“Ah, hullo! I’m Emma Ernsthart, I believe we haven’t met before.”
This was the second time she was coming to his door, introducing herself. Emma, dressed in a soldier’s uniform, was now shaking hands with the loveliest sight on Earth. Audrye had been very keen on meeting this friend of his and so she was practically bouncing with excitement showing her in. Bouncing in that tight, short, pink waitress outfit, her twintailed hair twirling at every movement she made.
The reason both of them were dressed in outfits not quite fitting for a normal meeting was that Audrye had insisted on making their house-warming party a costume party. Actually, she was the one who had insisted on throwing a house-warming party at all. He would had been quite satisfied without one. He really didn’t like the idea of many people knowing where he lived. But he had caved, since he just couldn’t say no to that cheerful face. Nigel Willoby was blissfully trapped in a relationship with Audrye Knight.
It had started with her coming over to Swansea taking a week of vacation, but she had work in London and couldn’t leave it behind for too long. He on the other hand, as she gracefully noted, had nothing actually keeping him stationed in Wales. So she had first suggested, later insisted, that he move to London. It had taken a while to find a suitable location that met his criteria, but at last he had found a new construction which had optic cable installed. Only the penthouse had been available to buy, but that suited him just fine. It was a bit more space than he needed, but that just meant he had more room to expand his processors to. Besides the hardware he hadn’t had much to pack. Nuu moved herself and only needed a space on the train seat.
He had merely settled in when he had realized that there were things in his new apartment that weren’t his. Potted plants in the living room, an art poster on the wall, a teddy bear in the bedroom. Finally, after practically shifting her things in there already, Audrye had asked if it’d be allright for her to move in. She had thought it a fine idea and she had smiled that warm smile. He had caved without much resistance. And he had been wrong about she already moving her stuff in. She had loads of possessions carried into his – no – their place. Luckily she had had the decency of not invading his office. After everything else had been transformed with this magical touch of a woman, he could still lock himself into that dim room lighted only by the monitors, with cooling fans humming assuringly.
And now they were having a house-warming party. Although he expected to not have that good of a time, he would be enjoying the whole evening looking at his gorgeous girlfriend, dressed up as Asahina Mikuru in the combat waitress outfit. She even had the coloured contact lens in her left eye. He had no idea how she had managed to find such an accurate cosplay outfit of one of his favourite anime characters, but there she was, and he loved her for it.
Emma was the first guest to have arrived. She had been here five past eight PM, apologizing for being late. Audrye had been quite surprised that anyone had shown up before nine, since apparently it was customary to arrive late to a party. That was one of the unspoken social codes Nigel had no idea of. And neither had Emma, which was why she spent the next half an hour or so chatting with the Mikuru-Audrye, sipping from a glass of strawberry champagne.
As other guests finally started to arrive, first Audrye’s work colleagues, then her now ex-roommate and other London girlfriends, Nigel retrieved to a corner of his comfy couch with Rei on his lap and began tapping the keyboard, writing code lines after code lines. No one paid him much attention, which was for the better, he really wasn’t much for social happenings and besides, he had work to do.
Any other boss would have let their underlings have a night off when they were having a house-warming party, but an archangel wasn’t an ordinary employer. Lord Michael had sent him an urgent task to do and was expecting it finished by the morning. Nigel had no choice but to obey. He tapped on.
He was briefly aware that one of Audrye’s colleagues had come to stand near him. McGilligan or something his name was, seemed to be closest to Nigel’s type of people than any other person here. The man seemed out of place here, just like him. Nigel couldn’t really grasp what his costume was supposed to be, perhaps an office worker, but he couldn’t care less about it either. The man wasn’t standing in front of his light so if he wanted to stand there, it was fine. Tap-tap-tap.
He was deeply concentrated on a more puzzling part f the coding when someone dropped to the couch beside him. Glancing at his side he noticed that Emma was grinning at him. She appeared to be a bit tipsy but she managed to keep slurring out of her voice when she spoke to him.
“So, V, this has been a nice get-together, I’m glad you invited me.”
“If you say so”, he wasn’t that convinced it was nice at all. Now that his attention had been dragged away from the screen he could see that the Normandy engineering-specialist was starting a rouse with Weston-Pryce. Yes, Audrye had mentioned something about Quentin being upset about something involving the London Knight gone AWOL. Nigel hadn’t paid much attention to it, since it had sounded like gossip.
“I’ve been asking around, you know, and it seems that everyone else here was invited by your missus there”, Emma continued nonchalantly. Then she smiled slyly, tilting her head slightly to the side.
“What makes me so special that I’m the only one from your list?”
“You’re not special. I didn’t want to have a list to start with.” He noticed that his tone had been harsh and the words inconsiderate, again too late. But where most of the people would now give him a look of hurt feelings, Emma looked quizzical, as if trying to decipher the true meaning of it.
“I mean, Audrye insisted that I invite someone. She couldn’t accept that I had no one to call. And, well… You’ve been here before, you’ve met me…”
“In person.” She finished the magic words. Then she continued in a mockingly upset tone: “Oh and here I thought that we had something special going on, with this assignment you got me and all.”
“Oh don’t!” she nudged him gently with her elbow. He had no siblings, but somehow he got this elder sisterly feeling from this woman. Not all bad.
A few meters away, Quentin was really fuming to Weston-Pryce, who looked like a pig in the slaughterhouse. He must have really pissed the pirate woman off, Quentin was rarely seen this mad.
“How is the assignment going?”
“He has shown no signs of running off again. Recruited himself to the police force, actually. Daniel Weston-Pryce seems to be a very decent man, by anyone’s standards. Despite the rover he drives.”
“Keep tailing him, nonetheless. I want to know if he’ll stand the action. And if he runs off, I want him tracked from the start. It took all my resources to pinpoint his location the last time.”
“Yessah!” She saluted to him, only her unbreakable grin spoiling the image of a perfect SBS officer. He glared at her until she lowered her hand again.
“No prob, V. Especially with the wages you’re paying me for this. None of which I’ve yet to see, I should add… But this is a kid’s job. He actually asked me go to a pub with him, we’re going as soon as he and Q are finished with their business.”
Nigel had to blink a few times in surprise.
“To a pub? With the man you’re tailing? Isn’t that… you know… blowing your cover, or something?”
“Not at all, V! See, this gets me closest to him, gets the job done. Besides, I’m really thirsty for a beer after all this sugary soda your missus has been offering this evening and he’s enjoyable company with a sense of humor. Not that bad looking either.”
“Emma.” His stern tone of voice snapped her gaze from Weston-Pryce to his own icy eyes.
“Stay out of it. Don’t get too close, don’t ask the questions. And when the he goes into action, stay put and only observe. I won’t be needing him tailed for much longer and you can be on your way. You really don’t want to get involved with these people.”
“Alright, V, advice taken. I’ll better be off now, if Q holds onto him any longer, he might be leaving with her instead of me. Now that’d feel like stalking!” She winked as she got up. Quentin had indeed apparently forgiven Weston-Pryce for what ever it was he had done to anger her and was now hugging him tightly and giving him kisses on the cheek. He tactfully moved Quentin away at an arm’s distance as Emma closed in to them. After greeting Quentin herself, albeit briefly, she did indeed leave the party with Weston-Pryce.
Nigel dropped his head back to his code. He hoped she’d adhere to his advice.
Which she obviously did not.
It was only the next evening and Emma was back at his place, dishevelled, her head full of the Knights and Death Gods. She had brought her nephew with her, since Nigel’s apartment was the safest place she could think of. It was the safest place, but it wouldn’t be for long if they kept bringing in all these fugitives.
Cultists of the Death by Fire God had been after her nephew. From her story he had learned that Weston-Pryce had been attacked by few of the pyromancers while he had been transporting another boy the cultists had though was Emma’s nephew. And when action had occurred, she hadn’t stayed put. She had saved Weston-Pryce and after they found out it was this Alex the cultists were really after, she had been impossible to shake off.
They had retrieved Alex, who had been attacked by more cultists, and while temporarily storing him in a Knight-affiliated hotel, they had found the item the cultists were really after, only to lose it to a very powerful entity who had practically dropped on them. That person had nearly killed Emma, extorting the item from Weston-Pryce in exchange for her life. And the little snob and his uptight colleague McGilligan had spilled everything about the Knights to Emma before this.
“You forbade Daniel to tell me about them. And forbade him to recruit me to be one of them.”
“I did.” It was a complex chain of favours. He had asked Emma to tell Weston-Pryce a message that his sister had went off with the Knives, hoping this would be enough for the snob to return to civilized world and his duties. It had worked. But in exchange for the helicopter ride back to London Weston-Pryce had promised Emma to try to convince Nigel to meet Emma in person, since she had been so eager to meet him for a while now. He had agreed to the meeting, but had asked that Weston-Pryce keep Emma off the Knights, since he didn’t want to see her trapped as a Grigor like he was. And now he was the only one with a shattered wish.
“But to be accurate, I only forbade him to tell you about the Knights.”
“What’s the difference?”
“There isn’t anyone who doesn’t know about the Knights who isn’t a cultists of some God. Or a Grigor. I don’t want you to end up as a Grigor.”
“What exactly is a Grigor?” He sighed.
“To put it shortly, Grigor is a person affiliated to the Knights, but is not a Knight.
“They told you about the Death Gods, right? There isn’t just One God as the church tells you, there are many, all of them vicious. For every death, there is a Death God. Death by Fire, Death by Plague, Death by Breaking-your-neck-when-you-take-a-wrong-step-down-the-stairs, bloody hell! And the gods don’t do much of the actual killing, they recruit people to kill each other. They are called cultists, and their sole purpose is to do as their God wants.
“Nearly all people who know about the Death Gods are cultists of some God or another. Mostly because when an ordinary person finds out, they find it out when someone kills them. The only exception is the Elder, as they state that their purpose is saving people, letting them die ‘of natural causes’ or ‘of old age’. Some people they save, end up knowing who they were saved by. Most of them become Knights themselves, others choose not to. But the White Knights – as the Elder cultists call themselves – cannot leave anyone running loose with their secrets. Especially if you can still be valuable to them. Then you are tied to them for the rest of your life, doing odd jobs for them occasionally, or even be permanently employed by them, whether it’s your own choice or not.”
“If you hate it so much, why didn’t you join them instead?” She had been listening to him keenly and had not sipped once from the can he had given her. They were sitting in his office alone, Audrye had left for the Knights’ Mansion as soon as she heard that one of them had been severely injured by the Pyro cultists and Alex was somewhere downstairs. Probably playing PS3, by the sound of it.
“Do you really see me as a superhero? Killing rival cultists in showdowns? Risking my neck for some innocent?” He cocked his head and almost sounded amused.
“You give yourself too little credit,V. True, I don’t really see you running around with guns blazing, but you do help people”, she replied softly.
“And that’s it, “help”. It doesn’t count as saving them.” Like when Audrye got hit by a roadrager cultist. He had tried to help her, or get help to her, but it had been Weston-Pryce who had tried to actually save her. He had failed as well, but at least he had been there, in person.
“I’m stuck being who I am. I work for the Supreme Commander directly and he is a man who doesn’t know what ‘impossible’ means. I think ‘overtime’ and ‘sleep’ are also words he’s missing from his dictionary. I spent the whole last night coding algorithms to predict the movements of a rival Death God Syndicate leader. And considering that this is the most unpredictable of all Gods, save only Mysterium himself, I had to use some serious loopholes, filled with every ounce of magic I could muster. But does the boss appreciate? Or even care? No! He is only concerned that it will take a long time until the algorithm eventually picks up Trauma’s tail. He wanted results immediately, and that makes me a failure.”
Emma had been nodding along to his ranting, but something had caught her attention.
“Wait! What? Magic? You too!”
“It’s nothing special”, he replied, his voice revealing how proud he was of this actually rather special feat. It usually needed a contact with a Death God and becoming a cultist to tap into one’s magical abilities, but he had managed to find a way on his own, making him the only true wizard on the planet.
“You didn’t think I was way ahead of everyone else in the software business simply because I was smarter and quicker with the keyboard, did you? I cheat. My coding is glued together by magic, that’s why it works like a bloody charm”, he chuckled at his own lame pun.
“Did you use magic on me?” Emma’s voice was flat. Her hazel eyes demanded an answer from him. He lowered his head, not daring to look at her. He felt a bit ashamed.
“Yes”, he said after a long silence, “Technology is not far enough to attach human nerve ends to microfiber yet. The basic processor, GPS; bluetooth… all the stuff in your wrist basically, also the motion sensors in themselves, they’re all old-fashioned binary. But the sensory ends that allow you to feel… They’re a bit more than that.”
Emma was leaning forward in her chair, her elbows on her knees, watching silently as she moved the fingers of her left hand. They closed slowly to a fist, opened again on finger at a time. They watches as if it was a puppeteer’s show, where someone was pulling the strings, making the fingers move on their own. If one didn’t know better they wouldn’t have guessed there was anything special under that leather glove.
“I guess that makes me somewhat special…. afterall”, she finally whispered.
“You’re right. We haven’t made anything like that before or after. You are amazingly lucky that your doctor knew Quentin and asked her to fix you with a prostetic arm. Though I think that even he didn’t anticipate just what kind of an arm that mad scientist woman would blueprint. Or that she’d have someone like me to call when she needed the software to make it function.”
“Don’t tell me that the Knights haven’t used this on anyone else! You’d make a fortune! Or is there something wrong with it? Is it going to kill me within a few years or something? Kill me in my sleep after it develops a conscious mind of its own?”
“Don’t be stupid. It’s going to work just fine. We can even upgrade it from time to time, if you feel the need. Add in more sensors, to make it more life-like. Or a beam cannon, whatever”", he shrugged.
“The Knights don’t really know about it. Well, they’re bound to know about it if you continue to associate with them. But you were a moonlight project for Quentin and I. We wanted to help someone outside the orders, on our own.”
“A project.” Again, Nigel would have thought that the word would have been said offended, but Emma was like feeling the taste of it in her mouth. She didn’t yet know what to think of it. Perhaps that was why she tackled another question first.
“So if go with them, your project will be found out. Will that get you into trouble?”
“Likely, but I can deal with. I’m indispensable”, he spat out like he had a bad taste on his tongue.
“Well, do I have choice now? Either become a Knight or a Grigor.”
“I beg of you, don’t think of being a Grigor as an option. You don’t take orders too well as it is and you’d never be free. I’d think the Knights to find you too valuable to let run wild.” He left out that it’d be mostly because of the project. She’d know it without saying it aloud and even he had that much tact.
“But if you wish, I can do everything in my power to let you escape. I can erase you from every record, give you a new life and throw them off your scent.”
“I believe there’s a catch there.” He nodded.
“You’d have to leave everything behind. No contact to anyone you know. Live in secrecy, as secluded as you can.” Seeing her startled face he raised his hands in a defensive manner.
“I can transfer your assets to a new account, don’t worry about the money.” She immediately seemed more relaxed.
“But you’d have to rebuild your reputation starting from scratch, with a new name”, he continued. A sound from downstairs reminded him of another thing he should probably mention just in case: “Oh, and you’ll never get to see your darling nephew ever again. Or Weston-Pryce for that matter.”
She smiled wryly.
“So I just need to decide between myself and the people I care about, eh? Thank you for giving me such a simple solution, V.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I need to see Alex safe first. I’m not sure these arsonists have given up on him just yet. I’ll call Daniel tomorrow, meet his boss – don’t worry I’m not going to put my arm on the table! – and see what exactly they have to offer. I don’t know… It might be good time to settle down, live close to my family and all that. I’ll have to think about it.”
“I’ll wait for your decision”, he said solemnly.
“Anyways, I don’t think Weston-Pryce will need to be followed anymore. I’ll keep an eye on him just in case though.”
“So will I”, she said with a conspiratory wink the meaning of which completely missed him.