Chapter 3: Outsiders

Allen pounded down the stairs of the inn, his heart racing. It had finally happened; Cross had managed to kill a prostitute with sex and alcohol. The dead woman lying stiff on his master's bed smelled as though she had already been gone for days, and for all Allen knew, she had been; Cross had threatened to beat Allen with a cane if he came into Cross' quarters for the last week.

Master sat in the common room with a glass of wine. The rest of the bottle was at his elbow. "Master!" Allen panted. "Master, there's a dead girl in your bed!"

Cross didn't even bother to look at him. "I know, idiot apprentice," he said. "And you don't want to know what trouble I went to get her."

Allen's jaw fell open. He had known Cross had a number of ... questionable habits, but sleeping with someone who was already dead? That was ...

Cross' boot came up and caught Allen in the solar plexus; it wasn't a hard blow but it was enough to send Allen to his knees, winded. "Idiot! Questioning my practices isn't your place!" he snorted. He sipped his wine while Allen's breath hitched in his throat. "Better get used to her. Until I find a safe place to store her, she'll be with me." He took a moment to look down at Allen with a half-lidded eye. "And her name isn't 'dead girl'. It's Maria."

&

Allen sat up suddenly in the bed, gripping the sheets under his fingers with wide eyes. Nothing ... just a dream ... He shuddered involuntarily. Maria was one of many things about his Master that he would have been happier to forget.

"Allen ...?" Rinali, woken by the rocking of the bed, rolled over and rubbed her eyes.

"Nothing," Allen offered, looking out the distorted glass of the window at the gray-purple-pink sky of early dawn. He smiled. "Would you like the first bath?"

&

A 'bath' here consisted of filling a basin with water and using a rag to wet, soap, and rinse all parts of the body. There was no separate room to do it in. Rinali forgot from time to time how spoiled they were at Headquarters, with the running water the scientists had installed for working toilets and showers.

Once they were both washed and dressed, and Rinali had painted Allen's scar to skillfully hide it under makeup, they went to the common room. Timcampi was shut into the bedroom, left zooming angrily around the room as if in protest. The common room was painfully empty; only an elderly woman sat at a table by the window, reading a book with half-moon spectacles perched on her nose.

"Ah, excuse me," Allen said in French; the device in their ears translated for Rinali. "Where is breakfast gotten?" His French translated strangely; Rinali wondered if it was a quirk of the device, or if Allen's French was simply rather poor.

The woman looked up, her eyebrows raised. "You are early risers," she said, not unkindly. "I have a batch of bread almost done, and there is honey for dipping and milk to drink. If you wish it, I can cut cured ham for you. The charge is three francs."

"That would be fine, thank you." Allen smiled at her. "May we sit anywhere?"

"Do you see another customer?" the woman asked archly. She put down her book, getting to her feet stiffly, and shuffled out of the room.

Rinali took a seat at a table in the middle of the room and Allen sat opposite her. "Might we drink water instead?" she asked, knowing that milk tended to disagree with her.

"I wouldn't recommend it." Allen looked awkward. "With the storms as they are, the rivers are swollen and stirred up, and any water for drinking would need to be cured first. It's all right for bathing, but ... if you don't wish milk, you should ask for beer before water."

Komui knew about the sorts of parasites that could be in impure water, but Rinali hadn't considered that. Allen was a reservoir of strange knowledge from time to time. "But don't you hate alcohol?"

"Master never drank beer," Allen answered absently, although it wasn't exactly an answer. He seemed distracted.

The reason appeared a moment later, when the elderly Madame reappeared with crossiants and ham piled on a platter, with two saucers of butter and honey and two cups full of milk. The smell was heavenly. Allen's full attention was on the food. "Three francs," the woman reminded them, and Rinali fished the coins out of their bag. The proprietor snatched up the money and put down the platter, and for about ten minutes Allen could not be spoken to as he ate as if he had not seen food in days. Rinali reflected that perhaps the reasoning for putting them on reconnaisance together was because Rinali's small appetite might have made up for the expense of Allen's large one.

When the edge had been taken off Allen's hunger he slowed down. Rinali polished off a crossiant and licked her thumb clean of honey. "We should ask her about yesterday," Rinali suggested, waving her hand vaguely in the direction of the Madame.

"We should ask everyone we can about the strange occurances," Allen agreed. He aborted a glance over his shoulder at the reading woman. "I think she's a gossip-hound."

"Do you?" Rinali asked mildly. She wished, not for the first time, that she spoke more than three words of French. "... there's not much I can do, not speaking the language."

"Mm, well, they think you're a witch, and I'm a sorcerer - or at least, some of them do," Allen observed. "If you wandered around the graveyard, no-one would think it odd. I'll talk to the villagers and you could look for desecrated graves, perhaps?"

Rinali frowned at the table. "Do you know what backwards towns do to witches?" she asked softly.

Allen was silent for a long moment, but then he reached across the table and patted her hand, once. "Rinali ... I pity the fool that would try to hurt you." Rinali glanced up at him in surprise; Allen was giving her a disarming smile. "Besides, finding the graveyard will be half the battle. There's no churchyard to put it in."

&

They parted company immediately after breakfast.

Allen slid into the seat opposite the Madame of the inn, waiting patiently until she looked up from her book. "What do you want, young man?"

"I wanted to thank you for the meal," Allen said, giving his most pleasant smile.

"Mm, I'm quite sure," the Madame intoned with a conspiratorial smile of her own. "You're no tourist. Gaston spoke with me last night; he says you are sorcerers seeking strong magic. Would you like me to tell you what I know?"

Allen saw he was right; the Madame had her finger on the pulse of the village. "I already know about the dying people, and the daily storms," he said slowly. "Unless you know the secret of how the killer spills no ... mm, but of course you wouldn't."

"But of course I would! Do you see constables here? We are our own law, and Paris cannot help us as long as the creek is swollen. I know all the details. The bodies are never found, only the heads, and there is never a drop of blood on the ground apart from the point of severance. And no-one has died in a home where the lamps are lit."

"Do you know who could do these things?" Allen asked. "Is there a person in the town that you suspect ...?"

"No man could do it." The Madame marked her place in her book and set it aside. "You are from England - don't deny it, your terrible accent tells me! - so perhaps those godless people wouldn't notice. But our church has been burned to the ground."

That solved the mystery of the church. "No-one rebuilt it?" he asked, honestly surprised.

"I was only a very little girl when this happened," the Madame said with a crooked smile. "They said the priest himself set the fire, and burned himself in it." She sighed gustily. "You may imagine that shook the faith of some. The stones were torn down to the cornerstones, and the old church was built over - and we have not had a priest, nor a church, since those times." The Madame leaned forward, and Allen leaned with her, assenting to her conspiratorial air. "It's God that's killing those people," she said with conviction. "Taking vengeance on our town to the third and fourth generation of those who sinned against him. You believe in God, boy, or are you a sorcerer like Gaston says?"

Allen hesitated for a moment before saying slowly, "We both, my friend and I, work for the house of God Himself, the Vatican." It was true, loosely speaking. "If we seem to do magic it is just the miracles of God's hands. But the grip of evil is strong here, so I tell you this in confidence." By making it a secret Allen was relatively certain he had made sure the news would spread all over the village by nightfall. He hoped it eased Rinali, who was clearly not at ease with being called a witch.

He wondered how many AKUMA would come out of the woodwork on the word they might be priests, as well. Whether it was Innocence or AKUMA performing the murders, grief begat grief; it would be unimaginable that so many people dying had not caused at least a few villagers to succumb to the Earl's seduction.

The Madame's eyebrows rose with delight. "Oho! Then perhaps my prayers have been answered!" She placed a weathered hand on Allen's arm. "Young priest, rest assured that you will come to no harm here. I pray every day, and God does not strike down the godly woman."

Allen smiled. "Thank you, Madame. Now, this Gaston ... perhaps I might talk to him more about curses and sorcerers ...?"

&

Rinali was given wide berth when she walked down the streets, but no-one attempted to assault her and no-one insulted her or even so much as gave her a dirty look. Some children pointed, but Rinali supposed that might have been because she was an unfamiliar face, or because she looked so different from these white Europeans. She kept her chin high and plastered a pleasant smile to her face and walked to the outskirts of the town to search for an appropriate place for a graveyard.

In China it was customary to put the graves of the family on the grounds of one's home. Rinali found it odd that a common plot would be used by a whole community. Perhaps this was a regular practice in all cities? She had not lived in the great cities of China. Did farmers keep their bodies close to home? To leave them here, it seemed like abandonment. Such a common thing in Europe, she reflected. No-one cared about family. But Europeans seemed to despise useless things and nothing was more useless than the shell of a human.

The day was dawning bright and sunny, as if the storm of the evening before had never happened, but she passed a school and saw the students sitting out in the yard, the roof of the building gutted by fire. Rinali wondered how many people had been killed like Pierre. What did they do then, without the body? Did they just bury the head? She had heard of the custom of viewing, but how could you do a viewing with just a head, grimacing in fear at you?

She came then to a clearing, dotted with headstones; unlike the great cemeteries of London, there were no iron gates to bar her way, only a low stone wall. She walked along it, looking over the long shadows cast by the grave markers, running her fingers over the still-damp masonry. Across the graves were a few wood houses, but the town seemed to peter off into farms from there.

Rinali began to walk the perimeter, wondering where the funeral bier entered. Or perhaps this graveyard was entirely enclosed, forbidding small children from seeing what lay in their inevitable future.

&

Allen had guessed correctly that Gaston was the man who had spoken to Allen and Rinali in the drizzling rain the night before, but he had been wrong about Gaston's vocation. He was the apprentice glassblower at a kiln; the glasses that Rinali and Allen had drunk out of that morning had been made by his master.

The heat in the kiln room was nearly unbearable; Allen could feel the makeup on his face melting under it, and brushed his bangs across his eye in hopes of hiding the pentacle scar. Gaston was alone - odd, Allen thought, if Gaston was the apprentice - stoking the fire when he spotted Allen lurking just inside the door. "What business do you have with me, sorcerer?" he asked, wiping his dirty hands on a rag just as dirty as he crossed the room.

Allen gestured towards the door. "Can we speak outside?"

Gaston glanced over his shoulder at the stoked kiln and nodded. They stepped out into the sunlight and clear air. In the light Allen could better see that Gaston was younger than he had first thought, though he was growing in a beard and widely built. Gaston raised his eyebrows when he looked at Allen now. "I thought you were a spry old man last night, but I wonder if you've even passed thirteen years, now! Can you change your face but not your hair?"

"I cannot shift my features. You were mistaken," Allen said in a long-suffering voice, pleased that his French was coming easier now. "I wanted to speak with you about the curse." He had passed the store where Pierre had died on his way here; four solemn men had been hacking apart the ancient tree. It would be several days before the whole of it was dismantled. Nobody had wept, either this morning or last night. Pierre, whomever he was, seemed to have no-one to mourn him.

"Surely you and your lurking friends would know more about it than I," Gaston said flatly. "Were you not sent by Moisieur Ludwig de Salle?"

"Ah - by whom?" The name tickled the back of Allen's mind, but he couldn't think of a reason why.

Gaston sighed. "Then our money was lost?"

By now Allen was bewildered. "What? What money?"

"Monsieur de Salle, in Paris!" Gaston threw up his hands. "He is said to know exorcists, sorcerers, and to be one himself! Surely his name is known by your kind throughout the world! We sent him money before the creek overflowed, asked him to send us help ...?" He looked at Allen expectantly.

"Ah ... well," Allen started to temporize. "As I told you last night, we are not sorcerers. Monsieur de Salle did not send us. I'm sorry to disappoint." Ludwig de Salle? Surely the first name was Germanic, and where had he heard that name before? Did he actually have ties to the Exorcists? Allen tried to steer the conversation back to where he wanted to go. "But you said you've been cursed. How so? Who do you think did it?"

Gaston looked thoroughly disgusted to see that Allen wasn't who he thought he was, or he thought Allen was merely playing his cards close to his chest. "I had hoped that Monsieur could tell us who did this," he said, looking at Allen hard. "After all, it was surely another of his kind."

So Gaston thought it was a sorcerer. "Do others agree with you?" Allen found himself asking, and he worried that other villagers would be less kindly disposed towards Rinali than Gaston.

"Yes ..." Gaston drew the word out, watching Allen's face. "And we who sent money swore to Monsieur de Salle that we would not harm a magician that came to us, if they would only help us."

"I see." Allen couldn't help how his voice brightened at that. He cleared his throat. "And why would a sorcerer curse your town?"

"How should I know? The ways of magic are strange to us and ours," Gaston answered with the tone of a phrase learned by rote. He grit his teeth, making a fist. "Damn that man, Ludwig! Surely he could at least send back our money!"

Allen licked his lips. "How did you come to hear about the Monsieur?" he asked.

&

Rinali wasn't sure how she would be able to tell what graves were desecrated; here, the plots were all fresh, the earth still brown and packed by rain. As she walked around the perimeter of the graveyard she came upon a little girl, standing alone before a fresh grave. Rinali paused, wondering who in her life had died. The girl's eyes were completely dry; her face was blank as she stared at the headstone.

Rinali hopped the low stone wall and crossed the graves, walking carefully between overturned plots. Soon she was close enough to see the name and dates written on the headstone: a woman who had died in her thirties, three weeks ago. The girl's mother, then.

The little girl turned to look up at Rinali. "Who are you?"

Rinali hesitated. "Rinali," she said finally. What else could she say? She didn't speak any French.

"You're not from around here." The girl stared at Rinali with unblinking eyes. Rinali shook her head. "Why'd you come, then?"

From over her left shoulder Rinali heard voices; she twisted to see two men carrying shovels, talking quietly to one another. Gravediggers, then. Rinali turned back to the girl. What had Allen said before ...? "Nous volouns ah ... aider," she offered, certain her accent was terrible.

"That's what the other strangers said," the girl whispered, dropping her gaze for a moment. "You should die, too." She smiled.

Rinali's eyes widened and she took a step back in alarm; a moment later the girl erupted from her skin, all stone and guns and a terrified, weeping mask set in her egg-shaped body.

Rinali set her teeth. Invocation! Her Dark Boots flared to life, clinging to her calves and thighs like a second, supple skin, and Rinali leapt skywards. AKUMA bullets tore up the ground where she had stood. She twisted in midair and brought down the heel and ankle of her boot against the upper shell of the AKUMA, cracking it, and its innards parted like warm butter under her assault. With a scream the AKUMA perished, exploding into a thousand vanishing particles; Rinali landed in a crouch, perched on the headstone of the very woman the girl had once wept over and sold her soul for.

The battle had lasted little more than ten seconds. Belatedly Rinali remembered the gravediggers; she twisted to look over her shoulder, not a moment too soon. "Exorcist!" hissed the two twin AKUMA, their skin already shed.

Rinali sprang to the battle.

&

Allen resisted the urge to bang his head against the stone wall as Gaston explained. "It must have been about four years ago, now ... we had some trouble then, too, although I was a little young to know just what. A man with red hair in a long black coat trimmed with silver came and helped us, and he told my father that should we ever have trouble again, we should look to Monsieur de Salle."

Allen licked his lips. Four years ago Allen had been in western Germany, burying Mana, which meant the timeline was just about right for ... "Does the name Marion Cross sound familiar?" Allen asked, pale under his makeup.

"Ah, yes, that's right! Do you know him?" Gaston asked, giving Allen a doubtful look.

"Yes," Allen groaned. "Thank you for the help. I'm sorry to have interrupted your work." Allen twisted away, ignoring Gaston's nonplussed look as he trudged down the street.

Ludwig de Salle ... it must have been someone his Master had dealings with in Paris. Was that where the name was familiar from? He recognized that sort of cryptic talk. Ah, Gaston, I do not think Master meant that you should go to de Salle for help. I think he meant you should blame him!

He went to go find Rinali; they were going back to Paris. He did not notice the dark clouds gathering on the horizon, matching his poor mood.

tbc