As the others go off, in search of Sailor Gallifrey and breakfast respectively...
From where he stood at the edge of the side ring, out of the corner of his eye Kid Curry saw the little party slip off into the shadows. In the last moment before she followed the others, the little ringmaster turned back.
She got a cheerful grin from Gordon, and a wave of the hand over at the new Doctor and the two females he'd brought with him. Then her eyes met his own, their unspoken message the same: up to you now, friend -- reckon you'll be okay?
He nodded in return, hitching one hand into his belt. Sure, lady -- we'll handle it. You just get going...
And then they were gone.
No more than a handful, but somehow the big tent seemed emptier already without them there. The leaders of the bunch had made their move, started in on what had to be done -- and he'd been left to guard the street and hold the horses. To wait, and watch, and keep an eye out where it mattered...
He reached up as if to touch the charm; and then remembered. His hand fell away, carefully casual.
Not a charm, any more. Not a little bead you could wear. More like a jewel, a glowing coal -- and no longer his.
He'd known that, the moment he laid eyes on it again -- before, almost -- maybe the moment he'd come back, tugged across to the Circus on a bridge of song, with the charm still dark and snug in the green troll's pocket. It had grown; and changed.
He'd used it, unthinking, as weapon and shield, channeling the power in the only ways he knew. But when he'd gone into it -- held within its grasp, as he'd held it before within his own -- somehow, seemingly, he'd set it free. No longer chained to one master; free to heal as well as to guard... and to take on dreams.
There was something of himself there still. Always would be, he guessed -- whatever power was in there, however it worked, his had been the shape to mold it, at its waking, and when the Gods' bolt had struck home.
Like that winter colt John had brought up on the bottle one year when the old mare died. How they'd laughed, to see the colt follow the husky boy round the kitchen, small hoofs sliding on the tiles. Come spring thaw, Lonie'd sworn blind that little horse had even gotten to look like his brother, the same worried squint from under the cowlick of long hair...
They'd broken and schooled the colt for old times' sake, though he'd never made out as half the cow-pony his dam had been. Fool horse had put his foot in a gopher hole in the end, one dry summer. Broke his own neck and all but did the same by Lonie.
The charm would last longer.
He'd been there at the beginning. Whatever came after, that memory would hold. The strength it had drawn on had been his own. He'd had a part in the birthing of something that would maybe outlast them all. A man could do worse that that for himself, by his reckoning -- a lot worse, one way and another.
He'd lost the charm once before; lost himself, and the Contessa, and everything it had meant to him. All but destroyed himself, by the gift of the blind malice of the Gods of Ragnarok. This time... this time, he had chosen to let it go.
He touched the empty rawhide, remembering. He'd done without that link with the Contessa, these past two hours; yet he'd had more. Been there, seen her with his own two eyes. Even held her for one brief moment in his arms... The recollection of that touch burned like fire along his body, and for a moment he was lost again in the scent of her hair.
He took a deep breath. Thrust the memory down, to be locked away for the cold winter evenings, treasured and polished over and over, until the sharp ache of it had all but worn away. Looked around.
Cameron-cat stared back at him from the wings opposite, with little Nyctolops clinging with her long fingers to his fur, eager and scared in equal measure. The big cat simply blinked.
From the audience, the night-sky cloaks shimmered on performers and guests alike. But the faces were turned upwards -- up to the flyers in the roof.
They wore white. White that glistened and sparkled in the early-morning dusk, picked out by light-beams that swung and tracked like the gleam of a mirror. And they flew.
He'd never seen such stunts. They swung on the bars -- over and over, back and forth like some parlor cage-bird -- and then they let go.
Flying through the air like a ball to the catcher, with never a hesitation or a doubt. The body arched over, twisted, curved out a single lazy hand... caught, and swung. First one hand, then the other. Upside down on the bar, feet anchored firmly in the ropes, hands outstretched -- as the other glittering figure came spinning through the air, one, two, three and over, and the arms locked together in a flawless, swooping dive.
The rhythm never stopped. One flight followed another, high to low, low to high, single, double, treble flip, from bar to partner to bar. Across the roof of the tent, the white costumes wove a gleaming trail that held the eye like the swaying head of a snake.
Kid Curry blinked. Seemed like they were drifting closer and closer... or maybe he was floating up, like in a dream... Close enough now to see their faces, and there was nothing there.
No smile, no fear, no joy of flight. Just blank doll-eyes staring ahead, and little pursed mouths, hard as china. Masks, like the white-face clowns. They were clever toys. No more than toys.
And then one of the toys reached out a clawed hand and caught his arm in a grip of steel; and the warm haze that had held him was shattered in a thousand shards of hate, and he was there, high above the ring, falling at sickening speed, trapped against the cold hard limbs of the clawing thing, the blank mask cracked aside by the nightmare beneath --
A fear he knew. A taste he knew, a darkness that had hunted him through the years... his own. Stolen.
The knowledge blossomed into rage that drove out all fear for the few seconds he had left. They dared to use his own dreams against him -- they dared --
He sank the fangs of his own mind into the creature, tearing at it with blind human fury as they hurtled downwards. Clawing back what was his. If he died, he'd die whole -- and leave no part of himself for the Gods to play with as a creeping horror --
In the last moment, as the ground opened up below him, he closed his eyes. And felt something tear loose in his grasp.
Applause. Kid Curry swayed on unsteady feet and caught himself instinctively. Shook his head, blinking. And rubbed aching, bewildered eyes.
Applause rained down around him. High above, poised one to either side, the acrobats bowed and bowed again, stiff and lifeless as marionettes. Two of them... both untouched, unharmed, by that fall that should have crumpled hollow limbs, smashed living flesh with jagged splinters of bone.
No-one was looking at him. No-one had seen. All a dream?
He stared across at the Gods of Ragnarok; and knew the answer by the powerless hate that came staring back. Trick -- yes. Dream -- no.
Somehow, he'd fought them, and he'd won. Won back what he'd lost, the dreams they'd been using to shape their acts. All the loss, and the hate, and the brutal years... and the slender bright threads of joy...
He was still shaking. Maybe his body hadn't taken that fall -- but some part of him had. Some part of him that sure would have been real, if things had gone the other way. Guess he'd have been the star of the show -- from the Gods' point of view.
Gordon was consulting with the Muses. Looked like the hostess still wasn't back. Maybe they'd have to get one of the other Hoedowners to announce the last act -- pull someone out of the audience, could be. Kid Curry shrugged, and went over to find out.
'Ack!' Gordon gasped. 'Don't do that!'
'Whoops. Sorry. Are the others back yet?' Eloise asked.
'Nope.' Gordon frowned. 'Hmm. Hope nothing's up...'
'So do I,' Eloise said quietly.
She clapped her hands together. 'Right... We've got a bit of space before the next act - a little space, and then we've got the climax coming up.'
'Cameron and Nyctolops,' Allie said.
'Yeah.' Yokoi frowned. 'Al... Isn't turning into a cat one of your talents?'
'Yes, but... it's not the same!' Allie said.
'True, true... but when Xeph's a siren, it does begin to look a little odd.'
'It's just... something I can do,' Allie explained. 'I thought it was one of the talents that came with being a muse...'
'Al...' Yokoi said. 'Tess and I have some things up our sleeve - but as far as I know, shapeshifting's usually a family thing. It's not usually available in the Muse package.'
'What? You're saying Xeph and I are mutants?'
'I don't know,' Yokoi said. 'The sirens had a place in Greek myth, but I've never heard of any cat-shifters around... and you have to admit, turning into a cat isn't usually accepted as part of the ability to inspire.'
'Which means there's something odd here...'
'We were talking about Cameron and Nyctolops,' Allie said slowly and carefully.
'Right,' Tessa said. 'The feline act, then the Gods' lion-tamer - probably lion-eating, knowing them - act - then it's our turn.'
'Guys... have you noticed something going on?' Gordon said.
'Hmm. Alryssa's no longer unlocking her magic, Kid's given up the charm... we seem to be moving beyond the artifacts.'
'Perhaps.' Eloise frowned. 'I'd guess you still need the Sword of - what's it again? Authority or Authorial Freedom?'
'Well, I do have the Authorial Freedom to rewrite what it is...'
'Could be...' Yokoi said. 'Allie's robe, on the other hand...'
'What?' Allie said.
'Author, Audience, Creativity, Medium and Inspiration,' Yokoi said. 'Inspiration...'
'Yokki, spit it out. You've got something on your mind...'
'I think you're being inspired,' Yokoi said.
'She's what?' Gordon said.
'She's being inspired. Inspired to act as inspiration in herself. We've been coming up with weird ideas, bizarre theories about what's going on - and usually, we've been proved right. She's become an inspiration magnet - a magnet for inspiration, triggering it off in others around her.'
'...What?' Allie finally said.
'Remember how Imran rescued you from the sphere?' Eloise said. 'You're becoming a magnet. Even trapped, he still got affected.'
'Mnemosyne... The Firstmother said... she said it touched memory, inspired through memory,' Allie whispered.
'And that's what it's been catalysing in the rest of us,' Yokoi said.
'And that's why...' Allie whispered. 'Oh...'
'Right,' Gordon said. 'If they aren't back by the Gods' act...' He frowned. What could they do, if the others hadn't come back?
He really hoped he wouldn't have to find the answer out.
'They will,' Eloise said quietly, laying a hand on his arm. 'They will.'
She looked up at Kid, newly arrived.
He nodded. If they hadn't come back... well, he had a few things in mind. But something inside was telling him they'd be safe - and they would come back.
He hung on to it.
As he suspected they were, too. Could see it, in their faces, without a word.
But the others... had to do what they needed to do, to end this. And he, Eloise, Gordon and the Muses had to be here, to guard this flank...
'Oh.' Tessa clicked her fingers. 'I think I know why we're starting to move beyond the artifacts - our web's moving towards completion, things are beginning to move beyond their role in the web...'
'And when the web's complete...' Allie continued.
'-Then we break the Gods' conduit here, and establish ours, return all the energy back where it belongs,' Yokoi completed. 'And it completes-'
'If we win the song battle,' Eloise said.
The three nodded.
She took a deep breath. 'Here's hoping.'
As they talked...
Something tugged gently at Kid's mind. He didn't look too closely at it; let it come in its own time, when it's ready. To name it might kill it in birth.
But something about Allie's robe, and Sandra...
There was a memory there. Not his...
...a memory of a moment, something coming back, as he broke through the Contessa's door. Of being... of being young, newborn almost, with a lifetime's memories, a sudden awakening, a desire to hold on to life, life reawakened...
A quick glance at Allie.
And he knew. Knew what Sandra had wanted - both of the things she wanted.
A life for Allie, for the original Allie. And a life for Sandra herself.
He'd been right - and wrong. She didn't want one - she wanted both.
And there was no way she could have them...
He'd stolen back his darkness, challenged the Gods - and succeeded.
And he knew Allie would want that same darkness - not want, but needed it, all the same. Needed herself back. As he had-
His stomach dropped. He'd lost his dreams, his darkness, while they'd walked in Vortex City.
But he'd still dreamed.
When the Contessa had told him, of the hundred years gone...
...then something of the darkness had risen up in him.
But there had been no hate. Anger, and disbelief, and disgust... visions of the empty past, long gone...
...but he had lost the hatred. Had survived without it.
And now he had it back, it - and the blind need to survive, to go on...
...They no longer ruled him.
And in a brief moment of inversion, saw it.
His darkness hadn't taken on a mind. Not a conscious one, at any rate.
The thing still tugged at his mind. He hadn't named it.
Was there a way?
A way to give Allie her life - and Sandra hers?
He breathed out.
Nyctolops and Cameron were ready to go on.
'Ware. This close to the climax, the Gods were like to be desperate - and their power had been limited. Lessened by what he'd done - and by the Powers, that they were limited to their own power.
Scared, he was guessing. Still hateful and watching - but rendered powerless. Only their own power remained -
-and they were scared, now. What the Hoedowners were doing - the power they'd built was probably, near as not, a match for the Gods' own, ready to be used -
They were scared. Victory hung in the balance, could be tipped either way now - and the Gods knew it, knew it...
If the others could do what needed doing... and so long as he and Gordon could keep an eye out, take care of things...
He could see Gordon talking to one of the newcomers. Silence wasn't it? He couldn't understand what Gordon was saying from this distance, and the sheer speed at which Silence signed made it impossible for him to keep up. He saw Gordon bring something out of his pocket and hand it over. Silence took it and nodded, before walking outside the main tent.
Imran walked over to Gordon.
"What was that all about?" he asked.
"Not so much plan B as plan Y. I've a funny feeling chaos is going to ensue, so I'm just organising a little help, in case things get out of hand. I wouldn't put it past the Gods to try something sneaky during the closing song battle, so while we're busy with that, someone else is going to be keeping a look out."
"Yes, and some of her friends..."
"I'm saying nothing. It'll spoil the surprise..."
"What did you give her?"
Gordon just smiled.
"You didn't?" Imran suddenly realised what Gordon had handed over.
Kid Curry smiled, a small, dark smile.
And so... another few minutes, and on with the show.
And with Cameron and Nyctolops...
The next act - time for the taming of the Fiercesome Beast...Previous chapter Next chapter