Philadelphia smelled wet.
I knew that was in my head, most likely. The city wasn’t even technically coastal; the port was on the river, not on the ocean. But that was still the first impression I got after stepping out of the portal that one of my hired mages had opened for us. It smelled wet.
A small swarm of minions followed me out, leaving the alleyway packed with semiconscious forms. There were a few giants, a few ghouls, a couple of mages who specialized in things that were useful at the moment. I hadn’t brought the snipers, for reasons that were more political than practical. I was hoping to come up with some local assistance by framing this as, essentially, a human-nonhuman conflict. That meant that for once I was better off by seeming as inhuman as possible.
Which was…well, it shouldn’t give me too much trouble at this point. But it did mean that having plain human soldiers with me might be more problem than benefit.
Selene, being Selene, had already made arrangements for me to meet with two important people in the city. One of them was the Alpha of the local werewolf pack, a man called Elijah Carpenter. It should be fairly easy to convince him, I thought–this group had, after all, been attacking werewolves around the world, even going so far as to attack a high-level Pack meeting. I was counting on that to do most of the persuasion for me, and counting on his wolves to provide the bulk that I would normally have in the form of human mercenaries and werewolves.
The other was…well, something else. None of the people we’d talked to had really been able to provide any better picture than that. Antonio–no last name given–had gone out of his way to be an enigma, to leave people without a clear understanding of what he was or what he could do. Apparently he’d walked into town about ten years ago, taken out a handful of the midgrade powers in the city, and consolidated their territory into a fiefdom for himself. Since then he’d held it against all contenders, more or less by himself.
I was…not looking forward to that meeting. Nobody got that powerful while also being that mysterious unless they really went out of their way to stay mysterious, and nobody did that without some kind of a reason. It was, on the whole, ominous. To say the least.
I was supposed to be meeting with the werewolf first, though, which meant that I could at least put that off a little longer.
There was a guy in the alley when we showed up, apparently a homeless dude that lived there. He stared, and then I stared back, and he got up and started backing away slowly. He made it around five feet before he turned and bolted.
I let him go. Why not? It wasn’t like anyone would believe him. And even if they did, so what? This stuff wasn’t a secret anymore. The normal people still didn’t know about it, but it wasn’t really secret. I couldn’t get in trouble because someone saw something they weren’t supposed to.
I put on a more human appearance while the others were waking up and getting their bearings, since wandering around the city without it would probably attract a bit too much of the wrong kind of attention.
I didn’t bother with trying to figure out where we were within the city, or keep track of where we were going. Elijah had sent a driver to pick us up, as part of the arrangement Selene had made, and he presumably knew his way around the city well enough that I really didn’t need to worry about it.
Like most of the werewolves I’d been around, the Philadelphia kept a large van on hand for just such occasions. It takes a lot of cargo space to haul a bunch of werewolves in fur, and while it’s not often necessary, it’s worth keeping something on hand just in case.
This one, which was illegally parked in front of the alley entrance, was a little more obviously sketchy than most. It was painted solid black, and rather than tinted windows, it had gotten around the issue of someone looking inside and seeing something they weren’t supposed to by having no windows beyond those that were strictly necessary for driving.
The driver didn’t do much to mitigate that impression. He was leaning against the van, and everything about his appearance gave off a very clear “societal reject” image, from the piercings in his face to the leather jacket and combat boots. All of which was, of course, fairly mainstream these days, but he managed to wear them in a way that evoked the times when someone looking like that was practically imprisoned on sight.
“You’d be Winter, then?” he said. He tossed a casual, almost mocking salute my way. “Nice to meetcha. What are you here to talk to the boss about?”
I stood there silently for a few seconds as the minions opened the van and started climbing into the back. The seats had been removed to leave a large, open cargo space; it would be a squeeze to get them all in, but not impossible. I was fairly confident that it was technically illegal to have them riding like that, but as usual, that just wasn’t something that we really cared about, necessarily.
“War,” I said at last.
The driver looked like he was about to make a joke. Then he met my eyes, and any trace of laughter died. He gave me a jerky nod, and got in the driver’s seat. I got in the other side, and once everyone was more-or-less secure in back, he started driving.
I didn’t say anything on the way to the meeting. There was nothing to say.
Most of the packs that I knew held their meetings in a large house or mansion. Territory was important for werewolves, and having a consistent location to act as the center of that territory mattered. It made it easier to focus those instincts and keep them from being a problem in daily life elsewhere.
Philadelphia, though, was a bit more of a major, old city than anywhere I’d lived, and property prices were correspondingly high. The pack here was also a little bit more…aboveboard than most that I’d seen. Between the two, the center of the pack territory here wasn’t a house. It was an office building, and more specifically the third to seventh floors thereof. The corporation the pack used as their front for official finances owned the whole building, as I understood it, but that was the portion that they actually used as their own headquarters.
Most of the minions stayed outside. Only Kyi came up with me to the meeting. I figured she’d better be there for it, since if this worked out she’d be the one acting as my proxy later.
There were a handful of people in the lobby, including a receptionist and a few security guards–probably redundant, considering the nature of the building’s ownership, but I supposed he had to keep up appearances for the less informed occupants. Not a one of them batted an eye as we walked through to the private elevator. Presumably, our guide was known here.
He was not, however, so well known as to actually be a part of the meeting. He showed us to a conference room on the third floor, but didn’t actually follow us in.
I would have been just fine staying outside with him, all things considered. But that wasn’t exactly an option, so I took a deep breath to remind myself that breathing was good, and went inside.
The conference room was…really, really nice. Not, like, otherworldly nice, but it was well appointed. Expensive furniture, some tasteful art on the walls. I was guessing it had cost several thousand dollars to decorate the room. Which, considering that it was used to host meetings of high-ranking business executives, made a fair amount of sense.
All of which, of course, paled in comparison to the people in it. Elijah Carpenter was no Conn, but he was still a werewolf Alpha, with all the meaning that carried. When you entered his conference room, he was what drew your eye. It was as inevitable as rocks falling when you dropped them.
He was, at least, more physically imposing than most such, making it easier for the uninformed to explain why he had such a presence. He was a tall man, lean almost to the point of looking drawn, wearing a suit that cost more than a lot of houses, with a neatly trimmed black beard and features that were just slightly too stern to call attractive.
“Elijah,” I said, inclining my head slightly and looking to the side. It was a very slight display of deference, the sort you might extend to an equal when you were in their home. Since that was, more or less, exactly the case, it seemed appropriate. “I’m glad you could find the time to meet with me.”
He was silent for a moment, then nodded. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said, extending his hand.
Elijah had a stronger grip than Aodh. Well, not really–a werewolf was not the match of a champion of the Sidhe. But he gripped my hand more tightly than Aodh had, trying to make a point out of it.
I squeezed back. Not as hard as I could, I wasn’t trying to hurt the man, but enough to make him very much aware of who the strongest person in the room was.
He was surprised. He covered it well, but I could tell. He was surprised that I was stronger than he was. And also, probably, at how very cold my “skin” was. I was guessing that he was currently trying to figure out just how badly misinformed he was.
Somehow, I didn’t think he was going to reach the right answers. It was hard when you were working from a wildly inaccurate starting point.
“Please, take a seat,” he said, letting go and pulling a chair out himself. I sat opposite him, with Kyi next to me.
He hadn’t come alone, either. There were two other guys there, both of whom smelled like werewolves. They were obviously minions, though, and I didn’t pay much attention to them. This was a meeting of me and Elijah; the rest were, essentially, window dressing.
“I’m sure you’re a busy man,” I said. “So I’ll get straight to the point. I presume you’re aware of the radical pro-human group which has been attacking werewolves recently?”
“You mean the Light of Reason?” he asked.
I stared for a second. “Is that really what they’re calling themselves?”
“Evidently,” he said. “They’ve published a few pamphlets, and some documents online. Mostly a poorly-edited mess of logical fallacies, political propaganda, and scripture taken out of context.”
“What the hell do they even call each other?” I asked. “Lighters?”
“You’re likely putting more thought into it than they did,” he said dryly.
“Probably,” I said, then shook my head. “Anyway, the point. I’ve got reason to believe the…Lighters have a major base in Philadelphia. Maybe their actual headquarters, maybe not, but either way a major center of activity.” On cue, Kyi pulled out a copy of the information we’d gleaned on the place and handed it to him. The people I’d hired had gotten more while Selene set these meetings up, and all of it continued to point at the same location.
“Interesting,” Elijah said, leafing through the papers. “You’re here in person rather than just sending me these. That suggests you’re planning to do something about this yourself, correct?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Figured I’d clear it with you first.”
His lips twitched. “Clear it with me,” he said. “Really?”
“It seemed polite to ask before I killed a bunch of people in your city.”
“Right,” he said dryly. “And that’s all? Let’s not beat around the bush, Winter. You’re looking for help, correct?”
“You do have the numbers,” I said. “And you’re familiar with the city. I’m not. I was hoping you might be willing to have some of your wolves watching the area. Keep civilians away, make sure none of them manage to slip out, that sort of thing.”
“It’s werewolves they’ve been killing,” Elijah said. There was an undertone of anger in his voice, a very quiet and very intense current of rage. The other werewolves edged away from him slightly, without probably realizing it, and even Kyi looked like she wanted to cringe. “My people may want to take a more…active role in this.”
“If your people go in there, they’ll be massacred,” I said bluntly. “Think about it. The Lighters have a hate on for everyone that isn’t purely human, but like you said, it’s werewolves they’ve been killing. They’ll be ready for werewolves.”
“And they won’t be ready for you?” he asked skeptically.
“No,” I said quietly. “They won’t. They really, really won’t be.” I met his eyes for the first time.
I looked away first. I had to; he was the Alpha here, and making him lose face in front of his minions was an excellent way to lose any chance of gaining an ally I might have had.
But when I did look away, he was clearly a bit relieved. “It’s good tactics,” he said. “I’ll be going in with you, though.”
“Of course,” I said. It was, again, a status thing. The Alpha faced things head-on. It was a necessity of the role. “I have equipment if you need it. Rifles and such. Other than that, I can meet you there in an hour or so.”
“That long?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve got…another appointment first.”
My next meeting was in…well, it was a very different neighborhood. Very different.
The werewolves, in Philadelphia, made their home in the nice part of town. They were in Center City, the business district, downtown. Their reach extended beyond that, of course, but that was the seat of their power. Or, at least, of the pack Selene had put me in contact with; there might be more than one, in a city the size of Philadelphia. I’d never really cared enough to check.
This was northeast of that, and it wasn’t the nice part of town. It was, to put it bluntly, a slum. It looked like the sort of place where you’d be justifiably afraid to go outside after dark, where a stranger might stab you just to take your shoes. A girl who looked like she couldn’t be much more than sixteen was turning tricks on the corner, a dog with a bit of ribbon around her neck sitting on the sidewalk beside her. The dog had a festering sore on her face, and a quick glimpse of her mind suggested that she was in constant pain, hungry and cold.
A quick glance sent a couple housecarls her way. It was, in some ways, a silly gesture. I couldn’t save every homeless kid with a dog. I knew that.
But hell. I could maybe save this one. And it made me feel better.
Our destination, here, was an industrial complex that had ceased to be industrial without actually becoming anything else. It looked like it had been sitting empty for a long time now–years, at least. This hadn’t been a good neighborhood even before the world went to hell in a handbasket. I didn’t think it had gotten better since, although I wasn’t sure it had really gotten worse either. More open about it, maybe.
The gate was padlocked shut, and it looked genuinely abandoned. Between the two, I wasn’t entirely sure this was the right place, but it matched the address, so I popped the lock and went into the yard.
The yard area also looked abandoned, the large overhead doors locked and rusted shut. One of the smaller, personnel doors was open, though, and there was a light on inside.
I glanced at Kyi, then shrugged and went in, once again leaving the rest of the minions to wait outside. One of the housecarls already had a flask out before we’d climbed the few steps up to the door.
There was a dim light on just inside the door, and I could see another down the hall. At the end of the hall, I could see more light coming from around the corner. Each pool of light was just barely in contact with the next, forming a sort of corridor. Outside of that corridor, in the rooms and even at the edges of the hallways, it was pitch dark.
The darkness held no terror for me. It had never been much of a problem, and with what I was now, it was none.
This darkness, though, felt more real, like something more than just an absence of light. There was a presence to it, and not, I instinctively knew, something that I had dominion over by virtue of my new role. I got the distinct impression that, champion of Midnight or not, I would be wise not to look too closely at the shadows here, or to stray from the lit path.
Following that lit path led us through what had once been the public areas, down a rather meandering route, and out onto what had once been the assembly line of the factory. It had been gutted, all the machinery hauled out to leave an enormous open space.
I was only dimly aware of that, mostly through my perception of how the air moved. It was dark here, too. Low ground lighting of the sort they used in theaters formed a dimly-lit path out into the middle of the room, where a spotlight shone down from the ceiling to illuminate the person we were here to meet.
He looked human, though I had my doubts as to the accuracy of that impression. He smelled mostly human, but there was a trace of something else in his power, something darker. I wasn’t quite sure what it might be–it was too subtle, too fleeting, to really identify–but I got the distinct impression that calling Antonio human was, at best, an incomplete statement.
There were a handful of people standing in the pool of light with him. But it only took me a moment to realize that they were…even less significant than the other werewolves with Elijah had been. Those had been minions; these were puppets. There was a blankness to their expressions, a total lack of any response as we approached, that gave it away. I wasn’t sure whether it was drugs or magic or something else entirely, wasn’t sure whether it was temporary or permanent. But what I was sure of was that these people were…barely even people.
Antonio himself was lounging on a throne that looked to have been assembled out of bits of machinery and scrap metal. It should have been hideously uncomfortable, but he looked as relaxed as a cat on a warm blanket.
He didn’t look our way at all until we were at the edge of the pool of light from the spotlight, at which point he pushed himself upright in his throne. “Winter!” he said cordially. “So glad you could make it. I’ve been wanting to meet you for years, you know, it just never worked out.”
That gave me a moment’s pause. “You…wanted to meet me?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “You’re…well, quite an interesting person, by all accounts. And we are, after all, in somewhat similar lines of work. Though you claimed a whole damn city for your piece, and made it stick. Huge respect for that, by the way. I have a decent idea of how difficult that would be.”
“It sounds like you did something similar here,” I said. “From the account I heard, at least.”
“Not entirely dissimilar, yes,” he agreed. “But I only claimed a small piece of the city. Just one neighborhood, really. I’m not nearly so ambitious as you are.”
“But you’re ambitious enough. And I’ve heard about some of the people that tried to take this neighborhood. You managed to stop them all. Without, from what my sources said, even needing anyone else’s help.”
He smiled. His teeth were very white, and very even. “It seems we both know something about each other,” he said. “That makes it easier. For instance, I happen to know that you’re currently on the warpath.”
“How’d you find that out?” I asked, genuinely curious.
Antonio scoffed. “Winter, please. You’re not the only one who makes a point of keeping up on current events. Word gets out. Word always gets out. Now, why don’t you tell me how being on the warpath led you out here.”
“You’re familiar with the Light of Reason?”
“The extremist group?” he asked distastefully. “I’ve heard of them, yes.”
“They’re the ones I’m after currently,” I said. “And they’ve got a major base in Philadelphia that I intend to clear out.”
“Why are you after them?” he asked. “They seem a little…small-fry for you.”
“I’ve got a personal grievance against them,” I said, carefully leaving out any mention of things summoned from beyond the limits of reality.
He smiled again, a little wider. “Oh? Do tell.”
I considered for a moment, then shrugged. The direct approach had usually ended best for me. Or, more accurately, everything else tended to end so poorly that the direct approach looked good by comparison.
“They killed me,” I said simply.
“You seem remarkably alive for a dead man,” he commented.
“It didn’t take. But it still left me rather annoyed.”
“I know the feeling,” Antonio said. “But really. Why are you telling me this?”
“It occurs to me,” I said, “that someone of your obvious abilities could be of considerable assistance in clearing out the Lighters. And you know this city a hell of a lot better than I do.”
His lips twitched. “That I do. But why should I assist you?”
“Self-interest,” I said promptly. “Think about it. Do you really think that they won’t try to take you down eventually?”
“So your answer is that I should fight now to avoid a fight later,” he said dryly. “Seems a bit…counterproductive.”
“Now you have me to help,” I pointed out. “And besides. An infestation is always easiest to dig out before it puts in roots.”
Antonio considered that for a long moment, during which time I noticed that all of the people-puppets were breathing in sync. Exactly. And they were all in time with him.
Well, that ruled out pretty much anything other than magic that I could think of.
“I’ll do it,” he said at last. “On one condition. After we’re done, you’ll answer one question for me.”
“I know a lot of things that I’m not permitted to share,” I said.
“That’s fine,” Antonio said. “If the answer touches on any of those, you can just tell me, and I’ll ask something else.”
“You aren’t concerned I’ll just keep putting it off indefinitely?”
“No. You have a reputation for dealing honestly, Winter. You keep your deals. I don’t think you’d risk that reputation to get out of answering one question.”
I nodded. “True. All right, then. Deal. You need the address?”
“No,” he said. “I know where to go. Run along, now. I’ve got…arrangements to make before we do this.”
I didn’t wait to be told twice.
Behind us, the lights went out one by one as we left them behind.