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"Return of the Soul Eater"





            The tomb raider’s fortress was built into the base of a cliff, approachable from only one direction. It had walls of solid stone, steel doors, and mercenary warriors as guards. The riders watched from some bushes.

            “Wish we had our spiders with us,” Hunter whispered, and the others nodded, not knowing that they did have their spiders, mind riding with them secretly.

            “Maybe it’s the Oracle’s wisdom,” Magma put forward. “Without our spiders rumbling up to the place, that tomb raider won’t know we’re coming.”

            Brutus was hurt by Magma’s mention of rider worthiness without spiders, but Shadow reminded Brutus that the entity was at work on their minds. It was a mentally powerful creature spreading dissension and mistrust.

            “There’s a blind spot between the two guard towers,” Magma said. “The next time they both look away, we go! Come on!” then he dropped into a crouch and ran toward the fortress, all three of them getting under the tall towers’ fields of view, and running to the inner edge of the blind spot. Fortunately, the tower guards seldom looked back toward the fortress. The riders ducked into an alleyway of the small settlement that had grown up under the protection of the fortress. Two more naturally armored, well armed mercenary bug warriors stood at the big metal doors of the large main building built into the cliff.

            “At last a chance to knock some heads!” Magma grinned,

            “Hush!” Corona whispered. “Someone’s coming!”

            They peeked over a low wall to see a tall, gaunt figure concealing himself in the folds of a long black cloak. The figure, too, was taking advantage of the blind spot, using insect senses to judge its location between the guard towers. The figure approached the two nervous Insector mercenaries guarding the steel doors at the main entrance to the fortress.

            “Gem smuggler Vespid Masaar to see Zelus Renard,” the seven-foot-tall figure said.

            “I recognize that voice!” Hunter hissed. “It’s Mantid!”

            “Are you sure?” Corona whispered, astonished.

            One guard said, “No one is—” Those were the last words the guard ever spoke, the last words the other guard ever heard. The black cloak flew open and Mantid’s twin sets of deadly tines lashed out, impaling a mercenary bug warrior each. In an instant, the two guards were in Mantid’s deadly embrace, held close where he could feel their lives leave them.

            “Yeah, I’m pretty sure,” Hunter quietly said.


*          *          *


            At the plateau, Sklar kept coming, shaking off massive plasma hits, and hurling back bolts of invisible energy that blew great gaps in the Spider Rider lines. Armor was bent, limbs were broken, and three-ton battle spiders flew back from the blows like dead leaves in a strong wind.

            Sklar was almost upon them, bolts of energy now crushing those at the leading edge. Then, manacle power alarms began going off, the plasma attacks having drained them rapidly. “Fall back!” Igneous said in mind link. Shouting the order would have never been heard above the screams and weapons fire. Never in his life had Igneous called retreat, and now he had done so twice in one day. Was there no stopping it? Was this doubt he had well founded and not just thoughts planted in him by the entity?

            The spiders backed up, saving their best for last. Again, rank by rank, the spiders rose up on their back legs and shot massive capture webs over the fifty-foot monster. Sklar was completely enmeshed. They didn’t waste energy on stun darts. They had learned that the darts had no effect from Shadow and Flame’s first encounter with Sklar at the tomb. When the last rank reached the front, it ran its webs in a wide circle around the beast, hoping to cinch up its legs, then complete a massive cocooning. But the spiders had never cocooned a creature anywhere near this large, and cocooning only worked when the victim was under the spiders’ stun venom—and stun darts were futile.

            So, the spiders channeled their stun dart venom into their webs. It was chancy, and had never been done before except in the complex matrix of theories the spiders discussed in their private spider talk. They flooded the struggling cocoon of Sklar with venom. Why wouldn’t the legs cinch up? Why won’t the thing go down?

            With a great burst of fire, the webs encasing Sklar exploded, sending flaming debris over the surrounding Spider Riders. They became entangled in their own webs. Some of the poison-filled webs were afire! Their own stun venom spattered back onto them from the webs. The spiders were immune, but a few riders were hit and stunned unconscious. Even the spiders had made a tactical error.

            Those who could, limped back to the lines and Sklar came after them. The battered spiders of Igneous’s army began to withdraw. It was an orderly retreat, the few riders who still had manacle power blasting away with no effect.

            Then, Petra’s army appeared, having arrived as ordered at precisely the moment they were needed. The third army was held in reserve just behind the outer defense wall above. Petra had told them to watch the firing order procedure from the walls then be prepared to do the same when called upon.

            Petra’s rested and recharged legions drove to the front, and took up the rotation firing order Igneous’s army had been using. Veterans of the Lost Legion, like Crystal and Geode, each led a battalion. Without being able to rely on their spider’s mind link for coordinated fire, they had to count and shoot just like the previous army. Just like first army, their plasma blasts were off the first time through, but the second and third time through the ranks, they did much better. Still, Sklar came. The cycle repeated itself, and soon Petra’s army was under duress.

            “Fall back!” Igneous called out.

            Petra turned, startled to see him.

            “Why didn’t you return to the city with your legions?” she scolded. “You have no manacle power. You’re of no use to me!” Then Petra caught herself. Whatever made her say such a thing, she asked herself?

            “It’s the entity, Petra. It makes us think in the negative. Puts unwanted thoughts into our heads. Fall back, Petra,” Igneous repeated as Petra’s left flank collapsed in a blazing fire ball. Another fireball whistled overhead impacting part way up the plateau’s slope.

            Petra’s battered army quickly went up the plateau under a bombardment of fireballs. Many spiders and their riders were hit. As the last of the two tattered armies climbed over the outer defense wall, the heavens opened up and it began to rain in earnest. Lightning flashed and water cascaded down off the steep roofs of the city, down its gutters and sewer ways, down off the plateau, drenching its already muddy sides.

            “Does the entity control the weather?” Petra shouted to Igneous above the deluge.

            “Fire!” Igneous shouted to the wall cannons.

            The wall cannons were situated on defense walls built right up to the edge of the plateau all the way around. This way they could fire down at the plain below, and angle the fire so sharply on cantilevered gun turrets that they could bring the entire steeply sloping walls of the plateau into range. The wall guns could shoot farther than the manacles, and each discharge was equal to about ten manacle plasma blasts. But even the concentrated power of ten plasma blasts couldn’t stop it. The beast took blast after blast from the wall cannons. Because of the irregular shape of the plateau, the defense wall that contoured it put the guns at varying attitudes to this one target. It was impossible to coordinate the fire for multiple simultaneous hits. The beast approached the plateau and stopped. It took several more hits, then began to hurl fireballs up at the wall guns. They fell just short, showering the Spider Riders with debris, but leaving them unscathed.

            “It has limited range!” Igneous said peering down from Flame over the lip of the plateau just outside the defense wall. Flame had perched himself as only a spider could on the edge of the precarious rain-slicked thousand-foot precipice. Petra’s spider joined them.

            “It’s about to scale the plateau!” Petra shouted. “I’ll call up third army!”

            “Wait!” Igneous shouted back. “Look. It can’t do it!”

            Petra looked again, and was encouraged by what she saw down through the rain.

            Sklar leaped its highest, held on its hardest, but could not get traction on the muddy rain-soaked sides of the plateau. Again, the beast hurled itself up the thousand-foot slope, and again it managed but about three hundred feet, before sliding back down in the thickening mud. Grips on any rocks broke away from the softened earth, mud made footholds impossible. At last Sklar stood and roared up at them with such rage, the mud that had coated its invisible armor burst into flame and vanished. Steam from the rain sizzling on the Soul Eater’s white-hot armor made the armor fleetingly visible. The cloud of white steam swathed the fifty-foot beast in an eerie swirl. Mighty Sklar stood there in the rain, confounded by a simple slippery slope.

            “The entity does not control the weather,” Igneous said to Petra with a relieved smile. “The Oracle does.”