The engine of her fighter plane stuttered, coughed, and began streaming smoke. Karen Cyneas, ace pilot in the military air division, cursed. Fighting with the controls, she banked left, steering away from the rocky cliffs that jutted out from underneath the floating island of Rynne. Passing through a cloud bank, she grappled with the control wheel, the muscles in her arms straining to lift the nose of her aircraft. Dials whirled out of control and lights began flashing on her console.
“Come on, baby! Come on!” she coaxed soothingly. The engine hiccuped, stalled, coughed again and spluttered back to life.
“Don’t you do this to me you son of a bitch!” she screamed. The wind roaring past her whisked the shout away. Plummeting down towards the waves a sickeningly far ways below, Karen re-evaluated her sneaky plan to explore the restricted sectors beneath the island and cursed even harder.
Wrenching the steering controls, she managed to tip the nose of her plane skyward again. Still streaming smoke and curses, she made her way back towards the airfield. Her engine only stalled once more on the return trip, but every hack and hiccup from her machine caused her heart to jump into her throat.
The men were ready with hoses when her wheels bumped back onto solid ground. She killed the engine, and as she coasted towards the garage she could smell burning rubber. Karen was still cursing when her feet hit the ground.
“Damn it all, Karen, what have you done to the poor girl now?” The chief technician huffed out an exasperated breath and began looking over the plane for a quick visual inspection while he waited for the metal to cool.
“Nothing, Dale! I swear!” Lifting her goggles from over her eyes to the top of her head, she pushed the wisps of sable hair from her eyes. Dale sighed in answer.
“I’ll take a look at her when she calms down,” he muttered, walking off while shaking his head.
Taking one more look at her plane with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, Karen made her way to the barracks.
The barracks for the air force on Rynne were made up of small, independent apartments. She shared one such apartment with her roommate, Jodi. Karen shut the door feeling tired and dirty.
“Hello!” she called to see if anyone was home.
“Oh hi, K-” Jodi’s face popped out from the bathroom and her eyes went wide. “What happened to you?”
Feeling ragged, Karen responded, “I went for a test flight. It didn’t go so well.”
“Please tell me that you didn’t try going into the restricted sectors again.” Jodi was wearing a nice dress and her honey-brown tresses were pinned on top of her head. When the silence stretched between them as Karen refused to answer, Jodi gave the other woman an irritated look.
“It’s your ass on the line,” she decided, throwing her hands in the air. Moving back into the bathroom to finish getting ready she called, “They’re going to take away your license!”
“No, they’re not.” Her voice was weary and she knew she looked like hell.
“I’m going out tonight,” Jodi changed the subject smoothly. “Do you want to come?”
“Naw,” Karen called back through the door to the bathroom. “It’d take too long to get cleaned up and I’d just make you late. I think I’m going to head to Mayor’s.”
“Honestly I don’t know why you like that place so much. It smells like cheap beer and cigars.”
“Probably because they sell both,” Karen shot back with a small smile.
Jodi snorted in response, exiting the bathroom and grabbing her purse. “I’ll be back late.” The door shut quietly behind her.
Mayor’s was a run down place on the edge of the industrial district. It was a bit out of her way, but that’s the way Karen liked it. She wouldn’t run into anyone she knew, and the place attracted a down-to-earth sort that she found agreeable. They didn’t ask many questions, or much care where a person made their coin so long as it was good. Washed and in a freshly pressed uniform, Karen slid onto a bar stool.
“Usual?” The bartender was a burly man of few words. Karen knew that his name was Ed, and that he wasn’t married or at least he didn’t wear a ring. Other than that, the man was a bit of a mystery that she didn’t mind leaving undiscovered.
She simply nodded in response to his question, not really feeling like talking either. The glass of deep brown beer was set in front of her and she nodded her thanks with a motion that said, “Keep ’em comin’.” Wrapping both hands around the glass, she closed her eyes and let out a long, slow breath. With her eyes closed, her other senses awoke. She could hear other patrons quietly talking. The door opened and a few sets of shoes thudded across the floor; probably factory workers stopping in for a pint after their shift. The clock above the bar ticked the seconds as they passed and a delicious smell wafted from the kitchen.
“Wait,” she thought, taking another experimental sniff. “That can’t be right.”
Opening her eyes she found Ed looking at her inquisitively.
“Ed, something from that kitchen actually smells decent. What’s going on here?”
He grunted something that might have been a laugh and hooked a thumb towards the door. “New guy.”
“I’ll have one of whatever he’s making.” She breathed in the aroma again, her mouth starting to water at the idea of a hot meal. “Damn, you’re changing everything. Pretty soon this place is going to be downright reputable. Stop it.”
He gave her another short grunt-laugh and pushed aside the swinging door to enter the kitchen. Karen smiled down into her cup and sipped her beer. It wasn’t the best tasting, but it was cheap and alcoholic and those were the two best things about the beer at Mayor’s.
A plate with a steaming roast pheasant and herbed vegetables was placed before her.
“Shit, Ed, are you kidding me? This is some serious-” The sentence caught in her throat as she looked up into the face of a grinning young man with bright blonde hair and eyes the color of the sky after the rainclouds clear.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” the chef looked her up and down with a lazy smile, taking in the uniform, “Sir.”
Karen recovered her wits quickly. “Good, because it was one. That looks like damn fine grub. But what say you give me some room so I can check for myself?”
The chef chuckled, putting his hands up in surrender. “Alright, alright. I’ll leave you alone. Enjoy your meal, Sir.” Throwing a towel over his shoulder he sauntered back into the kitchen.
Clearing her throat and bringing her eyes back to her meal, Karen realized that she had not exactly hated watching him leave. She drained the rest of her beer, setting it back down on the bar with a clink. Grabbing her fork, she dug in. When she looked up again, Ed had refilled her glass.
“I love this place,” she smiled to herself.
The next morning she hurried to the garage to check on her airplane. She found it, sides propped open, with Dale elbows deep in the machinery.
“No, no, no…” Rushing over she tried to peer around the mechanic to see what was wrong. “Damn it, what’s wrong with her? Can you fix her?”
Arm covered in grease, he whirled on her, a lump of cogs and gears with tubes snaking out of it in his hands.
“Did you do this to her?”
“What? Y-yeah, it’s-”
“It’s against the rules, Squadron Leader Cyneas!”
“Hey! Look, I bought that bird with my pay. She’s mine.”
“She’s still under military codes if you want to fly her!”
Karen snapped her mouth closed, crossing her arms over her chest. Dale turned his eyes skyward, mouthing words to the ceiling.
“Alright. Tell me what it is.”
She bit her lip, weighing her options. Relenting, she moved over to the exposed engine, pointing while she explained her design for a new fuel regulation system.
“It increases the distance I’m able to fly in a single shot.”
“And why would you need that?” Dale inquired, looking back up from the engine to her face.
“Dale, look, that machine is my baby. I like to fly her, okay?”
He considered the part he had removed, and then the engine. Scratching his head and muttering to himself he moved to his workstation. Tools were shoved aside to make room for a dirty piece of paper. Dale scratched a rough sketch and showed it to her, pointing to one of the valves.
“That’s what’s wrong with your design.”
Leaning over the table, Karen scanned the drawing.
“Does that mean you can fix it?” she asked hopefully.
“Yeah, but, you can’t-”
“Why can’t I? She’s mine, Dale. And as long as she doesn’t cause any trouble, I don’t see the problem. If you fix it, it’ll work the way it’s supposed to?”
“Okay, then. Fix it.”
“Karen, I can’t-”
“The military doesn’t own her anymore. Dale,” she pleaded, “Please.”
“If the Van Carrats get wind of th-”
“Then we won’t tell them, will we?” She sighed, “Look, they don’t own every piece of clockwork on the island. Not yet. It’s not like I’m trying to sell the damn design. I just want her to fly.”
“If anyone asks,” he met her gaze evenly, “I had nothing to do with this.”
“Of course not,” she smiled, ecstatic.
“You’ll be grounded for at least a week.”
“Shit.” Her spirits sank.
“Sorry, Karen. I’ll have to work on her after hours. You understand.”
“Of course,” she nodded, sullen.
Karen was taken off patrol rotation while her bird was in the shop. Dale covered for her, citing faulty wiring that needed repair. The first day had been annoying. The second, irritating. The third, just plain depressing. She was lost without her machine. The freedom of the air, even if under regulations and patrol schedules, was like nothing else on land.
Bored and aimless, she headed down to Mayor’s to kill time and hopefully get another hot meal. It was early for the dinner-time rush, and she was one of two patrons. Though the other was face-down on a table snoring, so she wasn’t sure if he could still be called a ‘patron’ at that point. Ed was installing a new overhead light fixture behind the bar. It was currently hanging by wires from the ceiling, and Ed was poised half-way up a step ladder with a screwdriver, twisting at something deep in its wire-filled guts.
Claiming a bar stool, Karen’s lips twisted into a half smile.
“I thought I told you to stop changing things around here,” she teased. His answering grunt was amused. She looked around at the empty pub, drumming her fingers on the bar top.
“Your chef here? I’m starved.” Ed pointed at the kitchen with his screwdriver.
“Go look,” he offered, apparently unwilling to leave his work.
“Really?” Karen brightened with curiosity, standing and carefully moving around the ladder so she could peek in through the double doors. At first she was taken aback. Unlike the front, the kitchen was immaculate. Pots and pans hung in neat lines. Counters were scrubbed until they shone. Even the stove was pristine.
The sound of a muffled voice perked her ears, and she followed it into the pantry to a back door that was cracked open.
“What am I going to do tonight, Rochelle? You’re leaving me high and dry, here.”
It was undoubtedly the voice of the chef from the previous night. The answering voice, distorted by distance and the door, was feminine.
“I’m sorry, Aaron, really.”
He sighed. “Just go. I’ll manage.”
As Aaron came around the corner, he started, seeing Karen in the kitchen.
“Oh! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to… Ed said I could come back and…” Karen fumbled her words, trying to explain her presence.
“Hey, it’s alright. I just didn’t expect to see you. Uh, what do you need?”
“Well, I was coming to see if you had anything cooking, but… I overheard your conversation, sorry. Did something happen?”
“No. Actually, yes. My kitchen assistant has other things she’d rather be doing tonight, I guess. I’m going to have to prep everything and do all the chef work alone tonight. Food might take awhile. Sorry about that. Can you give Ed a heads up for me?”
“Sure.” She headed towards the door, but paused before she went through. “You know, I could help, if you need me to. I’m on leave this week and I honestly have nothing else to do. How sad is that?” She laughed at herself, shaking her head. “If you’re that hard-up for help…” Karen shrugged.
He considered it, surprise plain on his face. “Hey, yeah, if you want to. I don’t know what I’d do about pay, but, yeah. Definitely.”
“Give me a hot meal and a couple beers on the house and I’ll consider us even,” she smiled.
“Great!” He grinned, extended a hand to her. “I’m Aaron.”
She shook it with a firm, military grip. “Karen.” She found herself staring into his smiling eyes as they shook hands and she realized she had been gripping him for just slightly too long. Breaking contact with a light tittering laugh, she pointed back out towards the bar. “I’m going to go tell Ed about the arrangement.”
Thankfully the night wasn’t too busy, and Karen was able to keep up with Aaron in the kitchen. While Ed was closing up the front, the two cooks sat in the back over a well-earned dinner. The first bite was pure heaven and Karen made small sounds of enjoyment while she ate. When she looked up, she found Aaron smiling at her.
“What? It’s good,” she responded defensively.
“I can see that,” he chuckled, picking up his fork finally to eat.
“Where’d you learn to cook like this?”
“My mom taught me,” he shrugged.
“I can’t help but think you’re wasting your talent on this place,” Karen jested, moving on to her complimentary beer.
He shrugged again.
“No, seriously. You could take your skills to a much nicer place, I think.”
Aaron shook his head, wisps of blonde hair falling in front of his eyes. “I like it here.” He considered her for a long time, twirling his fork on his place. “Why do you stay in the military?”
Karen set her beer down, clasping the cup between both hands and dropping her eyes to the liquid within. She got asked that question all the time. On Rynne there was an enforced mandatory military service for all families. Every first born son spent two years serving his kingdom. Those with the coin to spare could pay a fee instead, but the price was exorbitant and no one but the elite considered that an option. If the family had no sons, the first born daughter was accepted instead. But most women didn’t stay in the service after the two year period because of the social stigma. Ladies were expected to marry, run households, and provide men with heirs. Not make their own coin, and certainly not willingly participate in warfare. Not only had Karen chosen to remain in the military, she had progressed to an officer rank and she chose to openly wear her uniform within the city instead of opting for civilian clothes.
Finally she simply shrugged, mirroring his sentiment. “I like it.”
She mentally braced herself for what always followed that admission: disdain. So she was not prepared at all when he placed his hand gently over hers. Looking up to meet his gaze she found that he was smiling again.
“You’re an amazing woman. You know that, right?”
Karen blinked, then chuckled, slipping her hand away from his.
“No, I mean it,” he insisted, picking up the plates to clear them away. “You’re doing what you love and you don’t care what anyone else thinks about it. I can admire that.”
“Really?” Licking the foam from her lips, she set her empty beer glass down on the table again.
“Really,” he said with a lazy smile. Leaning against the counter, he nodded towards her empty beer glass. “Why do you drink that stuff? It’s horrible.”
That caused Karen to chuckle again, “Yeah, but it’s cheap.” She shrugged.
“A tough military chick like you? C’mon, you should be drinking whiskey or something.”
Her laughter rang through the kitchen. “Oh, no, I don’t think so. I get a little crazy when I drink hard alcohol.”
“Oh, this I need to see,” he grinned. Aaron ducked out into the taproom before she could protest. On his way back in he called to Ed, “We’re going to be here for a while. I’ll lock up.” Setting the glasses down, he filled them with a finger of whiskey each.
Pursing her lips she asked, “Aren’t you a new hire?”
“Yeah,” Aaron answered, raising an eyebrow, and his glass. He clinked the edge of the glass against hers. “So?”
“Ed lets you lock up?”
“He’s my uncle,” Aaron answered taking a sip.
“Huh.” Karen mused, swirling the whiskey in the glass before she took a gulp.
They stayed up late into the night, drinking, swapping stories, and sharing. It was pitch black outside and they were both quite drunk when Karen finally shoved her chair aside and got to her feet a little unsteadily.
“I should probably start, uh, start home,” she slurred, holding on the back of her chair for support.
“What? Naw, stay. We’re just getting started!” Aaron stood as well, though Karen noted he also gripped the edge of the table.
She laughed again, “G’night, Aaron. I had a good time tonight.”
“Hey, hey,” he shuffled his way closer. “Hey, I just wanted to say that… that I meant what I said earlier.”
Struggling to remember previous events from the evening, she scowled. Aaron’s husky chuckle mocked her efforts. He shuffled even closer, squinting to focus, and tripped over her chair in his drunken state. Pure reflex kicked in as she caught him, then inebriation took over as they stumbled together, bumping into the dry goods shelf. Karen found herself giggling, but Aaron’s expression was as serious as he could be while tipsy.
“What I was saying before. When I said you’re amazing. I really meant it.”
She felt a blush grace her cheeks and there was a moment where time stretched as they stared into each others eyes. Very slowly, his eyes moving down to gaze at her lips, he lowered his head and kissed her.
It was as if a dam had broke. Suddenly a pent up passion that she hadn’t even known was lying dormant sprang into action. Her fingers caught in the hair at the nape of his neck. All she could taste was whiskey as his tongue parted her lips to deepen the kiss. The shelves against her back were a minor annoyance to be endured for the sake of the delicious feeling of his body pressed against her own. His hands roamed over her form, cupping her backside and pulling her even closer. Feeling his hardness pressed against her thigh, a little moan of desire escaped her and she started tugging at his clothing to remove the barriers keeping her from her goal.
“Not here,” he whispered, stilling her fingers and beginning to guide her towards the back door of the kitchen. Still entwined, they staggered out the back and Aaron began leading them up a set of wooden steps.
“My place… is above… the bar,” he managed to explain between ardent kisses. Releasing her just long enough to dig his keys out of his pocket and open the door, they tumbled inside. In the whirlwind of discarded clothing there were a couple rips and more than a few curses when the item wouldn’t release fast enough.
Aaron pressed her against the wall just inside the doorway, teeth nibbling at her neck and hands kneading her flesh. Gasping and arching her back, she brushed a smooth thigh against his already rigid manhood, exciting and teasing him further. The resulting low, growling sound of desire from his throat made her smile, and the smile turned into a wicked, tipsy giggle as he lifted her from the ground. All she could do was wind her arms around his neck and hold on tightly. She opened herself to his hungry length, wrapping her legs around him. Grasping her bottom to steady her, he eagerly plunged into her waiting warmth. A loud moan ripped from her throat as he buried himself completely within her. Lips moving over her throat and his member thrusting inside her, she threw her concerns aside and rode the swelling tide of pleasure, not caring if her cries woke the surrounding neighbors. His pace quickened with urgency and he grunted with the effort of holding her and trying to delay his release.
Still gripping her tightly, he lifted her up and carried her swiftly to his bed. He laid her down very gently, covering her mouth with his in a sensual kiss. Slipping his tongue between her lips at the same time as he slid himself back into her, she clutched his back in pure elation. Finding his rhythm again, his hands caressed her breasts as he thrust, groaning with her as their desire swelled.
Closer and closer, her peak approached. When the wave of ecstasy broke, making her shudder and scream with joy, Aaron cried out with her. The ferocity of his climax sent surges of new pleasure through her body.
They lay together after, panting. He placed little kisses on her cheeks and nose, then a lingering, sweet kiss upon her lips. Though her shivering had everything to do with her loins still throbbing with the aftermath of her orgasm and nothing to do with being cold, he pulled the blankets over them both. Nuzzling her neck and whispering tender nothings in her ear, she collapsed into an exhausted, dreamless sleep.
It was late the next morning when she finally woke up. Karen felt groggy and had a bit of a headache, but overall she felt fantastic. She hadn’t allowed herself a real night on the town in a long time. Stretching, she sat up and looked around. On the table next to the bed, a simple breakfast was laid out with a folded note. Grinning, she grabbed a piece of cold toast to munch on while she read.
“Karen,” it read in his scrawling handwriting, “I had some work to do for my uncle this morning. Forgive me for sneaking out early. Dinner tomorrow night?”
She bit her lip, smiling broadly. Perhaps her leave wouldn’t be as bad as she originally thought.
While her plane was still being worked on, she and Aaron spent a lot of the remainder of the week together. They went out on couple more dates, Aaron made dinner for her, and she even spent the night again.
Her first shift after leave was over and she was just sliding onto a bar stool at Mayor’s for dinner when the sirens started blaring. Everyone in the bar looked up with panicked expressions, covering their ears. Aaron ran out from the kitchen.
“Karen! What’s going on?” He pushed past Ed to meet her on the other side of the bar.
“It’s probably just a drill!” She shouted over the noise. “I have to go!”
Catching her by the wrist, Aaron pulled her in for a quick kiss.
“Be careful.” His lips brushed her ear as he spoke.
She sprinted back to the airfield.
Warning lights were flashing, the sirens were blazing, military personnel were running around frantically, and planes were starting to take off.
Karen cursed. “This is not a drill…” She made for the garage.
Catching Dale by the shoulder she yelled over the alarms, “What the hell is going on?!”
“Gryphon attack! Get in your damn plane, Karen! They need you!”
Mind spinning, she made her way towards her bird. There hadn’t been a gryphon attack for over a year, and it had been even longer than that since they had attacked in any kind of force. Straps clicked into place, goggles were fitted over her eyes, and she started her plane. The engine rumbled to life. Routines and protocol replaced fear as she made her way down the runway for take-off.
As her wheels left the ground, the fear started to creep back in. She set her jaw against it, gritting her teeth. Her squadron fanned out around her in perfect formation.
The sound of bullets ripping through the air caused Karen to bank right, turning her squad towards the noise. Smoke and bullets filled the air, muzzle fire lighting the night sky. Right away Karen knew something was wrong. Metal flashed through the air, swooping and diving like no plane could.
Suddenly, they were right of front of her. She squeezed the triggers for her guns, spraying bullets into the air. Sparks flew as they pinged off the clockwork gryphons.
Karen took evasive maneuvers, her squad following her lead. Acting like a real gryphon would, two broke off from the pack and dove on one of her pilots. Latching onto the plane with talons, they ripped it to shreds with their beaks. Swearing, she turned her group back towards the battle letting her lead go first.
A couple of her fighters scored hits, and the bronze automatons fell from the sky, smoking and trailing cogs. The gryphons, as one, opened their beaks and issued forth a keening battle cry. All around her planes started failing. Coughing and sputtering, the pilots began losing altitude and spinning out of control. Karen stared in horror as her entire squad dropped from the sky. Flashing bronze machines tore aircraft and pilots alike to pieces.
Tears welled up in her eyes, but she blinked them away. Gunning her engine, she dove into a cloud bank for cover. Trying to buy herself time, she tipped her nose towards the sea below, hugging the cliffs below the island.
The gryphon came out of nowhere. Slamming into the side of her plane, she was knocked against the side of the cliffs. Dragging her down, severing the wings with its claws, she screamed and reached for her service pistol. The gun bucked in her hand as she shot the thing right in the eye. Another screech tore from the creature’s throat. To see the thing acting like a real gryphon stunned Karen. As the cliffs battered them on the way down, the thing sluggishly tried to break away. Its talons stuck deep in her airplane’s fuselage, it carried her with it as it heaved one more time against the rocky walls.
The jarring impact didn’t come immediately, but rather it happened when they crashed against the floor of a natural cave in the craggy walls. Karen’s head smacked against the steering controls as her machine was knocked against the ground and she came to a sudden stop. Reeling from her harsh encounter with gravity, her fingers fumbled at the straps that held her in the cockpit. Choking on the smoke pouring from the motor, she panicked, trying to free herself and ended up falling face first to the rocky cavern floor.
From the pain in her chest and difficulty breathing, she was pretty sure she had broken a few ribs. Crawling away from the wreckage that was her plane, she grabbed at jutting rocks to haul herself away from her now burning aircraft. She would mourn her plane later. For now, survival was the only thing on her mind.
She sobbed as she slowly got to her feet, one arm clutching her chest as if she could keep the pain from bursting forth by holding her ribs in place. The sob of pain caught in her throat as her eyes washed over row upon row of dormant clockwork gryphons. Their beaten bronze feathers reflected the light from the engine fire, making it seem as though they were glowing in the gloom of the cave.
“There’s a whole army down here!”
Staring in horror at the death of her civilization as she knew it, she didn’t see the creature that had clung to her plane move behind her. With a snap of its beak, she knew no more.
Enjoying the tales of Rynne? Check back soon for the next chapter!
Miss out on the previous stories? Find them here:
Chapter 1 – Dawn