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“Return of the Soul Eater”



Just in Case


            Magma and Corona had no idea what was happening outside. Spider mind link was down, a strange empty silence in its place. The two could still talk to their own spiders, but they couldn’t reach their comrades outside.

            “It’s the tunnels,” Magma had long decided. “The walls are coated with buggie spit. Telepathic thought can’t get through. I once tried to call for help from in here. None came.”

            “Was it bad?” Corona asked. “When you were a captive of the Centipedians?”

            “Does a wasp warrior have a stinger?” Magma laughed. “I was in the ranks. At the Battle of the Rift.”

            “A great victory for Prince Lumen,” she smiled.

            “I was under his command. We got caught in a buggie ambush. I got separated. Had a dead spider and a depleted manacle. The riders didn’t know I’d been captured. Many were lost that day. They thought I was among them.”

            “The prince—he must have been so young,” she noted.

            “Yes, well, that’s the way it’s always been. The royal family pushes their kids into service ahead of the others,” he said with an edge to it.

            Suddenly, Venus broke in. “I’ve detected something strange. All Centipedians at the excavation site have—ceased to exist.”

            “There are plenty of them coming from this direction!” Brutus said, his sensors pointed the opposite way toward the main body of The Lair.

            “I’m worried about Igneous and Hunter,” Corona said aloud. “They should have taken control of the tomb by now. Called on us to close the trap. Come on, Magma. Let’s close it, anyway.”

            “But we’re about to see battle here!” Magma whined, as the thunder of ten thousand feet echoed toward them down the tunnel leading in from The Lair.

            “Seal it, and follow me!” Corona shouted, as Venus turned and lurched off toward the excavation site some distance behind them.

            Magma pouted, and then obeyed, for it was King Arachna’s order that, when Magma was hired into service, he was under the command of all other Spider Riders. He shot a hot plasma blast up into the ceiling bringing it down, blocking the tunnel. “Hope she knows what we’re doing,” Magma said to Brutus. “We just cut off our only way out!”

            “They didn’t die,” Corona said, jumping down off Venus and studying the Centipedian foot prints in the fresh earth. “They all just went into the tomb.” The girl warrior looked inside. “Then they died!” she winced.

            Corona could not believe what she saw inside the tomb. The earth floor had been torn outward as if a great force had unearthed itself there. Dead Centipedian warriors littered the place, their bodies twisted like pretzels.

            Corona went further in, climbing over Centipedian corpses piled close to an escape route far too small. She had her deadly Oracle bow at the ready, now holding a stun arrow drawn taut in her bowstring. Corona scanned the floor of the tomb. No Hunter. No Igneous. She scanned the walls and saw empty hollows where the gems had been.

            “The gems!” she said to Venus aloud. “They’re gone!”

            “And the entity’s escaped,” Venus noted, peeking in through the small opening the Centipedians had made. “It is as the Oracle feared.”

            Magma arrived with more bad news.

            “They’re breaking through,” he said. “Great diggers, those buggies. They’ll be on us in a moment.”

            “There,” Venus called, and with her mind told Corona where to look. Two thick strands of web hung down from the opening in the high ceiling. “It was the last thing Shadow told me before mind link was lost. Just in case, he said.”

            “Remind me to kiss that spider when we get home,” Corona smiled, coming back out of the tomb and stepping several yards away from it. The spiders backed up, knowing Corona’s intent. “Plasma arrow!” she called out.

            The deadly red plasma arrow flashed out of her manacle and into her hand. She notched and fired it into the top of the opening. The explosion blew gritty dust over all of them, but a hole had been made big enough for spiders.

            Once in the tomb, the spiders raced over the Centipedian bodies and leaped over the chasm Sklar had created in the floor. They caught the hanging webs with spider alacrity and went up the webs left by Shadow and Flame.

            Half way up, they saw a comical sight: Dungobeet hanging in the shadows in his ropes by an empty gem socket. He’d been hoping not to be noticed, but Magma’s eyes were keen. “What have we here?” Magma grinned.

            “Well, heh, heh. Spider Riders! I’m saved!” the little beetle bug beamed with false elation.

            “Bring him along,” Corona said. “I have a feeling he knows more about all this than do we.”

            By the time the Centipedian army reached the tomb and took many of their number inside, all the Spider Riders had escaped. Only the warrior cohort lay strewn and broken about the tomb. There was nothing left for the Centipedian army to do but devour their dead.


*          *          *


             Aqune went to the obelisk. It was her connection to the Oracle. She had not spoken with the Oracle since she was captured, and her manacle and spider taken from her. The Oracle had summoned her telepathically, but the message had come in a dream. The Oracle had never contacted her that way. Aqune placed her arms in the Oracle position, and she began to chant, to call to her mistress, to rekindle her relationship of hand-maiden to the powerful entity. She was uncharacteristically nervous about what the Oracle wished to ask of her. It was the Oracle that supplied them all with their manacles, guided the humans and their spiders toward survival, and gave her light to all.

            Aqune chanted longer than she had ever had to before. Was it her great distance from the underground sepulcher where the Oracle resided? Or was it something else. Something interfering with what used to be clear and quick contact. The difficulty bothered her. Aqune chanted until she went into a trance. It was a standing sleep, and the Oracle, at last, felt it safe to speak.

            “I know that you have been banished, have become a fugitive,” the Oracle said in the dream inside Aqune’s head. “I seek to help you win back your honor, to return you to the ranks of the Spider Riders. Your way will be perilous, but your purpose a worthy one.”

            “I will obey, great Oracle,” Aqune said. “But I will not betray the Insectors.”

            “That is not part of my equation,” the Oracle said. “Negotiating with the Insectors is. They must be convinced to forego their grievances against the Spider Riders. To commit themselves to helping the Spider Riders against a most dangerous mutual foe: The legendary Soul Eater, Sklar.”

            “Sklar is loose?” gasped Aqune, and then she gained control, and asked, “What must I do first in order to negotiate this agreement, my Oracle?”

            “Free your negotiator.”

            Inside his cocoon, Buguese stirred. In a dream, the Oracle came to him, told him of her plans, and what to do. The Oracle’s message burst into the deep and dreary sleep Buguese had endured for some time. It was the spider sleep dart and cocooning that enveloped Buguese in unconsciousness. It was empty endless darkness interrupted only by the daily words of comfort from Aqune. Buguese had been cocooned during the rebellion, an Insector Colony uprising he led shortly after the end of the war. Again Aqune tried to help, and was branded by the humans with accusations of treason. The Spider Riders crushed what became known as the Buguese Rebellion, and stored his cocoon in the Cave of Cocoons. Now Aqune knew why the Oracle did not stop her when Aqune infiltrated the Cave of Cocoons and stole Buguese’s entombing chrysalis away. The Oracle knew this day would come.


*          *          *


             “We have put a good distance between ourselves and the entity,” Shadow said as the four spiders agreed to slow their pace to conserve energy.

            “We can’t lead it to the plateau,” Hunter worried.

            “It is already fixed on the plateau. It wants the Oracle,” Shadow said to all telepathically. “We are fortunate it moves slowly. We’ll have time to prepare.”

            Hunter was afraid. How could they ‘prepare?’ Hunter saw the monster up close, smelled its stench. He’d felt both the entity’s physical power, and its clawing, despicable mental attack. This creature was like no other enemy the Spider Riders had ever faced. It was coming, coming for the heart of the Spider Riders, the source of their strength, coming for the Oracle.