WARNING: Contains Language and Disturbing Imagery. Discretion is advised.

A version of this was published in the Fall 2021 issue of The Paper Lantern from Normandale Community College

I wish we could do this earlier, Iken thought as he checked the anesthetic one final time. The label read: CARFENTANYL. The drug was basically heroin laced with elephant tranquilizers. As expensive as it was lethal. One solid gram of the stuff cost him half his life savings. But, he was promised it would last him 70 years of solid breeding before needing a refill. Each bag of solution had .02mg dissolved in distilled water. It was lethal for a human at that dose, and these animals weren’t much bigger than labradors at their largest. Still, it took a lot to take them down. For a dragon, one bag was just enough to keep them down for two, maybe three, hours. 


Dragons. On days like this, Iken wished they’d never crossed paths with humans. To care for them, it took five additional years of veterinarian school. The certification was so specialized that in America, there was only two dozen dragon vets: one for each state that allowed ownership plus some extra coverage in the larger states like California and Minnesota. In states like Utah and every southern state except Florida, they are outlawed on the basis of thinly veiled religious demonization. Iken grew up in North Carolina, only hearing stories of dragons. When he got to school, he picked the best dragon certification program, finishing third in his class. Nearly ten years of student loans later, he was stationed in Rhode Island. 


An uproar of shouts, rattling chains, and scraping came from the hallway. Iken braced himself as they burst into the small dim room. Michael was hauling the brown dragon by a thick chain around its neck. Its clawed wings and rear legs gouged everything as it fought against it. 


“Come on, motherfucker!” Michael barked at the dragon. “Move! You dumb fucking monster.” He yanked the chain and it tightened around the dragon’s neck. The dragon whined through its iron muzzle; its voice like screeching truck breaks. It pulled back, not wanting to follow, not wanting to trust him. 


“MICHAEL,” Iken snapped over the commotion. The ginger bearded man froze, glaring at him. Iken pushed the surgical tray of tools out of his way and knelt down. The dragon looked over and relaxed. Its slitted pupils widened like a cat as it crawled closer to him. Iken put a hand out and the dragon nuzzled its head into the palm. He stroked the animal’s scaly head and neck below its mane of dull horns. It crawled closer, nuzzling against his chest like a puppy, a deep thrumming came from its throat. Iken loosened and removed the choke collar and threw it at the protesting Michael. Iken smiled at the dragon, and got up. He led it to the center of the room and patted the metal operating table under the solitary light. He stepped on the wheel-locks before the dragon jumped up. It laid flat on its belly, letting its bat-like wings drape down on either side. Its tail, a long snake-like thing, swung back and forth.


Iken scratched the dragon’s chin. Its eyes closed and the thrumming started again. Iken slid his hand under its neck and the dragon rolled over, anticipating its belly to be rubbed. When its wings and legs relaxed again, Iken looked over at his assistant Lance and Michael, who both stood ready. Quickly, the three men took the leather straps dangling under the animal and bound it with iron buckles. Patrick and Iken forced the wings flat against its body while Michael took care of the legs. The dragon thrashed, but the moment of surprise let them get it secured enough immediately. Iken returned to the dragon’s head while Michael bent down and lashed the flailing tail to one of the steel legs. Iken put his gloved hands on either side of the dragon’s head and made calming, shushing sounds. Its eyes were wide with paper thin pupils, its breathing panicked and shallow, but eventually it laid still. Lance took a final strap and secured it around the dragon’s neck. It struggled slightly, but when its head was to the side, Lance pulled the strap tight. Iken calmly stroked its head and neck until its breathing calmed. 


Lance handed Iken a hypodermic needle. The chamber was full of the clear carfentanyl solution. Iken was careful to keep it out of the dragon’s view. Dragon ears holes were only the size of one of its scales - roughly the size of a quarter. They were the only exposed flesh on a dragon, so it was the only place to begin sedation. Needles for dragons were made of highly strengthened steel - just strong enough to pierce their thick, leathery skin. Iken took a deep breath. “It’s like a game of Operation,” he had been told in school. “Be quick in and out, and don’t touch the interior walls. ‘Cause you’ll get worse than a buzzer sound.” Iken slid the needle into the ear canal and stabbed the flesh hard. 


The dragon’s jaws snapped open and closed as it let out a shriek of agony. It struggled against its leather and iron restraints. But past experience trained Iken and his team and they quickly held down the dragon’s head as Iken slowly pushed the plunger down. Too much movement, and the needle could tear through the ear canal. Iken’s ears rang as the dragon’s cry reached a near fever pitch. Finally, the needle was empty and Iken quickly pulled it out. The dragon kept struggling, but as the sedative took effect, it slowly stopped moving. Lance put a stethoscope in his ears and used the other end to listen to the dragon’s chest. After a few seconds, he nodded and they got to work. 


Iken and Lance grabbed a pair of pliers each from the surgical tray and stood on either side of the dragon’s abdomen. Lance took a small brush and scraped it along the scales just below the dragon’s ribcage. The stiff, obsidian sharp bristled scuffed up the smooth scales to a sandpapery grit. Then each man took their pliers and began prying at each scratched scale. The scales had small barb-like roots that, when the scales were ripped out, left small holes in the flesh that began to ooze inky black blood. They made a heavy clink in the porcelain bowl beside the table as the men deposited them. After a few minutes of ripping out scales, a foot long patch of pink flesh was exposed on the dragon’s stomach. Iken wiped the blood away and then wiped it with a swab of sharp smelling disinfectant and nodded at Lance. 


His assistant brought over the pair of bags of carfentanyl solution hanging on the metal coat rack. He attached a plastic tube to a bag and inserted the needle into the very edge of the exposed flesh, clicked the stopper, and the sedative began to drip into the dragon. The dragon’s tail had begun twitching but soon fell still again. Iken checked his watch to mark the time. Then, without any hesitation, he picked up a scalpel and sliced a straight line into the belly of the dragon. The leathery flesh bloomed slightly as he cut and the organs inside caught the light. Lance took a half dozen pairs of weighted pliers and clamped them on the cut, pulling it open. Iken plunged his hands into the open cavity. It was warm and slick inside. The incision opened into just above the diaphragm and Iken quickly found what he was looking for: the flame bladder.

For their fire-breathing capabilities, dragons had this bladder type organ that stored the ignitive gas that came from metabolizing certain foods. The bladder was closely connected to the respiratory systems - actually developing as a metastasized organ on the lungs. Around the 24 month mark, the bladder is fully formed and detached from the lung wall. A second trachea connected this organ to the mouth.


Iken felt the bladder, ensuring that it was fully detached from the lungs. Comfortable with this, he pulled one hand out and took the capped scalpel from Lance. Visualizing the space, iken carefully uncapped the blade and severed the connective tissue that kept the organ in place. He cut it away off the tracheal tube and pulled it out in his right hand, keeping his left on the area it was. His hand was covered in black blood as he handed the bladder to Lance, who plopped it on top of the bowl full of scales. Lance then handed Iken a small battery powered wand. Iken stuck it in and used his other hand to guide the tip to the cut end of the trachea. Cupping his hand around the area to ensure no unnecessary damage, Iken clicked the switch and the end of the wand began heating up. When it seemed hot enough, Iken took in a deep breath and held it as he pressed the end to the trachea. He cauterized the end, sealing the tube up. He clicked the switch and waited to remove the wand until the tip had cooled down completely, then he handed it to Lance. Iken eyed the bag of solution: about ¾ empty. 


“Keep an eye on that,” he told Lance as he held up his black, blood soaked hands. “We should be all set.


“Right,” Lance nodded as he picked up the suture needle. Iken walked over to the plastic wash basin and turned on the water. He peeled off his gloves and threw them in and began washing his hands. He didn’t like to dip into a second bag of sedative on a single operation if he could help it. Years meticulously logging legal dragon sedatives and cautionary training from school regarding tolerance and overdose had cemented a hesitancy in his mind. Even after all these years. Iken had full confidence in his assistant. Top of his surgical class, Lance was able to close faster and neater than Iken could. Most of Iken’s forearms were black with inky blood. As he rinsed and scrubbed repeatedly, his mind wandered and memories resurfaced.


It was six months after he had left his veterinarian practice. His training had caused him to be a little over cautious with sedative dosages. Because of this, more equipment than needed was getting used and small, amateur mistakes were made. He had just figured out a good dosage that sedated the animals for the entire procedure, plus an hour or two after. One night, he had calculated that if he continued with that dosage, he’d run out of the stuff in half the time he was promised. So, on the next procedure day, he halved the dose. The dragon went down as smoothly as could be expected and they got through the descaling and opening the belly. He had his hands deep in the animal’s abdomen, scalpel in hand and uncapped, when the sedative wore off. As soon as the dragon’s synapse kicked into overdrive, it screamed and began flailing on the table. Iken couldn’t begin to imagine the amount of pain the animal was in. Its restraints weren’t as tight as they should have been, and its flailing proved to be too great. The scalpel blade ended up stabbed into the dragon’s lung. More shrieks and screams, this time with the sound of a deflating football being kicked in a puddle, as the dragon gasped and cried for air. Michael came over and pressed the barrel of his revolver against the dragon’s temple. Iken cried as the gunshot filled the room. A second shot, and the animal slumped dead. Everything was covered in thick, black blood. It took a week and several hundred dollars worth of bleach to get rid of the whole mess. Since then, Iken always had a precise solution mixed and a second bag ready when needed. Never again, he vowed, would he lose a dragon that way again.


When the water in the basin ran clear again, Iken twisted off the faucet and dried his hands. He turned back and went to the dragon. Lance had just finished closing the incision and was undoing the leather straps. Iken checked the stitch: clean as ever. He undid the strap around the dragon’s neck and saw Michael step forward, eagerly holding the chain collar. 


“Fuck off with that, Michael,” Iken said with the most disgust he could muster. The chain clinked softly as the man lowered it disappointed.


“What if the beast wakes up?” Michael sneered. “I’m just looking out for you.”


“If it does wake up, having a chain on its neck will make it more panicked. Now: Fuck. Off.” Iken crouched down to undo the other straps and was pleased when the door slammed. He really hated the man and wished he had never hired him. Cruelty breeds problems and violence, especially with animals. But, there was little he could do now. He and Lance stood up. “Thanks, man.” Iken said. “You can head out.”


“You sure?” Lance hesitated.


“Yeah, no worries.”Lance shrugged and walked out. Iken looked over the prone dragon. Its scales were a base shade of brown, but on the edges they were outlined with flecks of black. It still amazed him as much as when he first saw one up close. He smiled as he stepped on the wheel-locks. The next part was the worst of the whole business. Iken took a deep breath and rolled the dragon out. 


The hallway was covered in scratches and deep gouges. Iken didn’t bother to repair the damage until it posed a problem. Especially as it seemed Michael’s goal was to cause as much of it as possible with each dragon. Iken rolled the table like a grotesque serving trolley down the hall and to the door at the end. 


The Recovery Room.


It wasn’t really a room, but a converted stairwell. The stairs had been removed and replaced with a ramp that wound down. The walls had been lined with cages up to eye level. He had never had a completely full stairwell, but he always ensured he had more cages than he needed. Luckily.


He wanted to make up for all the pain he caused these creatures. They got excellent food - better than he afforded for himself - and they were taken care of and kept healthy while they recovered. Dragons required the de-flaming procedure in order to be legally owned. It was a necessary evil. Sure, he could just not allow another nesting from his breeding pair. But then what would he be stuck with? 10 years of student loans for a dragon care degree and license he was blacklisted from ever using legally? And his most optimistic prospects are Head Barista at Starbucks? No. His alimony and mortgage bleeds him dry on an average month. If he gave up the dragons, he’d be on the streets within six months.


He pulled a pair of foam earplugs fro his pocket and twisted them into his ears. He couldn’t hear the door as it opened, nor the wheels as they clattered over the threshold. But he could hear the dragons.


The light from the hallway shone into the dimly lit stairwell. The dragons shuffled and shrieked as they woke up. Their voices were like what his grandfather from Ireland described banshee wails to be. Shrill, piercing, mournful, and painful. His earplugs did the bare minimum to keep his eardrums from rupturing. Iken grimaced at the pain as he quickly wheeled the dragon down the ramp. Eyes shone in the dim light like rubies, sapphires, emeralds, opals, and gold as they stared out at him. The smell was like a blood drenched barn. He tried to keep it clean, but it was difficult with the danger the angry and pained dragons posed. The dragons bashed themselves against their cage bars as he passed: screaming for release. Claws and tails curled around the bars and mouths filled with knife-like teeth snapped at him. The dragons that had once trusted him, obeyed him, loved him, now hated him. He had been their last sight in the operating room, and the first when they woke up in here - scared and in pain. The youngest and most recently de-flamed still tried to breathe fire at him. But their attempts only caused more pain. It sounded like a deflating balloon going through a jittery paper shredder. They cried and coughed in wheezy heaves. Some kept trying despite the pain until their mouths dribbled with black blood. They shrank back with their eyes glaring out of the shadows.


Iken tried not to look at them as he wheeled the unconscious dragon to the empty cages at the bottom of the ramp. But his eyes clouded up with tears. When he got to the desired cage, he wiped his eyes and steadied his breathing. He opened the cage with a thick iron key, undid the last restraints, positioned the dragon as close to the opening as possible, and readied himself. He slid his arms under the animal and lifted it slightly as he pushed it in. It was heavy. When the dragon was about half-way in, it stalled, unable to move forward.


“Fuck,” Iken hissed and bent down to undo the tail’s strap. As he was loosening it, the tail started to lazily curl and sway. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck! FUCK!” He undid the strap and jumped up. The dragon was starting to move as the sedative wore off. Quickly, Iken shoved his arms under it and shoved it into the cage. His sleeves tore and his skin was shredded like soft cheese on a grater by the scales. The dragon’s eyes shot open. Iken barely slammed the door as the dragon twisted around and snapped at him - trying to get out and get its captor. Iken quickly locked the door and fell back into an empty cage. His arms rang and throbbed with every possible pain signal his brain could receive. He hugged himself, trying to apply pressure to his bleeding arms. He sat there, crying and trying to regain his senses as blood dribbled and pooled around him.


The dragons went into a frenzy at the smell of his blood. They crashed against their cages, roaring and screaming. The cacophony was agony on Iken’s ears, but he had to just stay there until he could stand again. After some time, he rose to his feet. He staggered over to the bottom door and slammed it behind him. Shuffling into the nearby bathroom, he turned on the faucet, stripped as best he could through the stinging of his arms that continued to drip blood, and got in the tub. The water felt nice on his arms and hands as the tub filled. He couldn’t relax though. He took the earplugs out and thanked his past self for the wisdom to soundproof the stairwell so much. The only sound that leaked out was the occasional big bang from the walls. Iken watched the steam dance above him. His stomach twisted in knots and bile climbed up his throat as he lay there. It always happened after each of the de-flamings, the nausea. He took it as some solace that he still felt guilty for putting the animals through it. He wouldn’t eat anything more than dry bread and water for a week. A jailhouse diet, he thought. A jailhouse diet for the jailor.


The warm water felt nice on his arms. Iken closed his eyes, as the tub started to overflow with red water.