Rabbit had gone on ahead, and his expression when he rejoined them was a bit awed.
"What's wrong?" Longbow asked his little friend.
"You're not going to believe just how big the chamber at the end of this tunnel is, Longbow," Rabbit said. "I couldn't even see the far wall."
"Is there light there?" Keselo asked.
"If you want to call it that," Rabbit replied. "There are quite a few of those fire-bugs mixed in with the ordinary ones. They don't really put out very much light, but it's not pitch-black in there."
"Did you see the Vlagh herself?" Longbow asked.
Rabbit shook his head. "The bug-people are all looking at something that looks a lot like a large clump of spiderwebs that's hanging down from the ceiling."
"That would be a cocoon," Keselo said. "Certain bugs wrap themselves in webbing when they're changing their form—or when they're giving birth to a new generation of puppies—or whatever you call baby-bugs."
Longbow's face went cold and bleak. "That would most likely be the Vlagh herself, wouldn't it?" he asked Omago.
"Definitely," Omago agreed. Then he decided that it was time to clear something up. "Don't start reaching for your bow or your arrows, friend Longbow. I have other plans for the Vlagh."
"Once you hear what I have in mind, I'm sure that you'll approve."
"Surprise me," Longbow said.
Omago shrugged. "The Vlagh will live forever, and I'll see to it that she'll suffer every moment of that eternal time."
"I'll listen," Longbow promised.
The "Care for the little ones" buzz was repeated over and over, even though the cocoon was still intact, and Omago was quite sure that "the keepers" knew what they were supposed to do. It took him a while to blot out the buzz-sound, and once it was no longer audible, he reached out and began to duplicate that sound with a completely different message. "You are the best of all who serve me," he buzzed to the care-givers. "Let others attend to this new hatch, for you have much more important duties. Go forth from our eternal nest and prepare to defend it from the man-things who even now approach across the land that produces no food. The fate of this nest depends entirely upon you."
"How did you do that?" Rabbit whispered to Omago as virtually all of the bug-people rushed into the passageway that led to the outside of the peak.
"I think the most significant term would be 'cheating,' my little friend. I duplicated that buzzing noise and ordered nearly every bug in this vast chamber to run outside and hold back an imaginary invasion."
"Aren't they supposed to take care of the puppies?" Rabbit demanded.
"They were, yes. But the 'overmind' just gave them new orders." Omago looked around the vast chamber that had been filled with bug-people until he'd issued his counterfeit command. "There aren't very many of the Vlagh's servants left in here, are there?" he observed.
And then he broke out laughing.
THE VISIT OF SORGAN HOOK-BEAK
Commander Narasan of Kaldacin was more than a little disturbed by the sudden disappearance of the enemy army. Not even the recent blizzard had driven the bug-people back, and they'd continued their mindless charges up the slope toward Gunda's fort despite the steady rain of arrows and fire missiles and the savage attacks by Prince Ekial's horse-soldiers. But now, for no reason Narasan could determine, the bug-people had ceased their attacks, and for all anybody in Gunda's fort could tell, they'd abandoned the slope and gone back out into the barren Wasteland.
To make things even worse for Narasan, Queen Trenicia of the Isle of Akalla was nowhere to be found in the fort, and her absence troubled Narasan more than he'd care to admit, even to himself. Trenicia was boisterous, sometimes arrogant, and prone to take terrible chances when they weren't necessary, but Narasan felt a dreadful isolation when she wasn't around. She'd irritated him many times during the war in Lord Dahlaine's domain in the north of the Land of Dhrall, and it was fairly obvious that she intended to continue that here in Long-Pass. "If she'd just tell me where she was going," he muttered to himself as he stood on the high front wall of Gunda's fort looking down the snow-covered slope toward the Wasteland. "I'm not going to order her around, but I need to know where she is."
"Ah, there you are," Narasan's friend, Sub-Commander Padan, said, joining Narasan on top of the wall. "Are there any signs at all of the bug-people on that slope?"
"Nothing at all," Narasan replied. "I suppose it's possible that they've gone back to burrowing."
"That would take them years, Narasan," Padan scoffed. "I came up here to advise you that we've got company coming up Long-Pass."
"Our dear old friend, Sorgan Hook-Beak. A runner just came up the pass to warn you that he's on his way up here to scold you about something. The runner told me that Sorgan's very discontented about something."
"Now what?" Narasan grumbled.
"I haven't got a clue, glorious leader," Padan replied.
"Do you always have to do that, Padan?" Narasan complained.
"Every now and then, yes. Shall we go down and greet him and see what he has to say? Or would you rather find someplace to hide?"
Narasan's friend, the burly Sorgan Hook-Beak, reached the rear gate of Gunda's fort about a half hour later, and he had his shaggy Matan bison-robe pulled tightly around him. "Is there some kind of emergency up here, friend Narasan?" he demanded.
"Our enemies aren't charging up the slope to the west of Gunda's fort," Narasan replied. "I wouldn't call that an emergency, though. Let's get in out of the cold, and then you can tell me about your problem."
"It is a bit crisp up here," Sorgan agreed. "Lead the way, my friend. I'll be happy to follow."
At Padan's suggestion they went through a long corridor that led to the kitchen of Ara, the mate of the farmer Omago. It was the warmest place in the whole fort, and Sorgan, after his long hike up the pass, was probably hungry.
"We don't want to intrude, Ara," Narasan said, "but Captain Hook-Beak here has been out in the cold for several days, and I'd imagine that something to eat might make his belly very happy."
"It doesn't disturb me at all, Narasan," the beautiful Ara said. "Warm him up a bit, and I'll give him a lunch."
"That won't hurt my feelings one little bit, ma'am," Sorgan said, pulling off his bison-hide cloak. "Your mate has probably been away for several days now," he added. "That's why I came up here to talk with friend Narasan here." Then he looked at Narasan. "That's why I asked you if there was some kind of emergency up here. Omago came down to temple-town looking for Rabbit. I guess they talked for a little while, and now we can't locate either one of them. It's almost like they just disappeared."