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"Return of the Soul Eater"





             Peace had come to the Inner World for the first time in a thousand years. The Shards of the Oracle had been reunited. The Oracle, again whole, embraced her children with good fortune. The Oracle had revealed Mantid?s human core, returned him to his Outer World, and to his long-lost love. Yet within a short while, something went wrong. Mantid reverted to the exo-skeleton-armored Insector that once had great power here where the planet?s birth created a world within a world. Mantid left the girl who?d caused his pain. The Spider Riders, and even the Oracle, were unaware that Mantid had returned to the Inner World. This time Mantid came to the Inner World for only one purpose?revenge!

            Aqune, placed under house arrest by the Arachnian court for her loyalty to the Insectors, escaped and vanished into the dark regions of the Inner World. Those warrior Insectors not killed or cocooned in the war were exiled to the Insector Colony. Some roamed the Outer Reaches, where Spider Rider influence was seldom felt. The Insectors had lost the war, but won the warmth of the sun from the Oracle. Many Insectors believed that their nation was still being slighted by the all-powerful Oracle. Insectors were not permitted free range in the vast Arachnian Kingdom, nor access to all its resources, especially the battle powers the Oracle had bestowed upon the humans, and on no one else.

            In Arachna City high atop their fortified plateau, the Arachnians flourished. The constant sun brought them two complete harvests every season. One day of peace blended with the next in this idyllic realm of jungles, deserts and mountains. The Spider Riders became indolent. War was no longer a daily deed.

            Hunter Steele, the Earthen, and the only Spider Rider born in the Outer World, sat on the fern covered banks of a wide river that wandered through this primeval place at the center of the planet. The mighty river joined all the mammoth lakes, each produced by a waterfall which fell in a great white plume from cracks in the bedrock ceiling. The Arachnians called them The Falls From God for many of these long lost humans believed that the life-giving water came from a higher source.

            Shadow, Hunter?s three-ton battle spider, rested uncharacteristically on his belly, lounging beside his rider in the thick field of ferns. Shadow was usually more alert, up on his toes, as it were, standing tall in the spider ready-for-anything posture, infrared eye pod searching. But Shadow was without armor, and Hunter wore the Spider Riders? loose-fitting, casual attire known as pedestrian mode. Both rider and spider were living life leisurely.

            ?This is so cool,? Hunter sighed, lying back in the ferns, hands behind his head, watching the wide river flow.

            ?You are not fooling me,? Shadow telepathically grumbled. ?You miss combat, as do I. The need to prove our worth. Our inexorable thirst for battle. That is what makes us warriors. Could you scratch my belly??

            ?Sure,? Hunter laughed, attuned, now, to his spider?s droll wit.

            Hunter watched in awe, still, as the colossal spider manipulated his multi-jointed, ingeniously cantilevered legs so that he turned his three ton, ten-foot-high bulk over with ease and lay down in the ferns on his back. Hunter climbed up onto Shadow?s upturned belly, the spider?s eight gigantic legs splayed out under the harsh and constant Inner World sun?a sun that was the earth?s core.

            ?Yeah, you?re right, Shadow. I miss combat,? Hunter shrugged as he got down on all fours and scratched at the huge spider?s furry belly with both hands. ?But with patrols cut back, and most Insectors confined to their colony, or cocooned, there?s time for?other things.?

            ?What are these other things of which you speak?? the spider asked in mind talk, the essence of Shadow?s confusion evident to Hunter even more so than if the spider had actually spoken.

            ?That?s just it,? Hunter said aloud. ?You never know.?

            ?Is it food? Or perhaps a friendly match in the jousting dome against a fellow Spider Rider?? Shadow telepathically wondered.

            ?No, it?s time. Time to sit by the river and wonder about the future, time to think of home, time to get a good belly scratch!? Hunter scratched harder.

            ?A little to the left. Not that left! I have four lefts, remember?? the spider joked, and then he went on more seriously. ?You think often of this home. These parents that daily haunt your mind. You have learned to shield most of these private thoughts from me, but I know they are there.?

            ?Don?t you ever??? Hunter began, but he cut short the thought too late.

            ??think of home?? Shadow said, finishing Hunter?s thought. ?That would be a web long tattered. Parents? A father I never knew, and??

            It was Shadow?s turn to stop transmitting in mid-thought.

            ??and a mother that would eat her young if they didn?t leave the web the day they were hatched,? Hunter said aloud. ?I know. Well, humans are different. We have??

            ?Yes, emotions,? Shadow sighed in mind link. ?I believe I sense one such emotion?s approach, even as we speak.?

            Hunter stood up on Shadow?s upturned belly and watched the approach of Corona on her spider, Venus. Both were in pedestrian mode and ambling across the fern-filled expanse between the edge of the jungle and the great river.

            Shadow sensed in the boy a need to appear masculine before the female. This was a human flaw, yet one familiar to a spider, though in spiders masculine display was far more of a reproductive instinct. The big spider impishly used Hunter?s moment of mindlessness at seeing the girl to flip himself adroitly back up onto his eight legs, causing Hunter to tumble sideways and vanish with a ?Yelp!? into the thick ferns. A moment, then Hunter popped up in the waist high ferns, acting like nothing at all ungainly had happened.

            ?Forgive us, Hunter,? Corona giggled, as Venus and Shadow shared personal spider thoughts shielded from the humans. It wouldn?t have mattered, really, for these two humans? minds were so occupied with thoughts of each other they were not the least bit interested in listening in on spider talk. ?Venus and I were just looking to have a swim,? the beautiful girl explained to the handsome boy.

            ?Oh, you don?t want to swim in the river,? Hunter said, ?It?s muddy. Current?s too fast. More fun to swim in one of the lakes. You know, where the water?s calm. Crystal clear.?

            ?Is there one you prefer?? the girl asked.

            ?Well, Lake Arachna?s too busy. Fishermen, traders. Shadow and I like to go to Distant Lake,? the boy replied.

            ?Really? We?ve never swum there,? Corona said. ?Will you show us??

            She was reading his mind?well, not really, for the humans could only read each other?s thoughts through their spiders, and only when the spiders wanted them to.

            ?Uh, sure! Love you?uh, love to!? the boy sputtered, climbing up Shadow?s offered mandibles and onto his back.

            The spiders had learned long ago to avoid confusion by shielding all personal, emotional thoughts between humans and, more importantly, shielding these human emotions from themselves.

            Both spiders read their riders? wishes and raced off through the ferns, leaping forward at incredible speed. All the while the two spiders maintained flawlessly the private conversation they were having with each other. The spiders reached the edge of the jungle in ten quick strides. Side-by-side, they leaped up onto the top of the jungle canopy. Distributing their massive weight deftly on the tips of their eight great legs, the three-ton battle spiders ran above the jungle. They sped faster than even the fastest flying creatures of the Inner World could go?and there were many flying creatures in the Inner World, most of them steadfast enemies of the Spider Riders.


*          *          *


            Most inept of the winged Insectors was Dungobeet. He fluttered awkwardly over a dark and distant part of the jungle, wary at all times of any ruthless robber, or hungry meat eater, who might waylay his erratic flight. Finally, he saw the clearing at the base of the smoldering volcano that thrust up out of the endless green jungle carpet like a fire-breathing wound. The little dung beetle circled awkwardly and landed with a stumble in the clearing.

            Then it was a long march on foot through dense jungle until he came to the entrance hidden behind a huge slab of rock carved into the horrible face of Mantid. After a resigned sigh, Dungobeet fluttered up in the air twenty feet and pressed the nose of the carving, triggering weights and pulleys that caused the slab to rumble up. Dungobeet landed and hurried in, well aware that the slab of stone was going to slam back down instantly. It did. Dungobeet crossed a huge cavern filled with stalactites that looked like limestone teeth poised to bite him. He hustled down a long dark tunnel in the opposite wall that led to Mantid?s den. Mighty Mantid, once supreme leader of the Insectors, had returned to the Inner World. Things would be different this time! From this secret jungle base, Mantid managed a network of spies and allies?Insector allies determined to rise again.

            Dungobeet was Mantid?s messenger. Dungobeet worried that he would once more be called upon to meet face-to-fang with one deadly horde of Insectors or another. The little dung beetle just hoped it wouldn?t be the Centipedians?that vile collection of naturally armored warriors whose favorite food was beetle, and who, after the last war, were allowed to live outside the heavily guarded Insector Colony. The Centipedian life cycle could not survive outside their underground lair of clay and sand, and fighting within the lair proved to be very dangerous for the Spider Riders, their spiders and weaponry severely limited in rock-hard close quarters. They allowed the Centipedians their lair.

            It was extremely unnerving for Dungobeet to await his master?s whim in a spooky ante-room just as he had to do when Mighty Mantid?s rule was absolute, and he occupied a great fortress. Dungobeet was never allowed into Mantid?s inner circle, those pompous ringleaders, the Big Four: Staggs, Beerain and Grasshop all now living sedentary lives in the Insector Colony. Only Grasshop seemed suited for it. Mantid?s second in command, Buguese, had vanished after leading an Insector Colony rebellion. Now Dungobeet found himself working for an exiled, and not-so-mighty Mighty Mantid who might, at any moment, decide he preferred Dungobeet as a meal, rather than a messenger!

            Torches in the rough-hewn stone walls filled the corners of the dank ante-room with flickering shadows. Then, some of the shadows coalesced producing the ominous silhouette of Mighty Mantid. He stepped into the torchlight, his blazing red eye-pods and nervously twisting claws testament to his insanity.

            ?I want you to take a message to the Centipedians,? Mantid ordered, a tired lilting quality to his voice. ?They have never surrendered to the Spider Riders. They still have an?army.?

            Dungobeet swallowed hard, too afraid to reveal the sinking of his heart at the thought of Centipedians, so he put a false smile upon it.

            ?At your command, Lord Mantid.?

            ?The Centipedians are expert diggers. Don?t know why I hadn?t thought of it before. They are to begin a tunnel wide enough for an entire army to pass through. This tunnel is to go from the Centipedian Lair, under the desert, and up through the center of the Spider Riders? plateau! We?ll come out right in their midst! Within their defense walls! Surprise them! Annihilate them!?

            ?But your magnificence, won?t a project of that magnitude take?well, forever?? Dungobeet weakly grinned, the thought that Mantid was?out of his mind?passed through the dull-witted dung beetle?s tiny brain only fleetingly.

            ?You?ll do it quickly!? Mantid bellowed, ?My secret army is ready to strike!?

            ?Secret army?? Dungobeet blurted out. ?What secret army?? then he could have bit his tongue, if he had one.

            ?Seee-cret!? Mantid replied in the sing-song voice of the imbalanced.

            Dungobeet just grinned sheepishly, as he always did, bowed as he always bowed, and backed as quickly as he could out of the room.