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"Return of the Soul Eater"




            Hunter’s group of four, he, Igneous, Sparkle and Prince Lumen, were half way across the grassy plain between the river and the plateau. The beast was well behind them, traveling slow, but resolute. The plateau had just come into view when it began again to rain. Bolts of lightning crackled down from the black swirl of clouds above the distant plateau city. Lightning was rare. Seldom did the Inner World’s weak cloud formations produce rain, and almost never lightning. One jagged bolt touched a spire of the city. It was a bad omen. Spider Riders weren’t superstitious, yet all had the same superstitious notion, felt the same touch of doom in the lightning strike. What was it that made them feel so forlorn?

            “It’s Sklar!” Shadow said to all. “It’s making you feel these things. These signs of defeat. This hopelessness. It’s trying to break our will! Don’t give in!”

            It was then that the Oracle came to them.

            “Shadow is correct. You must resist Sklar’s debilitating mental influence,” the Oracle said inside all their heads. “Return to the plateau city, my children. It was made for my defense.”

            “So be it,” Prince Lumen proclaimed. “We’ll make our stand at Arachna City!”

            Clearing their minds of the grasping fingers of Sklar as best they could, the four Spider Riders pushed their pace more urgently, thundering toward the plateau through the driving rain.


*          *          *


            The rain always turned to snow in the distant Forbiddens. Though tall and craggy, it was not their vertical height that brought the snow and freezing winds to this vast range of mountains. It was the lateral distance that positioned the Forbiddens far from the warmth of the molten core. The core was the Inner World’s constant sun, the source of all life down here. And, though they didn’t know it, it was the fire that gave life to all creatures, even those of the Outer World. This mystic molten core of creation was also the source of the Oracle’s power. It was the power sought by the Soul Eater. With it, and with its own inherent devious devices, Sklar would conquer—everything!

            Aqune went down the mountain on foot. The trek reminded her of how much she missed her spider. She was wearing a white cloak with concealing hood, which allowed her to blend with the snow should enemy eyes be searching for her. Aqune wasn’t even sure who her enemies were, anymore. She knew she still held some respect among the Spider Riders. Hunter and Corona, and even stuffy Igneous, had testified on her behalf before the court. But the Royal Family and most Arachnians stood against her. She had betrayed her kind.

            Aqune stood where the Oracle had told her to stand, along the seldom traveled trail used by the human colonies in the Outer Reaches. They sometimes went this way to reach the populated areas nearer the sun. Above the wind and the thump of heavy snow, she heard the guttural buzz of a large insect. Her hand gripped the hilt of the stun sword she always carried. The small brained really big bugs sometimes went for human prey. How she wished she still had her manacle. The sounds proved to be those of a caravan of human colonists bringing coal, silks and rare ice gems to the cities. They were driving carts pulled by giant beetles. Outriders rode domesticated cockroaches the size of horses. These were quick and agile, and seemed to flourish even in the freezing Outer Reaches. The cockroach riders carried sharp pikes and bows and arrows, and looked to be a surly lot. Instead, it was as the Oracle had promised. None of the travelers recognized Aqune, and the caravan master was an obliging bearded fellow who welcomed her, and her stun sword, into his wary band. They lent her a cockroach mount and would take Aqune as far as the port city of Maritopia on Lake Arachnia. There, she could arrange transport by ship or domesticated giant dragonfly across the lake to the plateau city of the Arachnians. In Arachnia, the danger would increase, for there she would surely be recognized.


*          *          *


            “What of Magma and Corona?” Petra said, alarmed at not seeing them among the raiders returning to the plateau city.

            “They got cut off,” Igneous panted. “I think they’re okay. The thing isn’t after them. It’s coming here. When it gets here, use only plasma blasts. Try to synchronize them. Hit it with more than one at a time.”

            “That’ll drain our manacles pretty quickly,” Petra worried.

            “I’ll lead first army down to relieve you. If we can’t stop it, we’ll fall back to the plateau.”

            “Can’t stop it?” Petra blanched. “Two hundred manacles can’t stop it?”

            “You haven’t seen this thing. We have to hold as long as we can! I’m going to have the wall cannons reconfigured from stun to plasma.”

            The four returning spiders lurched forward. At the same instant the two hundred strong army of armored battle spiders, knowing their riders’ intent telepathically, all shuffled right and left. This allowed a wide aisle down their middle so the four returning Spider Riders could reach the base of the plateau. Though the sides of the muddy plateau were slick with rain, the barbed legs of the spiders had little trouble going up the thousand feet to the city at the top. As the four spiders climbed over the outer defense walls, Flame and Igneous dropped off to tell the city guard how to reconfigure their wall cannons. There, also, first army was awaiting Igneous’s command.

            “We’ll ready third army,” Prince Lumen shouted, and then he and his sister raced into the city on their spiders.

            Igneous estimated that Sklar would take a long time to cover the distance the Spider Riders had covered. He ordered Hunter to get some sleep. Hunter objected. There was too much to do! They had to rescue Corona and Magma!

            “They can rescue themselves,” the tired commander of the Spider Riders said curtly. “You made a mistake at the tomb.”

            “Yeah, sorry about that. Forgot to call for the narrow beam.”

            “Your full plasma blast opened the tomb too wide. Allowed for the creature’s escape. The Arachna court is convening a rider tribunal at first bell to investigate and devise any punishment.”

            “Punishment?” Hunter sputtered. “You saw that thing! It was gonna get out of there no matter what!”

            “Look, it’s just a formality. I’m the only witness. I’ll tell them Sklar probably clouded your mind. You need some rest, anyway. So do I.”

            “I can’t sleep with Corona in trouble and this thing coming at us.”

            “Go to your sleep chamber. You are confined to quarters, anyway.”

            “Confined to—!” Hunter angrily began, and then he stopped. Hunter felt a wave of mistrust of Igneous suddenly wash over him. It was Igneous who planned the ill-fated mission. Was he looking for a scapegoat? Someone to take the blame? Shadow, monitoring his rider’s thoughts, felt the unwarranted wave of mistrust, too, but knew immediately that it was mistrust fostered by the probing mind of the Soul Eater. In shielded mind talk he told Hunter to accept Igneous’s order. Hunter held his tongue, and Shadow leaped away carrying the boy toward the sleep chambers. Shadow dropped Hunter off without any further mind talk. That seemed strange to Hunter, too. With that, Shadow headed off to the spider compound.

            Spider Rider sleeping quarters were small windowless chambers hewn right into natural cliffs at the east end of the city. They were many, like a vast honeycomb in the cliffs which rose near the eastern wall. Lookouts were posted on the top of this natural structure, the highest point on the plateau. Wooden stairs crisscrossed the cliff face like a city tenement’s fire escapes. There was a landing at each of the chamber entrances. Strangely, the ground floor chambers were empty. The doors of the chambers were merely drapes of heavy bright colored cloth. Comfortable mats woven from soft palm fronds were placed right on the floor. Running water trickled constantly in a sink carved from stone. The water was lukewarm at all times, having passed through the superheated limestone from which the chambers were carved. This water was not for drinking. Drinking water was provided in wooden casks and remained quite cool for some time, having been drawn daily from the lake where the aeration provided by the Great Falls not only purified, but chilled the water to a most agreeable degree. There was also smoked fish, juice, raw vegetables and fruit. And a large wooden bowl of sweet honey. Hunter devoured everything, realizing for the first time that he was famished. The smoked fish was particularly good. His sleep chamber was one of a thousand dormitories that were built into a natural cliff face and reserved for riders. After eating, he bathed in the tepid water trickling through limestone and into the rough hewn stone sink in the wall. The air was hot, as it almost always was on the plateau. The rain had stopped and the constant sun broke through, mischievous little shafts of light finding their way past the heavy drape that blocked the doorway of the windowless room. Hunter found it hard to sleep in the land where the sun never set and night never came. Even the instincts of the Arachnians, whose great-great-great grandparents were born here, found it easier to sleep in the dark, thus windowless sleep quarters.

            Hunter put on a pair of the soft comfortable cotton shorts he wore under pedestrian mode. Though dog tired, he was certain he wouldn’t be able to sleep. He lay down, put his hands behind his head and looked at the rough hewn rock ceiling of the sleep chamber for some time, thinking of all that had happened. At last he closed his eyes, and before long fell asleep with a sigh in the bed of soft reeds wrapped in cloth and pillow filled with dried hollow beans. Feathers were unknown, here—no birds.

            Hunter was surprised at how fast he fell asleep. He had much on his mind, and should have tossed and turned with regret and worry. Yet how could he be conscious of such a thing if he were, in fact, sleeping?

            It was the Oracle that eased the boy’s mind, helped him to sleep. The Oracle told both Hunter and Shadow of a new mission.

            “I come to you in a dream,” she said to both, “for dreams are of the inner mind, and the entity cannot monitor them. Leave the city at first bell. Meet at the west wall. Slip over the wall in the darkness. Find Corona and Magma.”

            “Then they’re all right?” Hunter asked, but only in the dream.

            “Yes. Together with Magma and Corona, you must recover the gems that once held Sklar imprisoned. They must do so, again. The gems have been taken to the city of Salacia. I sense them there. Stay off mind link until you find the gems. Tell no one.”


*          *          *


            Prince Lumen hurried down the hall to his father’s room. Two guards stood at the door. They snapped to attention and let the prince go in. The guards shared worried, knowing glances after the prince passed.

            Inside, Lumen was met by Garnet, King Arachna’s loyal aide, a bookish woman in her eighties.

            “I seek my father’s counsel,” Lumen said, perplexed at the muted atmosphere in the room.

            “He’s taken ill,” Garnet replied in the hush reserved for sick rooms.

            Lumen brushed by her and to his father’s bedside, where two palace doctors and a nurse tended the king. King Arachna lie propped up on great pillows, breath ragged, eyes closed in what looked like impending death.

            “What happened?” Lumen gasped.

            “He fell ill while you were on your mission,” a bearded doctor said. “We can’t diagnose the problem. It’s like he’s wasting away. For no rhyme or reason!”

            Lumen and the doctors should have known. The illness that had befallen their king appeared the instant the tomb raider removed the gems from Sklar’s tomb. Sklar’s plan was to defeat the Arachnians and their Spider Riders by cutting off their head.


*          *          *


            Deep in his jungle den, Mantid paced alone.

            “Where is that dung beetle?” Mantid seethed. “He should have brought me those gems by now!” Then a thought found a home. “The tomb raider. He’s no doubt done away with the beetle and taken the gems for himself! Salacia. That’s were he’ll go, and so shall I!”

            Mantid threw off the purple cape he always wore revealing the naturally armored insect body beneath. He had powerful, sinewy legs and massive fore claws filled with deadly tines. Fire in his multiple eye-pods, Mantid hurried out of his den, down the long tunnel, and into the vast cavern of stalactites that greeted all visitors.

            Mantid came out where the monolithic face of him rose up to allow his exit. His brisk walk became a powerful gait as he ran through the jungle and into the clearing. Two pairs of crystalline wings unfurled from hollows on his back and they began to whir. Mighty Mantid shot up into the sky, arcing sharply in the direction of Salacia.

            It felt good to get out.