I stood in the middle of frantic activity, wondering what I should be doing to help. All around me short, dark-skinned people wearing little but bright jewelry worked, carving fanciful creatures in large stones in one area, covering walls with what looked like plaster in another. They painted every finished surface with brilliant colors to rival the brilliant greens of lush foliage and vivid splashes of tropical flowers.
Children ran everywhere, playing and helping in equal measures. They carried water to the workers who paused gratefully to ease their thirst in the oppressive heat. A tall man had his back to me as he knelt beside a sort of miniature model of the long roofless building. He was much taller, and his skin and hair were lighter than the other people. He seemed familiar. He pointed to various parts of the model, and up to the building being constructed around us.
The men with him nodded and discussed the fine points of the structure. They spoke a language I shouldn’t have understood. The sounds of it were so strange, I didn’t even know what language it was.
I leaned over the big man’s shoulder to look at the model.
It looked a little like a rectangular sports stadium, like a football field, but narrower, and with the decorated stone walls on either side of the field. The chaos around me made more sense. Now, I recognized the stone benches going up on the hillside above me. The long wall beside me didn’t look like it was built for any sport I knew of. A stone hoop, mounted vertically, stuck out of the slanted wall like an elephant’s big ear, clearly a goal of some sort. It was so high that I couldn’t imagine a human jumping high enough to even touch it from the ground.
The wall was as long as a neighborhood block. Workmen stood on temporary wooden scaffolding to reach all parts of that wall to carve elaborate scenes into it. This wouldn’t just be a functional space when it was completed, it would be a beautiful one.
I stood fascinated by the wonder around me. I didn’t notice that the tall, white man had finished his conversation and stood beside me until he spoke. “It is magnificent, is it not?”
I recognized him as the man I’d seen in my dreams before. Last time I saw him, he’d been wearing a cloak of feathers. He was a dragon, a purple dragon like me, except he had red and gold markings. “It’s amazing. What is it all for?”
The man smiled warmly. His dark blue eyes twinkled. “To play ball in, of course.” Something about him reminded me of Fafnir, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Maybe it was the thick beard, or the wide smile.
“It seems like such a huge effort, just to build a place to play.”
He winked. “There is no more important endeavor in life than to play. Without joy, life has little point.”
I chuckled. I liked his attitude. “Who are you?”
“In my youth in my homeland, I was called Agmund Drage. But here, they simply call me the feathered serpent.”
“Quetzalcoatl,” I said to myself. I understood the meaning of what he said, but the sounds in the strange language were also familiar. “My mother’s grandmother was one of the daughters of Quetzalcoatl.”
“Ah, well, that explains why you have been drawn to me across time, young one. We are family.” He hugged me hard enough to threaten my ribs. “Welcome, great great granddaughter! What is your name?”
The male dragon scent was strong on him, and he wasn’t wearing much. Strangely, I found the scent less disturbing to my mental processes than when I smelled it on Jack, Vlad or White Knight. “Damson Dragon.” I told him my real name without hesitation. It was pretty clear I was a long way from Texas in the 21st century. All I needed was a little dog and a picnic basket. This might have been a dream, but the humidity and heat, the scent of sweaty humans, rock dust, and strange plants seemed as solid as that hug. “How did I get here?” I didn’t remember getting my house swept up in a tornado or anything.
The big man shrugged. “I have no idea. None of my descendants have visited me from the future before. But you have a faint glow around you, and no one sees you but me, so I knew you were misplaced from your own time.”
I paid more attention to the people bustling around me. No one looked back at me. They walked past me as if nothing existed in the space I took up. “Whoah, that’s weird. I’m a ghost.”
The Aztec god chuckled, and started walking, inspecting the work in progress. “Not a lost spirit of one dead, you are the imagination of one who has not yet been born.”
“And that’s not weird at all.” No one tried to walk through me. It was as if they avoided the space I occupied without realizing they were doing it. “You hugged me, though.” I bent down and picked up one of the small chunks of stone fallen from the busy stone carvers. It felt solid in my hand. I could feel the weight and the grainy texture. “I feel real.” I tossed the stone into a pile of other stone chips. It caused a few other rocks to tumble down.
A young woman working nearby looked up at the sound, startled, looked around, shrugged, and went back to chipping away at an unfinished carving.
“You are quite real,” Quetzalcoatl assured me. “You have probably been drawn here for a reason. Some great need has pulled you to this place. It is an extraordinary gift. I have heard of only one other dragon who could send his mind across time.”
“Who is that?”
“A gifted wizard of the Green clan. His abilities are approaching legend as he matures into an elder. I have heard that he can also change his body into birds and beasts.”
“Are you talking about Merlin?”
He laughed. “I am. Do you know of the Green wizard in your time?”
“He was my grandfather.”
“Really?” He cocked his head to one side. “My descendants mixed with the blood of the Green wizard. Imagine that.” He fell silent for a moment, thinking. “I have the blood of Gold, Black, Red, and Blue. My brother and I were the only dragons to mix so many clans in my time. If you have my blood, plus that of Green, you are a mix of nearly half the dragon clans of the world.” He looked at me, almost sympathetically for a moment, then shook his head. “Well, then. Merlin should have taught you to expect such drifting in time. Does he not know that you inherited his gift?”
“Merlin died centuries before I was born. My dad didn’t have any time related abilities. Even if he had them, he died when I was little. My mother raised me most of my life, and she’s more human than dragon.”
Quetzalcoatl put a huge, gentle hand on my shoulder. “I am sorry, child. It must be difficult dealing with such a gift without guidance. I fear if that is what has drawn you to me, I will be no help.”
“I have no idea what drew me to you, um, sir.” I wasn’t really sure what to call him.
“Call me Agmund, young Damson. No one remembers my old name in this land but my brother.” His face that had seemed so cheerful the rest of the time, darkened a little when he mentioned his brother again. He smiled after only a moment. “It will be good to hear my birth name again.”
“How did you get here, Agmund?”
“I sailed on a very long journey around the edges of the world. Leif, son of Eric the Red, travelled alongside us, but our ships were separated in a great storm. I do not know his fate.”
“Leif Ericson did fine. He explored North America, according to most historians, and eventually settled in Greenland.”
“That is good to know! I spent many a day with Leif, fought and sailed beside him. He was a good friend, and a strong steady man for the most part, unlike his half-brother Fafnir. Eric was mad to make Fafnir his heir. That boy is rash and foolish, but he has pure lineage.” Agmund shook his head. “I fear he will lead his people to a bad end. I was banished for trying to make Eric see reason.”
I coughed uncomfortably. “Fafnir’s been a good mentor to me. He’s the eldest and wisest of us now.”
Agmund’s eyebrows shot up, then he laughed, then he laughed some more. He laughed until tears streamed down his cheeks. He leaned against the carved wall to support himself. People looked at him funny, but didn’t question why their god was laughing so hard at nothing. “Fafnir. Old and wise.” He chuckled again. “The world has changed greatly in your time, young dragon.”
I thought about how many dragons were dead in my time. Fafnir may not be that old by dragon standards, or all that wise, but there simply weren’t many of us left. He was what we had.
Agmund’s laughter died as he watched my face. “Don’t tell me, child. I do not want to know what tragedy lies ahead. I prefer to face darkness as it comes, and take joy while I can.”
I nodded. His world was filled with sunshine and smiling, industrious people building a beautiful place to play. I didn’t feel the need to spoil it for him.
“And speaking of joy …” He smiled until his blue eyes were nearly lost in crinkles.
A lovely woman of the native people, with black hair so thick it was practically clothing, approached and smiled back at Agmund with the same happiness. “This, young Damson, is why I have made no attempt to sail back to my old friend, Lief. This is my wife, Cuicatl. Her name means song. She and our daughters are the song of my life.”
The couple embraced, the tall white man all but engulfing the petite dark woman.
“Who is it that you speak to, husband? I see only an odd glow in the shape of a woman.”
Her scent and her face both seemed incredibly familiar. “Ma?” She looked just like I remembered my mother when I was little. Ma was a little taller, and didn’t run around wearing hardly anything but her hair and some jewelry, but that woman looked enough like her to be her sister.
She looked in the general direction of my chest. “Does the shadow think I am her mother?”
“You look so much like her.” The tickling scent that I had always associated with my mother filled my nose. I inhaled deeply to get more of it. It reminded me of home and safety. This woman was the only female dragon I’d ever been around other than my mother. “And you smell like her.”
Agmund said, “Damson is the great grandchild of one of our daughters. She is also related to the wizard whose mind drifts across time. She has drifted here from far in the future.”
“Why have you come here, daughter of my daughter?”
“I don’t know. But this isn’t the first time. Something keeps pulling me back.”
She reached up, trying to touch my face, but missing by a few inches. I guided her hand to my cheek.
Cuicatl stroked my cheek with her thumb. She could touch me, even if she couldn’t see me clearly. “Think, child. Deep inside you, there is a desire that has sent your soul seeking. Of all things, what do you want most? If you could have anything, what would you ask for?”
I blinked and noticed a tear as it dropped. The answer stunned me even as I spoke it. “I want to be human.”
My ancestors, both of them dragons, gasped.
“Why?” my great great grandfather asked me. “Why would you want to give up your heritage, to give up the sky?”
“I love a human man.” Jack wouldn’t even speak to me because he thought my dragon nature had led me to betray him. I couldn’t give myself to him completely because of our incompatible anatomy. He couldn’t believe that I, a dragon, truly loved him, that I wanted to stay with a mere human forever. We couldn’t live a normal life together in any case, work together, be just us. My abilities made me feel obligated to fight injustice, which kept us constantly apart. I didn’t feel like I had any choice.
And, to be honest, it was more than just Jack. I couldn’t have any man. I also didn’t belong in any crowd. That moment when Liberty looked at me with shock and a little horror. I’d seen that look on other faces. I’d spent my whole life hiding from that look, running from that look. I didn’t just sympathize with White Knight, cutting away his scales to try to be more human, I understood that desire. On a level deep enough to drive me far across time, I shared it.
I covered my scales up every day, and pretended it didn’t bother me.
I lived in Austin, Texas, for goodness sake, where it was sunny 295 days a year, and over 100 degrees for half the summer, and I’d never been able to go swimming at a pool or a lake where anyone might see me. I didn’t even own a bathing suit.
“I just want to be normal.” Another tear escaped. It got my great great grandmother’s hand wet.
“Oh, daughter of my daughter. You are very young, I think.” She pulled my head down where she could kiss my forehead. “What you ask for is easily granted, but one day, your heart will yearn as much for scales and wings as today it yearns for soft skin.”
I looked into her large brown eyes and felt like I was falling down into someplace warm, dark and safe.
Her voice, the gentle feel of her hands on my cheeks, and the spicy sweet scent of her faded.
I woke to the sound of my alarm.
I reached out with my left hand, very carefully, to turn it off, and froze, staring in disbelief at my own hand. There were no claws, there were no scales. My left hand looked just like my right, soft pale brown skin. Human skin.
I whipped the covers back and looked at my slender, normal feet, with only five toes each. I touched my arms and legs and chest. No scales. None. Anywhere. A sense of wonder filled me until I felt the back of my arms.
My wings were gone, too. That gave me a jolt. What had I done? What had I given up?
I was human.