Edhem Blackburn stepped down from the railing onto the balcony and straightened, pulling the leather owl-mask from his face. The feathers were wilted, the leather worn and almost scorched; he wouldn't be able to use it again. He tucked it into the pocket of the long coat that had, until moments ago, been part of his wings; he'd need to put it to rest properly when he got the chance.
As far as he could tell, this was the last apartment that Jack Grey and his wife/assistant Valeria had rented. It was dark and empty now, but Edhem had been able to see in the dark for as long as he could remember; it was one of the things that had brought him to his master's attention. The balcony let into the living area, which was as typical as he could imagine: a couch against one wall, flat-screen TV mounted on the wall opposite, a couple of advertising posters framed on the wall to his right.
He stopped and studied them. This was definitely the right place; the odds that he'd somehow broken into the apartment of a random Stan of the Magical Mister Grey were absurdly slim. So, then...
The bedroom was black enough that even his night vision needed help; he found the lighter in his pocket and called up a small flame with it. There should have been light from a window, but somebody had tacked blackout cloth over it. The bed was unmade, but from the look of it not recently used; there was a deck of cards on the chest of drawers that sat opposite the foot of the bed.
There, thought Edhem, and stepped forward to take them.
He moved back to the living area, which was more or less the center of the apartment, and sat down with his legs spread in a diamond shape, the soles of his feet pressed together. He leaned forward and set the cards across from him, then drew his master's deck from its place on his belt.
The cards were old, and stiff as he shuffled them; he kept his movements gentle, sensing their resistance. The deck was still in mourning, grief-stricken and resentful, but it moved beneath his fingers anyway; it knew him, and at least acknowledged his presence. Edhem was grateful for that; the cards might have chosen not to, and he didn't have an alternate set to turn to.
When the sorting felt right, he dropped them back into their case. Then he pulled the small knife from his pocket, flicked it open, and drew his sleeve back to cut his arm. He placed his thumb against the wound, then pressed a print of the drawn blood against The Magical Mister Grey's deck of cards, and then touched the blood again and laid a matching print on the face of his master's deck. The blood dried and disappeared, and he drew the first card.
It was Battle, the one his master had said represented a conflict involving violence from multiple sides. That alone suggested that Ciaron hadn't murdered Jack and Valeria; his former brother in the blood had always worked alone. He'd made no secret of the fact that he viewed cooperation as a form of weakness.
The next card was Distance, an image of an open landscape that required a far more nuanced interpretation but in this case probably meant that the battle that had finished Jack and his assistant had taken place somewhere else. It would be a mistake to assign a more specific meaning; the cards hadn't been ready to respond to another's hand, and while they wouldn't lie outright they didn't pretend to like him.
He had his hand on the next card when a soft voice said, "What is this you do?"
Edhem went still. He was used to being unnoticed, and would have sworn the apartment was empty. After a moment he said, "I'm asking the cards what happened to the people who lived here. Who are you?" He looked around. "Where are you?"
Ignoring his questions, the soft voice asked: "What do you see?"
Edhem remained still for a long moment; then he shrugged. "Death, I think. For Jack Grey, a fight that he didn't survive. I'm not sure about Valeria."
"Taken," said the voice. He still wasn't sure of its source, only that it was still here in the room with him. "Given what she needs, perhaps, except for the time to grieve."
"I hope not," said Edhem. "They seemed very devoted to each other. And Jack was... remarkably talented. It was almost enough to make someone believe in real magic."
A shadowy figure swept Jack's old deck of cards aside and seated itself on the floor opposite Edhem. "And you, doing this, do not? What brings you here, truly?"
Edhem started to lift his gaze, then thought the better of it. There were stronger and stranger things than sorcery in this world; he supposed he shouldn't be surprised to find that Jack had somehow been involved with them. Picking up the cards on the floor, he tucked them back into his master's deck; the reading was finished, regardless of what happened next. "You don't think that hearing that Jack and Valeria had disappeared was enough? The word is all over the scene, though I'll grant you it's not a large scene."
"What scene would that be?" The voice was... unearthly. He couldn't even decide if it was male or female. More than anything else, it sounded... unpracticed. Unused.
"Stage magic." Edhem slid his master's deck back into his belt, then reached across to another pouch and pulled out the small handmade book he kept there. He flipped it open, found the page he wanted, and laid a finger on it. He kept his thumb back; there was still blood on the tip, and he didn't want that to touch the page just yet.
"I see," said the figure. "You are a part of this scene, and you came to uncover what happened to him."
Edhem nodded, still not looking up. He wasn't sure why it was such a bad idea, but he was certain down to his bones that it was. "I came to see if it was done by someone who tried to kill me -- someone who might be killing magicians."
There was a long pause in the darkness. "Even so, you came to see how he died. And you know it was by violence, and not here."
Edhem nodded reluctantly.
"I, too, would learn more of this. One of my... grandchildren... was affected by it. He mourns, and I find that his grief affects me." The figure shifted, then extended its own hand of cards -- but these were business cards, not playing cards. "In the week before he died, there were some people he met. I think you should meet with them."
Edhem pressed his index finger against the back of the page, preparing to tear it free and touch his bloody thumb to it. He doubted it would kill whoever was sitting across from him, but it might hurt them -- at least long enough for him to get away. And he was absolutely certain he'd need to be well away from them. "That sounds spectacularly dangerous."
"Doesn't it? But these people weren't his enemies. Given time, they might even have been his friends." A pale hand laid the cards on the floor between them, and then the voice said: "Look at me."
The commanding tone riled him, but curiosity overrode his irritation; Edhem looked up, and found himself staring at a face of inhuman beauty, cold and clean and pale, with deep blue eyes against white skin beneath sandy blond hair. Its eyes went strange as he met them: "You will take the cards. You will go these people. You will find out what they know. And you will forget that you ever saw me."
Edhem blinked. "...Yes, Maybe, We'll see, and No. In pretty much that order."
The inhuman figure blinked and drew back, a startled marble statue. "You are..."
"Mine is the old blood. I'm pretty fucking sure you can kill me without breaking a sweat, but I am not yours to command." And there it was: the same pride that had led him to believe what his teacher had said about him, the same pride that had led Ciaran to betray them, and the same pride that was almost certainly going to get him killed in the space of his next breath. He'd die with some degree of dignity, at least, but now that the words were spoken he wasn't sure that was a particularly good trade.
The figure was still for the space of a breath, then another, and then another. When it finally moved to resettle itself, the change came as a shock; somehow, Edhem had almost forgotten it wasn't a statue. "Take the cards," it said, and this time its voice was normal. "If you are curious. If you are brave. I will... watch over you."
"In a good way, or a bad way?" asked Edhem.
"I am not certain," the thing replied, "that either of us could truly answer that. Nevertheless, it will be so."
Edhem blinked, then blinked again. "And if I decide that Jack's death had nothing to do with my enemy, and return to hunting him instead?"
"Then I will watch as you do that, and we will see what will be."
Edhem drew a deep breath and held it, then closed his eyes. "Do as you will. I don't believe I can stop you." He was still half-certain he was going to die, though his master's cards lay quiescent in his belt and they would surely have warned him if this thing was actually going to kill him. He let his breath out, then opened his eyes.
The pallid figure was gone.
"Son of a bitch," he said absently, and gathered up the business cards from the floor.