"I'd say that we're about as ready to meet the invaders as we'll ever be, then."

"They won't get past us," Ekial agreed. "We might have to sit up there for a few months, but eventually that thing called the Vlagh will run out of soldiers, and that's what this is all about, wouldn't you say?"

"Sorgan seems to think that your sister's coming to her senses," Keselo told Lady Zelana and Lord Dahlaine on the evening of the day when he and Ekial had reached the top of Long-Pass. "She's begun to realize just how totally worthless her priests really are. Their so-called 'adoration' is nothing but a ruse to make their own lives easier, and their contempt for the common people really angered her. Sorgan's clever mock invasion seems to have brought her face-to-face with reality, and she came down very hard on those who had elevated themselves to the priesthood. She ordered them to go to work helping Sorgan's men build fortifications." Keselo grinned then. "Quite a few of her priests refused, but after Sorgan had them flogged with whips, the refusals stopped. A good number of priests decided to run away along about then, but absurd though it might seem, that huge temple only has one door, and Sorgan put a hundred or so of his men at that door, so nobody's leaving. Like it or not, Aracia's priesthood will do honest work for a while."

Lord Dahlaine laughed. "That, all by itself, makes these attempted invasions by the servants of the Vlagh worth more than anything else that's happened in the last four or five centuries."

Then Commander Narasan and Ekial came down from Gunda's fort at the head of the pass. "It looks like we've got company coming," Commander Narasan reported. "The Wasteland off to the west isn't empty anymore."

"How many would you say there are?" Lord Dahlaine asked.

"I wouldn't even want to try to make a guess, My Lord," the commander replied. "They seem to stretch from horizon to horizon as far off to the west as I can see."


Chapter One

Torl had been greatly impressed by Veltan's imaginary bug-men. The images had looked so real that several of the Maags standing on top of the berm had turned and fled when the images had briefly appeared.

Of course that had added a sense of reality to the incident, and Lady Zelana's sister now totally believed everything cousin Sorgan told her. Just hearing the word "invasion" was one thing but actually seeing what had appeared to be real, live bugs was something entirely different. That single incident had turned Lady Aracia into a true believer.

That was definitely causing some problems for her priests. Lady Aracia's priests had scoffed at the notion that the bug-people were anything but a hoax cousin Sorgan had come up with as a way to get his hands on all the gold in the temple. But now the priests had been sent to the rudimentary south wall of the temple, where several bulky, bad-tempered Maags worked the poor fat priests as hard as they could for ten or twelve hours a day on a diet of nothing but beans. That generated a lot of sniveling, which amused Torl no end.

"Just keep an eye on them, Torl," Sorgan instructed. "I don't think they'll try anything violent. Priests aren't notorious for that sort of behavior, but desperate people do desperate things every so often."

"I'll watch them, cousin," Torl promised. "It'll probably bore me to tears, but not as much as building this imitation fort does."

"It's not that bad a fort, is it?" Sorgan objected.

"Watch out for mice, Sorgan," Torl advised. "If a mouse happened to bump your fort with his shoulder, the whole thing might tumble down around your ears."

"Very funny, Torl. Go watch those fat priests, but stay out of sight. You're supposed to be fighting off the invasion of the bug-people. Let's not stir up any suspicions in Lady Aracia."

"It shall be as thou hast commanded, mighty leader."

"Do you really have to do that, Torl?" Sorgan asked.

"It's good for you, cousin," Torl replied. "I'll go watch those fat priests get skinny, and I'll keep you advised."

"Do that." Then cousin Sorgan went back to his imitation fort.

Torl had been exploring the somewhat makeshift temple Lady Aracia's priests (or their younger relatives) had been building (badly) for the last several centuries. As Torl had reported to Sorgan, most of the temple consisted of empty rooms and wandering corridors that didn't really go anyplace. Torl was fairly certain that Lady Aracia believed with all her heart that there were thousands of priests living here so that they could adore her in groups. As closely as Torl had been able to verify, however, there were probably no more than a couple hundred of them. The "thousands and thousands of priests" hoax obliged the ordinary farmers of Lady Aracia's Domain to deliver enormous amounts of food to the temple. Her brave priests sacrificed themselves by eating at least ten times more food than was really good for them.

As Torl moved through the empty temple, he wondered just who had done all this meaningless construction. It occurred to him that in all probability assorted relatives of the established priests had realized that the life of a priest of Aracia was a life of luxury unmarred by honest work, but their relatives of high rank had most likely put a price on the aspirations of their younger relatives, and the price was most likely six or seven rooms or a hundred feet of corridor. Quite probably, Fat Bersla escorted Lady Aracia on periodic tours of these empty corridors and vacant rooms to show her how her temple was expanding. He assumed there was a lot of scrambling around by lesser priests to make all this empty space appear to be occupied. When he got right down to it, Torl viewed the whole thing as pathetic—and Aracia herself was probably the most pathetic.

Then, from some distance off, he heard some people talking. Torl recognized the voices of Fat Bersla and the tiny priestess Alcevan. Torl moved quietly along the corridor to see if he could get close enough to hear what they were saying. Whatever it was that they were discussing didn't seem to be making them happy.

Fat Bersla was speaking in a whining kind of voice that definitely set Tori's teeth on edge. "I have spent most of my life praising that simple-minded woman, and I'd finally reached the point where she was almost totally under my control. Then that pirate came out of nowhere with his absurd story and snatched her out of my grasp. Now she'll do almost anything he tells her to do without even consulting me."

"We have a matter of greater concern, Takal Bersla." The strange-sounding voice of priestess Alcevan cut in to Bersla's sniveling. "If there's any truth to the legends of this land, ancient Aracia is right on the verge of drifting off to sleep."