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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