Irri’s stomach growled as he flew. He hadn’t eaten in three days, and he was extremely hungry. The elders had warned him against flying too close to the worldgate, but had he listened? Of course not, because he was the great Irri.
Irritably, Irri scanned the sky for birds. He’d seen precious few since he’d come here to this wasteland, and they had all escaped him. What kind of planet was this, all snow and ice? How could any reptilian person live in such a place?
A jingle made his ears prick up. In a distant cloudbank was the slightest red glow, dancing through it. He dove, roaring fire in his wake.
He seized his prey, a big woolly horned thing, and prepared to gulp it down.
“RELINQUISH RUDOLPH!” a voice roared.
Irri paused, looking down at the prey in his talons. It bucked and reared, showing the whites of its eyes. Defiantly, he moved it back to his jaws.
A blast of energy blew him back. With a shriek of terror, the woolly thing wriggled free. Eight more woolly things writhed from the cloud, and all nine stampeded away.
The cloud was silent for a moment. Then it said, “Blast.”
Irri growled in frustration.
A round, red-and-white head popped through the cloudbank. From the lack of fear in its eyes, Irri surmised that this was not a prey species.
“Thank you very much!” the creature snapped. “Do you have any idea how long it takes to breed a reindeer with a glowing nose? Not to mention one that can fly! And they’ll have scattered miles away! How am I supposed to deliver my presents now?”
“Need food,” Irri growled. “Or I’ll eat you.”
“Dragons,” the newcomer muttered. “Wait there.”
The head disappeared for a moment. There was a rustling sound. Then a huge chunk of raw meat dropped from the cloud.
Irri shrieked in triumph. He seized it in his talons, tore his teeth into it, and gulped strip after strip of flesh. As the meat sizzled in his stomach, he began to feel a trifle better.
“You really shouldn’t be in this world at all,” the creature said, poking its head back up through the fog. “The last time I saw dragons was — oh — back when they still called me Odin.”
“Came through by accident,” Irri snarled, snarfing through his meat. “Flew too close to a gate. Turns out it was open. Closed behind me again.”
“Ahh.” The creature rubbed his eyes with two fat fists. “Of course. I could have told the humans that concentrating their world’s magic on top of a pole, right around a solstice, was asking for trouble. But does anyone ever listen to me? Noooo. All they let me do these days is give their children presents. It almost makes me wish I was still Odin, even without the depth perception.”
Irri bolted his last scrap of meat. He reared backwards, flapping his wings, and snuffed loudly for more. Sensing nothing, he narrowed his eyes in the direction of the escaped prey.
“Oh, no you don’t!” the creature said from behind him. “You scared away my reindeer — you’re going to pull my sleigh.”
Sudden weight fell onto Irri’s wings. He hissed and bucked in fury. But the creature behind him paid him no heed. More and more restraints fell around him, across his nose and face, until even his flame-centers were extinguished.
“Horrible creature,” Irri gasped. “Release me!”
“No, I don’t think so.” There was a jingling behind him, and a string of little bells was heaved over his back. Irri bucked and shivered as the freezing metal itched him. The red-and-white creature paid this no heed. “I have few enough believers these days. I refuse to let you jeopardize the few I have left. Besides, there’s nothing you can do about it. My magic’s at its peak today.”
Irri tried to spit fire, but nothing came. He writhed in fury.
“My current name is Sinterklaas, by the way,” the round creature said, tying the last tether of its sleigh in place. “Or Weihnachtsmann. Or Santa Claus, if you insist.”
“Hate you,” Irri hissed.
“I’ll send you home when we’re finished. Unless you’d rather wait until the gate opens in another year?”
“If you must, but we’ve no time to waste on that silliness. Now . . . which one is closer from here, Greenland or Norway?”
* * *
Irri’s opinion of the Santa did not improve as they continued on their journey.
The creature kept an enormous list that it flipped through incessantly. “Joseph . . . Emma . . . Johnny,” it would murmur, making notes with either a thick feather or a black stick it called a pen. “I wish they’d let me upgrade to a smartphone, but not enough folks envision me that way.”
“Why do you let them determine your life?” Irri growled. “It is stupid.”
“Magic works best with the rules people believe in. I like magic. So I use the role they give me.”
“It is stupid!”
“I’ve been worse,” the Santa murmured, squinting at its long list. “Naughty . . . nice . . . I wish they’d give me a third option. Most children are both, and many things in between. Ah well, I never leave coal anyway.”
Irri licked his teeth. Coal sounded tasty.
“There!” the Santa shouted, pointing at a cluster of lights. “Hold still while I freeze time so we can get down there safely.”
The creature also had an irrational prejudice against hunting.
“No cats,” the Santa told him firmly, as they hovered right over a rooftop with some tasty-looking fuzzballs on it. “No dogs, either. And if I catch you eating a horse, I will trap you until the next solstice comes, so help me.”
Irri sulked as the round creature squeezed down a too-small chimney.
And then there was the food that the Santa did bring him.
“My reindeer are supposed to eat these,” the creature said, dumping a pile of plants by Irri’s mouth while they stopped to rest. “That means they’re yours tonight.”
Irri stared at the orange roots incredulously. “Do I look like a prey species?”
“Try eating like an omnivore for one night. It won’t kill you.”
Irri picked up the offending roots in his talons and flung them away.
The most annoying thing, however, was the way the creature kept humming. Sometimes it even added words, and the words were always inane.
“Up on the housetop reindeer pause . . . out jumps good old Santa Claus . . .”
“Do you mind?” Irri roared. “I’m trying to concentrate on flying!”
“Good for you. I’m trying to enjoy my one day out. I enjoy singing.”
“You are tone-deaf,” Irri growled.
“No, I’m not. Dragons just compose differently.”
“You sound like half-dead rodents,” Irri snarled.
“If you say so. But it’s my sleigh. And there’s nothing you can do to stop me. On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me . . .”
Irri wondered if the Santa was officially on a list of non-prey species.
* * *
“That’s it,” the Santa said finally, pulling off Irri’s restraints after a night that felt like it had lasted for weeks. “We’ve finished the last house. We’re back at the pole. Ready to go home now?”
“Past ready,” Irri growled. “Never want to see you again.”
The Santa laughed. It sounded like a drum bouncing on a rock. “You know, you’re the first six-limbed steed I’ve had since Sleipnir. It’s been fun, hasn’t it?”
“No,” Irri retorted.
“You actually might stay,” the Santa said shrewdly, unstrapping the harness. “Dragons are getting more popular every year. I’m sure you could cash in on quite a bit of magic.”
“Not interested,” Irri growled.
“In fact, given the hoardes humans believe dragons have, you could even do what I can’t, and accumulate a lot of money.” The Santa brightened. “Money that could fund Hollywood movies to shift public opinion about me . . .”
The creature put its arm around Irri’s snoot. “We should talk about this further.”
“You should open the gate!”
“One year. I’m sure you could stand that.”
“I’m sure I could find a way to eat you.”
The Santa paused. “Ah. Perhaps I shouldn’t teach you magic to rival mine.”
Irri showed off his teeth.
The Santa sighed and waved its hand. The portal opened.
Irri flapped his wings, rose in the air, and darted through it.
“Tell your friends the offer’s open!” the Santa called as the portal sealed again. “Any dragon who wants to come next year could cut a great deal!”
Irri snorted fire in derision. He backwinged up into the red sky. As if he would send any of his friends into such a fate.
His enemies, however . . . now, that might be worth considering.
For more short stories, check out . . .
Fantasy and science fiction for young adult and middle grade readers.
You can get it here!
Sign up for my mailing list if you’d like to know about new book releases!
You’ll get a copy of three children’s fantasy short stories.
table=. =. |=. |=. |=. |
And a free children’s fantasy book!