Skin Game

Page 1

One

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.

Blood and power, riches and strength, I can give you all that you—promised the next.

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!

You know.

The usual.

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.

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