The first few days we were back on the trail, Levi set an easy pace. We rested often, even when I didn’t need to rest. We stopped to view anomalies or landmarks that he recognized. He certainly knew quite a few.
“Oh,” he’d motion ahead of us, “There’s Alder Slope.”
Another time, it was Natmore Creek. Or Limber Grove Trail.
All these things out here had names. I wonder who gave it to them. Sometimes I wondered if Levi wasn’t just “spinning yarns” as he liked to say, and making them up as we went along. I think he knew that I liked names and was interested in all the many variations there were.
Above all, I came to realize how large this forest… and the world outside the Grove… really was. Sure, I’d done my share of traveling during the battles in my time with the Invaders. And I’d flown over these lands many times as a Dragon.
This was the first time I’d walked the paths of the forest and really thought about the world around me. Also, this may have been the first time things were quiet enough within me to allow myself to observe and appreciate the world more.
But I won’t bore you with these minor details. Let’s talk about the juicy stuff.
Levi had kept to himself more than he used to after the days nursing me to health in the pool. I found this odd. It wasn’t that he was upset. He just seemed unnaturally lost in thought.
While he still talked to me and told me stories of the places we saw along the way, there was certainly something bothering him. I wanted to prod him until it came to light. But I was getting soft in regards to respecting his privacy and feelings.
Finally, one evening we decided to make camp at the base of a strangely shaped rock outcropping. Levi told me it was known as Kettle Rock. If you squinted enough at it, you could see the resemblance.
He settled next to a fire and began going through the motion of making a meal. We’d hunted along the way and scored a couple plump birds earlier that day. The forest provided a plentiful hunting ground if nothing else.
The food that we cooked — yes, I can cook, thank you — had been more palatable for me lately. In fact, a lot of my raving hunger for crystal energies had faded after I’d recovered from the illness. I never really stopped to think about it, but if I had, I might have pieced together the things Levi was about to discuss with me.
I guess it either ate him up inside too much, or he finally thought it was time. As he crunched on one of the brittle bird bones, he told me, “I haven’t really been honest with you.”
I glanced at him from over the top of the wing I was chewing. It didn’t bother me at all when he said this.
I’m not sure how to explain it. Let’s just say, I was used to Levi’s quirky personality, which lends itself to… exaggerating… on certain matters from time to time. Usually this was done with the intentions to entertain and delight, so it wasn’t a big deal.
This seemed to be part of what was weighing on him the past few days, so I gave him the room to air his concerns.
“About what?” I asked, trying to look disinterested.
Levi rubbed the side of his face. “I don’t really know how to start.”
“Is it that bad?”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I’m not sure how you’ll feel about it.”
I laughed. “Since when did you worry about that?”
“Bahamut,” Levi tilted his head with an arched eyebrow. In that moment, I discovered he did worry about how I felt.
I couldn’t understand why.
“Whatever it is can’t be that bad.” I tried to encourage him.
“Maybe not,” he picked at his food. “But I still wasn’t honest.”
I gave him an expectant look. When he didn’t say anything else, I grumbled, “You can’t just say that and not tell me the rest.”
“Okay… okay…” He leaned back, gathering his thoughts. “So, you know when we talked about things before, and I told you no one who ever had the Longing left our village and came back?”
“Well, that’s not true.”
“Alasdair was a guy I knew. We weren’t like best friends or anything, but he was one of our group. You know, like buddy group,” Levi explained.
I didn’t know what he meant, but I nodded anyhow. This fluffy part didn’t matter to me.
“We hung out and hunted together, sometimes helped raise barns and fix things around town. I didn’t know him extremely well, but he seemed a good enough guy.” I heard the turning point coming in his voice. “And then he started acting funny.”
“The Longing, right?”
“Yeah. But before you go and think this is just something seen everyday around our village, that’s not true,” Levi told me. “Sometimes it wouldn’t show up for a generation. People would think it was gone. Other times, like now, it seems to run rampant among the younger crowd. We don’t know what triggers it or why only some people are called, and not others.”
“Hm,” was all I said. Not because I wasn’t interested, but rather because I was trying to measure this new information next to the things I already knew. There really was no pattern to any of it.
“Anyhow, Alasdair started acting funny. He shows up late to his jobs. People find him sitting out in the middle of the forest at night. He blanks out when you talk to him randomly… just all kinds of funky stuff.”
“And then he left,” I supplied, sensing where this was going.
“Pretty much. Just one day, he was gone. No one knew why,” Levi frowned. “He didn’t leave a note. He didn’t say anything to anyone. Just gone.”
“I can see how that would be disturbing,” I said. See, I can be a little sympathetic from time to time.
“Him leaving wasn’t as disturbing as when he came back,” his voice lowered as if he was nervous to talk about it.
“Why?” I’m not sure why I felt a sinking in the pit of my stomach. None of this related to me.
“When Alasdair came back… we hardly recognized him. He was a mess. Like, a mangled mess,” Levi shivered with the memory. “The Elders ordered the village under lock down. But I saw him… I saw…”
He was at a loss to find the words to describe it. The sick expression on his face told enough.
“They called it the Flames of Bedlam,” he spoke slowly. “It got inside of him and twisted him backwards into some kind of…”
“Monster,” I supplied. He didn’t want to call his friend such a thing, but that sounded to be the truth of it.
Levi just pursed his lips.
“So what happened?” I asked.
“They tried to drive it out of him using the cuffs,” Levi told me.
That’s when I felt something in me go cold. I knew where this was leading now.
“You knew what the cuffs would do to me, then.” My voice was low. Now I understood his feeling of guilt and why he was reluctant to tell me.
“I took a guess. I didn’t know for sure,” Levi answered.
“What did they do to Alasdair?” I asked, trying to mask the contempt that wanted to sneak into my voice.
“It never got to run its course.”
Levi looked down at the fire. His face crinkled with pain. “He got so sick. So weak. He begged and cried and… it was terrible. It was like he craved it… whatever it was… he needed it to live. We couldn’t stand to see him suffer. We gave in, against the orders of the Elders.”
I looked at my own cuffs. Levi knew the risk he was taking when he did this to me.
“A few of us, the guys… you know, his buddies… we snuck in there and let him free.”
“And?” I asked.
“Alasdair went Wild. The cuffs had done something to cut him off from the Chaos as long as he wore them. He might have gotten better… but releasing him too early… Chaos just came right back and worse than ever,” Levi pursed his lips. “He killed a few of us that night… before the Elder’s hunters came and took him out.”
We both sat silent for a time. I listened to the crackle of the fire, trying to drown out the anger that wanted to well up in me. There was a tiny, fragile part of me that wanted to do something stupid… like trust Levi. Since he did nurse me back to health and all.
But there was that big, dark, angry part of me that wanted to wring his neck for almost killing me. Chaos or not, I went through days of pure suffering because of his choices.
I ground my teeth.
“You’re angry. I get it,” Levi said.
“You almost killed me.”
“I saved you,” he reminded me quickly.
“After you almost killed me. Do you know the torment I went through?”
“No, I don’t.” He met my eyes. “But I believed it was the only way to secure your life.”
“Oh, so almost killing me is keeping me alive.”
He sighed. “I couldn’t take you before the Elders like you were. They aren’t going to give some Flame-burnt Chaos creature a chance to step into the village and hurt more people. There’s never going to be another chance like Alasdair had when it comes to Chaos.”
“So you think you’ve cured me?” I retorted hotly.
“I don’t know. I think it’s done something. I think it’s helped,” Levi spread his hands.
I didn’t say anything. I glowered into the night.
“You don’t think it’s helped?” he asked. “Not even a little?”
“I didn’t ask for any of this,” I growled in response. Then I promptly pulled my blanket up over me and ignored him the rest of the night.