The morning sun peaked up from the edges of the city, another sleepless night coming to a close.
Sunrises in Arcadia really were the best. Not that he had been anywhere else. Traveling outside of the town's perimeters was forbidden. It had been a quiet watch for the teen, which was rare, considering the company he kept.
It was chance that he stumbled on the scene. Normally he was inside by this point, away from prying human eyes, however, something made him stray from his usual routine.
Perhaps it was boredom. After all, Atlas had little to do at the Janus Order outside of his regular duties. He could have trained, he supposed, but that would mean getting beaten within an inch of his life (changelings did not pull their punches) and he was already smacked around enough in his daily life.
So, when he came upon the fight between Bular and the Trollhunter in the canals, suffice to say, he got a little sidetracked.
He felt for the Trollhunter, he really did. Bular was a monster in every sense of the word. Even now, nearly six years later, he still shuddered in fear whenever he crossed paths with the troll. It was no surprise to anyone at the Order that when Bular showed up, Atlas was out.
Still, the Trollhunter held his own, better really.
“A Trollhunter never yields.”
Atlas resisted the urge to roll his eyes, because in all honestly, who said that in real life?
Wait. Scratch that. The image of his mentor came to mind.
Pulling out his snack, the boy watched in open curiosity as the fight continued. The leaves kept him hidden from view of the trolls thankfully. Not that they would have noticed. Both trolls were completely engrossed with killing each other.
Atlas had to hand it to the Trollhunter. He was a formidable fighter, able to match most of his blows with the larger troll. Still, matching was not winning.
Bular kicked the other away, the Trollhunter’s sword ripped from his grasp, sliding underneath the morning light. Atlas winced when the Trollhunter went for it, his hand burned by the sunlight. That had to have hurt.
His fingers itched to help, to throw the poor troll some sort of bone, but he knew it would be all for not.
The Trollhunter would probably have balked at his offer anyway. Atlas frowned, looking down at his smaller claws. He was just some changeling’s bastard, the unfortunate offspring of a human and changeling. As a hybrid, he was useless. At best, he would simply be a minor distraction, another reason for Gunmar’s son to kill him. At worst, he would be killed before he even entered the battlefield. While fast, he was considerably weaker, lacking the monstrous strength, durability, and access to magic that other trolls had.
As the sun rose, so too did the battle, with the Trollhunter running up the canal to the underside of Arcadia Bridge, Bular trailing close behind.
As entertaining as the battle was, it looked like it was coming to a close, as was the window of time before Atlas had to return home. The sun was getting mighty high in the sky, which meant he had duties to attend to soon enough.
He bit into his meal, the apple crisp and sweet. If he were an optimist, he would be cheering this “Kanjigar” on. It wasn’t often someone could go toe-to-toe with Bular. He seemed like a courageous fellow, someone Atlas could have admired on a good day.
But today was not a good day.
Instead, he felt sadness for the troll. Bular knew his surroundings better than the Trollhunter did and would take advantage of any opportunity before him. The Trollhunter had lost the moment he exited the underground in search of the monster.
His thoughts soon proved true. Bular cornered Kanjigar to the edge of the bridge, forcing half the other’s face into the sun. This would not be pretty.
“It’s me or the sun,” Bular said. “Either way, you’re doomed.”
To Atlas’ surprise, the Trollhunter did not yield. Instead, he said, “No. The amulet will find a champion. We will stop you and your master. I may end, but the fight will not.”
And then he threw himself off the bridge.
Atlas lurched forward on instinct, then caught himself by grabbing onto one of the tree branches. There was nothing he could do. He watched, stomach rolling as the troll fell, turning into rock in record time. The sound of stone cracking and breaking apart against the bottom of the canal nearly made Atlas vomit.
Not even Kanjigar could defeat Bular.
He shook his head and turned away.
Atlas pitied the poor fool that amulet chose as its next victim.
Sneaking out was easy; sneaking back in was the hard part.
Especially when your minder was Nomura.
The walk home had been far less exciting than the morning’s previous affair. The tunnels to the Janus Order were complex, but Atlas knew them like the back of his hand these days. He’d snuck in through one of the unguarded passages and headed for the kitchen.
Gable, the head (and only) cook at the Order, had grumbled at the sight of him. Atlas ignored the changeling, instead focusing his energy on his task.
He scrambled to make a nice light breakfast; some toast with butter and jam with a side of fresh oatmeal sprinkled with cinnamon and brown sugar. It was not his best work. Still perfectly edible, but certainly not up to Atlas’ standards (which, in all honesty, were higher than most). He only hoped Stricklander was too busy to notice.
Too bad he forgot about Nomura.
She caught him in the hallway to Stricklander’s office, her gaze unreadable, yet penetrating.
Nomura immediately blocked his path.
“You’re late,” she said, arms crossed over her chest.
His shoulders rose instinctively. He looked down, embarrassed. “Sorry, I got distracted.”
She began to walk ahead of him, her heels clicking against the floor. “Stricklander has been looking for you.”
He matched her pace. “What for?”
“Bular was approached by the Trollhunter during the night.”
“Oh really?” Atlas said, his voice a little too high.
Her eyes swept over him, searching. “What do you know?”
“Only what I’ve seen.”
He put a finger to his lip playfully. “That’s classified information, Nomura. What will you do for me?”
Admittedly, that was probably not the best thing to answer back with.
She moved quick, her arm underneath his neck, slowly tightening like the hold of an anaconda. As much of a warrior as Atlas liked to think of himself, he was pretty much defenseless against Nomura, troll form or not. The woman knew his weak points to a tee. He struggled to keep his tray upright, the orange juice perched precariously at the edge.
“What’s Rule Number Three, brat?”
He gagged, “Don’t fuck with Nomura. Please don’t kill me.”
“Are you going to tell me then?”
“Okay, okay,” he gave in, face turning red. “Just...need...air.”
Loosening her arms, he stepped away, giving himself time to breath. She tapped her foot impatiently.
He opened his mouth to ask ‘what the hell, Nomura’ but closed it. Now was not the time.
Normally, the Changeling would have smirked at his reply and smacked him upside the head, not try and put him in a choke hold.
If she was this on edge right now, then something must have happened.
“Well?” She asked.
“I may or may not have watched some of the fight between the Trollhunter and Bular.”
“Okay, like all of it,” he admitted.
“Stricklander will kill you if he finds out,” she pointed out, checking her nails. “You were supposed to be back before dawn.”
He opened one of the doors for her, leaning his back against it. “Which is why Stricklander isn’t going to find out about that part.”
“What is Stricklander not going to find out about?” A British voice echoed from beyond the door.
He straightened up as the man of the hour appeared.
He shook his head at Nomura. Please don’t tell him, he silently tried to tell her through his wide eyes.
Nomura paused, as if considering it, then smirked. “Atlas was out past his curfew,” she said.
His mentor, tall and imposing, looked down at the teen, clearly unimpressed, but thankfully not angry. Yet.
“It was an accident,” Atlas confessed. “It won’t happen again.”
“That’s what you always say,” Stricklander said, face deadpan. “What was it this time?”
“Well, you see—” he began, only for Nomura to talk over him.
“He was watching the fight between Bular and the Trollhunter.”
Stricklander clicked his pen.
“And was that an ‘accident’ as well, young Atlas?”
“It wasn’t on purpose...” he muttered under his breath.
His mentor sighed, then waved his hand at Nomura, “You can go now, Nomura. I’ll deal with him.”
The woman nodded, smacking the kid on the back as she left. “You’re in trouble.” She said in a sing-song voice.
Atlas slowly mouthed the words 'traitor.'
The door shut behind, leaving the two of them alone.
Stricklander’s office was spacious, one of the bigger rooms at the Order. Atlas walked over to his desk, setting the food down, then swerved around to sit in the smaller chair on the other side. He knew the procedure. They all did.
The wait was the worst. Stricklander took a sampling of Atlas’ prepared breakfast, first biting into the toast, then taking a sip of the glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. Using a spoon, he daintily scooped up a bit of the oatmeal and blew on it, not once, not twice, but three times, before finally putting it into his mouth. He rounded the desk towards Atlas, then leaned back against the desk in a poised manner.
The man relaxed, his expression fond. Finally, he said, “You know you don’t have to make me breakfast every day, young Atlas.”
“I know, but you enjoy it.”
Stricklander smiled, “That I do.”
“Does this mean—”
He gestured at the boy with his pen. “But this doesn’t excuse what you did. What have I told you about going off on your own without my permission?”
Atlas rolled his shoulders, ears lowering in guilt. “That I shouldn’t do it?”
“Precisely,” he sighed. “You put not only yourself but the rest of our kind, in jeopardy when you do not follow orders. What if another troll saw you? What if a human did?”
“Sir, I was caref—”
“I’m not finished. Watching the fight between the Trollhunter and Bular was foolish. End of story.”
Atlas rubbed his arm absentmindedly, back hunched. “I know.”
“Your punishment will be decided at a later time at my discretion, is that understood?”
He nodded, quietly remarking, “Understood, sir.”
The Changeling bent slightly forward, hands brought together in a steeple. “Now, report. What did you see?”
Atlas sat up straighter as he gave his account. “I arrived at the canals between approximately zero four hundred and zero five hundred hours. I stayed out of sight in the tree line above. Bular fought the Trollhunter right below Arcadia Bridge. He cornered the Trollhunter on the bridge, however, the Trollhunter sacrificed himself to the sun.”
“I see,” he commented, taking another drink of his orange juice. “What of the amulet?”
“If I’m right, it is still within the Trollhunter’s remains, sir.”
Stricklander stood, moving around the desk to the boy. “Someone will need to retrieve it then.”
“Let me do it, sir,” pleaded Atlas.
He gave the boy a bemused look. “You? During the day? Absurd.”
“I’ll be careful,” he assured. “I’ll use the sewer tunnels. No one will see me, I promise.”
Stricklander folded his arms behind his back, examining Atlas. “This won’t subtract from your punishment, young Atlas.”
He nodded. “I know, sir. Let me do it.”
The teen clenched his hands into fists. “I-I want to do more for the Order. Everyone else is doing their part and here I am doing nothing.”
“You’re not doing nothing, young Atlas. You’re my faithful assistant.”
“That’s just it, sir. The others, they don’t accept me like you do. I want to show that I’m useful, that I’m not some stupid useless half-human.”
Stricklander stilled, moving closer to the teen. His hands rose from their position and came down upon Atlas' shoulders. “You...is that how you think of yourself?”
Atlas shrugged, looking away. “What else should I think?”
“Young Atlas, you are a valued member of the Janus Order and nothing anyone says will change that. Our Lady would be honored to have you as one of her followers if she saw you half as much as the way I do.”
“Then let me do this, sir,” he said. “I’ll be careful. I promise.”
Stricklander brushed Atlas' bangs away with his index. “Alright. Fine. I expect you back at the base as soon as possible however. Is that understood?”
He grinned, nearly jumping out of his seat. “Perfectly.”
Yes! Atlas almost pumped his fist. It was rare for Stricklander to give the teen tasks outside of his daily mundane ones, like feeding the goblins or polishing the man’s ancient sword collection. It warmed the boy’s heart that the man trusted him so. With luck, he would be back within the hour, amulet in hand.
Perhaps the changelings would think better of him. Maybe even Bular would lay off trying to knock his head off as much.
Too bad Atlas had terrible luck.