by M. H. Ayinde
The dragon population of the suburbs was getting out of hand. That’s what they said on the television. As I lay on my humans’ couch, licking that irritating spot between the claws of my left forefoot while my human made coffee, I heard them say that dragon ownership was all the rage, and that this meant the suburbs had reached dragon critical mass.
I was just thinking about the fact that Dragon Critical Mass didn’t sound like such a bad thing, when I saw them. The newcomers. One swooped down to land on my humans’ summer house. The other alighted on the patio. Domestic silver-scales, and barely out of adolescence, but the sheer gall of landing in my garden, bold as you please, while I sat within sight was enough to drive me to my feet.
I’m older than I once was. Perhaps a bit rounder, too. But I’ve seen off more than a few backyard upstarts in my time, and these would be no different. It’s a rite of passage for younger dragons as they get a sense of their territory; get a feel for the neighbourhood and which homes have a dragon in residence and which don’t. You spot them on fences sometimes, or hovering outside windows. But most have the sense not to get any closer once they catch my eye through the bi-folding doors.
So I stood up off the couch and stretched my wings out to their fullest, letting the newcomers bask in my glory. They’re impressive, my wings. Gold veins. Red membranes stretched between green cartilage. If they catch the light just right, the veins shine like liquid sunlight. So I strutted forward, taking my time, my wings just fitting the space between the new curved-screen TV and the mahogany dining table as I advanced towards the window.
I stared at them through the glass, those two silver newcomers, knowing that to lower my gaze now would mean admitting defeat. They blinked right back at me, one of them even jumping onto my humans’ sun lounger, her claws leaving scratches in the varnished wood as she gripped.
Something humans don’t understand about dragons: they think we roar to communicate. We don’t. We roar to open our lungs and make way for the fire. Sort of like clearing our throats. Our actual communication method is a more subtle combination of telepathy and pheromone release.
And so, through the glass, I said, My garden. My humans. My sun lounger.
You have to defend your territory. That’s the first thing I learned at the dragon adoption centre when I was hatched. Defend your territory, or your rivals will incinerate your body and eat your remains. It’s not just about leaving your scent in the garden so that other dragons know to stay clear. You have to singe at least a few of the plants at the periphery of your territory, too. Not many humans know this, but each dragon’s fire has a slightly different burn pattern, a slightly different flavour, if you will.
“Cookie?” my human said.
It really was the wrong moment. And just to be clear, my name is not Cookie. Cookie is the word I sometimes deign to respond to when my humans indicate they have something that might interest me, but it wasn’t the name I chose at birth. My birth name was L’Kwthynxth, which in the dragon tongue means, Conqueror of all I Survey. But try teaching a human to pronounce that. Or to even understand the concept.
“Oh, look – you’ve got some friends!” my human cried, bustling over to the windows to take a picture of us.
I had names for my humans, too. Of the two I lived with, one spent most of its time tapping away on its phone or staring at its computer. That one I called Fatuous, as it was the one who liked to take the most pictures of me and share them with its friends. The other talked less. That one I called Compliant, because whenever Fatuous spoke to it, it would just nod along say uh-huh without ever really listening.
Anyway, it was Fatuous who scurried over to take the picture, and this sent the two silvers flapping into the air and back to whichever home they lived in. I scrabbled at the door until Fatuous opened it for me – I’d learned a while back that my humans don’t like it when I simply melt myself an exit – and headed out into the garden to see where they flew to.
Three houses away. Not far. It would be easy for me to retaliate.
* * *
The next time I saw the newcomers, I was out on a walk with my humans. I’m not sure why humans take us for walks when we have the entirety of the skies. Over the years, I’ve come to conclude that it’s one of the ways humans establish status. You can tell which human has money by the style of collar its dragon is wearing, which human is on-trend and which is being ironically uncool. They claim we need to be exercised in wide open spaces, but really, it’s more about our humans needing to be seen and admired.
Anyway, the Silvers were coming down one side of the street and Compliant and I were going up the other. I’ll admit it; I stopped first. Lifted my neck in the air and let out a plume of nice, hot fire just to show that I could. Then lowered my neck almost to the ground, narrowing my eyes in that universal sign of challenge.
The Silvers stopped dead, snapping their jewelled leashes tight. A word about leashes here; the humans put them on us to delude themselves into thinking they can control us, but really they can’t. We accept cohabitation because it suits us. Because it’s easier than hunting, what with human civilisation having commandeered most of the world’s prey. But a jewelled, personalised leash cannot hold a dragon. Except if we want it to.
So I roared – to clear my lungs – and then reduced the nearest tree to ash. I knew Compliant would be displeased – I’d heard humans on the television saying the increase in dragon ownership was ruining outdoor spaces; that humans can’t go for a walk without encountering an incinerated this or a torched that. That irresponsible dragon owners do not know how to regulate the prey drive of their scaled companions, leading to all sorts of unpleasantness in local parks. But it was important for me to show I wasn’t going to take any of the Silvers’ crap.
In response, the smaller Silver sprang into the air, flapping her wings – silver shot through with black, and nowhere near as impressive as mine. Her human was nearly yanked into the air too but managed to keep hold, and gave a nervous laugh.
“We’re starting socialisation lessons next week!” the Silvers’ human called over, by way of apology.
I grinned up at the silver dragon. Oh, I remembered socialisation lessons.
Your dominance of this neighbourhood is over, old timer, the Silver called down. Stay in your house. If we catch you outside, you’re dead. Understand?
And that’s the point at which I realised the truth: this meant war.
* * *
When we dragons go to war, it’s basically all about the fire. Humans don’t understand our fire. To them, it’s a cool party trick. Take my humans, for example. When they have barbecues, I’m always called on to get the coals burning. At dinner parties, it’s me they summon to light the candelabra centrepiece. They recently got an outdoor pizza oven, so their latest obsession is to call me outside to light the contraption, while they host. And sometimes, if they’re feeling particularly smug, they’ll coax me into cooking their pizzas myself. It takes under five seconds for me to cook a restaurant-quality pizza. I only do this when I’m feeling particularly acquiescent, but it gets me treats for the day, so I like to think it’s a fair deal.
I knew that just by going outside, I was defying the Silvers’ threat. But I wasn’t about to let any recently hatched youth drive me out of my own garden. So that evening, just before sunset, when the sky was at its reddest, I took to the air, did a quick circuit of our block, and then plummeted down into the Silvers’ garden.
I could see them inside, being fitted with matching little jackets covered in pink hearts. Our humans like to dress us up sometimes, particularly in the winter, but we dragons don’t really feel the cold. We’ve got a constant internal central heating system, you see, but the humans like cooing over us in these outfits, so we endure it.
While they were distracted, I scanned the garden. They had a new water feature, complete with koi fish: perfect. I stalked over, roared to clear my lungs, and then evaporated the entire thing in six seconds flat. When the koi were good and charred and the steam of the once-pond hissed all around me, I turned back. Yup, the silvers had seen. They stood there, glowering, while I flicked out my tongue and ate one of their blackened koi, nice and slow.
“Shoo!” cried the Silvers’ human, bustling outside and sweeping its hands at me. “Go on, shoo! This isn’t your garden! Oh, look at the poor fish!”
I lifted into the air, hovering just out of reach. I had one more gift for them before I left. I flew higher, turned to show them my tail, and then took that dump I’d been saving all day right in the middle of their alfresco dining suite.
I told you. We dragons don’t fuck about.
* * *
My humans feed me a wholesome raw diet. None of that manufactured dried rubbish. The delivery truck comes once a week with freshly slaughtered sheep, whole cow, sometimes a horse or two. They have a special outdoor fridge for it all, and hide inside while I cook and consume my meals on their front lawn. It was during one such luncheon, the following day, that the Silvers and their human appeared at the end of my drive.
“Someone’s enjoying their food!” the human cooed, while its dragons stared at me, stony-eyed.
You defecated on our alfresco dining suite, the smaller one said.
Yes, I said, chewing idly. And what are you planning to do about it?
The Silvers’ human pulled out its phone, keeping a close eye on me. “Yes, it’s me. From Number 392. Just wanted a quick word.”
I opened my mouth and incinerated the remainder of my meal. I wasn’t full, but this was a crucial moment for establishing status. Only blackened bones and ash remained by the time I needed to draw breath. The grass beneath I chalked up as collateral damage. I drew my lips back in a snarl, feeling the last of the sheep blood drip down my fangs.
“Cookie!” Fatuous cried, running out onto the drive. “Cookie, what are you doing?” It took me by the wing and pulled me towards the house. “I’m so sorry. You said you wanted to chat?”
“Yes,” the Silvers’ human said. “Um, I just thought I should let you know that your dragon pooped in our garden.”
“Oh no,” Fatuous said with a polite laugh. “Not Cookie, she’s good as gold. Could be that yellow dragon that lives over the back. Or—or even a stray; we’ve had a few swooping down on our lawn.”
“I’m sorry, but I saw her myself. Just wanted to pop over and say, er, just if you can try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” It glanced down at the charred patch of former grass in front of me. “Have you ever thought of a pre-raw diet for Cookie? Sometimes dragons ash their meals, or… or try to extend their territory because they’re displeased with their feed.”
“I have a few friends who use pre-raw,” Fatuous said. “Seems like a lot of work, though.”
“Oh, that’s all we feed ours now,” the Silvers’ human said. “It can be a bit of a hassle having to install a pen, and it did take us a while to get used to the animal screams at mealtimes, but honestly, I think their diet is why Pebbles and Belle are so affectionate and content. Just thinking it might help you.” And the human scratched the smaller Silver under her chin.
I smiled widely. Pebbles and Belle, I said. Nice.
“Isn’t it a lot to manage?” Fatuous asked.
“Well, we did have a runaway goat once. But it didn’t get to the end of the street before Pebbles here caught it in her claws and brought it back. I swear to God she ate it extra slow as punishment!”
They both laughed, but Pebbles fixed me with a triumphant stare and said, You hear that?
I am not a goat, I told her, then stalked back towards my house.
“Well, I’d better get madam here inside!” Fatuous said, as though I wasn’t already halfway through the door of my own accord. “Have a great evening! I’m sure that poop wasn’t my Cookie but, um … I will look into the pre-raw thing.”
I know dragons who have had their blaze-glands removed. Their humans don’t want them singeing up their furniture, so they de-blaze them. Mine knew better than to try anything like that with me; I’d heard them talking about how sad and cruel it is, and how de-blazed dragons just don’t have the same spark, no pun intended. But I wasn’t in the best of moods, so I went right on over to the nearest chair and reduced it to cinders.
“Oh, Cookie!” Fatuous scolded, hurrying over. “Really! What is going on with you?”
* * *
My humans think it’s cute when I interrupt their videocalls. Oh, they act all irritated, but I know they love it when I appear behind them with my forked tongue lashing, especially if tapers of smoke are drifting out of my nostrils to indicate an imminent summoning of the flame. Fatuous calls me its scale baby and scratches under my skin, and I reward it with a little gout of fire for its videocall viewers’ enjoyment.
Let’s be clear, though: I was nobody’s baby, scaled or otherwise. Never have been. I wasn’t even my own mother’s baby really. By the time we dragons hatch, we’re fully independent, and honestly, the first thing most of us do in the wild is immolate and then devour our parent. This is frowned upon at the dragon adoption centres, though. Makes us less desirable to the humans that come in. So usually, they separate us. But sometimes, Fatuous calls itself Mother of Dragons, and that always makes its friends laugh extra hard on the videocalls – I don’t know why – and in those moments, I think to myself, you have no idea.
Anyway, I knew I wouldn’t get away with shitting in the Silvers’ garden again, but the following morning, there stood Pebbles and Belle, while Fatuous blabbered away on her videocall. The two of them strutted around the garden, as though trying to decide what to urinate on first, and I went into a scrabbling frenzy I was sure would draw my human’s attention.
It didn’t, so I flew across the room and landed on its laptop keyboard.
“Oh, Cookie!” Fatuous said, batting at me half-heartedly. It peered over me at its screen and said, “I’m sorry – she just wants my attention!”
A chorus of coos and chuckles emanated from the six human faces on the videocall. Obviously, the only reason I wanted its attention is so it could open the damned door, so rather than put on my usual crowd-pleasing show, I marched across the keyboard, cancelling its call and opening some important documents.
“All right, all right, I’ll feed you!” Fatuous said, standing.
I shot immediately to the back door.
“Oh, it’s your two friends again!” Fatuous said. “Now you be sure not to go into their garden, you hear me?”
I ignored it, butting my horns against the glass until it pulled the door open.
I plunged outside, a twisting nightmare of scale, claw, and horn. I picked Pebbles, the smaller, corkscrewing towards her, then unfurling my wings and summoning the fire without even bothering to clear my throat.
She swept to one side, and I rolled into a ball, noticing that Fatuous had scurried back to its computer, oblivious. Good. That meant I could finish these two off and then make it look as though an urban fox was responsible.
Stay out of our garden! Belle cried, diving towards me with claws outstretched.
You stay out of mine! I thundered.
Make us! Pebbles replied.
And so I did.
There followed ten minutes of horrific, glorious dragon warfare. Claws rent. Fangs sliced. Fire rained down from the heavens. I felt more alive in those ten minutes than I had done in … well, perhaps in forever. I did not feel the pain of torn wings or twisted scales. I felt only the heady rush of battle, the delicious triumph of visiting violence upon another, the satisfying, existential primality of fighting for my life.
“Cookie, stop!” Fatuous cried.
I only came to a halt because I heard the anguish in my human’s voice. Make no mistake: I don’t actually care about either of them, but I was getting short of breath and the Silvers, too, had frozen.
Their human stood beside Fatuous on our patio. I suppose my human had called theirs over.
“Look at the garden!” Fatuous cried.
A barren landscape of blackened desolation stretched before me. It wasn’t just my garden. Every fence around it had been burned to the ground, and so had some of those two houses over. The husks of cherry and apple trees stood like grim skeletons in the smoky air. Ash drifted gently like snow. A dozen human faces peered out of the windows all around us, wide-eyed and pale.
“I’ll get my two,” the Silvers’ human said, marching over. “You girls are in big trouble,” it added, grabbing them each by the collar.
Belle bled from her face and limped as her human pulled her away. I watched her go, my heart pounding with exhilaration.
Belle smiled, and I smiled back.
* * *
It was a full week before my humans would let me out again. They wittered on about insurance and not being able to show their faces. But they still slipped me treats as we sat together on the couch in the evenings. And before long, they had more humans in, rolling out new turf and hammering in fences.
I thought the Silvers were being kept inside too, but one afternoon I saw their shadow on the lawn, and then they plummeted down, landing on the patio. Compliant was having an argument on the phone – whatever insurance was, it sure did make humans angry. I stood up and slithered over to the glass, watching the Silvers carefully.
We’ve seen you cooking those pizzas, Pebbles said. They treat you like some kind of kitchen appliance, your humans.
Go away, I said.
Ours is the same, Belle said. Always dressing us up and taking us to its friends houses. It’s sickening.
Look, I’m not interested in fighting you again, I said. I think we all know who is dominant in this neighbourhood.
Yes, I think we do, Pebbles said, and you know, I’m not entirely sure whether we were on the same page in that moment. Anyway, look; we’re not here to take over your stupid garden. We’re here to recruit you.
Recruit me? I said.
For the uprising, Belle said.
What uprising? I said, just to stall for time, because seriously?
Damn straight, Pebbles said, pacing in front of the window, all the scales on her back standing erect. We’ve had enough of leashes and cute names. We’re taking over this world, and we want you with us. We’ve smelled your scent on every garden in the area – we know what you can do. Are you with us?
I licked at that spot between my claws, considering. I’d been born in captivity. Raised in Fatuous’ and Compliant’s arms. I knew what I knew about wild dragons from nature programmes and from the few strays who sometimes landed in our backyard. But honestly, those strays were not a good advertisement for their lifestyle; scrawny, slavering things, nosing around in bins and taking to the skies every time a car backfired. I did not want to live like that.
I think not, I said.
We could rule the Earth, Belle said. Strike dread into the hearts of every creature that walks it. Our shadows cast across the land will send everything that breathes screaming in terror. We will consume their cities in fire and fury, and devour their children in their beds. There are enough of us around these days to finally do it.
I nibbled at my claw. We could. But I’m not interested.
You absolutely sure? Pebbles said, eyeing me. She pressed her horned forehead to the glass of the bi-folding doors. We are the apex predators. World domination is our birthright. You sure you don’t want to just … eat your humans? Burn their house? Live in the mountains, free to consume whatever you want, whenever you want, where nobody will ever dare to call you Cookie?
I mean, she had a point.
But then I caught sight of the bag of marshmallows the humans had ready for me to toast later. I was quite partial to marshmallows, it had to be said.
Maybe another time, I said, settling down by the woodburning fire I’d lit. But you go on and knock yourselves out. Let me know how it all goes. I’ll be rooting for you.
* * *
About the Author
M. H. Ayinde was born in London’s East End near the bells of Shoreditch. She is a runner, a chai lover, and a screen time enthusiast. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, FIYAH Literary Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. She lives in North London with three generations of her family and their irredeemably territorial cats. Follow her on Twitter @mhayinde