The Gods had attempted to create a temporal anomaly around Alryssa...


Imran looked across the ring at where Kid was standing.

Looked back at Alryssa.

And frowned.

How had she known? And how had she known Kid would break the anomaly?

For that matter, how had Imran known about the anomaly?

Kid nodded at him.

Lost in thought, Imran returned the nod.

The outlaw accepted it, and continued his watchout.


He couldn't ask Alryssa, she needed to concentrate... that had been too close.

He hadn't had any of his own milkshakes - that waited for his part of the show.

He looked down at the cloak, the wizard's cloak that had enveloped him when he'd separated from Allie.

Could that be why?

Could the cloak have granted him the ability to see the anomaly?

If it had... then it had integrated it into his worldview. He hadn't seen anything out of the ordinary when he'd entered the anomaly - only that there was an anomaly, and how time inside it had differed from outside. The Doctors waiting for their juggling act, TYA as their first act...

Right now, outside, Harlequin was stepping into the ring - and the Muses were gearing up for their next song as backing singers, building up until their act.

He'd been... an audience.

Creativity, Authorial Freedom, and ...and what?

Creativity. Author... and Audience.

He'd been the Audience.

A Cloak of Audience?

Then something hit.

Nervous energy. The Gods couldn't create, but they could warp, they could twist. They'd used his - and Allie's - nervous energy, its disruption of the magic...

Disruption. They'd taken advantage of the disruption, not caring where it had come from, to make their move.

Like a gunfight.

They want anger. They want revenge. They want violence.

They want the fun to be disrupted.

No.

No. Calm down. You're part of the audience. If I start wanting that - then they're one step closer to winning.

Imran frowned. Okay. So... Alryssa was the spirit of creativity, Gordon had the sword of Authorial Freedom, and he had, for want of a better term, a cloak of ...audience?

But something was nagging at him.

Why had Allie ended up in Grecian robes? Reverted, she'd said. That was the way she'd looked - well, formally - at the Collegium Imaginarium. Long brown hair, white robes - not the short, wavy hairstyle and the green sailor fuku she'd preferred after she'd been assigned to him.

But...

He shook his head, and looked out at the ring.

Maybe it'd come to him.

TYA on backing vocals. Harlequin in the ring.

And Imran grinned at what he saw in there.


The little turquoise troll went out into the center ring (with Spethan the Typo Grimlen sitting on her right shoulder). She could feel the Gods' of Ragnarok's icy stares, their hunger, and unforgiving hatred. She knew that if she performed for them -- gave them her best, that they would take her creativity, her fun energy, and swallow it up. But they would take no sustenance from it, wouldn't use it to grow, and they wouldn't return it to her.

So she took a deep breath and decided to perform for her friends: for her Hostess, who had enough faith in her to make her deputy for the Hoedown (and for all the guests who had had the courage to enter through those strange doors), for Daibhid, who had the courage to start, for Kid, who'd decided to help them, even though he didn't belong there, and for Imran, who had begun to clap softly in encouragement, even though she hadn't started yet.

She stole a sidelong glance at Spethan, who winked at her, and began her act.

She started with warm-up exercises: stretching and jumping jacks, then began to jog around the edge of the ring.

But Spethan snuck up behind her, and, while avoiding getting stepped on, touched the heels of her shoes with his magic wand, turning her "jog" to a "jig".

Her eyes and mouth wide in mock surprise at this sudden change, the little troll began to stumble. But the gremlin tapped her hand just before it touched the ground, and her "stumble" turned to "tumbles": an intricate series of somersaults, cartwheels, and backflips right across the diameter of the ring.

While she recovered, weaving and tottering in a dizzy, drunken manner, Spethan placed a rose in her path.

Coming to at last, the little troll picked up the flower, and breathed in its sweet scent appreciatively. But then the "rose" was turned to "rise", and the little troll floated into the air, high above the ring.

The Pro-Fun Hoedowners laughed. But the Gods of Ragnarok, who had neither the imagination to understand nonsense, nor the willingness to enjoy it without understanding, grew angry. The air within the big top grew icy cold, and a palpable dark, as thick and tangible as slime, descended.

Soon, it was as if the little troll were alone in the Omniverse -- suspended in the exact center of a dark ocean too thick to swim through. She could feel it enter into her lungs with each breath, chilling her to the core.

No! she thought desperately at the Gods, I won't let you win -- not this way! And then, in Pooh fashion: Oh, help! Oh, bother! Oh, help and bother!

Then, just when she began to fear that she would be lost in the darkness forever, the air exploded into a thousand feathered wings and birdsong. Spethan, who had kept hold of his wand (and, it seemed, his wits) had transformed the "dark" into "larks", and a whole exultation of three dozen or more grasped the back of the little troll's Harlequin costume with their tiny talons and flew her safely down to the ground between Imran and the muses before flying out through a vent in the big top's roof.

"Thanks!" she whispered to Spethan.

The gremlin shrugged. "I like to imvoprise," he said.

The Pro-Funners erupted into applause. The Gods recoiled into themselves, preparing for their next attack.

"So much for starting small," Yokoi murmerd to the troll out of the corner of her mouth.

But the little troll was still too shaken to catch the humor in that remark. "I think," she said, slowly, "that there may be no way we can win against the Gods by playing fairly. I think we'll have to outtrick the tricksters and cheat them before they can cheat us."

"That's not really in the spirit of fun, though, is it?"

But the little troll shook her head. "We can't wait to react against them, we have to be proactive -- cut them off from the source their dark power before they have a chance to use it. They're using tricks against us now," she said, "but as we beat them in each round of this contest, they're bound to get frustrated. If we give them a fair chance, they'll just take the opportunity to destroy us outright -- throw the chessboard on the floor, burn down the gaming house, even. So we can't give them a fair chance."

Yokoi squinted at her. "Are you sure that dark we just got hit with didn't affect your thinking?"

The troll looked down at the silk rose in her hand, each of its petals edged with red glitter. "I'm fairly sure...." she said.


'I wonder...' Imran mused.

His eyes narrowed. 'I know what's wrong. We're focusing on the ends, rather than the means. We're trying to outcheat the Gods of Ragnarok to win...'

'But Pro-Fun isn't about that, is it?' Tessa said.

'No. It's about having fun - and making sure others have fun. Not about winning, or about losing - because both can be a part of fun.'

'But if we don't win, there won't be any fun!'

'And if we win through not following Fun, what will that make us?' Imran asked. 'Can you compromise Fun to win? Because that's what you could end up arguing.'

'But I'm not!' the deputy argued. 'I'm trying to defend it - and if we lose, they'll continue on until there's no creativity left!'

'That's the dilemma...' Yokoi said quietly. 'If we don't win, we die - and so will the Pro-Fun cause. But what we may have to do to win could mean that we lose sight of the Pro-Fun cause - while saving it for everyone else.'

'Pre-emptive strikes,' Imran added, equally quietly. 'Get them, before they can get you. That's the way they're thinking - trying to get us, before we can complete our acts - and get them.'

'And what's to stop them? What's stopping them just killing us, or burning down the Top? Why are they playing by the rules? Why don't they destroy us outright?'

'Because they have to play by the rules,' Gordon said. 'That's the way it goes. You lay down the challenge - they have to play by your rules.'

'An act for an act,' our hostess realised. 'Each of our acts cancels one of theirs. And they can't retaliate after one of their acts, because we haven't responded - haven't played by the rules... they can only retaliate after one of ours - or try to disrupt one of our acts, or destroy one of our acts, so our response fails. But why not -?'

'Because that's not the way we do things. They're doing it out of hatred, and hunger, and fear. They accepted our challenge - and they're...' Yokoi trailed off. 'They don't want to lose.'

'If that's the case...' Imran whispered.

'...Then they have reason to believe - something that makes them believe - that we might have a chance. Seventh defeated them last time - and they'll remember that. May even be wary of it... and because they have no imagination, if we do unpredictable things, things beyond what a reductionist system would say we'd do...' our hostess realised.

'Then they'll be cautious, fearing it's a move against them. They have no imagination - to them, anything we do could be a move against them.' Yokoi completed. 'We're disrupting and disturbing them simply by doing what we're doing... because they don't understand why we're doing it, that we're doing it for other people, that it's fun for us, and others, that we're making other people happy - but not at our own expense.'

'We're not playing to win, we're playing to have fun. We can think of winning, losing...' Gordon added. 'They're playing to win, 'cause it's all they can think of. Anything else... pfft.'

'All right...' our hostess said. 'All right. So what do we do?'

'They'll be thinking that we'd get them before they got us. It's what they'd do,' Imran mused. 'So we won't. We're going to show them that tricks aren't just about winning, they're about teaching and learning and having fun.'

'Of course!' our hostess exclaimed. 'Like Brer Rabbit! Or Coyote!'

'Or Anansi. Or Raven,' Imran said. 'We're gonna show them what the Trickster's really about - and that the Trickster's a hell of a lot more than just winning...'

He frowned. 'Hermes... Mercury...'

'The messengers of the gods?' our hostess said.

'What colour's Allie's robe again?' Imran asked.

'Whi- No, no, it's not. It's glowing,' Yokoi murmured. 'Luminous. It was glowing blue when the Gods came... but it's silver, now.'

'Silver... or mercury? Mercurial?' Imran whispered. 'Blue to silver - it's shifting colours.'

'Mercury. Messenger from the gods to humans, encouraging them to follow the gods.' our hostess said. 'And Allie's a Muse - a messenger, an aspect of Creativity to a creator, encouraging them to create.'

'-and complete that creation,' Imran said. 'Creativity. Muse. Author. Audience. We have the aspects of creativity - of Pro-Fun. The spirit. The sword. The robe. The cloak. If we could find a way to put them together...'

'...Then the Gods might be blocked off from their power. Or at least they'd be distracted from using it...' our hostess said.

'Intermission's nearly over,' Kid said.

'Right.' our hostess said. 'Yokoi, Tessa - you go back to Allie. Nyctolops?'

'Here,' Nyctolops said.

'Get ready. You'll be on after their acrobats...' our hostess said. 'And the rest of you - Watch out for anything they may throw at us.'


"It's hard to think about fun, though," the deputy said, "when you're breathing pure cold, isn't it?"

The others just looked at her.

"Didn't you feel it?" she asked them.

"Well," Our Hostess said, "we saw the dark around you, and we were worried... but when we saw the finale to your act -- well, it was just spectacular!" Then she caught the look in the turquoise troll's eyes. "... You mean -- that black cloud wasn't part of your act?"

"You mean," the little troll asked in response, "that the Dark didn't fill the whole Big Top? You didn't -- none of you felt that Cold, did you?"

They shook their heads, silently.

Tears started to well up in the little troll's eyes. "Attack!" she spat out, blinking back the tears before they had a chance to fall. "It wasn't blind anger, like I thought -- it was an attack, on me -- aimed at me!" She shivered, and coughed. "I've heard it said, by scientific type folks, that everything has heat... that 'cold' isn't a thing in its own right -- just a means of comparison to something else. They're wrong. This cold was a force -- it crawled inside me. I was so alone, up there."

"You're not alone, now," Imran said gently. "Would you like a milkshake?"

"Better make it a hot chocolate," she said. "The hotter the better."

Imran reached into his cauldron and, with a flourish, produced a mug of hot chocolate. Clouds of steam rolled over the rim -- so thick, they might have been whipped cream.

The turquoise troll took the mug in both hands, and drank deeply, slowly, and gratefully. She could almost hear the ice inside her brain crack as it melted. At last, she sighed contentedly.

"Still," she said, "we need something more than just the spirit of fun, this time. We have Kid to protect us against the sideways attacks -- but this was a direct hit (about a tricky as a direct punch to the gut), and we have Daibhid and the juggling Doctors to protect us from the negative energy the Gods themselves put out during their acts. We have the gryphons protecting the Omniverse from the Gods, at least until this showdown is over -- but unfortunately, the Gods are on the same side of the Gateway as we are at the moment. We need to protect our performers in the ring -- but how do we do that without spoiling the spirit of fun -- without breaking the rules?"

"We need a shield of some sort," Our Ringmaster said.

"Can we get one built fast -- like instantly?" Nyctolops asked, worried.

"I don't know," the avocado troll said. "I hope so."

"You hope?!"

But help is at hand...

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