"You must be Edhem," said the woman, and he froze for just a moment, stunned.
The Crux Invertis was a very different place in the light of day; as different from his first visits as it must have been before the pandemic, with the night wrapped around it and a line of people waiting to get inside. He'd come looking to talk to the kids, picking a time when the owner Malachi seemed likely to be asleep; he hadn't expected to find a woman his own age opening the door, let alone a stunning redhead with amber-brown eyes and a scattering of freckles over the pale skin of her cheeks. He swallowed, and said: "I am."
"Malachi thought you might be back." The sun was pale on this overcast autumn day, but its touch didn't seem to bother her at all. "He didn't believe you were just a reporter, or a biographer, or whatever it was that you were trying to represent yourself as earlier."
Edhem swallowed, then turned his head just slightly as he studied her. "Forgive my surprise," he said. "Malachi didn't mention you at all." Her mask was flat black, solidly built, with an exhaust vent built into one side: the kind of thing people wore for mountain biking and the like.
"Shannon," she said, and put out a hand. "And while you still haven't really explained yourself, you're clearly not, as the kids say, 'from Social'. So come inside, and ask your questions; perhaps we can trade."
"I..." He was hesitating, he realized, because there was something in both her looks and the way she carried herself that really threw him off. Edhem was not, as a general thing, immediately attracted to much of anyone... but here he was. Which, based on my history, means there's at least a fifty-fifty chance that she's a lesbian. "All right. What would you like to know?"
Shannon chuckled. "Courteous," she observed, as she closed the door behind him. "Let's start with the obvious. I'm Malachi's: who do you belong to?"
Edhem stopped, noting that Dark was withdrawing through the far door of the club's antechamber but pretending not to notice. "For the moment, only myself. My master was Saladin El-Mohtar, until my brother killed him." He turned to look at Shannon, and found her studying him. "Does that serve?"
"I don't know that name," she said slowly, "and that doesn't quite tell me what I wanted to know, but it is an answer. All right: who sent you here?"
Edhem started to object, then realized that in confirming that he understood the rules of their game he'd asked a question of his own. "A mysterious figure who accosted me when I went to investigate Jack and Valeria's last apartment. Pale, otherworldly; they didn't offer a name."
"Ah," she said. "Old." She paused then, seeming to realize that she might have said more than she meant in just that single word. She turned towards the inner door, and led him through it, back into the mostly-empty club.
There were six teenagers scattered around the room: three girls, two boys, and Twilight. Dark was sitting at a table, apparently involved in a game of dominoes with the waifish girl Edhem had seen earlier and a black girl who looked to be a year or two older than either of them. Twilight was sitting with a petite boy, round-faced and slump-shouldered, at a bench along the wall; books and comics were scattered across the table in front of them. Another girl -- Korean, judging by her features -- was asleep on her side on another bench, wrapped in a heavy black duster.
Shannon nodded, catching Edhem's eye again, and said: "Your turn."
"Are the kids safe here?"
"Who are you calling kids?" growled Dark, half under his breath, as he scowled down at the dominoes in front of him.
Shannon glanced back at him. "Hush, you." She turned back to Edhem. "Safer here than anywhere else in Seattle, I suspect. You're asking if Malachi takes advantage of them? Or me? Or if I take advantage of them?"
Twilight stood up. "No." Their voice was firm. "I... actually appreciate your concern.. but no. Our safety isn't your business, and you should stay out of this."
Shannon started to say something, but Edhem held up a hand and turned to Twilight instead. "It actually kind of is," he said. "...Though not in the way you probably think. And you may be right that I should stay out of it, but if I do and something bad's going down here... I'm complicit. You understand?"
Twilight looked at Shannon, looked back at Edhem, and then sat down. "You'll forgive me if I have a hard time believing you."
Edhem kept looking at them. "I'd be surprised if you didn't." He turned back to Shannon. "So you say nobody's taking advantage of these... young adults... and they seem to agree. I think that makes it your turn to ask."
Shannon nodded slowly. "Are you a hunter?"
Edhem tilted his head, considering. "I'm not entirely sure I understand the context," he said after a moment, "but if I have to answer, I'd say that I am, when it's called for."
Shannon seemed to think that over, then nodded.
"How dangerous is Malachi?" asked Edhem.
"More dangerous than you," she answered, "though if you'll permit me to answer what I think you're really asking... not to you, or me, or any of these." She nodded to the teenagers around them.
"That does help," he said. "What else?"
"Do you fence?"
Edhem blinked, startled. "Yes." He remembered that it was now his turn to ask a question, and considered for a long moment. "Do you know anything about who sent me here?"
"No," answered Shannon. "But since we don't seem to be enemies, I'll make some guesses: Jack Grey belonged to... a clan of magicians. I'd guess that the one that recruited you was one of their elders, probably in his direct bloodline. I could make better guesses if you told me more, but I don't think that would be safe for either of us. So let it go at that."
Edhem nodded slowly. "That would make sense," he admitted. "Which makes it very definitely your turn. Ask what you will."
Shannon smiled. "Will you cross blades with me?" She tilted her head towards the stage, and Edhem noted that what he'd taken for speakers and suchlike at the edge of the stage was actually a pair of fencing masks, vests, and blades.
"...If you like," he said, and turned to cross between Twilight and their friend and an empty table. A short flight of steps led down to the dance floor that encircled the stage. He could feel the eyes of the teenagers on his back, but the weight wasn't hostile; they were unwillingly fascinated.
"Double-wide epees," he said, picking up a blade.
Shannon nodded. "I prefer them. Much closer to using an actual blade."
"All right." He set the blade back down, then picked up the vest and pulled it on. Beside him, Shannon did the same. They pulled on helmets, picked up epees, tested them and examined the rubber tips. After a moment, they both stepped out onto the dance floor.
Pounding drums flooded the space around them. Edhem looked around for a long moment before his eyes found the DJ booth, and he realized that Dark had stepped inside and put on The Eye of the Tiger -- ironically, judging by his expression, but it was still appropriate enough. Thump. Thump-thump-thump. Edhem chuckled behind his mask, and saluted Shannon. She returned the gesture, then settled herself.
The first pass was cautious: a touch of the blade, a flicker of feint-test-response before they withdrew. Then Edhem came in with a cautious lunge, and Shannon parried and riposted; Edhem withdrew before she could make contact. Shannon cracked her neck, and Edhem rolled his shoulders.
The exchange was longer this time: attack-parry-riposte-parry-counter-parry, and this time it was Shannon who stepped back and away before Edhem could follow up. He smiled, frustrated but intrigued, and set himself again.
"Not bad," Shannon said, weaving the tip of her epee through a figure eight. Edhem kept his eyes on her shoulders. "Can you deal with this?"
She came in suddenly, a lightning storm of probing attacks, and he fell back automatically, parrying as he could, overwhelmed by the inhuman speed of her thrusts. He was reacting by feel rather than sight, but she was still too fast; he lost track of where her blade was and knew he wouldn't be able to block whatever came next. Reflexively, he pulled himself up straight and thrust his blade directly out towards her center... and was rewarded when she lunged straight onto it. The metal flexed painfully, the tip bent to nearly a ninety-degree angle, but it held against the force of her advance.
"Son of a bitch!" she shouted, but she stepped back and saluted, and he returned the courtesy. She pulled her mask off and stepped forward, and he matched the gesture.
Gripping her hand, Edhem met her eyes. "That was amazing. I've never seen anybody move that fast." He thought he might have come close to it himself once or twice, but only with the help of his arts. Was Shannon doing something similar? Or did she have some other way of accessing that kind of speed?
She smiled behind her mask. "It was a good counter. I could see it coming, but I couldn't change direction."
"I..." he hesitated, then decided to press ahead. "Would you like to go get coffee somewhere? Maybe take it to a park, and talk about the things that aren't secrets?"
There was a brief hesitation, and then she grinned. "Are you kidding? If we weren't in the middle of a pandemic, I'd take you to bed right now."