Skin Game: Chapter 3

Mab’s yacht took us to Belmont Harbor, where the late February ice had evidently been broken up by an unseasonably warm morning. My ear throbbed with occasional cold, but my head seemed fine, and when we docked I hopped over the rail and onto the pier with a large duffel bag in one hand and my new wizard’s staff in the other.

Mab descended the gangplank with dignity and eyed me.

“Parkour,” I explained.

“Appointment,” she said, gliding by me.

A limo was waiting for us, complete with two more Sidhe in bodyguard costumes. They swept us into the city proper, down Lake Shore Drive until we hit the Loop, turned, and pulled up in front of the Carbide and Carbon Building, a vast charcoal-colored creation that had always reminded me of the monolith in 2001, except for all the brassy filigree. I’d always thought it looked particularly baroque and cool, and then it had become the Hard Rock Hotel.

Two additional Sidhe bodyguards were waiting when we pulled up, tall and inhumanly beautiful. Between one step and the next, they all changed from a crowd of cover models into lantern-jawed thugs with buzz cuts and earpieces—glamour, the legendary power of faerie illusion. Mab did not bother altering her own appearance, save for donning a pair of designer sunglasses. The four goons fell into a square formation around us as we went in, and we all marched up to an awaiting elevator The numbers rolled swiftly up to the top floor—and then went one floor up above that one.

The doors opened onto an extravagant penthouse loft. Mozart floated in from speakers of such quality that for a moment I assumed that live musicians must be present. Floor-to-fourteen-foot-ceiling windows gave us a sweeping view of the lake and the shoreline south of the hotel. The floors were made of polished hardwood. Tropical trees had been planted throughout the room, along with bright flowering plants that were busy committing the olfactory floral equivalent of aggravated assault. Furniture sets were scattered around the place, some on the floor, and some on platforms sitting at various levels. There was a bar, and a small stage with a sound system, and at the far end of the loft, stairs led up to an elevated platform, which judging from the bed, must have served as a bedroom.

There were also five goons wearing black suits with matching shotguns waiting for us outside of the elevator doors.As the doors opened, the goons worked the actions on their weapons, but did not precisely raise them to aim at us.

“Ma’am,” said one of them, much younger than the others, “please identify yourself.”

Mab stared at them impassively through her sunglasses. Then, in a motion so slight that I doubt any of them noticed, she twitched one eyebrow.

I grunted, flicked a hand, and muttered, “Infriga.”

I didn’t put much power into the spell, but it was enough to make the point: A sudden thick layer of rime crackled into being over the lower two-thirds of the goons’ bodies, covering their boots and guns and the hands holding them. The men twitched in surprise and let out little hisses of discomfort, but did not relinquish the weapons.

“The lady doesn’t do lackeys,” I told them, “and you damned well know who she is. Whichever one of you chuckleheads is holding the brain should probably go tell your boss she’s here before she starts feeling offended.”

The young goon who had spoken staggered away, deeper into the loft, around a screen of trees and flowers, while the others faced us, dispassionate and clearly uncomfortable.

Mab eyed me and said in an intimate whisper, “What was that?”

I answered in kind. “I’m not killing a mortal just to make a point.”

“You were willing enough to kill one of my Sidhe for that reason.”

“I play on your team,” I told her. “I’m not from your town.”

She looked up at me over the rims of her sunglasses and then said, “Squeamishness does not become the Winter Knight.”

“It’s not about squeam, Mab,” I said.

“No,” she said. “It is about weakness.”

“Yeah, well,” I said, facing front again, “I’m only human.”

Mab’s gaze remained on me, cold and heavy as a blanket of snow. “For now.”

I didn’t shiver. I get muscle twitches sometimes. That’s all.

The goon capable of human speech returned, and was careful not to make eye contact with anyone as he bowed at the waist in Mab’s general direction. “Your Majesty. Please proceed. Your four guards may wait here, with these four, and I will show you to him.”

Mab did not so much as twitch to acknowledge that the goon had spoken. She just stepped out of the elevator smartly, her heels clicking with metronomic inevitability on the hard floor, and both the goon and I hurried to keep pace with her.

We walked around the screen of shrubbery where the goon had gone a moment before and found an elaborate raised platform with three wide steps leading up to it. The whole thing was thickly surrounded by more plant life, giving it the cozy feel of an alcove. Expensive living room furniture was spaced around it ideally for conversation, and that’s where Mab’s appointment was waiting for us.

“Sir,” the goon said. “Her Majesty, Queen Mab, and the Winter Knight.”

“Who needs no introduction,” said a man with a deep, resonant voice. I recognized it. That voice had once been smooth and flowing, but now there was a hint of rasp to it, a roughness that wasn’t there before, like silk gliding over old gravel.

A man of medium height and build rose from his chair. He was dressed in a black silk suit, a black shirt, and a worn grey tie. He had dark hair threaded with silver, dark eyes, and he moved with the coiled grace of a snake. There was a smile on his mouth, but not in his eyes as he faced me. “Well, well, well. Harry Dresden.”

“Nicodemus Archleone.” I slurred into a Connery accent. “My cut hash improved your voish.”

Something ugly flickered far back in his eyes, and his voice might have grown a little rougher, but his smile never wavered. “You came closer than anyone has in a long, long time.”

“Maybe you’re starting to slip in your old age,” I said. “It’s the little things that go first. For instance, you missed taking the tongue out of one of your goons. You’re going to make him feel left out if he’s the only one who can talk.”

That made Nicodemus smile more deeply. I’d met his gang of hangers-on before. They’d all had their tongues cut out.

He turned to Mab and bowed at the waist, the gesture more elegant than anything I could manage, the manners of another time. “Your Majesty.”

“Nicodemus,” Mab said in a frosty tone. Then, in a more neutral one, “Anduriel.”

Nicodemus didn’t move, but his freaking shadow inclined its head anyway. No matter how many times I saw that kind of action, it still creeped me out.

Nicodemus was a Knight of the Blackened Denarius, or maybe it was more accurate to say that he was the Knight of the Blackened Denarius. He had one of thirty silver coins on him somewhere, one that contained the essence of the fallen angel, Anduriel. The Denarians were bad news, in a major way—even though angels were sharply curtailed in how they were allowed to use their power, hobbled and bound to a mortal partner, they were as dangerous as anything running around in the shadows, and when they teamed up with world-class lunatics like Nicodemus, they were several shades worse. Nicodemus, as far as I had been able to find out, had been perpetrating outrages for a couple of millennia. He was smart, ruthless, tough, and killing people was almost as significant to him as throwing away an empty beer can.

I’d survived him once. He’d survived me once. Neither of us had been able to put the other away.


“I beg your indulgence for a moment,” Nicodemus said to Mab. “A minor matter of internal protocol to which I must attend before we continue.”

There was a frozen microinstant of displeasure before Mab answered. “Of course.”

Nicodemus bowed again, and then walked a few steps away and turned to the goon who had led us over. He beckoned to the man and said, “Brother Jordan, approach.”

Jordan came to rigid military attention, swallowed, and then walked formally forward, stopping precisely in front of Nicodemus before bracing to attention again.

“You have completed the trials of the Brotherhood,” Nicodemus said, his voice warm. “You have the highest recommendation of your fellows. And you have faced a dangerous foe with steadfast courage. It is my judgment that you have demonstrated your loyalty and commitment to our cause beyond the meager bonds of any oath.” He reached up and put a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Have you any final words?”

The kid’s eyes gleamed with sudden emotion, and his breathing sped. “I thank you, my lord.”

“Well said,” Nicodemus murmured, smiling. Then he said, “Deirdre.”

The second person in the alcove rose from where she had been sitting quietly in the background. She was a young woman in a simple black dress. Her features were lean and severe, her body graced with the same slight, elegant curves as a straight razor. She had long, dark hair to go with black eyes that were a double of Nicodemus’s own, and when she approached Jordan, she gave him an almost sisterly smile.

And then she changed.

First her eyes shifted, changing from dark orbs to pits filled with a burning crimson glow. A second set of eyes, these glowing green, blinked open above the first. And then her face contorted, the bones shifting. Her skin seemed to ripple and then hardened, darkening to the ugly deep purple of a fresh bruise, taking on the consistency of thick hide. The dress just seemed to shimmer out of existence, revealing legs that had contorted, her feet lengthening dramatically, until they looked backward-hinged. And her hair changed—it grew, slithering out of her scalp like dozens of writhing serpents, flattening into hard, metallic ribbons of midnight black that rustled and stirred and rippled of their own volition.

As that happened, Nicodemus’s shadow simply grew, with no change in the light to prompt it. It stretched out behind him, and then up the wall, growing and growing until it spread over the whole of that side of the huge loft.

“Bear witness,” Nicodemus said quietly, “as Brother Jordan becomes Squire Jordan.”

The green eyes atop Deirdre’s flickered brightly, as Deirdre lifted claw-tipped hands to cup Jordan’s face, quite gently. Then she leaned forward and kissed him, lips parted.

My stomach twisted and flipped over. I didn’t let it show.

Deirdre’s head suddenly snapped forward a little more, and Jordan’s body stiffened. A muffled scream escaped the seal of Deirdre’s lips, but was quickly choked off. I saw Deirdre’s jaws lock, and then she jerked her head away in the sudden, sharp motion of a shark ripping flesh from its prey. Her head fell back in something that looked horribly like ecstasy, and I could see the bloody flesh of Jordan’s tongue gripped between her teeth.

Blood fountained from the young man’s mouth. He let out a wordless sound and staggered, falling to one knee.

Deirdre’s head jerked in swallowing motions, like a seabird downing a fish, and she made a quiet gulping sound. Then she shuddered, and opened her burning eyes slowly. She turned to move deliberately to Nicodemus’s side, her purplish lips black with blood, and murmured, “It is done, Father.”

Nicodemus kissed her on the mouth. And, my God, him doing it with tongue now was even more unsettling than it had been the first time I’d seen it.

He lifted his mouth from Deirdre’s a moment later and said, “Rise, Squire Jordan.”

The young man staggered to his feet, the lower half of his face a mass of blood, dripping down over his chin and throat.

“Get some ice on that and see the medic, Squire,” Nicodemus said. “Congratulations.”

Jordan’s eyes gleamed again, and his mouth twisted into a macabre smile. Then he turned and hurried away, leaving a dripping trail of blood behind him.

My stomach twisted. One of these days, I’m going to have to learn to keep my mouth shut. Nicodemus had just casually had a young man maimed solely to make a point to me for teasing him about it. I clenched my jaw and resolved to use the incident to remind me exactly the kind of monster I was dealing with here.

“There,” Nicodemus said, turning back to Mab. “I apologize for any inconvenience.”

“Shall we conclude our business?” Mab said. “My time is valuable.”

“Of course,” Nicodemus said. “You know why I have approached you.”

“Indeed,” Mab said. “Anduriel once loaned me the services of his . . . associate. I now repay that debt by loaning you the services of mine.”

“Wait. What?” I said.

“Excellent,” Nicodemus said. He produced a business card and held it out. “Our little group will meet here at sundown.”

Mab reached for the card and nodded. “Done.”

I intercepted her hand, taking the card before she could. “Not done,” I said. “I’m not working with this psychopath.”

“Sociopath, actually,” Nicodemus said. “Though for practical purposes, the terms are nearly interchangeable.”

“You’re an ugly piece of work, and I don’t trust you any farther than I can kick you, which I’m tempted to see how far I can do,” I snapped back. I turned to Mab. “Tell me you aren’t serious.”

“I,” she said in a hard voice, “am perfectly serious. You will go with Archleone. You will render him all aid and assistance until such time as he has completed his objective.”

What objective?” I demanded.

Mab looked at him.

Nicodemus smiled at me. “Nothing terribly complex. Difficult, to be sure, but not complicated. We’re going to rob a vault.”

“You don’t need anyone to help you with that,” I said. “You could handle any vault in the world.”

“True,” Nicodemus said. “But this vault is not of this world. It is in fact, of the Underworld.”

“Underworld?” I asked.

I was getting a bad feeling about this.

Nicodemus gave me a bland smile.

“Who?” I asked him. “Whose vault are you knocking over?”

“An ancient being of tremendous power,” he replied in his roughened voice, his smile widening. “You may know him as Hades, the Lord of the Underworld.”

“Hades,” I said. “The Hades. The Greek god.”

“The very same.”

I looked slowly from Nicodemus to Mab.

Her face was beautiful and absolute. The chill of the little earring that was keeping me alive pulsed steadily against my skin.

“Oh,” I said quietly. “Oh, Hell’s bells.”