Kid Curry has learned that he has been in Vortex City for almost 100 years - long past his natural lifetime...
'The Otherworld.' Sandra whispers. 'It's Otherworld time... a day here, a century there.'
The Contessa nods. 'You cannot go home, for home is long gone. You could go back...'
'And crumble into dust?'
'No,' the Contessa says. 'No. But you would age again, from the moment you returned... there is enough reality in you for that.'
He looks up then. 'Why?'
'Because that is...' She pauses. 'The endless adventure. The story continues, containing more adventures than any normal life could ever contain. And during it all-'
'During it all, the hero never ages.' Sandra whispers. 'Not once. No one bothered with it - it got in the way of the story.'
He rounds on her. 'And how old are you, lady?!'
'Which one of me?' Sandra asks quietly. 'I'm only a few hours old. Alisandra was around twenty.' She hesitates. 'But... but some Muses can live a long time. My grandmother lived to be about three thousand.'
He turns to the Contessa. She reads his question before he speaks.
'I've lived here longer than I care to remember. My people... my people can live almost forever, barring accidents.' She breathes out. 'And...'
His face darkens. "Don't say it. Don't say it." He is coiled in on himself. Desperate. Ready to lash out.
"I never once saw... Never thought to count the times I'd been here -- all the months between --" The eyes are wild. Not safe -- not sane. "What did you do to me, Contessa? What the hell did you do to my mind?"
"I did nothing." The Contessa's accent bites like a whiplash. Like a dash of cold water to the face.
"I did not make this world, nor its rules. I fled here in unthinking escape, even as you did -- and stayed." Her eyes meet his once more, cool and dark. "Even as you did."
Sandra lets out a shaky breath. Makes a guess. "And now the stories are weakening..."
The Contessa nods. "And those who had, once, another life... begin perforce to remember. For a while." Kid Curry makes a sudden movement; and gold flashes in the lamplight as she holds up one slender hand.
"And if I had told you sooner...?" Her expression is pained for a brief moment. 'There was no gentle way to say it, no easy way. How would you tell a man he has outlived everything he ever knew?'
His features remain hard. 'You could have warned, could have said something, anything...'
'And would you have believed me, Curry?' she asks. 'You, who believed that in a few short years he would be dangling from the end of a noose, or lying dead in an alley - what would it mean to you, even if you had believed it?'
He cannot speak.
'A hundred years.' she repeats quietly.
He says nothing.
Stands, turns, and walks out.
'He's not okay.' Sandra says, finally.
'I know.' the Contessa says. 'I know. But he will return.'
'But... but what is he, now? A creator or a character?'
'He is... Kid Curry.' the Contessa says eventually. 'Himself, always himself. Always breaking the rules. And around here, those who break the rules... admired, honoured, feared... it always catches up with them. Always.'
'There is a way your story is supposed to go - but as a Muse, you know that. And you know the dilemma that underlies it.
'And there is your story here - a lost or kidnapped woman, rescued by the villain, slowly understanding him. But this 'villain' breaks the rules." She sighs. "Can you understand, little Muse -- or is the call of this place already too strong? There are the rules of the City, the rules of the preachers; thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not lie, thou shalt not steal --" a sudden dancing smile -- "nor gamble at cards, nor drink, nor swear, nor ride out of a Sunday, save to prayers..."
"But those are the kind of rules that characters in the stories break all the time -- right?" Sandra's own smile breaks out in response.
The Contessa laughs; but soon sobers. "But there are the other rules. The rules of story. The rules the characters live even as they breathe..."
"Like... not aging?"
The other woman nods. "Good over evil. The hero rides off into the sunset. The bad girl never gets the man. More than six shots in one gun, where it really matters."
"Robbing the rich and giving to the poor," Sandra says slowly. "The stolen horses are clear of the stable before the owner wakes up..."
"So. You have felt it. I wondered... And you were with him?"
Him? Sandra wonders for a moment. No need, of course, to ask.
"Yes. I could feel the stories -- feel the way it ought to go --" She catches her breath, remembering. "And it went wrong. I was stupid... romantic..."
"Kid Curry does not play by those rules." The Contessa's voice is almost too low to hear. "He plays as he has always played -- for real. It catches up with him -- and with those around him. For at the end of the story, by all the rules the villain must die... and he is no hero, child. Not in this world; not in any world --"
Sandra's eyes spark in sudden challenge; but she bites her tongue. "But this place is held together by the rules," she says instead at last, unhappily. 'We're breaking them - and we're worsening things.'
'Not yet.' the Contessa says. 'There is... an equilibrium. He breaks it - but the presence of your web holds it together. But it can only hold for so long.'
A cold feeling settles in the pit of Sandra's stomach. 'You said... catches up with him. Isn't that a story too? He steps outside after learning a terrible secret... and something else catches up to him.'
- Or with you.
'You...' the Contessa hisses.
The Monitor steps out of the shadows.
- You will not stop this, Contessa. Doc Gallifrey will fall - and then Vortex City, soon after. There will be an end.
'There'll be nothing!' Sandra snaps. 'Nothing at all!'
- You are a very long way from your self, little Shadow. Do not forget that.
'I get it...' Sandra murmurs. 'You're doing this while the PTB - and Sailor Gallifrey - focus on the Hoedown. Attacking on one front, while they're looking the other way.'
- As I said. An end. Stasis. Quiet and cold. The balance finally reached.
'You mean oblivion.' Sandra returns.
- Do I?
The Monitor steps forward.
- Then allow me to demonstrate.
A hundred years...
A wind whips down the darkened street, stinging his face with flying dust. Outside the Grand Hotel, the horses huddle together. One snorts, uneasily. Overhead the clouds are building, racing in on the rising gale. One by one the stars are going out.
A hundred years.
Kid Curry stares into the night. There is an aching hollow somewhere deep within him; no, not a hollow, but a solid fist of emptiness, opening out, spreading... The Gods had taken his dreams -- but the City has taken the world where he was born.
And given him a hundred years. A hundred empty years.
Everyone he'd ever known. Firm-fleshed women and sullen men -- the ranchers who'd thieved the open range, and the rustlers who'd thieved their maverick steers in return -- that little featherhead Elfie who'd been fool enough to let Lonie sweet-talk her into bed -- or, knowing Lonie, into the barn --
Bare bones, now. Dark and crumbling in the dirt. The cabins bleached and splintered in the long grass where the logs had slipped away. Shutters rattling in the towns, the sounds echoing across empty lots between the last few standing store-fronts...
Empty -- or changed beyond all knowing, the Contessa had said. He remembers barren, close-cropped lawns, paved roads, endless square houses and fences for mile on mile on mile. Remembers being lost in that world, where the Hoedown was the only spark left of human life. Changed... beyond all knowing.
'You cannot go home, for home is long gone. You could go back...'
The old preacher had wanted him out of the way; and had fixed to send him back. Back to a world he'd no longer even known. Back to a world where he had no place and no chance. No choice, there. No choice at all.
The wind is icy. He shivers, turning up his collar. Stares once again at his hands, long scarred fingers like dry bones in the dark.
A hundred years. And what -- what am I? Dead man walking?
Knives under Corcovado, when the bullets were spent. Thorns and fleshy creepers that clung and sliced in the dusk of that last pursuit, as he fled, blind and beaten, through the tropical night. He'd suspected nothing -- let his guard down, made camp like always --
They'd meant murder. No pretence at a fight. They'd had it all figured out real neat, his so-called partners. Planned to knife him in his sleep like an old dog turned savage on them.
Crazy, they'd called him. Screamed it after him, as the knives plunged. Loco bastard -- crazy killer -- get us all lynched --
And he'd twisted free and run. Run into the steaming forest without hope, without a thought, blind, animal fear sobbing at his heels. Those tearing thorns could have been knives. Could have been the memory of death, as they caught him.
He'd never known different. Never known where and when he'd crossed, that night, let alone how. Known nothing, for a long time, and little enough for the weeks of fever at the ranch-house that followed. Knew only that, when he was well enough to leave -- to make a run for it, with no way to pay back the debt he owed -- he was back in range country again.
And Vortex City... had been waiting. The life he knew. A world that had all but slipped away, back home, driving him south, and further south --
He'd learned the country. Learned the routes. Clawed out enough to live on, as he'd always done.
He'd known -- known deep inside that this wasn't home, maybe wasn't even real. Felt the pulses of the stories, tugging. And let himself forget, living from day to day.
All dead. All gone. All changing, even then. And all that was left of the old life was dreams. Stolen dreams.
Eloise stood at the edge of the ring, her weight on one foot, the other poised to step forward, but not quite ready, watching the new Doctor and his two companions take over the juggling/intermission duties for a while. It was time to announce the Gods' next act -- the only problem was, she wasn't sure what that act was. Back at the start of the circus, when they were oh-so-sure that the Gods would be predictible, they assumed that they would put on a standard, fill-in-the-blank trapeze act, but now that the Gods were echoing the Hoedowners, and Gordon had changed his act to a Panto at the last minute, how were they going to answer?
The Panto. Where had Gordon, Saville and Yokoi gone, she wondered, and who were the trio that had arrived in their place: The Doctor (Which Doctor?), Katherine, and Silence?! One third of TYA had vanished suddenly, to who-knows-where, and another third was only half there. She stared at the now-opaque sphere, and fought down the desire to smash it open to pull Curry and Allie's shadow out. :::They're not really inside, she reminded herself, any more than the characters of a sitcom were inside the TV::: Why had it suddenly gone opaque? Had Imran's song worked, and pulled the two of them out of that void-space they'd been in? And if so, were they in a place they needed or wanted to be, or had the Gods succeeded in taking them further away from them?
Bits of Imran's song echoed in her memory: "The skein of Fate has not told your story". That should have worked. Allie's Shadow's story was Allie's story -- wasn't it? :::Oh, Mother Goose! What if it wasn't? What if her shadow stayed away until her story was complete? The way things have been going lately, that could be Forever, and we are running out of time...:::
She squinted against darkness on the Gods' side of the tent, hoping to discern some sign of what they were preparing, so that she would know what to say when she annouced them. Nothing.
And then she saw it: the unmistakable blue, still shining brightly: Curry's Eye charm -- without Curry. Had he left it behind on purpose, or had he lost it? Eloise didn't want to risk finding out the answer by accident. Quietly and stealthily as possible, she hurried over and slipped it into her pocket; it may not have been much, but it might be enough to protect it from the Gods' malicious power.
Unbeknownst to her, as the charm settled in her pocket, it slipped over a thorn of the Dream rose Eloise had put there, as easily as a ring slips onto a finger.
And when the power of Dream passes through a Gateway of the omniverse, anything can happen. ...
A tingling in his hands, cold from the night air.
Dead man walking. A past long forgotten.
There was no place, no place left for him, no place to return to.
A man from a dead past.
A knight of ghosts and shadows.
Now... now he began to understand.
Empty. So empty. The endless, desperate life - always running, always fighting, always surviving...
There could have been something more.
Empty years. A hundred empty years.
But who had made them empty?
He could not blame the Gods for this, he knew that much. This was long, long before them.
His life had been an endless quest to survive, to carry on...
'Would it have mattered to you?'
The question echoing in his mind.
Would it have mattered that he had lived a hundred years.?
Yes, he wanted to say, yes it did matter.
But had it mattered?
Would the man he had been look back on his life, see nothing but emptiness?
Or would he have shrugged it off? Accepted, accommodated it, as he'd accommodated everything else?
He knew the answer to that. He wished he didn't.
The man he was now - he looked back on a hundred years and saw emptiness. Time squandered.
'I'm only a few hours old... but Allie was twenty years old.'
He saw them trying to make a life, to hold on to something - all they had, maybe. Fighting for something more than survival - for others, for their causes, for their dreams.
They fought. They won, they lost... and then picked themselves up and tried again.
And what was there for him to fight for? This broken, barren City, where he'd lost a hundred years?
The Contessa? Oh, he'd seen there was no way he could fight what was happening...
Sandra? The Hoedowners?
That's what he'd been struggling for, why he'd come here. Because he wanted to get back, to help them any way he could. Had a score to settle, with those who'd stolen his dreams.
Fighting for something more.
A hundred empty years, the wind whispers. A hundred empty years. And do you think that can be redeemed in a few short hours?
'The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long. And you have burned so very, very brightly...'
And she - even separated, part of what she was - she wanted to live, to live her last few hours as best she could.
His hands tingled. Not from the cold.
Wary, he looked around.
Something wrong. Dark presence. A storm about to break
A presence that sneered and mocked. Nothing, and less than nothing. The end is all.
'No.' he whispered.
Something slipping in, past his guard.
He knew what would happen when it broke.
Final end. An ending to this place, to those within.
And oh, he would have welcomed that, accepted...
...but there were those who did not. Those fighting for their last few hours.
And so, too, would he fight. To give them that time, give them their lives.
He turned and raced.
Racing the storm, before it ever broke.
For the side door. For the Contessa's parlour.
To face the darkness that waited.
For him, and for all of them.
And as the Monitor strikes within the Contessa's very parlour...Previous chapter Next chapter