"You will not stop this, Contessa. There will be an end."
..And the air moved.
Rolled over, sucking, in greasy half-seen colors like polluted sludge in an old chemical plant. She almost choked on the sudden heavy taste of it.
It was like a bad dream -- like some kind of cheap dubbed horror video -- only it was right there, right in the room between them, blurring her sight of the Contessa's gray face into an icy, aching smear as it gathered strength... And, as if in nightmare, she couldn't move.
The hungry cold touched her. Flowed into her.
Greasy, like the ghost of static in the air. Dragging down and under like a drowning current in deep water. Mindless and empty, and so, so close...
And then, as the gray sucking threads erupted over the house above him, he knew. And knew where, and knew why, and knew who had to be trapped there at the heart of it... and, faced with the blind urgency of her need, stopped thinking altogether; for a while.
No more fear. The cold no longer bites.
Sandra feels... nothing.
She can move, if she wishes. It is just that there seems no particular reason to do so.
She looks across the still gray room with no great interest, no longer judging but merely observing.
The Contessa hangs in the thick air like a drift of weed stirring in the current, her face slack and colorless, all the warm ripeness of her flesh shrunken in on itself. One hand is curled, tinder-dry, like a withered leaf.
Sandra observes, calmly. Vaguely approves. All that vulgar, fecund life, heedless of the Balance, creating without thought or care for the consequences -- is snuffed out now at last into silence. Like the wasteful heat of the kerosene flames.
At the edge of her sight she can glimpse the last colors draining, as the ripples reach out past the walls of the room. As the last troublesome shreds of self-awareness begin to slip away, she knows that soon the world will be quiet and cool. In Balance at last.
Her body moves, of its own volition, to grasp the Contessa's arm. To tidy away the dwindling husk.
And the door slams inwards, with sudden alien violence.
Crude, painful light from out in the hall -- and then a dark shape, diving. Something hits the Contessa -- hits Sandra, as a flash of raw, hot sensation leaps from body to body -- For a moment she is choking, male, human, unthinking, desperate, alive --
Sandra gasps as the explosion rips through her. After the blankness, it is almost pain. Almost too much to bear.
The first breath sears into her lungs, and she is suddenly sobbing for air, swaying on her feet, in the joyous jewelled brightness of the little room.
"What --" Her voice is cracked. She doubles over, coughing.
Even those spasms are pleasure, as every muscle moves at her body's bidding. She has never been so aware of the animal miracle of her own existence. For a crazy moment she can almost hear the blood cells rushing in her veins, feel the lightning pulse of her nerves as the tip of one finger brushes against the table...
A half-voiced breath of sound that is not an answer. Sandra looks up. Meets the Contessa's eyes.
Wide and dark and very still, like a leopard-cub carried in its mother's jaws. Kid Curry's arms are locked around her, holding her achingly close as if to shield her with his own life, every line of her body molded against his. Sandra cannot see his face, buried against the shining darkness of the other woman's hair -- but in the angle of his jaw a pulse is hammering. The Contessa makes no move, either to respond or to free herself; but after a moment she closes her eyes.
Sandra looks away, awkwardly.
And catches sight of the box.
She knows what it is. Even without Alisandra's memories, Kid's description, she would have known. Monitor technology... and there is a greasy sheen to the smooth stone that she has tasted of late all too intimately.
She crouches down to get a better look, the heavy skirts spilling around her. Off-balance, she puts out a hand to save herself.
"Do not touch it -- even in passing!" A sudden swift sound of silk behind her, as the Contessa catches her by the shoulders. The slender fingers hold an unexpected strength.
Sandra steadies herself, and leans over again as the other woman sinks down at her side. "But... shouldn't we do something? Maybe it's still working..."
"It is still working." The Contessa's eyes are intent on the hand with which she is tracing the outline of the box, but she spares Sandra a brief glance. In that single moment her hand strays slightly.
There is a queer hot scent, and the air shifts almost imperceptibly around them. The Contessa's outstretched fingers have stiffened, and a breath hisses sharply between her teeth. After a minute she resumes her exploration with even more care.
Sandra shivers and sits back on her heels, glancing up at Kid Curry, who has not moved. "What happened back there -- did you knock against that thing on the way in or something?"
A shrug. "I guess not. Guess it wouldn't be here now if I had." His voice is slow, and still not quite steady. "Don't rightly know what happened, lady. I wasn't thinking too clear -- just knew I had to get her... get the both of you out.
"And I got a hold of her waist --" he shakes his head helplessly, dull color ebbing in his face -- "and it was like all hell broke loose. Or all heaven, maybe."
Sandra remembers those moments; remembers the electric awareness; and feels her own cheeks warm. "And the Monitor vanished?" she rushes on. "Just like that?"
"He thought to take the two of us alone." The Contessa's head is still bent, a tiny tendril of hair escaping at the nape of her neck.
"Against fear -- against anger -- he was shielded." She does not look round. "For other human... feelings ... he was unprepared. He was taken by surprise -- and his control slipped."
A tiny sound of satisfaction. She sits back; and Sandra blinks. The box has unfolded into an intricate blurring design that looks suddenly like very sophisticated technology indeed.
"And that mistake will cost them more dearly than they could ever have dreamed." The Contessa's eyes meet the outlaw's for the first time, clear and dark with delight. "You do not know just what you have done, Curry! With this one box in our hands we can hold the City for ever -- undo all the harm that has been worked --"
She is laughing up into his face; and for a moment Kid Curry makes a movement as if to reach out to her. Then, with a queer stifled intake of breath, he turns away.
Sandra looks from one to the other. There is a fresh story growing between them -- she can feel it -- smell it, as warm and rich as a kitchen full of baking.
By the cliched rules of Vortex City, that story was bound to be a romance -- that's how it went: the gypsy queen and the cunning outlaw, both marginalized by the city they fight to protect, find solace and society in each other's company.
But, as a muse, as a person, she knew that such a story could not be a happy one for them, for long. One of them immortal, or nearly so, able to live outside time, if she chose, the other, someone for whom a mere hundred years was an impossibility. One or both of them would have to give up their identity.
She turned her mind away from that thought the way she would avert her eyes from someone being sick to focus on the problem immediately at hand.
"You sound like you know what this thing is," she said to the Contessa.
"I do ... Well ... sort of. I haven't seen anything exactly like it, but nearly. The layout of the mechanics: it's designed to create a sort of grid of energy --"
"Of course!" Sandra said, the excitement of understanding surging through her the way the excitement of feeling had, moments earlier. "The Matrix -- back on Gallifrey -- a device for storing and encoding memories, knowledge --stories of a whole culture. Only this -- this is --"
"Inside out," the Contessa said, nodding. "The Matrix was designed to hold patterns of information within itself. This is designed to affect the patterns around itself."
(Curry only half listened to what they were saying -- couldn't understand it, anyway. It was their tones of voice he latched onto, now. There was hope, there, and energy.)
"Only it's running in reverse," Sandra was saying. "--instead of holding the patterns together, it's unweaving them."
The Contessa nodded. "Right."
"So can you turn it around?"
"I think so..." Her hand hovered over the device for a moment, like a chess player deciding which piece to move next.
There was a shift. A ripple of light, perhaps, over the surfaces of the inner workings. Or maybe it was a change in the tone of the machine's hum.
The Contessa pulled her hand away. "What ... ?"
"Could it be responding to your thoughts?" Sandra asked.
'Hold it.' Kid said. 'They left the thing causin' all this behind?'
'Could be booby trapped,' Sandra realised. 'Keyed to the Monitors alone.'
'That will not be a problem.' the Contessa said. 'They have owed me a debt for long enough. Now it comes due.'
She laid her hands on the device.
I am the Storyteller, guardian of this place.
You were created to serve the Balance, so long ago.
Now I ask that you do so again, for me and mine
For this place, ancient, tired... I ask for its renewal
For the realm to be reborn. Let the blight be played out.
Let the storm break Let the fallen strands be rewoven once more
Storyteller, Muse, Medium. We ask that the story begin anew
For those forgotten, for those cast aside, I make this plea
As long as I remember, they shall not be lost or denied
I ask this of you, in the name of memory and shadow
For ghosts and dreams long abandoned in the dust
Let the cycle begin once more.
The box trembled.
Eloise straightened and brushed a stray bit of sawdust from her jacket.
She was sure the Gods of Ragnarok were planning something. She could feel it. But she could not yet pierce the veil they had draped around themselves to see what it was. Imran and Allie were both staring at the sphere, as if through sheer will they could turn the opaque surface clear again, to allow them to see, to be reunited with, what had been stolen from them. :::Perhaps, she thought, with an inner smile, they could:::
She could feel the weight of the charm in her pocket -- amazing that something so small could be so weighty. Where had Curry gone? and how had he gotten there. She'd understand it if he had gone comatose, if his mind had traveled and left his body behind, for the mind is simply patterns of energy, while the body is bound by the stricter laws of gravity and mass. If those physical laws were breaking down, then maybe the disintegration of the omniverse was past the point of no return. Unless his disappearance was not accidental -- unless he had teleported himself on purpose... But if he had done that... She shook her head, that would mean there was more to the man than any of them could have imagined.
Gordon, Saville and Yokoi were gone, too, and she was sure That had been deliberate. She was fairly certain Yokoi, at least, would be back for the finale. But what would they do in the meantime? Could Allie find the power to sing without her Shadow? Would one and a half muses be able to provide enough power to support the Pro-Fun performers? They may have to find out if Zephy was a siren, after all...
A squeal from Allie and an exclamation from Imran broke through her thoughts. She ran over to them.
"Something's happening!" Imran said, but he didn't have to -- Eloise could see that for herself.
Subtly, almost imperceptibly, the silver in the sphere was shifting -- as if it were a dense fog being stirred by a breeze. Then, like fog, it dissipated.
When it cleared, they perceived a vast, deep blackness -- deeper and more vibrant than the night sky of the Cloak of Audience. And somehow, Eloise (and she sensed, the others, too) understood -- this was the Chasm -- the Space To Be Bridged, the space across which Curry and Allie's Shadow would travel to return to them.
But where was the bridge?
The trembling became a vibration, and the vibration, a strong, clear tone -- a thread of sound that pierced the air and their minds. Sandra's diamonds, still where the Contessa had left them on her table, began to rattle, then to resonate with sympathetic vibration. And the air was filled with sound as each stone sang out with its own voice.
Sandra wondered if the diamonds she had given as payment for the horses were singing, too.
The thread of sound became a cord (chord?), the cord, a rope, the rope, a cable -- solid enough to hold on to, to pull them out, whether they were willing to go, or not. The sound wound around her as tightly as a rope, keeping her as immobile as if she were bound. It filled her brain, blotting out all other senses: sight, smell, touch, taste -- even the sense that her body existed at all.
Then came --
The explosion? the what?
Just as everything had been darkness when they first entered the voidspace, everything was light, now -- as sudden and brief as the flash of a camera bulb, only infinitely more.
It began so tiny as to be nearly invisible: a tiny point of light in the center of the infinity of the darkness of the sphere. But it grew with the speed and intensity of lightning, and Shayde, who'd been holding it, dropped the sphere as if he had been shocked. And they all cringed away from the blinding light that enveloped them.
Sandra's senses came back to her slowly -- smell first: of buttered popcorn, cotton candy, sawdust and horses. Then she felt the ground under her feet, and her body felt itself come back together. Slowly, she opened her eyes.
And before her, eyes and mouth wide in a mask of astonishment, was Allie. They remained there, staring at each other, for what seemed like ages (but it was probably only a minute), before they were aware of the others.
All turned toward Xeffy, staring, caught in their own astonishment.
Little sister was trembling, eyes still closed, mouth still open. Though she was silent now, the air around her still buzzed with energy, and it was clear exactly what had happened:
The siren had used the power of her song to bring Curry, and her sister's Shadow back by force.
Meanwhile... in another place...Previous chapter Next chapter