nbsp; Blood and power, riches and strength, I can give you all that you—promised the next.
ALSO BY JIM BUTCHER
THE DRESDEN FILES
SIDE JOBS (Anthology)
THE CODEX ALERA
FURIES OF CALDERON
FIRST LORD’S FURY
A NOVEL OF THE DRESDEN FILES
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright © Jim Butcher, 2014
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA:
Skin game: a novel of the Dresden files/Jim Butcher.
1. Dresden, Harry (Fictitious character)—Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Also by JIM BUTCHER
For Lori, Julie, and Mom.
You guys really came through for me. Thank you.
There was a ticking time bomb inside my head and the one person I trusted to go in and get it out hadn’t shown up or spoken to me for more than a year.
That’s a lot of time to start asking yourself questions. Who am I? What have I done with my life?
Who can I trust?
That last one is a doozy. It haunts you in moments of doubt. Sometimes when you wake up at night, you wonder if you’ve put your faith in the right people. Sometimes when you find yourself alone, for whatever reason, you review every little thing you know about someone, searching your memory for small, subtle things that you may have missed about them.
It makes you scared. It makes you think that maybe you’ve made some horrible mistakes lately. It drives you to do something, to act—only when you’re stuck on an island in the middle of Lake Michigan, you’re kind of limited in your choices of exactly what you can do to blow off steam.
I’d gone with my usual option. I was running through long tunnels filled with demons and monsters and nightmares, because it was easier than going to the gym.
The tunnels were big, the size of some of the substreets beneath the city of Chicago, their walls made of earth and stone, wound through with things that looked like roots but could not possibly belong to any tree this deep in the earth. Every few yards, more or less at random, there was a mound of luminous pale green quartz crystals. Inside every crystal mound was a recumbent, shadowy form. Some of the mounds held figures no larger than a medium-sized dog. Some of them were the size of houses.
I had just finished climbing over one of the huge mounds and was sprinting toward the next, the first in a series of three mounds more or less the size of my deceased Volkswagen.
“Parkour!” I shouted, and leapt, hitting the top of the mound with my hands and vaulting over it. I landed on the far side, dropped into a forward roll over one shoulder, and came up running.
“Parkour!” I shouted at the next mound, putting one hand down as I leapt, using it to guide my body up to the horizontal at the same level as my head, clearing the next mound, landing, and staying on the move.
“Parkour!” I screamed again at the third, and simply dove over it in a long arc. The idea was to clear it, land on my hands, drop into a smooth roll, and come up running again, but it didn’t work out that way. I misjudged the dive, my foot caught a crystal, and I belly flopped and planted my face in the dirt on the far side of the mound.
I lay there on the ground for a moment, getting back the wind I’d knocked out of myself. Taking a fall wasn’t a big deal. God knows, I’ve done it enough. I rolled over onto my back and groaned. “Harry, you’ve got way too much time on your hands.”
My voice echoed through the tunnel, number seven of thirteen.
“Parkour,” said a distant echo.
I shook my head, pushed myself up, and started walking out. Walking through one of the tunnels beneath the island of Demonreach was always an experience. When I ran, I went by the mounds pretty quick.
When I walked, the prisoners trapped inside them had time to talk to me.
Let me fulfill your every desire, crooned a silken voice in my head as I went by one.
One day, mortal, I will be free and suck the marrow from your bones, snarled another.
Bow down in fear and horror before me!
Loathe me, let me devour you, and I will make real your dreams.
Release me or I will destroy you!
Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Sleep and let me inside you . . .
Bloodpaindeathbloodfleshbloodpaindeath . . .
BLARGLE SLORG NOTH HARGHLE FTHAGN!
I skirted around a fairly small mound whose occupant had simply sent me a mental picture that had kept me up for a couple of nights the last time I walked by, and passed one of the last mounds before the exit.
As I walked by, the mound’s occupant projected a mental sigh and an unmistakable image of a man rolling his eyes. Ah. A new one.
I paused and studied the mound. As a rule, I didn’t communicate with the prisoners. If you were locked up under Demonreach, you were a nightmare the likes of which few people could really understand—immortal, savage, and probably foaming-at-the-mouth, hair-on-fire crazy to boot.
But . . . I’d been locked up almost as well as the prisoners for months, trapped on the island and in the caverns beneath. There wasn’t a lot of choice. Until I got the thing in my head out again, only the island had the power to keep it in check. I had visitors sometimes, but the winter months were dangerous on Lake Michigan, both because of the weather and because of the ice, and spring had only barely begun to touch the world again. It had been a while since I’d seen anyone.
So I eyed the mound, one about the size of a coffin, and said, “What’s your problem?”
You, obviously, replied the occupant. Do you even know what the word stasis means? It means nothing is happening. You standing here, walking by, talking to me, for God’s sake, buggers that up entirely, the way you novices always do. What was the phrase? Ah, yes. Piss off.
I lifted my eyebrows. To date, every single prisoner who had tried to communicate with me had been pretty obviously playing to get out, or else howling nuts. This guy just sounded . . . British.
“Huh,” I said.
Did you hear me, Warden? Piss. Off.
I debated taking him literally, just to be a wiseass, but decided that body humor was beneath the dignity of a Wizard of the White Council and the Warden of Demonreach, thus disproving everyone who says I am nothing but an overgrown juvenile delinquent.
“Who are you?” I asked instead.
There was a long moment of silence. And then a thought filled with a terrible weariness and purely emotional anguish, like something I’d experienced only at the very lowest moments of my life, flowed into me—but for this being, such pain wasn’t a low point. It was a constant state. Someone who needs to be here. Go away, boy.
A rolling wave of nausea went through me. The air was suddenly too bright, the gentle glow of the crystals too piercing. I found myself taking several steps back from the mound, until that awful tide of feeling had receded, but the headache those emotions had triggered found me nonetheless, and I was abruptly in too much pain to keep my feet.
I dropped to one knee, clenching my teeth on a scream. The headaches had gotten steadily worse, and despite a lifetime of learning to cope with pain, despite the power of the mantle of the Winter Knight, they had begun kicking my ass thoroughly a few weeks before.
For a while, there was simply pain, and aching, racking nausea.
Eventually, that began to grow slowly less, and I looked up to see a hulking form in a dark cloak standing over me. It was ten or twelve feet tall, and built on the same scale as a massively muscled human, though I never really seemed to see much of the being beneath the cloak. It stared down at me, a pair of pinpoints of green, fiery light serving as eyes within the depths of its hood.
“WARDEN,” it said, its voice a deep rumble, “I HAVE SUPPRESSED THE PARASITE FOR NOW.”
“’Bout time, Alfred,” I muttered. I sat up and took stock of myself. I’d been lying there for a while. The sweat on my skin had dried. That was bad. The ancient spirit of the island had been keeping the thing in my skull from killing me for a year. Until a few weeks ago, when my head started hurting, all it had to do was show up, speak a word, and the pain would go away.
This time it had taken more than an hour.
Whatever was in my head, some kind of psychic or spiritual creature that was using me to grow, was getting ready to kill me.
“ALFRED,” the spirit said soberly. “IS THIS TO BE MY NEW NAME?”
“Let’s stick with Demonreach,” I said.
The enormous spirit considered that. “I AM THE ISLAND.”
“Well, yes,” I said, gathering myself to my feet. “Its spirit. Its genius loci.”
“AND I AM ALSO SEPARATE FROM THE ISLAND. A VESSEL.”
I eyed the spirit. “You know the name ‘Alfred’ is a joke, right?”
It stared at me. A wind that didn’t exist stirred the hem of its cloak.
I raised my hands in surrender and said, “All right. I guess you need a first name, too. Alfred Demonreach it is.”
Its eyes flickered brighter for a moment and it inclined its head to me within the hood. Then it said, “SHE IS HERE.”
I jerked my head up, my heart suddenly speeding. It made little echoes of pain go through my head. Had she finally responded to my messages? “Molly?”
“NOT GRASSHOPPER. GRASSHOPPER’S NEW MOTHER.”
I felt tension slide into my shoulders and neck. “Mab,” I said in a low, hard voice.
“Fantastic,” I muttered. Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness, Monarch of the Winter Court of the Sidhe, mistress and mentor of every wicked being in Faerie—my boss—had been ignoring me for months. I’d been sending her messengers on an increasingly regular basis to no avail. At least, not until today.
But why now? Why show up now, after all those months of silence?
“Because, dummy,” I muttered to myself, “she wants something.” I turned to Demonreach. “Okay, Alfred. Where?”
Which was smart. Demonreach, like practically every prison ever, was just as well suited to keeping visitors out as it was to keeping them in. When a freaking Walker of the Outside and his posse had shown up to perform a massive jailbreak on the island’s prisoners, they had been beaten back, thanks to the efforts of the island’s defenses and several key allies.
I’d spent the last year acquainting myself with the island’s secrets, with the defenses that I hadn’t even known existed—defenses that could be activated only by the Warden. If the Walker tried that play again, I could shut him down single-handed. Even Mab, as powerful as she was, would be well-advised to be cautious if she decided to start trouble on Demonreach’s soil.
Which was why she was standing on the dock.
She expected me to be upset. Definitely, she wanted something.
In my experience, when the Queen of Air and Darkness decides she wants something from you, it’s a good time to crawl in a hole and pull it in after you.
But my head pulsed with little twinges of pain. My headaches had slowly gotten worse and worse over several years, and I had only recently discovered their cause—I had a condition that had to be taken care of before whatever was hanging out in my noggin decided to burst its way out of my skull. I didn’t dare leave the island until that happened, and if Mab had finally decided to respond to my messages, I had little choice but to meet with her.
Which was probably why she hadn’t shown up to talk to me—until now.
“Freaking manipulative faeries,” I muttered under my breath. Then I headed for the stairs leading out of the Well and up to the island’s surface. “Stay nearby and pay attention,” I told Demonreach.<
“DO YOU SUSPECT SHE MEANS YOU HARM?”
“Heh,” I said, starting up the stairs. “One way or another. Let’s go.”
My brother and I had built the Whatsup Dock down at the shore at one of Demonreach’s three little beaches, the one nearest the opening in the stone reefs surrounding the island. There had been a town on the hillside up above the beach maybe a century before, but it had been abandoned after its residents had apparently been driven slowly bonkers by all the dark energy around the hideous things imprisoned below the island.
The ruins of the town were still there, half swallowed by the forest, a corpse being slowly devoured by fungus and moss. I sometimes wondered how long I could stay on the damned island before I was bonkers, too.
There was an expensive motored yacht tied to the dock, as out of place as a Ferrari in a cattle yard, white with a lot of frosty blue chrome. There were a couple of hands in sight, and they weren’t dressed in sailing clothes so much as they were in sailing costumes. The creases were too straight, the clothes too clean, the fit too perfect. Watching them move, I had no doubt they were carrying weapons, and practiced in killing. They were Sidhe, the lords of Faerie, tall and beautiful and dangerous. They didn’t impress me.
Mostly because they weren’t nearly as pretty or dangerous as the woman standing at the very end of my dock, the tips of her expensive shoes half an inch from Demonreach’s shore. When there’s a Great White Shark in the water with you, it’s tough to be worried about a couple of barracuda swimming along behind her.
Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness, was wearing a tailored business suit somewhere between the color of smeared charcoal on newsprint and frozen periwinkles. The blouse beneath was snow-white, like her hair, which was bound up in an elaborate do that belonged in the forties. Opals flashed on her ears and at her throat, deep colors of green and blue, matching the shifting hues of her cold, flat eyes. She was pale, beautiful on a scale that beggared simple description, and I harbored a healthy and rational terror of her.
I came down the old stone steps in the hillside to the dock, and stopped an arm’s length away from Mab. I didn’t bow to her, but I inclined my head formally. There were other Sidhe there, on the boat, witnessing the meeting, and I had worked out a while ago that though I was no danger to Mab’s pride, she would not tolerate disrespect to her office. I was pretty sure that if the Winter Knight openly defied her in front of her Court, it would basically be a declaration of war, and despite what I now knew about the island, I wanted nothing of the sort with Mab.