Aphelion Issue 265, Volume 25
September 2021
 
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The Theatregoers


by Rab Foster




ONE

A tattoo sang, "Valrine, wake up, wake up!"

Valrine was hunched forward with her hair hanging against her horse's mane. When she heard the singing voice, she sat straight in the saddle and cursed herself. The horse moved steadily, sure of its footing. All four moons shone in the sky tonight, making the path visible along the ridge to the next jagged summit. But this was not a place to fall asleep. The ridge's sides were steep, sometimes precipitous, and plunged far down before finally burying themselves in the dunes of the Creeping Desert.

A moment later, an arrow hissed through the sky from the summit ahead. The arrow passed through the space where Valrine's head had hung and embedded itself in the horse's neck. The horse snorted in pain and blundered sideways. The arrowhead was probably coated in poison, for the Creeping Desert contained creatures whose venoms could bring a horse down instantly.

The horse tripped towards the ridge's western edge. Valrine tried to spring from its back but her left foot snagged in its stirrup. By the time she'd wrenched the foot free and got off the saddle, the horse was already falling from the ridge and she was falling with it.

The slope below was composed of huge, fractured, near-vertical slabs of rock with veins of sand, shale and pebbles between them. Fortunately, Valrine fell down one of the veins, its surface abrasive but not bone-smashingly hard. She managed to curl her body and cover her head with her arms before she struck the slope for the first time. Then she tumbled down the scree through clouds of dislodged sand. The satchel whose strap was looped around her right shoulder repeatedly flew away from her and then banged back against her.

After she'd stopped tumbling, Valrine found herself lying on a flatter part of the slope. She was on her back with three of the four moons hovering in the sky above her. Dazed, she wondered what'd happened to the fourth one. The absentee was the Moon of Tyrn, whose surface showed a long black scrawl resembling a two-headed dragon. She recalled how there were children's tales about the dragon that lived on Tyrn. She'd often told those tales to her tattoos, by firelight, while they made camp during their travels …

Valrine's mind stopped wandering and she became alert again. She realised Tyrn had disappeared because, beyond her feet, a crooked but roughly columnar shape rose into the sky and blocked it from view.

Also, she heard the tattoos wailing because of the cuts, scrapes and bruises that newly covered her.

"I can't see! There's blood in my eyes!"

"My face's all red and raw!"

"I'm sore!"

Valrine felt sore herself, but she snapped at them, "Shut up, you stupid lot! Someone's trying to kill us and your blubbing will bring them to us!"

Self-pitying moans replaced the wailing. "Awww!"

Not for the first time, she felt like the teacher of a class of difficult children. She added softly, "I know you're hurt. But you need to be quiet … And thank you, whichever one of you woke me up. Well done!"

After the tattoos had fallen silent, Valrine wondered what'd happened to the satchel. She extended her right hand across the ground beside her, grimacing at the pain the movement engendered in her arm and shoulder, until her fingers touched the satchel's leather hide.

Then she heard voices on the slope above her. One said, "Nobody told me this courier would be a child, Reeth."

Another replied, "Older than she looks, Mr. Tarbyn. More dangerous, too. I saw her kill Mowgar Skenthorp in a tavern brawl. Gutted him with her blade before he got that famous axe of his near her."

"Well, if she rid the world of Mowgar Skenthorp, she didn't deserve to be ambushed tonight. I'd have taken her to the tavern where she performed this service and bought her a drink!"

"Aye … Mowgar wasn't a nice man. Even by our standards."

"Wait. If this courier slew him … I believe I've heard of her. She's got tattoos, right?"

"That's her, the tattooed woman."

"What do these tattoos show?"

"Other women. Her skin's a gallery of female portraits. Pictures of her old girlfriends, I reckon."

"Girlfriends?"

"Come on. You saw what a scrawny runt she is. She hasn't enough flesh on her to satisfy any man—"

A tattoo protested, "Valrine, those men are being horrible!"

"Shhh!"

The voices were coming closer but it didn't sound like they were descending in her direction. With luck they'd pass without finding her. One man asked, "What are these ruins? She must've fallen into the middle of them."

"One of the old cities, Kebbor, Mounston, Laytharn … They dotted the plains below when they were fertile. Several backed up these slopes, almost up to the ridges and peaks. But one by one, the cities vanished. The desert crept in. Swallowed them."

Valrine looked at the column rising in front of her. It was made of stone blocks, balanced evermore precariously while the wind ate away the mortar between them. Just above it, a constellation, a cross containing six stars, shone so brightly that the starlight revealed hieroglyphics grooved on the column's surface. Not all were identifiable, but she knew something of the local languages and with a little guesswork she translated them as:

CITY OF LAYTHARN

HIGH EAST GATE

A tattoo stammered, "Valrine … I don't think … those are stars."

Valrine remembered there weren't any cross-shaped constellations in the desert sky. In fact, the six stars weren't shining above the column. They were shining on it, on its uppermost block.

They grew even brighter and she realised they were six luminous points on the exoskeleton of a massive scorpion crouching near the column's top. Four points made a line from its head, along its abdomen to its spiked tail, and one point adorned each claw. Then the scorpion stirred. Its claws swung forward, changing the constellation from a cross to a fork, and it scuttled down past the hieroglyphics.

Valrine willed her bruised arms and legs to move. With maddening slowness, she dragged herself back. However, in a few moments, the jewelled scorpion had reached the column's base, crossed the ground and climbed onto her legs.

TWO

She froze. The scorpion froze too, eight legs splayed across her thighs, two claws raised over her stomach.

The tattoos squealed.

"Be quiet!" hissed Valrine.

Her right arm still stretched towards the leather satchel. Keeping the rest of her body still, she grasped the satchel, snatched it off the ground, swung it across her and batted the scorpion away. She scrambled to her feet before it came back at her. However, because she was hurting and disorientated from her fall, she staggered and crashed into the stone column.

Someone asked in the darkness above, "Hear that, Mr. Tarbyn?"

"Hear what?"

"Movement."

Her right hand still clutched the satchel. Something tickled her knuckles and, looking down, she realised that the giant scorpion hadn't been knocked away. It'd managed to attach itself to the satchel's side. Now it was climbing over the leather onto her hand, positioning itself so that it could drive its sting into her arm.

"Oh, go away!" she shouted and smashed the satchel against the column. The satchel contained a wooden box and the scorpion was crushed between it and the stone. Its mangled body dropped onto the sand, the lights dimming on its head, back, claws and tail.

A man exclaimed, "Well, I heard that!"

"Hoddart! Azrik!" barked the other man. "She's here!"

"And you," said a tattoo, "scolded us for being noisy."

Valrine ducked round the column and careered down more of the slope. The moonlight showed obstacles ahead and she veered from side to side to miss them. Jutting up were further columns, sometimes in twos and threes and supporting sections of entablature. There were also toppled columns, and piles of blocks where walls had collapsed, and a few standing walls dotted with doorways and windows, sand up to the window-ledges so that they resembled the eye-sockets of half-buried skulls. Occasionally, she passed statues whose faces and fingers had eroded, leaving the heads and hands as grotesque lumps.

Clusters of light decorated the tops of those ruins, indicating more jewelled scorpions.

Sometimes Valrine found herself crossing level areas where rows of paving stones were exposed. And sometimes she'd encounter a flight of stone steps and descend a vertical surface that long ago the city-dwellers had carved from the slope.

Voices shouted behind her. "There she is, passing those pillars!"

"Tarbyn, damn it! Use your bow! That's why I'm paying you!"

"Hold on, she's vanished again—"

"Over there! That's her!"

Valrine dodged behind a wall, stopped and took several deep breaths. She saw that sand was heaped alongside the wall and partly embedded in it was what she first thought was a fallen statue. But as she studied the figure in the moonlight, she realised it looked too ravaged to be made of stone. Its eyes were black craters, its mouth a grinning black slot. This was a body, an inhabitant of the city who'd lain for centuries in a state of mummification.

The tattoos identified it too. "How hideous!" cried one. "To think that was once a living person!"

You were once a living person , Valrine thought, but said nothing.

Something moved at the far end of the wall. A young woman wearing a pale-coloured gown and carrying a tray sauntered, almost floated, towards her. "Dates, sweet dates," she called out, "filled with almonds, walnuts and lemon!" She used a local language, but Valrine had never heard an accent like hers. It sounded … archaic.

Astonished, she asked, "Can you see her? Hear her?"

The tattoos murmured in puzzlement. "See, hear what?" one inquired. "What are you talking about?"

Gliding closer, the female vendor called again, "Dates, sweet dates, filled with almonds, walnuts and lemon!" Then she vanished, so that in front of Valrine the only things visible were the wall, sand and mummified corpse.

A moment later, the youngest tattoo on Valrine's body squealed. "It moved! That thing in the sand moved!"

"What moved?" demanded another tattoo.

"That horrible dead thing lying there … Oh, it's done it again! It's moved again!"

"Don't be foolish. It can't move if it's dead."

Valrine left the wall and started running again. A sudden chill inside her had anaesthetised the pain of her cuts and bruises.

With a hissing sound, another arrow sailed down and thudded into the satchel, which still hung over her right shoulder. The arrowhead pierced the leather and buried itself in the wooden box. She spotted a figure standing on the line of the slope above and heard it shout, "Got her!"

"You did not!" she snarled and ran on with the arrow-shaft sticking out of the satchel behind her.

The further she descended, the more intact the city was. No longer were there just lengths of wall. Those walls joined other walls and formed still-recognisable buildings. The paved areas became longer and so did the flights of steps. She realised she was crossing and going down a series of terraces, which the city's founders had cut from the slope before building their city on them.

Finally, on one terrace, she arrived at a courtyard. Ruined houses lined the sides on her left and right and a single, huge building spanned the side ahead. She ran to the building's entrance. It seemed the least ruined structure she'd yet encountered. Even its roof looked intact. It contained an arched doorway with steps in front, pillars on either side and a panel above that bore more hieroglyphics. Valrine managed to read:

CITY OF LAYTHARN

GRAND THEATRE

The youngest tattoo, who'd claimed to see the corpse move, spoke again. "Valrine, I'm not being foolish. This place is not good. We have to leave here."

Valrine remembered the ghostly woman by the wall but, at the same time, heard the men shouting behind her. "I don't like it either. But just now we need a hiding place."

Then she ran up the steps and through the doorway into the theatre.

THREE

The light of four moons accompanied Valrine into the lobby. The desert wind had penetrated it many times already and heaped banks of sand against its walls. Only a strip along the middle of the floor was passable. She imagined this lobby once as a hall of pillars, statues and wall-mosaics offering the city's theatregoers a grand welcome. Now it was so full of sand it was cave-like and claustrophobic.

At its far end she came to another ramp of sand, stacked against two massive doors that must open into an auditorium. By now she'd passed the furthest point that the moonlight could reach into the ruins, but still she saw clearly. She looked upwards and realised that the distant lobby ceiling was speckled with white points arranged in cross-shaped clusters. They brightened as if her arrival had woken them. Soon the jewelled scorpions covering the ceiling shone as radiantly as a chandelier.

Their light revealed a staircase, which rose out of the sand to Valrine's right and climbed the wall there in three zigzagging flights. Meanwhile, she heard voices again, coming from the theatre-steps outside. Since the way ahead was blocked, Valrine scrambled up the sand to the first exposed stairs and then up the staircase itself.

She'd raced halfway up the staircase's second flight when she realised the voices were directly below her. Pausing, she glanced down over the banister and saw four men standing between the sandbanks engulfing the bottoms of the walls, stairs and auditorium doors.

One of them cried, "Footprints! Up this dune to the staircase!"

Valrine dashed upwards again while, a flight-and-a-half below, the men scaled the sandbank to the stairs. She reached the top of the staircase, which opened onto a balcony overlooking the lobby. Here, the scorpion-infested ceiling wasn't far above her head. She twisted around and tore the arrow from the back of her satchel. Then she clambered onto the top end of the banister and poked the arrow at the ceiling, dislodging scorpions until a dozen of them had fallen onto the stairs below her and were scuttling about angrily.

She waited for the tattoos to comment. When they didn't, she grumped, "Come on. Tell me how clever I am."

"Oh, Valrine," they chorused. "You're so clever!"

Valrine jumped down onto the balcony. It had a pair of doors in its back wall, opposite the staircase-head, and corridors leading off from each of its ends. She ran to the doors, managed to prise one back a little and squeezed through.

She entered a crescent-shaped gallery whose floor descended ahead of her. Steps followed the slope of the floor and seats were clustered on either side of them.

"What is this place?" demanded a tattoo.

Valrine's boot disturbed a discoloured brass horn and it went rolling down the steps. At the same time, she noticed the pillar and curving neck of a harp in front of one seat. The filthy strings inside it made it resemble a maw full of long, decrepit teeth. Also, she saw how gongs, bells and tubes of various lengths hung from the ceiling, encased in dust.

"It's an orchestral gallery," she said. "The theatre's musicians worked here."

She went down to a balustrade that ran along the front of the gallery. Below, before and above her was the immense cylindrical vault of the auditorium. The ceiling at its top crawled with scorpions, their jewelled armour producing enough light for her to see everything.

The gallery was two-thirds of the way up the auditorium's side. Underneath, rows of seats swept down to a stage, which was semi-circular and occupied the far half of the auditorium's floor. At the stage's ends hung the remains of its curtains, so rotted that they survived only as long black flitters, like vines festooning tree-branches.

Cables and wires crisscrossed vertically, diagonally and horizontally high over the stage. Amid this mesh dangled dusty things such as hooks, harnesses, trapezes and rows of lamps hanging on battens. The thickest lines in the mesh were two chains slanting from a point above one end of the stage to a slightly lower point above the other. Suspended from one of the chains was a disc with spikes radiating from its rim and shreds of gold paint still clinging to its surface. Also hanging from the chain, at different heights above the stage, were shapes with wavy edges and shreds of white paint.

"Not just the sun," sighed a tattoo. "Clouds too."

Valrine lowered her gaze to the stage itself. The towers and rooftops of a city could be seen on a backdrop, depicted in now-faded paint. Standing onstage in front of it were silhouettes representing an archway and a fountain.

The same tattoo observed, "A fountain, sprinkling water. How sad. This city was temperate once."

But Valrine didn't respond. By now she'd seen something else about the stage, something astonishing. A play was in progress. Before the painted city and the archway and fountain, people were performing. This theatre had stood derelict for centuries, surrounded by the void of the Creeping Desert. Yet costumed figures were moving about its stage and speaking.

Finally, she asked, "What do you see below?"

"Seats, a stage, a backdrop and scenery."

"What's on the stage, in front of the scenery?"

"Nothing."

"You don't see people?"

"No, Valrine—"

Bandits, she decided, she could deal with. Ghosts, she couldn't deal with. So she turned and bounded up the steps to the doors.

As Valrine passed the seats again, the youngest tattoo gave another squeal. She realised that the seats were occupied by figures with shrivelled bodies and hairless round heads, corpses so long dead that they had only tenuous likenesses to human beings. Slumped in those seats, they resembled a phantom orchestra, ready to provide music for the phantom play below.

Then she squeezed back between the doors and re-emerged onto the balcony, where she immediately walked into a huge, bear-like man.

FOUR

A scar ran diagonally from the man's forehead, just missing his left eyebrow and continuing to his left ear. The top of the ear had been cut away, the edge of its whorled skin and cartilage at the same angle as the scar.

In a slobbering voice he said, "I'll have whatever the young Duke Rathos gave you to carry to his floozy in Cordovia."

Valrine rubbed a hand across her face, wiping away the man's spit-flecks. "All right," she said. She slipped the strap off her shoulder and then, as hard as she could, swung the satchel. The wooden box inside it thudded into the man's head and he staggered sideways and fell.

A tattoo observed, "That's two types of vermin you've clobbered with that satchel tonight."

The other bandits could be heard on the stairs, shouting and cursing as they tried to dodge the fallen scorpions. One of them, a youth, managed to get past and scrambled up onto the balcony. Seeing Valrine, he raised his sword, only to discover that a huge scorpion was still impaled and squirming on the point of its blade. His surprise was such that he dropped the sword.

Valrine turned and ran into a corridor at one of the balcony's ends. The corridor led to a corner, twisted, continued to another corner, twisted again and finally terminated at a stairwell. More stairs, steeper and narrower than those in the lobby, descended to lower storeys and climbed to higher ones. The stairs below vanished in a morass of sand that'd blown in through windows in the stairwell's side. So she went upwards again.

She emerged into a strange, three-walled compartment. High in one wall were more windows, and more sand had entered and sloped to the floor. Moonbeams infiltrated too and provided most of the illumination because only a few scorpions clung to the ceiling. Those moonbeams were broken across a mechanism of big metal wheels with serrated edges that was suspended in the compartment's middle. A cluster of levers, tilting at different angles, jutted from the floor beside the wheels.

Wrapped around the largest wheel were two chains that dipped towards the side of the compartment opposite the windows, a side where there was no wall. Valrine realised they were the same chains she'd seen from the gallery, slanting above the stage and festooned with a mock sun and clouds.

A disc two yards in diameter hung from the lower chain just before it disappeared out of the compartment. Although the disc was pitted and discoloured by blown-in sand, she saw that it bore a dark squiggling pattern like a two-headed dragon.

One of the tattoos noticed it and exclaimed, "The moon Tyrn! Remember the stories you told us about it, Valrine? The one about the dragon and the princess, for instance?"

The compartment contained three more discs but these weren't attached to the chain. Instead, they were stacked upright in a trolley whose wheels were mired in the bottom of the sandbank. The surface of the nearest disc was patterned so that it resembled another of the four moons.

Then the youngest tattoo cried, "Oh no! Not another one!"

A spindly-limbed figure lay amid the sand. The moonlight grooved it with shadows, across its lipless mouth and between the ribs in its chest.

"Don't worry," said Valrine. "It can't harm you. It's dead."

"The first one we saw wasn't dead, I tell you. It moved!"

Another tattoo inquired, "Don't you think this is strange, Valrine? When a desert invades a city, it does so gradually. People have time to decide not to live there anymore, to pack their belongings and move away. They don't suddenly die while they're in the middle of doing things. Musicians don't die while they're performing in their gallery. Stagehands don't die while they're changing the sky-props between the scenes of a play."

"This is all strange," said Valrine. She approached the wall-less side of the compartment and found herself at an edge, precipitously high up, overlooking one end of the stage. The nearer set of curtains, now rotted, would have concealed the edge from the audience. She watched the performers on the stage below, milling around and babbling like a crowd in a city square. Unlike in a normal play, their voices suggested no stage-direction, their movements showed no choreography. "Ghostly vendors, ghostly actors, corpses of people who shouldn't have died the way they did …"

Suddenly she heard footsteps on the staircase to the compartment. She ran back from the edge and came face-to-face again with the youth, whose sword-blade had now been relieved of the scorpion. "Please," he said, "give me the satchel."

Valrine jabbed her blade towards him and he backed away. "No. It's not mine to give to anyone."

"Look, I'm doing you a kindness by asking for it. You'll be sorry if I have to take it by force." But his voice was almost quaking and the threat sounded unconvincing.

Valrine tried to keep her gaze on him, knowing that although he was frightened he carried a sword and was capable of hurting her. But then a movement on the sandbank behind him caught her attention. In the moonlight, the dried-up figure was stirring. Its emaciated limbs prised themselves out of the sand, then its upper half freed itself too and it sat up. The figure pressed down its gnarled hands and, almost drunkenly, propelled itself up onto its flat, papery feet.

While sand trickled off its shoulders and head, it came shuffling towards them.

FIVE

All the tattoos shrieked, apart from the youngest tattoo that'd previously been so squeamish about the corpses. "Well," it declared, "I told you. I did tell you!"

With the sandbank behind him, the youth hadn't seen its decrepit occupant come to life. Rather, it was the noise from Valrine's tattoos that alarmed him. The sword trembled in his hand. "Who's that? Who's screaming?"

The tattoos weren't entirely a secret. Her business associates and employers, such as the young Duke Rathos, were aware of their abilities. But among other people the tattoos knew to keep still and silent and behave like ordinary tattoos. At this moment, unfortunately, they let the pretence slip.

Valrine shouted above the din, "There's something behind you! You'd better get out of its way!"

She tried to lunge past him and thrust her blade into the shuffling thing. However, the youth swung his sword back at her, thinking she was lunging for him. She retreated, tripped over the levers and fell. Caught amid those levers, her legs pushed a couple of them towards the floor and immediately a grinding noise came from the metal wheels.

The youth loomed over her. "I said, who's screaming?"

The figure arrived behind him. Its emaciated hands, with long, twig-like fingers, clamped themselves against the sides of his head. Valrine scrambled onto her feet again. What happened next happened very quickly.

That was the only consolation, she thought afterwards. It at least happened quickly.

Again the sword fell out of the youth's hand. His back arced and his limbs stiffened. His mouth gaped in a mute scream and his lips shrivelled back from his teeth and gums. His eyes bulged, then shrank into their sockets. His face became hideously corrugated as the tissue thinned and tightened under its skin. Then the skin itself dried and broke apart and flaked away. Exposed, the tissue broke too and dropped off in dry crumbs.

Valrine heard an obscene, sucking noise. Over the youth's shoulder, she saw that the figure was no longer grey or desiccated. As he withered, it grew pale and heavy.

His clothes disintegrated in the same fashion, so that what remained of him, dangling between the creature's hands, was a skeleton clad in a few grey rags of cloth, skin and flesh. Even then it didn't end. Those last rags turned to dust while webs of tiny cracks appeared over the bones. Then the bones shattered, not just into fragments but into particles that joined the rest of him on the floor. Valrine looked down and saw that the debris of the youth's body was indistinguishable from the sand lying there already.

Again, only the youngest tattoo was able to speak. "Valrine," it pronounced, "that was horrible." Then, referring to the thing that'd risen from the sandbank, it added, "And that is horrible."

"What is it?" blurted another tattoo.

"I don't know," said Valrine hoarsely, "but it isn't human and it wasn't a corpse."

In fact, the creature resembled a frog that'd swollen to human proportions and learned to walk upright. It was encased in blubbery tissue, was hairless, lacked sexual organs and looked almost translucent. Because it stood in the way of a moonbeam, a whitish glow lit its interior and Valrine could see the bones deep inside. Meshed around those bones, she also saw veins and arteries.

Some of the blood-vessels were a ripe purple colour and others were a dark red. Valrine realised she'd seen those distinctive colours elsewhere. To confirm where she'd seen them, she glanced at her arm as it held forward her blade.

The creature swayed, making gurgling noises as newly acquired fluids shifted inside it, and ambled back on its swollen feet. It thudded against the trolley containing the moon-discs and sank down until its haunches rested on the rims of the trolley's wheels. Rolls of blubber hung from its sides. Its globular head, skull visible inside, nodded forward onto its chest.

Another tattoo asked, "Why didn't it attack you too, Valrine?"

She knelt before the now-motionless creature. "It fed on him. No, drank him. Took in every drop of moisture from his body. Even the marrow from his bones. And I think one drink like that, one human-sized drink, is as much as it can handle at a time. Now it's sleeping off what it's consumed."

"How long will it sleep for? I don't want to be here when it wakes again."

Valrine thought aloud. "For as long as its victim's moisture sustains it. Until its next victim comes along, which in the desert might be years, decades, longer even… You saw how shrivelled it was a few minutes ago. I bet it'd been asleep, slowly absorbing every last drop of its previous victim, for centuries—"

Something creaked. Sand fell from the chain-links and the notches on the mechanism's serrated wheels. Valrine sprang back from the creature but it didn't wake. Recalling how she'd dislodged some of the levers, she wondered if she'd unwittingly started the compartment's machinery.

Then a voice that didn't belong to the tattoos spoke and Valrine spun around.

Despite what'd happened, the youth was in the compartment again. He stood close to, but not in the same spot where she'd seen him die. In a respectful tone he asked, "You promise, Mr. Hoddart, that the people we ambush will be bad people? Slave merchants, poppy smugglers, tomb robbers? People who deserve to be ambushed? Yes?"

"What's wrong?" demanded a tattoo. "What startled you?"

Valrine noted how he wore cleaner clothes and was less tangle-haired and sunburnt than before. "You don't see him, do you?"

"See who? There's nothing here, apart from that slumbering monster."

"You promise, Mr. Hoddart," repeated the youth, "that the people we ambush will be bad people …?"

Valrine couldn't bear his voice any longer. She turned back to the sleeping creature and drove her blade into its belly. The belly split and out splattered a slushy liquid. The creature deflated. It keeled forward from the trolley, landed on the floor and leaked more fluid. Soon it no longer resembled a frog but a beached jellyfish.

Looking back, she saw that the young man had vanished again.

"Valrine," exclaimed the tattoos, "what's going on?"

"It wasn't just sleeping, it was dreaming. It dreamt about the person it'd consumed. And somehow I saw that dream."

The creaking noise happened again and more sand fell off the machinery. This time, one of the wheels shifted and the chains juddered. The higher chain moved away from the edge overlooking the stage, and the lower chain, the one the moon-disc hung from, moved towards it.

"Azrik!" another voice bellowed from the staircase. "Where the hell are you?"

A stout man lumbered up into the compartment. An axe, climbing hook and other tools hung from hoops on his belt, while a rope was coiled many times around him from his shoulder to hip. Seeing Valrine, he rushed at her, but promptly stepped in the mire where the creature's fluids had mixed with the sand. His feet skidded and he toppled onto the floor.

From the staircase came more voices. Valrine sheathed her blade and seized the trolley's handles, wrestled its wheels out of the sand and forced it towards the staircase. A face with a familiar-looking scar appeared above the level of the floor. With a grunt she tilted the trolley forward and emptied its load of moons. The discs landed on their edges and rolled into the stairwell.

The man roared, "You little bitch—!" Then the moons crashed into him and knocked him backwards and downwards.

The man with the tools and rope, meanwhile, was struggling up from the sand. Valrine swung around the trolley and heeled it over on top of him. Its weight slammed him against the floor again.

The creaking noises grew more frequent. Each time, the wheel turned a little further, pulled more of the upper chain towards it and fed more of the lower chain out over the edge. As more sand fell free, the chains moved more smoothly. Valrine decided she hadn't started the machinery but had released a brake, and the weight on the lower chain was doing the rest. The moon hanging on that chain, Tyrn, had almost passed out of the compartment now.

She thought about escaping through one of the windows, but realised that on the theatre's outside wall these would be many storeys above the ground. So she dashed the other way and stopped again at the edge. The stage was so far below that the performers on it, the ghosts, looked no bigger than children's dolls. Carried on the lower chain, the moon had left the edge behind and was gliding high above the stage.

The tattoos guessed her intention and shrieked, "No!"

She ignored them and jumped.

SIX

Valrine twisted, aligning her body with how the moon-disc was hanging. She hooked her fingers around its upper rim and her arms felt a sickening wrench as they took her weight. The disc swung from side to side and smashed against her. In tandem, the satchel banged against her back. During the commotion she caught glimpses of the stage, still milling insanely with doll-sized people a vertiginous distance below.

Somehow, she managed to maintain her grip on the disc.

The addition of her weight made the chain's movement smoother and faster. The disc swooped over the stage. Meanwhile, the tattoos jabbered. They hadn't had time to recover from the trauma of seeing the youth die and now she was subjecting them to this.

"Don't look down," hissed Valrine, face pressed against the disc's grimy surface, "and please shut up!"

A muffled roar came from behind her. It sounded like the scarred man was still on the stairs, pinned beneath the other moon-discs. "Tarbyn," he yelled, "get up there and make yourself useful!"

She looked along the sloping chain. The sun and clouds that'd previously hung above the stage were passing through a square-shaped gap in the wall at the opposite stage-end. Beyond the gap was a compartment with another group of wheels turning at its centre, identical to the compartment she'd left behind except for it being in a lower position.

Then metal screeched ahead and the chain halted. Valrine and the moon-disc were left hanging four-fifths of the way across the stage. Through the gap in the opposite wall, she saw that the sun and clouds had got caught in the lower compartment's wheels and jammed them. No longer were there any stagehands to unhook the sky-props from the chain as they came through.

Valrine glanced downwards. Though the height of the chain had lessened, the stage was still a long way below. "No!" squawked a tattoo on her left leg. "Don't think about jumping!"

She looked back along the chain. A thin grey-haired man, wearing a uniform of faded blue, had appeared at the edge of the higher compartment. He fitted an arrow onto a bow. More cries from the tattoos: "Valrine, move! Don't just hang here!"

"Don't hang, don't jump!" she raged. "What am I supposed to do? Make up your minds, you morons!"

But the archer paused before he raised the bow. Valrine realised he was gazing down at the crowd on the stage. "He sees them too!"

"Sees what?" lamented the tattoos.

Among the many things suspended above the stage, the rotted curtain by the stage-end ahead was nearest the moon-disc now. It hung just a few feet away. Valrine peered down the flitters of cloth. Although decayed, they descended the whole way to the stage. Grunting, she hoisted herself up the disc and hooked her left arm around its upper rim. Then she took her right hand off the rim and stretched towards the curtain.

"This is a bad idea," fretted a tattoo. "Those rags won't support you. You've put on weight recently."

The archer, meanwhile, had recovered from his surprise at seeing the crowded stage. He fired the arrow, which struck the edge of the disc, bounced and sailed down among the seats. Though her attention was mostly fixed on the curtain, Valrine noted that his blue uniform was that of a Sharnese bowman. This surprised her. Sharnese bowmen didn't normally miss.

The curtain hung inches beyond the fingertips of her right hand. She dragged up her legs and folded them between her and the disc. Although the disc was metal, she knew it was flimsy and would give almost no leverage. Nonetheless, in a single movement, she unhooked her left arm, thrust with her legs and lunged as far as she could. Her right hand grasped some wispy fabric. Then, as she fell against the curtain, the fabric ripped.

She heard a chorus of shrieks. One shriek was hers.

But, hurtling downwards, she didn't let go of the rotten curtain. The piece she gripped parted in a strand from the rest of the fabric. Halfway down, the fabric became less rotten, for suddenly the strand stopped tearing and Valrine stopped falling. She swung amid the lower half of the curtain and grabbed more of it with her other hand. A dusty cloud materialised around her.

"See?" she spluttered through the dust. "It did take my weight—"

More cloth tore and she fell again, two strands now trailing from her hands. Further down, the material became firmer and she stopped again. She dangled amid the shredded curtain long enough to be able to look below her. The heads of the people on the stage didn't seem so far under her boot-soles. She was close enough to recognise the embroidered shawl of a housewife, the crested helmet of a city guard, the wrinkled scalp of an old man. She even heard individual voices, speaking in the archaic accent the date-seller had used outside.

"Ox-hide? On its way out! Costs a fortune to keep an ox these days. Camel-hide, that's the future of the moccasin business!"

"I don't know how she deludes herself. Everybody knows what her husband and that tavern wench get up to!"

"We're scum to those snobby bastards. But if we weren't here to clean out their drains … How long before they drowned in their own shit?"

Then the curtain ripped again and she fell the remaining distance. She let go of the fabric, dug her chin into her chest and flung her arms over her head. The moment she felt the stage-floor, she rolled onto her shoulder and back before the impact could shatter up through her.

She didn't land on anyone. She seemed to fall into and then roll through the crowd as if their bodies were made of vapour.

She stopped rolling. Briefly, she found herself lying in a layer of dust while a freshly raised cloud of it hovered around her. Also around her were the boots, leggings, smocks and robes of bustling people, but they remained intangible and nothing bumped or brushed against her. Pain smarted from half-a-dozen points in her legs, shoulders and back, but she didn't think she'd broken anything.

She was about to cry through the dust, "I made it!"

One thing remained in motion, however. The wooden box inside the satchel, its strap still attached to her shoulder, smashed into the back of her head. She sank down, her eyes closed, and the shapes and sounds of the ghostly crowd gave way to darkness and silence.

SEVEN

Valrine lay on a table. Her stomach and breasts pressed against the tabletop while her head rested on its chin, so that she could see over the table's end. Ahead of her was a doorway that opened outside. The landscape beyond was blurred by a fierce heat and warm air wafted in over her naked shoulders and back.

A man spoke above her. "I shan't pretend this won't hurt, Valrine. But I've explained why we must do this. It's the only way to bring them back. A little of them back."

His voice suggested great sadness.

The scene framed by the doorway became clearer. She made out a ridge that had seven tall wooden staves erected along it, against the sky. Each was forked at the top. It was her people's custom to use these special-shaped staves as grave markers.

Then she looked sideways and saw that a smaller table stood beside the one she was lying on. Arranged across it were needles of different lengths and thicknesses and fashioned from different materials, such as bone, bamboo and steel. Several jars of ink had been placed there too.

This ink was of two colours, ripe purple and dark red.

Suddenly the man's voice changed. Its sadness was replaced by urgency. At the same moment, Valrine realised the table had disappeared beneath her and she was lying on a dusty stage.

"Speak quietly," said the man, "but answer me. What are you carrying?"

She raised her face and spat out damp, sour gobbets of dust. Kneeling before her was the grey-haired archer in the faded uniform. He held forward something long and sharp that fleetingly she mistook for one of the needles in her dream. Then she realised it was an arrow. Its point was almost at her nose.

"This was dipped in the poison that felled your horse, by the way. What's in the leather bag?"

Valrine felt a dull pain at the back of her head. Recalling how the satchel had brained her, she groaned, "That damned thing!"

"I said, speak quietly!"

She lowered her voice and asked, "What did your master Hoddart say I was carrying?"

The archer scowled. "Hoddart's my associate, not my master. He claims you're carrying a message from the Royal House of Rathos to that of Cordovia. The message proposes an alliance against Sharna, my country. Is that true?"

Valrine sighed. "There's no message. Nothing about alliances. I'm simply delivering a gift. Hoddart lied to you." She recalled what the youth had said about ambushing only bad people and added, "He lied to that poor boy too."

It was actually the young man's ghost who'd said that. The thought made her look around the stage. It was empty. Apart from the line of footprints made by the archer as he'd approached from the stage-end, the dust covering it was unmarked. The crowd who'd milled about earlier had left no trace.

"What happened to the ghosts?"

He was still digesting what she'd told him about her delivery. In a distracted voice, he said, "The ghosts? They vanished."

"Vanished?"

"They were here when you plunged down among them. Then they melted away. One moment I was looking at a crowd. The next moment, I was looking only at you, lying unconscious."

"And despite what you saw, you came down here? Weren't you afraid?"

The archer shrugged. "I don't like ghosts, but I've never heard of ghosts hurting anyone. Whereas the men I'm with definitely will hurt you if they find you're still alive. Be afraid of them now."

Valrine heard new voices, from high in the wall above the stage-end. The archer laid the arrow in the dust and slid its tip under her side. "Lie still on top of this and make it look like it's sticking out of you. Pretend you're dead. While you scrambled down the curtain, Hoddart was sprawled on the stairs and Reeth was pinned under that trolley. I was the only one who saw you. So I told them I'd hit you while you were hanging from the chain and you fell. I didn't mention those ghosts, either. Now let me take the satchel. When they get their hands on it, they might forget to inspect your corpse."

She felt him remove the satchel-strap from her right arm. She decided it was time to surrender what she'd been carrying and didn't resist.

He took the box out of the satchel. "Does this need a key?"

"Just unfasten the clasps," said Valrine. "But wait for Hoddart. Give him the honour of opening it."

The archer studied the box's sides and a look of comprehension appeared on his face. Then he stood up and walked back along the stage. Once he was out of earshot, the tattoos started whispering.

"For a bandit he doesn't seem so bad."

"Do you trust him, Valrine?"

"Don't trust him! Three arrows he fired at you. Three times he tried to kill you!"

To that last comment, Valrine replied, "Sharnese bowmen are famous for their accuracy. I think the first arrow he shot, on the ridge, was meant to kill me. But since he found out who I was, he's been shooting to miss."

Then, trying to move her head as little as possible, she peered along the stage towards the wall and the high-up compartment from which she'd ridden the moon-disc. A rope hung down from the compartment and a bulky figure was descending it, like a big ungainly spider on a thread. Once that figure reached the stage, another figure, rounder in shape, appeared at the compartment's edge and started clambering down the rope too.

She heard Hoddart's slobbering voice on the stage. "Well, Tarbyn, you found it?"

The archer, Tarbyn held forward the box. "I assume the message is inside."

"Good. We'll open it once Reeth has joined us." Then, pointing to Valrine, he demanded, "She's dead?"

"Yes."

"A pity. After the trouble she caused tonight, I fancied prolonging her death. Making it last a while. Cutting off her famous tattoos, one by one."

Across Valrine, the tattoos shuddered.

Reeth arrived on the stage and needed a minute to recover his breath. Finally, he said, "I don't like this, Mr Hoddart. What's happened to Azrik?"

"I imagine our little friend lying over there slew him somewhere in this labyrinthine building."

"And that strange carcass lying up above, next to the wheels. What was it?"

"Reeth, this is the Creeping Desert. Everything's strange here. I've seen eyeless lizards basking on rock-slabs, as large as crocodiles. A smuggler I knew claimed he'd encountered cacti in this desert that were the exact size and shape of humans."

"And all those corpses, Mr Hoddart. How did they manage to die in their seats?"

Hoddart roared, "I don't know how, damn it, and I don't care! All that matters is they're dead, which means they're no threat to us! Now in the name of the four moons, Reeth, stop whining!"

Though the men were close, Valrine risked turning her head to look over the front edge of the stage, into the auditorium. She saw that all the seats there were occupied. Each occupant was grey and skeletal.

EIGHT

"They're not corpses," moaned a tattoo.

The youngest tattoo started, "And if they wake up—"

"They're awake already," said Valrine. "Awake, watching, waiting."

"You think so?"

"They were dreaming before. Their dreams were walking about this stage. Now the dreams have disappeared because the dreamers have woken up."

"What dreams? You're talking gibberish again!"

She almost replied: you couldn't see them because you're as ghostly as they were.

By now Hoddart had taken the box. "Locked?"

"No, I think it's fastened only by the clasps on its sides. I'd have expected a document of such political importance to be sealed more securely." Valrine discerned an ironic note in Tarbyn's voice. She wondered what he intended to do now he knew he'd been lied to.

But Tarbyn received no time to do anything, for Hoddart suddenly slammed the box into his face. Valrine heard a gruesome cracking noise and saw Tarbyn reel, trip and fall onto his back a few yards from where she was lying.

Hoddart handed the box to Reeth. "Open it. I'll pay our Sharnese friend for his services."

Reeth crouched and placed the box on the stage. There was a click as his fingers worked free the first of the box's half-dozen clasps.

Hoddart unsheathed his sword and stalked towards Tarbyn, growling, "If he'd done his job properly and his first arrow had been on target, we wouldn't have spent hours scrambling through these ruins. Employing him was a waste of time."

Behind him, Reeth prised at the other clasps and Valrine counted as each one opened. Two, three … "Still, Mr. Hoddart," he muttered, "it was wise to recruit a bowman. I saw her slice open Mowgar Skenthorp. I didn't fancy getting close to her."

Valrine slid her right hand to the hilt of her blade, sheathed at her side. Her left hand rested close to the arrow-shaft that stuck out beneath her, and through her tunic she felt the arrowhead between her and the floor. Poisoned, Tarbyn had said.

A fourth, then a fifth click … But now Hoddart stood over Tarbyn, ready to plunge his blade. The archer would be dead by the time the sixth clasp was released. So Valrine leapt up and lunged with the arrow. Momentarily, Hoddart was too surprised to move and his blade stayed in the air. Then the arrowhead penetrated his side. He howled and lurched back from Valrine and the arrow came out of him again.

At the same instant, Reeth tugged free the box's last clasp with one hand and wrenched up its lid with the other. Something long and covered in scaly rings of black, red and white sprang from the box and fastened onto his hand while it gripped the open lid. Reeth howled too. He jumped up, the snake dangling from him, and staggered back. He reached the front stage-edge, teetered, fell over it and struck the auditorium floor with a tremendous thump.

Hoddart had collapsed onto his knees. Seeing what'd happened to Reeth, he mused, "A decoy. That was clever."

"Not so clever," said Valrine. "There were air-holes along the box's sides, between the clasps. Tarbyn noticed them, which is why he didn't open the box himself. You'd have noticed them too if greed hadn't made you so stupid."

"So," continued Hoddart, "where is your delivery from Duke Rathos? And what is it? Jewels for his Cordovian fancy woman, I'll bet."

Valrine pointed the arrow at him. "Knowing won't help you. This arrow is poisoned. You're dying. In a few moments more you'll be dead."

Hoddart glanced down. One of his hands covered the puncture made by the arrow and blood oozed between his fingers, but it didn't look like the arrow had penetrated deeply. "I don't feel I'm dying," he replied. "I just feel sore. And angry."

Tarbyn had regained his senses on the floor beside Valrine. A sigh came from his bloody face. "I lied," he murmured. "I only said it was poisoned to frighten you."

Hearing that, Hoddart forgot the pain he was in. He reared up, bellowed and swung his sword. Valrine dropped the arrow, took her sword-hilt in both hands and met Hoddart's blade. Somehow, she withstood the ferocious power in the blow. She dodged around him and thrust at his back, but Hoddart swivelled with unexpected speed and warded her off. Then he attacked again, advancing with savage sword-swings that forced her back to the stage-edge. Beyond, she caught glimpses of the auditorium with its shrivelled spectators propped in its seats.

Rage contorting his face, blood leaking from the wound in his side, Hoddart drove forward. Again his blade swung and again Valrine's blade met it. But this time the blow was so powerful that it lifted her and threw her backwards.

Like Reeth, she passed the stage-edge and dropped into the auditorium. Unlike Reeth, she landed agilely and rolled over to avoid breaking anything, as she had earlier when she'd landed on the stage. She arrived on her hands and knees before the first row of seats. On the floor under the closest seat rested a pair of feet, dried out and twisted like dead tree-roots.

"Ugh!" exclaimed a tattoo. "Repulsive!"

She saw a glitter of black, red and white scales. The snake that'd bitten Reeth, one she'd caught and put in the box a day ago at the desert's edge, slid across the floor between her and the withered feet. The snake's head twitched towards her, a sliver of a tongue dancing on its lipless jaw. Then, behind it, the feet shifted and a wasted hand came down and seized it.

Still on her hands and knees, Valrine retreated. One of her knees encountered her fallen blade and she reached down and grasped its hilt.

The snake's colours blurred as it thrashed between the bony fingers. Then the colours faded and it shrank into a grey ball that crumbled between the fingers like powder falling through a sieve. Valrine glimpsed the coiled, ribbed tube of its skeleton but even those tiny bones disintegrated and the snake vanished.

All the tattoos squealed. Across the auditorium the front row of seats had suddenly disgorged their tenants, so that standing there was a line of figures with ravaged bare heads, spindly arms and legs, chests crenelated by protruding rib-bones. A second row of figures stood above the seats behind them. A third row stood behind those, and further back stood a fourth and fifth…

On the stage, Hoddart exclaimed, "By … the … four … moons!"

Valrine scrambled onto her feet as the figures advanced. Reeth, she saw, was slumped against the bottom of the stage, stunned by his fall and sick with snake-venom. She ran and sprang on top of him. She put a foot against one of his shoulders and from there thrust herself up over the stage-edge. But despite his dire condition, Reeth suddenly grabbed her left ankle and stopped her before she'd got clear of the edge. The stout man glared up at her, hatred piercing the glaze of pain in his eyes.

The grey figures had almost reached them.

Valrine yanked her leg and freed her ankle from Reeth's grasp just before the first, desiccated hands landed on him. At the touch of those hands he convulsed with a pain that seemed infinitely worse than that caused by the snakebite. His eyes bulged and his mouth yawned. Then the eyes and mouth grew even wider as, around them, the skin dried, cracked and ruptured. Valrine flung herself back onto the stage before she witnessed any more. One of Reeth's hands groped over the stage-edge after her. It became a claw of bones and flaking skin and then a star-shaped mound of dust, similar to the stage-dust beneath it.

There were creaking and rustling sounds as bodies pressed against the stage-front and tried to scrabble up. Other hands grasped above the edge. Grey, shrunken faces, but with big, fleshless grins, bobbed into view too.

Valrine looked around and saw Hoddart limp towards one of the stage's rear corners, presumably where a gap led to the performers' dressing rooms.

The tattoos shrieked, "Move!"

By now several creatures had hauled themselves onto the stage. Valrine jumped up and ran, but only as far as the stage's centre. Tarbyn rested there on all fours, blood dripping from his face.

"First the ghosts of the dead were here," he muttered. "Now the bodies of the dead are coming too."

Valrine slotted her hands under his armpits and tried to raise him. "They're not dead and they weren't people. They're monsters. Don't let them touch you!"

"Those hideous screams I hear … Are they making those?"

"No, that's my skin. Now come on. Get up!"

Hoddart hobbled onto the stage again and collided with a piece of scenery, the archway, which toppled over and made a dusty cloud. "They're back there too!" he raved. "They're everywhere!"

Through the dust-cloud, Valrine saw figures shambling out of the corner Hoddart had re-emerged from. More of them approached from the front of the stage. All were converging on its centre. Hoddart blundered past her and hacked with his sword. Bloodlessly, a spindly arm dropped like a branch chopped from a tree. His blade scythed across the advancing figures, reaping more hands and arms but doing nothing to slow them.

"Too many!" Hoddart yelled. "There's too many!"

In fact, a whole auditorium of creatures was clambering onto the stage now.

Tarbyn wrestled himself free of her and fell onto the stage again. He clawed at the dust, scooping it to either side, and shouted, "There's a trapdoor!"

Valrine saw a crack running through the boards below Tarbyn. The ends of the crack formed corners with two further cracks that ran parallel to each other, indicating that a square had been cut out of the stage-floor. She squatted beside him and dug her blade into the first crack.

"If it has a catch we can open …"

A voice laughed above them. "You pathetic lot! What's wrong with you? I've drunk seventeen tankards of ale and I'm still standing!"

Reeth suddenly stood on the stage beside them. He looked slightly less stout and the tools had vanished from his belt.

Tarbyn blurted, "You're alive?"

Oblivious to the danger around him, Reeth waved a tankard in the air, laughed and repeated, "You pathetic lot! What's wrong with you all—?"

"He's drunk," marvelled Tarbyn.

"He's dead," said Valrine, still probing with her blade along the trapdoor's edge. "That's another ghost!"

On either side of them, the creatures were so close they'd merged into walls of grey flesh.

"Too many!" screamed Hoddart.

Valrine's blade encountered something. She heard a scraping sound and suddenly a section of stage-floor plunged downwards. She and Tarbyn plunged with it.

NINE

The floor of the chamber under the stage was lower than the floor of the auditorium and Valrine fell further this time, but she landed in soft sand. The chamber fluttered with lights. Its ceiling, the stage's underside, was covered with jewelled scorpions that scuttled madly, distressed by the vibrations coming through the boards from the many shuffling feet.

As Valrine clambered out of the sand, Hoddart dropped through the trapdoor and landed beside her. He wrestled himself up and snarled, "Out of my way, bitch!" He swung an arm and batted her sideways. She staggered, collided with a vertical surface and fell again.

A tattoo lamented, "That man is so uncouth."

Dragging herself up, Valrine discovered she was standing inches from a grimy figure whose face glowered into hers. The tattoos shrieked. She sprang back and at the same instant the figure sprang back from her. She was looking, she realised, at a large oblong mirror in which her reflection was discernible through a film of dust. She turned around. As her eyes adjusted to the chaotic light cast by the scorpions, she saw other props stored here, below-stage. She made out cabinets and four-poster beds, urns and barrels, a banqueting table, a throne, a guillotine, a torture device with rollers and shackles used for stretching prisoners. Meanwhile, Hoddart was limping off along a narrow passage that led, like a woodland path, between dozens of fake stage-trees whose branches almost reached the chamber's ceiling.

Something else dropped through the trapdoor. One of the corpse-like creatures began to gather itself off the floor.

Valrine still had her blade. Seeing a scorpion straddling the top of the mirror, she used the blade's point to lift it and flick it through the air onto the creature's head. The scorpion rested there briefly, its tail swinging across the holes of the creature's eyes. Then a withered hand grabbed it. The light dimmed in the scorpion's armour, the tail broke off, the body crumbled into dust. Valrine understood why the scorpions confined themselves to high places like walls, columns and ceilings, out of the range of arms.

The creature lurched towards her, but then toppled backwards because an arrow suddenly skewered its head. She saw Tarbyn leaning against the guillotine, flanked by the uprights that held aloft its fake blade. His face was still bloody. One of his hands clutched his bow while the other groped for a new arrow in the quiver at his belt.

More creatures fell through the trapdoor. Moments later, the sand churned with skeletal figures trying to scrabble onto their feet.

"Vampires," shouted a tattoo, "moisture vampires! That's what destroyed Laytharn. It wasn't the desert. A plague of these things brought the desert with them, while they sucked the moisture out of everything they touched!"

Tarbyn stumbled forward from the guillotine. "That wasn't you," he said bewilderedly. "Who spoke?"

Ignoring his question, Valrine started pulling him along the passage between the stage-trees. "There'll be hundreds of them down here soon. We have to get out!"

"Is there a way out?"

"There must be. How did this sand get in?"

Each step they took through the sand felt more arduous than the last. Their feet were sinking deeper because they weren't struggling through an even layer of sand but struggling up a ramp of it. Ahead, it climbed towards the ceiling, swallowing the stage-trees on either side until only their highest branches were visible. The scorpions scurried above the branch-tips, casting swirling patterns of light and shadow.

Valrine looked back. The creatures were following them. Their gait was dragging and unsteady, yet the sand didn't impede them by sucking down their feet. It'd been an eternity since they last fed, so they had hardly any weight to make them sink.

Again Tarbyn shot an arrow and a creature fell with an arrow-shaft piercing its head. But its comrades were within yards of them now. Valrine thrust her blade into its sheath, flung herself onto the sand and scrambled up it on her hands and knees.

"You as well," a tattoo shouted at the archer. "You've got to climb!"

Tarbyn demanded, "And who said that?" But then he started grunting and cursing as he clawed his way up the sand behind Valrine.

Amid the whirling lights, Valrine noticed the slope already bore a trail of bloodspots and disturbed sand. A tattoo voiced what she was thinking: " He's gone up here already."

Although the sand shifted under her palms and knees and her body seemed to slither downwards as much as her aching limbs propelled it upwards, she reached the ceiling at last. In front of her, light penetrated a narrow gap that separated the sand-slope from the ceiling's edge. She looked back again. Tarbyn crawled behind her and the creatures ambled behind him, still on their feet but hunched forward now. In another moment they'd be on all fours as well, because the space was shrinking between the sand and ceiling.

Tarbyn twisted around and jammed another arrow against his bowstring. This time, the arrow barely seemed to leave the bow before it struck its target.

"Go!" he urged. "Get through!"

Valrine wriggled through the gap beneath the ceiling-edge. She found herself in a much larger chamber, which the scorpions lit as brightly as they'd lit the auditorium. The edge under which she'd crawled formed the bottom of a towering wall and similar walls stood on either side. Ahead, the sand rose towards this chamber's ceiling too. She gazed up it and saw how part of the wall at the top and part of the ceiling above were missing, so that a hole gaped over the sand's summit. Through the hole, the luminosity of four moons filled the night sky.

Tarbyn yelled, "Help me!"

The archer's head and shoulders were jutting through the gap. Valrine fastened her hands on his grey hair and hauled him up the sand until his body was clear. Immediately afterwards, several claw-like hands poked through, groping at his boots.

Tarbyn broke free of her and left strands of hair hanging from her fists. He clamped his hands over his scalp. "That hurt!"

"Serves you right. That first arrow you fired tonight was meant to kill me—"

A tattoo interrupted. "They're coming!"

Bodies squirmed through the gap, their grey flesh making Valrine think of scum oozing from a sewer-pipe. She turned and went toiling up the next sand-slope. By now Tarbyn didn't need telling and he scrambled beside her.

This chamber had served as a store, too. While the theatre-staff had shunted smaller props into the adjoining chamber, under the stage, they'd kept bigger items here. A windmill, a castle-tower, a ship's mast thrust out of the sand around them. For one hallucinogenic moment, Valrine thought she saw a waterfall gush down beside her, before she realised she was seeing a stage backdrop with a mountain-face painted on it. The waterfall was a zigzag of blue paint.

Then, suddenly, she spotted human figures on the slope above them. The nearest ones were a boy, crouching while he worked the strings of a wooden puppet and made it dance, and a housewife, swishing a broom across the sand's surface. She looked again at the backdrop with the waterfall and saw an old woman standing in front of it. She held a pair of shears and a barbed stem topped with a rose, whose vivid redness contrasted with the waterfall's faded blueness. In her archaic accent, the old woman mused, "Such a beautiful flower—"

And vanished.

"Oh no!" exclaimed Valrine. At the same moment, the sand parted beneath her and a ravaged face burst out from it.

TEN

Valrine recoiled from the face, lost her balance and tumbled down the sand. When she stopped tumbling, she knew she'd fallen close to the gap again, the gap from which her pursuers were issuing.

Her right hand yanked her blade from its sheath just as one of the creatures loomed over her. Summoning her energy with a cry, she sprang up and drove the blade into the hollow under the creature's ribs. The creature shuddered, though its lipless grin gave no intimation of pain. Then it lunged and tried to embrace her with its stick-thin arms.

A hysterical chorus: "Don't let it touch you!"

Valrine threw herself back onto the sand, beyond those grasping arms. Her blade retreated easily from the grey body and stayed in her hand. The creature teetered but, mercifully, didn't fall onto her. It fell the other way, further down the slope.

A tattoo stammered, "V-Valrine—"

"Which one are you?"

"Left shoulder!"

Valrine rolled onto her left side and saw another creature a yard away, wriggling worm-like from the sand. Grains fell from the cavities of its eyes, the furrows along its collar bones, the grooves between its ribs. She jumped up again and swung the blade. It swept under the creature's jaw and snapped its stalk of a neck and the head spun away from its shoulders.

The same tattoo: "It's me again, left shoulder!"

Valrine swivelled leftwards so that she was facing up the slope. A third creature came at her from above. She'd fallen past this one and it'd turned and retraced its steps. As Valrine tried to angle her blade for her next thrust, she realised this creature was already too close. It'd put its life-draining hands on her before she could kill it—

An arrowhead erupted through the flattened, leathery protrusion that served as the creature's nose. It sank down and revealed Tarbyn standing behind it. Gripping the arrow-shaft, he prised the arrow out of the back of the creature's head.

He started to explain, "During all the scrambling I dropped my bow …" Suddenly his face showed alarm and he yelled, "Behind you!"

Valrine flung herself sideways and Tarbyn kicked forward, through the space she'd vacated. His boot crashed into another creature's chest, knocked it over and sent it bouncing down the sand. After its third bounce, the creature vanished amid a whole swarm of its fellows that'd penetrated the chamber and were making their way upwards with unsteady but relentless steps.

Valrine and Tarbyn turned and started frantically scaling the slope again. The human figures ahead, including the boy with the puppet and the woman with the broom, melted away in the scorpions' light. Where they'd been, bare grey heads burst through the sand.

"It's infested with them," groaned Tarbyn. "They're like maggots!"

Their movements became slower as exhaustion took its toll. The creatures that'd awakened from the sand closed in on them from either side. A few yards behind, those that'd pursued them from the auditorium seemed to rise up the slope in a grey tide.

They'd almost reached the top when they saw one last stage-prop. Protruding from the sand's summit were two heads with scales, fangs and horns. They jutted up on either side of the hole in the wall, through which, coincidentally, the moon of Tyrn with its dragon-like markings was visible in the sky. Valrine guessed that beneath the sand the two heads were joined to a single reptilian body. Maybe at some point in the distant past the theatre had staged a play, a fantasy tale for children, that took place on that moon.

Then they saw a burly man standing between the dragonheads and before the hole. He slashed a sword through the air in front of him. If they ascended further, they'd enter the sword's path.

The creatures were horribly close. The horde from the auditorium were almost in touching distance of their backs. The additional ones that'd emerged from the sand were nearly upon them too. Though she was panting for breath, Valrine managed to say, "This is pointless, Hoddart. Just let us past. We won't harm you. We'll ride off and leave you alone!"

But Hoddart continued to block their way. "Mercy?" he jeered. "Don't ask me for mercy. I don't know what mercy is!"

"If I still had my bow …" croaked Tarbyn beside her, "I'd put an arrow into that bastard …"

The tattoos, meanwhile, were too frightened to speak. Collectively, they gave out a moan that to Valrine felt like a maddening itch covering her body. She wondered when the first dry, papery hands would touch her. In a half-minute, a quarter-minute, a few seconds?

Again Hoddart jeered, "Mercy? Don't ask me for mercy. I don't know what mercy is!"

Valrine noticed there was no blood on his tunic. She noticed too that his forehead was unscarred and his left ear no longer lacked its top. Promptly, she seized Tarbyn and dragged him up the last yards of sand, into the course of Hoddart's weaving sword.

Too tired to resist, the archer demanded, "What are you doing?"

Hoddart's blade passed through his chest without parting flesh or shedding blood. It passed through Valrine with no effect either. She pressed on, still dragging Tarbyn. They stumbled against Hoddart's ursine frame, encountered nothing solid and went through him as if he were a shadow.

Then Hoddart was behind them. Obliviously, he called again into the chamber, "Mercy? Don't ask me for mercy—"

The hole was perhaps the only part of the theatre that'd collapsed before the desert wind. An equal quantity of sand slanted down on the hole's far side, from the building's external wall. Before they escaped down the outer sandbank, Tarbyn spotted Hoddart's sword, his real sword, lying near one of the dragonheads. As he knelt to retrieve it, he spotted something else. Valrine squatted beside him and realised he was staring under the dragon's jaw. Nestling on the sand there, asleep, was a plump, pale creature, human in proportions but frog-like in shape. Its flesh was crisscrossed with blood vessels of dark red and ripe purple.

Valrine glanced back and saw a line of grinning, hollow-eyed faces rise above the edge of the summit. "We have to keep moving," she said and pulled Tarbyn to his feet.

While they fled from the theatre, Hoddart's ghost addressed the hundreds of creatures like a general rallying his troops. "I don't know what mercy is!"

ELEVEN

"Perhaps it's a natural defence," Tarbyn speculated, "just as chameleons change their skin-colour for camouflage or certain lizards puff out their neck-frills to make themselves look fierce. While those creatures hibernate after feeding, they're vulnerable to the predators prowling and crawling around this desert. So they've developed the ability to project the images and voices of their most recent victims, like dreams that other living creatures can see and hear—"

Valrine grimaced. "Like nightmares."

"And that scares the predators away from where they're sleeping. Or at least, distracts them from it."

They were under the peak from which Tarbyn had fired his first arrow along the ridge. Descending the peak's side was a square-sided cleft, like an open chimney-shaft. At its bottom, the cleft was wide and flat and formed a space where travellers could take shelter. Four horses were tethered there and a heap of embers glowed where hours earlier a fire had burned.

Presently, Valrine began to doze under a blanket beside the embers. Tarbyn sat by the cleft's entrance, gazing down the slope to the abandoned city. He saw nothing emerge from it. Occasionally too, he'd glance back into the cleft at Valrine. At one point, noticing how one of her arms protruded from under the blanket, he rose, crept across to her, squatted again and studied the portrait on the arm's skin.

He didn't realise Valrine was awake until he heard her ask, "You have a question?" She whispered, as if she were in a dormitory of sleeping children and didn't want to disturb them.

Tarbyn whispered back, "I have two questions. Firstly, these tattoos. Don't deny it. They're more than pictures. But what puzzles me most is that they're printed in two particular shades of red and purple. The blood of the creature that killed Hoddart was the same two colours. Why?"

Valrine sighed. "There were eight of us once. Eight girls, living with our father near the Creeping Desert. Our mother died giving birth to the youngest of us and because I was the eldest, I took over our mother's role. I looked after the other seven, schooled them, fed them, played with them. Our father was reputed to be a sorcerer. He spent his time in his study, poring over old books, or in his laboratory, brewing strange potions. He'd neither the time nor inclination to take part in his daughters' upbringing.

"Don't misunderstand me. He did love his daughters, though he was poor at showing them affection. So when the plague came to our region and snatched them away, all but one of them, I feared he'd go insane with grief. After we'd buried my sisters in seven small graves behind our house, he asked me what I'd endure to bring them back. I told him, 'Anything.'

"Then he rode into the Creeping Desert and didn't reappear for weeks. He came back with several jars of what I thought was ink. Some of it was a shade of red, the rest a shade of purple. He used it to transcribe their likenesses onto my skin. And through some magical property of those colours, my seven sisters came back to life. Well, almost back."

"Almost?"

"They have my sisters' personalities, but they lack things, too. Curiosity about themselves, for instance. They never wonder why they exist fixed to different parts of my body. I'm telling you this while they're asleep, but even if they were awake to hear us discuss them, they wouldn't understand. The circumstances by which they live now mean nothing to them."

"You think," said Tarbyn, "the ink your father used was blood from those creatures? By making the tattoos with it, he conjured up your sisters' souls, just as the creatures conjure up their victims' souls while they dream?"

"I knew nothing of my father's sorcery. But there's surely a link between what the creatures can do and what he did on my skin."

They were silent for a minute. Then Valrine asked, "What's your second question?"

"Oh … I wondered what you were really carrying to Cordovia."

For the first time since they'd met, he saw Valrine smile. "When they wake up," she said, "I'll show you the young Duke Rathos's gift."

A few hours later, one last moon remained in the sky. It hovered above the horizon, too small and wan for its dragon-like markings to be visible. Meanwhile, the early sunlight gave an eerie amber hue to the desert plains, to the slope, and to the distant ruins of Laytharn.

Valrine had already ventured along the ridge, located her dead horse, and retrieved her pack and saddle. She strapped these to the new horse she'd chosen, the one that'd belonged to the youth Azrik. Though it'd become an ashy pile and radiated no warmth, Tarbyn sat by the campfire and watched her.

She said, "Before I go, I suppose I should answer your second question."

She stepped away from the horse and stretched herself, showing all the tattooed parts of her body, her shoulders and arms, her belly under her short-cut leather tunic, her thighs above her boots. Tarbyn stared at the tiny faces etched in red and purple. Perhaps he stared too hard, for his eyes seemed to lose focus and the faces became blurred. Either that or they started moving.

He heard voices. One voice recited a line of poetry, then another voice took over and recited the next line. The poem began:

"All through my youth I've longed for you,

And my heart's always belonged to you.

So now as the spring flowers blossom,

Love for you surges in my bosom …"

It was a long poem. As well as mentioning longing hearts and blossoming flowers, it mentioned trilling songbirds, galloping steeds, soaring eagles, tumultuous winds, tempestuous seas, thunderous storms and flaming comets.

When the recital ended at last, Tarbyn considered what he'd heard. "That," he declared, "was a terrible poem."

Valrine didn't reply, yet he heard a babble of indignant voices.

One protested, "It's not. It's a lovely poem!"

Another said, "I'd be delighted if someone wrote me a poem like that!"

And another: "You're cynical. Obviously, you've never been in love!"

Then Valrine spoke. "I'm not paid to pass judgement on it, only to deliver it to a certain lady and perform it for her. But you shouldn't be so hard on Duke Rathos. He's only seventeen years old."

She led Azrik's horse out of the cleft and onto the ridge, leaving Tarbyn beside the lifeless campfire. "We went through all that for a poem," he mused, "a poem written by a foolish love-struck boy." Suddenly, he rocked back and forth and laughed. His laughter boomed up the cleft and out into the brightening desert sky.

He didn't stop laughing until the woman with the strange tattoos had ridden away.

THE END


Copyright 2021, Rab Foster

Bio: Rab Foster has spent much of his life living in the Borders region of Scotland. He grew up on a hill-farm, but now works as an educational consultant. His fantasy stories have appeared in Aphelion, Blood Moon Rising, Legend, Schlock Webzine, and Sorcerous Signals, and he blogs regularly at www.bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/.

E-mail: Rab Foster

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