No-one would ever have guessed what was outside...
"Mags and Kingpin!" the little turquoise troll said, clapping her hands.
"Well, yes," she answered, with a crooked, mischievous smile. "But I figured everyone would believe that -- after all, that was the plan..."
"And you expected us to believe," someone called out from the crowd, "that things are going according to plan? You are an optimist!"
"You're right," she answered, unflustered by the heckling, "I am. Mags and Kingpin are there, but they've also brought some new friends to meet and greet us. Come on! Come and see!"
She threw open the TARDIS doors, and her guests poured out. For the third time in thirty minutes, the crowd gasped as one.
There stood Mags and Kingpin, side by side. Hands on hips, chins up, they looked like they had just stepped off an oldtime circus poster.
But that wasn't what made the onlookers gasp. Flanking them, three on one side, three on the other, were six gryphons, each a different species, each magnificent.
The first gryphon on the left was pure white, from wingtip to wingtip, and from nose to tail.
The first gryphon on the right was just as black.
Then there was a gryphon whose wings were colored like a rainbow, with a long peacock tail trailing gracefully behind.
And one whose feline half was spotted as a leopard's and whose brow sported golden horns, spiraled like a ram's.
The fifth gryphon had the bird features of an owl, rather than an eagle.
And the last gryphon had the skin of a dragon, rather than fur, with scales of rubies, sapphires and emeralds.
"The Gods of Ragnarok must have acquired a taste for gryphons," Eighth said, quietly, "they've gathered quite the collection."
"Oh, no," Kingpin said, having overheard him, "The Gods of Ragnarok didn't bring the gryphons here. They came of their own free will."
"Are you sure?"
"Oh, yes. I've been under the Gods' control, remember," he said, shuddering involuntarily at the memory. "I know how it feels -- what it does to you. These creatures have too much life force around them -- a strength -- a --. Well, it's hard to define, but you can see it in the way they move, the way they hold themselves."
"They just started showing up," Mags explained, after we arrived, and started to set up the circus. First one, then another. It's like they are attracted by something -- like birds of prey gathering around a water hole."
"At first," she said, "they were quite the attraction. People couldn't get enough of them, or us. The main tent was full every night. Not only the audiences came, but performers, too -- the best performers from the seven galaxies! Everyone wanted a chance to be near these magnificent creatures. But then ..." Her voice trailed off.
"But then, something changed," Kingpin continued. "It started with the audiences," he said. "Just a subtle shift, but they seemed tired when they came here -- dazed, worn out. They would smile and clap and laugh during the show, but the good spirits didn't last very long after the show was over. It didn't sustain anyone, anymore. Then the performers began to lose their enthusiasm, and gradually just stopped coming. Then the gryphons --" he paused, searching for words, "they didn't become hostile, or aggressive, exactly... just, just --"
"Protective," Mags finished for him. "They gave off a ... a vibe of 'Stay away! Danger!' And people did." She sighed.
"We're alone again, now," she said. "Just like we were on Segonax, in the end." She looked up at the magnificent creatures around her, "except for our friends, here," she added.
"They were getting excited," she said, "the way they hadn't been in a long time. That's how we knew something was up, and followed them here."
"And found you!" Kingpin said, his face brightening, throwing his arms wide, as if he wanted to hug all of them all at once. "I like your wagon," he added, admiringly, almost as an afterthought.
"It was my TARDIS's idea," Our Hostess said proudly. "She knew we were bound to meet up with you even before we did."
"Meet you, and the Gods of Ragnarok," Seventh Doctor reminded them.
The avocado troll slapped her forehead. "Of course!" she exclaimed, as the lightbulb went on. "In ancient mythology, the gryphon was always seen as the guardian of gateways, particularly the gateway to sacred knowledge, letting the pure of heart through, and keeping away those who would misuse the wisdom!" She pointed to the leopard-spotted, horned gryphon. "In some Babylonian art, the 'Angels' guarding the gateway to Earthly Paradise looked like that." She pointed to the peacock-tailed gryphon. "And that was pictured as guardian to the Otherworld!"
Alryssa smiled, making the connection. "And there was a gryphon on Titan Three," she said, "at the entrance to the caves where the Monitors had put their gateway!"
Eighth nodded. "They must be attracted to interdimensional vortexes," he said, "like a moth is to flame."
"But," the avocado troll said, "I don't think this is blind attraction. I think they know just what they're doing."
"And if the vortex the Gods of Ragnarok are opening up has attracted six gryphons --"
"Then we've got a mondo battle of creativity versus stagnation to face!" Our Hostess and Ring Master said. "Come on, gang! Let's go!!!"
But not everyone was thrilled by the prospect...
Kid Curry squinted in disbelief and looked again at the six monstrous creatures crouched calmly in front of the wagon. The gryphons returned his stare, bird-like, black eyes unblinking. The nearest creature -- the white -- took a slow pace forward, muscles rippling under the creamy plumage, and stretched out towards him with its beak cocked first to one side, then the other. The great head came close enough for him to see the insides of the nostrils quiver as it strained after his scent.
He jumped back with a bitten-off curse, reaching automatically for the gun ... that was not there. The gryphon did not move. It was still watching him out of one sparkling eye. Somehow, from this angle, the curve of the animal's beak made it look as if it was finding something very funny.
Glowering, he backed towards the others. The avocado troll's round little face was split from side to side by a smile of pure delight, almost as if she had somehow mothered the animals herself. As she looked across from the white gryphon to her guest, her grin broadened with excitement.
"I think he can sense the dimensional rift on you, Kid -- even after all this time! He must be able to detect the vibrations of a different skein of the Omniverse ---" Then, belatedly, as his bewilderment dawned on her: "That you came across out of a different world from the rest of us, I mean..."
Kid Curry cast another wary glance from one gryphon to another, as if daring any of them to move, and shook his head. His breath was coming rather faster than he liked to admit. "Yeah, and maybe it just likes the smell of horse on me -- you ever think of that?" He glared back at the white gryphon. "I tell you, these things sure don't come from any world of mine --"
Then he broke off abruptly, frowning. The brightly-dressed woman -- Mags -- was speaking again, her words a ripple of reassurance as she reached up to slip one arm around the neck-feathers of a towering gryphon. But Kid Curry's eyes had narrowed, and he was staring past her.
"Penny for 'em, young man?" Someone touched him lightly on the shoulder from behind as the other guests began to file past, and he swung round on his assailant, only to meet the amused gaze of the first Doctor. His clenched fists slackened and fell away under the old gentleman's shrewd smile. "Penny for your thoughts?" the Doctor prompted again, one eyebrow raised.
The outlaw jerked his chin slowly in the direction of the horizon. "Back inside... when you were all talking over the Contessa's charm..."
"Yes?" the Doctor said sharply.
"...didn't he --" a nod at the Seventh Doctor -- "mention kites?"
Kid Curry pointed, silently, and saw the other man's face sharpen into sudden hawk-like attention. "Hmmm... now that's interesting..." First said softly, almost to himself. "Very interesting..."
The gryphons were noticing, too. The quiet air of repose that had surrounded them was gone. Kid could almost feel the muscles tense under their skins, and the air around them tingled -- it had the smoky, wet scent that came right before a big storm hits the desert.
As one, they leapt in front of Mags, Kingpin, and the hoedown guests, blocking their path.
Then everything seemed to happen at once, as the quiet murmur of friends getting reacquainted was replaced by squeals of surprise and terror. Kid's awareness of what was happening to the others was a mere blur, but the details of his own experience were as clear and sharp in his mind as the polished wood-grain of the Contessa's table, when he saw it magnified through the lens of her crystal ball.
With the speed of a striking rattler, the White's head came down as he snapped up Kid and the Doctor in his beak, lifting them into the air as though he and the Doctor together weighed no more than a twig.
So, this is how it ends, he thought, bracing himself against the crushing of his bones, swallowed whole by a giant bird-thing.
But the end never came, at least, not then. The gryphon held them firm -- no way he could struggle free -- but the massive beak didn't so much as poke a hole in his shirt. This fact had barely registered itself in his brain, however, before he felt himself being swung through the air and dropped onto the gryphon's back, between its shoulder blades.
"Hold on tight," the Doctor's voice said at his ear. "I think we're about to take flight."
"What?" Kid asked, still recovering his sense of rightside-up.
The answer came from below him, as the creature's muscles coiled and bunched, like a bronco about to throw its rider. Instinctively, Kid's fingers found a loose fold of skin below the feathers and tightened around it.
And just in time.
With one strong downbeat of its snowy wings, the gryphon leapt. The rush of air going past them was strong enough to push Kid's exhaling breath back into his lungs.
He had never been higher than the roof of the Hotel in Vortex City (and he'd vowed never to go up there again); he'd never traveled faster than a twelve-team stagecoach going at full gallop. Both those things together seemed as safe and still as lying on his bedroll after a large meal, compared to this. He buried his face in the gryphon's feathers, and tried not to be sick.
"That won't work, m'boy," First said, as though reading his mind (or maybe Kid's queasiness was clearly written on his face). "If you want to avoid motion sickness, the best thing to do is keep your eye on the horizon. Besides," he added, "you'll never get a chance to see this again."
Kid shakily raised his head, and focused on the distant horizon. Sure enough, his stomach started to settle, despite the smallness of the details below them, or the speed with which they passed by. The good thing about horizons, he thought, was that they're always the same distance away. If he just focused on that sharp line between earth and sky, it was almost as if they weren't moving at all. Almost.
For the first time since the White had snapped him up, Kid became aware of the others. They were all being carried by the gryphons. And every last one of them, it seemed, was laughing and cheering and whooping it up, as if they had found the richest vein of gold, ever.
Kid's thoughts were focused on something else, however. The gryphons were taking them somewhere. But where? And why?
And then he saw the kites.
Mags screamed. "The eyes of Ragnarok!" she yelled. "They've come back for us!"
Each kite was as large as the mainsail of a clipper ship. And each had a single eye painted on them. Only they weren't painted, not really. They were alive and hateful -- and watching them.
The White let out the piercing cry of an eagle: both melodious and fierce. The others answered.
And again, everything happened at once, it seemed.
Doubling their speed, the gryphons dove for the kites, attacking them with talons and beaks, diving and spinning through the air while their passengers clung to their backs for dear life.
One detail remained clear in Kid's mind, though, the kind of detail he knew would stay with him for years, after everything else had been forgotten.
Just before each attack, the gryphons would meet the gaze of the kites, and light would flash behind the surface of their dark eyes, like the wave of lightning inside a storm cloud. And the light was blue.
'YAAAAGGGGHHHH!!!!' Imran screamed.
'Just... don't... let... go...' Allie grunted.
'Don't worry, we're holding on to you!' Tessa's voice was strained.
'But who's holding us?!' Gordon screeched. '- Yokoi, what are you doing?!'
'Getting this,' his Muse answered.
'Hey! Get... That... oyy, I'm gonna start giggling...'
'Imran...' Allie said through gritted teeth. 'Now would really be a good time to...'
There was a small flash of light.
'PULL US BACK!!' Imran yelled.
'For Calliope's sake, do what he says!' Allie screamed.
Slowly, Tessa and Gordon managed, with great difficulty, to pull them back onto their gryphon, now circling around for another attack on the kites.
There was another flash of light.
And Allie cautiously lifted her hand from her author's.
'What was all that about?'
'I... We... we bound our hands together...' Imran panted. 'She couldn't let go of me, no matter what.'
'But both of you could have fallen...'
'You wouldn't do that.' Allie said.
For a moment, the battle paused.
Gordon raised the Sword of Authorial Freedom towards the sky.
'You know what this is. You know who we are. You know why we're here. We won't let this happen.'
The kites hung in the air. Watching.
'This ends now. Get back to old stonyarses, 'cause there's a new show in town. The Psychic Circus is back in business - for good. You want to challenge us? Fine. But not here. Not now. We're calling you out, Gods of Ragnarok. A battle of the Circuses. The biggest show in the universe. Acts from across the Omniverse. Armadillos. Milkshakes. Singers. All ready and waiting to put the Psychic Circus back on the map.
'Whaddya say to that?'
A brief silence.
Then the kites silently slid away.
The gryphons hung in the air, flapping their wings.
Gordon lowered the sword. 'We're back, and it's about fun.'
'Gordon, that was quite possibly one of the bravest-'
'-and stupidest things I have ever seen.' Imran said.
Gordon's face fell.
Imran grinned. 'We wouldn't have you any other way.'
'Thanks... I think.' Gordon said.
'What now?' Allie said.
'To the Circus!' our hostess called from the gryphon she sat on. 'We've got a show to put on!'
For a moment, collision seemed inevitable; then Kid Curry felt great muscles flex under the feathered hide beneath his knee. Despite the instinctive death-grip that had flattened him forward against his mount's neck, he raised his head just enough to risk a quick glance sideways. Far below and behind he caught a glimpse of the gaily-painted circus wagon; then the wings lifted and spread again, and the wagon was lost from view as the White dropped neatly into place at the end of the loose skein of gryphons. Like a string of ponies in Indian-file, the five had swung round to follow the lead of the huge horned gryphon that now arrowed through the brightening air. It was as if the stormy thickness had filled the world on the tails of the devil-kites, and with their vanishing, had been washed away.
All thoughts of falling forgotten, Kid Curry leaned forward, one steading hand wound firmly in the creamy feathers that crested the gryphon's neck, trying to make out where they were headed. Amongst the clinging crowd of backs that pressed cheerfully together between the wings of the leader, he could glimpse the bright shoulders of Mags, and beside her the glitter that was Kingpin. The woman leaned forward and laughed; and in that moment, high on the creature's withers beyond, he could just see an avocado-green trollish tail tucked up tightly for balance around the waist of a little turquoise deputy. Unconsciously, his narrowed gaze relaxed slightly. Wherever they were going, it seemed like they were in good hands...
The Doctor, behind him, was pulling at his shoulder and pointing off to the left. For a while he couldn't make out what the old man was getting at. Then, as the gryphons began to sink lower, wingbeats slowing to a long curving glide, at the Doctor's prompting he finally saw.
At first, it was tiny, a red-and-white splotch half-hidden in the crawling folds of the ground beneath them. It wasn't until they had almost reached their destination, and the horned leader ahead of them, half-lost in the final flurry of dust from frantically back-beating wings, was about to touch the ground -- the huge beast utterly dwarfed by the scale of the structure beyond -- that he finally grasped just what they were looking at.
That had to be the biggest tent in the world -- in all the worlds. Tall enough to swallow one of the razor-edged kites of Ragnarok, its bellying walls spread wide enough to line the whole of one side of Main Street in most of the towns he'd known -- and some to spare... High in the gay-striped crown of the great canopy, scallop-edged vents opened dormer-like to the skies. As the White beat its way steeply down to join its fellows in the shadow of the Psychic Circus, Kid Curry caught a wave of warm scent rising up towards them, crushed grass and canvas, tugging at memories he'd almost forgotten he had; of a crowded camp one autumn and winter up at the hidden canyon, one more old crazy scheme from back in the years when he'd gone along with the rest of the bunch... Through the gaps in the awning, the three low-walled rings could be glimpsed clearly inside, empty now but still worn, stained by the ghost of sawdust and the scatter of glitter shaken down by performers passed on from under the gathering storms.
Last in line and lightly-burdened, the white gryphon set them down neatly on the edge of the chattering crowd that surrounded its fellows in a graceful back-winged landing, and dropped to its haunches. Kid Curry swung himself down almost reluctantly. For an unthinking instant, meeting the gaze of those dark bird-eyes, he had all but turned back to thank the creature for the ride. One hand lingered on its flank, patting the warm, cream-furred hide.
"Better not get too much of a taste for it," the Doctor advised, scrambling down nimbly in his turn. Then, as Kid Curry turned, surprised: "They're not halter-broke, you know. You don't get the chance of a ride on gryphon-back often, m'boy." And with that, he was off, forging through the rest of the guests towards Mags and Kingpin with a sublime indifference to the crowd that parted and jostled in his wake.
'Boy', indeed... Kid Curry watched him go, scowling almost ruefully.
The Hoedowners begin to prepare their acts...Previous chapter Next chapter