"It sort of sounds like I should have borrowed one of those iron breastplates from Narasan before I even came down here," Sorgan muttered.

Chapter Two

After a bit of thought, Hook-Beak spoke briefly with his first and second mates, Ox and Ham-Hand, and after that, the two big Maags followed their captain wherever he went in Aracia's temple. Ox was carrying his huge battle-axe, and any time Hook-Beak spoke with one of Aracia's overfed priests, the hulking Maag touched up the already razor-sharp axe-blade with a hefty whetstone that made a shrill sound as Ox drew it across the axe-blade.

The priests of Aracia got the point almost immediately.

Veltan, who had frequently demonstrated his ability to listen without being seen, advised Sorgan that the priests of Aracia had stumbled over a truth in their desperate search for some way to loosen Sorgan's grasp on Aracia. They had taken to denouncing Hook-Beak and his men as opportunistic swindlers. "They keep telling each other that there's no such thing as a bug-man, Sorgan," Veltan reported. "They're claiming that you and your men are waving 'bug-men' around as a way to leech more and more gold out of Aracia."

"That's ridiculous, Veltan," Sorgan protested. "I know for a fact that Lady Aracia has actually seen the bug-people. I was standing right beside her down in your Domain when the bug-people and the Trogite priests were busy killing each other."

"I know," Veltan replied. "I think big sister has been keeping that to herself. The last thing she wants here is to have all of her priests come down with panic. If they run away, she'll be all alone here."

"We're going to have to do something about this, Veltan," Sorgan said. "The priests are obviously scraping this off the wall, but it looks to me like they've accidentally stumbled over the truth. Bug-people are real, but they aren't coming through this part of Aracia's country." Then he looked speculatively at Veltan. "Maybe it's time for you to start making people believe that they're seeing something that's not really there, can't you?" he asked.

"If it's absolutely necessary," Veltan replied. "I don't want to do it too soon, though. She can sense things like that if I leave the illusions in place for too long."

"I think a few brief glimpses might serve our purpose, Veltan. We want to confirm Aracia's belief that the bug-men are invading this part of her Domain, and to persuade the priests that I'm not lying and that Aracia knows that I'm not. I think I'll go have a little talk with Torl and Rabbit. If they come running out of that farmland off to the west and there are images of several huge bugs right behind them, Aracia will probably go into hiding and this scheme the priests came up with will fall apart right then and there, wouldn't you say?"

"I think it's worth a try, Sorgan," Veltan agreed. "I've briefly touched Aracia's mind a few times since we arrived, and she's absolutely convinced that the Vlagh is out to get her personally. She's sure that the Vlagh wants to kill her, and she's terrified."

"She can't actually die, can she? I mean she's immortal, isn't she?"

"Yes, she is, but she's drifting toward senility, so she's not sure of anything anymore. This has happened several times before. All of us get a little vague when we're approaching the end of one of our cycles, but Aracia tends to take it to extremes."

"I had a talk with Torl and Rabbit last night," Sorgan said the next morning in the cabin of the Ascension. "Now they know about Veltan's illusions, and they'll make some show of fighting them off. The only problem we might have is that Aracia has to see this imitation skirmish, and she almost never comes out of that silly throne room of hers."

"We've got some time to play with, Sorgan," Padan said. "You might want to have your men get started on the fort. Then, when its base is in place, you could invite holy Aracia to come out and have a look." Padan scratched his bearded cheek. "I suppose that technically you'll need her permission to continue, so a visit would be very appropriate. If Veltan and your scouts know when she'll be there, they'll be able to put on a show for her that'll send her running for cover—and, after that, she'll dismiss any priest who tries to tell her that you're a swindler." Then he laughed as he remembered something that had happened in Kaldacin several years ago.

"What's so funny?" Sorgan asked.

"The Church of Amar down in the Empire has a fair number of dungeons scattered about. When a priest blunders and insults one of his superiors, they lock him in a hole in the ground and throw away the key. I'd imagine that Bersla would lose quite a bit of weight if Aracia had him locked up in a dungeon where all he had to eat would be bread and water."

Sorgan frowned slightly. "I wonder if we could get away with that," he murmured.

The Maags were busy knocking down walls that afternoon. Padan saw that they were very good at destroying things. Building, however, might cause them a few problems.

A young priest came scurrying out of the central temple with a look of horror on his face. "What are you doing?" he screamed.

"We need a fort to hold off the bug-people," Sorgan replied. "When we saw that nobody lives here in this part of the temple, we decided to modify it just a bit. There are quite a few similarities between forts and temples. Did you ever notice that? Anyway, things are going along fairly well. Give us a week or so, and the invasion of the bugs will stop right here." Then he looked rather speculatively at the young priest. "He looks pretty husky to me, Padan. If Lady Aracia wants this fort in place to defend her temple, she might just order all of her priests to come here and lend us a hand. The exercise would probably be good for them, wouldn't you say?"

"I'm sure it would," Padan agreed. "If we were to sweat some of the fat off them, they'd probably live longer." He looked at the now-horrified young priest. "If you were to step in and lend us a hand with our fort here, you might even live past your thirtieth birthday. And if you were to really bear down, you might even live to be forty. Look at all the extra life you'll get out of a few weeks of hard work."

The young priest turned and fled at that point.

Sorgan laughed. "I think that might eliminate any further objections," he said. "The notion of doing real work doesn't seem to sit very well with Aracia's priesthood."

"What an amazing thing," Padan agreed.

Their imitation fort was coming along quite well now that Sorgan had leaned on his men and ordered them to follow Padan's instructions. They had what looked like a solid base about ten feet tall running along the west side of Aracia's temple.