That night, as I slept, warm and safe and happy in the arms of the man I loved, I found my way back in time to my great, great grandmother.
I stood beside her where she sat in a massive, ornate stone chair. She wore bright gold jewelry around her throat and wrists, and little else, her long hair like a thick, raven river around her shoulders.
Beside her, I was delighted to see Agmund sitting tall and handsome beside Cuicatl where he belonged, with his cloak of bright feathers in place.
I had the oddest feeling that a great deal of time had passed since I was there last. I looked out at what the couple were watching. Definitely, a lot of time had passed. The stadium that had been in the early construction phase when I first met Quetzalcoatl and his wife was now in use, and already showed some signs of wear, so it had been in use for many years.
What looked like a few thousand people screamed and hollered and urged on their favorites, as the game played out below. Food sellers hawked their wares up and down the aisles. It wasn't all that different from a UT game at Texas stadium.
I grinned. In some ways, people just don’t change all that much, no matter what time period or part of the world they lived in.
I watched the game, contentedly for a while, in the shadow of Cuicatl’s massive stone throne. She hadn't noticed that I was there yet. I decided to just let her watch the game. I remembered Agmund saying that there was no higher purpose than to play, since without joy, what was the point of life? Let them have their fun. I’d say my hellos when the game was over.
The athletes wore nothing but tiny loincloths, showing off beautifully fit bodies, their thick black hair braided and bound out of the way. They ran and bounced the ball with every body part but their hands. It was sort of a combination of soccer and basketball from what I could tell. The high, vertical goal was barely bigger than the ball, though. It looked crazy hard to hit.
I saw two near misses that had the crowd gasping in unison. Then, finally, one unusually tall, beautifully built man practically ran up the barely tilted wall like it was flat ground, a teammate passed him the ball. I held my breath along with everyone else, and ... Bam! He smacked that ball with an elbow right through that crazy difficult goal.
The crowd went crazy jumping up and down and making so much noise, it washed over us in a wave.
With an ear-to-ear grin, I looked over at Cuicatl, expecting to see her cheering like the rest.
Her hand was over her mouth in an expression of absolute horror.
I blinked. My smile faded. Why was my great, great grandmother upset? Did she have some kind of huge bet on the other team winning?
I looked over at Agmund. He had a satisfied smile on his face, like nothing I’d ever seen before. That expression had a cat that ate the canary smugness that just didn’t seem to fit what I knew about my great, great grandfather.
My first thought was to ask either Cuicatl or Agmund what was going on, but some instinct held me back. Maybe if I just watched a little more, I’d understand.
The game went on for a bit longer, but no one even came close to scoring another goal. It was clear, when a man in a tall, feathered headdress walked out and dropped a huge red flower to signal the end of the game, exactly who had won.
The winning team didn’t seem nearly as jubilant as I would have expected. They all reached out reverently one by one to touch the tall man who had scored the goal. The losing team all at once, dropped to their knees and covered their faces in front of the man.
Wow. I've heard of worshiping sports heroes, but these guys really went all the way.
The tall hero of the day walked, head high, to the end of the stadium where the Aztec god and goddess sat with the best view of all. He climbed the steep steps to stand in front of us.
Cuicatl and Agmund both stood. The boisterous crowd went silent.
“Well done!” Agmund said. “It pleases me immensely that you all compete for this honor with such zeal!” He laughed, as if at some marvelous private joke.
I heard his voice echo back from the other side of the stadium. Agmund’s stadium design clearly included awesome acoustics. Everyone in the stadium could hear him.
The dragon in the feathered cloak walked forward and laid his hands on the man’s shoulders. Compared to the tall, Norwegian dragon, the Aztec champion looked a lot shorter than he did standing next to his teammates. “You have proven yourself most worthy of all this day!”
“Thank you, oh great one.” The handsome man’s chin trembled, and he blinked a few times, emotion threatening to overwhelm him. He knelt down, covered his eyes, then held his hands upward to Agmund. “For all of eternity, I will cherish this honor.”
Agmund chuckled darkly. “Of course you will.”
The man laid face up on the stone front of the dais in front of where the two stone thrones sat, in full view of the entire stadium.
Cuicatl knelt next to the champion, her face filled with sadness. “You will feel no pain. I promise you.” She shifted into scaly humanoid form. It was the first time I’d seen her in her humanoid form. Her vivid, shimmering purple wing feathers ran down her back and under her arms. They looked a lot like a feathered cloak. I could see where the feathered cloak style for royalty came from.
The gold necklace around her neck looked more like a collar on the larger form. The ornate design actually aimed spikes toward the shimmering iridescent purple scales on her neck, spikes that glowed softly. I’d seen that glow before somewhere.
It took me a moment to remember where. I’d seen it on the weapons that the Georgians used to try to kill Vlad, weapons that could pierce dragon scales.
With a twist in my guts, I recognized that necklace as a pretty, but very deadly, form of slave collar. If Cuicatl shifted to her massive panther/eagle battle form, those spikes would kill her. She could attain only two forms while wearing it, human and scaly humanoid, or what I tended to think of as normal, everyday dragon form.
I swallowed. And took another quiet step back into the shadows behind the thrones.
Agmund would never do that to Cuicatl.
That wasn't Agmund.
Cuicatl popped claws on one hand, and gently inserted one, like I would a hypodermic needle, into the crook of the ball game champion’s arm.
His body went limp, and his eyes, while still open, lost focus. The quiver in his chin that the stoic champion had been unable to control, relaxed. His beautifully toned body lay stretched out on the stone as if comfortably sunning himself.
Cuicatl put a hand on the champion’s shoulder. To those watching, it might look as if she was holding him down, but the courage of the champion made that unnecessary. She was simply offering him comfort.
The man who wasn't Agmund shifted to his normal humanoid dragon form.
He stepped forward with a fanged smile that made me wonder how I EVER could have mistaken that man for my jovial great, great grandfather. The dragon with Agmund’s face put one foot on either side of the champion’s legs and knelt down astride him.
His hand had the normal sharp, but venomless claws that all dragons, other than the Aztec Purples, had. He smashed his hand directly through the champion’s rib bones, and ripped free the man’s still beating heart.
I couldn't tear my eyes away from the champion’s face. He was alive and conscious for a few seconds, long enough to see the dragon that had ripped away his life stand and hold aloft his beating heart for the thunderously cheering crowd to see. Long enough to watch as the monster that had killed him took a bite from his heart.
The Agmund-faced beast ripped into the lump of still wiggling muscle with a dragon’s sharp teeth, relishing the gushing scarlet blood that dripped down his chin, like the juice of a delicious fruit.
My stomach heaved. I covered my mouth and fought the urge to vomit. I couldn't help but make a gagging sound. The sound of the crowd would have covered for me, if not for the perfect acoustics.
Cuicatl’s head whipped round. Her catlike eyes narrowed as she struggled to make out my shadowy form. “Daughter of my daughter,” she whispered. “You have been gone for a century. You should not have come back. I am ashamed for you to see what I have become. You gave me my freedom, but I was unable to keep it.”
“Who is that?” I asked her.
The blood-soaked monster that looked like Agmund turned around to face me, clearly having no trouble seeing me.
Cuicatl stood, and introduced us formally, her eyes on her toes. “This is Smoking Mirror, the Obsidian One, the dark reflection of the one I once loved. He is my husband now.”
“The dark mirror of the benevolent Quetzelcoatl,” I said softly, as all the dots connected in my brain. Agmund’s evil twin. Alrek? Had I invited this horror into my house? Had I just had Christmas dinner with this monster? Could Agmund have more than one twin brother? “Alrek?”
“Yes, I am Alrek.” He bowed, while licking the blood from his chin. “And you need no introduction, since my stupid wife has already given away who you are, daughter of our daughter. It seems that our mating WILL eventually produce offspring. Although I would prefer sons, if my children gain the ability to travel in time, as well as claws, then my line will prove truly powerful beyond all others. Welcome, future child of my line.”
I lifted my head and wrinkled my nose. “I’m no child of yours, for which I am very thankful. Agmund was my ancestor. What have you done with him?” I growled.
“I killed him, of course,” Alrek said with a satisfied smile on his blood-smeared face. “Stabbed him in the back as soon as he told me he’d fathered a child with claws that could paralyze or kill. The idiot actually seemed surprised to see my blade come out of his chest. Of course, I couldn't allow his children to have an ability that mine didn’t. That would make his line more powerful than mine.”
I blinked tears for the laughing god who asked that his worshipers release butterflies in his honor, not give him the beating hearts of their champions. Then, the anger hit. This monster was raping my great great grandmother regularly to try to make babies with claws. I popped out my own claws. “Release Cuicatl.”
Alrek laughed, really laughed, a lot. Like the time when I told Agmund that Fafnir was a wise mentor. He laughed until he had to set down the heart and hold his sides. “Do you threaten me, fledgling?” he chuckled again, as if that were the funniest thing he’d ever heard.
It was insulting. I’d fought giant robots and flame-throwing super-villains. I could handle an elder dragon. Sure. Yeah.
Okay, not a chance. But I wasn't going to let him keep Cuicatl, the woman who looked and smelled like my mother, as his personal sex slave, and do nothing. “Yes,” I said softly. “I do threaten you. Take that collar off of her and Let. Her. Go.”
Cuicatl looked at me like I’d lost my mind. “You must not defy him, child. He can kill you before you ever even have a chance to be born.”
Alrek casually back-handed my great, great grandmother in the face. “Silence, female. At least this one shows some spirit.”
Cuicatl fell backward onto the steep stone steps and rolled down a few steps, grunting with the pain.
Alrek’s burning red eyes narrowed on me. “How can you be my brother’s descendant? I killed his child.”
I swallowed. If I wasn't careful about what I said, I could get my little great-grandmother killed. “Maybe Agmund is not as dead as you think.” I’m a terrible liar. I never regretted that so much as now.
Alrek rolled his eyes. “I ate my brother’s heart, chopped him up into pieces and buried him in different parts of the jungle.”
“There are powerful magics that can bring a dragon back even from beyond death,” I said truthfully. “Merlin knows these magics.”
“The wizard who travels in time,” Alrek said, thoughtfully.
“Merlin’s power sent me back in time.” That was sort of true. “You have no idea what I am capable of.” That was true, too, thank goodness. “Now, set Cuicatl free.”
“Or what?” Alrek said, with a mischievous smile.
Cuicatl had crawled back up to the dais, but she stayed on her hands and knees, eyes on the stone floor in shame as I spat reckless defiance in the face of her captor.
“Or I will cripple you,” I said softly, thinking of Alrek’s limp. It’s possible that he got that limp here today. Likely even. I saved my great grandmother’s life last time I was here. I wasn't just coming back by chance. Something was drawing me back exactly when I was really needed. It had to have been Cuicatl who drew me back today. I didn’t know why she needed me so badly, but I would do whatever I could for her. “Today, you will be crippled for life, if you do not free Cuicatl.”
Faster than I could react, Alrek's right hand, coated in the still warm blood of the human champion, flew out and grabbed me by the throat. He lifted me right off my feet.
I couldn't breathe. I couldn't even gasp or choke or try to breathe. My mouth opened wide, trying for air, but nothing came. His grip all but crushed my neck.
“Merlin is a fool to send a fledgling back in time to try to change what has already been written. My line will destroy his one day, along with all the inferior dragon lines with only one power. That’s what he’s trying to prevent, isn't it? Once I have what I need from them, I will destroy all other clans. Only my descendants will continue. One day, all dragons will be Obsidian.”
I clawed desperately at the hand holding me, and was surprised when I actually scratched through the dark shimmering scales to draw blood. My claws were a combination of the unmatched strength of the Silver clan, and the powerful venom of the Aztec Purples. It was ironic really. I was exactly what this maniac was trying to build, a dragon with the powers of multiple clans combined.
His arm dropped limply by his side.
I dropped in a little heap, and tried to remember what air felt like through the burning in my throat. I coughed and coughed, and nearly threw up.
He looked alarmed for a second or two, then chuckled again. “This will heal in minutes. You don’t even know how to use the venom to full affect.”
I swiped toward his legs, weakly.
He stepped back a few feet, almost casually. He sighed. “I tire of this game. I thought, perhaps, you might prove a worthy opponent. But you forget, little fledgling. I have the blood of Eric the Red in my veins.” He started inhaling hugely, like a kid about to blow out birthday candles.
Oh, shit. Reds breathe fire.
I was sort of fire resistant, but only a full coat of silver scales like my grandmother had, charged with the power of lightning, could withstand a direct blast of Red dragon flame.
I curled in a tiny ball, and thought, Now would be a really good time to wake up.
But instead of a blowtorch blast, Alrek’s mouth let out a scream.
Cuicatl had bitten him hard on the ankle. She may have given up on fighting for herself, but she would never just watch that monster kill me and do nothing. Her fangs didn’t pierce, but she bit hard enough to make him hurt. She tried to claw him, too, but her claws were black, not silver, not hard enough to pierce his scales.
He kicked her in the face.
I heard her cheekbone snap, but she just shook her head and bit him again.
I leaped to help her, without bothering to get to my feet. My silver claws ripped a long gash in Alrek’s leg scales.
Rage. My great, great grandmother had told me the key to the intensity of the claw venom was rage. I hadn't been pissed off enough when I clawed Alrek’s hand to do any real damage. The horrible things he’d done hadn't really sunk in yet in my mind, so I wasn't angry enough.
Oh, but Cuicatl was. She had rage to spare.
She sank her claws into Alrek’s leg muscle through the slash I’d made, and ripped for all she was worth. Her yellow cat eyes blazed fierce, angry red in the center with berserk hatred for the man who had murdered her husband and her child, imprisoned her and raped her repeatedly. “You will not harm any more of my family!!”
Cuicatl ripped his leg open from knee to ankle. The venom from her claws made the flesh swell with huge blisters that oozed sluggish black blood with a foul smell.
Alrek's eyes widened. His pupils expanded, the darkness rapidly swallowing his own red glow. For a moment, it looked like he might lose consciousness.
Then Alrek shook his head, roared, and shifted to battle form. A sinuous dragon’s body as long as a freight train car filled the dais. He curled clear around the stone thrones and surrounded us in his coils. He blinked his softball-sized reptilian eyes. They gained back their focus, and immediately honed in on the dragon who had hurt him.
The collar on Cuicatl’s neck trapped her in her far smaller, weaker humanoid form. She faced the massive dragon, with teeth as long as her forearm, head high with the feathered cloak of her wings giving her a noble aspect. “I do not fear you. I will never fear you again.”
“No, you won’t, you barbaric little whore.” Alrek’s one functional hand lashed out. He pierced through her chest scales with his claws and shattered her ribs with the unmatched power of an elder dragon, as easily as his humanoid dragon form had pierced the chest of the human champion.
He ripped Cuicatl’s beating heart from her body.
She smiled at him triumphantly as she collapsed to her knees. Blood bubbled through her mouth as she said with her last breath, “I carry your son in my belly.” She dropped limply to the stone beside the dead champion. Her lifeblood spread in a wide pool, mixing with the human’s.
“NOOOOO!!!” Alrek howled, as the dragon’s heart he held in his hand beat once more, then stopped forever, taking his dream of a powerful son with it.
“No!” I whispered, weeping for Cuicatl, my courageous great, great grandmother who had died a thousand years ago, fighting to protect me. Her desperation to be free had called me back to her.
Now, she was free.
The morning light of the modern world dragged me back to my own time, still weeping bitterly.