Flames of Bedlam

Ch4.1 .. Ground Zero

Though we’d backtracked a few days worth of travel to visit the Invader outpost, the time we saved from the devices Horizon scavenged was far and away worth it. We spent a bit more time there in the wreckage, allowing her to sort through what was left of the technology. She came away with a number of devices, some still in working conditions, others she claimed she could repair.

One of the more interesting items was a pair of boots that fit around the outside of Horizon’s suit. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking at, but she seemed excited by the prospect of wearing them. Like a rookie who got to play with toys far above their station.

“They allow for easier ground travel,” she explained.

“Why would you need easier ground travel?” I prodded.

Horizon paused, as if she was going back and forth on whether to answer me. Then, she said, “Our kind is not used to the gravity here. It makes things very heavy. It’s much more exhausting to move around on this world. The boots assist with that.”

“Gravity?” Levi asked.

“The force that holds all things down on the face of the planet?”

“That’s a thing?”

“It’s–” Horizon stopped and looked up at the sky, as if pondering why she was stuck with two backwater natives of this world. Then, she seemed to remembered she was at our mercy. “Yes, that’s a thing.”

“May I have a moment?” Horizon asked as we were making our way out of the ruins.

At first, we didn’t understand what she was asking for. Then, Levi got a strange look on his face, and he nodded. “Yes, take all the time you need.”

“For what?” I muttered at him. He just grabbed my arm and pulled me away from the outpost.

Once we were far enough way, we could see Horizon’s slender form, tiny against the backdrop of the broken outpost. She moved gracefully, despite her explanation about the difficulty of gravity, in what seemed a motion-dance of her hands.

The tips of her fingers lit up, much like her eyes did, though I’d never seen it happen before now. As she moved, her hands left trails of light in the air, drawing symbols that lingered and shimmered, perhaps with Invader writing. I couldn’t tell.

I realized this was her way of mourning. Of putting the others to rest. Of saying goodbye.

As I watched, I felt something catch in my throat. I shouldn’t have felt compassion for these creatures, the things that invaded my world and destroyed generations of my own people. Those who were no better than the Chaos, consuming the spirits and lives of the natives for their slave warfare.

But, Horizon said they weren’t all like that. She went out of her way to prove that. She worked with her very enemies if it meant her people would survive. And she was the first Invader to treat me like a person instead of a resource.

For the first time, I wondered if the Invaders who led such a dark rampage over our world might not have been touched by the Flames of Bedlam themselves.

For the next week or so, our travels were full of learning and wonder. Horizon was right — the Circle held much knowledge, even beyond the maps of our world. She showed us maps of other worlds stored on their “network” (that had been the garbled word she kept using — we had no equivalent). She showed us images of alien lands. Images of the stars themselves.

That was the hardest part for me to believe. When she described what it was like to travel into the vast sky above, into what she called “space.” I’d been curious about the shimmer specs above us, but it never crossed my mind that it was an area that people could travel to.

She taught us about her people’s ships — machines they used to travel in this space. She told us how space was a place nothing could live. But there were many worlds across so many galaxies that provided a safe environment. If that environment was nurtured to sustain life.

“That’s what they came here to do, then,” Levi noted, talking about the Invaders.

“Yes,” Horizon answered, watching the flames of our campfire as they capered over the wood. Apparently, the Invaders used other means of heating, so a fire was unusual to her. “This world was marked as one that had almost the right mix of atmosphere to sustain our people.”

“But not quite,” I noted.

“Not quite.”

“So, would your kind have come here and changed the environment to suit your own, even if that meant killing the creatures of this world?” I prodded.

“I don’t know. Some worlds… maybe they do that,” Horizon didn’t sound proud of this statement. “This world, I think they were making an effort to adapt. I mean, I didn’t see any terraforming machines here aside from what they use in the settlements. No substratosphere mines.”

“Adapt how?”

She tapped her mask, “You think this is going to work forever? I can keep it running for a while, but these things have a limited lifetime. It’s meant to slowly infuse the outer atmosphere with our own air mixtures. It’s meant to get us acclimated to this world.”

“You’ll be able to take it off one day?” Levi arched his eyebrow.

Horizon looked down. “One day, I’ll have no choice.”

“Won’t that kill you?”

“Our kind… adapt to other worlds quickly. It’s part of why we explore so many places,” She told Levi. But there was a hint of worry there. Maybe she wouldn’t adapt. Maybe she wouldn’t survive.

She once told me that she wasn’t strong like me, and that’s why she would die. The more I learned of her, the more strength I saw in her.

Just don’t tell her I said so.

Using the Circle, we began to track the newest data about Dragon sightings and activity. The results weren’t all that surprising to me — Dragons appeared to frequent the area around the ruins of the city of the First Attack.

“It makes sense,” I told Levi. “It’s Ground Zero. Where the most Chaos would have released. Where I…”

I stopped, glancing over at Horizon. I still didn’t want to give her much information about myself. I might need to hold on to the secret that I was the First Dragon. For some reason, Levi had also not revealed himself to her. So maybe I wasn’t too off in my thinking.

“I wouldn’t doubt it,” Levi agreed.

“What is this Chaos thing you keep speaking of?” Horizon finally asked. When she spoke the word “Chaos” it was in our language. Apparently, it didn’t have a translation.

“It’s a kind of energy…”

“The thing that you call magic?” Magic also didn’t have a translation. I could tell that she wasn’t very sold on the idea that such a thing existed.

“It can grant creatures power beyond their own, if that’s what you mean by magic,” Levi answered. “But Chaos itself is a force… maybe even a natural force. Once welcomed into a host, it may empower that creature, but it also eats away at them like a sickness.”

She looked down. “I see. So, you insinuate that these Dragons aren’t acting of their own desires.”

“They shouldn’t even be Dragons,” Levi muttered.

I didn’t look at him.

“What do you mean?” Horizon perked up. This was news to her, of course.

I felt Levi’s gaze on me. He could see my discomfort, and decided to end that part of the conversation. “It’s probably not a great time to discuss this. Let’s see what’s become of the Dragons first. We’ll talk about how it got this way in time.”

I could tell it was hard for her to be told there was knowledge she couldn’t have. But like me, she didn’t challenge Levi’s sensibilities often. So, she let it be.

The ground became crunchy under my feet. Every step I took, the earth fell away to ash. The air was thick with dark fog, where this ash rose from the huge crater that yawned open before us. Ground Zero.

It was massive, even to my senses.

I don’t remember being that huge when I descended on the city for the First Attack. I must have been, though. No normal-sized Dragon could have ever inflicted this much damage. There was simply nothing at all left.

Again, something within me shuddered.

Memories rose within me. Meteors raining from the sky. Screams. The smell of burnt flesh and machines. The roar of everything burning with a flame hotter than natural fire. Flames of Bedlam.

The Chaos had been fueled by my rage. My pain. My vengeance. It consumed everything… even the air itself seemed hard-pressed to exist here. Something inside me — the Chaos? — had ensured that if anything survived my flame, the fumes would kill them instead.

Horizon covered her mask with both hands, choking at the noxious fumes. She backed away, looking ill, her skin-tone taking on a grey-ish hue.

“We can’t take her in there,” Levi told me, helping to walk her far enough away from area that she could breathe again.

“I’m fine,” she kept repeating. She wasn’t fine.

“You’re not going in there,” I told her firmly. “This place is death for your kind.”

Horizon’s eyes widened, focusing on me.

“What?” I frowned.

Had I grown fangs again?

Then, I realized what I’d just said. How it was actually a statement of concern for her well being.

She smiled with that weird kind of mouth twisty thing Invaders did.

“Don’t make a big deal about it,” I grumbled.

Her smile faded. At first, I thought it was because of me, but her widening eyes cast past me, into the darkened sky.

I felt something immense move through the air behind me. I heard Levi’s shout. I turned, my eyes slitting into a squint.

A Dragon loomed up, out of the dark vapors. It was all spikes and nasty points, its hide marred with long fissures that bled flame and fumes. It had no eyes. No nostrils. No maw. Only Flame.

It was constantly being consumed from within by the Chaos, the dark energy bursting through the beast’s body, yearning to get out. To spread.

I took in a staggered breath. Had I continued down the path I was walking before Levi met me, this could have been me.

Horizon’s frighten breathing and grip on my arm brought me back to reality. The reality where this thing of my own making was the beast that we had to face.

-I am Bristle.- A voice roared within my mind. Its body was so destroyed that it no longer had a real voice to speak with. -The Leader of Dragons. Who trespasses in my domain?- 

Leader of Dragons?

Oh no. That’s not happening.

I stood to my full height and glared at the sky.