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"Return of the Soul Eater"


Secret Missions

            The system of bells Arachna City used to organize the populace was ingenious in its simplicity. Since the sun never moved, there was no sense of time. Shadows remained forever where they were born, unless attached to the mobile. The intellectuals devised a mathematical formula that divided time based on the inexorable need for sleep, and its average duration. Thus ?sleeps? were the accepted term for days, which began when one awakened.

            First bell alerted any Spider Riders scheduled for patrol or escort duty, and farmers, fishermen, and gatherers who, with Spider Rider escort, got an early start on their day. Everyone else could go back to sleep for awhile.

            Second bell began the day for merchants, teachers, students, politicians, and spider attendants, most of which never left the safety of the plateau.

            Third bell came about fourteen hours later, when the intellectuals had decided it was time for all Arachnians to conclude their activities for the day. The bells were by no means a law, merely a convenience for humans who thirsted for some sort of order. Igneous was a great believer in order. The Oracle had given him a mission that first day when the tomb was first opened; a secret mission that strangely came to him in a dream and involved the Earthen.

            Hunter was at the west wall long before first bell when the city was asleep. No Shadow! The boy instantly began to panic. Spiders were incredibly punctual. He called out telepathically, but got no answer. Paranoia gripped him when he remembered that they were to stay off mind talk. Had he already compromised the mission? Shadow couldn?t reply even if he?d left his mind open for contact, which he wouldn?t have. And the paranoia?was it the work of Sklar?

            ?Get control!? Hunter hissed to himself.

            An eternity later, the welcome shape of the spider came around the corner of one of the wide streets designed for spider access. Shadow silently raced up to Hunter, but said nothing. They both had had the Oracle dream, and she had told them to maintain mind link silence. Hunter felt left in the dark about the whole thing. Was his brain not worthy enough to fight the monster? Then Hunter realized that these were not thoughts he would ever normally have. He would never question the Oracle?s wishes. It must be the Soul Eater, probing, listening. That very thought, though, certainly didn?t help with the paranoia!

            Hunter fought the thought, climbed up the spider?s mandibles to Shadow?s back, and Shadow went noiselessly over the wall so nimbly he was but a blur. It was on the opposite side of the plateau from where the Spider Rider army awaited the coming of Sklar. Shadow ran away from the plateau fast, using the great plateau itself to hopefully block any detection by probing senses the entity might employ. Once they reached Lake Arachna, they turned north. They circled at great distance from the plateau, not speaking, moving fast but quietly, and avoiding notice. It would be a long arduous run before they could get behind the deadly ancient relic without detection. How far could the monster?s thoughts reach? Shadow would know what to do, the boy assured himself.

            At the base of the plateau, all the riders, forever dependent on their spiders, could no longer communicate with them by order of the Oracle. They couldn?t risk Sklar learning their battle plans. The riders could speak to each other, but had to stay off the link. Fear gnawed at the younger riders. They couldn?t tell if it was Sklar?s influence, or if it was real. Just having to consider it was depressing them.

            Then the spiders of Petra?s army all began to move at once. It was disconcerting for their human riders not to be in on the shielded mind link the spiders were using to organize a vast changing of the guard. Led by Igneous on Flame, the two hundred Spider Riders of first army surged over the defense walls and down the side of the plateau. Petra?s second army separated, and allowed their replacements an open path. Then, the spiders of Petra?s army turned and began up the side of the plateau to rest and to top off the charges on their manacles. Their commander would be the last to leave.

            ?I might?ve known you?d be late and relieve us just before the entity arrives,? Petra smiled.

            ?Troop assembly was a circus,? Igneous sighed.

            ?We aren?t ready for this,? Petra complained. ?We have trained for multiple targets on a vast battlefield. This single deadly entity. We?re not prepared for it.?

            ?I know,? Igneous said. ?Have your riders watch from the walls. I?ve worked up a firing procedure with first army. To get more than one plasma blast on the target at the same time. With mind link shut down, your riders will have to learn by watching. Can?t let it know our strategy.?

            Petra shook her head unconvinced then her spider turned to follow her weary army up the side of the plateau.


*          *          *


            Venus, then Brutus, swam the swollen river and were half way across the vast grassy plain when Venus came to a stop in the rain. Corona gave Magma and Brutus the hand sign to halt. Both rolled their eyes and stopped, though the sight of Venus stopping was ample warning. Venus crept slowly forward, one massive leg at a time feeling its way. They were at a rise in the grassy plain and the spiders peeked over it. There trudging purposely away from them was Sklar. It was their first visual contact with the monster, and gave all four a sickening in their stomachs. Soon, Sklar would be able to see the plateau.

            Brutus twitched, and Magma whirled, great club at the ready. What he saw made him smile. Hunter and Shadow had come up on them from behind.

            ?Well, well, look who it is?? Magma laughed.

            ?I said no talking!? Corona snapped, but when she saw who it was, she squealed, ?Hunter!?

            Hunter smiled. ?It?s okay to talk. Just stay off the link. The spiders have shielded the link and are generating phony strategy talk while working secretly on real strategy.? Hunter saw Dungobeet webbed to the back of Brutus. ?I see you picked up a passenger,?

            ?Yeah,? Corona said, ?he was helping the tomb raider. He?s involved in this up to his buggy little eyeballs.?

            Hunter knew the little beetle was Mantid?s agent, not the tomb raider?s. He?d once seen Dungobeet at Mantid?s fortress as though he were a regular guest. He knew the little dung beetle was cozy with the Insector leader. That worried him. Hunter kept this knowledge to himself. They all had enough to worry about. The thought of Mantid returning to the Inner World might be too much. ?I have orders from the Oracle,? Hunter said. ?You are no longer to follow the entity.?

            ?Why not? We were about to attack it, weren?t we, Corona?? Magma exclaimed.

            ?Not really,? she replied. ?What are the orders??

            ?We have to recover the gems,? the boy said.

            ?And we can do this how?? Corona asked so cutely Hunter wanted to jump spider to spider and hug her.

            ?The Oracle has located them on the northern rim,? he said instead. ?A little town called Salacia.

            ?Salacia?? Magma chuckled. ?Why didn?t you say so??

            ?I did,? Hunter blinked.

            ?Little town. Hah!? Magma laughed.

            Corona gave the hand signal for ?Follow me!? but Magma shouted, louder than necessary, ?Brutus knows the way with all nine of his eyes closed!? and the three spiders ran off one behind the other to the north following Magma.


*          *          *


            Mantid landed on the outskirts of Salacia. He crept through a woodsy area and came upon a human woman hanging clothes on a line behind a farmer?s dingy hut. Her back was to him as he spied between the trees through the eye-pods of a practiced predator.

            A human, Mantid thought. How he detested them. How he wanted to creep up behind that throbbing bag of meat and sever her head with his vicious claws. ?Must be discreet,? the crazed creature said to himself. So instead of killing her, he waited until the rotund little woman left for another load. Mantid scurried forward and stole a long black hooded cape from her line.


*          *          *


            When the three riders reached the outskirts of Salacia, Hunter and Corona went into pedestrian mode pulling down the long roomy sleeves of their airy garments to hide their manacles. Magma needed no such camouflage. Everyone in Salacia knew he was a Spider Rider, though some Spider Riders questioned his wardrobe. His scant vest and loincloth sufficed.

            Shadow, Brutus and Venus had to stay behind, for spiders were not permitted in the city. Each of the three humans touched their companion spider in some way. It was the only manner in which they could risk communicating. Corona nuzzled Venus good-bye. Magma gave Brutus a love tap on the shoulder with his big human fist. Hunter looked into his battle spider?s multiple eye-pods and?winked! What in earth does that mean, Shadow thought? But he didn?t dare ask, for the entity was listening. Shadow quickly put his mind to strategy.

            ?We can mind ride with our riders without them, nor the entity, knowing it,? Shadow said in shielded spider talk.

            ?How do you know the relic isn?t just making you think it can?t detect shielded spider talk?? Brutus worried uncharacteristically. ?It may be listening at this very moment.?

            ?A chance we have to take,? Shadow replied. ?At worst, it will only serve to divert the creature from the Oracle to here. We?ll have plenty of time to get out of its way.?

            ?Yes, it?s slow moving, bogged down by the sins of the past,? Venus said mystically.

            ?What are you talking about?? Shadow said with concern.

            ?It was the entity,? she replied, snapping to. ?I lost my concentration for a moment. Everything?s okay.?

            ?It?s probing us. Trying to find out information. Fight it. Shield yourselves. We mind ride with our riders,? Shadow continued. ?If they get into trouble, we break the human law against spiders and enter the city.?

            ?Don?t you find it insulting there should even be a human law against spiders?? Brutus postulated. ?Do spiders have a spider law against humans??

            ?No,? Shadow sighed, knowing the influence of Sklar was now at work in Brutus, ?but that?s just because we only stopped eating them about two hundred years ago!?

            The three spiders laughed, in their own peculiar way then Shadow helped them all push Sklar out of their thoughts by joking that, if they got hungry, Brutus had a little snack webbed to his back. Again, the spiders laughed.

            Dungobeet lay, still imprisoned, there on Brutus?s back. He was soaked by the rains, and webbed down like a common fly, unaware that three giant spiders were having a good laugh at his miserable expense.


*          *          *


            Aqune hid her face in the recesses of the hood of her snow white cloak. The city of Maritopia was like a bee hive. It was a pleasure city, where goods from all corners of the Inner World, and much more, were for sale. Gambling was the biggest import, mostly run by humans or Insectors with an unethical bent. Two bounty hunters, one human, one Insector, spotted Aqune.

            ?It?s her, I tell you!? the human bounty hunter whispered. ?Her name?s Aqune. Former Spider Rider. Wanted for treason.?

            ?Not good,? the Insector said. ?A Spider Rider might be hard to capture.?

            ?What is good is the king?s reward offer,? the human said, ?And this Spider Rider has no spider and no manacle.?

            The caravan reached the busy marketplace and the crush of people and Insectors increased. When the caravan riders tied up their mounts outside a central building, Aqune tied up the cockroach she?d borrowed and, using the crowded mounts to block the view of her, she slipped into a dark alley. The bounty hunters weren?t fooled and followed. Both drew stun pistols, the favorite capture device of their trade. By royal decree, all wanted criminals had to be delivered alive. King Arachna was a strict ruler, but he was not a tyrant.

            In the alley, the bounty hunters could see the back of her white cloak clearly, but she turned a corner, then another, and stayed just out of range. The alley led to the docks where Aqune would be trapped against the lake. The bounty hunters came out of the alley and saw her at the end of the dock, a light fog shrouding her form. Both of them fired, both striking the cloak with a blue stun beam. But she didn?t fall! Aqune swung herself up from under the dock, drew her stun sword and put her two pursuers to sleep before they could fire another shot. Aqune then went to retrieve her cloak from the post where she?d hung it as a decoy, neatly slipped it on, and disappeared into the foggy night.