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“Return of the Soul Eater”



            Sklar the Soul Eater could not scale the plateau in the mud and rain, but agile Aqune did. Shortly after gaining the flat farmland of the summit, she had to duck into an apple orchard when Prince Lumen’s Third Army rumbled by in the rain. The road clear, her features concealed in the white cloak, Aqune hurried toward the inner walls of the distant city that stood at the center of the plateau. She came upon a work cart hitched to two giant domesticated aphids so valuable to the Arachnians as draft animals and providers of aphid milk for the human children. Aphids were important to the humans, for no cows existed here at the earth’s core, no mammals of any kind—except for the vastly outnumbered and resilient strain of long-lost humans.

            The Arachnian cart was filled with apples and destined for the front gates of the besieged city. The harvesters were coming out of the orchard with their last baskets full. Like a lizard, lithe Aqune crawled right under the huge pile of apples in the cart, concealing herself there, and sampling an apple while lying hidden. Unaware, the harvesters dumped their last buckets in the cart, the driver mounted, and the others followed on foot as the entourage trundled toward the city in the rain like a poorly conceived parade float.

            The mounted Spider Rider guards at the gates of the city called for the doors to open and the cart and harvesters allowed entry. None had any reason to suspect that an outlawed visitor had accomplished the Oracle’s first objective: entrance to Arachna City.

*          *          *

            It wasn’t raining in Salacia, the city’s nearness to the Oracle’s sun forever parching it like an isolated desert town. Still in pedestrian mode, and without their spiders, Hunter, Corona, and Magma, crept cautiously into the tomb raider’s fortress. They passed the two lifeless guards that had been impaled by Mantid, and then passed the steel doors Mantid had ripped off their hinges with brute strength.

            “I, uh, never knew Mantid was so strong,” Magma whispered.

            “Shush!” Corona said in the lead.

            “I know: No talking,” Magma quietly sighed.

            Following Corona’s hand signals, the three scaled four flights of metal stairs to a catwalk that paralleled the hall far below. They could trail the tall cloaked shape of Mantid as he hurried down the hall to a large central room.

            Two Insector mercenary guards fired weapons blasts at the approaching figure. The electric charges burned and tattered his black cloak, but Mantid’s thick natural body armor left him unscathed. He fought through a second volley and slashed the two guards to the floor. The next set of doors he bashed inward with his fore claws, and went in.

            “I gotta a hunch he’s not only back, but Mantid has become a full Insector,” Magma suggested. “No human left in him at all.”

            The catwalk the Spider Riders were traversing ended at a crawl space that led across the domed roof of the inner fortress.

            “Maybe we can find another way in,” Corona said.

            “I thought there was no talking,” Magma whispered.

            The three hurried silently across the roof of the dome and found a skylight. Muscular Magma wrenched the skylight loose and bent its metal grating enough to allow their entry. Inside the roof, the three riders found themselves on a network of wooden beams that held the crude domed roof in place. There, not ten feet below them, the five gems glowed in the high walls that curved upward to meet the dome.

            “It’s just like in the tomb!” Hunter whispered. "Not as big, but just like it!”

            Together Magma and Corona mouthed, “No talking!”

            Hunter, Magma and Corona then became captivated by the conversation going on below.

            “You’re probably surprised that I am relieved to find that the intruder is you, Lord Mantid,” Zelus Renard said, sitting calmly in a large soft chair amid shelves and tables stacked with dusty old texts and various gems in glass cases.

            “Why have you positioned my gems in this way?” Mantid asked, surveying the five large throbbing gems in the curved walls.

            “Your gems?” Zelus Renard laughed, leaning back in his big chair. “No, Lord Mantid, they can belong to no one. They belong to the mists. They are from a different time.”

            “I will take them, now,” Mantid said, prepared for any lethal action by the tomb raider with the deadly nose.

            “It would be a mistake to remove them,” Zelus Renard responded. “Stay here with me, Lord of the Insectors. It is our only chance. The gems can restrain—it.”

            “It?” Mantid responded, a rare chill caressing him.

            “The creature your excavation has unleashed upon the Inner World. I at first intended to steal the gems for myself. Then I remembered something about five gems in the ancient texts of the Salacians.” Zelus Renard got up from his big chair and moved to some thick old books on a cluttered table. “I’m a bit of a historian on that subject.”

            “How intellectual of you,” Mantid sneered, having already decided to kill Zelus Renard.

            “These are translations in Sargoth,” the tomb raider went on, “taken from tablets and wall writings found in their temples. The ancient Salacians were a mystical people. They developed a ritual for calling up the beast of darkness. A powerful relic they worshiped, and credited with their flourishing civilization.”

            “Spare me the history lesson!” Mantid hissed through his salivating maw.

            “One day, the beast came up out of the earth and nearly wiped out the Salacians. Their remnants used gems unearthed by the beast’s arrival to restrain it. They polished the gems. Focused their power. Trapped Sklar in that tomb and buried it. The decimated Salacian civilization couldn’t recover. They died out. The beast remained buried, until I—”

            Mantid had heard enough. His brain told his fore claws it was time to strike, lash out twenty feet, latch onto the double-crossing tomb raider, and bring him close so he could feel Zelus Renard’s life escape his body.

            Suddenly, the entire fortress shuddered. The riders in the rafters didn’t know it, but it was the two guard towers out front being crushed. Another massive quake, and the riders nearly fell from their perches. Mantid and Zelus Renard staggered about the trembling room. The look in Mantid’s eyes was one of surprise; the look in Zelus Renard’s eyes one of utter terror. Twin hands of bone reached in and grasped the jambs of the open doorway of the inner fortress. It pulled them outward. A huge portion of wall gave way, revealing fifty foot Sklar the Soul Eater. It had to crouch to get into the domed room, then it stood partially erect, its head merely a few feet below the riders hiding in the shadows in the rafters. The beast didn’t see them, intent as it was on the two cowering figures standing on the floor wearing upturned faces of astonishment. Sklar reached out a hand and snatched up Zelus Renard. He screamed as the beast drew him close to its face, studying the tomb raider as a fox might study a helpless rabbit. Zelus Renard regained some of his senses, and shot out his deadly snout. The powerful exo-skeleton blade merely shattered upon impact with Sklar’s skull. This caused Zelus Renard great pain, and he screamed again. The scream, and the pain, both ended an instant later when Sklar simply ate the tomb raider.

            “Uh, maybe we’d better go into battle mode,” Hunter gulped as quietly as he could.

            “Makes too much noise,” Corona whispered. “It would know we’re here.”

            Sklar had turned his attention to the fleeing Mantid. Sklar held out a clawed bone hand and grasped Mantid’s consciousness from behind. Mantid stopped in his tracks and turned, but not of his own volition. Powerful Mantid rose in the air like a toy in the hand of an invisible child. Sklar pulled back the open claw slightly and Mantid was drawn into it, floating with his bare insect feet well off the floor. Mantid flashed out his deadly tines and swung them in a blur over and over against the bone hand that held him. Several of the tines broke off and Mantid howled.

            “Wait!” Mantid screamed as the beast drew him close to its face. “I can be your ally! I have something to offer!”

            “I know,” the beast said in its first words spoken.

            “It—can speak!” Corona softly gasped.

            “Like to see you tell it ‘No talking,’” Magma whispered.

            The beast then turned and, one at a time, smashed the five gems from the walls, careful not to actually touch them. The riders had to hang onto the rafters desperately! Sklar forced a most agreeable Mantid to dig through the debris, find the gems, and put them into the same thick cloth bag the tomb raider used. Sklar then snatched up the seven foot tall Lord of the Insectors like he was a little rag doll. Sklar drew Mantid close to his hollow, empty eyes. “You must hide them where they will never be found,” the Soul Eater snarled into Mantid’s face, the stench of the beast’s breath causing even Mantid to flinch.

            “I have just the place,” Mantid grinned.

            Sklar pounded through the remains of the fortress and away. The three riders waited a bit, then whispered “Arachna Power!” and went into battle mode as quietly as possible. They used the drop cables concealed in their versatile armor to lower themselves from the eighty foot high rafters down to the debris covered floor. The cables immediately retracted upon landing.

            “How did it get here so fast?” Magma wondered.

            “It deceived us,” Hunter said, running to the dust covered books still open on the table. “It only pretended to be slow moving. Gave the riders at the plateau the chance to put everything they had into a defense.”

            “But why?” Corona blinked in disbelief.

            “As a demonstration,” Magma answered. “To show us pitiful humans that we don’t stand a chance against it.”

            “We have to get back to our spiders,” Corona said. “Warn the plateau that it’s coming back.”

            “Hold up,” Hunter called out. “These old books. They show how the gems are supposed to be arranged. It’s simple. By color. What colors go where. It’s how the ancient Salacians placed them in Sklar’s tomb, but—the tomb raider had them in the wrong order.”

            “He was an assassin bug,” Magma nodded. “Their vision is magnificent, but—they’re color blind.”

            Hunter tore the page showing the gem order out of one book and stuffed it inside his breastplate.

            Corona looked over the fortress’s destruction.

            “What worries me most is what Mantid had to offer Sklar,” Corona ruminated.

            “Whatever it was, Sklar wanted it bad,” Magma said.

            “If Sklar could see inside Mantid’s head, and know just where to come to get the gems,” Corona considered, “how come it didn’t know we were hiding in the rafters? Or sense us, or whatever?”

            “We were shielding you,” the three spiders said together inside the three riders’ heads.

            “Better come quickly,” Shadow added. “Our entrance into the city has caused a bit of a stir.”

            Still in battle mode, Hunter, Corona and Magma raced down the shattered hallway and out the front of the destroyed fortress. There they found their three spiders backed up against the ruins of the fallen guard towers and facing a mob of Salacia’s very specialized citizens, all armed to the mandibles.