There was no better feeling in the world than soaring through the open sky on dragonback, Caeryd thought.
The fresh wind in your face, the flurry of the great beast's wings churning the air to gain altitude when you pulled on the reins. There was a feeling of so much raw, living, barely controlled power right underneath you, seeing the desperate, ragged men in the trenches below looking like ants and feeling above it all, literally and figuratively.
Caeryd had been terrified of dragons as a child. When he'd been started on riding lessons at the tender age of seven, he took one look at the beast he was to ride, its dagger-like teeth, hooked claws, growling loudly and belching acrid black smoke, Caeryd ran out of the stable screaming and crying. His father was not stingy with his belt the following evening, feeling the child's display had shamed their proud bloodline.
"Our family have served the king as air-cavalrymen for more than a dozen generations!" Caeryd's father bellowed as he disciplined the boy. "No son of mine is afraid of dragons! You're that beast's master, now act like it!"
At first Caeryd resented his father for forcing him onto those awful creatures. He would have preferred to ride horses, he thought. He always loved seeing the show-horses when the family attended a festival. Their soft hair and flowing manes seemed so much more pleasant than the dragons' rough scales. Nevertheless, day after day he would be pushed into the saddle on the back of one of those noisy, smoky monsters. Getting bucked off into the mud, slapped with its tail... it probably would have eaten him if it wasn't for the muzzle.
Still, as time went on, he learned to feel at ease around the creatures. He learned how to bond with them by grooming, picking off leftover skin as they shed; cleaning their teeth. He learned that dragons were closely related to crocodiles, and as crocodiles become friendly with the birds that groom them, humans could exploit this instinct to gain their trust. Eventually he was able to stay on his mount's back for more than a minute at a time.
It really came together for Caeryd when he finally got airborne. It was preceded by months of lessons regarding the proper commands, altitude, winds, making sure the mount had enough gas in its flight bladders, etcetera. He found it incredibly boring, but when they took to the skies it was worth every minute of it.
Caeryd felt all his anxieties melt away. It was as if he was finally where he truly belonged. He didn't even have to think about the right way to pull the reins to make his mount do what he wanted, it was all so perfectly natural to him. The dragonrider's blood flowing through his veins had finally taken effect. He felt embarrassed with himself for having ever wanted to ride such a tedious creature as a horse.
He'd been so eager to finally get the chance to put his skills to work when the duchy of Fenne had invoked the old treaties and called upon the kingdom of Arveon for aid in its struggle against the encroaching Krausian Empire. He was invincible, swooping down over the Krausian trenches, raining fiery death upon the men within. The bullets whizzing past his head gave him such a rush. Those fools could never hope to hit a flying target with their crude rifles. He had to be careful around the machinegun positions, but there was a trick to it. Keep your distance, keep moving and when they stopped to reload, dive in at top speed and hit them with a fireball. The popping sound of the ammunition cooking off was eminently satisfying.
But as much fun as the hit and run attacks were, he also loved the cavalry charges - he and his wingmen diving into the thick of it, roasting the enemy alive, tearing them limb from limb with teeth, claws and sabre. He couldn't help but laugh out loud everytime the dragons tossed a soldier like a ragdoll.
This was the life.
The enemy had dragonriders, too, of course, but they were a joke. Neither the beasts nor the riders had the training, the skills nor the pedigree of Arveon's. In the two months since Arveon had entered the war, only five of the hundred dragonriders the king had pledged to the defence of Fenne had been brought down, all by machinegun fire. Careless fools, Caeryd thought. Much had been made of the contraptions when they'd first been used, to devastating effect, in the Kwaku Rebellion twenty years before. But the Kwaku tribesmen had no dragonriders and machineguns still lacked the power and the accuracy at range to take out a rider who knew what he was doing.
Caeryd's mount, Sunfang, had taken a few shots to the left hind leg from one at the limits of its range during an early sortie, but his armoured scales ensured it was only a minor irritant. The shooter nonetheless paid with his life soon enough.
Today, Caeryd was on a mission to support the Fennish 2nd Army as they attempted an assault on a major artillery position as part of Operation Halberd, the effort to push back the Krausian advance on the western front. The air cavalry wing was lead by the illustrious Sir Georn Callain, the hero of The Second Alhazred War. A living legend, the man had, among his many incredible feats, singlehandedly defeated one hundred of the Sultan's finest Roc air-cavalrymen during the siege of Kayyam and rescued the hundreds of Arveonite pilgrims and merchants being held hostage within the city walls. Caeryd had been so awed by the man when he first met him he could barely speak. Callain must have been nearly seven reeds tall, with a mighty barrel chest as wide as his dragon's head was long. His red, fur-trimmed air-cavalry jacket was covered in medals from shoulder to beltline. He looked so stern inspecting the troops, but as soon as he heard Caeryd's name, something shifted. His severe face, with its granite jaw and wild, colossal red moustache cracked into a huge, manic grin and he slapped the younger man on the back with a gloved hand as big as a toddler.
"So you're Tannean's son!" He exclaimed in his characteristic booming voice. Caeryd nodded nervously in agreement.
"I thought it was you! You look just like him when he was your age. I flew with your father in Dhamibia. I say, we really gave those puff-heads what for! How is the old man, lately, anyway? How's his leg?"
Caeryd was so taken aback by his superior's jovial display he didn't quite know how to respond. He managed to get out "Uh... he's fine, just fine..." after an awkward pause.
"Glad to hear it! I really need to come visit him when this awful business is over with, I haven't seen him in a Griffin's age. I'd planned on coming up to your family estate when I heard you were born, but then those bloody rug merchants started making noise again and I had a rather busy time of it, don't you know? Sorry about that, lad."
Captain Callain was always the life of the party. His men would celebrate every successful mission with as much meat and ale as wartime conditions would permit as Callain regaled the greenhorns with tales of his past adventures. Though he was justly proud of his accomplishments, Callain never let them go to his head. Even the stableboys got seats at his table. A true man's man.
Perhaps, Caeryd reflected, it was precisely because of his heroic reputation that Callain could afford to be so convivial with the men. He didn't need to intimidate them to earn their respect and loyalty.
As he soared through the air, directly to the right of his illustrious leader's right flank, Caeryd thought he heard something over the rushing wind and his mount's wingbeats, some kind of buzzing, like a swarm of mosquitoes, or gods forbid, fairies... but louder, deeper, as if some giant insects had taken to the air in defiance of all laws of nature and physics.
Off in the distance, coming up from behind the Krausian lines at one o'clock low and climbing fast, were a squadron of aeroplanes, six in all. Their bodies were painted dark blue and the topmost of their three wings proudly displayed the white sword insignia of the Krausian military.
Caeryd had never seen one of the machines before the war. The air company kept a few for reconnaisance purposes. They could fly faster and higher than most dragons, but otherwise they weren't very impressive. Caeryd, and most of the riders, for that matter, thought they were ridiculous. They ran on petrol, so their engines gave off rather unpleasant fumes. Early attempts had been made to fuel them with hydrogen gas refined with cultured bacteria harvested from dragon bladders, but it was found to be simply too volatile to be used in something made from wood and canvas. The propellors had to be hand-started and there'd already been a few incidents of ground crew not getting out of the way in time. Much more trouble than they were worth, really.
Caeryd reflected that it seemed a bit odd for so many of them to be together at once. Six aircraft were far too many for a simple recon mission. What were they playing at?
The dragons were getting antsy. Snorting and swivelling their heads around. The men were uncomfortable, too. Callain signalled to them to keep formation. They already had a mission. Let the gunners back at the rear lines handle the planes.
This would prove to be a costly mistake. The planes drew closer and closer. Sunfang looked like he would bolt at any minute and it was all Caeryd could do to rein him in. Must be that awful droning noise that's got him spooked, he thought.
The riders figured the planes were just coming by to say hello, "buzzing" them, in airmen's parlance. It was said that aeroplane pilots were overly friendly chaps. Reconnaisance pilots from both sides would often wave at each other as they passed their opposite numbers in the sky, as if the slaughter raging down below had nothing to do with them. It was rather quaint, how out of touch they were. Best just to ignore them.
None of the riders ever expected what came next. There had been efforts to equip dragonriders with machineguns, but it had never come to anything. Not only did the beasts have a tendency to get spooked by the noise, but the recoil also made flying difficult. Caeryd and company just assumed that it would be the same for the aeroplanes, perhaps minus the spooking issue.
By the time they heard the sound of machinegun fire, it was already too late.
Rettas, the lad off Caeryd's left flank was the first to go. The Krausian guns took his head clean off and shredded his dragon's right wing to a mess of blood and bone. A trail of red followed the screaming dragon and the headless corpse as they spun towards the shell-blasted ground below. Another dragon took a shot clean through the eye, killing it instantly. Its rider, himself uninjured, struggled to free himself from the saddle as they plunged earthward, dissapearing through a cloud.
Callain tried valiantly to avenge his fallen comrades. He pulled up, trying to gain altitude on the planes, to incinerate the flimsy wooden things from above. No use. Their expertly aimed fire tore him to shreds in a hail of burning lead.
The anguished roar of his dragon, the mighty Irontail, may have been simply from the bullets she had taken, or perhaps from the loss of her bleloved master with whom she had travelled so far and earned so many victories. Either way, she did not go quietly.
Though wounded, she lashed out at the nearest fighter, her terrible claws smashing its flimsy wood and canvas body to shrapnel, her fearsome tailbarb gutting the pilot like a fish, even through his tough leather flight jacket as he was thrown from the wreckage. She would not savour her revenge long, as another fighter was soon raining lead upon her. Even after she was dead, her carcass continued soaring towards her killer. He barely managed to evade the fireball as the grand old war dragon burst into flames in midair. His moustache was singed by the convective heat but his craft was still going strong thanks to its fire-retardant paint. Scattered embers that were once brick-red scales stuck to the wings, where they continued to glow for minutes afterward.
In a matter of seconds, Caeryd was the last one left. He rolled out of the way of one stream of machinegun fire, then another. At least they were easier to see coming than usual. For some reason, the aeroplanes' guns were loaded entirely with tracer rounds. He would soon find out why.
Caeryd desperately tried to escape the fighterplanes' brutal assault by diving into a nearby cloud. Stupid. He turned his back to them. He turned his head to see one of the planes bearing down on him. It was all over before he could even attempt another daring maneuver.
The bullets tore into Sunfang's body. Their burning phosphor coating set the perilous hydrogen gas in the dragon's flight bladders alight and Caeryd found himself drowning in a river of flame.
His clothes had been treated with the same fire repelling tincture as the aircraft's paint, for all the good it did him. The intense heat blistered his skin and set his hair aflame. There was no room for anything else in his mind now but pain. Sensations a billionfold as horrific as riding through the skies had been wonderful. His organs of generation ruptured then crisped in his trousers like overcooked sausage. His fingers turned to ash and fell away as he attempted to free himself from his harness. His flying goggles cracked from thermal shock, releasing a fine white mist that had once been his eyes.
Caeryd remained conscious, if such a term is appropriate for a state of pure agony, the whole way down to the ground, trapped on the back of Sunfang's flaming skeleton as the fire devoured him. Not even the impact with the ground was meciful enough to end his suffering, softened as it was by the pounding of countless shells.
All around him, men with guns were fighting, screaming, dying. He tried to call out for help, for somebody to end his suffering, but no. They could not hear him over the noise of machineguns and artillery. Those who did notice the flaming mess assumed he was already dead. He tried to move, but his spine and most of his other bones were shattered. Nothing to do but continue suffering.
It would be three hours and ten minutes before Caeryd finally expired from his wounds. Not long after, his earthly remains and those of his dragon were reduced to powder by the explosion of an artillery shell, saving his kingdom the expense of an interment.
Luftskapitan Edvarte von Skutte, leader of Krausia's first Luftskampfer squadron was awarded the prestigious Sapphire Cross for his actions in the repel of Operation Halberd. Though the war would grind down to a protracted stalemate that would last another four long years, the age of the dragonrider had ended forever.