother was all grown up.
And they'd caught up with Lonie, in the end.
Little Brother had been in on that one, big, fifty-thousand-dollar job, that bitter night eight miles out of Rock Creek. Taken a share, sunk it into a new saloon. That was enough for Pinkerton's. Enough to track him down.
They'd caught up with Lonie back at Aunt Lee's. Shot him down at dawn on her doorstep, a hundred yards from the house. He'd been barely thirty years old.
No more family. No responsibility. Nothing. On his own for once and all... 'Kid Curry' for so long now he'd all but forgotten his own right name... His nose was razor-sharp above thin lips. A stocky figure half-hidden in shadow, he stared at the girl hunkered down by Imran and Allie.
Family, maybe. Brat sister, maybe. But then one way or another she'd laid out two of the leading spirits on the Pro-Fun side... and there was no way she should have gotten in here in the first place.
She had to have come through that blue wall the charm had laid down -- and he hadn't felt a thing. Not a twitch. Which meant there was something out there more powerful than the charm -- more powerful than the Gods -- and there was no way he'd gamble his life against the chance of it being on their side...
He'd made one wrong call already tonight, on the sword-fight. If it wasn't for Imran, they'd all be dead, or maybe worse. Now, just like that, this girl turns up -- and Imran's ready to break. Coincidence? Somehow, he didn't think so.
He started in on the first few steps that would take him over to the little group in the wings. Little Miss Butter-won't-melt-in-my-mouth had some explaining to do -- and fast --
And then everybody moved at once. The ringmaster made her announcement... and the tent went black. Warm, total dusk. Waiting. And Kid Curry was spellbound like the rest.
The horses swept across the ring. Once, twice. Rushing towards each other, blending, turning, like cavalry on parade... only there were no riders. No yellow-stripe troopers. Only the animals, dancing like human creatures... and they had changed.
More breedy, somehow. Slender legs, small heads, heavy arched necks, strong quarters. When he'd first set eyes on them, hitched to the circus wagon back on the blue-dust plains of the Valeyard's country, they'd been common-bred, scrubby beasts. Hard, almost like machines. Now, they were something more. And looking back out of the wide-set dark eyes... was a mind that knew it.
He shivered suddenly as the act ended. It wasn't just the change in the horses. The air itself seemed to grow thick, like the onset of a nightmare... slow like molasses, with lightning claws in its tail...
And She came.
He did not see her. At least, not with the eyes of the body, for they were tight shut. Dreams... many things to many men, but some there be that ride in torment nightly...
He felt her. With every bone in his body he felt her, like a thundercloud that passed through the ring, a promise and a warning. He would have cried out despite himself if he dared, with a tongue grown of a sudden deathly dry...
Kid Curry fled into himself. Into memory. And found the Contessa, like a warm hand clasping his own.
He'd never touched her -- hell, she was a lady born -- never even thought of her that way, until... Yet she was there, her slender hand in his, warding off the nightmares, holding him safe from the Power that walked the ring. He clung to her for a long moment, wordless, like a child.
"It is evening here, and things go very badly," she said at last softly into the dream they both shared. "What time is it with you, my friend?"
And as he opened his eyes without thinking, the dream slipped away... and the world was full of rose-petals, and the scent of coming dawn.
'Just one thing...'
'That is Xeffy, isn't it? I mean, that she turns up now...'
'I'd know my brat sister, thanks so much.'
'Yes... but it is a coincidence...'
'Uh-oh,' Fitz murmured.
'Will everyone stop with the Teletubby impersonations?' Izzy demanded.
Izzy, Sam and Anji looked at each other.
'You do not wanna know...'
'He's heading this way,' Stacy reported.
'The cowboy guy?' Xeffy said. 'Why?'
'I believe,' Shayde said, 'that he is more than a little concerned as to your sudden appearance through the web.'
'Yeah? So am I.'
'Why weren't you?'
'You get used to seeing girls appear out of nowhere...' Fitz remarked.
'You've got a point...' Sam allowed. '...Wait, how did you get here?'
Xeffy blushed. 'Um... would you believe...' She rummaged through her clothes. 'C'mon, c'mon, I know I put it here somewhere...'
'It's in the back pocket.' Anji said.
The others looked at her. She shrugged. 'Benefits of having a younger brother.'
They craned to see what was in Xeffy's hand.
Xeffy tugged at the drawstring. She frowned. 'Hang on, this wasn't closed before... Gotcha!'
'It was filled with sand before I got here, genius.'
'Hard to tell if it's got mixed with anything...' Stacy pointed out. 'For all we know, this could be Jubilaganzan sand.'
'Compassion would know.' Ssard observed.
'So how did it get you here?'
'Dream brought her here,' Allie said.
Imran nodded. 'Dream of the Endless.'
'They are not Gods, they were never men...' Allie quoted.
'Not completely true.'
Allie grinned. 'I know - thanks to your anal-retentive memory.'
'Mm. The Endless aren't interfering - or at least, not taking an active hand in this.'
'They're our Powers That Be,' Allie said. 'Well, in some respects, at least.'
'Well, not quite.... They're embodiments, personifications. And Dream embodies, in part, creativity, dream, stories...'
'And so he's interfering here as best he can,' Imran surmised. 'But Xeffy?'
'You were really snapping at her.' Allie noted.
'When she showed up. You laid into her.'
'No excuses there...' Imran murmured. 'But you'd nearly collapsed, you were unconscious... you'd put yourself through hell, you were ready to burn out. I didn't have time to deal with her on top of it...'
'She was scared as hell, too...' Allie observed.
'Heh. No, it wasn't what you'd call a good start...'
'Mind if I have a word with the "little lady"?' Kid said.
The girl-child looked up at him. 'Yeah?'
'You managed to lay out Imran and Allie jus' by showing up. Pretty impressive.'
'It wasn't my fault she collapsed!' Xeffy huffed.
'No? You show up... and then they collapse. Can't help thinking there's a connection.'
'There's a connection, alright - Allie's been at freakin' breaking point! Anything could have sent her over the edge!'
'That you turn up, at just the right time to send her over the edge... and then Imran goes with her.'
'I DIDN'T KNOW THAT WOULD HAPPEN!!' Xeffy screamed. 'She wanted me to come! She wanted...'
'Allie? No way, kid. She's been here all along.'
'She nearly had her soul stolen!' Xeffy snapped back. 'How'd you know she got all of it back?!'
'And how'd you know you're not being used as a stalking horse, kid? That you've been used to get them outta the way?'
'She isn't,' Allie said. 'Her presence here is because of ...someone in our home Fictiverse.'
'You know how she got here?'
Allie nodded. 'The bag of sand was a giveaway. It's one of the items of Dream.'
'Of Dream. One of the seven Endless, who embody concepts of the universe. Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair and Delirium.'
'Hn. Known all of those in my time...'
'They're... interconnected with my home Fictiverse. Dream in particular. Subreality does lie on the borders of Imagination. And Dream has... old ties to the Muses.'
'Hm. Can you be sure someone ain't faking this Dream's symbols?'
'I can,' Imran said.
He reached into the Cloak once again.
And withdrew something that glowed white.
'This is a dream. Literally a dream. It was one of Epona's roses,' Imran said quietly. 'If that isn't Dream's sand... it won't respond. Or it will respond... with hostile intent. Dream's sand can't be stolen - only Dream can open the pouch. Allie, Xeffy... do either of you want me to try?'
'Xeffy?' Allie said.
'Do it,' Xeffy said. 'I don't want him hanging over my shoulder all the time - no offence.'
Imran held out the dream.
Xeffy took a deep breath...
...and poured the sand into the dream.
This one walks the path of her story, following where it leads.
The sand is his, freely given for this tale.
In resolving her story may many others be aided.
In aiding others' stories will hers be resolved.
And a new story begun.
'Looks like you're on the level, kid.'
'Yeah... ' Xeffy didn't look at him.
'You had to be careful,' Imran said quietly.
Kid nodded. 'Another player at the table. You don't know whether they're in it with someone, or whether they're playing a game of their own. And if you've already been burned...' He left the sentence unfinished. 'So. And so. We expecting anyone else?'
'Not at the moment...' Imran said.
'Mm. Hope not. We got enough players as is.'
More than enough. But he kept that thought to himself. Too many big names in town at once had never meant nothing but trouble... and maybe there was such a thing as too many stories. Though the Contessa for one wouldn't agree.
And something the kid had flung back at him was nagging on his mind. He glanced up. First at Allie, then at Imran. "'Nearly had her soul stolen'?!"
Imran blinked. "What? -- oh, that's right, it was while you were -- um -- out..." One hand reached out for Allie's own; held it, while Imran briefly told of the fortune-teller and her poisoned bargain.
Xeffy listened. Eyes wide. Guess she hadn't known as much as she'd tried to make out...
Kid looked at Xeffy again.
Oh yeah. He knew that look.
Seen it on Lonie's face enough times.
Girl was scared. Scared for her big sister.
And maybe she was right to be.
Like she'd said... could they be sure Allie had all her soul back?
Kid thought not.
And he wouldn't have bet on who had the rest of her soul. He just had to look out at the ring to see that.
Keep an eye out. Make sure of this. They've been planning, storing power - and been stealing it from us. They got something coming, and it ain't gonna be good.
He nodded to them, and stepped away.
Make sure of this...
But the side-effects of the attempt to steal Allie's soul will be more far-reaching than any of them yet realise...Previous chapter Next chapter