Episode 1: The Bridge
The Con-Artist rumbled along the bumpy path, tossing and turning with no care for its passengers. Thug folded his wings around him protectively, gripping anything he could find to prevent him from swaying. He tried desperately to catch things that fell as the caravan’s wheels met with loose rocks – cases of his boss’s potions, glass vials, stacks of thick books, bones, trinket boxes, quills and ink – but it made no difference. Everything was on the floor, and The Con-Artist continued along obliviously.
Thug, like many other instances, found himself staring at his boss in awe. She was sitting cross-legged on the bench opposite him, eyes closed in meditation. Occasionally, she shook with the van, but it didn’t seem to cause her as much trouble. Her navy-blue coat, which, despite being through unimaginably dangerous situations, looked brand new. But under it, her once white shirt had turned cream. Her black hair was gripped up untidily; a few strands hung loose across the scarred side of her face. Thug had never seen her wear anything else. Then again, he reminded himself, he had only met her a few hundred years ago.
The van skidded its tires across a small boulder, causing Thug to hit his head violently on the roof, tossing up a handful of bottles. Polkadot did not stir.
The last time Thug checked on their surroundings, they were driving along a flat barren land, underneath a beautiful blue sky. Now, when Thug peeked outside he could hardly see anything except vague shadows of skeletal trees with leafless branches that stuck out like swords. Everything was dimly lit and ashen, but there was no mistaking that the sky was red. A thick layer of fog blanketed them, limiting Thug from being able to see where they were heading. He doubted the van knew their destination either – it merely followed the instructions it was given. Thug watched the steering wheel spin left and right hurriedly, and then once again at the blurred road ahead. He swallowed his fear.
Pirates. He had spotted the ships heading straight to the Mansion that night, with angry fires and flags that depicted demonic symbols. When he had alerted his boss, heart thumping, it was as if she knew they were coming. With a strange calmness, she had awoken The Con-Artist from its slumber in the ceiling of the mansion and gave it very specific commands. Caravan mode. Find land. Get to the bridge. And then she spared a moment to look at the approaching enemies with excitement in her eyes. Seconds later, they had dived out of the mansion and into the cold sea. The Con-Artist was waiting at the cliff. They had barely escaped when the pirates shot their canons and climbed the ladder to the Mansion. It all happened very fast for Thug to comprehend.
He did not dare ask his boss questions, but if he had the courage he would ask her a ton. How did they find the mansion? Who were those pirates? Why did they attack them? And where in the bloody hell were they fleeing to?
Thug tried not to think of it, or he would come up with more questions that would remain unanswered. He tried not to answer it for himself either – it would only cause him to panic. Shaking with the van’s movements, he looked at his boss and wished he could be as calm as her. He figured she must be accustomed to situations like these – after living through as many lifetimes as her, being chased by pirates ought to be a breeze.
Suddenly, there was a loud, shrill cry of a bird, and it made Thug’s blood run cold. He looked out the window and the fog cleared conveniently. That was when he saw it.
A pair of ginormous black birds with wings of fire were speeding like bullets towards them. They had hollow eyes, but Thug could feel their determined gaze nonetheless. His heart threatened to beat out of his chest.
“Mam!” He yelled. But his voice was drowned as the birds cried out again menacingly.
The Con-Artist was moving faster, but not fast enough. The fire birds were hot on their trail, and Thug was simply bursting with fright. Polkadot did not stir.
He had to fight this. Fight. The thought of him standing against these monsters was an image to laugh at. His mind was buzzing with plans of defending himself and the van when the birds yelled out again – but this time, they hurled balls of fire out of their beaks. Thug saw the flames lick the ground and take an entire tree ablaze, narrowly missing the van.
Superb, he thought. Marvellous.
The next cry made it clear that the birds were nearer than he’d have liked. Two fireballs flew towards them – but the van splendidly avoided it, whether by co-incidence or intentional, Thug didn’t know.
He tried to wake his boss again. “Mam! The birds!” But as he looked at her features, laid carefully in a serene expression, he realised it was hopeless. His eyes flickered around the van at everything – anything – he could use … a weapon, or – or –
Distracted, Thug did not see the fireball, but he did feel it a few moments later. It caught the tips of ears, and the fur on his head, and he cried out as he burned. A window was shattered.
Polkadot opened her mismatched eyes. With her good eye, she took in the sight serenely; her assistant on fire, the direction the van was going, and finally, the birds.
“Thug,” she told him pointing at a bucket, “the water.”
There was hardly any liquid left in it, but he gave it a shot. He held his breath and stuck his head into it. For a few moments, the sounds of the chaos around him was muffled. And when he felt like he was relieved of the fire, he returned to reality.
His boss had a magnificent bow in her hand and a horde of arrows ready to aim on her back. Thug’s jaw dropped. Where did that come from?
“Ladder,” Polkadot spoke to the van. The Con-Artist obeyed, and the rungs emerged, jutting out of the roof and ending outside.
“Mam!” Thug yelled worriedly. “The birds! But they shoot fire –”
Polkadot paused her ascent and looked down at him. “I’m aware, Thug.” She swung her bow, aimed the arrow, closed her eyes and muttered a spell. She fired.
Thug watched the arrow closely. It landed square in the middle of the bird’s hollow eye. The creature shrieked and stumbled into a low branch. But the other bird could not care less – it fixed its beak towards the van and with a deafening yell, it sped toward them.
Polkadot aimed another arrow. The bird, learning as it went along, avoided the weapon and charged forward. Thug watched his boss prepare another arrow.
For some strange reason, Thug looked ahead, through the front glass of the van, at the path. The fog was mostly cleared now – clear enough that he could see the gaping canyon, stretching miles wide and deep enough that everything was covered in shadows. They were heading straight to it.
He almost lost his breath at the sight.
“The – the –” he stuttered, trying to warn his boss.
“I see it too, Thug.”
He lost it when he saw that she was smiling. “B – but –”
“Hold yourself together. There is a bridge.”
Thug searched his vision for a bridge and saw nothing of the sort. He looked at his boss with a mixture of anger and panic and fear boiling inside him.
“Pick up the speed,” she told The Con-Artist.
They surged forward. Thug slammed into the side, hurting his head, but he was now more aware of his racing heartbeat than anything else. To make matters worse, there was suddenly an army of birds chasing them.
Okay, Thug told himself. Breathe. Breathe. He could feel a panic attack coming on, and – not for the first time – he wondered how he ever signed up for this job in the first place.
Almost as if in slow motion, he caught sight of two balls of fire zooming in his direction. Heart thumping, he skidded underneath the front seat and covered his head and curled into a ball – hid his wings – closed his eyes –
And the explosion sent the van hurling. Thug did not open his eyes – but he knew they were plummeting straight into the depths of the canyon. He could feel the ground give way beneath them, and he could feel the books and potions hover around him. It was strange. Thug had always been afraid to die – he was afraid of a lot of things – but now that he was tumbling to his end, he realised how very peaceful it was. All the sounds became muffled and disappeared into the background. The fire was extinguished. The birds faded in the distance. All that was left of the chaos was in Thug’s memory …
“You can open your eyes now, Thug.”
It took him a few moments to realise that it was his boss’s voice. She was alive!
But he was moving – no. The ground was moving. Curious, he found his wings first, and then opened his eyes. With a quizzical frown, he surveyed the new surroundings.
Water. Everywhere. The masts of the Con-Artist fluttered with heavy sounds high above his head. Ropes dangled. Wood creaked. The sea splashed against the hull. The horizon was filled with the colours of dawn. No birds.
“But – you – you said there was a bridge!”
His boss was standing before him in her navy coat and brown boots, a crooked smile creeping across the unscarred side of her face. “Look around you, Thug,” she told him. “This is The Bridge.”
He gazed around again, wondering if he was missing something obvious. As far as he could comprehend, there was no sort of bridge anywhere.
The expression on his boss’s face caused him to cut his questions short. He knew that look. She had a quest in her mind – and Thug, as her faithful assistant for life, was obliged to accompany her.
She was gazing at the thin line of pink marking the horizon, the sky still blazed red. “We have very little time, Thug.”
Her tone was heavy and grave.
“What do we need to do, mam?”
She closed her eyes gently, but her skin creased slightly in a frown as if she was communicating with some unknown being. “On the last day of this year, we need to be at the mountain. In nine days, we must be at the mountain, and the next era must begin.”
Thug nodded. Often, he scarcely knew much details of their quests – and he had learnt not to ask many questions. After that, following instructions became easier. Simply put, he did his duty as her assistant.
Thug nodded again, instinctively. “Setting sail, mam. One-way voyage to the mountain. We’ll be there before nine days.”
Polkadot turned her head in the opposite direction. “It won’t be so easy. He will do anything to stop the changing of the era.”
Thug’s wings skipped a beat. “Who, mam?”
“Him,” she said simply. “The pirates were sent by him.” And then, after a pause, as if she was on the receiving end of a phone call, she added, “He’s looking for the dagger.”
Thug tried to jumble the information in his head. Mountain, era, nine days, pirate, dagger. He thought he had it sorted somewhat, until he recalled that they were supposed to be at a bridge.
As if reading his mind, his boss explained, “This part of the sea serves as a bridge to our destination. We will be intercepted several times, but as long as the Con-Artist follows the red sky to the ice, we will reach the mountain.”
During Thug’s centuries of service, he had heard his boss say stranger things before. Changing of the era? Sure. Pirates intercepting their voyage? Of course. Their destination was a mountain? Normal. But follow a red sky to ice? That was new. His mind wondered.