"They won't see you, friend Rabbit," Omago assured the little smith. "It probably wouldn't be a bad idea for you to go have a look, now that you mention it. I don't like surprises all that much."
As Keselo, Longbow, and Omago moved through the seemingly endless cave, they noted that the more recent hatches of the Vlagh were much larger than the ones that had preceded them. "It would seem that the Vlagh was greatly impressed by the Maags," Longbow observed.
"That's not really a very good idea," Keselo said. "Bigger children have bigger appetites, and there's not really that much food out here in this desert, is there?"
"Other bugs is about all," Longbow replied. "Of course, that might have been part of the idea. There are other nests and 'queens,' if we want to use that term. If the Vlagh's idea was to eliminate all the other bug-tribes out here in the Wasteland, 'hungry children' could be quite useful."
When Rabbit came back with a slightly awed expression on his face and told them about the big, open chamber at the end of the tunnel, Omago became very quiet.
Keselo explained that the big cluster of spiderweb Rabbit had seen was called a cocoon. Though Rabbit and Longbow were listening to him, Keselo noticed that Omago was standing off to one side, listening to something that only he could understand.
"Don't make any noises," Longbow cautioned them. "We'd better take a look at this 'cocoon' thing."
Omago came along behind the rest of them, but Keselo was fairly certain that their friend was very busy now with something else.
They entered what Rabbit had called "the throne room," and Keselo was stunned by the incredible number of assorted bugs crawling across the floor and up the walls in the dim light given off by the few glowing "fire insects." Keselo turned to speak to Omago, but Omago had a look of intense concentration on his face, and he waved Keselo off.
"Where's this 'cocoon' thing you mentioned?" Longbow quietly asked Rabbit.
"I'd say that it's probably in the very center of this cavern," the little Maag replied. "It's a little hard to see from this far back, because there are thousands of bugs between us and that silly bird's nest."
Keselo winced slightly. "Bird's nest" didn't exactly fit.
"Get back against one of the walls," Omago told them. Keselo noted that their friend had a wicked sort of grin on his face. "Several thousand of these servants are just about to leave, and we don't want to get trampled."
"Aren't they supposed to stay here and tend to the baby-bugs?" Keselo asked.
"They just received new orders," Omago replied.
"The Vlagh told them to go away?"
"They think she did, but I'm the one they're obeying."
"How did you manage that?" Rabbit asked.
Omago shrugged. "I shut off the buzz that was coming from the Vlagh, and then I buzzed a new set of orders. I told them that invaders were coming across the Wasteland, and I ordered most of the care-givers to go out of the cave and fight off all those evil people-people. A few of them will stay behind to care for the new hatch that's just about to come out of the cocoon. I'm almost certain that the Vlagh will come out of the cocoon before the new hatch does, and I want enough care-givers here in the cave to make the Vlagh believe that everything's all right. She's in for a very nasty shock before long, and her screaming will probably go on for quite a long time—a long, long, long time, if I've done this right."
"Have you ever done anything wrong?" Keselo demanded, feeling more than a little irritated.
"Not that I can remember," Omago replied.
After the last of the departing care-givers had left the vast central chamber of the nest of the Vlagh, Omago assured his friends that they were still "unnoticeable" so they crossed the now virtually empty central chamber of the nest to take a closer look at their enemy.
The upper part of the cocoon began to bulge out, a fair sign that the Vlagh was squirming her way out into the open.
Keselo gasped as the Vlagh came into sight. "That's impossible!" he exclaimed.
"Not really," Omago disagreed. "We probably should have expected this."
"That's not the real Lady Aracia, is it?" Rabbit demanded.
"No," Omago said. "She's gone for good. She was the ruler of the East, though, and she was behaving as if she was the queen of the entire Land of Dhrall. The Vlagh thinks that she's the queen, so her duplication of Aracia makes a certain amount of sense. You might want to approve, Rabbit. You don't really want to see the real Vlagh. Nine feet tall the last time I looked and with six legs, waving antennae, and mandibles that could turn rocks into dust. Aracia wasn't quite as beautiful as Zelana, but she was much nicer to look at than the Vlagh is in her real form."
"There's something moving in the bottom of that cocoon," Longbow said then.
"The new hatch," Omago said. "They won't resemble adult bug-people—or Aracia either, for that matter."
The bottom of the web began to give way, and a cluster of worm-shaped infants came wriggling out.
"Caterpillars?" Rabbit said in a voice charged with disbelief.
"It's the standard form of the infant bug-people," Omago explained. "After they've been fed for a week or so, they assume the shape the Vlagh's got in mind for them. They have plenty of feet to get them from here to there and an overpowering appetite. The remaining care-givers have a lot of work ahead of them, I'd say. But I don't think they'll be doing much 'caring.'"
"They're still wriggling out of that cocoon," Keselo said. "How many of them would you say have just hatched?"
"A quarter of a million anyway," Omago replied. "More, probably. The Vlagh needs a lot of servants just now."
The new "puppies" scurried across the floor of the vast chamber toward the greatly reduced "care-givers," and they were making sounds not unlike the crying of newborn humans. Keselo couldn't translate what the infants were saying, but he was quite sure that "feed me!" was a significant part of it.
The "care-givers" didn't seem to be very interested—at least not until the howling newborns reached the area near the west side of the chamber.
Then something happened that wasn't supposed to happen. One of the "care-givers" reached down and snatched up one of the babies and examined it as if the care-givers had never before seen any infant bugs.
Then, evidently satisfied with what it saw, the servant stuffed the caterpillar-like infant into its mouth and bit down hard. The other "care-givers" watched closely, and then they too snatched up infant bugs and stuffed them into their mouths.