Flames of Bedlam

Ch2.4 .. Village

We would have reached the village faster if it wasn’t for Levi’s insistence to ensure we weren’t followed by Invaders. I suppose it would have been a bad idea to lead them right to the last of the free-living clan, even if the Elders did want my head on a pike.

Levi didn’t want to use his Dragon form for faster travel. He was pretty worn out already from the energy he expelled with his little hand waving excursions during the battle. What a lightweight. Not to mention, Invaders had flying ships, and a giant iridescent sea serpent wasn’t going to go beneath their radar.

Besides, I refused to Dragon-back ride. That was way, way beneath me.

Instead, we spent days weaving false trails and keeping close watch for anything tracking us. We saw a few scouts here and there. I really wanted to beat them into a pile of parts, but Levi wouldn’t have anything to do with it. He claimed it was better we vanish completely than instigated further conflict.

I thought it was a waste of time, but whatever. I let him call the shots. It’s not like I was all that eager to get where we were going. Eventually, though, once Levi was satisfied with our ploy, we arrived at the village.

I wasn’t familiar with various cultures and architecture, but I knew something about this place was special. Buildings weren’t built just for functionality here. They were placed between trees and the rocky slopes, respectful that nature had been there first.

Levi told me later that the people believed they were meant to blend into the world around it, not master it and shape it to their desire. This seemed a little silly at first thought — why inconvenience yourself just for a few trees?

I have to admit, though, it had charm.

The main path through the village was lined with wooden pedestals. These bore a place for a torch to light the night, but were also crowned with carvings of various creatures. Each seemed more fantastical than the last — most of them beyond my knowledge or familiarity.

One of the pedestals lifted up what could only be a Dragon… or as close as the backwater artist could get to sculpting a Dragon. I kept meaning to ask how Levi knew what a Dragon was when I’d never heard of one before. It seemed people here kept some legends and stories alive.

I guess the bigger question was how I could become something I knew nothing about. But that goes down a much deeper rabbit hole than I want to at this point.

So, let’s just get back to the village.

They didn’t have visitors often. I could tell by the way the people stopped everything they were doing and watched us as we walked. Thinking better of it, Levi suggested we both wore hoods to hide the physical feature that most obviously gave us away — our ears. I wasn’t sure if this was because he was worried about what they’d think of me… or what they’d think of him.

Despite that, people recognized him pretty quickly.

A rippled murmur of “Levi” ran through the watchers. They were both curious and concerned. Some were hopeful. Others stood with a reserved expression, not ready to commit to a response.

I can’t blame them given their experiences with the whole Longing thing. Maybe Levi was returning like the other youth of their village had long ago, just on the edge of Chaotic madness. These people didn’t know anything for sure.

Gosh it would have been fun to spook them a bit… but for Levi’s sake, I behaved myself.

Anything I did would reflect in their Elders’ judgement of me, I knew. Not that they could do anything to me, of course. I mean, the audacity of them judging me!

I thought we were going to proceed directly to the Elder-keeping-place… wherever they were, but Levi ended up stopping to talk with a few of the other villagers. Their body language spoke of a familiarity — perhaps these were some of his friends from the past.

This conversation didn’t invite or include me, so I stood outside of it, just inspecting the rest of the village. I made sure the people knew I was ignoring them and that they were too beneath me to deserve my attention. I also wanted to make sure I knew how to return to this place later… they could be useful to me later.

Someone had chosen the location of this village well. It was elevated within the mountains, hidden in a small cleft protected with tall cliff walls on three sides. Only one narrow passage allowed you to enter it on foot. This could be easily guarded.

Sure, if you were diligent enough, you could scale the cliffs and come in from above. It just wasn’t very practical. Still, neither was the way they built things here.

Along the face of the furthest cliff, I could see the shapes of pillars and other structures carved into the face of the stone. I guess they didn’t mind bending the rules or shaping nature when they saw it fit. Unless someone wanted to try and tell me how it was like that when they got there.

When Levi finally had his fill of social time, we made our way towards this very cliff. I had a pretty good idea where we’d find the Elders.

I don’t know how they jammed so many steps in such a compact place. I wondered if a bunch of old people really climbed these stairs every day, or if they just lived in the stone building above. Well-kept natural gardens grew on the outcroppings, and there were places on landings here and there for people to rest and take inspiration.

I didn’t find a bunch of stone-slab stairs very inspiring. It didn’t help that each step I took was closer to judgement. I didn’t like to admit it, but this began to weigh heavily on my shoulders. I was almost… almost… concerned.

Several robed figures appeared from out of the stone place — I’m just going to call it a sanctuary from here on because “stone place” sounds pretty unprofessional. They made a half circle around us, watching us climb the last few steps with weathered, age-worn faces. Once we got to the top, they didn’t even offer me a drink or anything. What’s happened to hospitality?

Levi motioned for me to wait some distance away. Then, he turned to the Elders and approached, pulling back his hood. The slender, curved dragon-fin ears and sheen of his hair were enough for them to put things together. They still had to ask the obvious questions, though.

“Levi,” one older woman said. Her voice was still strong despite the frosted color of her hair. This was braided over one shoulder, a striking contrast to her sharp blue eyes. “You’ve returned to us. What news do you bring?”

I guess that’s the nice way of asking: “Did you shank the guy we sent you take care of.”

He didn’t get straight into the introductions, thankfully. Instead he lifted one arm and flourished his other palm over it.

The coiled bracer he wore shuddered, then came to life. It unwound, glowing bright blue. I knew instantly what I saw — this was his creature-spirit.

It never occurred to me that his creature-spirit was still with us. That it was still guiding Levi. That we weren’t alone that whole time. It’d never made a sound or made itself known. Instead, it’d disguised itself as part of his bracer during our journey. The thin, long shape just coiled around his arm and never gave itself away.

I didn’t take much stock into what accessories Levi arrived with. So, I didn’t notice the change in his garb. I’d too many of my own problems to deal with.

I could see by the gleam in Levi’s eyes that the unfurling of the spirit before the Elders had the intended impact. Some of the villagers followed us up the stairs from behind, and I heard a chorus of awed sounds and gasps as they reacted among themselves.

“The spirits are real,” Levi said in a voice that carried over the landing, though he spoke no louder than normal. “I have been to the Glade and I return with my guide.”

“Praise the tywys,” one of the Elders breathed.

I winced at the name, remembering my own guide. Remembering the fate I’d chose for her.

“Then you are… transformed…” the woman asked. She was trying hard not to sound concerned. The quaver in her voice gave it away.

Levi spun about, his little spirit trailing after, weaving around him as he jumped up on one of the stone platforms, treating it like a stage. He spread his arms, any trace of his normal ambivalence covered in a very convincing act of confidence.

His smile was wide as he proclaimed, “I am still Levi. Yet I returned enlightened. And the news I have for our people — it’s beyond imagination the wealth our legacy has left to us!”

The villagers again broke into curious murmurs of awe. Some seemed hopeful, even excited by this. The Elders weren’t as easily swayed by his charming display.

In fact, the woman Elder who addressed us first — I’m going to call her Grandma — shot him a bonafide don’t give us that crap look.

Uh oh. Someone who knew Levi too well.

“So, tell us of the visitor you’ve brought,” Grandma prompted.

Levi struggled just a little not to let his smile slip. “This is…”

“Bahamut, I assume.” She gave me a sour frown.

I wanted to retort to this, especially the look, but Levi asked me to keep my mouth shut during our exchange. I opted just to bow mockingly to Grandma instead.

“Yes, it is,” Levi answered, dropping from his stage to walk between us.

She turned her attention away from me, sighing heavily to him. “We came to an agreement before you left, Levi.”

“I know we did, but…”

“But you chose to go against our instructions, do what you felt was best, and bring a beast back into the village.” She summed it up pretty nicely.

“It’s not like that,” Levi protested, quickly losing all semblance of his normal got-it-together calmness. He motioned to me, trying to get a moment to explain. “Look, I think the cuffs have cured some of the–“

“Yes, we’re aware you also took the cuffs without permission,” Grandma crossed her arms.

Oh man. If I wasn’t on the back end of this argument, I would have really admired this woman for sticking it to him.

“I just thought we could approach this without further bloodshed,” Levi stammered.

“You also seem to think it’s completely fine to put our village at risk for your idealism.”

He looked down.

Some of the villagers backed away with alarmed glances at me. It took so much restraint to not give them the monster they expected me to be. I wanted to shake Levi around and ask him how he expected to get me out of the mess he dragged me into this time.

“Levi,” Grandma approached him with a motherly look. She placed a light hand on his shoulder, looking up into his face with sympathy. “Sometimes the Chief has to do hard things in the name of protecting his village.”

“I… I know that. It’s just that…” He looked at her, then at me. I have to hand it to him — he looked really torn in that moment. “Bahamut may not be innocent of what he did, but I don’t think he understood the ramifications of his actions. If you knew where he came from…”

Another Elder had had enough of the sappy display, and rapped his cane on the stone stair, “He willingly defiled our homelands, releasing the Flames of Bedlam.”

“Not just that,” another chimed in, “He captured his own people, forced them to transform before they were ready, and twisted them with the Flames. He threw innocent people to Chaos!”

I’m not sure why my mouth grew dry at that accusation. Until that moment, I really didn’t understand the immensity of what I’d done to the people I forced to take a Dragon form. Those I brought to the Flames. Those whom I taught to channel their rage in the name of Chaos… Even if it was to fight against the very creatures who enslaved them.

I thought I was giving them freedom when, instead, I was feeding them to a new, terrible master. One that would not just take their bodies, but also their spirits.

I covered my face as the enormous weight of it fell on my shoulders. The conversation between the Elders and Levi grew distant to my ears. I had no idea why Levi would defend a monster like me.

In the end, it did neither of us any good. The Elders brought the old-man cane of justice down upon me. Before I realized what was happening, a couple of burly villagers stepped forward and bound my wrists. They’d chosen to take me prisoner.