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Cooper, Louise - Indigo 2 - Inferno

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Cooper, Louise - Indigo 2 - Inferno

    INFERNO

    BOOK TWO OF INDIGO

    LOUISE COOPER

    This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real people or events is

    purely coincidental.

    INFERNO

    Copyright ? 1988, 1989 by Louise Cooper

    All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

    A slightly different version of this novel under the same title has been published in the United Kingdom by Unwin Hyman (Publishers) Ltd.

    A TOR Book

    Published by Tom Doherty Associates, Inc.

    49 West 24 Street

    New York, NY 10010

    Cover art by Robert Gould

    ISBN: 0-812-50246-9

    First edition: October 1989

    Printed in the United States of America

    0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2

    We are dancing on a volcano. Nardsse

    Achille Salvandy (1795-1856)

    For Gary who makes the dance

    worthwhile

    •PROLOGUE•

    On a lonely and barren stretch of tundra, where the borders of a small kingdom meet the vast ice ramparts of the southern glaciers, the ruins of a solitary tower cast their unnatural shadow across the plain. The Tower of Regrets-it has no other title-was the handiwork of a man whose name is now long forgotten; for, as the old bardic story goes, his was a time, a time and a time, before we who live now under the sun and the sky came to count time.

    In those ancient days, mankind's foolishness and greed brought his world to the brink of ruin. At last Nature herself rose up against him, and the Earth Mother wrought Her vengeance upon the children who had betrayed her trust. But through the dark night of Her retribution, the tower remained unsullied. And when it was done, and a wiser mankind raised its head from the wreckage of its own folly to begin life afresh in a cleansed and untainted world, the tower became a symbol of hope, for within its walls the evils which man had made were at last confined.

    For centuries, then, the Tower of Regrets stood alone upon the plain, and no man or woman dared turn their face toward it, for fear of the ancient curse that lay within. And so it might have remained-but for the recklessness of a king's foolish daughter.

    Her title then was the Princess Anghara Kaligsdaughter; but now she has forfeited the right to

    name and heritage. For she broke the one law that had endured since her people's history began, when she breached the sanctity of that eon-old tower in a bid to learn its secret.

    Oh, yes; the princess had her wish, and the secret was revealed to her. But as its chains were released, the Tower of Regrets sheared in two-and mankind's ancient curse came shrieking from darkness to fasten again upon the world, and upon the soul of Anghara Kaligsdaughter.

    In the black night of the curse's reawakening Anghara lost hearth and home, liege and love, to that deadly power. And with the coming of the dawn she took upon her young shoulders a burden that now haunts her day and night, waking and sleeping. For the Earth Mother has decreed that she must make reparation for her crime, by seeking out and slaying the seven demons which came laughing into the world when the Tower of Regrets fell.

    Seven demons; seven evils which, if not destroyed, will cast mankind back into the dark history of its own folly. Anghara is Anghara no longer. Her name is now Indigo-the color of mourning-and her home is the world itself, for she has forfeited all claim to the hearth at which she was born.

    Indigo cannot die. Nor will she age or change, for while her quest remains unfulfilled she is doomed to immortality. She has one friend, who is not human. And she has one enemy that will dog her footsteps wherever she may go, for it is a part of herself, created from the blackest depths of her own soul. The eighth demon-her Nemesis.

    Five years have passed since Indigo looked for the last time on the mellow stones of Carn Caille, stronghold of the kings of the Southern Isles and her onetime home. A new liege rules there now, and the legend of the Tower of Regrets no longer exists; for the Earth Mother has decreed that all memory of the tower's fall, together with all knowledge of its true purpose, should be erased from the mind of man. Thus King Ryen instructs his bards to compose sad ballads of the fever that took the lives of Kalig's old dynasty. And he grieves for them as is right and proper, never suspecting that one of that old dynasty still lives.

    But Carn Caille is barred to Indigo. Instead she has set her face northward into the hot heartlands of the great western continent, in search of the first of her demons; the first of her trials. Guided only by the lodestone which was the Earth Mother's gift to her, Indigo journeys and Indigo seeks.

    And wherever her wanderings lead her, Nemesis is never far behind....

    •CHAPTER•I•

    The arid heat of the night made sleep impossible for the she-wolf Grimya. She lay under the shelter of an overhanging rock, nose on front paws, tail occasionally twitching in discomfort, and gazed down the slope, past the clumps of stunted and ill-nourished bushes to the empty, dusty road and the slow river beyond. She had seen the moon rise, full and distorted to the shape and hue of a blood orange in the shimmering air, and had watched it track across the sky among showers of alien stars until it hung, a glaring and hostile eye, above her. In stony crevices small reptiles stirred sluggishly and intermittently, as though the moon disturbed their dreams; Grimya was hungry, but lassitude overcame the hunting urge. She closed her eyes, trying to think of rain, of snow, of the green forests and cold, rushing streams of her homeland. But time and distance were coming between her and her memories; the forests of the Horselands were too far and too long away, lost in ever-more-dreamlike recollections of the distant south.

    The bay pony tethered to a bush a few yards away swished its tail, one hoof scraping on stone, and the she-wolf opened her eyes again. Nothing to cause alarm; the pony dozed, head down, and the movement had been no more than a reflex. Grimya yawned cavernously. Then, as though troubled by some deeper instinct, she turned her head, looking back over her shoulder to the figure huddled on the worn blanket behind her.

    The young woman slept with her head pillowed on the pony's saddle. Her long hair, which showed streaks of a warm auburn among the predominant gray, was brushed back from her face, and the uncertain moonlight gave her, momentarily, a peaceful look. Lines of strain were smoothed away, her

    mouth was relaxed, and echoes of a lost innocence and beauty seemed to shine through the contours of her cheeks and jaw. But the peacefulness was an illusion, and within moments the illusion shattered as the girl's lips trembled and the old shadow returned to her face. One hand clenched unconsciously into a fist, then opened again and reached out as though she sought to take and hold the fingers of an unseen companion. She found nothing, and as her hand fell back again she whimpered as though in distress.

    Lost in another, crueler world, guarded under the hot moon by her only friend, Indigo dreamed.

    * * *

    How long has it been, Indigo who was Anghara?

    "Five years..." The sigh took chilly wing and drifted away into emptiness.

    Five years, child. Five years since your crime brought this burden upon your shoulders. You have come a long way since those old, lost days.

    She saw the faces then as she had seen them so many times before, moving in slow procession past her inner eye. Kalig, king of the Southern Isles, her father; Imogen, his queen, her mother. Her brother Kirra, who would have been king in his time. Others: warriors, huntsmen, servants, all those who had died with their liege lord at Carn Caille. A sad parade of ghosts.

    And then, as she had known there must, came another, his dark eyes tormented, his black hair lank with sweat, the strength of his body broken and twisted by pain. She felt something within her constrict and tried to cry out against the vision and look away. But she couldn't. And involuntarily her lips formed a name.

    "Fenran... ?"

    Her lover looked into her eyes, once, and there was such longing in his expression that Indigo felt her own eyes, in her dream, start with tears. Their marriage had been only a month away when she had lost him. They would have been long wed now, and happy, if only...

    She reached out-as, in the physical world, one hand groped for a companion who was not there-and her fingers closed on empty air as Fenran faded and was gone.

    "No." She could barely articulate the word; though the nightmare was familiar, she could never inure herself to it. "No, please..."

    It must be, child. Until the seven demons you released from the Tower of Regrets are destroyed, your love cannot be free. You know it is a part of your burden and your curse.

    She turned away, hating the voice that spoke to her, the voice of the Earth Mother's bright emissary, yet aware that no power in the world could deny the veracity of its words.

    When it is done, Indigo. When the demons are no more. Then you may know peace.

    She felt tears prick her eyes, her throat grow hot and stifling. "How long? Great Mother, how

    long?"

    As long as it must be. Five years. Ten. A hundred. A thousand. Until it is done.

    In the sharp-edged twilight of her dreams the question and the answer were always the same. Time had no meaning, for she would not age. She was as she had been on that last day on the southern tundra beyond Carn Caille-the day when anger and recklessness and folly had conspired to lead her to the ancient tower, and to the wanton shattering of her world. She heard again the titanic voice of splintering stone as the Tower of Regrets cracked open; saw again the boiling, thundering cloud of blackness that was not smoke but something far, far worse erupting from the ruin's rocking chaos; felt again the insane goad of panic as she fled, lashing her horse's neck, back toward the fortress, back toward her kin, back toward-the carnage and the horror as warped things that had no place in a sane world broke like a tidal wave over the walls of Carn Caille to rend and to tear and to burn. They were coming, the nightmares, the foul things; they were coming and there was nowhere to hide, nowhere to run, nowhere-She came out of the dream screaming, her body jackknifed by a muscular spasm so that her back slammed painfully against the rock behind her. The world of the nightmare burst apart and, gasping, Indigo opened her eyes to the purple sky and the indifferent, unfamiliar constellations, and to the vast silence and the heat that crawled like something alive over her torso and across her thighs and into the

webs between her fingers.

    And met the lambent golden gaze of the she-wolf, who stood over her, quivering with unhappy concern.

    "Grimya..." The relief of realizing that the dream was broken was so strong that for a moment she felt giddy with it. She struggled into a sitting position, unpleasantly aware of her garments clinging, clammy with humidity, to her skin, and reached out to slide an arm over the wolfs shoulders.

    Grimya's sides heaved. "You w-were... dreaming?" The words that issued from her throat were

    stilted and guttural, but clearly recognizable; for Grimya had been born with the extraordinary ability to understand and speak human tongues. The mutation had made her a pariah among her own kind, but since her first meeting with Indigo-long ago, in a land that was now little more than a green and woody memory in the she-wolf's mind-the curse of it had become, instead, a blessing, for it had bonded her to the only true friend she had ever known in her life.

    "Dreaming." Indigo echoed Grimya's last word, pressing her face against the wolfs soft fur until the threat of a shaking fit subsided. "Yes. It was the same dreams again, Grimya."

    "I... know." Grimya licked her face. "I w-watched you. I th... ought to wake you, but..." Her

    tongue lolled with painful effort as she tried to cope with syllables for which her larynx had not been designed. Indigo hugged her again.

    "It's all right. They're gone now." Indigo suppressed a shiver that tried to assail her despite the oppressive heat, then looked about her, blinking against the gritty ache of tired eyes. To the east the stars were still bright; no sign yet of any paling in the sky's vast velvet backdrop.

    "We should try to sleep for a while longer," she said.

    "But if the... dr-dreams should c-come back..."

    "I don't think they will." Now now; not now. She knew the pattern all too well, and in all this time of traveling it had not changed.

    But if...

    This time the shiver wouldn't be denied, and she dug the nails of one hand sharply into the back of the other, angry with herself for allowing the shadowy fear that lurked at the back of her mind to affect her again. As she had done often during the past few nights, Indigo looked northward to where the landscape was broken by the ragged silhouettes of mountain peaks in the distance. Beyond the first of those peaks, and etching them with phosphorescence, the sky was touched by a thin, eerie glow as though some vast but muffled light source lurked just below the horizon. But no sun, moon, or star had ever shone with such cold nacre: this pallid light looked treacherous, unnatural, an-the word came to Indigo's mind as it had done before, and no rationality could entirely banish it-an abomination.

    Hardly aware of the gesture, she touched one hand to her throat and her fingers closed around a worn thong from which a small leather bag depended. Within the bag was a stone, apparently nothing more than a small brown pebble veined with traces of copper and pyrites. But within the stone's depths was something else, something that manifested itself as a tiny pinpoint of gold light: something that was guiding her, inexorably, toward a goal from which she could not-dared not-turn aside. The stone was her most valued and most hated possession. And each day, as the sun slipped down the brass bowl of the sky, that tiny golden light began to agitate in its prison, calling her, urging her northward. Toward the mountains. Toward the nacreous light. Toward the abomination.

    The pony stamped restively and broke Indigo's uneasy trance. She snatched her hand away from the thong, feeling the bag with its precious contents tap against her breastbone, and tore her gaze from the distant mountains. Grimya was watching her, and as a new shudder racked Indigo's frame the she-wolf said anxiously: "You are c-cold?"

    She smiled, touched by her friend's simple concern. "No. I was thinking about what may await us tomorrow."

    "Tomorrow is another day. Why thi... ink of it until we m-must?"

    Despite her mood, Indigo laughed softly. "I believe you're wiser than I am, Grimya."

    "N-no. But sometimes maybe I... see more clearly. " The she-wolf nudged her muzzle against the girl's cheek. "You sh... should sleep now. I will watch."

    Feeling a little like a child shepherded by a fond nurse-and the sensation was comforting, even though it touched on old, raw memories-Indigo lay down once more. Grimya turned about; she heard claws scrabble lightly on the rock, felt the wolf's moon shadow settle over her, and scents of dry stone and dusty fur and her own heat-prickled skin mingled in her nostrils. Another dawn, another day. Don't think about it until you must....

    Her fingers clenched, relaxed, and the arid world faded as she closed her eyes and slipped away into a dreamless sleep.

    * * * By midmorning the stillness that lay over the land

    was absolute. For a while a small, capricious breeze had raised the dust a little, but now even that was defeated by the vast heat, and the sun, an angry eye in a sky the color of molten iron, glared down through air that was stifled and motionless.

    Indigo knew that they must stop soon and find a place to shelter from the burning midday temperatures but she was reluctant to leave the road until she must. From the carved stones set at intervals along the way she guessed that they had little more than five miles to travel before reaching the town ahead, and she was anxious not to prolong this wearying journey. She longed for shade, for something other than sere rock on which to rest-and above all, she longed for cool, clean water to wash away the sweat and dust which felt ingrained in every pore of her skin.

    Six days had passed now since they had set out on the northern road from the province city of Agia, and their route had taken them through the most barren landscape that Indigo had ever seen. At her homeland far away in the south they would be celebrating Hawthorn-Month, the time of new leaves, fresh grass, the birth and growth of young animals; but in this country such a concept had little meaning. For some miles beyond Agia's walls brave efforts had been made to cultivate and irrigate the thin, red-brown soil; there were terraces of grapevines, stands of sturdy, dark-leaved fruit trees, patches of crimson or vivid green where vegetable crops defied the searing heat. But soon even these lost their hold, giving way to rock, dust, and scrub that stretched away to the distant foothills of the mountains. And once the last few fields had fallen behind and vanished in the heat haze, there was nothing to be seen but unending barrenness.

    The rhythm of her pony's slow but steady gait was hypnotic, and several times in the last few minutes Indigo had had to shake herself out of a heavy, heat-induced stupor. In an attempt to keep the weariness at bay she changed her position on her mount's back, then looked at the river flowing no more than twenty yards away beside the track. Yesterday, when the paths of road and river had first converged, she had wanted to climb down the rocky bank and bathe in the water; but Grimya's urgent warning had held her back. Unclean, the she-wolf had said. It is dead water-it will do you harm! And, looking now at

    the brown, churning rush of the current, Indigo realized how right she had been. Unnatural colors moved in the water's depths, effluvium from the vast mineral mines that lay among the volcanic mountains brooding in the distance, from whence the river flowed. Nothing could live in that polluted current: the only life that the river carried now was the human crews of the big, slow barges that brought their loads of smelted ore out of the mining region.

    One such convoy had passed them the previous day; four massive, grimy vessels roped one behind another, the leading barge guided by eight taciturn oarsmen who sculled their craft skillfully in the center of the current. They had spared no more than a single disinterested glance for the solitary rider on the road: dressed in the loose, belted robe that was the everyday garb of men, women, and children alike in these hot lands, her hair hidden under a broad-brimmed hat draped with white linen to shield her from the sun, Indigo might have been any good citizen of Agia journeying to a market, a fair, a family wedding or funeral. And the gray and shaggy creature loping in her pony's shadow was nothing more than an unusually large dog, a guardian that might accompany any wise traveler to protect her from thieves or vagabonds.

    Now, however, the river and the road were empty of all traffic, and the quiet as the day grew on was intense. No birds sang; not even a lizard moved among the rocky scree that flanked the track. Sunlight reflected dazzlingly from the river's sliding surface and Indigo turned her gaze away from the water, her eyes aching from the glare.

    We should halt soon. The heat had made Grimya too breathless to speak aloud; instead she

    resorted to the telepathic link they shared. Her mental voice intruded on the girl's sleepy mind and she realized that she had been on the verge of dozing in the saddle again. The pony is tired. And the sun is

    beginning to affect you, too.

    Indigo looked down at the she-wolf and nodded. "You're right, Grimya. I'm sorry: I'd hoped to reach the town without resting again, but it was a foolish idea." Groping behind her, she laid a hand on the comforting shape of her waterskin. "We'll find a little shade, and sit out the worst of the heat."

    Beyond that overhang there may be some trees, Grimya said. They offer better shelter than

    rocks, I am hungry. I think when I have rested I shall-and she stopped.

    "Grimya?" Indigo reined the pony in as she saw that her friend had stopped and was staring intently at the empty road ahead. "What is it? What's wrong?"

    Grimya's ears were pricked forward: she showed her teeth in an uncertain gesture. Someone

    comes. Her nostrils flared. I smell them. And I hear them. This is something I do not like!

    The girl's pulse quickened arrhythmically and she glanced quickly about her. Prudence urged her to find a hiding place, but there was nowhere among the rocks where even Grimya could be concealed, let alone a horse. Whatever approached, they must meet it.

    She looked at the wolf again and saw that her hackles had risen. Slowly, forcing herself to stay quite calm, she reached behind her and unlooped the crossbow that hung on her back, bringing it round to lie across her lap. The metal of the bolts in her quiver was almost too hot to touch, but she managed to fit one into the bow and drew back the string. The heavy click as she set the bolt was comforting, but she hoped she wouldn't have occasion to use it. So far, her journey had been peaceful; to run into trouble so close to her destination would be painfully ironic. Then, cautiously, she urged the pony on.

    She heard the newcomers, as Grimya had already done, before she saw them. The first intimation of their approach came with snatches of a peculiar, ululating chant that rose and fell in chaotic discords, as though some bizarre choir were trying to sing a song that was unfamiliar to them. Then, where the road bent abruptly to follow the river around a shallow escarpment, a thin cloud of red dust began to billow and chum in the shimmering air: and moments later the oncoming party appeared.

    There were some ten or twelve of them, men, women, and children, and Indigo's first thought was that they must be a band of traveling players, for they were dressed in an extraordinary motley of garments and they seemed to be dancing a bizarre and uncoordinated jig, jumping and skipping, arms waving wildly and supplicating to the sky. Then as they drew closer and she was able to see a little better through the dust kicked up by their prancing feet, she realized with a shock that these were no players of a kind that she had ever seen.

    Mendicants-religious-fakirs-the terms tumbled through her mind, but even as she struggled to assimilate the possibilities her eyes told her otherwise, and the sweat on her skin seemed to change into a million cold, crawling spiders of ice. Beside her she heard Grimya snarl, and the sound crystallized and dragged together the chaotic images in her brain as she stared, appalled, at the approaching group.

    The motley garments that the prancing travelers wore were nothing but a crude collection of rags-and every one of the dancers was hideously afflicted in some way. The two men at the head of the group both had skin the color of dead fish; one was utterly hairless, the other covered with running sores. Behind them came a woman whose nose appeared to have caved in and whose eyes were blank and white with cataracts; her mouth sagged open like an idiot's. Another's skin bore huge blue-gray patches, like fresh bruises, over large areas of his body; another sported limbs as distorted as the branches of an ancient blackthorn. Even the children-Indigo counted three-were not free from disfigurement; one was white-skinned and hairless like the leader, one limped with a sideways, crablike gait forced on him by the fact that one of his legs was half again as long as the other; the third seemed to have been born without eyes.

    "Eyes of the Mother, close on me!" The Southern Isles' oath caught in Indigo's throat and mingled with bile, nearly choking her as she jerked the pony's head around and dragged it to a halt. In her mind she heard Grimya's wordless cry of shock and distress, and she tried to avert her head from the sight.

    But she couldn't. An awful fascination had hold of her, and she had to look, had to see. The

    group came on, prancing toward her with a horrible inexorability that made her heart crawl under her ribs; and she saw now that as they chanted and screeched they were scourging themselves and each other with lashes whose vicious tips seemed to glow nacreously, unnatural blue-green fireflies in the dazzling sunlight.

    The pony snorted, sidestepping, and she felt a charge of fear in the muscles under its smooth coat. She snatched at the reins, striving to get the animal under control without losing hold of her crossbow, and pulled it as far off the road as the encroaching scree would allow. A sick spasm clutched at her stomach as her tumbling mind made out words amid the chanting babble; words in the singsong tongue of this land which she had learned to speak tolerably well during her stay in Agia-glory-grace-the blessed, the

    blessed- And another word, one she did not know-Charchad! Charchad!

    For a moment she thought that they might pass her by, too engrossed in their own private madness to pay heed to her. But the hope was short-lived; for even as she at last managed to calm the pony, one of the men at the head of the grotesque procession raised a hand, palm outward, and shrieked as though in triumph. Behind him his companions ground to a chaotic halt, the blind stumbling over the lame, one of the children falling, cries of confusion and chagrin replacing the ululating chant. A monstrous inner shudder racked Indigo and she hauled the reins in tightly, staring in appalled revulsion as the group's leader, the hairless man with the dead-fish skin, raised his head, looked directly at her, and grinned a wide grin that revealed a split black tongue, like a snake's, lolling over his lower lip.

    "Sister!" The deformed tongue made his speech grotesque. "Blessed art thou whose path has crossed that of the humble servants of Charchad!" The grin widened still further-impossibly, hideously further-and suddenly the man broke from the group and scuttled toward her like some huge, deformed insect. Indigo uttered an inarticulate noise and hefted the crossbow; the man stopped, bobbed his head at her, and made an obsequious bowing gesture.

    "Have faith, sister! Blessed are the faithful! Blessed are the chosen of Charchad!" Seeing that her grip on the bow didn't slacken, he backed off a pace. "We greet you and we urge you to be enlightened, fortunate sister! Will you take of our blessing?" And he unfolded his hands, revealing something that had been concealed in one palm. A piece of stone-but it glowed, like the tips of their scourges, with the same ghastly radiance that lit the northern sky when the sun relinquished its grip.

    Grimya's mind was frozen with shock; Indigo couldn't reach her, couldn't communicate. She could only pray that the wolf wouldn't panic and attack the man, for an instinct as sure as anything she had ever known told her that to do so could be more dangerous than either of them yet knew.

    "The sign, sister!" The madman feinted with the hand that held the stone-amulet, sigil, whatever it might be-then when he saw Indigo flinch he cackled. "Ah, the sign! The eternal light of Charchad! See the light, sister, and in the giving of reverence you, too, may be blessed! See, and give!"

    She could kill two, perhaps three, before the rest would be on her... but Indigo forced down the panic, knowing that such an action would be utter folly. She believed she knew what the grotesque man wanted: his words were a threat couched as a plea for alms. She had food, some coin; a gift in apparent good faith might persuade them to go their way and leave her unmolested.

    Biting back the sour taste of sickness in her throat, she nodded and reached to her saddlebag. "I... thank you-brother, for your goodness...." Her voice wasn't steady. "And I-will consider it a privilege if you will permit me to... make an offering...." Her fingers fumbled, hardly knowing what they were about; a corner of her mind registered the items on which her hand closed. A small loaf of unleavened bread, a honeycomb, one of three small coin-bags: she didn't know how much it contained and didn't care.

    "Sister, thou art thrice blessed of Charchad!" He darted forward and snatched the items from her almost before she could display them; the stench of a charnel house assailed Indigo's nostrils and she gagged as the pony stamped in fear and Grimya whimpered. The man backed away, still grinning his ghastly grin; behind him his followers stood motionless, staring at the girl on the horse. "Blessed!" the man repeated. "Blessed by the light of Charchad. The light, sister-the light!" And with a high-pitched yell he turned, flinging both arms heavenward and displaying his prizes to the rest of the group, who began to murmur, then to babble, then to chant as they had chanted before.

    "Charchad! Charchad!"

    Indigo could bear it no longer. Wise or foolish, she had to get away, and she drove her heels hard into the pony's flanks, so that the animal took off at a standing gallop with Grimya at its heels. Only when they reached the buttress where road and river turned did she slither to a halt, heart pounding suffocatingly, and look back.

    Dust roiled in her wake, and the road was obscured. But through the red cloud she could just make out the figures, thankfully no more than dim shapes now, of the human wrecks as, shuffling, hopping, chanting, they shambled on their way.

    * * * Later, neither Indigo nor Grimya could bring

    themselves to discuss the bizarre encounter. Beyond the outcrop, as Grimya had hoped, a small stand of trees straggled against the heat, and there they stopped and took shelter until the sun began to decline. Conversation between them was conspicuous by its absence; Indigo couldn't banish the afterimages of the group of religious cultists from her mind, and in particular that of the white-skinned madman with the split black tongue. The memory made the water she drank taste foul in her throat, and Grimya, despite her earlier claims to hunger, had lost her urge to hunt and simply sprawled on the hot ground, ears drooping and eyes glinting redly, as though she looked into another world and did not like what she saw.

    Now and again as they rested Indigo drew the lode-stone from its pouch and studied it afresh. The tiny golden eye buried within it was quieter now than it had been for some days, only moving, when she turned the stone, to point northward. The mountains beyond the town ahead were now hidden by the trees' dusty, leathery foliage, but she was nonetheless aware of their pervasive presence on the horizon-and of the strange, cold glow that, when night fell again, would tint the sky with its dangerous phosphorescence.

    And she couldn't rid herself of the feeling that the talisman carried by the fork-tongued madman on the road shared a common source with that unearthly light.

    Time passed; the moment came when shadows began perceptibly to lengthen, and Indigo got to her feet and slung the blanket over the pony's back once more. Grimya stirred from a doze, licked her chops, rose, and shook herself.

    I slept. There was no satisfaction in her statement, an underlying implication that she would have preferred to stay wakeful. Did you?

    "No." Indigo shook her head.

    The she-wolf blinked. Perhaps that's just as well.

    It was the only reference, however oblique, that either of them made to the earlier encounter before they set off on the road once more. And an hour later, as the sun began to slip down the brassy sky, they reached the first outposts of the mining town of Vesinum.

    Indigo reined the pony in and turned her head so that her hat brim masked the westering sun. From a distance the town appeared to consist of little more than a ramshackle collection of low buildings scattered at random and bisected by the dusty road; beyond these sprawling outskirts, however, she could make out the more substantial outlines of warehouses flanking the river, although detail was obscured by a haze as dust mingled with the lowering shafts of light. Sounds that were too distant to identify drifted faintly to her ears; she looked down at Grimya, who sat at the pony's side gazing at the scene ahead with interest.

    "Our journey's end." She felt less relief than she might have done earlier in the day. "We'll find accommodation for the night, then see what's to be done in the morning."

    Grimya's jaws opened in a cavernous grin. 1 will be glad of the chance to rest properly, she

    communicated. Can we go on now?

    Indigo clicked her tongue, and the pony started forward again. She was so intent on watching the town ahead that she failed to notice the small wooden structure by the side of the road until they were almost upon it; when finally it registered at the periphery of her vision, she jerked on the reins so abruptly that her mount snorted a protest.

    "In-digo?" Startled by her friend's untoward action, Grimya gave voice to a guttural growl. "Wh-

at is w-wrong?"

    Indigo didn't answer her. She was staring at the splintered and broken pieces of what had once been a little, roofed platform, standing on a wooden pole between the road and the river. To anyone unfamiliar with the religious practices of this region, its purpose would have been a mystery; but, despite the fact that it had been smashed almost to match wood, she knew what it was-or rather what it had been. And a scrap of torn red fabric protruding from between two broken spars confirmed it.

    "Indigo?" Grimya said again. "What-"

    "It's a shrine." Indigo's mouth was suddenly very dry. "To Ranaya. You remember, the festival we attended in the city? Ranaya is the name these people give to the Earth Mother...."

    Understanding dawned, and Grimya stared at the ruined structure. "But..." Her tongue lapped uneasily at her own muzzle. "It is br-oken. S-soiled: I-do not know the right word-"

    "Desecrated." And a name, Charchad, echoed afresh in Indigo's memory. Quickly she looked

    over her shoulder, as though expecting to see the group of crazed and deformed celebrants dancing down the road toward them once more.

    Grimya's eyes were orange with an anger that she couldn't articulate. "Why?" she snarled.

    "I don't know. But it's a bad augury, Grimya." Indigo touched the lodestone with a light finger and shivered inwardly. "If these people have abandoned worship of the Earth Mother, then who knows what kind of power must be abroad?"

    "How c-can any... one turn away from the Earth?" A sad confusion crept into Grimya's tone now. "The Earth is l... l... life.'" She licked her chops again, uneasily. "I d-do not understand humans. I th... ink I never shall."

    Indigo began to dismount. "I must make some reparation," she said harshly. "I can't leave a holy place defiled like this-"

    "What is the use?"

    "What?" She paused.

    The wolf shook her head in distress. "I said, wh-at is the use, Indigo? Done is done. You c...

    cannot change it." And abruptly her inner thoughts focused clearly in the girl's mind. Do you think that by

    saying words, or scattering salt or water or gold coins, that you will make it right again? That may ease your conscience, but it will achieve nothing else. The sickness that made this happen needs much greater healing.

    Indigo met her friend's eyes for a moment, then cast her gaze down. "You shame me, Grimya."

    I do not mean to. I only tell you what I think is the truth.

    "And you're right." She looked again at the desecrated shrine, realized there was nothing more she could say. "Come." She turned the pony's head about. "We'd best be on our way."

    As they left the small, sad ruin behind, she did not look back.

    •CHAPTER•II•

    It seemed that Vesinum did little to live up to its reputation and position as a center of prosperous activity. Passing through the first ugly sprawl, they had come upon the docks, where great stone jetties jutted out into the slick flow of the river and warehouses built without a moment's aesthetic thought rose to challenge the hot sky. Here, though there was enough noise and bustle to satisfy the hardest taskmaster. Indigo sensed a subdued air. Men hurried about their business with heads down and shoulders hunched, averting their eyes from any unnecessary contact with their fellows'; foremen shouted orders in clipped, terse voices; and there was no sign of the idlers, gawpers, hucksters, and dockside whores who almost always haunted any busy water thoroughfare.

    Disturbed by the atmosphere, Indigo turned aside and rode into the town's center. The buildings here were easier on the eye; merchants' houses jostled for position in the wide streets with inns, small storehouses, slate-roofed arcades where sellers of food and clothing and saddlery and utensils displayed their wares on woven mats. But the prevailing mood was the same. An uneasiness, an uncertainty, a

    sense that neighbor mistrusted neighbor. No children played in the streets, no laughter rang in the arcades, and no one showed any trace of what would have been natural curiosity toward a stranger in their midst. It was as if-though Indigo couldn't define what prompted her to choose such a word-the whole town was afraid.

    She halted the pony at the edge of a broad square dominated by a bizarre central sculpture made of many different metals. On the far side, a hostelry-only the second she had seen-declared itself as the House of Copper and Iron. It was low-built in the severe, angular style of the region, its facade broken by a series of arches edged with a neglected mosaic but otherwise undecorated. Indigo slid from the pony's back, flexing stiff leg muscles, and looked at Grimya.

    It will do as well as anything else here, I suspect, She projected her thought rather than

    speaking aloud; despite their seeming indifference, the townspeople might not react kindly to a stranger apparently talking to herself.

    Grimya's tail was between her legs; she whined softly. I don't like this place.

    No more do I. But we've been led here for a reason, Grimya. She touched the thong at her

    neck, feeling the familiar mingling of reassurance and resentment that the lodestone always provoked in her. We can't turn back now.

    Grimya sniffed the atmosphere cautiously. The air smells of bad things.

    It's the mining; the dust is-No, the she-wolf interrupted emphatically. Not that. I know such scents,

    and though I don't like them, I have learned to accept them. This is something else. Something... Briefly she struggled to find the right word, then added with emphasis: Corrupt.

    Corrupt. Indigo's unease abruptly crystallized and she realized that Grimya's interpretation of their shared feeling was all too apt. The town's subdued atmosphere, the pervading sense of fear, the desecrated shrine, the mad celebrants on the road... something was very wrong in Vesinum.

    She laid a hand on the she-wolf's head, hoping to reassure by her touch. "Come on. We'll eat and we'll rest, then we'll see what more we can learn."

    They started toward the House of Copper and Iron and were halfway across the square when they were startled by a chiming sound, as though a dozen tiny bells were striking discordantly together. Grimya's hackles rose, and Indigo realized that the noise came from the bizarre sculpture in the center of the square. On the sculpture's north face two brass weights moved slowly, one upward, the other downward, on hanging chains, while at its crown a series of small, metallic disks had begun slowly to spin. Ranks of tiny hammers on short levers were striking the disks as they turned, and the thin, erratic sound of their chiming echoed across the square.

    What is it? Grimya backed away from the sculpture, teeth bared, and Indigo laughed.

    "It's some kind of timepiece." Relief colored her voice after the momentary shock; the whole structure, she could see now, was an intricate clockwork mechanism, the work of a skilled and inventive craftsman. "It can't harm you, Grimya. It's nothing more than a plaything."

    The she-wolf was unconvinced. Play is running, or chasing leaves in autumn, or pretending to

    fight. What games are to be had from such a thing as that?

    Gently amused by her friend's simplicity, Indigo opened her mouth to explain as best she could, but paused as she heard the sounds of many shuffling footsteps. She turned, and was in time to see a group of men emerge into the square and hasten toward a street that led northward out of the town. From their shabby clothes and underfed faces she surmised that they must be miners, doubtless on their way to a shift in the mountains. And with a cold inner shock she realized that almost every one of them bore some sign of disease or deformity. Their afflictions weren't of the hideous order sported by the Charchad celebrants, but the signs were clear enough nonetheless: falling hair, filmy eyes, skin disfigurements that looked like huge, ugly birthmarks but weren't. And the timepiece, like some cold metal overseer, had summoned them.

    Involuntarily she backed away as the miners shambled across the square, passing no more than a few feet from them. Not one man raised his eyes to look at them, and they stared silently after the departing group.

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