As the gryphon attacks, the sound of the collapsing stalagmites reaches the ears of the avocado troll and her party...
"What was that?!" she asked.
"I-I don't know," the Valeyard said, concerned. "All these caves are connected to each other, I'm sure. Sounds carry through these tunnels like voices along the string of a tin can phone. It's surprising, sometimes, the things you hear... But I've never heard anything like that."
"Sounds nasty, whatever it is," Seventh commented. "Should we go investigate?"
As they set off...
'Umm... Could I talk to you about something?'
'Of course,' the hostess said.
'It's... about the Kid.' the Bookworm said cautiously.
'You have a clue as to what really happened to him?'
'Not... exactly.' the Bookworm said. 'A... theory, maybe.'
'Yes... But your theories generally tend to be close to the mark.' the hostess said.
The Bookworm's mouth turned upwards. 'Blame it on an anal-retentive memory... and my own weird sense of logic.'
'We all have our own weird senses of logic...' the hostess said. 'That's why we're here. Fun for the sake of fun? That's not strictly logical...'
'...but it is fun.' The Bookworm grinned. 'Anyway... I have... some experience with other Fictiverses.'
'You are a Bookworm,' the hostess observed.
'Heh. Well... ordinarily I'm a bookworm, little 'b'. Interested in fiction... And I suspect I know which Fictiverse the Kid may come from... or which set of Fictiverses.'
'It was... it was the familiarity with the Doctor,' the Bookworm said.
It pointed. 'Somewhere out there, there's a city. Vortex City. A frontier town... outlaws, bank robbers, bad men, gunslingers, gamblers, good men... all of them visit it. It's Western to its heart.
'One of those who have visited the town...' The Bookworm paused. 'A man of medium size, but he seems taller. He wears the costume of a riverboat gambler - tan trousers, white shirt, multicoloured waistcoat - but his face is that of a gunslinger. Stubble across his face, an eyepatch covering one eye. A long face, hardened by the weather. Sharp eyes. Dark hair that hangs in curls beneath his hat.'
'Not...' The troll indicated the Fourth Doctor.
'No...' the Bookworm said.
The troll looked at it, her eyes appraising. 'The Eighth.'
'Not... Umm... He is the Doctor's counterpart in that Fictiverse. A gunslinger. A man who fights the bad guys, the evil men. Who fights a Man in Black. A man with a long and mysterious past... No, he isn't the Kid.'
The avocado troll breathed a sigh of relief.
'They call him Doc Gallifrey,' the Bookworm said. 'And he looks, very much, like our Eighth Doctor.'
'You think they've met?'
'I think...' The Bookworm hesitated again. 'I think he and the Kid may have... friends in common. Friends who might understand Doc Gallifrey's connection, across the Fictiverses, with our Doctor. And who might have spoken to the Kid, hinting at this, of other worlds, other times, other universes. Other multiverses... A hermit? A shaman? A stargazer, prophet? One who others might think mad...? I don't know. It's a guess.'
'You said you knew of Doc Gallifrey. That suggests he's turned up in our Universe.' our hostess noted. 'Fictionally, but still...'
The Bookworm's face had a wry expression. 'Yep. He has. Not in the Doctor Who books, or the audios... but I think you knew that, well... for the audios, if I remember correctly.'
Our hostess nodded.
The Bookworm looked somewhat sheepish. 'In the comic strip.'
Our Hostess nodded. "Ahh," she said. "I see." She thought a minute, biting her lip. "Too bad we're not in Cyber-Space, this time 'round," she said, after a minute. "Or I'd search out a link to this fictiverse, myself... Are you sure that what you've told me is all we know of Doc Gallifrey? No one knows if he'd had any companions, or met them?"
Bookworm shook hir head.
'It's a long story...' the Bookworm said, even more sheepishly. 'But we have encountered his Fictiverse before.' It held up a hand. 'And... all we know of it is what I've just told you. That, and my own speculation.'
'So what you've just told me... it's the capsule summary?'
'It's all we know...' the Bookworm said. 'I may be wrong, I don't know. It may be muddying the waters too much. But... it's a theory.'
'Hmm...' the hostess said. 'Hm...'
What the Bookworm had told her... could fit with what she'd guessed about the Kid herself, if it were correct. But... what had his friend told him? Or had been about to tell him? What had the Kid known... that someone would go to the lengths of tampering with his memory? Something important. Something linked to the crisis they now found themselves facing. Something...
"I'm getting a bad feeling," she said slowly. "If the Gods of Ragnarok wanted to stop Kid Curry from getting his message out ... why'd They drop him in the laps of the people most likely to meddle?"
"Maybe they didn't mean to," Bookworm suggested. "Maybe they fouled up."
"Maybe. But they're Gods! Mistakes generally don't come with that job description...."
"A slip between cup and lip?"
"You mean... The Gods of Ragnarok originally meant for Kid to go into that duststorm and get carried off into Oblivion (or wherever), and somewhere between the boonies of Vortex City and the big O, another force knocked the Kid in our direction?"
Bookworm said nothing... maybe he didn't mean anything. But the idea lodged itself deep in the troll's brain and wouldn't leave.
A force so powerful it could knock the Gods' of Ragnarok plans sideways up. Whatever, or whoever it was, she hoped it was on their side... whichever their side was. She only wished she knew for sure what was at stake, and what they had to do to set everything right way 'round again.
In spite of herself, she started to whistle, a nervous reaction to calm her fears. The sound echoed back at her from the rock walls -- or was it coming from the other side of the wall? She gave the three note call of the bobolink, and an echo (or an answer?) came back at her. She was about to try again, when the Fourth stopped, and put up his hand.
'Shhh...' Fourth said. 'We're getting closer.'
A larger, louder - and even more terrifying - sound rumbled around them.
For all his bravado, he felt the old inward shudder at that image. No -- no, forget the drowning. Pearls -- the globe -- remember the globe --
His lagging steps came to a complete halt, and heavy brows knitted together in frustration as he tried desperately to make the jump of memory. Pearls... great lustrous pearls, reflected back in a darkened globe... Hands, graceful, unconscious in their beauty, that painted worlds, strange and apart, with every animated gesture. Folds of a dark gown. A woman -- a lady? A face...
"The Contessa." A deep breath, almost shaky with relief. He had it -- something, at last. Nails bit into his palms in sudden excitement. "The Contessa!"
Zoe, last but one of the outstretched party, caught the echo of that half-voiced exclamation, and glanced back down the passage in alarm. But there was no-one in sight. She shivered, hurrying to catch up with the others. She'd always hated being on her own at the rear...
Kid Curry leaned back against the wall, surroundings all but forgotten in the rush of returning images. How could he -- how could anyone -- fail to remember the Contessa?
Bold, dark eyes in a tawny face. Gold in her ears, at her wrists, at her waist, on those long, clever fingers... flashing in her smile. And the swimming depths of the pearls she wore, always, hanging at her throat.
Worth thirty thousand, maybe, if they were real. Enough to set a man up for life... but no-one touched the Contessa. Oh, there were those who tried. In the city, there were always those who were new, and rash, and ready to try for an easy buck, or an easy woman -- but no-one tried the Contessa, and lived... or kept his mind. She had ways to protect herself, and influence in high places. But there were rumours enough abroad that she could also call on other debts... from Outside.
The preachers called her scarlet woman, witch, devil-friend; a few were even fanatic enough to say it to her face, and get a laugh for their pains. The first of those things... she was not, save in the dirty minds of those who could conceive no other. The last... well, there were always the rumours. As for the second: for every upright citizen to cry 'witch', there was another ready to cry 'charlatan' -- and two others eager to slip into her parlour by the back way and cross her palm with gold.
From the depths of the globe cradled in her slender hands, the Contessa would tell the name of a successful lover, the birth of the first daughter, the date of the errant husband's return. She would bring a child, or prevent one -- for a price. A gambler might come to buy the name of his lucky card -- a homesteader, for warning of a drought or bitter winter -- an outlaw, to hide his trail, for a while. Strange customers, she had in plenty -- stranger allies, maybe, or so they whispered...
She sold all dreams to all men. To Kid Curry, bitter and drunken, tormented by unreasoning black moods, she sold salvation.
Chin sunk on his chest, sprawled in the old chair in the darkened corner of her parlour, he would let her soft voice flow over him, watching the lamp-light flicker up from the globe over her lively dark face, chasing shadows across the heavy drapes as she gestured, her hands painting stories with every movement in their graceful dance. Sometimes the tales were wild beyond all belief, crazy enough to wake an unwilling laugh; often enough they were merry anecdotes of the city and its doings, accounts that made the round of every saloon in cruder form; once or twice she had brought the hair up on the back of his neck. His grandmother's people had had tales like these, of spirits and those whom they rode...
But when he left, on those nights he could sleep. Whisky gave cheap oblivion, but the spell of the Contessa's words brought peace, and surcease of dreams. An hour or two of her time was dearly bought -- she could gauge a money-belt to the last silver dollar -- but the price, to his mind, was worth the paying. And the stories stayed with him... half-forgotten, half-believed, surfacing sometimes, at odd moments, told over and garbled on restless nights under the cold stars.
He pushed himself upright and out into the centre of the passageway, blinking around him as if waking from a dream. It was months since he'd last had the cash to make it into town -- months, surely, since he'd last seen her? He still couldn't remember; couldn't remember at all --
Frantically, he clutched at the one last escaping shred of memory, the one that had been teasing at him for so long -- her name. The Contessa. The answer to a question. He didn't know why -- but he knew who.
That last time, he'd been heading in to find the Contessa. He'd been flat broke, sure, but yet he'd still been heading in to Vortex City... and he'd never made it.
Kid Curry was still glancing up and down the corridor, the uneasy realisation beginning to hit that he was alone, when a larger, louder -- and even more terrifying -- sound rumbled around him. From between him and the direction in which the others had gone...
'What was that?'
'I think...' Second said. 'that that was the first sound's mother...'
The troll fought the urge to giggle, remembering a favorite t-shirt slogan in her family: "If Mama ain't happy, ain't Nobody happy!"
A combination of fear and giggles bubbled up simultaneously inside of her, but she managed to get out: "Wh-where is she?" she asked. "Are we blocking her way out, or is she blocking ours?" As she found her voice, the words, came easier as did the thoughts. "Anyway we can find out?" she asked.
The Second, Fourth and Seventh Doctors all took their sonic screwdrivers from their pockets.
"Won't be a minute," Fourth said with confidence.
Another roar, felt, this time, more than heard. It made the walls of the cave (and her teeth) vibrate. "I hope we have that long," she commented, under her breath.
As the wave passed, she heard another sound -- clearly a voice -- several voices -- that they all knew.
"The other team," the avocado troll said unnecessarily (for they had all heard it, this time). "They're right on the other side of this wall -- we've been moving toward each other all this time."
"Into the center of the labyrinth," Second commented.
Zoe turned several shades greyer. "Not the Minotaur, again?"
Second put his arm around her shoulder. "No," he said. "No, I don't think it's a minotaur, this time."
But the avocado troll could see from his expression that he thought it was something much worse.Previous chapter Next chapter