“That can’t be true,” Keselo objected. “No disease is that fast.”

“You could go on up north and tell the dead that they aren’t really dead,” Tlantar Two-Hands said with a shrug. “I don’t think they’ll listen to you, though. A man who’s busy being dead doesn’t usually have time to listen.”

“Since the little girl’s Dream mentioned this disease, wouldn’t that sort of suggest that the bug-people are behind it?” Rabbit said. “If one of the Dreamers warns us about something, it usually has something to do with a scheme of the bug-people—or a warning about some kind of bad weather.”

“That might be worth some examination,” Keselo agreed.

“Is this invasion—or incursion—into Matakan by the Atazaks likely to cause any serious problems, Dahlaine?” Veltan asked.

Dahlaine laughed. “Not for our people, it won’t,” he replied. “The ‘army’ of Atazakan is composed of ‘the Guardians of Divinity,’ the bodyguards of crazy Azakan. They’re the ones who threaten the ordinary people if they don’t cheer loud enough when the madman tells the sun to set. I’d say that most of them aren’t very sure which end of a spear is which. The Matans will probably obliterate them in about half a day. If this incursion is another halfwit scheme by the creatures of the Wasteland to divert our forces in the same way the ‘clickers’ tried to stir up trouble in Tonthakan, it won’t work in Matan either.”

“Maybe that army of incompetents isn’t intended to cause any real trouble, Dahlaine,” Veltan suggested. “Isn’t it possible that their only purpose is to pull a part of our defensive force off to the north, so that they’ll be exposed to this ‘plague’? I’m leaning in the direction of a poison, myself. There are all sorts of plants—and mushrooms as well—out there in the Wasteland, you know. If the servants of the Vlagh have been slipping into the camps of the Matans at night, isn’t it possible that they’ve been mixing poisons of one kind or another into the food the Matans will be eating for breakfast? They probably wouldn’t have enough time to poison all of the food, but they could poison enough to make the Dreamers pass along this warning, wouldn’t you say?”

“You could be right, Veltan,” Dahlaine conceded. “And the poison from plants isn’t nearly as deadly as the spores from certain mushrooms. If the wind’s coming from the right direction, they could throw clouds of those spores up into the air and everybody who’s downwind would breathe in enough of those spores to kill them—eventually. Breathing in mushroom spores wouldn’t be quite as deadly as eating them would be, and it’d probably take a man about a half a day to get sick enough to die.”

“If they are using mushroom spores to cause this pestilence, they wouldn’t even have to sneak around at night poisoning the food, would they?” Veltan suggested. “People absolutely must breathe, and as long as the wind’s blowing in the right direction, the bug-people should be able to foist this ‘pestilence’ off on the Matans, and we’d probably have to divert a sizeable portion of our armies up there to ward off the crazy man’s invasion.”

“Excuse me,” Omago said, “but I think I know of a way to deal with that. Down in our part of the Land of Dhrall, we use smoke to drive ordinary bugs away from our fields. There’s a greasy little tree that puts out a heavy cloud of smoke when we set fire to it, and the bugs can’t stand that smoke; the only problem is that we choke on that smoke as well. We’ve found that tying a thick wet cloth over our faces gives us a certain amount of protection—particularly if we stay upwind from the burning tree.”

Veltan’s eyes brightened. “I think that ‘upwind’ might be our answer, Dahlaine. We can control the wind to some degree if we need to. A nice friendly little wind would blow those mushroom spores right back into the faces of those bug-people and into the teeth of those ‘Guardians of Divinity.’ I’d say that the crazy man’s invasion will fall apart right there, and the bug-people will provide the weapon that we’ll need.”

Omago was standing on the balcony of Dahlaine’s “war-chamber” carefully memorizing the details of the mountainous terrain at the mouth of Crystal Gorge.

Dahlaine was talking with Sorgan Hook-Beak not far away. “These local problems shouldn’t interfere with your activities, Captain,” he said. “I’m quite sure that the local people will be able to eliminate the crazy man’s army and the bug-people who tricked him. Your job will be to lay that base for Narasan’s fort so that it’ll be ready when his people get here.”

Sorgan nodded. “We know what needs to be done, Lord Dahlaine. Can you give me any kind of a guess about how long it’s likely to take Narasan to get here?”

Dahlaine scratched his cheek. “I’d say that it’ll probably take about seven days for his fleet to sail up the east coast to the southern part of my Domain. It’s a fair distance from that coast to Mount Shrak here, so it’s probably going to take eighteen or twenty days. That comes out to be about four weeks altogether.”

“That’s a bit longer than I’d hoped,” Sorgan said. “Once we’ve got the base for his fort completed, I think we should put up some temporary defenses—logs and other things. We’ve got plenty of archers to help us hold back the snake-men, and the horse-soldiers should be able to clear away any sneakers who try to slip around us. I’d say that we’ll be able to hold the enemy off until Narasan and his men get here.”

Dahlaine nodded. “We’ll see,” he said.

THE TEMPLE

1

Behold! I am Divine Azakan, and I dwell now and forever in Holy Palandor, the most glorious city in all the world. Much have I heard in myth and legend of “The Dreamers,” which will one day rule all the world, but I tell ye, one and all, that I am the only Dreamer, for it hath come to me in a Dream that I am not only the emperor of Holy Atazakan, but I am also god of all the Land of Dhrall, as was foretold in ages past.

And know full well, all ye who would bow down before me, that I will reward they who worship me, but great will be my punishment for those who do not.

And I have gathered about me many who will guard and protect me, and they will be the ones who will carry out my will, for weary am I in that my responsibilities do weigh upon me most heavily in that only I can command the sun and the moon and the stars to march across my heavens as they must, for in the day that I fail to perform my most burdensome task shall chaos conquer all, and my glorious universe shall be no more.

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