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“Return of the Soul Eater”





           Hunter chased Corona out of the lake after she’d plopped a glop of mud on his head. Both were laughing youthfully. He tackled her playfully on the beach of soft black volcanic sand, and couldn’t remember ever being that close to her. That’s when the Oracle’s call came to both of them. They looked into each other’s startled eyes with the same thoughts—thoughts belonging to others, thoughts of preparing for battle pushing away any thoughts of each other.

            “Do you think it means war?” Hunter asked, setting his young jaw for it.

            “The Oracle fears it might,” Corona worried. “Six of us have been chosen for a special mission.”

            “I know. It’ll be cool, us on the same mission.”

            “Igneous and Magma, as well,” she noted.

            “Well, maybe not so cool,” Hunter sighed, knowing that the disciplinarian, Igneous, and the prankish mercenary, Magma, would be along, too, making his life miserable.

            “Again, you deceive yourself,” Shadow’s mind talk burst in, commandeering Hunter’s thoughts. “You say Magma and Igneous cause you misery, but the truth is you revere them!”


*          *          *


             Igneous, military commander of the Spider Riders, was one of few in the ranks prepared for war. He and Petra had been spending their ‘down time,’ as Hunter called it, training a crack team of young riders whose status was just moving from novice to warrior. Igneous did his best to hide the pride he had in the unit voting unanimously to nickname themselves “Igneous’s Rocks.” Some were those from the long disbanded Lost Legion that fought at the Battle of the Ice Caves and became legendary at the Battle of the Sands.

            It had not been Igneous’s choice to have Sparkle in his unit. She was two years younger than any of his warriors, but King Arachna’s order had been clear. “Keep her out of trouble,” the king had said. “Train her with your unit.”

            When the Oracle’s call came to Igneous, he knew instantly that Sparkle was one of the six riders ordered by the Oracle to undertake the special mission. It was disconcerting for Igneous to find eight year old Princess Sparkle and her equally infantile spider inside his head. His hope sank at having to take with him on this vital mission the one Spider Rider least prepared.


*          *          *


             “Hizz-zaahhhh!” Magma shouted, his famed battle cry. Magma was in a full combat duel with a renegade cockroach warrior over a kill-card game that contained one too many kill cards in the deck.

            The duel was taking place in the ramshackle old Arachnian arena at the center of the outlaw city of Salacia. Here, nestled amid the ruins of an ancient civilization predating even the Arachnians by thousands of years, was a colony where thieves and smugglers and illicit merchants came to hawk their wares. It was also a gathering place for warriors without armies, human and Insector alike, living precariously together in an Oracle-forsaken settlement. No spiders, scorpion mounts, or battle beetles were allowed in the city, nor was manacle power. Thus Magma faced the cockroach warrior on foot and without armor.

            In the stands, betting ran amok among the mob of rogues and ne’er-do-wells that populated Salacia. Salacia was once an outpost of the Arachnians, but its distance from their beloved plateau city, and the ghosts that are said to haunt the ruins, drove the Arachnians away leaving Salacia to the ravages of the unethical. Magma felt right at home. He belonged in a wanton city, and in the arena, where his club deflected a mighty blow from the cockroach warrior’s mace and chain. The grizzled warriors who came to Salacia were now mercenaries, like Magma and his opponent. With peace the rule of the land, mercenary work had been scarce, and tempers short.

            Magma was deftly catching his opponent’s flurry of vicious strikes on the shaft of his club when he received the Oracle’s call. No time for sport, Magma thought. He dropped down into a crouch and spun his body in a blur, his club extended at the end of the leather thong attached to his wrist. The huge battle club hissed horizontally through the air in a wide circle just above the ground. It undercut the cockroach warrior and broke two of his legs.

            Magma approached the fallen cockroach. The downed warrior flinched when Magma reached down to take the money pouch from his defeated opponent’s belt. Magma poured the number of gold plaques he felt he deserved from the pouch into his hand.

            “My legs are broken!” the cockroach warrior rasped in great pain.

            “That’s the price you pay for cheating at kill cards,” Magma shrugged then he flung the rest of the gold and the pouch down on his fallen foe. “Coulda been worse,” Magma threatened, and then he turned and hurried away to the cheers of the vast majority who had bet on him.

            On the outskirts of Salacia Magma’s battle spider, Brutus, was finishing a meal of dragonfly. The dragonfly was even bigger than Brutus, an airplane-sized creature stuck in the only thing bigger, Brutus’s colossal web. Mutated insects of the Inner World came in two sizes: the seven foot tall warriors of the Insector armies, and the big bugs. Insectors had humanoid characteristics. They walked upright, had languages, and large brains. The big bugs were just bugs, but they were behemoth. They had small brains, and served the intelligent Insectors as battle mounts—and as food. The spider/rider relationship was much different. The two divergent species were partners in survival.

            Brutus had heard the call of the Oracle, having passed it on to his rider over the mind link. He was already moving past a wooded area where he knew telepathically Magma would emerge. Magma ran out of the trees and swung himself aboard like a Western cowboy. Like a cowboy he straddled the narrowest body segment of his giant unarmored battle spider which was about the same width of a saddled horse. There the similarity ended. Magma pulled his manacle from a leather pouch attached to the spider’s neck hairs. He laid it across his right forearm and it attached itself with a magical hiss. Brutus and Magma had telepathically agreed that they would make much better time in pedestrian mode, free of heavy armor. Magma reminded Brutus that they would have to detour around the dangerous Salt Flats, so they were going to be late.


*          *          *


            Prince Lumen was pacing as he had been since the call of the Oracle came. Igneous, Sparkle, Hunter and Corona stood before him, all in pedestrian mode, but with stun swords at their sides and manacles in place.

            “He’s late! Why is he always late?” Lumen fretted.

            “He’s not a true Spider Rider, anymore,” Igneous shrugged. “He’s a mercenary, now. A manacle for hire.”

            “Yet Magma is one of the six the Oracle has summoned for our mission,” Prince Lumen reminded Igneous.

            “I, too, question the Oracle’s logic when she reaches out to Magma for a mission,” Igneous agreed, “but he has always proved vital to victory.”

            “He’s undependable. Unreliable!” Lumen suggested.

            “Talking about me?” Magma said, striding into the room, dusty and disheveled from his duel and long ride.

            “Ah, Magma,” Lumen sighed with relief, pasting on a statesman’s smile. “Now, we can begin.

            The six young warriors all raised their arms. “Arachna Power!” they all shouted.

            The silver manacles forever attached to their left forearms glowed. Teleporting out of the manacles, in rapid staccato clinks, sleek fitted plates of armor appeared, transforming the teen warriors into battle mode. At the same instant, special manacle weapons hummed into their hands fully charged.

            In the spider assembly area outside the palace, six battle spiders stood waiting. They flinched only slightly as great sheets of armor spread over their vast bodies, all powered by their riders’ manacles, a gift from the Oracle.

            Inside the throne room the Spider Riders had all transformed, each into their own personally inspired suit of armor. Each had their own unique weaponry, conjured up by the riders in mind link with their spiders, and created by the Oracle through the manacles.

            “I love it when the armor thing happens and we get ready to jam!” Hunter whispered excitedly to Magma.

            “I just wish I’d had time to take a bath,” Magma whispered back as the contingent followed gleaming, freshly armored young Prince Lumen to the back of the throne room.

            Prince Lumen touched the mosaic on the wall. It was a portrait of Lumen’s dead mother, and it recognized his touch. The hidden passageway to the Sacred Sepulcher ground open in the massive rear wall. Down into the depths the six Spider Riders went, down spiraling stone steps to the Oracle’s chamber far below, down where they would receive their orders, again to save their world.