The four armored bird people awoke to a start.
“Bumpy weather, here,” Al called over the roaring sound of the wind.
“What’s going on?” Saddlebill shouted.
“Like I told ya,” Al returned. “Weather. We’re over the Falnon Mountains. We’ve got bad storms below, so I’m trying to hold us steady at this altitude a little longer before we make our descent. Keep an eye out for a break in the clouds.”
“Keep an eye out?” Shoebill reeled. “Rich, coming from the pilot. Aren’t you keeping an eye out?”
Al was unphased, “I just wanted to help you feel proactive. Hang on tight.”
As soon as he said this he leaned his body so far to the right that they began descending at a sharp angle. Everyone riding Al’s back began slipping in their seats. They quickly followed his instructions and found a tight grip on the harness so they wouldn’t fall off altogether.
“What do you think you’re doing, trying to kill us?” roared Shoe.
“Whee!” squealed Bluefoot in utter delight.
Then the Albatross was veering this way and that, left then right, down and then over, once making a loopy-dee-loo, and kept on plummeting. He had a strong intent.
The clouds were so thick, and moisture was becoming heavy in the air.
The thunder made them all jump then. Flashes of lighting pulsed on the fringes of their vision in those dark, grey clouds. A warm, electric tingling could be felt in the air, then the cold wind and the increasing rains.
“Are you crazy? We’re going right through the storm!” raged Shoebill.
“Pilot, take us out of this weather, this instant!” commanded Demoiselle.
“Aiy aiy, cap’n,” Al commented. “There.”
The huge bird took a sharp turn that almost tossed Bluefoot off the back of the harness. Saddlebill caught him by a loose pauldron. Blue dangled in the air for a minute until Demoiselle and Shoe could help bring him back in.
“You ok, there?” Saddle asked Blue.
“Yea, wow, that was a rush. Thanks, guys. Thanks, Bill. You guys saved my life.” The goofy Blue-Footed Booby came in to squeeze each of them in a hug.
Al was still making his descent, but he had found a break in the clouds where the weather eased up. He flew straight through the middle of it and when they arrived on the other side, they saw the peaks of mighty mountains.
The Falnon range spanned from the north of the Mogran continent, Mogra So, to the wild southlands, Mogra Yute.
It was to Mogra Yute that they were heading.
“Great,” said Demoiselle. “Good piloting. Very impressive. How far are we from the Talpost?”
“Ah, thanks honey buns,” Al crooned.
“Pipe down, I never gave you the right to call me honey buns,” scolded Demoiselle. “Never call me that again.”
“Yea, right, hehe,” said the Albatross, sounding a bit defeated. “Anyways, I’d say we are about ten, no fifteen…” he was straining his head to look this way and that and muttering numbers to himself.
“Excuse me, Mr. Professional,” Shoe chided then. “Are you saying you don’t know?”
Al stiffened his body noticeably beneath their talons. “I take that as an offensive. Hmph. I am a professional, and I know where we are, and I know where we are going. And I know how long it will…”
He trailed off again.
Saddlebill tossed his wings up in frustration.
Shoe began laughing.
“I don’t get it,” said Blue.
“Ah, yes, here it is!” Al shouted excitedly then. “Just as I suspected.”
They rounded a tall peak, morning sun shining brightly on its jagged face, and saw a hubbub of activity. There, before them, was Talpost, the southern watchtower fortress of the Tal Nation. It was perched high in the mountains and hung like an upside down bell from the underside of a massive cliff face.
Talpost was accessible only by flight, which was convenient for the Tal and a powerful defensive position. The entire landscape below completely denied access to the fortress by land or water.
There were small figures of Tal in the distance, flying to and fro among the various ports of entry along the fortress. Patrols of sentries circled the perimeter.
On top of the cliff from which the fortress hung lay an enormous beast, the likes of which they had never seen before. It seemed benign, as if it were natural for it to be there… a whale-sized, white fur beast, tufts puffing like pillow stuffing all down its long back. It’s eyelids kept lifting to reveal huge, lazy eyes, then falling again as the beast breathed out a cooing sort of snore. It was fast asleep, laying its head down on its bunched up wings.
“I’m actually speechless,” Shoe muttered, mouth agape.
“May that last the rest of the trip,” Saddle cajoled. “Gods willing.”
Demoiselle smiled a quick response to Saddle, but was far too distracted by the sight of the beast on the mountain.
“Ohh, can we meet the big, puffy, pillow monster?” Blue whined. The others all shook their heads.
“Welcome to Mogra Yute,” Al said. “Hope you had a wonderful flight. Please consider the A.A. Blaze next time you’re looking to go to that exotic destination.”
“Fireworks!” Blue shouted, pointing ahead where some dusty flashes of colors were being shot into the air.
“Those aren’t fireworks, Blue,” Demoiselle said, “those are Talsigns. Don’t you remember?”
“Oh, yea,” said Blue. “But what do they say then?”
Dem laughed to herself a little.
Al answered the question, “They are just verifying my flight number and giving me landing instructions. Hold on a minute.”
The Albatross began tugging with his beak at something underneath him. He yanked a pull tag on a contraption a few times, then his own Talsigns were being sent, flashing orange and green and blue and purple dust.
“Thank the gnomes for that… Um, hang tight,” Al said with a gulp.
“Why?” asked Saddle.
“I uh, well I meant to send one sign and I think I sent the wrong one,” said Al.
“What sign do you think you sent, Al?” Bill pressed.
“Uh, the kind of signal a pirate might use to raid a port,” Al offered shyly.
“How in the world could you mix those up?” Demoiselle yelled.
It was too late. Arrows and darts started hurling past them. One whizzed so close to Shoe’s head that he froze in place.
“Like I told ya, hang tight!” Al said and dove straight towards the mountainside below. He got far too close for comfort, but in the last moments pulled up and leveled off, heading straight for the Talpost while staying as close to the ground as possible.
“Just send another signal, Al, be reasonable,” Demoiselle pleaded. “If we stop and explain ourselves, they will understand.”
“How will we explain ourselves with bolts sealing our beaks shut?” Al responded. He continued his mad dash towards the fortress mountain.
From above, Tal sentries were diving towards their position.
“Overhead,” Saddle yelled.
“I see them, hold on,” said Al.
The great albatross aircraft that carried the four Talen Guard began swerving like an expert pilot, dodging rock faces and navigating ravines with ease. The sentries found it hard to keep up with his pace and his finesse. One or two of their pursuants struck a crag and careened out of the sky in a heap on the ground.
“Wow, this is fun!” Bluefoot hollered.
“I told you, guys, I’m a professional,” said Al, smiling broadly over his shoulders.
“Then why don’t you look where you’re going!” shouted Saddlebill futilely.
Al did, but it was too late, for there was no time to move.
There before them was a large rock slab that formed a tall, jagged pillar between one hill and the slope below. They crashed right into the vertical barrier and the bird, the four Talen Guard, and all their gear went hurdling into a semicircle on the mountain side below.
“Anybird hurt?” Al was frantic. “Please tell me you guys are ok.”
“Fine here,” said Demoiselle, lifting herself from the ground.
“So, professional, huh?” Saddebill grunted as he got up and dusted the rocks from his wings and armor.
“Ow,” was all Shoe could offer, also dusting himself from the mountain debris that covered him in a grayish powder.
The Bluefooted Booby, on the other hand, was more covered in his own feathers, even managing to get some in his mouth. His armor was barely hanging onto him anymore.
“I blame Blue,” joked Shoe. “It’s his influence that did us in. Booby never could make his own landing.”
The Blue-Footed Booby didn’t respond. But he did pull a feather out of each of his ear holes.
“Oh, thank the gods you’re alright!” said Al, sighing with relief.
“Wings up where we can see them!” commanded a strong voice from up the slope.
The five birds, pilot and passengers lifted their wings above their heads slowly. They looked to see a patrol of Southern Talen Guard approaching them, headed by a tall black-feathered bird.
“Who are you, really?” asked the lead guard from the south.
“I am Demoiselle, from Oshinora,” said the Demoiselle Crane, bowing politely. “This is Saddlebill. ”The Saddebill Stork bowed quickly in kind.
“Don’t do me any favors,” Shoebill scoffed at Dem. “I’m Shoebill Stork, at your command.” He, too, bowed.
The Blue-Footed Booby bumbled forward and bowed off-hand, saying, “Bluefoot, here, how can I be of service?”
“And Al, humble pilot of the A.A. Blaze,” added the Albatross. “By the way, I think my wing’s a little broken.” He held up his right wing and it was crooked like a broken twig.
“Well, then, fellow Guard, we’d better get you to the infirmary.” said the lead guard, offering forth a long, ruffled wing to help Al. “My name’s Frig. Sorry for the miscommunication earlier. We received an… odd message.”
Frig gave a pointed look at Al, who winced a bit in guilt then tried to shrug and silently beak the word “sorry.”
“What kind of bird are you?” Demoiselle asked the charming southerner.
“I’m a frigratebird, ma’am.” His wing stretched out to indicate the massive Tal fortress hanging from the cliff just over their heads.
“Welcome to Talpost,” he said with a smile.