Arrival in the outskirts of Vortex City...
Automatically Kid Curry glanced up at the stars, gauging what remained of the night. Half an hour's ride maybe, since they'd left the river bottoms.
They'd made good time -- best he could've hoped for, with these sluggish beasts, and a greenhorn rider into the bargain. But how long since they'd first come down here? How long'd he been out after the fall? How long, back in the nowhere-land?
He'd been going half-crazy, back in the Circus, trying to figure out how time was running here in the City. How much time they had left. Now -- now, with the first lighted windows up ahead, with the life of the City stirring round him -- he'd have given a deal all of a sudden to know how the Hoedowners were doing.
The horses's pace slackened, as if sensing his uncertainty. Kid Curry cursed and urged it back into a lumbering trot.
Buildings on both sides, now. He could see Allie -- Sandra -- staring. Not the way he'd guessed she might -- the way he'd caught the others staring at him a time or two, as if he was some walking, breathing picture in a story-book.
No, she looked like she'd been here before... and was trying to work out what was different. What was wrong.
He could feel it himself. Knew what to look for.
No-one in the street. No-one sitting out on the boardwalks. Lights in the windows, yeah -- but not enough. The saloons were dark... save one or two they'd passed -- and those were full. Full and quiet, like everyone'd huddled together, waiting. Faces turned at the sound of riders in the street. But no-one called out. No-one came to see.
He'd seen tornado-blight, down south. This wasn't it. Not yet. Those folks acted like nothing had happened... like they didn't even know what they'd lost. Dead inside. Just going through the motions.
These folks in town, they were scared, and scared bad. More than that. Faded. And the guys that didn't scare easy -- the big names -- he didn't see them at all. Like something had been feeding... feeding on heroes. Feeding on legend...
The horse shied as his hand tightened, viciously, on the reins.
"Ouf!" Sandra broke the silence suddenly, shaking out her hair as if coming up from deep water. "It's as if the whole place is waiting for the bad guys to ride in. Creepy."
He snorted. "Have to be one hell of a bunch to scare a town this big... Know what you mean, though. It's been here -- the storm -- coming back soon, maybe -- but right now it's gone. And the city's holding its breath."
A nod. "It must have been pretty bad. You can't fight something like that... all your schemes and all your courage just attract it more and more..." She shivered. "About all you can do is lead it away. Offer it something it wants more than all the stories here. Bait... and someone tried..."
Someone tried. Stories as bait, to defend the city. The knowledge was like a cold band, tightening. The question dried in his throat.
Sandra caught his thought in his eyes, and gasped. "Oh no, Kid. No! Not her -- not the Contessa --"
"Yeah? You sure?" She'd have been out, he knew, out in the thick of it, like a cougar snarling and desperate over the mouth of the den that holds her cubs --
Sandra shook her head, insistent. "She's here. I can feel her... all through the stories. Her power like a thread..." The Muse's voice was barely more than a whisper. "All that's holding them together, some of them. Oh Kid, they're so faded I can hardly even make out their names..."
She looked across at him, frowning suddenly. "Hang on -- I thought... the charm... Can't you feel her --" her finger pointed, wavering, up ahead, settled at last on a certain quiet corner of Main Street -- "there?"
Kid Curry let the reins fall, shrugging. "No charm, lady." He bared his throat; let her see the thong fastened there dark and empty, the way he'd found it when he'd woken up. Last thing he remembered was taking it off, back in the Circus...
"Used it to get to you, over in that nowhere-place. Guess if we'd come back the way I went, I'd have it back -- but we ended up here... and the way I see it, that charm is still in the Circus, doing its job, shielding the ring." An idea occurred to him. His mouth tightened. "Maybe I'm still there... maybe this is some kind of dream..."
He swung down from the saddle in front of the Grand Hotel, leading the horse to the empty hitching-rail. Every muscle ached. Mighty convincing kind of dream, if that was true.
But say he was asleep back there, in some kind of trance. When a shaman went spirit-walking and his spirit died... why then, the body died. The same hour, the same instant.
Better not count on this being a dream. Either way, you'd wind up just as dead.
One thing he was sure of -- the charm was safe. The shield was still unbroken. If not... he'd know. Somehow, he'd know.
A cold touch on his spine. That didn't go for the Contessa, though. He was cut off from her, sure enough -- same way he'd been all his life -- and anything could have happened.
He watched the girl dismount. Stiffly; guess she was sore. Hitched the horse for her, when she fumbled. Scanning her face, looking for doubt.
"You can feel her? You sure?"
A nod. "Certain. Absolutely... Kid, I'm a Muse, and she's... she's..." Sandra spread her hands helplessly. "She's like a light in the darkness, round here. She's alive. I could see her a mile off with my eyes shut. She breathes stories, almost. She needs them to live... but then they grow and spin out round her like a garden. She takes power and gives it back.
"This whole place is full of stories. It's like every Western ever made all rolled up in one -- I can feel them in my bones, telling me how it's going to happen, whispering how it's bound to be...
"The stories are going stagnant everywhere, Kid. But this... this is the front line. This is where they started the attack. This should be the worst-hit, and in a way it is... but it's not. The stories are weak, they're slow, but here they're still working. Ever since we got here I've felt it, but I didn't know why."
Their eyes met, across the hitching rail. Hers were grave; wise. Still the same pale-faced kid in rough, ill-fitting clothes -- but for a moment he could have sworn they were the shimmering robes of a Muse.
"It's her." Her voice was absolute. "I don't know... but I'm sure. Just a thread, here and there. Never enough to show. Never enough to matter, until the whole world is threadbare... then the threads from outside are all that's left to hold it together."
She was leading the way ahead of him like a blind man towards the light of the sun on his empty lids. "The Contessa needed the City," she said softly, "but it never needed her. Not till now. Now she pays back everything she owes; and more, and more. It will last until her power is gone. But even the Storyteller cannot stand forever."
She raises a hand, moving like a sleepwalker, to knock. Not the front door, with its little flight of steps. The side door. How had she known?
The stories... the stories are pulling her along. The Contessa's story. Her own, new-born. They are about to meet.
In resolving her story may many others be aided. In aiding others' stories will hers be resolved.
The words well up slowly out of memory. 'But that was the sister!' some part of Kid Curry thinks in the last moment, protesting...
And then the door opens. And the Contessa is there.
Weariness colours her features; she seems much older, so much older, bearing her true age in every step she takes.
But there is relief there, too - a burden, a pain, lifted off her shoulders at their arrival.
'Come inside,' she says.
Quietly, Sandra leads Kid into the house.
Sandra explains what happened, how they came to be here - the Gods' trap, the separation of Allie's soul; Xeffy's arrival, answering Sandra's plea, as Sandra tried to break free; Xeffy explaining why she'd come, and Kid's decision to follow, to retrieve the stolen part of Allie's soul.
Then, hesitantly, she moves on: the other Hoedowners' attempt to free them from the Gods' trap - and how, when they followed the way out, they found themselves here.
Kid says nothing. Watches the Contessa as she listens to Sandra's story, her movements, her gestures, the age that now weighs upon her.
So small, she is. He had forgotten how small. Curved and dainty like a china lady on a shelf. Barely to his own shoulder -- when half the Hoedowners overtop him by a head or more...
He watches her almost painfully, trying to fix every movement, every gesture in his mind. Laying in store, against the barren times ahead. He's been here a dozen times, two dozen -- more -- and never known to look. Never thought to see. For a moment it is all he can do not to reach out to touch her gown, to brush the soft curve of her throat and trace the dark shining wings of her hair... A catch in his breath.
He says nothing. Does nothing. Watches her... not watching him.
Finally, the Contessa nods. 'Thank you.'
Sandra nods in return.
'I had felt the other web,' the Contessa says quietly. 'Your web. The Muses' web. Still strong, but beginning to fray...'
'I wondered why I wasn't fading,' Sandra says, equally softly. 'You're holding this together, supplying the stories with as much as you can.'
'And the disconnection... the charm was still active, but I could no longer feel Curry there. Not dead... but I didn't know what might have happened.' For a moment, her expression is serious. 'I would... I think I understand why you were drawn here. Feeling the story - this universe's story. Like calls to like... it recognised something similar in you... and drew you here.'
'Is there anything we can do?' Sandra asks.
'You can feel it,' the Contessa says. 'I am giving as much of myself as I can, holding the web together... but I do not have the energy to create a reverse conduit, a way to return the energy lost, as you have with your Hoedown. All I can do is hold this together.'
'While someone gives you enough time to regroup.' Kid says finally.
The Contessa nods. 'Doc Gallifrey had guessed what was happening, too. He left town before the storm approached - I believe it is him the storm follows. He is buying time for us... and, I think, doing what he can to weaken the storm - or those who ride it. If he's lucky, he may succeed.'
'Anything we could do to stop this?' Kid says.
The Contessa's sigh can barely be heard. 'To do so... to stop the storm... you would have to end it at the source. Stop those whose... influence... has led to this. Without them, the storm would play itself out - and those who ride the storm, the Monitors, returned where they came.'
'Stop the Gods, right?'
The Contessa shakes her head. 'They are another group influenced by those behind this. But they are willing players, enjoying the destruction of another multiverse. I think the battle with the Gods comes close to the end... it was nearly dawn when you left.'
'It's a matter of time,' Sandra says quietly. 'The Storyteller can only tell a story for so long, can only give of herself up to a point.'
'It... It needed someone,' the Contessa says finally. 'It needed an outsider - someone who would care. And I needed... I was looking for... somewhere I was free, somewhere where I could choose to belong. I found it - or it found me.'
'Symbiosis. You needed it - and it needed you.'
'And you became its Storyteller. Bound your life to its.' Sandra catches Kid's eye. 'Even Muses have myths and legends. The Storyteller is one of them: someone - character or creator, never a Muse - who binds themselves to a Fictiverse. Who moves through the stories, guides, nudges. Who... who, in a very real way, has become a part of it, as it becomes a part of them. The stories suggest a long life... no one knows how long.'
Kid closes his eyes. 'All right. Is there any way - any way at all - we can stop whoever's behind all this in time?'
'Yes. If you're quick enough. If you're fast enough.'
'And...' It hurts to say this, hurts to leave so soon - but another loyalty calls, and he knows when he can do something, and when there is nothing to be done.
'We need to know if we can get back.' Sandra says, her face downturned.
'There is, if what you've told me is correct. One of the oldest, if not the oldest, forms of magic. The Law of Contagion. Once together, always together. You were once a part of someone else - and that can be used to bring you back to them.'
Sandra nods, as if she suspected this. 'Here.'
She reaches in and hands the Contessa the necklace.
The Contessa nods in return.
'One thing. Your story is not over, not yet. You will be drawn back to your other, but not rejoined - this magic does not have the power to answer that dilemma. That choice rests with you.'
Sandra looks at her, her eyes widening in realisation.
The Contessa closes her eyes, not seeming to notice.
'For now... for now, we have other concerns.'
The Contessa sighs. She has not told them everything -- everything that she knows, least of all everything that she guesses... Old habit? she asks herself ruefully for a moment. Do you drive so hard a bargain, weave such a tangled web that you forget to deal straight with those whom you must trust, Contessa?
Another tiny sigh. It is not that simple, and she knows it. For if she has guessed aright -- for her sake and for theirs, she dare not tell them. Not while the false Gods of Ragnarok are still uncaged.
And once that is done... when that is done... they will know already, better perhaps than she, just what they face. What lies in wait in the still, small center where the worlds meet.
But these two must go back. The shreds of Vortex City cannot bear them much longer.
Over the girl... the stories have too much power. Like calls to like; but by the terms of this world, by these rules -- she rides now not with the hero but with the villain. And such the stories do not easily forgive.
For Kid Curry the Contessa does not fear; not in that way at least. He has long since found his feet here, learned how to survive -- she smiles -- never dreamed of playing by the rules.
But he carries deep within him the bones of lost reality. The memory of a time that was more -- as well as less -- than story would make of it. She laid her hope in that strength when she chose to send him South when the fading began; trusted him to win through where dash and daring alone could not hold.
He has learned to fight the stories to survive. Learned to fight and win. And so now -- now, with the City itself under siege, shaken and weak -- she can feel the threads pulling apart around him. Where the shadow of reality falls, Fiction changes. And every change drains more of the strength she can no longer spare.
A sudden, desperate weariness. She gathers together what remains of her power; and prepares to open her eyes.
Dark stains below the lowered lashes... an ugly gray tinge under the clear color of her skin. Proud bones lie stark beneath the weary face. Years beyond counting... beyond all bearing... etched cruelly across the mask in a single snatched moment of rest.
'The stories suggest a long life --' Sandra's voice, in memory -- 'no-one knows how long...'
She has never been young, since he had first known her. She has never -- until this night -- been old.
How long? A cold touch between his shoulder-blades; and then another, slow-dawning. Since he had first known her... how many years?
Christ in hell... how old... how old am I?
She looks round sharply, catching the unsteady note in his voice.
"Been doing some reckoning -- all the times I've been in here." His eyes are haunted; white-edged. "Can't seem to make it add up anyhow -- not with what I remember."
Her heart twists; but she keeps all knowledge from her face. Watches him gravely. "How long, then, does it seem it should be -- to you?"
He shakes his head, staring down at the backs of his hands as if they are not his own. "Two years -- three, maybe, since I came here. Since I first hit the City. Couple of winters. No more."
The fists have tightened, knuckles white. "But it don't add up that way. Don't add up at all. Has to be twenty years -- more --"
He looks up. And reads the truth, finally, in her face.
"More..." It is barely a whisper. "How long, Contessa? How long?"
There is no gentle way to say it. Nothing she can tell him. Nothing she can do.
"The children of the children of those you once knew have grown old and died in the years between... and the towns are empty or changed beyond all knowing." She gives him the truth. "You cannot go home, Curry. It is too late. It has been too late for almost a hundred years."
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