The warehouse was quiet, in a neighborhood that looked abandoned. Chicago had fared better than almost any major city in the madness, from what I’d heard, but it hadn’t been totally unfazed by things. Although I supposed it was also possible that this was just the product of standard urban decay, without any need for magic and monsters. The weeds growing through the sidewalks, the bricks in the buildings across the street beginning to crumble…there were numerous signs pointing to this area having been at best depressed since long before the world went to pieces.
No other cars around, Snowflake reported, moving back into sight after circling the building. And the windows are all blocked with blackout curtains.
Not necessarily suspicious, all things considered, I said back, walking up to the door. These people have some very good reasons to not want anyone to realize they’re here.
Think I’m still going to assume that they want to kill us all, she said.
I snorted. Well, duh. Let me know if anyone comes in after us?
Yep, she said, slinking off into an alley.
I smiled grimly and opened the door. Having Snowflake around wasn’t anything like perfect insurance, and there was still a very good chance that things would go horribly wrong. She knew that at least as well as I did. But making the attempt made both of us feel better, if nothing else.
Aiko rested her fingers on my arm as we walked in, more for style points than anything else. Given that we were both fully encased in armor, the image was probably more than slightly peculiar. Inside, the warehouse had been partitioned out into multiple rooms. The first room inside was a sort of foyer, a transitional space between the outside world and the building’s interior. The door was open and we strutted inside without hesitating. Hesitation could easily be seen as weakness, and given that we were quite literally walking into a meeting of monsters and predators, weakness could easily become death.
The next room was fairly large, and hollow. I wasn’t sure what purpose it had once served, but it had been gutted, left as nothing more than an open space defined by open floor and empty walls, concrete and brick without decoration of any kind.
I was a little surprised at how informal the setup was. There were a couple dozen small tables around the edges of the room, with one or two people sitting at each. The only one I recognized was Conn, sitting at a square table on the other side of the room. He was wearing a suit so black it made his hair look pale, and for once he seemed exactly like what he was. Just sitting there, not even looking in my direction, his sheer presence was so imposing that it was hard to keep from staring at the floor in reaction.
Other than that, there were a wide variety of things in that room. There were a couple of werewolves; I didn’t know them, but the day I couldn’t recognize a werewolf when I smelled one, they could put me to bed in a hole.
A couple were shapeshifters, mages who had a talent for magics of flesh and bone, artists that used their own bodies as the canvas; I could smell it on them. One looked and smelled like a kitsune. Another had a distinctly fae scent about it, and its face moved strangely, like a mask that wasn’t quite attached to the face underneath.
Most of the rest, though, I couldn’t have put a name to if my life depended upon it. I was guessing most of them could eat me, though. That seemed like a safe bet here.
I didn’t want to let them see me flinch, though. Confidence was nine-tenths of what was needed here. The Pack had always attracted mostly predators, and predators had some common traits. One of the big ones was that when they went hunting they wanted a meal, not a fight. If they got the idea that you were easy prey they’d be on you like white on rice. It was much, much safer to seem like an arrogant jackass than to give them any reason to think that you were weak.
So, while I was probably supposed to stand in the open space in the middle of the room, I walked straight to one of the tables on the periphery and sat down. There were plenty of empty ones; these people valued personal space, to the degree that they left four or five times as much room between themselves as they needed.
They couldn’t see my face—unless they could see through metal, I supposed, which a couple of them might actually be able to do. Either way, I was smiling behind the mask, a broad grin like I owned the place and I dared anyone to tell me otherwise.
“Hi,” I said, leaning back in my chair as Aiko lounged in the one next to me. “Anyone mind moving this along? I’ve got things to do.”
“As do we all,” a slender Central American man said.
“Agreed,” one of the werewolves said. Not Conn; this one was female, and sounded French, though her English was very, very good. “Moving along, then. You killed a member of this Pack.”
“With cause,” I replied. “Very good cause.”
“Be that as it may,” a shapeshifter said. He had a thicker accent than the werewolf, something Middle Eastern. “We survive because we are pack, and not each alone, yes? We must stand together. Now more than ever.”
“Well, then somebody should have told him that,” I said, exasperated. “The guy tried to kill me three or four times, at least. He called up an army of demons to lay waste to my territory. I’m telling you, polite conversation wasn’t going to get anywhere with him.”
“He has a point,” Conn said. “He’s got a right to defend his territory.”
“You’re biased, Conn,” the French werewolf said, not unkindly. “The boy’s practically your kid.” She paused, turning her attention back to me. “Normally, that would be a valid point,” she said. “But this situation is an unusual one. More than any other point in recorded history, we cannot afford any weakness now, and the man you killed was a powerful asset. You should have sought some means of peaceful resolution, rather than killing him.”
I gritted my teeth. “You’re not hearing me,” I said. “He was evil, and that is not a word that I use lightly. He was messed up on a level that puts me to shame, which is not something that I can say about many people. Peaceful negotiation was not going to get me anywhere with him. Nonlethal measures were not going to work with him. Literally any means I had to plausibly resolve the problem entailed permanently removing him.”
“I can vouch for that,” another woman said. She drawled the words, lingering over the vowels like she didn’t want to let them end. “He was not a man to be swayed once he had settled his mind. Having decided to set himself against our young friend, he would have broken any agreement to the contrary that he made.”
I opened my mouth to thank her for backing me up, then paused. As nice as it was, it was also a little…odd. I supposed it was technically possible that she had risen high enough in the world to be at this meeting while still being nice enough to help a total stranger out of the goodness of her heart. Possible. But not likely.
I only had to consider her for a moment to figure out what was going on. Her appearance was similar to the Middle Eastern guy, broadly speaking, with tanned skin and dark hair. But she had startlingly orange eyes, an intense orange color that looked more like a pigeon’s eyes than anything that belonged in a human face. And she was wearing a coat that looked like it had been made from a wolf’s pelt.
I’m not that fond of math, but I can add two and two and come up with the right number. I was pretty sure I knew exactly what the story was here, or at least close enough for my purposes.
There was no sense in taking a needless risk, though, so I focused on the magic in the room for a moment, trying to get a feel for hers. It was hard to get an accurate read on things with so many competing auras in the room, but I managed to taste the edges of her power, enough to get some idea of what it was. There were smells of death, blood and sweat, and a hint of something more chemical, formaldehyde and alcohol. The scent was awful, nauseating, and strangely fascinating.
Good enough. It wasn’t quite the same—a more clinical, removed sort of awful, preservation rather than decay—but it was close enough.
“And how would you know that?” I asked her. It had only taken a couple of seconds for me to sort things out. Long for a casual pause, but not ridiculously so.
The skinwalker smiled at me. Her teeth were very even and very, very white. “We knew each other as children,” she said. “A long, long time ago. We were friends once. We’d drifted apart since then, but I know what sort of a man he was.”
“I see,” I said. “I suppose I should apologize for killing your friend, then.”
I didn’t actually apologize, though. I regretted a lot of things, but chopping that bastard’s head off was one of the few things in my life that I had no regrets about at all. I couldn’t think of any apology I could give that wouldn’t require me to lie through my teeth, and lying here was a bad idea. Considering the people I was surrounded by, I was nearly guaranteed to be caught.
“Don’t worry about it,” the skinwalker said with a casual, charming smile. “You saved me the trouble of doing it myself.”
She was already pretty high on the creepy scale, just by dint of her nature. I’d seen enough out of the last skinwalker to have a healthy fear of the breed.
But that line bumped her a few notches along, both what she said and the delivery. Even Aiko stared at her for a couple of seconds, her posture suggesting that she wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or terrified, and was settling on half of each.
“Okay,” I said, once I was confident I could do so without embarrassing myself. “So, again in the interest of moving things along, does anyone have anything else to add to this? Because from where I’m standing, it seems like we’ve pretty much covered everything. I killed him, nobody’s arguing that. I also had cause, which again, nobody’s arguing that point. If your concern is that I’m a liability to the Pack as a whole, all I can really do is say that I’ve got no intention of killing anyone from the Pack. We won’t have any trouble unless you start it, and even then I won’t kill you unless I don’t have any other way of resolving things.”
“And we are to take your word for this?” someone asked. A werewolf, I thought, but not one that had spoken so far.
“Yeah,” I said. “I think I’ve earned some credit, here. I’ve helped the Pack in the past. I’ve gone out on a limb for you, and I’ve never really asked anything in return.”
“That’s true,” Conn said. “He’s helped me take care of some problems before. And even know, he’s been helping the werewolves around his territory. Establishing political connections and alliances.”
“So he helps werewolves,” the kitsune said. “Why should the rest of us care?”
Before anyone could respond to that, Aiko rattled off something in Japanese. I had no idea what she was saying, but from the expressions on some of the faces I could see, it was worth hearing. Maybe I could get her to repeat it for me later.
He opened his mouth, but Aiko just kept going, talking right over him. She ranted at him in Japanese for a solid minute, while those who knew what she was saying got increasingly amusing looks on their faces.
When she finally fell silent, still glaring at him from behind the mask of her helmet, the silence was resounding. “Objection withdrawn,” the other kitsune said after a couple of seconds, his voice choked.
“Anyone else feeling a need to officially discipline the jarl?” Conn asked.
Winter? Snowflake said a moment later in the back of my mind. There’s something odd…oh shit!
And then the building blew up.