Chapter 4: Mountain Nests and Palaces

The hike was tiring. Curtis stopped the group for a short break. Hannah plunked down on a boulder and took huge gulps of her water.

"Oh, my god!" She sighed "This is so not fun and my feet hurt and it's so hot and this water isn't cold anymore... how long until we're done?"

"Um," Curtis looked at his watch "about two more hours" and then back at Hannah, "It's okay you'll live." The rest of the group chuckled at Hannah.

"She really is a princess." Cody whispered to Alex, who was eating crackers with cream cheese topped with sliced black olives. It had been her favorite snack since she was a little toddler.

"I know, last night she took forty-five minutes in the bathroom and left me with no hot water." Alex whispered after swallowing an olive piece.

"Wow, sucks to be you."

"Tell me about it." Alex saved some of her snack and put it back in the backpack she brought with her.

Shawn drank some water and lit the half of the cigarette he'd started the day before. Cody noticed this.

"Hey, you know smoking is bad for you?" He said while taking off his shirt because of the heat. Shawn discreetly checked out his cabin mate's abs and chest. Cody had an athletic type of muscular build due to years of soccer and basketball. Shawn took another pull off the cigarette.

"Yeah, I know." He said exhaling the smoke. Cody raised his eyebrows at Alex she shrugged in return.

"Yeah actually, Shawn, could you put that out please?" Curtis piped up. Shawn sighed and crushed the butt into the earth. "Okay, let's go." The group packed up their water bottles and snacks and they set off up the mountain.

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"We're lost." Alex broke the silence as they passed a huge boulder and a cluster of wimpy trees for a third time.

"We are not lost." Curtis said over his shoulder to her. They had been walking around in the forest for a few hours and the sky was turning brilliant pink, purple, and orange.

Sunset.

Alex had taken pictures of it when they found a clearing awhile back. After running into the boulder and trees for a fourth time, Curtis gave up. "Okay, we're lost."

"Told you so," Alex resisted the urge to stick her tongue out at Curtis like a small child.

The moon was high and the sky was a dark royal blue when Shawn, who was walking a little behind, stopped.

"Can't we just stay here and camp?" he suggested. "Find our way back tomorrow?"

"No. I am not - repeat: not - sleeping out here in the goddamn woods!" Hannah whined, she stamped her foot and crossed her arms.

"I think that's a good idea Shawn." Alex nodded her head and turned to Hannah, "And oh my god Hannah it's about time you learn how to survive in a world without the luxuries of a hotel. Honestly, we aren't going to do everything to make you and you alone comfortable. I pretty sure no one wants to sleep in the forest but we're lost and we can't just pick up and fly out of here. Now, I suggest you find a comfortable spot on the ground, grow up and stop whining because we're sick of it. Especially me, who has the lucky chance in being your fucking cabin mate!" Alex had, quite obviously, had enough of Hannah's whining. Hannah stood there and fumed at Alex's heavily accented words. She couldn't retort because she knew that what Alex was saying was true. She hung her head and sat on the ground, taking off her backpack in the process. Curtis, Cody and Shawn just stared. They didn't know what to say. Alex took a deep breath and took off her back pack, pulled on her sweatshirt and sat down. She thought that the sooner she got to sleep the faster morning would come. Cody looked back and forth between the two girls.

"Uh, I guess we're sleeping now?" He said out loud, not really asking anyone in particular. He went over to Alex and wrapped an arm around her. Being the light sleeper that she was, she looked up at Cody.

"That was... I don't know... it was a powerful speech." He whispered. Shawn and Curtis were finding spots to lie down.

"Uh, thanks." Alex rested her head against Cody's shoulder. "She just really pisses me off... I've had enough." Alex played with her hood strings, "Let's trade."

"Uh, trade what?"

"Cabin partners," Alex looked away from the strings and up at Cody. He laughed quietly. He didn't respond to her idea.

"Why don't we sleep first, it's been a long day." Cody rubbed her shoulder and squeezed her in a sort of awkward hug. Alex nodded and laid down using her back pack as a pillow. Cody placed his pack beside hers and laid down facing her.

Shawn looked at the two and pulled out a cigarette. He walked a little ways away and sat down on a rock. He watched the sleeping group for a time. During which time he smoked two whole cigarettes. He was just about to start his third when he heard a noise behind him. He turned around and tried to see what it was but it was so dark out to see anything. There was a ruffle of bushes and a grunt.

"Oh damn it!" A male voice sounded from the bushes, Shawn stood.

"Who's there?" He said out loud enough so the voice could hear.

"Shit, he heard me...No, I don't – Ouch" A boy flopped out of the bushes. "Oh God...great going Mai" The boy stood and dusted off his pants. The boy had blue black hair that sort of shone in the moonlight; it was long and pulled back into a low ponytail. A few pieces of rebellious hair hung over his forehead. He was quite tall and muscular. He was wearing tan shorts and had a black arm band around his bicep. Shawn stared at him.

"Uh, who are you?" Shawn asked.

"My name, young one, is Jet." Jet bowed and walked over to Shawn. "You must be Shawn."

"Yes, I am. How'd you know?"

"I know lots." There was an exaggerated cough from the bushes and something that sounded like 'Yeah, right.' "Shut up Mai." Jet looked down at Shawn with his eerily dark eyes.

"Who's Mai?"

"A girl I know." Jet turned to the bushes "Hey, Mai come out!"

"Do I have to?" a female voice said.

"Yes, he wants to meet you." There was a sigh and the ruffling of leaves. A girl crawled out from under the bush and stood, brushing of her clothes. She was blonde and was wearing a tan dress that reminded Shawn of the one Wilma wears from the Flintstones. She was very small next to Jet and to match his arm band she had an anklet. Her blonde hair hung down around her shoulders except for the half a dozen braids that framed her face.

"Hey, I'm Mai." She stuck out her hand. Shawn shook it.

"Shawn,"

"Well Jet, we better gather the rest of them up. Since this one is awake he'll walk." Mai said craning her neck to look at Jet.

"Oh Mai, don't be so cruel. He wouldn't be able to follow." Jet rested his arm on her head. "So I'll take the two guys... you take the whiny chick and the New Yorker and...Shawny boy here can go on Ru."

"Okay, fine." Mai sighed and they whistled. Alex surprisingly didn't wake up, for she was lost in her Hannah-free dreams. There were three bird calls. Shawn looked up into the sky, and he just caught a glimpse at the huge birds before he was thrown onto the ground. Something was over him, crushing him. He couldn't open his eyes so he felt around to see what was pinning him down. His fingertips touched a hard muscular chest and arms.

"Hey, no touch" Jet's voice sounded above Shawn. He slowly peeled his eyes open.

"Uh, sorry" He blushed a bit. "And uh, you're crushing me."

"Oh, sorry about that, I had to cover you from the dust and wind." Jet stood and helped Shawn up. There were three gigantic birds sitting on the ground behind Jet.

"What are those?" Shawn asked wide-eyed.

"Uh, Birds? Have you never seen a bird?"

"Well, yeah I have. But nothing that size."

"Eh, they're... special. You'll see." Jet walked over to Cody and Curtis and picked them up like they weighed nothing. Jet took them over to the biggest bird of the three. It was all black and had a silver ring of feathers around its neck. Silver also decorated the tips of its wings. It bowed its great head to nuzzle Jet. They cooed to each other and Jet flung Cody and Curtis onto the birds back.

"Won't they wake up?"

"No, Mai put a spell on them. They won't wake up until morning." Jet patted the bird's wing and walked over to Shawn. "Except for you, since you're awake the spell won't work. So you're going to have to ride Ru."

"Ru?"

"C'mon Jet!" Mai called, she was already sitting on top of her bird. Hers was a golden all over.

"Hold on! I have to introduce Ru to Shawn."

"Well hurry." Mai crossed her arms.

"Okay, so as I was saying, you're going to ride Ru. Come with me."

"Okay..." Shawn followed Jet to a smaller brown bird.

"This is Ru; you have to ride him because he's a transfer bird. He lets anyone ride him. Mine and Mai's only let us ride them because we raised them. I'll tell you more later." Jet cooed at Ru, he bowed his head a lifted his wing. "Okay now grasp those rough feathers there and swing you're legs up." Shawn did just that. "Wow, good job. Okay now hold on as tight as you can. And whatever you do, don't let go until we've landed. Got that?"

"Yup" Shawn nodded.

"Good" Jet went back to his bird and let out a low whistle. His bird raised his wings and pushed down, rising into the sky. Mai did the same. Ru took off after the two bigger birds. A gust of wind almost knocked Shawn off balance but he quickly grasped the rough feathers and ducked his head like Jet and Mai. He could feel Ru's wings moving up and down under his stomach. The movement was slowly lulling Shawn to sleep but he every time he would close his eyes his grip loosened on Ru's feathers.

After what seemed like hours they finally descended. The wind whipped at Shawn's hair and pulled the skin of his face back. Ru banked and followed Jet and Mai's birds to a wide open space for landing. Shawn could see huge round nests and other birds milling around. Jet and Mai were already on the ground with the other group members flung over their shoulders when Ru landed. Ru lifted his wings and bowed to Shawn. Shawn patted his neck.

"Thanks Ru."

"He doesn't understand you." Mai said, suddenly standing right next to Shawn. She made a guttural growly type sound. Ru bowed and let out a slight squeak. "Okay Shawny let's go find you and your friends a place to sleep." Mai shifted Hannah on her shoulder and walked off towards Jet. Shawn followed. There tons of other birds standing or sitting around in nests or on the ground. Along side the nests were little straw and mud huts.

"Is this where you live?" Shawn asked looking at the area around him.

"Um, no actually, these huts are for the villagers and peasants. Jet and I live in the palace. You and you're friends will be staying with us." Mai shifted Alex and Hannah.

"Do you need help with them?"

"No, I'm fine."

"So, you guys live in a palace? Are you royalty?"

"Royalty? Ha! We wish." Mai laughed long and hard. "Oh, my god, thanks I needed a good laugh. No we're not royalty. We're friends of the princess or... slaves more like."

"Oh..."

"Meille chi now ja?" Jet, who walking further ahead than Shawn and Mai, said back to Mai.

"No"

"Okay" Shawn stared at the two.

"What language did he speak?" He turned to Mai.

"Oh, a long time ago, when Jet and I were younger we made up a special language so we could talk in front of and make fun of guards and other staff. It's only between us, kind of like a special code."

"I see"

"We're here!" Jet gestured with his hands at the palace. It was massive. Way bigger than the bird nests. The palace actually reminded Shawn of princess Jasmine's palace on Aladdin. He then realized that a lot of things were reminding him of Disney movies and shows that younger kids would watch. Jet grinned and led them around to a side door. "Welcome to our humble abode."

"The humble abode we work in," Mai corrected.

"You never let me have any fun," Jet's smile died and his arms fell to his sides, shoulders slumping a bit.

"You're right, I don't. I never let you harass guards and other slaves and servants. Or the skinny twig of an advisor. Nope, I'm just like your mother." Mai said, her words dripping with sarcasm. Jet pouted and stepped through the door. Mai and Shawn followed. Jet led them through a series of hallways and stopped in front of a door.

"Shall we put them in here for now?" Jet said to Mai.

"Sure," Mai nodded and placed a still sleeping Hannah on the ground. Mai fished through a small pouch that hung around her hips. She made a small 'aha' sound when she found what she was looking for. She pulled out a gold key about the size of her hand and pressed into the lock. When the door was unlocked she picked up Hannah and went in. Shawn followed Mai into the room; it was quite big it had five beds lining one wall, a rug was lying close to the middle of the room, atop the rug sat five cushions and a low sitting coffee table of sorts. An oil lamp was the only lighting.

"This is where you'll stay." Mai put Alex and Hannah on beds and covered them with thin blankets. Jet did the same with Cody and Curtis. "You'll stay down here until we come and get you. Until then relax, some one will bring you meals and different clothes because you cant wear the clothes you have on. You'll bake. Any questions Shawny boy?"

"Uh, yeah, where are we?"

"You'll find out soon enough. Now sleep. You'll need it." Shawn watched as Mai and Jet left and locked the door. The room was dim thanks to the oil lamp; Shawn frowned as he tried to make his way to the empty bed. Once he found it he took off his shoes and sweatshirt. As soon as his head hit the pillow he fell into a deep sleep.