Skin Game Page 2

“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.”


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?”


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.


“Heh,” I said, starting up the stairs. “One way or another. Let’s go.”

Prev page Next page