Part 29: Intermission

The tavern was quiet enough, with the local townsmen and their friends drinking and eating. The barmaids and barkeep kept the food and drink flowing, the cheery fire burning and the atmosphere friendly. Evening was still fresh, and the tavern was at full capacity. So, it was not immediately noticed when yet one more person entered the tavern. Fighting their way up to the bar, the person slapped down some change and yelled for some bread and beer. A few minutes later, the drink and food arrived.

"So, what's the news?" asked the traveler as they tore off a chunk of bread and washed it down with some beer.

"Oh, nothing much except that Those Who Hunt Elves haven't been seen or heard for more than a month now." Smiled the barkeep.

"That's hardly news, barkeep." Snorted the traveler, popping another chunk of bread into their mouth, chewing it before swallowing it and a mouthful of beer. "They say that those idiots collected their spell fragments and were returned to wherever they came from."

"But that's just it!" crowed the barkeep, leaning on the wide, thick bar. "I heard with my own two ears that the casting went awry and they didn't get sent back to hell or wherever they were from!" The traveler paused at that.

"Heard it yourself, did you?" came the question from the traveler.

"Indeed I did." Nodded the man proudly.

"From who?" challenged the cloaked traveler.

"From no less a personage than a priestess at the Temple of Celsia, I say." He preened.

"Short priestess? Dark hair in braids on either side of her head? Red button earrings?" asked the traveler, their voice alert.

"Sounds like her. Do you know her?" he asked.

"How long ago did you see her?" demanded the traveler.

The barkeep thought. "Well, let's see. It was about a month ago, I suppose. I had just gotten in a wagon load of ale, and…"

"Which way did she go, barkeep?" interrupted the traveler, leaning closer to the man.

"Out the door, naturally." He laughed at his own joke, but was cut short by a hand squeezing his throat.

"Where was she bound from here?" gritted the traveler, squeezing his throat to jog his memory.

"Don't…know!" he managed. A few of the patrons had become aware of the plight of their barkeep.

"Hey now!" yelled a large man, walking toward them from a table near the back. "What do you think you're doing, stranger?"

"Mind your own business, fool, and you will live longer!" Snapped the traveler, shaking the barkeep a bit. "Which way did Annette go?" repeated the stranger.

"You got a lot of mouth for such a small body, stranger." Said the patron, grabbing the traveler's arm. "Let him go." He said, squeezing the arm. The traveler complied, but the man had no chance to appreciate that, as the stranger suddenly twisted around and to the side, hitting the man in the nose with their elbow before planting their boot in his face. With a dull thump! The man hit the floor.

"Hey!" cried several men, standing. The traveler pushed their cloak's hood back, revealing themselves to be an elf. A female elf, at that, with long, dark hair and piercing eyes. "And who might you be, elven wench?" asked a man.

"Just someone looking for the Priestess Annette of the Temple of Celsia." Said the elf girl, smiling a cold smile. Unnoticed, the door to the tavern opened and another traveler stepped inside. Seeing the elf woman standing in a small circle of angry-looking patrons, the other traveler sighed.

"Can't take you anywhere, can I, Rapier?" called the second traveler. The attention of the patrons immediately shifted to the newcomer.

"Did you say `Rapier'?" came the voice of one man.

"As in `Rapier', the kick-boxer who defeated 999 masters of various martial art schools?" asked another.

"That's me." Smiled the elf woman. "Now, where were we?" she asked sinisterly, cracking her knuckles.

"We don't have time for this, Rapier." Said the second traveler, pushing back their cloak to rest around their shoulders. Another elf woman, dark skinned and with dark orange hair, short and spiky.

"You're no fun, Gabrielle." Said Rapier.

"Gabrielle? You mean the Scourge of the South? The Marauder of the Midlands? That Gabrielle?" gasped one of the barmaids.

"Looks like my reputation's preceded me." Smiled the dark elf. "Pity." Raising her hand, she muttered softly, a ball of energy forming over her palm. "Shall we, Rapier?" she laughed.

"Much as I'd like to," sighed Rapier, reaching over to drain her beer before continuing, "the barkeep spoke to Annette a month ago. We're falling behind, Gabs." Smacking the mug back down on the table, she looked over to the cowering barkeep. "Which way was she heading?"

-

Two weeks later, the pair of elves approached another town. Glancing at each other, the two walked into town. Oddly enough, there were no guards at the gate. While odd, not all towns had guards positioned at the gates to keep an eye out for trouble. Entering the city, the two noticed that there was a lot of excitement coming from the other side of the city. Curious, they trekked over to the opposite gate and saw an interesting sight. A group of guardsmen were surrounding an elf in armor with a sword in each hand. The guards were shouting for her to sheath her swords, but she kept saying that she couldn't. Rapier shook her head as she saw that the girl was gesturing with her hands, and seemed to be oblivious to the fact that each gesture swung the swords dangerously about.

The guards weren't rushing in, which puzzled Gabrielle. There were certainly enough of them to subdue her, even if she was armored. She saw the reason when the girl gestured and a swing of her sword sliced through the sword of a guard as if it were warm butter. Ensorcelled arms, then. She thought. Beside her, she heard Rapier gasp. "What's wrong, Rapier?" asked Gabrielle of her traveling companion.

"That girl is looking for Those Who Hunt Elves as well." Said Rapier, pushing into the crowd gathered around the guards. It wasn't much trouble for her to force her way into the front rank. "You're looking for them as well?" she asked the swordswoman.

"You mean the strangers in the iron chariot? Yeah! Have you seen them?" asked the girl. She sounded friendly and open. "What's your name?"

"Are you a friend of hers?" demanded a guard.

"Mind your own business, stupid." Snapped Rapier to the guard before turning her attention to the elf in front of her. "My name's Rapier. What's your name, elf?"

"Oh! I'm Miria! How do you do?" came the cheerful reply.

"Making friends again, I see." Came Gabrielle's voice as the other fighter elf forced her way to the front of the pack as well.

"Habit of mine, Gabs." Shrugged Rapier. Turning back to the sword-wielding elf, she resumed her conversation. "I'm good Miria. But I was wondering if you have seen a priestess of the Temple of Celsia recently. She's a little shorter than you, with dark hair and braids on each side of her face and wears red button earrings in her ears. Seen an elf like that recently?" asked the kick-boxer.

"No, I haven't." said Miria. "But I was looking for the strangers from another land who tear the clothes of elves. Have you seen them?"

"No. We're looking for them as well, but the only one who can tell us where they went is the priestess. We need to find Annette." Replied Gabrielle.

"Excuse me, I couldn't help but hear you talking about an elf priestess named Annette." Came a voice from the edge of the crowd. Miria ran forward, and the crowd ran back from her, revealing an elegantly dressed woman in a fancy gown.

"And you might be?" asked Rapier, her tone distant. She had no use for pampered human women who couldn't fight.

"The owner of a dress shop here in town." Came the answer. "But that's not important. An elf girl like you described and answering to the name Annette was here two weeks ago to speak to the Princess Colina."

"And you know this how, exactly?" questioned a suspicious Gabrielle.

"Colina was a delivery girl here for most of her life before marrying the prince about eight months ago. I knew her well and we've remained friends. It was Airi who helped her achieve her dream, after all, and Airi worked in my shop for a bit."

"So we go see the Princess." Said Rapier. "Gods, I hate humans." She muttered.

"Colina is not a human, you know." Smiled the woman. "She's an elf."

-

Three weeks had passed since then. Colina had told them that Annette had been looking for news about some other elves who had had dealings with the outlanders. The princess had also joined them for the journey, explaining to her prince husband that she was going to go look for some friends. The prince had told her to hurry back, and the two had shared a passionate goodbye kiss. It had made Gabs irritable and Rapier impatient. Miria had just awed. Right now, the foursome was exiting a church in a small lake-side village. Miria was still apologizing for inadvertently making rubble out of their doors, some pews and the statue of their god. From behind them, the self-righteous voice of the elf they had been looking from could be heard, threatening divine retribution.

"What a bitch!" spat Colina. "No wonder they were so down on religion! If that's an example of a religious person, I'll become godless!"

"I'm with you." Muttered Rapier.

"You should have let me cut her tounge out." Reminded Gabs.

"If you see Romina again, you can do whatever you like." Promised Rapier.

Miria ran out of the church, her twin swords accidentially slicing through the supports for the porch, which collapsed behind her, blocking Romina inside the church. "Sorry!" she called out over her shoulder.

"Maybe we should be going." Suggested Colina. "Annette is only a week ahead of us now."

-

"Well, at least the beach is nice." Shrugged Gabrielle, laying back on her towel, eyes closed, on the warm seaside beach. "I could get to like this." She muttered. She had set aside her scant armor and sword, lounging in her normal cat-skin top and skimpy bottoms. Beside her, Colina was likewise sprawled out, clad in a make-shift bikini fashioned from an old blouse and a pair of worn leather pants. Miria was sitting on the sand in full armor, unable to shed her magic arms. Still, she had had four years to get used to the drawbacks and after voluntarily donning the armor again a year ago after the elf hunters had managed to strip it off her, she had learned a bit more about the armor. Now, she could loosen the armor to allow her to bathe and to shed heat. She still couldn't let go of the swords, though.

"Um, hey, where's Rapier?" wondered Miria.

"Still determined to find and question Emily, I imagine. That woman's got a one-track mind sometimes." Shrugged Gabrielle. The group had been here for three days now. The village was almost hostile to them, but they were used to that. The group of elf stripping strangers tended to make a bad first impression.

"Aren't we losing Annette again? Taking all this time here, I mean." Asked Colina. "though I am getting a nice tan." She added, smiling at the developing tan line on her breasts.

"When Rapier gets it in her head to talk to someone, she won't quit until she has. That's how we first got started." Said Gabrielle, turning over on her towel. Some time passed, with Colina and Gabrielle napping, and Miria dozing. Gabrielle woke up to feel someone blocking her sunlight. "Get out of my sunlight or I'll pound your face down to your ass." She warned the offender. The person didn't move. Growling, she turned over, saying. "Ok, I warned you."

"You've tried that before, Gabs." Came Rapier's voice. "It didn't go so well, as I recall."

"Went well enough." Grunted Gabrielle, sitting up on her towel. "Well, how was she?"

"Traumatized, I guess." Shrugged Rapier. "Annette left five days ago for Meshirad."

"Gained two days." Nodded Gabrielle, standing and reaching for her gear. Miria blinked and sat up as well. Rapier nudged Colina with her toe, and the Princess yawned and sat up.

"Could have had her by now if the stupid bitch had just talked to us when we asked to speak with her." Muttered Rapier. "Still, let's make tracks."

"Annette! Hold it right there!" yelled Rapier, spotting the slender priestess striding away from the police station in the city of Meshirad. Turning to see the quartet of elven women approaching her, she smiled.

"Miria! Gabrielle! Rapier! Colina! You don't know how glad I am to see you all!" said the priestess. "I was looking for you three, but you had vanished before I got to where you were reported to be."

"Yeah, we had to find someone." Muttered Rapier. "Where are they?" she asked bluntly.

"You mean Those Who Hunt Elves?" guessed Annette.

"Who else?" retorted Gabrielle. "And why would you be looking for us here?"

"It wasn't you I was looking for. It was the former chief of their police, an elf named Dyal." Said Annette. "She's disappeared into the country since the trial. Oh well, she was pretty hostile to me before, so I wasn't expecting much anyway."

"Look, this is a nice trip down memory lane and all, but I need to talk to you about…" began Rapier angrily.

"The dreams, right, Rapier?" said Annette, looking at the taller elf with a knowing look.

-

"Oh, that is so fucking typical!" snapped Gabrielle. "So, the ditz managed to flub the spell again?!" Annette nodded.

"Well, not totally, as they did vanish and none of us got spell fragments. Still, it didn't go right as both Celsia and her spell book vanished too."

"And since that night, we've all been getting weird dreams." Finished Rapier. "Great."

"So, what do we do now?" asked Miria. She liked the elf stripping strangers, and wanted to help them. She had been the key witness in their trial, after all.

"The Bishops are working on a spell to trace her route, and I'm trying to gather all the information I can from those who were involved in the first attempt. It's been…trying." She sighed. "And I'm getting a double dose of the dreams." She said. She shivered. Those dreams had been unpleasant at times. Very unpleasant, at times. What the fucking hell has Celsia gotten herself into?!

"Nice. But what are we going to do about it?" repeated Rapier.

"We're going to get them back. Then, we're going to cast that damned spell correctly. Then, I'm going to kick Celsia's ass." Stated Annette.

"Sounds like my kind of party." Nodded Rapier. Junpei, I'll fight you again after all.

"Anything to get rid of these nightmares." Agreed Gabrielle. And to fight Junpei again.

"Of course I'll help!" chirped Miria.

"May as well. I need to let Airi know how good things turned out for me." Agreed Colina.

"Now that we're all agreed, we need to start writing down our dreams each morning. As detailed as we can remember to help the Bishops target the spell they're working on. Then, once we're ready, I'll cast the spell and hope for the best." Said Annette.

"I can help with the casting, Annette. I've had some training, after all." Offered Gabrielle.

"Couldn't hurt. Let's go back to the Shrine while we work on this." Suggested Annette.

"Aren't the others going to help us?" wondered Miria.

"All those who want to help are right here, Miria." Said Rapier, standing. "Let's get going."