For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!
This Week’s Inspiration: Pseudodragon
Trigger Warning: Female-on-Male Sexual Assault, Loss of Bodily Autonomy, Self-Harm, Some Gore
After blacking out during a hookup, Patrick wakes to find a mysterious dragon tattoo on his chest. Not only is the tattoo real, it’s alive, and unless he finds a way to stop it then it’s going to eat its way through his other tattoos before it starts to feed on him.
“I love your tattoo!”
Words I would soon come to regret.
The golden dragon wound its way from her shoulder to the middle of her back like a serpent. It looked Chinese, sinuous, with small, clawed feet, red eyes, curved fangs, and tendrils sprouting from the sides of its muzzle like a moustache. Its owner, around my age, wore a backless top that showed off the tattoo.
“What? She turned and looked confused.
The club’s music thundered, multicoloured lights strobing. People massed around the two of us, drinking and dancing and making conversation difficult.
“I like your tattoo! My name’s Pat, Patrick, I’ve got some ink too!”
I rolled back the sleeve of my t-shirt, showing off the full length of the tattoo sleeve on my right arm. Several other tatts dotted my left arm. She fixed them with a slightly strange expression. I couldn’t show her some of my art without taking off my shirt but in an attempt to start the conversation I shifted my leg into view and pulled up my jeans to show a blotchy lizard on my right calf.
“That one my friend did, Otter! He was just learning, but he had a kit he wanted to try out so I let him tattoo this lizard on my leg!”
“Can I buy you a drink?”
“Sure.” She hesitated for several moments. “My name’s Vanessa.”
Threading through the crowd, I managed to get a couple of beers at the bar. When I returned, Vanessa had found us a booth by the dancefloor. She was small, almost doll-like, with short, dark hair, and extremely thin. Her arms and shoulders looked so bony that I wondered quietly if she might be on something.
Despite the pounding music, I tried to talk to her. She dodged questions about what she did and the kinds of things she was into. I’d started to think she just wanted free drinks off of me when she offered to get the next round. She returned with bourbon and cokes, and shots. After I had my shot she claimed she’d realised she didn’t want her one and handed it to me. She insisted on getting the next round as well and pulled the exact same trick. If I’d been warier I’d have thought she was trying to get me drunk, but that was ridiculous. No matter how bony or haunted she looked, I was clearly into her.
“Do you want to get out of here?” She asked suddenly, after several more rounds.
I spluttered a little. “What?”
“You heard me, let’s go back to your place.”
When I got to my feet, I felt drunker than I’d realised. My head swam but I tried to play it cool. Leaving the club, the sudden quiet seemed yawning. Getting my address, Vanessa poured me into an Uber and climbed in as well.
Once we arrived at my place, Vanessa almost had to prop me up as I opened the door. I rented the house with two other guys but both of them had jobs that frequently took them out of state, which worked great for me most of the time.
“Do you want, like, a drink?” I offered.
“Let’s just do this.”
Stumbling to my bedroom, I realised I’d gone out on a whim and hadn’t expected to hook up that night. The room was a mess. Embarrassed, I bent to pick up some clothes and almost fell over. Vanessa grabbed me and steered me to the bed. Leaving the overhead light off, Vanessa switched on my desk lamp. It lit the room but only dimly.
“Are you sure-, are you sure you want to do this?” I asked.
“I want this,” Vanessa replied bluntly. “Don’t you?”
“Of course! Of course I do, yeah.”
Something felt off about this, I knew. Vanessa was acting cold and weird and almost desperate, but not for sex. I didn’t want to come off as unwilling though, even if I was no longer feeling my best.
Vanessa reached behind her neck and undid the knot holding her top. She wasn’t wearing a bra, her breasts small and almost shrunken. Ribs stood out like fence palings, stomach inverted. I reached out, pawing at her hip. Then I noticed the head of her tattoo poking out from under her left arm, on the left side of her ribcage. I squinted at it in confusion, thinking I’d seen the dragon’s head on her shoulder blade when I looked at it earlier.
“Hey, wasn’t your tattoo-, your tattoo, different, before?”
“Lay back.” Vanessa shoved me onto the bed.
Wrestling my jeans off, Vanessa went to work with her mouth. Drunk as I was, I couldn’t help but react. She stripped off my shirt and then wriggled out of her shorts. Climbing on top, she lowered herself onto me. Scooting backward, I came to rest against the headboard. At first, the movements felt awkward and uncomfortable. Vanessa didn’t seem into it, and it was happening so fast, but she drove herself into my hips.
“Oh, oh, shit.”
I grabbed for Vanessa’s waist, feeling her move under my hands. Just as I was getting into the rhythm, I saw the tattoo again. The head sat just under Vanessa’s left breast and the body wound down the side of her stomach. Did she have two of the same tattoo, one on the front and one on the back? But I didn’t understand how I didn’t see it before, the tattoo was over a foot long, brilliant coloured and highly detailed.
“What, your tattoo? Your tattoo?”
Grabbing me by the shoulders, still riding, Vanessa shoved herself into my chest. Pressed together, I could no longer see the tattoo. We were skin to skin and I thought I must have hallucinated what I’d seen but then something started to itch, and burn, on my chest.
“What? What’s happening?”
The sensation felt like tattoo needles digging into my chest. Throughout it all, Vanessa didn’t stop. Clawing at her back, I couldn’t see a tattoo at all where I’d originally seen it in the club. My chest burned and I tried to voice the fear I was having some kind of attack, but before I could say or do anything more I blacked out.
When I woke up, morning light streamed through the curtains above my bed. I was naked, with bedclothes bunched around my waist. The inside of my skull burned. So did my chest for some reason. It reminded me of when my tattoos had been healing, itchy and raw.
Turning over, I felt for the other side of the bed but of course it was empty. Except for maybe a faint smell of sex in the sheets there was no sign the chick, Vanessa, it took me a few moments to remember her name, was ever there. With embarrassment, I realised I must have gotten too drunk and passed out. I couldn’t even remember if we’d finished, and I definitely didn’t remember her leaving. What memories I did have were hazy and confusing. Her tattoo, I recalled thinking I’d seen it moving. From her back to her side, and onto her chest. That was crazy though, I wondered if a dream and my real memories had gotten mixed up in my drunken brain.
Groaning, I flopped over a couple of times but pressure in my bladder pushed me into getting up. I pulled on some boxer shorts and staggered to the bathroom. Eyes half-closed, bare feet hurting on the cold tiles, I took a piss and then stumbled to the sink. Something caught the corner of my eye, something colourful, but I didn’t pay it any attention until I’d splashed some water on my face.
“What-, what is that?” I straightened and stared into the mirror.
A new tattoo snaked right down the centre of my chest. I could see it in the mirror, inverted, the dragon tattoo. The same tattoo Vanessa had last night, with its serpentine body and cruel smile.
“Is this a joke? What is this, painted on or something?”
I scratched at the edges of the tattoo but the skin was sensitive, like a sunburn. None of the colours came off. The tattoo sat under my downy chest hair, inked into my skin. I scratched and rubbed at it, and then I picked up the hand towel, wet it, and used the wet material to scrub my chest.
Nothing happened, until it did. The tattoo didn’t smear or come off like it was merely painted on. But watching it in the mirror, I saw its eyes move. Pupils flicked sideways in the red eyes. A small movement but it tingled, and I jerked backward as if stung.
“What the fuck was that? No, no, I’m losing it! I’m fucking seeing shit, this is some kind of joke!”
Hangover throbbing but forgotten, I jumped in the shower and continued trying to wash away the tattoo. It didn’t make any difference, the dragon wasn’t going anywhere. Eventually, when the hot water ran out and my chest stung and burned, I gave up and got out of the shower to study it in the mirror again.
Nothing about the tattoo had changed, there was no fading or streaking. It appeared to be real. Vanessa had acted weird throughout the evening. In hindsight, she really had been getting me drunk I realised. I could have woken up in a bathtub full of ice without my kidneys. But surely, no matter how drunk I’d gotten, even if she’d drugged me, she or whoever she was with couldn’t have managed a tattoo of such size and detail overnight without waking me. And why, why do it?
“It doesn’t make any sense!” My voice sounded shrill as it bounced off the bathroom walls. “Unless maybe it’s some kind of-, cult shit? Or a prank, no, it’s got to be some kind of prank. This can’t be real! It’s got to be some kind of special paint!”
Weirdly, I noticed the tattoo didn’t look that fresh. My skin felt irritated but it wasn’t red and inflamed. I already had a bunch of tattoos. A sleeve of them down my right arm and several on my left, but there’d only been one on my chest until now. A zombie rubber duck just under my right collarbone. The dragon looked just as real and established as that one. I felt confused, scared and violated, and had no idea what to do next. And then it got worse.
I’d almost forgotten about seeing the eyes move, as crazy a detail as that was to just forget. My brain had filed it away as a hallucination brought on by the stress. But a strange yet familiar sensation prickled my chest, bordering on pain, uncomfortable and definitely itching. Like needles digging at my skin. And with it, the dragon tattoo began to move.
“What the fuck?” Screaming, I again flailed backward and crashed into the shower door.
With jerky movements, like a bad stop motion animation, the dragon snaked and slid across, through, my skin. The sensation was not unlike feeling tattoo needles make their way over my flesh. From roughly the centre of my chest, it moved to the right side and then toward my shoulder.
“What is happening?”
Claws digging at the skin, the dragon slithered up the right side of my chest. It was going for my zombie duck tattoo, I realised. Green with rotting patches and one eyeball hanging out of its socket, the duck tattoo otherwise looked like a bathtub toy and was just something I’d picked out of a book because I thought it looked funny. The dragon tattoo wrapped itself around the duck like a python. Both images remained two dimensional and yet in spurts of movement interacted as if three dimensional, as if my skin was a window.
And then, the dragon bit down. Inked fangs sank into the skin of my zombie duck with a sensation like hot needles, and this time it hurt, it hurt a lot. I cried out, gasping, and grabbed the sides of the sink.
While the sensation of the dragon moving was uncomfortable but not overtly painful, the feeling of it eating was harder to describe. It was as if the whole patch of skin occupied by the rubber duck was being tattooed simultaneously, but in some kind of reverse. Like ink was being drained from the skin by dozens and dozens of stabbing needles at once. I grabbed and scratched at the skin but it made no difference. The dragon went on feeding.
It wasn’t over quickly either. Once I’d adjusted to the pain, I watched, stunned, at the way the dragon fed. Colour drained first from the duck, making it look aged and faded. Soon, the tattoo contained no colour at all and appeared as if it had only ever been done in black ink. Then, the tattoo was unmade. It took a few minutes but the duck’s lines became thinner and greyer. The dragon’s fangs could be seen digging into the skin where the duck had been. Finally, even those lines faded away and nothing was left behind but a patch of red and irritated skin.
I got a vague sense of satisfaction coming from the dragon tattoo. It uncoiled, stretching, with the same spasms of movement, and resumed the kind of wavy position it had been in originally. The prickling faded. The pain ended but I felt a sharp sense of loss, realising my actual tattoo was gone. Then a renewed confusion and fear took hold as I realised just how insane what I’d just seen had actually been.
Damp from the shower, I shoved myself back into my boxers and returned to the bedroom. A full length mirror covered my closet door. I stopped in front of it and studied the side of my chest, as if a different mirror would show me the truth. The tattoo hadn’t gone anywhere and didn’t look any different from a normal tattoo.
“She drugged me, the bitch drugged me,” I said aloud, as if to reassure myself. “I’m hallucinating all of this.”
In spite of my fading hangover, I felt totally clear headed. Whatever drug Vanessa had used, it could have kicked in last night when we were having sex. When I’d first seen the tattoo moving. Pulling at the skin, I twisted and turned but nothing about the tattoo changed or blurred. If this was a drug, a hallucination, it was like none I’d ever heard of before. My thoughts were clear, my eyes were clear, it’s just that what was happening was so insane.
“Vanessa, I should call her, talk to her.”
As soon as I said it, I realised Vanessa hadn’t given me a phone number or any other way of getting in touch. I didn’t even have her last name. Her actions last night had been so deliberate. Maybe she hadn’t copied the tattoo onto me, maybe she’d literally passed it from herself onto me, skin to skin, to get rid of it.
“Otter, I can call Otter!” I said. “Maybe he’s heard of something like this before?”
Otter, real name Craig Ottoman, was the guy who’d tattooed the lizard on my leg as practice. When he wasn’t making permanent alterations to other people’s bodies, Otter spent most of his time getting high and reading conspiracy theories on the internet. He’d believed the Earth was flat before it was cool. Every time we hung out, he wouldn’t get off me about Reptilians and sex cults and trackers in vaccines.
Grabbing my phone, I punched Otter’s contact. He answered after half a dozen rings, slurring as if I’d woken him up.
“Otter, it’s me, it’s Pat!”
“What’s up, man?”
“Man, something really fucked up happened. I don’t even know how to explain it!” Once I started speaking I got more upset, and struggled to get the words in order.
“What are you talking about?”
“Last night, I hooked up with this chick.”
“No, not nice, not nice, man. Fuck, I hooked up with this chick I met in the club. She had this tattoo, this dragon tattoo! I was drunk but I thought I saw it moving, and I passed out. And then, I wake up this morning and it’s on me, the tattoo, it’s on me, man!”
“Man, what?” Otter sounded too sleepy to really absorb what I was saying. “She gave you a tattoo?”
“She gave me, like, her tattoo! I think it came off of her and transferred onto me! And that’s not all, this is going to sound insane but the thing is alive and it ate one of my other tattoos. It’s alive, man, it’s alive!”
Otter laughed. “What are you on, man? Seriously, you sound like you need to chill. You’re having a bad trip.”
“I’m serious! I’m not on anything, unless, unless I am? Unless she gave me something. But it looks so real! I’ve got to come see you, okay? I’m coming around.”
“Nah, man, hey, if you’re so fucked up you’re seeing moving tattoos and shit I’ll come to you. Stay there and I’ll be there soon.”
I thanked him and hung up. Sitting on the foot of my bed, I watched the tattoo in the mirror but for now it remained unmoving. I snapped a photo of it with my phone. My expression looked miserable. The tattoo looked no different in the photo than it did in the mirror. As much as I wished I could believe this was from some kind of drug, I couldn’t convince myself.
It took Otter nearly two hours to get to my place even though he lived less than twenty minutes away. In that time I moped and paced, and looked out the front windows whenever I heard a car. Returning to my bedroom and sometimes to the bathroom mirror, I kept checking if the tattoo was really still there. And that it still wouldn’t scratch or wash off.
“What took you so long?” I said, throwing the door open once Otter arrived.
“Good to see you too.” Otter pushed his way inside.
“Shit, are you high? Did you drive over here like that?”
“Look, man, you fucking woke me up. I went back to sleep for a bit, then I woke up, got smoked up, and I remembered you needed me so I got over here as fast as I could. What’s your problem? The girl with the dragon tattoo?”
Although my housemates weren’t home and shouldn’t be home for days, I grabbed Otter and dragged him to my room. His eyes were red and he wobbled on his feet. Standing in the middle of my room, I grabbed my t-shirt and stripped it off.
“Whoa, man, what’s up?” Otter laughed nervously.
Oscar’s face wrinkled in confusion. “That’s a cool tattoo, man. So it’s new?”
“It’s not mine! It’s not my tattoo, I mean, you see it, right? You know my tatts, I had a duck, a zombie rubber duck right here on my chest. And this thing ate it! Now, I don’t know, it’s sleeping or something.”
Otter paused for a long time, squinting as he looked from my face to the tattoo. “What?”
“Shit, man, sit down!”
I pushed Otter into the armchair in the corner of my room. The couple of hours Otter had taken to arrive might have been a good thing, it had given me time to calm down and come to grips with the insanity of the situation. I pulled up a shirtless pic of myself on my phone to remind Otter of my original duck tattoo. Then, I recapped for him, more calmly this time, what happened last night and then this morning.
Still slightly stoned, Otter clearly didn’t know what to make of the story even with evidence. I pulled my shirt back on, covering the tattoo.
“Have you ever heard of anything like this?” I asked.
“Why are you asking me, man?”
“You know about all this kind of thing, right? I mean, you’re always reading about weird stuff.”
“Man, that’s aliens and cults, real stuff! This is-, magic, or something!”
“You know about tattoos!”
“When I put a tattoo on someone it doesn’t move around!”
Despairing, I didn’t know what else to do or say next but then I felt a prickling sensation under my collarbone. My eyes widened. It verged on pain, like needles sticking at my skin.
“It’s happening! It’s happening again!”
I grabbed my t-shirt and ripped it off again with a suddenness that made Otter jump. The thought had occurred to me that the tattoo might not move when other people were around, or it might not even be visible to them. Like the frog in those old cartoons, only doing its song and dance routine when the one guy was watching and making him look like a crazy person when he tried to tell anyone else. When I looked down though, I could see the dragon jerking across my skin. It climbed to my shoulder and moved toward my arm. Based on his reaction, Otter could see it too.
“You see? You see?”
“How are you doing that?”
“I told you, man, it’s real!”
Otter reached out and touched my chest, prodding the tattoo. Turning on my skin, its body winding in on itself, the dragon glared at him. Silently, it bared its fangs. Otter whipped his hand away as if he’d touched a hot stove.
“Did it bite you or something?”
Otter shook his head. “No, it just-, it freaked me out.”
The dragon moved to my shoulder and then onto my right arm. My tattoo sleeve started halfway down my bicep. Guitars and other musical instruments wrapped in a garden of barbed rose vines. I shook my arm as if to dislodge the creature.
“No, no! Not again!”
The dragon wasn’t deterred. Sinking its teeth into the nearest rose, it started to feed. Pain like tattoo needles sent tremors down my arm and into my shoulder, and I stifled a cry. Colour began to drain from the rose and surrounding vines.
“What do I do? Should I do something?” Otter said.
“Get your phone, take a video,” I said, gritting my teeth.
Otter fumbled with his phone, opening the camera. The dragon continued to eat, draining colour and then form from my actual tattoo. Otter squinted at his phone, looking from it to me in confusion.
“It’s not showing up,” Otter said.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not showing up on the camera, look!”
Otter changed cameras and pointed the phone screen back at me, so I could see myself in selfie mode. I moved my arm so the dragon should have appeared but the tattoo and section of sleeve it was consuming kept slipping in and out of focus like there was something wrong with the pixels. Watch it long enough and you’d see the tattoo fading and disappearing but the result looked like unconvincing CGI. So the frog wouldn’t sing and dance for an audience after all.
“What do we do now?” Otter asked.
“I don’t know, I have no idea.”
Over the next couple of hours, the dragon grazed at my tattoo sleeve rather than eating it all at once. Each time it started eating, I felt the pain begin again. Resentfully, I watched my sleeve fade and disappear. Although I knew it wasn’t a big concern, I’d paid a lot of money for the sleeve, as well as investing effort and time. It was a part of me, and seeing it disappear felt like a violation. This was my body, and this inked parasite was treating it like its own.
Otter sat across the room trying to google the tattoo on his phone. I did the same on my laptop, on the bed. Eventually, the tattoo calmed down for a while. Its serpentine body stretched across my bicep and onto my shoulder. My tattoo sleeve ended at the elbow in frayed tatters where the dragon had been chewing on it.
“I’ve got to find Vanessa,” I said. “If that was even her real name. You know what? I bet it wasn’t, I’ve been looking all over Facespace and I can’t find her anywhere.”
“You think she gave you a fake name?”
“I think so, I think she passed this thing onto me on purpose. She got me drunk and, like, took advantage of me.”
“Did she have any other tattoos?”
The question surprised and confused me for a few moments. “No, I don’t think so? Why?”
“Well, if she had the dragon tattoo, and the dragon tattoo eats tattoos, maybe she had some tattoos before but the dragon tattoo ate them?”
“Man, you’re a genius!” An idea dawned on me. “Maybe I could find her through the local tattoo studios? If she’s local, and she had ink before the dragon got to her?”
The only image I had of Vanessa was in my memory, so Otter couldn’t do much to help me look for her. I already had a few local tattoo parlours on Facespace. Methodically, I began to scan through photos and posts on their pages, and on the pages of their associated artists. I looked for tattoos on petite, dark haired women, or images of the dragon tattoo itself.
After another hour, my eyes started to blur. It was difficult trying to find any leads because most of the photos focused on the tattoos and tried to avoid showing too much of their models. As I got frustrated and verged on giving up, the tattoo woke up and kept feeding. Pain like needles under my skin shot through my forearm. I kept scrolling and then suddenly jolted upright.
“It’s her, I think it’s her!”
The photo on my screen was of a young woman, although the focus was on a tattoo of a rose behind her left ear. She was turned away with most of her face cropped out but enough was left that I felt a spark of recognition. It looked like Vanessa, at least I thought it was. Even better, she had been tagged. The woman that came up in the tag was ‘Alice Cameron’.
Otter hurried over to see her. He seemed disappointed by how ordinary she looked. I clicked on her name and felt my excitement rising. Most of her profile was public. Vanessa, or Alice, hadn’t updated in a few weeks but there was a wealth of photos and other info. I clicked on her profile pic. Her expression was totally different, and her face looked fuller, but the features and hair were the same.
“It’s her, yes! It’s her!”
I saw the rose tattoo under Alice’s left ear, the profile picture taken at an angle that accentuated it. I clicked through to her other photos. In another pic, Vanessa / Alice wore the exact same top I’d seen her in. It was a full body shot, and I saw tattoos on both her arms and legs that hadn’t been there last night though. She looked healthier in the pictures as well. Not fat or even plump, but definitely nowhere near as painfully thin.
“Is it her?” Otter asked.
“Yeah, man, I’m like ninety percent sure that’s her. She was even wearing the same shirt. But she’s covered with tatts! She’s got way more than I do, but last night she only had the dragon tattoo.”
“What are you going to do?”
“It has her info here, where she works. I could try to find her there, but I guess I could shoot her a message first?”
“What are you going to say? Hey, I think you left something at my place?”
I clicked the link to send a message but my hands hesitated over the keyboard. I wanted to be angry but instead I was just afraid and confused, and worried what this ‘Alice’ would think if I somehow had the wrong person. The dragon finished the last of my sleeve and its body snaked up my arm from wrist to elbow. Hesitating, I started a message and deleted it half a dozen times, cycling through indignation, rage, and pleading. Finally I just decided to keep it simple.
Patrick: Hey, it’s me. You know why I’m messaging. I need to talk to you. Please?
“What are you going to do if she blocks you or doesn’t reply?” Otter asked after a couple of minutes of silence.
“I don’t know, I know where she works now, from her profile. I could threaten to show up there or try to track her down if she doesn’t say anything?”
I waited five minutes, and then ten. Otter got bored and drifted back to his armchair. I flicked back and forth between a few other tabs but kept returning to the message at least a couple of times a minute. Twenty minutes, and then half an hour, and suddenly a response made me jolt. Judging by the spelling, Alice had messaged back in a sudden spasm.
Alice: What do yuo wan? How ddi you find me??
“She wrote me back!” I called out to Otter.
Otter levered himself out of my armchair and blundered across the room. “Whoa, what are you going to say?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know!” I hesitated over the keyboard again and then typed.
Patrick: You gave me a fake name
Alice: Well, yeh – why are you contacting me?
Patrick: I mean, I think you know? Can we call? Please, I need to understand
Alice: Nonononono – nono! I’m sorry I dont kno what to say – Im sorry! Plz leave mee alone!!!
“Is she kidding me?” I said out loud.
Patrick: I can’t just leave you alone. This thing has eaten two of my tattoos already and looking at your pics it must have ate yours too.. what is this thing? Where did it come from??
Alice: Im sorry I don’t have any answers! I dont kno anything!!
I spoke aloud as I typed. “You must know something! Talk to me, please. I don’t want to make threats but if you don’t talk to me I’ll come to where you work, I think that’s fair! After what you did, you owe me!”
Alice didn’t respond for what felt like a long time. Dots sprung up a couple of times, indicating that she was typing, but then they went away. I stared at her profile picture with its confident half-smile and rose tattoo.
Alice: I don’t even work there anymore but I’ll talk to you I guess
I felt an immense wave of relief. Maybe she was telling the truth about not having answers but it was a start, it had to be. There was no followup from Alice so eventually I clicked the icon to make a video call. The messenger rang and rang for well over a minute. When Alice finally answered she looked like she’d been crying.
“It really is you,” I said.
“What-, what do you want?” Alice asked.
“What do I want? What do you think I want? Shit.”
Alice spotted Otter behind me. “Who’s he?”
“That’s Otter, he’s a friend. He came over to help me.”
“Hey.” Otter awkwardly raised his hand in greeting.
“How did you find me?”
“Your tattoo,” I said. “We came up with the idea that maybe if this, thing, eats tattoos, then maybe you had some tattoos before it got to you. We found you through your artist’s page, the picture of the rose you had behind your ear.”
Alice touched the spot self-consciously. “It ate that one, I don’t know, pretty early.”
I held up my arm to the camera. If she remembered, she would be able to see that my tattoo sleeve was gone. In the little box in the corner of the screen that showed me my own image, I could see the dragon stretched along the outside of my arm. So it did show up on camera, just not when it was eating or moving. Alice visibly flinched.
“What is this thing? Where did it come from?” I asked.
“I don’t know! I seriously don’t.”
“You must know something! You gave me a fake name, you knew what you were doing! How did you end up with it?”
Alice took a few long moments to compose the story in her head. “A few weeks ago, I hooked up with a guy. He did the same thing-, he did the same thing I did to you, I guess. He had the tattoo, the dragon tattoo, right in the middle of his chest, which I thought was kind of weird since it was his only one. We had sex, and I blacked out, and when I woke up, yeah, the tattoo was on me.”
“That was it?”
“He left me a note, it said, sorry, but somebody did the same thing to him. That the only way to get rid of it was to sleep with someone and pass it on to them.”
I couldn’t help but sneer. “A note, well that’s something.”
“I’m sorry! After it swapped onto you, and you passed out, I just wanted to get out of there as fast as I could!”
“Okay, okay, sorry, what happened after you got it?”
“Well, it started eating all my tattoos. It hurt, I didn’t know what to do! I was in hospital for a few days but they thought I was faking it somehow. After a while I gave up, I let it eat its way through all the rest of my art but once it was done it’s like it started eating me. I couldn’t sleep, I lost weight. It’s a parasite, if I hadn’t given it to you, it would have killed me.”
“So, what? I’ve got to pass it onto someone else if I want to get rid of it?”
“I’m sorry, no one could tell me anything. No one believed me, I don’t know anything else about it or where it came from.”
The dragon tattoo must have been hungry, but it had stuffed itself with my rubber duck tattoo as an appetiser and my sleeve as the main course. It didn’t eat for the rest of the day. Otter left, promising to post some questions in the kookier conspiracy forums he frequented.
“Maybe I should just go to the police or something, or the hospital,” I said to Otter before he left. “Somebody’s got to be able to help me.”
“No way, man! They’ll kill you to cover it up!”
“Why would they kill me? Who’s going to kill me? I haven’t done anything wrong!”
“Think about it, if this tattoo exists then other shit has got to exist too, right? Magic, aliens, Hollow Earth. You think there’s only one magic tattoo in the world and no other weird shit? But why don’t you hear any proof? Because someone’s covering it up. Men in black, man. They’ll probably cut you up to get at the thing and study it. They’ll lock you up, and me, anyone who knows about it!”
“You really think so?”
“I know it.”
I called out of my next couple of shifts at work. I told them I had COVID, since that would give me a week off no questions asked. If I did go out, or back to work, I didn’t know how I would explain my missing tattoos.
Too much information existed online. It was impossible to sift through it all to find anything useful. I could read about the history of tattoos, and tattoo legends. Magical and mythical tattoos, tattoos for protection. Stories and references to books and TV shows and movies. Nothing that I could connect with the dragon tattoo. Before she’d disconnected, Alice / Vanessa promised she’d try to find the guy that passed the tattoo on to her but even if she did I doubted it would help.
I managed to sleep that night but not well. A couple of times I was woken by the prickling sensation moving around on my arm. In the darkness, I imagined it crawling around my body unseen. I anticipated being woken in pain as it ate another one of my tattoos but that didn’t happen. Alice had put up with this for weeks. Maybe it wasn’t just the tattoo feeding on her that caused her to lose weight, maybe she just couldn’t sleep or do anything.
When I fully awoke, the tattoo was no longer on my arm. I couldn’t help but thrill to the idea that it was gone permanently, even if I didn’t believe it. Getting up and staggering to the mirror, it didn’t take long to find the dragon. It scrolled down the right side of my back, under my right shoulder blade. The same kind of position as where I’d first spotted it on Alice just on the other side.
The dragon stared hungrily across my back at my left shoulder. A grim reaper tattoo sat there, large and black except for a splash of yellow from a smiley face peering out from under its hood. Grim was the first tattoo I’d ever gotten, always looking over my shoulder. Scythe in one bony hand and a pocket watch in the other. Ironically, it was the reaper’s time that was short based on the way the dragon was looking at him.
I tried to do some more research but it was hopeless. Dismayed, I ended up just sitting around the house and killing time until I felt the tattoo moving again. The prickling of the dragon’s movements crossed my spine.
Getting up, I pulled off my shirt and went to the bedroom mirror. In jerky movements, I saw the dragon move in on my reaper tattoo. The reaper, being only ink, didn’t react. The dragon struck from below like a shark. Coils of its serpentine body wrapped around the other tattoo, fangs bared.
“Oh, the fuck.”
When the dragon’s teeth sank into the reaper’s shoulder, they felt like hot needles. I cried out. Crossing the room, I grabbed my phone and opened the camera app. I tried taking photos and some video but the best I got were some still shots of the dragon wound around the reaper, which made it look like a weird but still ordinary tattoo. The footage distorted and failed as I tried to record.
Needles dug around in my flesh. Tattooing in reverse, that’s what it felt like. I looked at the smiley face poking out from under the grim reaper hood. Did it change? Did its smile waver? I think I was just imagining things as well by that point. I could see the coils of the dragon’s body interacting with the cloak, pulling it tight, but the reaper itself didn’t come to life. Colour and shading drained from the tattoo. Over the course of twenty minutes, the reaper was reduced to a shadow of a sketch, and then it was gone. My left shoulder felt like it was being dipped in acid. There was no lasting damage when it finished, however. My skin just looked red as if I had a sunburn. I gave Otter a call.
“Man, it happened again,” I said. “It got another one, my grim reaper tattoo.”
“Aw, man, that was a sweet tatt. I haven’t really found anything. Some folks think the government is inserting tracking chips into tattoo ink, or experimental drugs. But, uh, I don’t think that matches your situation.”
“What am I going to do? I don’t have as many tatts as Vanessa did, or Alice or whatever! Soon it’s going to start eating me.”
“We could try feeding it? I got the tattoo gun, maybe I could draw it a nice chicken dinner, or a hamburger or something?”
“Maybe.” I thought about the pain, the sensation of the dragon eating, and my disturbed sleep last night. “I don’t think it would work for long though.”
“Well, man, there’s only one option, right?”
“Passing it on? You’re saying I should have sex with someone and give it to them?”
“Man, I’m not saying anything. Unless you could have sex with, like, a murderer or a paedophile or something?”
“How am I going to have sex with a paedophile?”
“Yeah, I guess they wouldn’t be interested in you.”
“It’s fucked up, it’s fucked up what she did to me! And what the guy who gave it to her, did to her. I can’t do that.”
“I know, but that’s how this thing has been spreading around, right? Or else, whoever had it would have probably died with it!”
Sighing, I held the phone away from my face for a few moments. “Let me know if you find anything, okay? Anything at all. I’ll check with you later.”
I hung up the phone. Still shirtless, I paced the room and then checked the mirror. The dragon seemed to have a standard pose it relaxed into when it wasn’t moving or eating. The same pose I’d seen it in when I first spotted it on Alice’s back, its body forming a loose ‘S’.
Trying not to think about it too hard, I sat down on the edge of my bed and opened one of the dating apps on my phone. I didn’t have any new messages since the last time I’d used it and scrolled to the search function instead. The action was automatic enough that I didn’t have to think about swiping positive on every profile I came across.
“I’m just looking, keeping my options open,” I said to myself. “I’m not-, I’m not going to do anything. I’m just looking for a distraction.”
I don’t know why I was lying to myself. Really I didn’t know what I was going to do. Though as I slowed down, I started looking for women with tattoos. I never had any particular feelings about women with tattoos one way or the other but now of course it was the more ink the better.
“Doesn’t matter, no one ever answers back on this app anyway. I’d have better luck going on Grinder or another gay one.”
I thought about changing my preferences to include men. I didn’t like guys, but it wasn’t about sex, was it? It was about survival. Part of me, sexist or not, would rather pass the tattoo onto another guy if you took the actual act out of it entirely. Some twisted sense of chivalry. Like if I had to punch a random person on the street, I’d rather pick a guy than a girl.
“Is that a hate crime? If I deliberately pick a gay guy? No, no, that’s fucked up, I’m not giving it to anyone! I’ll figure out another way!”
Alice had survived several weeks as host for the dragon tattoo but after comparing notes with her, I didn’t think I was going to last that long. The dragon seemed hungrier, according to her. I lost one tattoo a day for the first week, not counting that first day, and then I didn’t have any more to give. Maybe it was getting hungrier, more vicious, as it passed from person to person. Maybe it was inevitable that at some point it wouldn’t be able to pass on before its rapacious hunger killed one of its hosts.
Lying on a weight bench in Otter’s garage, I hitched my boxers up to my hip. I winced a little as his tattoo gun bit into my skin but the pain was pretty minor compared to what I’d been going through. Otter wiped away some excess ink. He’d deliberately chosen to tattoo the outside of my thigh, since it was one of the areas the tattooing would hurt least. I scrolled on my phone. Grunting, Otter sat up again.
“There,” Otter said.
“What is it?” I set my phone down for a moment.
“Does it matter?”
Otter had tattooed freehand, not bothering with a stencil. The tattoo wouldn’t be on me for long. Only done in black ink, its lines were crude and splotchy. It took me a moment to realise the oblong shape was meant to be a dog bowl. Half a bone stuck out the top of the bowl and Otter had inked the word ‘TATTOO’ along the front of it.
The tattoo seemed to sense as soon as Otter finished. I felt the prickling of it crossing my back from its favourite position under my left shoulder. Fast, starved, it moved down my side in staccato bursts. Otter watched, fascinated, as passed under my boxers and onto my thigh.
“Still crazy,” Otter said.
“Yeah, I’m over it,” I replied.
The dragon tattoo sunk its needle teeth into the fresh ink on my thigh. The bowl tattoo still shone with wetness. I hissed through my teeth. Almost instantly, the tattoo Otter had just finished dulled and started to grey. The feeding only took a couple of minutes, whereas my original tattoos had taken much longer to consume. The skin was left red and inflamed, blood beading on some of the needle marks. As soon as the pain ended, I was hit with a pang of hunger and a feeling of bone-deep exhaustion.
“How long can you keep this up, man? You’re going to have me feed it every day?” Otter asked.
“It’s not working anyway,” I said. “You see how fast it just ate that one? It needs real tattoos, detailed, settled in, the new ones are just snacks to it. Meanwhile, I’ve lost four kilos even though I’m eating all the time, and I’m super tired. The thing’s still eating me, the fresh tattoos just slow it down a little.”
“Shit, man. Hang here, okay? I’ll be back.”
I sat on the side of the bench as Otter disappeared inside his house. The garage’s concrete floor was cool underfoot. The dragon stretched along the outside of my thigh. I could feel its hunger and dissatisfaction with its latest meal.
I couldn’t keep this up, the tattoo would kill me. Feeling furtive, I picked up my phone again. There was one way out, it had been going around and around in my head for days. Guiltily, I thumbed the name of an escort website I’d found into the search bar. My eyes kept flicking to the door to see if Otter was coming, as if I was looking at porn or something. The website wasn’t pornographic but it did have profiles and pictures of the escorts, which I scrolled through. Most of the language was coded. The names and profiles were fabricated but I didn’t care about them. I looked at the pictures. Looked for women with plenty of tattoos.
“They could survive it,” I muttered under my breath. “They could feed it. They’d have guys, customers, they could pass it to quicker.”
Otter returned from the house carrying a glass bong in one hand and a plastic baggie in the other. I jumped, hurriedly closing the website on my phone. Otter pinched some weed out of the baggie and used it to pack the bong.
“Thinking time.” Otter passed the neck of the bong toward me and produced a plastic lighter.
Sealing the bong to my face, I blazed the bowl and inhaled deeply. Coughing, I passed it back to Otter. Pretty soon, we were both rocking back and forth in a stoned daze.
“Would you rather,” Otter began an oft-played game. “Have a dick tattooed on your face, where everyone can see it, or a face tattooed on your dick where only, like, chicks you were hooking up with can see it? Like, Hiter’s face, on your dick.”
“Can I cover up the dick tattoo? The one on my face?”
“I guess, it’s right in the middle of your forehead so you could wear a hat or something.”
“Probably the dick on my face then. You could cover it, or say someone, like, attacked you and did it to you. But if you have a Hitler dick you’re never getting laid again.”
Otter took another hit. “Okay, okay, what about-, would you rather have no arms, and hands for feet, or no legs and feet for hands?”
If I hadn’t been so stoned, it could have been one of those literary moments where inspiration strikes like a bolt of lightning. Instead, my brain short circuited and I could feel an idea bubbling slowly to the surface. Otter was high enough that he didn’t notice. I sat back, slack jawed, as the idea came to me in pieces.
“I’ve got it, man,” I said. “I think I’ve got it!”
“Got what?” Otter said.
“How to beat it.”
My mouth tasted like an ashtray and I blinked dryness out of my eyes. I’d waited until I’d come down, sobered up, before putting my plan into action. Still, I felt tired and sickly, and my thinking was too slow. Looking over the tools on the shelf, the descriptions on the tags didn’t seem to make sense no matter how many times I read them. Electric or gasoline? I had no idea what was best.
I felt a prickling on my spine as the dragon tattoo moved up my back again and shuddered. For some reason it was moving around a lot back there. Almost as if it was getting stronger while I got weaker.
“Can I help you, sir?” A young guy in a uniform belonging to the hardware store appeared beside me, making me jump.
“Oh, yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” I said. “I’m-, doing some yard work. Which one of these do you think would be-, fastest, I guess?”
“Fastest? I’m not really sure-,”
“It’s okay, it’s okay, don’t worry about it.”
I collected one of the boxed tools, an electric one, and an extension cord. I felt conspicuous taking it to the counter but they didn’t react. Paying in cash, I hurried out of the store.
That night, I slept uneasily. I was tired but lay awake feeling the dragon thrash around on my back. It gave me too much time to think, leaving me sick with anticipation. Part of me, a big part, didn’t want the plan to work. Then I could say I’d tried all I could and failed. I’d done more than anyone could be expected to try to beat the tattoo and surely I’d be justified in doing whatever I needed to do next. But I did have to try. I couldn’t inflict this on someone else without at least trying.
But then, anger. No, I wanted this to work. I wanted to beat it. That the creature could inflict itself on me, violate me, steal from me, feed from me. I wanted to kill it, this parasite. I wanted to show it who was boss. And I’d be a hero, who else really found themselves tested like that? Had the opportunity to prove, if not to the world then at least to themselves, that if put to the test they really would sacrifice themselves for the greater good? I could do it. I could prove I was a hero.
Morning came and found me nauseous with worry and exhaustion. I knew I had to do something soon or the tattoo was going to kill me. I couldn’t even look at it as I got up and got dressed. I could feel it there though, hanging out on my back, waiting, hungry.
“Guess we’re really doing this.”
Otter refused to do the plan at his place, which was more than fair. Fortunately, both of my housemates were still away. I set up a spot outside, resting a bench seat and my new purchases on the lawn in the shadow of the house. My heart was already roaring. When Otter arrived, carrying his tattooing kit, he looked more serious than I’d ever seen him.
“You sure you want to do this, man?”
“Come on, before I chicken out.”
Sitting on the bench in a t-shirt and shorts, I stretched my right leg out in front of me. Otter prepared his tattoo gear. I could feel the dragon stirring. I wasn’t sure how much the tattoo actually understood. When I’d first conceived of the idea yesterday I’d been high, and I’d explained it all to Otter without thinking. For all I knew the tattoo might have heard and understood, and wouldn’t play along. But then again, part of me did hope it would fail after all. Maybe I’d been subconsciously sabotaging myself.
“How do you want to do this?” Otter asked.
“Lure it down there. Like, make a little path.”
I lifted the side of my t-shirt and Otter leaned over my stomach. Buzzing, the tattoo gun bit into my skin. Otter worked quickly, not caring about the quality of the work, inking an ugly little sphere that looked kind of like a cheeseburger. I could feel the dragon shifting across my back.
“It’s happening,” I said.
The colourful head of the dragon tattoo appeared around my side. It seized the ‘burger’ in its teeth and I hissed. The tiny tattoo disappeared in less than a minute. Blood beaded on my skin.
“Go on,” I said.
Otter moved down my leg and put a tattoo on the outside of my thigh. It looked like a small fish. The dragon moved under the hem of my shorts and onto my thigh. Snatching the fish in its jaws, it began to drain form and colour from the second fresh tattoo.
“Do the foot, make it bigger,” I said. “It’s eating them too quick.”
“Oh, man, shit.”
My hands were shaking, and I gripped the armrests of the chair. Sweat rolled down my cold skin. Tattooing the back of my foot, Otter’s needle jittered over thinly protected tendons and bones. I didn’t care what Otter was tattooing, I just wanted it over with. I dreaded what came next.
“There.” Otter straightened. “Eat a dick, dragon.”
Like a crude piece of graffiti on a bathroom wall, Otter had tattooed a large dick and balls on the back of my foot. I felt a surge of annoyance but knew it didn’t really matter. The dragon tattoo swarmed down my thigh, past my kneecap and over my calf. Otter dropped his tattoo gun into its case. Hurriedly, he picked up the belt I’d placed by the chair and looped it around my leg just beneath the knee.
Otter looked pale. “Are you sure you want to do this, man?”
“Do it, just do it! But pull the belt tighter!”
Otter grabbed the belt and yanked it so the faux leather dug into my calf muscle. The dragon snatched the dick tattoo in its teeth and started draining the colour from it. The dick tattoo was bigger than the last two but it wouldn’t last long. I wasn’t sure if the dragon could understand what was happening, and whether it would stop eating mid-meal.
Otter hefted the electric chainsaw I’d bought at the hardware store the day before. A cord trailed from its rear section, just above the handle. Otter punched the start button and the engine rumbled to life. He looked as terrified as I felt. When he depressed the trigger, jagged teeth whirred around the chainsaw’s blade.
“I can’t do it!” Otter said.
“Do it! If it realises what we’re doing, I’ll never get rid of it!”
Otter lowered the blade, teeth spinning into a grey blur. I saw the dragon react. It released the dick tattoo and its head whipped around. With jerky motions, it started back up my leg toward safety. I’d set another belt, old and cracked, beside the chair. Folding it over, I wedged it into my mouth and bit down. Eyes bulging, I screamed into the belt as if to pump myself up.
With disbelief, I watched the saw enter my leg. It didn’t look real. There was no pain at first, only shock. It reminded me of watching the dragon feed for the first time. Impossible to believe that this was really happening. That my body was being invaded like that, changed, mutilated.
Blood wet the spinning teeth, turning them red. Flesh flayed open. I felt pressure on the bone and heard a chatter. I could smell the iron stink of blood and then bone dust. The pain began. I screamed and my body couldn’t help reacting, trying to pull away. Lightning bolts of molten agony came from the kiss of the chainsaw. Otter’s hands were shockingly steady, pushing through, desperate to have it over with. The dragon writhed, trying to make it past the blade of the chainsaw and somehow finding itself unable. Pain and horror became too much, and I blacked out.
“It was an accident, a stupid, stupid accident,” I said.
The two police officers, one man and one woman, looked unimpressed. Looming over the bed, both of them were burly, belts and vests heavy with equipment, and stony faced. A doctor hovered in the corner of the room, nervously consulting a chart.
“For an internet video,” one of the officers said.
“That’s right, it was supposed to be a joke but then I really dropped the chainsaw. I did it to myself.”
“So there’s a video of it?” The other officer asked with great scepticism.
I sighed theatrically. “Wasn’t even recording, can you believe that? All for a video and it wasn’t even recording.”
“That is hard to believe.”
“Please, officers, my patient needs rest,” the doctor interjected.
The second officer softened, trying to look sympathetic. “Look, if someone did this to you, we can protect you. If you have debts, if you’re involved in something, that’s fine, but you need to be honest with us.”
“Officers, I can keep telling you the same thing, but-,” I made a show of yawning and slouching back against the pillows.
After the police left, the doctor went over my condition. I’d lost a lot of blood but my friend’s quick thinking, according to him, probably saved my life. The cut was relatively clean, something that obviously gave him and the police reason to be suspicious, but the leg couldn’t be reattached. I slumped against the bed, wearing a thin hospital gown. An intravenous drip ran from a needle taped in the crook of my elbow to a pole beside my bed. Below my knees, my sheet was propped up on the left side by my foot and lower leg. On the right, it dropped away into a flat absence.
Feeling weak, but victorious, I drifted in and out of sleep. When I woke up, Otter was sitting beside the bed. He looked pale and guilty. I hadn’t seen him since I’d been hauled away in the back of the ambulance, semiconscious.
“Hey, man, how are you feeling?”
“Yeah, I’m alright,” I said. “You did great, man. I really appreciate what you did for me. What happened after I passed out?”
“Your foot, oh, man, your foot just straight came off, and it was there, on the ground. Messed up.” Otter looked like he was going to be sick, and he lowered his voice. “The tattoo, it kept thrashing around. It was like-, I don’t know, like a fish when you take it out of water or something. And then it, like, faded and disappeared. I think it was really dead.”
I let out a sigh of relief. “It won’t get anyone else. I beat it, I fucking beat it!”
“You’re crazy, man, I can’t believe it.”
Otter and I were talking when one of the nurses arrived. “Hey, we need to get you moving and give you a little bit of a wipedown,” she said.
“Spongebath, nice.” Otter patted me on the arm as he stood up.
“You can stay if you want,” the nurse said.
“Nah, that’s alright. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay, man? Stay strong.”
Otter left and the nurse checked my vitals. She was maybe in her forties and looked badly overworked. There was nothing all that sexy about the way she rolled me over and scrubbed me down with some wet wipes. When she was done, she set the gown back on my shoulders and lay me against the raised mattress.
“That’s an interesting tattoo,” she said. “What’s it meant to mean?”
I felt my blood run cold. “Wait, what? What tattoo?”
“On your back there, you know?” The nurse gestured around her side. “I just thought it was unusual.”
I almost grabbed her and she recoiled, clearly surprised by my reaction. “Let me see it, please! Let me see it,” I said.
“You-, didn’t know you had a tattoo?”
“Please, just get a mirror and show it to me!”
Confused, the nurse went to the bathroom attached to my room. She returned holding a mirror, backed by suction cups. My breathing was shallow. All my tattoos were gone, eaten. The dragon tattoo was gone.
“Please, just show me what you mean,” I said.
I threw the sheets down to my hip and twisted around as best I could. The nurse struggled to angle the mirror so that I could see. Finally, she held it steady and I saw them. My heart faltered in my chest.
Eggs. Half a dozen eggs tattooed under my left shoulder. Knotted together in some kind of clutch. The tattoo had left a tattooed nest. Suddenly, the nurse jumped and let out a small noise of surprise. I watched the mirror and saw movement, as one of the eggs began to crack.
Sean: The idea for this story I think was first conceived for a screenwriting class around ten years ago. I’m not entirely sure, I couldn’t actually find any reference to it in my old uni notes so I don’t know if I ever actually wrote it into a script back then. I’d tried to tackle the idea a couple of times since then but never got anywhere with those drafts. In the end, I thought it would be a good one for the Pseudodragon and to kick off Dractoberfest!
You’d think I was being charged by the word for titles lately, I don’t know why it’s worked out like that but it has. Mimic, Invasion, Beans, Bunker, Encounter, Sacrifice, Tattoo, you want an easy way to title your stories? Try to pick an evocative word that has some relation to your story’s key imagery or theme and go with that! Easy as.
Anyway, just in case you feel the first entry for Dractoberfest wasn’t draconic enough, I thought I’d give you a little preview of what to expect over the rest of the month:
October 7th: Half-Dragon
October 14th: Dracolich
October 21st: Red Dragon
October 28th: Ancient Gold Dragon
As we have discovered over the course of this year, I don’t really do the most straightforward takes on these creatures. That is true of this month as well. I’d consider the last of those stories to be the ‘straightest’ take on a dragon story but I think this is going to be a fun journey!