It had been a while since I’d flown on a dragon. I’d forgotten how uncomfortable it was. I think that’s part of the human condition — the ability to forget unpleasantness. You still get a flashback every now and again, a sudden vivid memory of some stupid shit you did when you were fourteen, but it passes (after your whole body convulses with revulsion and self-loathing).
We can’t hold onto those feelings or memories of intense pain because there are parts of our lives that are horrific to go through but deemed necessary. Like giving birth. Or watching someone give birth.
You would think if nature was so desperate for us to reproduce it would make the process a little less painful. It encourages the conception with all sorts of prizes and rewards, but that parts optional so it needs to bribe you into doing it. By the third trimester, you’ve got no choice. Nature doesn’t need to offer incentives, so it doesn’t.
That kind of sums up what we mean to nature. All hearts and flowers at the start, cold disinterest at the other end. And then the slate gets wiped clean so we can have the same trick played on us again.
“It won’t be as bad as you think,” said Jenny. She was sitting next to me on the dragon’s back, her head on my shoulder. This kind of comfortable intimacy was something I liked very much. There was a sense of relief that came with it. A sense of not having to go out to prove anything. Once you got what you wanted, who cared what else there was to do?
It never worked that way, though. First you want it, then you get it, then you try to keep it, then you lose, then you try to get it back, then… it never ends.
“I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this,” I said.
“Okay,” said Jenny.
“Whatever Maurice has done, it’s none of my business.”
“Sure,” said Jenny.
“And Claire can take a flying fuck, too.”
“Of course,” said Jenny.
“Just because I gave them the confidence to strike out on their own doesn’t mean I’m responsible for every little mistake they made.”
“No one thinks that,” said Jenny.
She wasn’t agreeing with me, obviously. She was just letting me vent.
“I don’t even know what I’m doing here,” I said.
“You’re here because I asked you,” said Jenny. “It doesn’t matter about Maurice or Claire or anyone. You’re here for me. And if we’re going to live in this world, I need you to make sure it doesn’t collapse into chaos.” She said it very simply and clearly.
“And after that?”
“We’ll find somewhere quiet and out of the way and, you know, try to find something to do. I might take up gardening.”
What she was saying sounded very reasonable. Comforting and appealing. She was up to something.
“Might get a bit boring,” I said.
“You can do magic,” she said. “And I have a vagina. We’ll think of something.”
Definitely up to something.
Not that my goals were any different to hers, but I had the niggling feeling it wouldn’t be quite as easy as she was making out. I was pretty sure last time I tried to save these dumbasses from themselves it didn’t go very well, although I couldn’t quite recall the specifics.
“We’ll be there soon,” said Flossie. She was standing in front of me, stupid grin on her face.
I looked towards the front at the pilotless dragon. She did this all the time. She was the Dragonrider and there was no reason for concern. Still, I would have felt better if she’d stayed in the driver’s seat.
“Fengarad?” I said.
“No,” said Flossie, “first we have to pick up mah Dudley. He’s waiting at home. Babysitting.”
I didn’t bother asking who he was babysitting. They probably adopted a large rock.
“When you say home…?”
“The grotto, of course. Yo’ said we should go there, so we made it our base of operations — that’s what Dudley calls it. We can make it our headquarters, now that we’re all back togethaaaaa.”
“We aren’t back together,” I said.
“It’ll be great, it will. We can have loads of adventures, but it won’t be like before. Not like when we were scared and useless and had no idea what we were doing.”
“No?” I said.
“Yo’ don’t think we’re the same as when we first got here, do yo’? Jenny, tell him.”
“We’re not the same,” said Jenny. “Apart from you. You haven’t changed at all.”
She said it to me without any facial cues, so it was hard to tell how she meant it. “Is that a good thing?”
“It means you’re true to who you are,” said Jenny. “Could be a good thing. Depends on who you are. The problem is that you don’t like people. Makes it hard to live in the same place as them, and they tend to be everywhere. You don’t like talking to them or mixing with them or thinking about them. I think when you spend a little time apart you start to miss them — some of them — but the craving to be around them quickly turns into dread the moment you see them again.”
The reason I was willing to spend time with this girl was that she got me. It wasn’t like I hadn’t had interest from others. Once I got a little power and influence, my attractiveness went up. Women like a guy who’s successful in some way, it appeals to their nature. Their shallow, greedy, self-centred nature.
But aren’t men also shallow, greedy and self-centred? Why yes, yes they are. That’s why we deserve each other.
“What was it like back home?” asked Flossie.
“Horrible. The far-right are taking over, climate change is wrecking the environment and people are turning a blind eye to the next holocaust because they don’t want to miss out on cheap Chinese goods.”
“Oh,” said Flossie. “Did yo’ visit Birmingham? Has it changed?”
“I didn’t. But the world’s in turmoil and there seems to be a new Dark Ages on the horizon. I doubt Brummies will be able to tell the difference.”
“Oi, that’s not fair. It’s a very upwardly mobile city of culture.” She sounded like she was quoting from a brochure. “More canals than Venice.”
“Not anymore,” I said. “Venice is all canals these days.”
Bertie soared through the skies with wings spread and nothing to slow him down. I was flying on the back of a dragon, treating it like it was a short-haul flight on Ryanair. Even I could see how unreasonable I was being. Things could be a lot worse. I could be flying Ryanair.
“Well, Ah’m glad you’re back,” said Flossie. “Nothing’s been going right since you left. It’s very weird what’s happening in Fengarad.”
“How do you know?” I asked her. If she’d been holed up with Dudley all this time, I didn’t see how she was up to date on the political goings-on in the big smoke.
“Ah hear things. Keep mah ear to the ground.” She nodded knowingly, which on her looked like she was about to sneeze. “And the dragons aren’t happy. They can sense trouble. That’s how Ah knew yo’ were coming.” She smiled smugly at me, like she’d just delivered a zinger.
Bertie Airways took us over the chasm that separated Monsterland from Flatland — no sign of the giant — and brought us down in a quiet glade packed with dragons. There were hundreds of the things, munching and chewing everything that couldn’t move. Well, maybe not hundreds, but a few dozen at least.
And roaming through the herd was a plump, naked man. He waved at us as we came into land. The other dragons raised their heads and mooed, flapped their wings, took a shit. Business as usual.
As we climbed down off Bertie, Dudley came striding over, proud as you like.
“Hello, hello, welcome. Will you be staying for tea?”
“Dudley,” I said, “why are you naked?”
“Hmm?” said Dudley. He looked down and his eyes popped out of his head like a cartoon.
“Oh my. I… I totally forgot.” He covered his privates and blushed in Technicolor™. “I’m so used to no one being around, and the dragons don’t mind…” His mouth split into a rictus grin of embarrassment.
Five seconds back and I was already making people feel uncomfortable. It’s a gift.
“I’ll just…” He turned and ran off, prancing naked between the dragons, his hand doing a terrible job of covering his large wobbly behind. Not that I was looking, but it was hard not to.
“You wander around starkers, too, do you?” I asked Flossie.
“Yes. If you get acid on your clothes it burns right through them.”
“And your skin?” I could see the logic of not wanting to lose perfectly good clothes to a dragon coughing at the wrong moment, but I assumed human skin was just as susceptible to being burned, as Jenny’s face clearly demonstrated.
“It’s fine as long as you, er…” Now it was Flossie’s turn to go red.
“As long as you what?”
“Wash it off quickly.”
“They probably jump in the grotto pool,” said Jenny.
“We tried that. Water only makes it worse,” I said. “Oh my god, you don’t…” Flossie went brighter red. “Leave you alone for two minutes and you turn into bloody deviants.”
“What?” said Jenny.
“They’ve been showering each other, in gold.”
“It’s sterile,” said Flossie.
“Can’t you behave like normal people? This isn’t Germany.”
Germans get a bad rap for being into scat porn and weird shit (literally) but I guess it’s understandable. Sometimes one extreme is the only way to distract from another.
“Vell, you know, it’s just how ve are as a people — no kink-shaming, please. Ve have been like this all the way back to the seventies, you know. No, no, don’t look past there, please, nothing to see. Here, vatch me shit on this beautifully engineered glass table.”
Dudley came back dressed, his bow on his back and his sweaty face shaded by a helmet that looked like it had been made out of a hollowed fruit.
“Right, here I am. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, nothing,” said Flossie. “Shall we go.” She hurried back to Bertie who was still refuelling.
“What happened?” Dudley looked confused, which was how he always looked.
“Nothing,” I said. “Are you sure you won’t need the bathroom before we leave?”
“I already went,” said Dudley.
“I bet.” It’s not that terrible to try out weird stuff when you get into a relationship. Try everything once apart from incest and country dancing, they say. I guess if you live in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do and nowhere to go, you find ways to amuse yourself. Was this the life awaiting me once I’d completed my task here?
We could have taken a break and gone for a dip in the hot spring, but it was probably better to find out what needed doing in Fengarad and get it out of the way. Plus, I wasn’t sure I wanted to share the same bathwater with them two.
We were soon back in the air, leaving the dragons behind. It was good to know Flossie had her own army to call on. They would probably be needed at some point.
It took less than an hour to spot the spires of Fengarad. And the fliers swooping around them. As we got closer, the skies became busier. No dragons, but plenty of fairies, lizards with wings and giant flying insects with riders. If ever I’d needed a reminder of the kind of world I was in, this did the job.
There were no signs of fighting or armies on the brink of attack. It seemed quite calm. Nothing on fire, no screams wafting over the battlements.
Some of the fliers came towards us, a little wary as we were by far the biggest thing in the sky. As we entered the airspace over the city we had quite a retinue with us.
Down below, people stopped to look up at us. I say people, there were just as many non-humans from what I could tell. A truly multicultural city; very woke. Sort of like Islington but with more lizardmen and fewer pretentious tossers who think they personally defeated Apartheid in the 80s.
Flossie brought us down in the main square. I could hear people whisper, “Dragonrider,” and, “Two-Faced Witch.” The girls were famous, it seemed. No one mentioned me, which was fine, even though I had saved this fucking place twice already and had my own key to the city (somewhere) but why remember me, their constant saviour?
We climbed down from Bertie’s back and the crowd kept their distance. Other than the general atmosphere of wary curiosity, there didn’t appear to be much tension in the air. No trouble in the offing. The humans and the non-humans appeared to be getting on.
Perhaps Maurice had done a good job of uniting the species and maintaining order, as hard as that was to believe. Some people are good at that kind of stuff. Usually it involves death squads and re-education camps, but maybe he had found another way.
There was a slight commotion and the crowd parted. Claire came walking up to us, her face oddly sad. She looked quite distressed and like she’d been crying.
“Yes,” I said. “But I’m not sure what for. Seems fine. I can’t remember it being this happy around here. Maurice must have done something.”
“He did,” said Claire. “He introduced slavery.”
Not the solution to urban living I was expecting. I looked around. Humans and monsters stood next to each other as equals.
“Who did he enslave?” I asked.
“The dead,” said Claire. “The whole workforce is undead. Come, see for yourself.”
Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino