“Tanos, you sonofa…”
The demon spotted Tatiana before finishing, quickly glancing between myself and her with a quizzical look on his face as if not believing what he was really seeing. Which was easier for him than the girl.
She’d spent her entire life living in the clouds, swapping marble castles for gilded temples, never once seeing an imperfect face and setting foot on soiled ground. If I had expected her to shriek at the sight of a crawler, I was sadly mistaken. She approached, cautiously at first but more like a small child approaching a dog of unknown temperament. Ched knelt as she came closer, letting his tail wrap around them both.
His skin was broken, mottled with black in various places. Tatiana reached out and touched it. I went to stop her, but Ched shook his head, letting her continue her exploration. Nose, mouth with the small fangs that the gargoyle had reminded me of, even his braided hair. He tapped her on her shoulder with his tail and she giggled.
“Enough,” I said, drawing the moment to an abrupt end.
“Tatiana, this is Ched, my oldest friend in this realm.” Ched bowed as I introduced him. “Ched, this is Tatiana. First daughter of Callista. Wife of the Titan. My daughter.”
At first Ched had seemed impressed, or as much as I could read from hit jet eyes. A first daughter, the highest honour. And Callista he knew from our escapade. When I mentioned the Titan he frowned. When I finished, and the realisation sunk in, I waited. And waited.
The old Ched, the one I had first met when I Fell, would have cast me out in a heartbeat. He had cut himself out a nice life, living with the mortals and he didn’t want to end up on the wrong end of a pointy bit of metal. Or worse. But the Ched I’d left, when we parted ways, had grown… not softer. No. Compassionate. I could see him fighting between throwing us to the wolves, and sheltering us.
“Ched, I had nowhere else to go.”
“Please mister,” Tatiana said.
Ched went to answer, but stopped mid-breath, sniffing at the air. I saw his body tense, his tail coil behind him ready to balance out any quick motions. His actions set off my own, like an unconscious coupling.
“Night wings.” Ched sniffed again. “At least two, maybe three.”
“Tatiana, stay near,” I said.
“No.” Ched gripped my arm. “Child, go up the stairs. Find the shrine and bless yourself. You remember how?”
Tatiana nodded at Ched’s question and vanished a moment later, running for a set of rickety stairs lit by a fluorescent lamp. I drew my sword and circled to stand beside Ched.
“When did you find enlightenment?” I asked.
Ched snorted. His two battle axes appeared in his hands, humming as he swung them back and forth, eager to fight.
“Not long after my oldest friend decided to throw me to the wolves.”
I wanted to reply. I wanted to explain why. But at that moment the door, gargoyle and all, came crashing down in a flurry of black wings.
She was good. I would give her that. I jabbed a few times, but for the most part I was content to block her own thrusts. She was wearing the robes of a priestess, shock white, which meant she wasn’t one of the normal females.
I could feel her arms begin to tire. The parries become shorter and less forceful. I smiled and in that instant let my guard down. She feinted, lunging for my stomach and when I lowered my own sword to block, she drew a short sword and placed it against my throat.
“Not bad,” I whispered in her ear.
“Not bad yourself. Now put it down.”
I tossed the gold cup into the air and she reacted on instinct, reaching to catch it before it smashed upon the marble floor. I brushed past her, darting towards the wooden doors, thirty feet tall and currently my only way out.
“Wait,” she called after me.
I don’t know why. Maybe years from now it would become clear. But in that moment, when she called to me and said stop, I did so.