The scales are rough underneath me, and despite the thick uniform, they rub against my skin like sandpaper.
I’m lying on my back, watching the sky drift by over my face, right up against it. The muscles of the creature shift beneath my shoulders, each threatening to topple me from her back.
It was foolish, not to sit upright, but it’s the only way I can stay calm. Lay on your back, control your breathing, and never close your eyes.
That was what Amber had told me after our mother had died, five years ago. Even now imagining her face gave me a pang. But right now, I don’t need that. I need to stay calm. Naila rumbles beneath me impatiently, but I don’t bother to move. There isn’t anywhere safe to land anyway.
The whole reality suddenly crashes in on me, and I have to squeeze my eyes shut to stop the memories from leaking out.
Unfortunately, this time, Amber’s tactic doesn’t work. The screaming face, the metal bar crashing into my skin, breaking it, and then the blood welling through my fingers- in a delirious moment, I’d wondered whose blood it was.
Maybe Father had told the chef to cut open a nice cow for dinner. But then the cane crashed into me again, and I thought, Oh, I’m the cow, and then I fell and I was drowning and the water was hot and red and salty, and it wasn’t mine this time, because oh, oh look, someone else was screaming, and why- why was she screaming?
And wasn’t I falling? But no, I couldn’t have been, because look, I was standing right there, I knew I was because there was a metal rod in my hand, but it was a bit slippery, and I thought metal was supposed to be silver, not red? This, I thought, is strange metal.
Because it worked, it broke her skin and brought more liquid to her face, from her eyes. But it was red. And I was red.
And then, I think I broke.
I broke because the metal rod in my hands broke. And the metal was red, and I was red, so obviously I broke too. The big, gruff men who came to drag me from the room didn’t seem to understand this, even though I very patiently explained it over and over again.
Although the screaming and sobbing in the background probably made it hard for them to hear me. Hmm. Maybe I shouldn’t have broken those two gruff men, broken them with my red, red body, the way I’d broken that woman with the black hair.
I knew I was mad. I’d been mad for the past five years. I’d thought that I was interesting and smarter than everyone else. And I was so funny. I could always make people laugh for hours, even though the General told me they were screaming, not laughing. “You’re mad.” he’d tell me. “You’re mad as a hornet’s nest in a river. We need to get you help, Lucas.”
“Of course I need help.” The much quieter, sane part of my brain, the few scraps left of identity had protested. But the bigger part, the part that was the crazy, fog-headed mess that was Lucas, had responded through the mouth. He told the General that he wasn’t mad, that he was sane and everyone else was mad. That’s who you should blame, he had added. That’s who needs help.
The Cheimos General often tried to drag him somewhere he didn’t want to go. But I wanted to go there. Lucas didn’t. But I did. I’d managed to tell him this once.
That Lucas was the crazy red mess he saw, and that I was there, hiding from him and trying to get out. Lucas and I had been to doctor after doctor, always in a rubber room. They would tell me that I was crazy because of what happened to Mother. That never made sense to either of us. Mother had died ages ago. Old news!
But, no, no, no, we were traumatized by the event. We thought we could have saved her. I had never liked that comment. It made me think of Amber, who the doctors seemed to be suggesting was much stronger than me. Just because she was older. Amber wasn’t even here.
Sometimes, they would ask me questions, but not as often as the General said they should. But was always this one question, the question that sparked down to my soul, to my base, to me.
“How’re you, Lucas?” I always had a billion replies to that, but they never let me answer the only question I liked. It always moved on to childhood and my father. At every doctor, I had to lie about one question, although I did try to be truthful, really. I never told them what not even Amber knew.
I had been there when she died. I wasn’t supposed to be, but I didn’t want Mother to go to war. So when Father was working in the office I slipped out and onto the supply truck. I didn’t have far to go, the battle was only a few hours away. So I got there in the full-scale fight. The sky was full of ash and black smoke, the only light a strange red glow that made it seem as though the sun fought too, dripping with bloody red flame.
The Cheimors waged into the gore of the battle, wearing armor harder than elephant skin and as red as I became. Their mounts, huge Ti-gors, roared for blood, their orange fur rippling with muscle and their eyes shining with lust from battle.
Their riders stabbed down their massive spears at anything that moved, even including their own green-skinned troll allies.
Charcoal-colored dragons with bellies red from scraping along the bloody ground flew overhead, crashing into the dragons from Mother’s side or swooping to scoop up screaming soldiers. I remember hating their teeth more than anything I had ever seen. Long, yellow incisors the size of my leg, horribly jagged at the ends and along the edges, dripping with bloody saliva. They were vicious, out of control, and knew nothing but killing.
Mother’s army rode on huge Lionas, a Ti-gor’s natural enemy, and their midnight-blue dragons struck from the clouds in an explosion of color and light.
Valors ran among them as their allies, and massive six-foot rats occasionally leaped from a Lionas, gnashing their terrible teeth. Both sides seemed to have lost all control, and everywhere I looked someone fell, bludgeoned by one of Mother’s clubs, or shoved by a Cheimor spear. Scorched by a dragon’s deadly breath, bitten by a rat, trampled by a Lionas, or crunched by a troll’s teeth.
And I stood there, petrified, on a huge boulder barely at the battle’s edge. All I could think was that I had to get Mama out of there, before she became one of the corpses that were trampled by the madness. And finally, I spotted her.
Mama rode on her Lionas’s broad back, swinging her metal club at anything she came into contact with, smashing a skull or breaking an arm. She was red, but I couldn’t tell whose blood.
Her Lionas’s thick golden fur was streaked with earth and sweat and her amber eyes were clouded with fear and exhaustion. Mama fought bravely, but the worst part was that even from here I could see tears glittering on her beautiful face. “Mama!” I screamed.
And she turned to look at me, and her eyes went wide with fresh fear and she screamed back at me, only there were no words. It was a horrifying scream, one full of terror. And then the dragon swooped from the sky. Its red belly brushed the ground, painting it a fresh bright shade, and those jaws opened, wide, till I could count every terrible fang.
And Mama disappeared down its dark murderous throat. Her last expression was one of desperation and panic, and I was horrified that it was for me. The only part of Mama I saw left was a bloody arm, snapped out of its smoky jaws. Somehow I didn’t break then, not entirely.
But the other Lucas, the one I feared, came raging out, first in the earth-shattering howl that split from my throat, and then in me, charging down to the field, dodging spears and teeth. Lucas snatched a sword from the owner lying dead beside it, and he ripped. Lucas brought down the sword everywhere, on every creature who fought for the Cheimors.
Ti-gors lost a paw or a muzzle. Trolls shrieked at the bloody stump of their arm. And the men, the greatest might behind it all knew death in every circumstance.
I never thought. I didn’t feel. I didn’t know anything but red for the next two days. When I finally stopped, I didn’t want to. I wanted to keep hurting people because I could do it. But now my hands were bound and I was loaded onto one of the charcoal monsters with a dozen other spoils of war. I was seated near the end of the dragon next to a scarred rat who hissed at me through his yellow teeth. I turned away, but I could feel his glowing eyes still on me.
Later he did something that let me know he was probably as mad as I became, only in a controlled way, which was much more terrifying. At a hundred feet up the rat gnawed through his bonds so they snapped. He looked at me, a question.
I shook my head. He nodded once. Then he turned and leaped. He survived and became the reason I was free five years later.
That battle was five years ago. Ten minutes ago I escaped. Five minutes ago I decided to go home. Two minutes ago, nine-year-old red Lucas was gone. One minute ago, I realized that old Lucas was back, at least for a little while.
Right now, I realized I could live without being caned and tortured or being forced to cane and torture.
I realized I could control the memories and the red Lucas. I knew what I wanted to do, who I wanted to see, and how I wanted them to help me be me.
One minute later I smiled, the first in 1,825 days, 14 hours, and 11 minutes.