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“Return of the Soul Eater”


The Bridge


            Corona and Magma, on their spiders Venus and Brutus, followed the huge skeletal footprints of the ancient entity in the wet sand. It led them through the rain and across the vast desert. Dungobeet jostled on Brutus’s back behind Magma, securely webbed down, only his head and feet exposed.

            The rain pelted Dungobeet like little punishments, punishments for his stupidity in throwing in his lot with that loser, Mantid. Punishments for his naïveté in joining forces with the traitorous Zelus Renard. Things would be different, now. Now, Dungobeet would become an ally of the Spider Riders. He had information to sell. No low level bargaining with the likes of this bunch. The first chance he got, Dungobeet would demand an audience with King Arachna.

            “Still can’t get through,” Venus said in mind talk. “The escaped entity is between us and our fellow riders. Blocking our telepathic transmissions.”

            “Let’s stay off mind link and slow down,” Corona said.

            “Go off mind link? Slow down?” Magma bellowed. “We need to move! Get into it!”

            “I don’t want to overtake the entity,” Corona explained. “It defeated Igneous and Hunter, and killed a whole cohort of crack Centipedian warriors.”

            “Are you afraid?” Magma laughed.

            “Aren’t you?” she shot back. “This thing needs to be studied. We need to find its weaknesses, if it has any. We’re going to stalk it. It doesn’t know we’re behind it.”

            “How do you know that?”

            “It hasn’t turned on us and killed us.”

            Magma was stymied, and grinned. “You didn’t say ‘yet.’”

            “Venus has gone to natural senses and full stealth,” Corona said, squinting ahead into the rain for any sign of Sklar. “I’ll be using hand signals,” she absently added.

            “Hand signals?” Magma scowled. “Am I back in the Children’s Brigades? Back in school!”

            “No talking!” Corona hissed.


*          *          *


            Second army, with Petra at its head, was on its way to secure the tomb. The ranks had been depleted by the Insector Wars. The Spider Riders could field less than six hundred warriors. These, Petra and Igneous had divided into three armies, ten battle groups each. Over the centuries, the Spider Riders had learned that more than twenty riders involved in any one major engagement proved problematic. Any more, and even the agile battle spiders often ran into each other, and crossfire became a problem.

            Petra was worried that the Spider Riders were not prepared for this mission. To secure and defend a large area of enemy ground and hold it was not something they’d been trained to do. She was actually relieved when Igneous’s telepathic message came. He told Petra that the entity had escaped, and to withdraw her army to the base of the plateau. There, two hundred Spider Riders now stood in armor, waiting in the rain.

            The spiders groused to each other in shielded spider talk about the conditions, the leaky armor, could you believe that meal last night? But they were warriors, and grousing was a military tradition.

            The spiders were ready, but many of the young riders were shaken by reports teleported into their minds by the spiders at the front. Magma and Corona were still missing, out of mind link for some time. What was this thing that defeated six Spider Riders by itself, this thing even the Oracle feared? Some wondered how they could ever have been so foolish as to have joined the Spider Riders. It was Sklar, clouding their minds with doubt.

            “Cease those thoughts!” Petra scolded to those thus thinking. “It’s the entity, trying to seduce you! Maintain your composure, riders!” she said through her spider.

            Even the young riders obeyed, for they believed in the angular Petra, who had maintained her own composure while lying in a cocoon for more than a year. She’d been terribly wounded in the Battle of the Lair during the great campaign. Petra was dying. As a last resort the spiders tried a technique long theorized by spider intellectuals, as if any one of them weren’t. It involved stunning and cocooning a human who was near death from illness, or from battle wounds. The theory was that time in spider induced cocoon sleep lowered the human’s metabolism, gave wounds time to heal. Petra was the first to test the spider theory, and made a joyful return from death’s door.


*          *          *


            The four fleeing riders came to the bridge over the churning river that had been swollen by the rains. The river wound its way through the Inner World like a large angry snake. Of course, there were no reptiles in the Inner World, so the analogy would be lost on all but Hunter. The bridge was a vast expanse of stone and wood built by the Arachnians. The river separated the plateau city from the mysteries of the jungles. Gatherers of rare fruits and medicines needed easy access to the abundant jungles. For these purposes, the great bridge was built. In the old days, Spider Riders had to escort these gatherers and police the land, for the jungles were the domain of the Invectids.

            “We have to destroy it,” Igneous said as they approached the massive structure over the raging river.

            “Destroy Turandot Bridge?” Sparkle exclaimed. “Why?”

            “To keep the beast from using it.”

            Using standard Spider Rider hand signals, Igneous ordered all four spiders to cross the bridge single file over the swollen river. The thought of the surging current beneath him made Shadow queasy, but he kept it to himself.

            Once they’d crossed the bridge, Igneous brought them to a stop and they all turned to face the structure.

            “Let’s be done with it,” Prince Lumen sighed, warming up his manacle with a touch.

            “No,” Igneous said, “we wait until the entity comes. Wait until it’s crossing the bridge. Then we do it.”

            “Must we all stay?” Prince Lumen wondered.

            “It’ll take all four manacles. Plasma blasts. Maybe it’ll be swept away by the river. Maybe it’ll drown.”

            “What if it can read our minds? Knows what we are planning?” Lumen asked.

            “We have sent false messages,” Shadow said in shielded telepathy, “made it believe we are still bearing down on the plateau.”

            Igneous had the spiders move beyond a hill so the entity wouldn’t see them. The four riders dismounted, Sparkle, at Hunter’s elbow, crouched in the ferns along the bank overlooking the bridge. They waited in the rain.

            “Such weather we’re having,” Sparkle said to Hunter, trying to start a conversation.

            “On the surface, they have hurricanes,” Hunter replied. “It rains ten times harder than this, and it has winds that blow away whole cities.”

            “Cool,” Sparkle grinned, using what she was certain was Hunter’s favorite word.

            It seemed an eternity, as though the entity would never come. Waiting in the rain ate at the riders, made them jumpy. Then there came a distant roar. It was as though Sklar the Soul Eater was letting them know it was coming.

            “Distance viewers,” Igneous said.

            The humans had a device in their manacles for long distance viewing, and many other functions. It came out of the manacle and crawled up their arms like a spider, locking itself over the rider’s right eye. The rider could then see extremely far, even zoom in on a target. It also provided a digital readout of precise distance to target.

            The head of the lumbering apparition appeared over a distant hill. The riders tensed, each aiming their manacles at an assigned support tower to take down the bridge when Igneous gave the command. Sklar thundered methodically right up to the bridge and began to cross. When it was at the middle, Igneous whispered, “Now!”

            “Plasma blast!” all four riders shouted, and their manacles shot out the orange stream that crushed stone and melted steel. The supports crumbled, the bridge hung a moment then, as Sklar bellowed, the entire span plunged into the river. Great chunks of stone landed on Sklar, taking the beast under. The riders scanned the river downstream with their distance viewers hoping their fears would be unfounded. Together, their hearts sank as they saw Sklar rise head and shoulders out of the river and continue walking on the river bottom toward the shore.

            “Let’s get to the plateau,” Igneous said, sagging in defeat. Could nothing stop this thing?