Croatoan, Earth : Church of Echoes : Part 123

Croatoan, Earth : Church of Echoes : Part 123

A sharp whistle from Carmine stopped the crawlers in their tracks, and the one on Dax's boot slowly lowered its front legs in response. Carmine, for his part, was still in a lot of pain. He stood there with his eye cupped and tried several times to give the whistle that would recall them. It took four attempts, but he finally managed to give the trilling little whistle that was their command to return to their place on his vest.

The spider bot on his toe turned at the sound of the whistle and quickly skittered away, crossing the alley floor with the rest its kind as they fled Dax's presence. They hopped one-by-one onto Carmine's legs and quickly raced up the length of his body to reach the empty sockets they left behind, their tiny metallic feet clicking and ticking as they ran.

A shiver of disgust ran through Dax's body as he watched them climb over one another like a nest of daddy long legs that'd been disturbed. As soon as they located their sockets, the spiders quickly folded themselves up and fit themselves neatly back into their frames. The whole thing took seconds.

"Sorry about that. They knew I was in pain, and with all the banging my vest was doing, they reasoned that I was under attack. I wasn't, but they're too stupid to realize that. I think I'm going to have to adjust their sensitivity when we settle down this evening." Dax thought that optimistic of him. From what he could tell, it didn't look like they were going to get any down time any time soon. "Yeah. When I set their sensitivity before, I was aboard the Harbinger. On a ship you have to increase the sensitivity. The steel decks and hum of the engines aren't quite like this forest. Out there, everything is a threat. I'll adjust it later," he promised, running his hand across the surface of his vest to feel for empty sockets that might indicate he'd lost a squeaker. Finding none, he relaxed.

Dax gave him a quick, panicked nod of understanding but kept his distance. Seated or not, he had no intention of going anywhere near that vest again. He waited till Carmine was sure they were all accounted for before turning to run away. The one thing he didn't have was time. The rest of the squad was nearly a quarter mile away and moving fast. That time had and distance had to be made up, and that wasn't going to happen if the squire and he kept talking.

Carmine was quick to join him. His eye still smarted, but it felt a lot better than did a moment ago.

"What the hell are those things?" Dax asked, gesturing to the vest.

"Protection?" Carmine told him evasively.

"From what?"

"From something I'm afraid of."

"Like?" Dax pressed.

"Like the venwraith stiliovi," Carmine answered, reluctant to give up the creature's name to him. He gave the others a quick look to make sure they were still out of earshot. He needn't have worried. The quarter mile gap between them was being maintained despite Dax's attempts to close it.

Carmine wasn't sure if the knights would recognize the creature by name, and he didn't want to chance it in case they did. His hand went fearfully to his chest as he recalled the creatures that drove him from his home world.

"This has to stay between us," the squire said. "The others don't know about the creature, and I don't want them to. They'd kick me out of the Order if they knew I lied to get in."

"You had to lie?" Dax asked suspiciously.

"My people are permitted to serve in the armed forces. It was a condition stipulated by my people when we were harvested. They arranged it so that none of my people would ever be permitted to fight, so I lied about where I was from to get in. The Empire would never permit the citizens of my planet to serve in any branch of the armed services including the Grey Guard, the Imperial Army, the Air Corp, or Heidish Order. I'm not permitted to become a knight. If they discovered where I was harvested from, they would take away my armor and kick me out. They might even arrest me.

"I really want to become a knight so please don't tell. I'd do anything to become a knight. Anything. I've already done things," Carmine admitted. "If the others knew I wore this vest to protect me from the venwraith, they'd know who I was immediately. Extra precautions were taken to ensure none of the creatures stowed away with our belongings when we were harvested. The Order has seen what the venwraith can do in person. They'll know who I am if you tell them. Please don't."

"If it's such a big secret, why tell me?" Dax asked curiously.

Carmine shrugged. "I don't know. You're kind of a friend now. Makki knows my secret. We grew up together in the guilds. She's how I became a squire. What about you? You won't tell, will you?"

"I won't tell so long as you keep those crawly little bastards away from me," he said, giving Carmine's vest a look of absolute dread. "Those venwrath things–"

"Venwraith stiliopi," Carmine supplied.

"Yeah, those. Why do they terrify you so much? I mean you're still wearing the vest to protect you. How long has been since you were harvested?"

"Oh," Carmine responded. "As to that, I'm not sure. I stopped counting after a hundred fifty years. I think it's been like a hundred ninety-six or ninety-eight years or something like that. When you're implanted with an Aeonic, it doesn't really make sense to keep track. It's been a couple hundred years at least. Makki says so anyway."

"And you're still wearing the vest?" Dax asked in confusion.

"I can't sleep without it. You would have to be familiar with the venwraith to understand. They're nightmarish creatures with double stingers and a serrated beak that can chew through just about anything. They would come for my people while we slept. One stinger to sleep. One stinger to kill," Carmine recited, a shiver of fear racing through him as he recalled his parents words of caution.

"So they came in at night, tranquilized you, then killed you?" Dax asked with a shake of his head. That didn't quite sound as bad as Carmine was making it out to be. "That doesn't really sound like a fearful beast. We have creatures on this planet that are far worse than that. The Fountain Mouth for instance. Don't think my run in with it won't leave me scarred," Dax felt his own shiver of fear run up his spine at the memory of the creature's mouth slowly sliding up his body.

"The venwraith stiliopi don't kill if they don't have to. They're not out to kill. My father told me that they're like any other creature in that they just want to propagate their species. It's how they propagate that makes them horrors. They lay eggs, but they have to lay them in a live host. The killing comes later when the eggs hatch inside us.

"The venwraith come for us why we sleep. Implanting their eggs is a painful process, so they sting us to keep us from waking and to numb the effects of the implantation. The next morning, we wake feeling better than we've ever felt before and ignorant of the creatures growing inside us. On my planet, it is said that if you pass ten people on the road to market, at least two carry an egg.

"The venwraith aren't large creatures, but they are horrific. They scurry around on eight sharp little spine-like legs much like crustacean from the sea, only they can climb, burrow, and chew through barriers like wooden walls. It's absolutely . . . terrifying," Carmine declared, a haunted look shading his eyes. "Definitely terrifying."

"Sounds like it," Dax sympathized. "I can't imagine what it must have been like. Well, I can kind of imagine. I was nearly eaten by a fountain mouth. In sheer terror, the two feel equatable. "

"It was horrible," the squire confirmed. "It was all kinds of horrible. You never knew which family carried eggs till you heard their screams at night. Those with eggs in their chest never knew till the hatchlings were chewing their way out."

"Family?" Dax queried. "As in the whole family?"

"Yes. The creature has to lay its eggs in multiple host or the hatchlings will cannibalize one another upon emerging from their eggs, so the venwraith stiliopi hunt for groups of humans. Those groups, more often than not, are made up of entire families."

"Shit. After hearing that, I kind of want one of those vest," Dax joked. "Everyone on your planet wear a vest like yours?"

"No. I built this after I was harvested. We didn't have devices like this to guard us at night on my planet. We were technologically inferior to your world. I tried making crawlers similar to the ones my vest is made up of, but I didn't have the technical know how back then," confessed the squire. "I learned only after I was harvested."

"So, how'd you protect yourselves?"

"Druid's Beard," Carmine answered. "It's a dark blue flower with a yellow center that blooms at night on my planet. It's pollen is highly toxic to the venwraith. We encircled our cottages with it. We grew them in beds, in pots, and harvested its pollen so we could dust the exterior of our homes to stop the venwraith from chewing through our walls at night. It worked about half the time. The creatures are really smart. They always figure out how to get inside," Carmine admitted. "Some burrowed beneath the flower beds. Some climbed trees and scurried across its limbs to our roofs. Some fouled the soil from a distance to kill the druid's beard in their way. They're clever like that and quiet.

"The day I was harvested, I woke to the sound of my Uncle and grandparents crying out in agony as six of these creatures clawed their way out of my family members' chests. When I was harvested, I left that world and those creatures behind. I couldn't set aside the fear though. Now I can't sleep without my vest. I've tried. I really have." Carmine's hand trembled as he relived the memory his Uncle's death. He was there seconds after it happened and got to watch with his parents as the hatchlings emerged, dragging their twin stingers from the gaping wound like a pair of tails.

"That sounds horrific," Dax responded. "No wonder you wear the vest."

"It's a good vest. It comes in handy too. It actually saved my life back when Daniel and I were fighting those robots. A Jujen queen tried to get the drop on us, but my little squeakers spotted the danger and swarmed the bitch. They put a right good hurtin' on her too. Yep. I really saved the day that day," Carmine boasted. Dax couldn't tell if the kid was being serious or just posturing to make himself look good.

"Hurry up," Oro called back to them. "You're lagging too far behind. Keep the formation tight." Carmine and Dax waved to the knight to let him know they understood and put on an extra burst of speed.

"You really . . . fought robots?" Dax asked, puffing from the exertion. Carmine nodded and raised his NID before him. He messed with it a moment and brought the holoviewer up along with the recorded feed from Rektor Fi's lobby.

"This is us," Carmine told him with a grunt and a gasp of exhaustion. He tried to hold the holoviewer steady before him while he ran so Dax could watch Daniel in action, but it kept bouncing up and down with every step he took. Dax got caught the gist of what was going on though. A large grey pewter-colored robot was stomping around a ring of knights while it laid waste to dozens of green-faced security drones.

"Which one is Daniel?" Dax asked. Carmine laughed.

"Ain't that obvious," the squire replied. "He's the one in the mech suit tearing them a new one." He expanded the holoviewer to three feet so it'd be easier for Dax watch Daniel parade around in the Army in a Box he'd donned.

Carmine poked the holoviewer with three fingers to freeze the image and pointed to a blood-covered woman fleeing a inert gravity lift in the back.

"That's the Jujen queen's host that I took down, and that's me," he said, poking the holoviewer by accident to show his frightened form huddling to the rear of the knights. The feed of the lobby resumed playing without warning.

Dax watched as Daniel poured out of the front of the mech suit when the fighting was done. The squire quickly reached up to stop the next part from playing. Watching Daniel die again was not something Carmine cared to watch. That part of the recording always left him feeling empty inside.

"Don't. Let it play. Please," Dax begged.

"Y-You don't want to see what comes next. It isn't pretty."

"Please," Dax coaxed. Carmine shrugged sadly and touched the holoviewer again. The recording resumed play. Dax wasn't as emotionally invested as Carmine was in what had happened, so when he watched it, it was with a detached interest. What happened next was confusing. The drones all powered down. Daniel fell out of the center of the AIB. Everyone rushed to help him. A curly haired man embraced him. Daniel embraced him back, then a new comer came charging out of nowhere firing a halo wildly at the group of nights. Several knights were hit. One lost her arm. Another took a shot in the side. Daniel and the curly haired man, however, took a shot through their respective hearts. They went down together, holding each other even in death. That's when the beautiful woman in bloody armor came rushing up and peeled the two apart.

The grief writ upon her features was heart-wrenching, even to someone who wasn't emotionally invested in the players. Daniel looked happy though and relieved by the outcome. He seemed like a man who ran from death, but welcomed it eagerly when forced to face it. Judging by the destroyed drones lying around the group of knights, Daniel had pretty much saved everyone in that lobby. He deserved the rest death would have given him.

"This was the last time Daniel died. I think this was his fifth time. Someone told me that," Carmine told him sadly. "The dark-haired man was his brother."

"And the beautiful knight holding him?"

"That's Makki's mother, Leia. You've met her already," Carmine remarked, tapping his temple and pointing to Daniel in the distance. "That was before she gave up her body to save him." Carmine recalled how hard it had been on Leia to watch Daniel die. The man had sacrificed everything to save them. Carmine had always taken from people. That was part of being a thief.

Seeing a man like Daniel give so much and receive so little in return had always struck the squire as decidingly unfair. Daniel was a scoundrel one moment and hero the next. That's why Carmine had such a hard time deciding what kind of man Daniel was. He supposedly slaughtered billions. He'd kidnapped the Emperor. He stopped a terrorist attack on the Ignoc. He helped to rid the Kye Ren of the Jujen. He saved the knights in Rektor Fi's headquarters from an army of golemex, and helped to stop a Jujen queen from taking over the fleet. It was hard for the thief to decide whether he was worth saving or not. Daniel was the most inconsistent person Carmine had ever encountered.

That really ate Carmine. He liked Daniel, but he also wanted to become a knight. How does one reconcile with that kind of duality. Daniel is a criminal whom the law can't touch. The Heidish Order's job is to bring people like Daniel to justice. Only, they're not doing that. They're actively working to keep him out of prison. They even handed him over to Prince Ogct knowing full well Daniel would never stand trial. That had been bothering Carmine for quite some time. Was that the kind of knight the squire wanted to become, one who picked and chose the laws they'd uphold? Carmine wasn't sure. He was a good thief, but that was a part of him he wanted to put behind him. He wanted to be a good knight.

"Leia? That's the symbiote in Daniel's head. That's her? That's Makki's mother?" Dax asked in disbelief. Carmine nodded and shut the holoviewer much to Dax's disappointment. Leia was brilliantly beautiful, a fact not lost on him. He swallowed the lump in his throat and threw an envious look Daniel's way. He could barely make him out in the distance which was good.

Dax was sure Daniel wouldn't have liked the look of adoration on his face, especially if he'd known it was for Leia. That got him to wondering about the pair. Daniel was more than likely going to die soon. That was going to leave Leia without a host. In his head, Dax wondered how she would respond to an offer to be her next host should Daniel die. He immediately pushed the thought from his head. He wasn't even sure where that thought had come from. He didn't know these people, and he sure as hell didn't want a symbiote in his head, not without some kind of background on creature first.

If Daniel died on Jolliox, this would be the end for him. Carmine knew that. There would be no coming back from it this time. Carmine wasn't looking forward to it either, but he fully expected it to happen at any moment. Daniel's screams when he shut down his VIG were the screams of a man with his guts on fire. They were the screams Carmine used to hear every night as a child. With a shuddering sigh, the thief changed the subject.

"I could teach you how to push a pebble if you want when this is all done and over with," Carmine offered.

"Do I have to hit myself in the eye too?" Dax asked jokingly.

"No. That's optional." Carmine smirked.

"You can teach me though? Someone like me can actually learn to do what Daniel does?"

"Can someone like you learn? Yes. Can you do what Daniel does? Probably not. I can teach you to manipulate a pocket calculation. I can teach you to levitate a pebble, push a pebble, and roll a pebble–You know, things like that. I can't teach you to do stuff, just not the things he can do. The pocket calculations I manipulate are like tiny little berries. The pocket calculations Daniel manipulates is about the size of a sun," admitted the thief. "He's a special snowflake in that regard."

"What's a snowflake?" Dax asked.

"He's unique," Carmine said, rephrasing himself.

"I see. How long did it take you to learn to push that pebble?"

"Half a year, and I hit myself in the eye. It's not as easy as it looks," Carmine laughed.

"What's the trick? What did your instructor tell you?"

"It's not what he says. It's . . . It's hard to explain. Some people are born sensing the equation from birth. Others have to meditate and reprogram their brains so that it recognizes the sensory data that makes up the framework of reality. People like Daniel are different though. He has a genetic disposition that makes sensing the framework easier. He was engineered to be hyper-sensitive to the energy binding everything together, according to my master that is.

"Daniel was created using biological material from a monk who was a genetic anomaly," explained Carmine, leaping an overturned stone so he wouldn't sprawl again.

"You mean he's a freak?" Dax asked. He glanced over at the wall of uprooted trees Daniel had pushed aside and wondered if Daniel and the others would let him leave now that he knew what he knew. "So this genetic anomaly, is he still out there? Is the one who balances the scales in case Daniel goes crazy?"

"No. He's dead. Luke, Makki's uncle, though, he can hold his own against Daniel. At least, he could before Daniel got his memories back. They used to get into fights all the time. This one time, they got in a fight and tore holes the fleet's flag ship. No one won that fight either. I could probably find the footage if you wanna see them kick each other's ass. I've been saving footage of Daniel's battles to my NID ever since I saw him in action against the golemex." He didn't wait for Dax to respond. He was too excited. Watching Daniel's fights was his guilty pleasure.

He brought his NID up again and went right work pulling up the footage. The feed that popped up however wasn't of the fight he was looking for. It was a recording of what looked like a military tribunal. There were soldiers and knights milling around in a big cavernous room with a panel of what looked like military officers seated behind a long table. Dax had witnessed more than one tribunal in his time. His father had been a soldier. This tribunal (if that's what it was) was being led by a fierce looking woman with dark-hair and a haughty air. Dax took an immediate dislike to her.

"We vote here, and we vote now," the woman declared loudly, speaking so all in the room could hear her words. "If the vote to convict carries, it will be up to each and everyone of you to carry out the sentence. Magpie is public enemy number one. Once the sentence is carried out, Command will pardon you for the part you played here today. I will go to my husband on your behalf. He will see this an embarrassment and immediately try to save face. He will bury all knowledge of this. That is my husband's strength."

"What if he doesn't bury it? What if he has us arrested?" one of the soldier's asked nervously.

"If news of what we do here ever got out, it would make him look weak. He will not allow himself to look like what he is–weak." There were titters of laughter among the gathered. "If any of you are having second thoughts, you're free to leave," the woman offered. A female soldier in the middle of the group stood up and made her way to the exit. Two soldiers leaning against the wall just inside the door followed her out. They returned a short time later and nodded to woman in charge. She smirked and returned her attention to those gathered.

"Oh crap," Carmine exclaimed in a panic, quickly shutting down the recording before any more of it could play. "You didn't see that."

"I didn't see what," Dax asked. "I don't know what that was. What was it?" Carmine floundered. "It's fine," Dax said. "I don't know what that was, and it has nothing to do with me." Carmine breathed a sigh of relief.

"So you won't tell the others?" Carmine asked nervously.

"I won't tell the others," Dax promised. The truth was, Dax had no idea what it was he'd just seen. And, it really wasn't any of his business. "You were going to show me the fight between Daniel and Luke?" Carmine waved that away with a nervous laugh.

"It's not important. It's just an awesome fight with a sad end. The fight ends with Prince Ogct cutting Leia's throat. It was really tragic," Carmine told him sadly. "They both really loved her."

"They were fighting over her?" Dax laughed. "Two men vying for her heart and nether regions? How romantic," he teased.

"Oh. Oh! No, it's nothing like that. Luke is Leia's brother. They weren't fighting over her. She was trying to stop them fight just like Prince Ogct. The only difference was, Ogct was trying to use her as leverage to stop them. He really screwed up when he cut her throat. For a moment, the two were completely in synch. They attacked the Prince together. You should see the shaft that sank through the interior of the ship. Went down for twelve decks I'm told. That's how Baako and Leia ended up swapping bodies. The Baron had her reprinted after the Prince murdered her. Their minds got swapped in the process."

"Dare I ask what the fight was over?" Dax asked, hardly caring about the answer. He was curious to know more about this reprinting technology. He'd heard that the Jujen possessed a device that could create a human from scratch, but he'd always thought it stories the old men told while they were drinking. The technology intrigued him, especially since Daniel used it to describe how his new nanites worked to resurrect him.

"Daniel murdered Luke and Leia's father at Sylar supposedly," Carmine replied. "Luke has held a grudge ever since." Dax snorted in amusement, paused a moment to see if Carmine was joking, then broke down laughing as he ran.

"Are you telling me that Daniel has the daughter of a man he murdered living in his head?" Dax asked in disbelief. "And that her brother has declared vendetta against him? Oh, Carmine. This is better than an action flick and a pollen beer. You can't make this stuff up." He was trying to make light of the tale he was being told, but the more he learned, the more anxious he became.

Finding the Traveler wasn't supposed to end with him dying or being resurrected by some alien nanite manipulation the Rikjonix had never heard of before. It wasn't supposed to end with him learning secrets that could get him killed.

He swerved toward a gap in the tangle of fallen trees on his right with the intent of leaving the group, but just as he was about to dart into the green, he remembered who it was that created that tangle of fallen trees he was about to use for cover. With that remembrance came a sobering realization. He didn't really want to leave. He veered back on course immediately. Yes, the things he was learning was growing increasingly more dangerous, but also more interesting too.

He turned his attention to Makki and watched how she effortlessly glided along, running like she wasn't wearing seventy pounds of nanite steel. Finding the Traveler, so far, was the most exciting experience of Dax's life. Leaving didn't make any sense. This was why he'd come.

His mind instantly went to the Red Wrath employees he knew to be searching the jungle up ahead. That, if nothing else, was a good reason to leave the group. And yet, he kept putting one foot in front the other. He was an addict now. He just had to know what was going to happen next. Would Daniel die? Would Red Wrath recover Prodigy and Javreox? Or would the Church swoop in at the last moment and save the day? He didn't know and it was more fun than he'd ever had in his life.

Dax chuckled quietly to himself, thinking about all that had happened since waking up the day before. When he woke up yesterday, his most pressing thought was of Avigal and how he didn't think Percival was good enough for her. He woke up wondering why he continued to work for the man who'd killed his brother. And now? He'd met aliens and watched one of their tiny little vessels send three saucers fleeing. He joined an expedition with the Church of Echoes, stole his first leafcutter, and then got himself eaten by a Fountain Mouth. And as if that weren't enough, he got himself murdered by the man who ultimately saved his life by bringing him back from the dead. But that's not even close to being all. He also watched a man lift a stone no man should have been able to lift and then watched him miles worth the road through the dense jungle fauna with nothing but a scream and a stray thought. Leaving now wasn't an option, not when the last day and half had turned out this this interesting. If he left now, he'd never get to know how it all ended.

Looking past Makki's sleek form, Dax watched the man the man of the hour in the distance. A part of him wondered what business he had with Javreox and Prodigy. The other parts didn't care. Daniel had his reasons. The man had brought Dax back from the dead. It was hard to distrust a man who'd could do something like that and for no reason Dax could fathom other than to do it.

He'd heard the others talk about Myreena and Javreox and the child they brought with them. Blue Corps had kept the girl locked up in a specimen cube for years. They'd forced Javreox to work for them on some big mysterious project. It was possible Daniel wanted to talk to them in private about what they'd been through. They were probably in the best position to provide him with all the intel he could possibly want on Blue Corps's activities. Daniel was an invader after all. It made sense that he'd want to learn as much as possible about the largest non-government entities out there.

If only it had been that simple.

Part 10
Part 20
Part 30
Part 40
Part 50
Part 60
Part 70
Part 80
Part 90
Part 100
Part 110

Part 120
Part 121
Part 122
Part 123
Part 124

Other Books in the Series

Croatoan, Earth: The Saga Begins – Book One

Croatoan, Earth: Tattooed Horizon – Book Two

Croatoan, Earth: Warlocks – Book Three

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