He looked down the sheer cliff face at the dozen-man team trying to catch him.
“Is that the best you’ve got?” he taunted, his powerful voice projecting down the smooth veiny rock and battering the men on their lines. The verbal barrage was easier for them to shrug off than the wind shear that whipped along the mountain edge, spinning anyone not secured around on their line until the rope groaned and their stomachs rumbled.
“That’s not fair,” the team leader called back. “You don’t play by the same rules.”
“Neither does your enemy,” he boomed back. “You’d do well to remember that.”
The leader, clad in a dark brown and tan outfit with mottled greens and grays across it, said something unprintable and stuck up a middle finger. Aric laughed in return. It was true, he thought; he didn’t play fair. Why should he though? He was a dragon. It was his job, and the job of all the dragons, to ensure that these men were the best of the best.
Their tiny mountain homeland was known across the world for its neutrality, but that didn’t mean a thing if they couldn’t actually protect it. Aric wasn’t worried about foreign world powers; they were surrounded on all sides by allies nowadays. It was the types from his world that were of biggest concern.
Other shifters were constantly coming after them. The dragon enclave had built one of the biggest and most secure banking systems the world had ever seen. Powerful people from all nations deposited money in their vaults, because they didn’t cave to outside powers. Movies had been made about it.
What nobody knew was that he and his kind were responsible for creating it. They’d cultivated the country as well, helping it from the shadows to create the exact utopia they needed to live in peace.
The other races, those more able to live among humans hated them for that, and so they often came across the borders looking to exploit any weakness they had. It was this reason he and an elite Guard team were on the mountainside in the midst of a powerful storm. To beat someone with natural gifts that the humans couldn’t hope to match, they had to form a team so tight-knit and highly trained they could take on someone much more powerful than themselves.
It was his job to help mold them into that team. Which is why he was currently hanging over the edge of nothingness in the middle of a fierce storm, his feet flat against the rock at his back. His arms stuck out behind him and into the rock itself. He tried not to call upon his dragon unless absolutely necessary, even with the tiniest of uses such as this. But with the dragon claws jammed into the rock, it allowed him to look down upon the humans with a casual ease that served to infuriate them even more.
Another gust of wind tore at the team as dark clouds swirled overhead like watchful giants. Aric watched carefully. He wasn’t there just to taunt them. He had another job as well. The distinctive crack of rock splitting abruptly reached his ears a split second before lightning erupted in the sky. A fresh cascade of tiny debris rained down the cliffside.
Don’t test me, he growled silently at the storm, feeling his dragon answering the challenge from nature. Now was not the time though, and he firmly exerted control over the beast. He had other priorities. It wasn’t raining yet, but if it did, things were going to get dangerous. More dangerous, he corrected.
Below him he watched as one of the team began to panic, realizing it was his piton giving way under the stress of a strong gust of wind.
“Stay calm!” the team leader shouted immediately, before beginning to issue other orders.
The team immediately began unfold, members moving sideways as they gave themselves a secondary set of anchors. Aric glanced back and forth between them and the member in distress. The team was reacting smoothly, which is precisely what he wanted to see. They had trained for this. They knew what to do.
Without warning the piton gave way and the member began to fall. The weight was immediately taken up by the other members via their safety ropes, but that still left him dangling twenty feet below the rest of the team. The wind picked up and he began to spin wildly. Aric watched as he smashed into the cliff face over and over again.
Johan, the team leader immediately began to bark more commands. They didn’t have much time. The rope was rubbing against the section of broken rock, and he could see it beginning to fray. Aric leaned out further. It was going to be tight. Time was short. They needed to act.
Do it, he thought. Now! Do it now!
They were moving too slow. He slid one of his hands out from the rock, the dragon claw at the end morphing back into his real hand. He might have to act.
“Toss him the spare line!” Johan barked at the nearest Guardsman.
The man, a junior member of the team and new, missed on his first toss.
“Hurry up!” Aric barked, trying to urge them onward.
Rope frayed with a horrified swiftness.
“ARIC!” Johan bellowed.
He was already moving. The other claw slid free of the wall and Aric dove from his perch as the rope parted and the nearly limp form plummeted downward. Arms behind him, legs together, he sliced through the air toward the ground thousands of feet below.
The Guardsman he was chasing had enough of his wits left about him to spread his arms and legs wide to slow his descent, but that wouldn’t matter if the wind caught him and slammed him into the cliff. Again. Aric had to get to him first. It was too close for a parachute—the material would catch on the cliff and kill the human. The only way he survived was if Aric reached him in time.
“Stay calm,” he rumbled, his voice projecting with the aide of his dragon power, fighting against the wind as he closed the distance.
“Flip over!” he commanded. “You’ll need to grab onto me.”
After a nervous moment the military man did as he commanded.
The Guardsman latched onto him with all four limbs around his torso. At the same time giant wings of cobalt blue erupted from Aric’s back, spreading wide. He angled them downward at first, only slowly biting into the wind to carry them away from the cliff before he angled them flat, turning their free fall into a slow-spiraling descent with less than a hundred feet to go.
“Thank you,” the Guardsman said, but Aric ignored him.
He was too busy fighting for control.
They landed amongst the rocky meadow below, the Guardsman dropping off him with five feet still to go.
Aric landed and pulled the wings tight around him as the unlucky human came over to thank him again.
“Stay away from me!” he snarled, pounding one fist into the ground so hard it drew blood. “Get back!”
His head snapped back and he screamed up into the sky. The storm answered his call, lightning reaching down from the heavens to strike the ground within eyesight. The crack of thunder slammed into both him and the soldier, sending the latter to his knees with its force.
Energy surged through him as his dragon tried to fight its way free. The wings flapped and bounced in agitation, stretching out wide as everything went taut. He knew that the safety of the humans depended on him maintaining control. His dragon was a bit of a xenophobe.
“Aric, are you—”
“Stay back.” His voice was deeper than normal, with a more melodic fluidity to it that made it very clear it didn’t belong to a human.
The soldier took one last look at him and wisely fled the area at last. One less distraction for him to worry about. He needed total silence just then. Complete concentration had to be his. Aric closed his eyes, taking a deep breath as he wrestled with the other entity that lived inside him, trying to prove who was the stronger. It was a fight he’d been waging since puberty, but in recent years it had gotten worse. Much worse.
Above him the storm struck again, and his dragon lashed out. Dammit, he needed peace and quiet while he fought this mental war. He was so close. Almost there, if only the storm would just hold off he could—
In his pocket the familiar theme song to an animated movie about an ice queen started to ring.
“Just let it go,” he muttered, trying to drown out the noise.
The ringing didn’t stop. Angrily he jammed a hand into his pocket to grab the device, taking that moment to compose himself.
“This is Aric,” he said in a pleasant conversational voice that sounded nothing like him.
The words on the other end of the phone served to surprise both him and his dragon enough that he easily wrested control away from the raging beast.