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“Return of the Soul Eater”




            Aqune knew that flying to the plateau via giant dragonfly would invite attention, and she’d be instantly recognized by Spider Rider security upon landing within the city walls. A more circumvent approach was needed. An old sea captain was a long-time friend of Aqune’s. He captained an equally old sailing ship that crossed Lake Arachnia every few days loaded with goods that came from the Outer Reaches. Aqune surprised him by appearing at the dock where he always tied up his ship. The fear of arrest didn’t bother this old sea captain. Aqune had helped him in the past, long ago negotiating his and his tiny crews’ release by Insector rebels. The captain and his crew were only too happy to repay the favor. Though his ship was not completely loaded, he cast off the moment Aqune was aboard. They made for the opposite shore and the distant plateau that stood out against the darkened clouds over Arachnia. They would land at the tiny port of a lightly populated island off the plateau’s side of the lake. There, Aqune would slip away.


*          *          *


            Lumen was crushed. He paced the throne room more desperately than ever. His father could not speak, could not tell him what to do. He was truly alone, lost at the top of an empire about to crumble. It was what he had always feared—feared that the instant he came to power, the Arachna kingdom would fall. It was a real fear deep within his mind, and one skillfully amplified and manipulated by the Soul Eater.

            Sparkle came ambling into the room eating a crisp apple. The bites and crescendo of loud chewing added to Lumen’s extreme discomfort. “Anybody seen Hunter?” the little princess said through a mouthful.


*          *          *


            “It’s here!” a lookout shouted from atop the eastern outer defense wall which snaked along the uneven edge of the entire plateau. While the spiders’ nine-eyed pods could see much farther than human eyes, the humans had the advantage of their distance viewers, the unique spider-like contraption in their manacles that fitted itself over its rider’s eye. Because of this, human eyes saw the monster before even spider eyes actually could. It thundered toward them methodically, challenging anything diverting its purpose.

            Then the spiders saw it, and a shiver went through the ranks. It wasn’t fear, for spiders feared nothing. It was a tremble of preparing for battle. The riders warmed up their manacles. All were locked on plasma blast, and it was crucial that everyone follow the painstaking cadence count Igneous had drilled into them over the last day.

            Igneous had the spiders build breastworks of sharp poles, earth and boulders in Sklar’s path. It was thirty feet high and just beyond manacle range. Sklar blew through the emplacements with an absent backwards wave of its hand of bone. Debris from the breastworks flew back at Igneous’s army, the sharp poles and boulders serving as Sklar’s weapons, now! Sklar telekinetically slammed them into the ranks injuring several spiders and riders.

            “Another tactical error!” Igneous said, but only to himself, as Sklar came within manacle range. Igneous aimed his manacle. “Plasma blast!” he said aloud. The manacle obeyed, sending out a molten stream that hit the distant beast dead center. It didn’t flinch. It was really up to the others.

            The front ranks counted the mandatory three, two, one then they fired their plasma blasts in unison, all guiding on Igneous’s first strike. About fifty percent synchronized, but many of those missed their mark. Human error, each of the failures thought, not realizing that Sklar was putting these thoughts in their heads. Sklar was knocked back by the massive hits, but kept coming. Its invisible armor glowed with the rapid fire strikes and became intermittently visible. The second rank stepped up and fired, then another, then another. Then the first rank was back in place, plasma blast re-charged and ready.

            “It comes three paces, we knock it back two!” Igneous shouted above the deafening roar of the plasma bursts, many of them unsynchronized and off target.

            The third time through the ranks the Spider Riders were more proficient, hitting the target more often and with more accurately coordinated firepower. Also, the target was closer.

            Still, the Soul Eater came, drawn to the Oracle like a moth to a flame. Its mighty roar chilled the humans’ bones. Its grasping thoughts fought for control of theirs. How long could they hold out? How long?

            On the opposite side of the plateau Aqune arrived on foot, and alone. She began to scale the muddy, slippery side of the plateau, every hand hold treacherous, every step a danger. But she was determined, and made her way unseen by the Spider Riders, occupied as they all were on the other side of the plateau by Sklar’s unrelenting attack.


*          *          *


            Magma boldly strode into Salacia to the welcoming shouts and manly laughs of its denizens. Well behind him, and taking advantage of the distraction of Magma’s arrival, Hunter and Corona slipped into the city unnoticed.

            “Let’s pretend we’re married,” Corona suggested.

            “P-pardon me?” Hunter blinked. “Why would we do that?”

            “Don’t make it sound so unappealing,” she scowled. “Look, it’s just for show, okay? It gives us an excuse to stay together.”

            “So, what’s a tasty little thing like you doing in a dirt town like Salacia?” a Centipedian warrior said stepping in their way.

            “He’s talking to you,” Corona said in an aside to Hunter.

            “Me?” Hunter scowled. “What’s he want with me?”


            “You’re kidding!”

            “No, I’m not.”

            The Centipedian had a patch over one eye and his natural exo-skeleton armor was dented and battle scarred. Three Centipedians stood behind him, equally no longer fit for service in the military, but perhaps even more deadly in their independence. The others laughed when eye-patch said something in Sargoth, the language of the Centipedians, which Corona had learned as part of her Spider Rider training.

            Hunter’s hand felt for the comforting handle of his stun sword. “What did he say?”

            “He said there’s enough of you for them to share.”

            The spiders, secretly mind riding with their riders, became concerned.

            “They can handle it,” Shadow assured the other two spiders. “Besides, we’d never get there in time.”

            The Centipedian warriors all had long sharp wooden pikes with which they lunged at the two humans. Corona and Hunter threw themselves to each side. They hit the dusty street and rolled to their feet out of range and with their swords in their hands. The four Centipedians lurched forward in lock step, their weapons again spearing at the air near the riders’ throats. But Hunter and Corona had separated, and drew two adversaries each. Corona and Hunter parried and fell back. The next onslaught, the riders picked up with ease, stun sword practice a daily exercise in the Spider Riders. The fourth attack was the Centipedians’ last chance at any sort of victory. Hunter and Corona each did a different acrobatic evasive maneuver, parried one attacker and stunned the second with a practiced thrust. In four heartbeats, four Centipedian Warriors were put to sleep in the dust before Magma even arrived on the scene.

            “I missed the fight again?” the brawny mercenary shrieked, waving his great club in the air in disgust. “What does a guy have to do to earn a living around here?”

            Corona rolled her eyes. “Did you find the tomb raider?”

            “He’s got a place on the other side of town,” Magma said, and then he grinned. “They said it’s a fortress, but hey, we’ve gone up against fortresses before.”