“I’d pay very close attention to what Rabbit just said, Tlantar,” Longbow advised. “Eleria always gets what she wants. Anyway, she saw immediately that I wanted to kill as many of the servants of the Vlagh as I possibly could, and she suggested that the Maags could probably kill more than I could, even if I lived for a thousand years. Then she went on to tell me that we might even be able to kill the Vlagh, and that’s all it took to persuade me to go along.”
“Who’s this Vlagh that everybody keeps talking about?” Tlantar asked.
Longbow looked a bit startled. “Hasn’t Dahlaine ever told you about her?” he asked.
“Not in any great detail,” Tlantar replied. “He mentions the name every now and then, and I sort of get the impression that he’s talking about the chief of the Wasteland, but that’s about as far as he’s ever gone.”
“That seems to crop up every now and then, doesn’t it, Longbow?” Rabbit said.
Longbow muttered something under his breath and then looked inquiringly at Tlantar. “How much do you know about bees—or ants?” he asked.
“Not really very much,” Tlantar replied. “I’ve heard that honey tastes good, but I’ve never tried it.”
“I think you’ve got a long way to go, Longbow,” Rabbit observed.
“Possibly so,” Longbow agreed. “All right, then, Tlantar. You’re familiar with bison, so you know about herd animals. In a certain sense, you might say that bees—and ants—are herd insects. Animals think for themselves to some degree, but in a herd of insects, the queen does all the thinking.”
“The bee—or ant—that lays eggs. She’s the mother of all the others, and they’ll do anything she tells them to do—even if it is impossible. They only live for about six weeks or so, but the queen—or mother—constantly replaces them. Even if we kill a million of them, there’ll be another million coming toward us in about a week or so. The only way we’ll ever win this war will be to hunt down the Vlagh—the mother of all the creatures—and kill her. In most ways, the Vlagh is just another variety of insect, but she experiments, and that makes her unique—and extremely dangerous. When she sees a characteristic that might be useful, she duplicates it. That’s why we keep coming up against insects that look like people—or turtles, or spiders, or, for all I know, like bears or wolves.”
“What’s she after?” Tlantar asked. “I mean, what does she want that’s making her come out of the Wasteland to attack us?”
“She wants the land, Two-Hands—all of it in the entire Land of Dhrall. If she has more land, her servants can grow more food, and if there’s more to eat, she’ll be able to lay more eggs. If she succeeds, it won’t be long until the entire Land of Dhrall will be crawling with her children. Then she’ll move on to other parts of the world and take them as well. If she gets what she wants, it won’t be long before she’ll have the whole world.”
“What will she do with the people?”
“Eat them, probably,” Longbow replied with a shrug.
“We were closer, I think, than any other pair in the village,” Tlantar told them in a sorrowful voice. “Tleri wasn’t at all like the other women of our village. She did her own hunting, and that’s most unusual here in Dahlaine’s part of the Land of Dhrall. She hunted very well, and she cooked food even better. Then she died in childbirth, and I was alone again. The village elders told me that I should find a new mate, but I refused. Tleri had been my true mate, and I won’t offend her spirit by joining with some other woman. That part of my life died with her, so I’ll go on alone from now on.”
“I think that you and I will be friends, Tlantar,” Longbow said with a grave look on his face. “I’ve been gathering friends quite often lately, for some reason. Being alone is nice enough, I suppose, but you don’t have anybody to talk with when you’re alone.”
“You know, I’ve noticed that myself on occasion,” Tlantar replied. “Isn’t it odd that we’ve both made this peculiar discovery?” Then he looked at the little Maag called Rabbit. “Him too?” he asked Longbow.
“We might as well,” Longbow agreed. “He can be very useful every now and then, and he can be very funny when you need to laugh.”
Tlantar didn’t entirely understand the astonishment of Dahlaine when Zelana returned and told him that the children called the Dreamers shared their Dreams with each other. If the children could see the future, they could almost certainly do many other impossible things as well.
Keselo the scholar seemed very disturbed by the reference to “a plague that is not a plague” that had come up in the children’s recitation of the most recent Dream. “Are plagues really all that common in this part of the world?” he asked Tlantar when they’d all gathered in Dahlaine’s map-chamber the following day.
“I’ve heard a few things about this new disease,” Tlantar replied. “We have quite a few diseases roaming around here in Dahlaine’s part of the world. Most of them are probably the same all over the world, and they’re the diseases that children catch all the time. I came down with several of those when I was a child, and I’m still breathing. A runner came down here from north Matakan before you and your friends left Tonthakan, and from what he said, I’d say that the people up there are terrified by this ailment—so terrified that they won’t let anybody, sick or well, get to within a hundred paces of them. I guess the thing that disturbs them the most is how fast this disease kills people. He told me that a man can be alive and well at breakfast time and stone cold dead when it’s time for lunch.”
“That can’t be true, Chief Two-Hands,” Keselo objected. “No disease moves that fast.”
“You could go on up north and tell the dead that they aren’t really dead, I suppose. I don’t think they’ll listen to you, though.”
“Since the little girl’s Dream mentioned this disease, wouldn’t that 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.”
“I think I’d better send some men up there to see if they can get some more details,” Tlantar said then. “We’ll need more information about this disease.”