“Now, now, what’s all this, my
friends?” Magma laughed, striding forward. “I’m certain we can work things
“Nothing to work out, Magma,” a gnarled Insector veteran of the Ice Wars said, his trusty old snow lance at the ready. Smiling Magma moved in close to the leaders of the mob. “You’ve broken the law,” the ice warrior added. “No battle mounts in Salacia. Especially not spiders.”
“A stun dart will quiet him,” Shadow offered in mind link.
“Steady, Shadow,” Hunter replied, climbing aboard.
“I thought we were staying off mind link,” Corona said telepathically through her spider as she mounted.
“Doesn’t matter now,” Hunter answered through his, thus all in the party heard. “The creature has the gems.”
In mind link all six chose particular targets. The mob saw it coming and surged forward. “Now!” Corona shouted aloud. The three spiders rapid fired stun darts, the two mounted riders sprayed the crowd with stun beams from their manacles.
Magma smashed the loudmouth Ice Wars veteran with his shield and knock-out three more with one swipe of his club. Half the mob were in the dust and unconscious in a heartbeat. The rest looked on a bit, stunned, then they separated allowing a wide path for the Spider Riders to pass. Magma mounted his armored spider on the move. “See?” he said to the wary onlookers, “I told you we could work things out.”
As they raced back toward the plateau, Corona feared the Soul Eater would get there first. They mind talked in the shielded link, the only way anyone could hear anything aboard the thundering giant spiders.
“Let’s travel in pedestrian mode,” she suggested. “Losing the armor adds twenty percent more speed for the spiders.”
“Good idea,” they all agreed, and the riders shouted “Armor off!”
Already traveling faster than any other creature in the Inner World, the heavy armor of spider and riders vanished into the riders’ manacles. The spiders accelerated immediately. As they ran they contemplated in the shielded link how fast the Soul Eater really was.
“It had to leap up to grab onto the dome of the tomb to get out. If it could just be anywhere it wanted—”
“—it would have just materialized outside the tomb,” Corona inserted.
“It probably can’t move from one place to another instantly, like mind talk does. But it’s not as slow and methodical as it pretended to be. It has to be somewhere in between,” Hunter said.
“I know just what we need,” Magma intoned, and in such a way that the others became apprehensive. “A short cut!”
Then Magma wheeled his spider and the others followed him due west.
“He’s cutting across the Salt Flats!” Corona said in mind talk.
“Very dangerous,” Venus worried.
“What?” Hunter broke in.
“The Salt Flats,” Corona ominously answered. “It’s home to the salt weevils. Deadly carnivores. They’ve been known to devour a battle spider in ten heart beats.”
“Oh, sorry, Venus.”
* * *
The rain continued over the plateau city, and almost nowhere else in the Inner World. The lookouts had lost sight of Sklar during a lightning flash. The entity was there, and then it wasn’t. They hadn’t been able to catch sight of it since. The riders on the walls used the distance viewers built into their armor. They scanned everything in all directions. The spiders searched telepathically. Petra rode her spider up to where Igneous stood on Flame perched on the wall.
“Anything?” Petra asked aloud.
Worried Igneous shook his head “No.”
Then Petra went into mind talk, her spider and Igneous’s spider shielding the message from all others.
“You’re needed at the palace,” she said. “It seems your young Earthen friend has deserted.”
“That’s—not possible!” Igneous replied awkwardly, looking at Petra spider to spider with a scowl.
“It’s understandable,” Petra said, on edge, trembling in the rain. “If the thing comes back, figures a way up the plateau—we are all done! The boy just couldn’t take it.”
“Petra, you don’t know him as I do,” Igneous snapped. “You were cocooned throughout the last war. You don’t know what it was like! What he was like!” Then Igneous caught himself. “Listen to us, Petra! It’s the entity. It’s making us say these things.”
“Things we feel, but never reveal?” she pointedly said.
“Forgive me. It was the entity talking. Really. Spiders! Shield us!” he ordered all in the ranks via a general mind link.
“Well, anyway, Prince Lumen is livid,” Petra went on. “He and his sister are preparing to lead a search. Bring back the traitor, I think is what the prince said.”
“Great Oracle! What is going on?” Igneous wailed, “The thing’s obviously got itself inside Lumen’s head!”
Igneous looked to Petra. “Take over for me, Petra.”
“Both armies?” she replied, her mind clearer, now, reality more in focus.
“I trust you, Petra,” Igneous said aloud, as well as in full mind link for all.
Flame wheeled away from the defense wall and ran down the wide road across the flat plateau toward the spires of the city at its center. They thundered past farm lands and vast orchards on both sides. Fruits and vegetables grew aplenty in the volcanic soil. On most days, farmers could be seen in the fields, always waving with gratitude to their Spider Rider protectors. Not today. Not in the driving rain.
Flame came to the inner defense wall built around just the city. Again, there were no gates for spiders to pass through, just small easily defended entrances for the Home Guard and any other Arachnians on foot. The spiders didn’t need gates. Flame went right up and over the inner wall.
The streets of Arachna City were wide to accommodate the spiders and paved in most areas. The spiders could thunder through the city in all directions, their colossal, yet precise and nimble, feet disturbing not a pedestrian, nor a tiny flower in one of the city’s many gardens.
Flame skidded to a stop on the flat, rain-slicked stone surface of the wide spider marshalling area before the palace. Igneous leaped off his spider and ran past two obliging rider guards on spiders. These two Spider Riders could bring devastating force to bear against anyone, or anything, unauthorized trying to enter the palace. If the entity came, it would sweep these two young warriors aside like straw. Igneous shook his head to clear it as he ran down the central hall of the palace. He had to keep the creature from putting these thoughts of defeat into his head! What is it the Earthen always says? “Never give up!”
Igneous burst into the throne room just as Sparkle and Prince Lumen were about to depart on their search for Hunter. “Prince, by your leave,” Igneous said, “you know Hunter is not a deserter!”
“But he’s gone! We must make an example of him!” Lumen raved. “The other riders! What if they do the same?”
“It won’t happen, your majesty,” Igneous smiled. “It’s the entity. It’s making you see the worst in things.”
“Igneous,” Lumen sputtered, “surely you, the staunch, ever so brave, military man would want to see a deserter punished! You’re too close to them, Igneous. Sometimes I think the riders like you more than they like me!”
“This is not you talking, my prince. It’s the entity. Finding a weakness. Coaxing you into going out there. Waiting for you. Who better to capture than you, our leader? You have to fight this thing’s hold on you!”
“Do you plan to desert me, too, Igneous?” Lumen suspiciously sneered, sweat coursing down his young unblemished cheeks of rose. “Desert me when I need you most? Father sick! That thing overwhelming our forces!”
Igneous literally bit his tongue. He, the only one on the plateau that knew, wanted with all his heart to tell the prince that Hunter was on a secret mission for the Oracle. But telling risked allowing the entity to know there was a plan. It risked defeat.
“Sir, you’re not yourself, today,” was all Igneous could say.
“I won’t let it happen, Igneous!” Lumen glared, reaching for the hilt of his sword. “I won’t!”
That’s when Sparkle zapped her brother with her stun beam, just to relax him. She then pointed her manacle at Igneous. “I’m not under that thing’s power,” Sparkle said. She batted her eyelashes at him. “Trust me.” Then quite seriously, “I’m still going to go find Hunter! I love him!”
Igneous sighed, rolled his eyes and said, “Go ahead.”
Little Sparkle turned and ran through the hall to the seldom used stone staircase that spiraled down inside the old south tower. There, waiting outside the tower door, were Sparkle’s spider, Hotarla, and Prince Lumen’s spider, Ebony.
“Let’s go, Hotarla,” Sparkle said as she hopped from the top of the tower steps onto her spider’s back. “Big brother’s not coming.”
“A moment, you two!” Ebony said, mind talking them to a stop. “Just where do you think you’re going?”
“To rescue Hunter,” Sparkle said.
“Princess, I never did think this escapade to find the Earthen was wise,” Ebony scolded, but oh, so properly, even in mind talk. “And now for you to go out there alone—”
“You aren’t the boss of me,” Sparkle sneered, then in mind talk told her spider to go over the south wall, down the plateau, and out into the hot damp flatlands below.
Lookouts saw her clearly and sent word to the prince. The messenger found Prince Lumen exactly where Igneous had placed him, lolling unconscious in his throne.
Igneous had to return to the outer defense walls. Both he and Flame were exhausted. Perhaps that, too, was part of Sklar’s plan. Where was Hunter? What of his mission?
* * *
The Spider Rider Museum held many treasures, like early manacles that were past generations Spider Riders’ weapons of choice, though the Oracle hadn’t even invented plasma yet, and therefore the weapons were like toys compared to the modern-day version. There were samples of armor from the past, as well, including spider armor which had been mounted on wooden replicas of spiders. One wall displayed examples of spears, swords, bows, clubs, and hammers, relics of past battles that today’s riders once fought only in their preteen history classes in the Children’s Brigades.
Due to the assault on the plateau by Sklar, no one but Aqune was interested in visiting the museum. Her interest did not lie in the visitors’ areas, but in the storage room down in the basement. There the council had stored Aqune’s manacle when they stripped her of all Spider Rider rights. Aqune took the narrow stairway and found the high security door behind which many active manacles were kept. These once belonged to riders killed in action, or to those whose power to control their manacles had waned with age. Aqune was far from retirement age, which weakened Spider Riders as they went from teen to adult. She placed her palms against the heavy iron security door, bowed her head, closed her eyes, and sent her thoughts into the locked room. She could visualize her manacle inside, as it powered up and began to glow. With the special power of telekinesis, which all teen Spider Riders had, she levitated her manacle and pointed it toward the inside of the security door. Aqune stepped back and to one side, then sent her obedient weapon the order to fire. The plasma blast blew the security door off its hinges and set off every alarm in the museum. Aqune’s manacle floated out through the smoke, then zipped over to fasten itself to her forearm with the satisfying electronic click she had missed for so long.
Aqune also missed her spider, Portia, who was hopefully still housed in the penal colony behind the spider pens. Aqune raced up the stairs hoping to reach the outdoors before the museum’s security guards arrived. She saw them coming just as she stepped out of the large front doors of the museum. Aqune hid her manacled arm behind her back and pointed inside.
“Thieves are robbing the museum!” she shouted, and the two guards ran inside, stun rifles at the ready. As they did, Aqune raced away. It was only a short distance to the spider pens.
Aqune was momentarily surprised to find the spider pens deserted, then she realized that every able-bodied battle spider was needed at the front where the Soul Eater was engaged by every able-bodied Spider Rider.
She ran around to the penal colony behind the pens. A blast from her manacle melted the front gate and Portia leapt out.
Tears in her eyes, Aqune hugged her spider. “Oh, Portia,” she said, “I’ve missed you so!”
“Hug later! Run now!” Portia responded in mind talk, extending her mandibles to serve as steps.
Aqune scampered up onto Portia’s back. The spider leapt forward. In five strides they reached Arachna City’s inner wall. Portia was up and over it in one leap. Next came a run through the farmlands where the citizens were trekking like refugees to the city for protection from Sklar. They cheered Aqune’s passing, assuming that she was just another brave Spider Rider racing to defend the city from the entity. Portia went over the outer wall and down the slope of the plateau at maximum spider speed. Aqune needed to return to her snowbound lair in the Forbidden Mountains. There she would release her Insector mentor and savior, Buguese, from the cocoon to which the hated Spider Riders had condemned him. Aqune would then have to convince Buguese to go with her to the jungle and to help her convince the vanquished and suspicious former warriors of the Insector Army to join the Spider Rider in their fight against Sklar.
* * *
As they reached the Salt Flats, Hunter brought all the spiders to a halt with a thought. “Shadow and I gotta go a different way,” he said.
“Do you fear the salt weevils?” Magma said then he caught himself. Of course not. The kid’s not afraid of anything. Why would I think that?
“You know better, Magma,” Hunter called out. “I need to take the beetle.”
Dungobeet was suddenly alert, there on Brutus’s back and still trussed up in the webbing.
Magma was about to protest, but Corona sensed the Oracle at work in Hunter, as the Oracle saw fit to do often and many times before. “Do it!” she said.
Magma called out, “Plasma knife!” and the glowing dagger shot out of Magma’s manacle and into his hand. He cut the strands of web holding Dungobeet down and tossed him to Hunter. Dungobeet’s wings fluttered but couldn’t gain flight before Hunter caught him and plopped him on Shadow’s back. “Why do you want him?” Magma wondered.
“Sorry, can’t,” Hunter said. “Oracle stuff.”
Magma wanted to say more, but both he and Corona knew that the Earthen and his spider were the chosen ones, that the Oracle often spoke through them.
“May the Oracle guide you, Hunter Steele,” Corona shouted, mainly to terminate any further thought about Hunter and Shadow’s mission. Then at full gallop, she and Magma took their spiders into the dangerous, endless white wasteland that was the Salt Flats. Adding to the sense of danger, the two called out “Arachna Power!” and they and their spiders armored themselves as they ran. The clanking of the armor into place echoed across the desolation.
Hunter felt alone. It instantly gnawed at him as he watched his friends vanish over the white horizon.
“You are not alone,” Shadow reminded his human friend in mind talk.
“Oh, sorry,” Hunter smiled. “Even when we are apart, you are with me.”
“And you with me.”
“What about me?” Dungobeet trembled, reminding Hunter that he was, indeed, not alone.
“I’m going to let you ride untied,” Hunter replied, “but don’t try to fly away, because you can’t escape.”
Dungobeet sneered defiantly, “And why not?”
“Spider Rider,” was all Hunter said, jabbing a thumb toward himself.Shadow turned to run the rim of the Salt Flats and across the grassy plain where he would have to swim the fast moving, swollen river. It was far too wide to bridge with a web. The thought of it filled Shadow with dread, but he hid his fear. He knew that if the ancient relic discovered this weakness in him, this fear of drowning, it would exploit it, use it against him, and against the Spider Riders.