The Draikess and The Red Coat
The wagon reverberated with laughter, though only one of the gypsy tavern’s patrons was amused. A blue Lutari with spiked hair laughed and slapped the shoulder of an unwilling Usul gypsy, whose eyes were averted to the opposite end of the wagon. The woman behind the bar kept a single raised eyebrow on him as she wiped a clean glass.
“I knew it was magic the minute I saw it,” insisted the Lutari, although no one had suggested otherwise. “I mean it was just lying there in this puddle of sticky mud in the middle of the Woods, and when I picked it up, not a spot on it. See?” He waved his hand over the red leather coat he wore. “And still not a spot on it. I know I must’ve spilled grog on it half a dozen times in the last hour.”
The woman behind the bar grunted.
“Serious! And if it magically stays clean no matter what, then it must be good for other things too.” He looked down admiringly upon himself. “Yep, this is one magic coat.”
The door groaned and cool air rushed over the patrons. The Lutari’s eyes widened. In the doorway stood a Draikess in an eastern Sari gown, her hair so dark a green it looked almost black.
A smirk rested on her lips, and her right hand cradled a scimitar. “Do you suppose it is magic enough to save you from the bounty on your head, LutePaw of Lutari Island?”
The Lutari blinked once before kicking himself off the stool and catapulting himself through a glass window, raising his arms to shield his eyes from the rain of glass. In an instant, glass sprinkled the floor. The woman behind the bar cried out, but the Lutari could be seen running for the Woods at the edge of the gypsy camp.
The camouflage-colored Draikess sheathed her sword and bowed to the woman. “My apologies, Madam. Fugitives can be rather destructive.” She reached into a fold of her brown Sari gown and handed the woman a piece of silver jewelry. “This ought to cover the replacement of your window.” The Draikess bowed again and walked out of the wagon, headed for the forest her prey had fled into.
“What was that?” complained a Wocky to her companions. The three gypsies sat around their corner table, surveying the damage. While inspecting her skirt, the Wocky said, “The glass nearly shredded my new Brightvalian skirt. Took six weeks for it to arrive, and then I had to walk an hour to Neovia and back to pick it up.”
“Don’t worry so much, Adria, your skirt is fine,” consoled an Aisha.
The third Gypsy, an Usul, slammed her cup on the table. “That Lutari’s lucky that Draikess got to him before I did. I don’t like being touched, especially not by strangers wearing eye-burning red coats.”
The Wocky nodded in agreement. “Yeah, it was kind of gaudy, wasn’t it?”
The Draikess and the Red Coat
As told by LutePaw
Lute eyed the patch of mushrooms warily, trying to remember if green spots belonged to the edible or poisonous variety. “Dang pirate mercenary,” he mumbled to himself as he picked one of the mushrooms of the cluster and sniffed it. “Keeping me running around the Woods for two days.”
“It’s barely been twenty-four hours.”
The Lutari jumped and whirled around with his claws out, but saw no one. “Where are you?”
He looked to the sides and turned around again, but could see no one. His eyebrows furrowed. Then he saw the gleam of a scimitar between the trees. “Merciless Mer. We meet again.”
“So you remember my name? How nice.” Slowly her figure came into focus, her brown Sari aiding her camouflaged scales.
He straightened his back and brushed the dust off his coat. “So, Mer, how’ve you been?”
“How many times have I told you not to call me Mer?”
“Right, sorry, Ammerit. Got it.” He kicked his foot in the ground. “So, there’s a bounty on my head?”
“Don’t act like you don’t know,” she sneered. Lute knew it was never a good sign when Ammerit sneered.
“No really, I haven’t been to Krawk Island or Meridell since I was there with you.”
“You mean since you fled the execution of your judgment?”
“Must we use such harsh terms?”
“Yes, we must.”
“I don’t suppose there’s any point in trying to get away from you?”
He sighed, relaxing his arms at his sides. “Okay then. Where to, Madam Bounty Hunter?”
Lute subjected himself to his imprisonment, aware that he had long ago lost his sense of direction in this maze of trees and bogs, and had no idea of where he was. As far as he was concerned, a live Lutari in the hands of a Draikess Bounty Hunter is better than a dead Lutari in a giant swampland, although it occurred to him that he might soon change his mind.
Ammerit walked behind him with her sword to his back.
“Must you keep that thing so close?” he asked. “What if I trip and fall backwards?”
“Then you will have an unfortunate accident and I will still collect the bounty.”
“Right. Where are we going, anyway?”
“That really isn’t any of your concern.”
He nodded and walked on in silence. He could tell that Mer wasn’t going to be any fun today.
* * *
Lute collapsed into the compost of leaves and mud. “Star date one-zero-three-two-seven-point-two-one-five. I seem to have been captured by some sort of... alien life that has taken the form of a mercenary Draikess. Obviously, this is a psychological weapon to throw me off guard as she wears me into the ground, forcing me to fall asleep so that the creature can suck the life out of me.”
“Will you ever grow up?” cried Ammerit.
“I need to sleep, Mer!” He swooned and leaned against her shoulder. “I mean Ammerit. You’ve had me marching all through the night without food.”
She pushed him off. “It’s only been a couple of hours, and it isn’t even dinnertime yet.”
“How would you know?” He turned on her with wild eyes and fell into her arms. “It’s so dark! The sun is gone; it’s gone, I tell you! I will never see the light of day, never feel its warmth on my skin!” The Lutari slid to the ground and shook his shoulders. “So cold....”
She groaned. “You’re disgusting. No wonder I’m being paid so much to put you away.”
He looked up at her. “You aren’t enjoying my torment? I thought that was why you decided to come after me, of all people.”
She sighed. “You’re worth more than most, and honestly, I seem to have a knack for finding you. I figured it would be an easy mark.”
“You do care!” He jumped up to wrap his arms around her, but she drew her sword.
“Touch me again and get a reminder of why you didn’t bother putting up a fight.”
He bowed and jogged a couple paces ahead of her. “Are we there yet?”
She didn’t respond, and he couldn’t blame her; he was being very annoying.
“Where are we going?”
Again no response.
“When will we get there?”
“Will we eat soon?”
“When we reach our destination.”
“When will that be?”
“Soon!” she hissed.
Even Lute knew when it was time to stop pestering the lady with the sword, although he made a point of glaring at her every time his stomach growled, and smiling to himself every time her nostrils flared in annoyance.
Soon the trees thinned and tree-sized mushrooms popped up in their place. Only then Lute realized how close they were to Bogshot.
“Um, Ammerit dear,” he said, his voice dripping sweetness, “do you suppose we could scooch just a smidge to the south? We’re getting awful close to Bogshot.”
“You do? Well, that’s nice. The people of Bogshot are generally hospitable and all that, but not crazy about me. I ran into their town once and well, things didn’t go so great and—”
“What is that supposed to mean?” A light came on in his eyes. “Bogshot has a bounty on my head? Why? I mean things didn’t go so well, but a bounty? How could they even afford it?”
“They can’t, but one nasty Fire Faerie can.”
“Fire Faerie?—Oh Fyora, not HER! Mer, even you couldn’t possibly be so cruel!”
“Me? Cruel? Of course not, Lute Dear.” Her eyes gleamed wicked.
Lute ran his hand over his face, lamenting that he had ever given her reason to hold a grudge.
The stilted huts of Bogshot soon came into view, its fire lanterns casting a dismal glow in the mushroom swamp. As they walked into the center of the ring of elevated huts, Ammerit waved and nodded to the few denizens she saw, though they glared at Lute and latched their windows shut. She sat at a fountain in the center of the town, looking over her nails.
“So, we just going to stand around all day?” Lute asked.
“No. Just until my payment shows up.”
“Right. So this Fire Faerie is just going to meet us here?”
“Afraid to say her name?”
His Adam’s apple plunged as he gulped. “No.”
She let out something between a chuckle and a cackle.
“You’re a lot more sadistic than I remember, Ammerit.” He suddenly felt a hot wind blow through, and yet it chilled him to the bone. Ammerit and Lute both turned around to see a horrible figure coming upon them, its form seeming to consume light and yet radiate a frightening fiery glow. Lute glanced around and realized that none of the villagers were in sight.
The monstrous Fire Faerie loomed above the fountain, her black eyes lit by fire and her decrepit wings smoldering. Her body seemed to gleam red in her own firelight.
Ammerit knelt on one knee and the prisoner scurried to do the same. “My Lady of the Fire Swamp,” Ammerit said, “I have brought you the thief.”
Lute’s heart stopped beating, his knees frozen in place.
The Fire Faerie looked over him with those unnatural eyes. “Thief,” she hissed. “I will have what is mine.”
He could not move, not even to let out his breath.
“If I may have my pay, I will leave you to do as you will to him,” said Ammerit.
Her words stabbed his heart, and he felt the pain of it start beating again.
Without looking away from the Lutari, the Faerie tossed a bag of coins to Ammerit.
Lute could turn his eyes just enough to watch her bow and walk out of the village—and not look back. She didn’t even glance back at him.
The Faerie’s glow turned into a roaring light. “I will have what is mine!”
His eyes turned back to the monstrous being. His voice shook as he spoke. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“My cloak! It took me five years to create so that it would never be torn or burn in my own fire.”
“The one you are wearing, fool!”
He looked down at the red leather coat he wore, the coat he had found in a puddle of mud only a few days before. Now he stood abandoned, sold out by his dear friend the Draikess, and facing the scariest personage he had ever come across. He looked up into her fearsome eyes and cleared his throat. “Finders keepers, losers weepers.”
Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped a bit. “What?”
“I said, Finders keepers, losers weepers. It’s a well-known principle, accepted as law in all civilized parts of the world. You are civilized, aren’t you?”
Her eyes widened even more before turning into slits. “Fool! Now you will perish!” She drew back her right fist into a ball of flame.
He leapt away as a ball of fire licked up the ground he had been standing on. He ran out of the village in the direction Ammerit had gone, knowing she knew the way out of the forest. In moments, he spotted her outline. “Better start running!” he yelled.
She turned around to look at him, and her face turned to horror. Lute dared not look around at that Faerie flying after him, but could imagine it was quite a sight to get Ammerit to run so fast.
“What did you do?” Ammerit demanded as they dashed through the mushroom-trees, trailed by wails of fury.
“Oh right, of course, nothing. It’s always nothing with you!”
“No really, I just found a coat and that Faerie thinks it’s hers.”
“The coat you’re wearing?”
“Just give it to her!”
“But I really like it!”
“You stupid Lutari.”
“Cold-hearted bounty hunter!”
Ammerit cried in exasperation and they kept running.
Lute couldn’t help but understand why she didn’t like him; he always got her into trouble. “How far to the border?” he asked between panting breaths.
The Lutari and Draikess were fast, but the Faerie was gaining ground. Lute could smell burnt fungi on the air, the smell of the Faerie’s fury as she seared the ground she flew over.
He began to feel heat prickle the back of his neck, and he dared not look behind. Then they saw light ahead! Lute pushed beyond the exhaustion of his body and surged forward, Ammerit at his side. The circle of light grew larger, the heat on their necks more intense, and at last they broke through the forest into a curtain of light.
They dived down into golden grass, and the Fire Faerie shot out above them. Lute gaped up at her, her dark figure writhing in the sunlight. She screamed and clawed at her eyes, darting back into the forest.
“You have escaped me for now,” came the roar of her voice, “but come near my realm again, and you will find no escape!”
Lute and Ammerit laid in silence, their eyes closed to the painful light, waiting to catch their breath. He heard Ammerit sit up.
“You are one deranged Lutari.”
He opened an eye to look at her. “That was fun and you know it.”
“Stand up and let me see this coat of yours.”
He groaned as he put weight on his legs. “See? Totally worth it.”
“It makes my eyes burn.”
“Everything is making our eyes burn right now. It was so dark in the forest, I didn’t realize.”
“I mean it’s so red, it burns.”
He folded my arms and thrust up his chin. “You’re just jealous ‘cause you don’t have a magic Faerie coat that will never get torn.”
“And I’m sure there won’t be any negative side affects,” she said as she rolled her eyes.
“So where are we?” He put his hand above his eyes to get a better view of the golden hills before them.
“The Never-ending Plains.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“Never-ending Plains. You’ve heard of them, haven’t you?”
He turned around and took a step toward the Woods. “I’d rather take my chances back in there.”
“No, you wouldn’t. It’s only a week’s walk to the Lost Desert.”
He groaned and fell back to the grass, suddenly remembering why he left her in Brightvale back then.
“Oh, get up,” she said. “You always were such a wuss.”
“And you’re trouble, through and through.”
“I’m the one who brings trouble. That’s a laugh. Now get up, if we get going we can get in a couple of miles before nightfall.”
He choked down a cry as she pulled him to his feet. “I’m not sure I want to be friends again.”
“Don’t be silly, Lute, dear. We never were friends to begin with.”
“Right. That explains a lot, actually.”
He followed her down the first of the never-ending hills.