The ringmaster goes out to announce the Gods' reply to Cameron and Nyctolops...
Now, it was time for the Gods' Beast tamer act, and based on the precedent of their equine and magician acts, she was not looking forward to it.
Still, if she didn't announce it, they could claim "forfeit" -- and this time, they'd be right.
:::Remember,::: she told herself, :::in order to vanquish your nightmares, you must turn and face them. All right, then ...:::
She rocked herself up on tiptoe to give herself courage, and took a deep breath. As she exhaled, she became aware, suddenly, of the Beast's presence -- hunched in the wings, waiting... and watching her... Watching her with ...
With what? Hunger? Curiosity? Malice? Sorrow? She knew that she would know, if she turned around, and looked into its eyes. But she couldn't bring herself to turn and look -- not yet.
Instead, she trotted away from it -- into the center of the ring. She hoped she conveyed a sense of eagerness for the show to continue, instead of the fear she felt.
She bowed deeply, sweeping her top hat off her head as she did so.
"Ladies, Gentlemen, Deities, Mortals, and Trolls of all colors!" she announced, "I now present to you a -- " :::Oh, no!::: she thought. :::How can I announce what the act is, if I don't know what the act is?!::: "-- a wild animal act that will challenge even the wildest depths of your imagination -- an act you will not soon forget!" she finished. :::That much,::: she thought, :::I can be sure of:::.
And she scurried out of the ring again, This time, to stand with Imran and the others. She didn't want to watch this alone.
The great lizard stalked into the ring.
And raised its head.
'Fire. They've trapped fire...
'They've trapped a salamander.'
Blank milk-white eyes.
Its forked tongue flickers out, into the air.
'What? What is it?'
'An elemental, Charley. Fire, given form and shape. Encased in a physical body. On a time, they called them salamanders.'
'Like... like Dawn?'
'Like, but not like. Dawn is the Key - and that was something else altogether...'
A thump, echoing through the ground...
And Captain Cook entered.
Pith hat perched on his head, whip ready in hand.
His face pallid and ashen.
In the wings, Mags hissed.
Mags breathed deeply. 'Long gone. Long gone... No power. He never did...'
'Ladies and gentlemen. Tonight you shall see a test of courage and bravery beyond even what the Vortex Riders of the Quantocks may accomplish.
'Tonight...' The Captain's pallor deepened. 'You will see a man allow himself to be eaten by a salamander... and return.'
The Doctor looked on.
'They're controlling it somehow. They must be. An elemental would never willingly serve them... they've bound it here. It's trapped. An amulet, an amulet...'
The salamander reared back.
'Come on, boy...' the Captain said, 'Come on. Open that mouth, let's see those pearly teeth, for your old friend the Captain...'
He cracked the whip again.
The salamander tried to lunge away - but a whip crack from the Captain held it in.
'Ah ah. A show we promised these fine people - and a show they shall have.'
'Is he saying... Is he saying he wants to be eaten by that thing?'
'No. That he's going to make it eat him.'
'He is going to make it eat him - and then...' The Doctor scowled. 'One way or the other, it will be very, very unpleasant. Whether they abandon him inside, or he gains enough power to break free.'
'And then, having taken some of their power into itself...'
'I can guess.'
They watched it play out with the finality of a tragedy.
'We know what's going to happen!' Mags said. 'How can we stand by and let it happen?'
'Because we can guess what's going to happen - we know how the elementals work, we know how the Gods work. But it's just ambiguous enough that they could call foul if we interfered before they got to the horror.'
'So we can't stop it?'
'Not before it gets to the horror.'
'Unless... There is a way to free them.' the Doctor said.
'Oh no...' Eloise said. 'Oh no.'
She watched the salamander and the Captain's deadly interplay - deadly, she would guess, not just for them, but for the rest of the Hoedowners.
And then the Universe.
They'd captured it, bound it to them - a creature, a thing, that didn't belong to them, that never would. Bound it with fear, and pain, and terror...
Breaking it to their will.
And when that hadn't worked...
No. Free. It wanted, needed, to be free.
He'd seen men break horses to their will, seen it....
...how many times?
Over a hundred years, he guessed, you'd lose count.
And this Captain - and if this man had served in any force, he'd be damned - he'd seen what this Captain was doing before.
It was that look of pleasure in his corpse-dead eyes.
He'd seen that before.
The Captain was enjoying this. Enjoying tormenting, playing with, that creature.
Before he finally broke it to his will.
And something inside said no.
This is not how it's supposed to be. Doing this to pleasure yourself, making others watch, enjoying the horror on their faces... because they must watch, and bear witness. Some things must be known. Even the horrifying things.
And then twisting it, time and again, to your advantage.
And a wild animal at the centre of it all, something that doesn't understand what's happening, that feels the lash of the whip - and obeys only it.
And they wondered why their beasts had been so intractable. Ah well. A gunshot, when it broke a leg, then onto the next one.
It hadn't been all, not even back in the day. Not all.
But some. Enough to make it count.
Not to say that the rest had been kind, or gentle, not all the time - but they had known, understood, what that creature meant to their lives. A necessity. An animal. Not a thing.
And out there...
...they replayed it again.
The smile on the Captain's face was almost a thing of obscenity.
And on the salamander's face...
Mags watched from backstage.
He hadn't used a whip. Not with her.
With her, it had been words. Words and silver.
Cowing, binding, the young Vulpanan.
Running from a crowd who wanted her dead.
And he'd never allowed her to forget what would have happened, if not for him, if it hadn't been for him.
A servant. A companion. Someone to get his tea, do the scutwork, to face the dangers while he swept in and took whatever treasure was there.
Even dead, he'd still do that.
This was going to get him a payback. No... get his masters a payback.
And they had to stand by and let it happen.
The Captain raised his hand again.
And her eye finally caught on what she'd missed.
On the bone bracelet on his wrist.
No jewellery, apart from his medals. He'd always liked those.
That was what they were using.
That was how they were controlling it.
If they broke it...
How could they break it, without the Gods calling foul?
'I can see it.'
'How... how do we break it?'
Imran turned to her. She flinched, a little.
'I don't know...
'That's it, you see... When the salamander eats him, it'll break the bracelet, break their control over it - but it will also absorb their power.'
'Breaking one control for another.' Eloise murmured.
'Exactly. And like Kingpin said, we can't intervene - not without the Gods calling foul.'
Allie's eyes narrowed.
'Help me get the robe off.'
'Help me get it off. Now.'
Underneath it, Allie still wore the yellow and green fuku she'd started out with.
Tessa weighed the robe in her hand. 'What did you have in mind?'
Allie took the robe back.
The beat intensified.
'And now...' the Captain announced.
The salamander turned, tasting the air again.
The Captain raised his free hand.
And caught something, from out of nowhere.
The audience watched, fascinated.
'Got a cape...'
'Aren't they supposed to be red?'
'Well, it is blind...'
The Captain looked surprised.
Looked around, warily.
The Hoedowners watched, said, did, nothing.
The Gods' regard did not alter.
'Very well...' he said. 'On with the show.'
He raised the silver cape in front of the salamander.
The salamander raised its head.
'If we can't do anything...'
'...then we help it believe it can.' Tessa completed.
'The salamander does it, breaks free.'
'Salamander power! Yeah!' Yokoi proclaimed.
The other two looked at her.
'That's it, that's it...'
The salamander opened its mouth wide.
The Captain lowered his head, ready to place it in the salamander's mouth.
'Oh no...' Eloise said.
The Gods' regard intensified.
It might have been imagined that the Captain's face was caught between pleasure and terror.
Might have been.
With the speed of a whipcrack, the salamander's tongue lashed out-
The shards of the bone bracelet fell to the floor.
The salamander held its place.
Raised its head to the Gods.
Inclined its head to the Captain.
And then a fiery comet blazed up-
-out of the ring-
-through the top of the Big Top-
-out into the sky-
The Captain remained where he stood in the ring, his face scorch-blackened by the elemental's release.
Then, slowly, he bowed.
Turned to leave.
And faded as he reached the exit.
Abandoned on the ground behind him lay the silver cape
Which shimmered briefly.
And then disappeared.
'Well, they can't say he didn't deliver...'
not one but two
khaibit-ur-sekhem, who wanders between the Universes...
It is time.
"Did you feel that?"
Fourth looked across at Eighth, who was staring intently into space, a frown upon his features.
"Well, it couldn't have been an earthquake."
"This is either very good or very bad," murmured Eighth, who rose from his position in the crowd, looking around for the source.
"I'm more inclined to think the latter, but you never know," answered Fourth.
"I'm going backstage. I think I'm needed."
"I'm sure they would have asked for it if they..."
But Eighth was already hopping through the crowded bleachers, down towards the front.
"...needed it," finished Fourth, sighing. "I think we're far more use out here, you know..."
you see it now.
see what must be done.
no! not now. you will know when.
and only then can they know.
fear is your only enemy. face it.
She swallowed. In about fifteen minutes, she was going to stare it dead in the face... whatever it had for a face.
And if anyone had cared to chance a look at her that instant, they would have seen the tears that escaped her eyes.
It took her just a moment to realize what it was: a change in the rhythm of breath -- a catch.
"Alryssa, are you all right? Are -- are you crying?"
Alryssa shook herself slightly, and squared her shoulders. "I'm all right," she said, in a tone that suggested that she wasn't, really, but that talking about it was out of the question.
:::She's been to the land of the dead,::: Eloise reminded herself. :::Maybe -- maybe she hasn't returned completely::: and she remembered how important it was to ground yourself after returning from an astral journey -- and this had been much more than an astral journey... "Have you eaten," she asked, "since --"
The word cut her off like a shut door. Eloise didn't press the matter.
She looked out toward the ring, where Sweetheart, in the persona of the lead mare, was trotting around the roustabout as he tried to sweep up after the salamander act, kicking up the sawdust, and making fake runs at his backside. Laughter and sighs could be heard from the audience. They needed the lightheartedness, now, after all they had been through.
No one, who didn't know ahead of time, would have known that that wasn't a planned act. And it looked like she could keep it up for a while.
Which was good. Because so much had changed since their rehearsal that they now were going to have to redo their entire finale -- with no rehearsal time -- and make it their strongest act yet.
She called to her deputy, the turquoise troll. "Gather all the performers back from the audience," she told her. "We're going to need all hands on deck for this."
She signalled to Alisandra, Sandra, Xeffy (who looked a little surprised to be included) Tessa, Yokoi, Imran, Gordon, Saville, Curry, Nyctolops, Cameron, the Nth Doctor, Katherine, Silence, Yartek, Mags and Kingpin to join her in a huddle.
"Okay, here's what I'm thinking," she said, when they were finally all together. "This would have been a lot easier if we still had the last word -- but we don't.
"We are going to have to use this act to bind the Gods -- but we can't bind them before they get a chance to perform...and after they perform, it will be too late."
"So what do we do?" Xeffy asked. "We lose either way."
"I'm thinking," Eloise said, slowly (to make sure that it really was what she thought, before she said it), "That what we need to do is, well -- not to put it delicately -- set a trap, so that the energies we create during the song battle will still be in place after we take our final bows, and --"
"And," Gordon said, "when the Gods try to make a final strike at us (and we're pretty certain they will), that will 'spring the trap' -- binding them at that very instance."
Eloise nodded. "Right," she said.
~~It will have to be very precise,~~ Silence signed. ~~A nano-second too early, or too late, and it won't work at all~~
A silent shudder went through them.
"And exactly how are we supposed to build and set the trap in the first place?" Xeffy asked.
"That's where I'm stumped," Eloise admitted. "Any ideas?"
"And, erm, I hate to be a wet blanket at a time like this," Tessa said, "But the round you gave us --"
"Yes?" Eloise asked, uneasily.
"It says here, that it's for four voices... But there are ten measures. It doesn't come out evenly."
"Can it be rewritten for five?"
"Certainly, but who's going to sing the fifth part?"
"What about the audience?" Gordon asked. "They did all right with 'Row, row, row your boat'."
"Asking them to sing a round they know well, is one thing," Tessa reminded him. "It's something else entirely with one no-one has ever heard before."
"What if they had someone to lead them," Xeffy asked, "--someone to sing along with?"
"You?!" Alisandra and Sandra asked together.
"Why not me? If anyone can keep them on track, it would be a siren."
Her sisters groaned. "The power's gone to her head," Alisandra muttered under her breath. "Just what we need."
"I'm sorry," Eloise asked, "but are you sure that's safe? We want to trap the Gods, not the audience."
"Well, I've been singing in the shower all my life," Xeffy answered her. "And I never trapped anyone before."
"Until today," Sandra reminded her.
"But that was because I wanted to call you back -- I needed to. I think intent is always a part of it. And maybe," she added, "you need some of the energy of a siren's song to make your dream trap work." She looked around at the faces looking back at her, suddenly older than the child she was when she arrived.
"I was called here," she reminded them, "I was brought here. I don't know by whom," she looked at Imran, "though you may be right about Sandman," she said, "in which case, my powers could somehow be linked with Dreaming. But I do know I was brought here for a reason. I think maybe this is it."
She turned to her sister. She was tall enough now to almost look her in the eye, straight on. "I'm not 'the baby' anymore. I didn't tag along behind you. Not this time."
Eloise let out a long, slow breath she didn't realize she'd been holding. "All right, then," she said. "Xeffy will lead the audience in their part of the song battle. ... So what else do we need for this act?"
They begin their plans for the finale...Previous chapter Next chapter