"He's blotted out the sound of her voice. She'll try to give her children orders, but they won't be able to hear her. Omago has usurped her voice, so now her children are obeying him instead of her. The Vlagh just recently laid a million or so eggs. When the eggs hatched, Vlagh's children went to the 'caregivers,' who are supposed to care for each new hatch. Since Omago had blotted out the Vlagh's orders to the 'care-givers,' they didn't recognize the baby bugs, so they ate them."
Sorgan suddenly gagged. "They're eating their own children?" he exclaimed.
"They don't know that the new hatch comes from the Vlagh herself," Ara replied. "To them, the new hatch is nothing but small caterpillars. Omago advised me that the Vlagh started screaming when the 'care-givers' ate every single puppy she had created. Omago's certain that she'll scream for a long, long time."
"How long?" Narasan demanded.
"Omago used the word 'forever' when he explained it to Longbow. You might not want to accept this, but Longbow put his arrows away after Omago told him 'forever.' He had obviously planned to kill the Vlagh, but when my mate told him that the Vlagh would scream out her grief for millions of years, that would be much, much more satisfactory than shooting her full of arrows could ever be."
"If there aren't going to be any more hatches, the bug-people will probably die out before long, won't they?" Sorgan asked.
"Define 'before long,' Hook-Beak," Ara replied.
"I don't know," Sorgan admitted. "A year or so at the most, I'd say."
"No bug has ever lived that long," Ara said. "Four to six weeks is about as far as they can go. The Vlagh will still be there, but she'll be alone—and screaming—for the next million years—or so."
"If that's what's happening, you and your men don't need to stay here, friend Narasan," Sorgan said. "Your men would be much more useful down there in temple-town guarding all that gold."
"What's been going on down there since Lady Aracia vanished?" Narasan asked his friend.
"I think it's called 'mutual extinction,'" Sorgan replied with a wicked grin. "The priests have been killing each other every chance they get. That little priestess Alcevan gutted poor old Fat Bersla right in the throne room. Bersla had usurped Lady Aracia's throne, and little Alcevan came up to him and knelt down as if she wanted his blessing. I guess he was thinking it over, but then Alcevan jumped forward with a knife and gutted him right then and there. I didn't see it myself, but I've heard that his innards spilled out all over the floor of the throne room. It's a messy way to kill somebody, but it does work—eventually."
"I've heard quite a bit about that Alcevan," Ara said. "I think I'll make a suggestion to my mate. It might not be a bad idea to send her back home to the nest. Then she'll be able to sit somewhere and listen to her mother scream out her grief for the next million or so years."
"She couldn't possibly live that long," Narasan protested.
"Throw 'possibly' away, dear Narasan," Ara replied. "If I want Alcevan to be in the nest listening to her mother's screams for the next million or so years, she will, I can guarantee that. Killing is one way to get revenge, but not killing is sometimes more satisfactory."
It was about mid-morning the following day when the warrior queen Trenicia came up the slope that led down to the Wasteland, and she was accompanied by Prince Ekial.
"Where have you been?" Narasan demanded when Trenicia entered Gunda's fort.
"My," she said, "aren't we grouchy this morning?"
"I've asked you several times to let me know before you go scouting around."
"You didn't really think I paid any attention, did you? You needed some information, so I went out and gathered it for you. That slope appears to be deserted, but it's not. There are thousands of bug-people down there, but they're all dead."
"Who—or what—killed them?" Narasan asked, more than a little startled.
"I'd say that it was the weather," she replied. "Isn't that the way you saw it, Prince Ekial?"
"She's right about that, friend Narasan," Ekial replied. "The peculiar thing is that every one of them we saw was still standing up."
"Let's go on inside," Narasan suggested. "Sorgan Hook-Beak is here, and he'll want to know about this too."
"It is just a bit chilly out here," Trenicia said. Then she reached out and patted Narasan's cheek. "You worry too much, Narasan. I'm a big girl now, and I do know how to take care of myself."
They went on inside the fort and found Sorgan, who was talking with Gunda and the pretty lady Ara. "What's happening, Narasan?" Sorgan asked.
"It appears that the slope to the west of this fort isn't as deserted as we all thought it was," Narasan replied. "There are still bug-people down there, but they're all dead."
"Arrows?" Sorgan asked.
Narasan shook his head. "Cold weather, I've been told. Tell him what you saw, Trenicia."
"It seemed a bit peculiar to me that the horde of bug-people who'd been charging up that slope for several weeks had just vanished—without even leaving any footprints in the snow," Trenicia told Hook-Beak, "so I went on down to have a look. The bug-people are still there, but they aren't moving. I'd say that they all froze to death." She drew out her heavy sword and ran her thumb along the edge of the blade and winced. "It's going to take me weeks to grind away all those nicks," she complained. "I chopped several of the bug-people into pieces, and they were all frozen solid. For some reason they just stopped moving, and the weather turned them all into blocks of ice."
"The bug-people aren't very clever," Sorgan said, "but standing out in the open when it's as cold as it's been here lately is senseless."
"Of course it is," Ara replied. "The bug-people don't have any sense. That's what 'the overmind' was all about. Now that Omago has shut down the Vlagh's voice, the overmind can't contact her children. They're waiting for orders, but they aren't getting any. They don't know what to do, so they just stand there and freeze."
"It seems that they stood there for much too long," Sorgan observed.
"Not too long for me, they didn't," Narasan said with a faint smile.
"I'd take it as a great kindness if you'd let me know where you're going before you go running off, Trenicia," Narasan told the warrior queen again when they were alone in Narasan's quarters. "When I discovered that you were gone, I thought that I'd lost you, and that almost made me want to die. Please don't do that anymore, dear heart."