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Becoming The Mask

Chapter Text

Human food was, in Jim’s opinion, exponentially better than troll food.

That didn’t stop him from eating empty cans or burnt-out lightbulbs, but it did inspire him to experiment. Today he was making French toast for his mother’s breakfast and meatloaf sandwiches for her, his, and his friend Toby’s lunches. He had some regular toast while checking the recipe, and ate the eggshells while mixing the eggs with milk and just a touch of cinnamon.

Barbara was sound asleep, glasses still on and pushed to an awkward angle by the pillow. At least she’d kicked off her shoes. He put her breakfast on the dresser and slid her glasses off, polished the lenses, and placed them by her meal. Jim tucked his mother’s blanket around her shoulders and kissed her forehead.

“I love you, Mom,” he whispered.

No, it wasn’t sentimental or weird. It was good cover. If Jim kept up the act even when there were no witnesses, he was less likely to slip up when there were witnesses.

He checked on his Familiar, Jay-Jay, while brushing his teeth. The original James Junior, unaging in his cradle, sucked his thumb and slept peacefully.

Jim had been Jim for over fifteen years and his Familiar had only been Jim for three months, and the Lake parents hadn’t even stuck with just one nickname until after Jim was planted. ‘Jay-Jay’ and ‘Jim’ and ‘Jamie’ and ‘Junior’ were all used interchangeably in the first year before gradually settling on ‘Jim’. The human might have had it first, but Jim was the Changeling’s name now.

He hadn’t had a name before this assignment.

Jim took care of the various household needs, packed up his backpack, and left for school. The trash bin was overturned. Raccoons or goblins? He huffed in annoyance.

Toby was there, worrying about being late for school. Jim tried distracting him with food. If all went as planned, Killahead Bridge should be rebuilt within a few years, maybe even this year. Jim wanted the humans he knew to enjoy life while they had the chance.

“I can’t eat this. I’m on a diet.”

“It’s healthy. Protein, fiber, vegetables, and it’s actually got flavour.” Jim waggled the bag temptingly.

“I shouldn’t …”

“Come on, you’ve been on a diet for fourteen years. You’re fifteen!”

“Long-term goals.” Toby tucked the lunch into his backpack and got back onto his bike. “My body’s still changing.”

They rode for the first few blocks in panting silence.

Jim liked Toby. He wished he could think of some excuse why they ought to keep Toby alive when Gunmar returned to devour humanity. The boy had an interest and extensive knowledge of geology for one of his species, but nothing compared to a troll. None of Toby’s other interests or skills would be relevant in Gunmar’s world.

The closest thing to a solution Jim had come up with so far was that, if Gunmar wanted to keep eating humans long-term, then they would need to be farmed. Toby’s propensity to put on weight might make him desirable breeding stock.

But humans tended to view the ‘breeding stock’ concept as horrific and degrading and traumatizing when applied to sentients, and besides, with artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization being a thing now, that might only keep Toby alive for a few years while his sperm was harvested and preserved.

At least Jim had a reason Barbara Lake should be spared. She was a doctor. Barbara would be more useful alive, keeping the livestock humans healthy, than killed as food herself.

Stricklander said Jim had developed a sentimental attachment to his Familiar’s family. It was common for Changelings fresh out of the Darklands. Jim’s retort was that he would have no qualms at all about James Lake Senior being eaten.

“It’s eight o’clock!” cried Toby. “Late, late, late, we are so late!”

“Let’s take the canals.” Jim veered off the road into a wooded area. “It’ll save us five minutes.”

“Not the canals!”

“Live a little!”

“It’s living that I’m worried about!”

There was a pile of gravel under the bridge. Jim wouldn’t have paid attention to it if it hadn’t called his name.

Jim … Lake …

He slowed and circled back around.

“What up, Jimbo?” asked Toby. “Wasn’t the shortcut to save time, not waste it?”

“You go on ahead, Tobes, I’ll catch up.”

Jim … Lake …

“Wait, what was that?” Toby looked around the sun-drenched, empty canal and called out in challenge, “Who’s there? Who said that?”

Jim spotted a blue flash in the rubble.

Was that …? No, it couldn’t be … He got off his bike and dug it out.

“Whatcha got there?” Toby leaned over his shoulder.

“Pocket watch, maybe,” Jim invented. “Or, some kind of high-tech walkie-talkie.”

There was a loud ring.

“Final bell!” Toby gasped. “We’re so late our kids are gonna have detention!” He climbed back onto his bike and raced away. Jim followed, the Amulet of Daylight tucked in the pocket of his sweatshirt.

Thank everything holy and unholy that he had History first period.

“Jim, you seemed distracted in class today.”

“Yes! I – actually, I was hoping I could talk to you about that, at lunch, or, after school. About some,” he lit his eyes for a moment, “extra-credit work.”

Mr Strickler’s eyes shone gold and red in return. “Of course, Jim. You know my office door is always open to my students.”

Jim went to Mr Strickler’s office at lunch. He plucked the amulet from his pocket and placed it on his teacher’s desk without preamble.

“I found this on my way to school this morning.”

Stricklander went pale, then stern. “Did anyone else see you take it?”

“Tobias Domzalski, but he doesn’t know what it is. We were cutting through the canals. There were no other humans around. I didn’t see any living trolls, but if they found a dark enough shadow then I couldn’t have spotted them in this form. It was pretty sunny.”

“Mm,” said Stricklander noncommittally. “Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Jim. I’ll take care of it.”

A more ambitious Changeling would have argued, wanting credit for their part in any undertaking. Jim took the chance to exit, wanting nothing to do with anything that had to do with the dreaded Trollhunter.

At least, that was the plan.

With a puff of light, the amulet vanished off of Stricklander’s desk and reappeared in Jim’s hand as he reached for the door. He dropped it, startled. Both Changelings stared at the unassuming little silver trinket on the floor.

Stricklander spoke slowly and precisely.

“Is there anything else you ought to tell me about your discovery of this amulet?”

“It said my name,” he admitted. “When I was biking past – that was why I stopped and went to look and picked it up.”

Stricklander sat down and pointed to the piano stool. Jim gave the office door a dirty look for not having a lock, and left the amulet on the floor. It teleported onto his lap when he sat down.

“This suggests you have been chosen as the next Trollhunter.”

“That’s impossible.”

“So I too would have thought. And yet, here we are.”

“You really think the amulet can just pick the next Trollhunter on its own? I mean, I get that it’s magic, but still. It’s an inanimate object.” He looked at it thoughtfully. “Semi-animate at most. Some of this looks like clockwork.”

“What tomes I’ve acquired of troll lore claim that the amulet chooses the Trollhunter. There should be an incantation inscribed. Try to summon the armour and we’ll know for certain.”

“Or, if it’s really sentient like you said, it’ll kill me for being a presumptuous Impure.”

“Don’t call yourself that.”

“What, presumptuous?” Jim asked cheekily.

Jim turned the pocket watch-like device in a slow circle. The runes around the edge were trollish, of course, which he could read but not well. Literacy had not been prized as a skillset or hobby in the Darklands. There wasn’t much available to read unless one wanted to risk Dictatious’ wrath for touching his precious collection. On the second revolution, the words on the amulet helpfully translated themselves into English.

He made a face at what he would have to say. May the Pale Lady forgive him.

“For the glory of Merlin … Daylight is mine to command.”

He really should have stayed standing.

Jim floated into the air, his stool knocked back, blue light surrounding him and pushing its way into his body. Frightened, he switched forms – he wasn’t much bigger trollish than he was humanoid, but he had tougher skin that way. He crashed to the ground in oversized armor. It shrank to fit him.

“Jim! Are you alright?” Stricklander demanded.

“… Wow.” Jim examined the gauntlets; felt the breastplate; turned to examine how the armor accommodated his short tail; checked the helmet that still left his horns exposed. “I mean, I always figured Bular would kill me someday, but I thought it would be in a fit of misdirected rage, not for an actual reason.”

He tried switching back to his human form. Again, the armour adjusted itself. There were metal horns on the helmet now. They felt longer than his; maybe they were the shape his horns would be once they grew out.

“This could actually prove useful.” Stricklander twirled his pen. “If the trolls accept you as the new Trollhunter, that means we have a spy in Trollmarket and need no longer fear the Trollhunter will interfere with our plans.” He put the pen down decisively. “You leave Bular to me. I’ll find a way to make that brute cede to logic.”

“If he doesn’t just come snap me in half tonight for the bragging rights of killing two Trollhunters in twenty-four hours.”

Stricklander stood and put his hand on Jim’s shoulder. “Leave Bular to me.”

Changelings were taught to spy and lie and manipulate. Stricklander was an especially good actor when he played the role of a caring mentor. Jim knew Stricklander was a Changeling, just like him, and yet part of him still insisted that the reason Stricklander played the role so well was because it wasn’t just an act.

The armour dissipated. Jim caught the amulet as it fell from his heart.

Stricklander let go of him and spoke briskly.

“Our best option, I think, is to assume that you were seen finding the amulet and allow the trolls to believe it chose a human. The unprecedented nature of this should cover for any inconsistencies in the magic’s behaviour and your own ignorance of troll culture.”

Jim scowled at being called ignorant, glared for it being true, and felt an unpleasant twist in his stomach for how badly he wanted to change that.

Troll culture had been his culture, once upon a time, before he’d been taken and altered and become what he was.

He didn’t remember anything from before. He was too young when it happened. Every Changeling was. He certainly didn’t have enough memory scraps to truly say he missed it. But part of him still wanted it back.

Which was foolish and treasonous and beside the point in any case.

“That’ll be easier than trying to craft a troll persona and explain why they’ve never seen me around Trollmarket before, especially if I still look too young to be out on my own. Might still get me killed, but this thing’s a death sentence on its own, isn’t it?” holding up the amulet.

No, Jim didn’t know much of troll culture, but he suspected their reaction to a human Trollhunter would be only slightly better than their reaction to a Changeling Trollhunter – namely, a quick death to pass the mantle down to a real troll rather than pausing to torture him for information first.

And he also knew that Trollhunters, particularly Trollhunters living in the same city as Bular, had notoriously short lifespans compared to the average troll.

Chapter Text

“Did it talk again?”

“Hey, Tobes. No, nothing yet,” Jim lied.

Toby-Pie, dinner!

“In a minute, Nana! I gotta go – text me if it does anything cool.” Click.

Jim put his phone on the coffee table and moved to a relatively clear part of the room to try summoning the armor again.

“For the glory of Merlin, Daylight is mind to command.” Nothing happened. “Hey, you said it was mine to command. I’m commanding here!” He tried incanting with more force. “For the Glory of Merlin, Daylight is Mine to Command.”

The armour wrapped itself around him just in time for a strange troll to show up.

“Master Jim! We have found you!”

He yelped in alarm and recoiled from a four-armed, six-eyed troll who had just barged in the back door. For one stunned moment, he thought it was Dictatious, although the voice and tone and words were completely different from anything Dictatious would have directed at him.

“I knew it would be only a matter of time before the amulet called to us,” the troll was saying.

“Called to you?” he echoed. This thing could lead trolls to him? That made sense, so trolls in need of help could find the Trollhunter, but was still a disturbing idea.

“Well, no,” the intruder admitted. “Truthfully, we’ve been spying on you.”

“Spy on you,” agreed a much bigger troll with an ominous rumble of a voice.

“I am known as Blinky, and my companion here is AAARRRGGHH.”

“Three Rs.”

“Um … I am known as Jim … which you apparently already knew … since you’ve been spying on me.”

He edged away, closer to the kitchen. Chef’s knives made terrible weapons but they could work for intimidation, or he could grab a frying pan for something heavy and blunt. Wasn’t the Trollhunter supposed to have a sword? At least these self-professed spies didn’t seem aware of his true nature or his earlier conversation with Stricklander.

“You’re here about this magic pocket watch thing?”

“Oh, that is no mere clockwork, Master Jim, although you do deduce correctly that it is a vessel for powerful magic!”

“Door small.” The big troll looked stuck. The house shook as they tried to free themselves.

“Perhaps you should wait, my friend. This is a moment of some solemnity.”


“Solemnity means serious and dignified.”

“Oh. Dig-goo-ni-fied.” The giant troll reclaimed dignity by escaping the too-tight doorway and backing out into the yard.

The four-armed one, Blinky, turned to Jim again. “Master Jim, you have been chosen. The Amulet of Daylight challenges you to attend to the most sacred of offices!”

“Orifices?” said the big one, now waiting on the porch. “What orifices?”

“Offices,” Blinky corrected AAARRRGGHH, “means responsibilities. Unbeknownst to your kind, Master Jim, there is a vast world beneath your feet; a secret civilization of trolls.”

“Is that what you are?”

“You catch on fast,” said Blinky proudly. “And it is now your challenge to protect all of troll-kind, for you, Master Jim, have been chosen as the Trollhunter! What say you?”

“… I need to sit down.”

What would a human teenager say in response to this? It’s cool but dangerous, so be excited but scared, and very curious …

“I have so many questions.” Jim sank down on the couch. “Why me? What am I protecting trolls from? How do I do it? Why does it have to stay secret? What even are trolls?”

“All excellent questions.” Blinky sat next to him. AAARRRGGHH moved to see them through the window. “In order, because the Amulet chose you, though we know not why; evil trolls and various monsters such as Gruesomes, goblins, rogue gnomes, or things of that nature; often, by using the Sword of Daylight, which we will train you to wield; primarily to avoid panic; and in essence, we are a race of long-lived beings formed of living stone. If you will accompany us to Heartstone Trollmarket, we can begin your training now, and give you your first glimpse of the world you will be protecting.”

“Let me leave a note for my mom first. I won’t tell her about trolls, if you’re such a secret, but I don’t want her to worry if she comes back and I’m not here.”

He had to pull the amulet off, dismissing the armour, in order to write. The gauntlets were flexible but they threw off his handwriting like any glove would. The note said he was spending the night at Toby’s. He sent a text to Toby begging the human to cover for him with promise of a full explanation later.

Jim planned to lie his head off to Toby – and Barbara, if she caught him after all – and claim he’d been secretly meeting a girl. Maybe one from Arcadia Oaks High School’s rival, Arcadia Oaks Academy, to excuse why he hadn’t been bragging to the entire school about having a date. That seemed like the sort of ridiculous thing a teenage boy would sneak around for.

Or he could say he’d been trying to pull a prank but nearly been caught setting it up and had to bail. That lie had fewer details to track or refute.

Good thing I’m already accustomed to having a double life.

The entrance to Trollmarket was under the bridge where he’d found the Amulet. Jim felt and suppressed a brief pang of something he chose not to explore, that the last Trollhunter had almost made it home the previous night before being killed.

“Trolls living under a bridge. Heh. This doesn’t affect the structural integrity of the bridge, does it? Cause I have to bike across that to get to school.”

“I assure you the bridge is as steady as any other work of human construction.”

The cavern looked almost like the Darklands until the crystal staircase lit up. Their blue glow left Jim ill at ease.

In the Darklands, most of the light sources were green, or the occasional rusty orange glow from stinger crystals. The only blue lights had come from Nyarlagroths, massive eel-like predators … and from Gunmar. Jim had rarely had the honour of being in the Underlord’s presence, but he would never forget that blazing eye, or those luminous crackled markings.

The Trollhunter Amulet glowed blue as well.

At the bottom of the steps, Blinky paused, presumably for dramatic effect.

“Behold, Master Jim, and remember this moment well.” Yup, dramatic effect. “You are the first human to ever lay eyes, on Heartstone Trollmarket.”

It was magnificent. In the centre of everything was a massive pillar of warm orange rock that felt like it was calling to Jim. He scarcely noticed anything else at first. When he finally tore his gaze from the central crystal, he took in the rest of the place. There were buildings on and in the rocks, lit with glowing crystals of every colour, like a human city doused in neon lights.

“Crying?” said AAARRRGGHH. He patted Jim gently.

“I’m okay.” Jim didn’t wipe away the tears or try to suppress his feelings. “It’s a natural reaction to being overwhelmed. This place, it’s so – what is that?” He pointed to the orange crystal. I think I love it.

“That,” said Blinky, “is the Heartstone. The life force of troll-kind, it keeps us from crumbling to stone, and provides warmth, light, and sustenance. Trollmarket is home and hearth and sanctuary. Trolls travel from afar to find comfort and remedies here. You’ll find almost anything you could want in Trollmarket … and sometimes you might find what you never knew you needed.”

“Whoa …”


Jim wanted, unrealistically, to take the Heartstone with him when he left. He wanted to bring all the other Changelings down here so they could feel what he was feeling. He wanted to bring Barbara and Toby, in case humans could pick up on this as well.

“Wait. If humans have never been here before, how is everyone going to react to, you know, me?”

“… Just stay close.” Blinky made his way into Trollmarket. Jim followed, lagging, nearly between AAARRRGGHH’s arms as the giant troll moved along on all fours.

“Safe,” AAARRRGGHH promised him quietly.

I’m a Changeling carrying the Trollhunter Amulet and surrounded by trolls fundamentally opposed to Gumm-Gumms. I am the opposite of safe.

“Before anyone crushes me for being here, is there a polite greeting I can use that might make them not want to kill me quite so much?”

It is my honour to meet you,” said Blinky in trollish. Jim mimicked him, hoping his accent came across as ‘human child hearing new words for the first time’ and not ‘recent transplant from the Darklands’. “Well done, Master Jim.”

“What does it mean?”

He wanted to see how much information Blinky would volunteer – a literal translation or a simple explanation that it was a greeting. Blinky gave the literal translation.

The marketplace was not as densely packed as some human shopping malls, but it was well populated, and even hiding under AAARRRGGHH, Jim attracted attention.

“Was that a human?”

“What’s a fleshbag doing here?”

It was only a matter of time before someone confronted them.

“WHAT IS THIS?” The speaker was a blue troll, with impressive horns and crystalline spikes and a nose ring. The crowd parted for him. He leapt and crashed down right in front of AAARRRGGHH and Jim. “Human feet have never sullied the ground of Trollmarket before! Who is this fleshbag?”

“Ah – Draal – um, believe it or not, this human is … how do I put this … our new Trollhunter!” Blinky tried to say it confidently but quailed under the combined stares of their audience. Jim could relate.

“He can’t be the Trollhunter!” snapped the spiky one. “He’s not a TROLL!” He slammed his fists down where Jim had been a fraction of a second before.

Well, technically, I kind of am, Jim might have said if he actually wanted to die.

“Amulet chose,” AAARRRGGHH insisted. “Show them.” He pushed Jim forward a little, but still loomed protectively.

Jim raised the amulet. The spiky troll tried to snatch it from him.

“For the glory of Merlin, Daylight is mine to command!” he said quickly. He’d have to say it quickly if he was going to use this thing in fights.

The armor glowed into existence. Every troll in the audience gasped.

“A human protecting us?” One troll actually fainted.

“Bushigal!” swore the spiky one. “I,” he sneered at Jim, “am Draal! Son of Kanjigar! And the Amulet’s rightful heir!”

He grabbed Jim – weighted down by armour, Jim didn’t dodge fast enough this time – and tried to pull the Amulet off. There was a flash of blue light and Jim and Draal were repelled from one another. AAARRRGGHH caught Jim.

“Amulet chose.”

“We’ll see what Vendel has to say about this,” Draal growled.

“Feel free to fetch him.” Blinky hastily started herding Jim and AAARRRGGHH away. “In the meantime, lots of Trollhunter business to be done. Draal, wonderful to see you, as always.”

Sure, Jim knew already, but the trolls had neglected to inform him of his predecessor or his predecessor’s death.

“Who is Kanjigar and what happened to him?” he hissed to AAARRRGGHH.

“Last Trollhunter. Was felled.”

“Uh …”

“Means killed,” said AAARRRGGHH sadly.

“Unfortunately true,” said Blinky. “Kanjigar the Courageous was slain in battle against the last Gumm-Gumm left in this realm – Bular, son of Gunmar.”

They didn’t know that he knew who that was, but Jim didn’t ask.

“Merlin’s Amulet selects the next Trollhunter upon the death of the previous,” Blinky continued. “I am sorry, Master Jim. I know this must be overwhelming for you. But despite Draal’s or anyone else’s attempts to take the amulet from you, this sacred obligation is now yours until death.”

“I think I’m gonna need some time to process all that.” He hid behind a mask of numb shock while he decided what a realistic reaction should be. “And that Draal guy, he was the last Trollhunter’s son?”

“Yes. Draal has spent his life training, seeking to be worthy of the Amulet, and to succeed his father.”

“This must feel like a total slap in the face to him,” said Jim slowly, following Blinky down a narrower passage with semi-reflective walls. “First he loses his dad, and then he loses his dream job to someone totally inexperienced. I’ve never even fought anyone before!”

“In your entire life?”

“All fifteen years of it, yeah.” He had fought plenty while still in the Darklands. There wasn’t a lot else to do. But his human guise was very placid and peaceable. He’d only trained his other body for combat.

“Then there’s no time like the present to begin learning!” Blinky decided.

The cavern opened up before them.

“Welcome, young Trollhunter, to the Hero’s Forge!”

Chapter Text


So Blinky was related to Dictatious Maximus? Or maybe Galadrigal was just a common last name?

The address came from a white troll. He looked old, but that may have just been due to his colouring. He carried a staff made from the same crystal as the Heartstone.

“I wish to meet the fleshbag supposedly chosen by the Amulet.” He turned to where AAARRRGGHH and Jim were standing. His eyes were grey-blue-white – cataracts or something else? He certainly seemed able to see Jim. “I am Vendel, son of Rundle, son of Kilfred.”

Were those the names of both this troll’s parents, or the names of his father and paternal grandfather?

“Uh, I am Jim, son of Barbara.” Jim half-hid behind AAARRRGGHH’s massive arm. His fear was not entirely an act. “It is my honour to meet you, Vendel?”

“You speak trollish.” Opalescent eyes narrowed at him. Jim ducked a little further behind AAARRRGGHH.

“Blinky’s only had time to teach me that one phrase. It’s a greeting, right?”

Vendel gave him another suspicious look and then turned to Blinky. “If this fleshbag is to be the Trollhunter, let us see what the Soothscryer makes of him.”

“The Soothscryer – please, Vendel, Master Jim has not had even an hour’s training!”

“Then if the Soothscryer proves him unworthy of the Trollhunter’s mantle, at least we will not have wasted too much time. Stand here, human, and present the Amulet.”

Blinky made a little ‘go on’ gesture with his lower pair of arms, wringing his upper hands.

Jim stood in a pair of giant footprints and tried not to see them as a metaphor.

The Soothscryer rumbled up from the centre of the stone floor. It looked like an abstract statue of a troll, with six eyes and long, curved horns and a gaping maw. The mouth and eyes lit up, and its teeth whirled like a garbage disposal.

“Behold the Soothscryer! It will judge your true spirit. Insert your right hand, Trollhunter.”

“Is that the test? See if I’m dumb enough to stick my hand in that thing’s mouth?”

Vendel glared at him. Actually, Vendel’s expression hadn’t really changed since his arrival, so maybe he just looked like that.

“Part of the test is whether you get your hand back out.”

Jim approached the Soothscryer warily. It was taller than him. He did not particularly want to climb it or stick his hand in it, but as the second was apparently mandatory, so too did the first seem necessary.

“Helping hand?” AAARRRGGHH offered, holding his own hand flat in front of Jim. Jim stepped onto it.

“Thanks,” he said with deadpan sarcasm.

AAARRRGGHH lifted him to the required height and Jim reached into the Soothscryer’s mouth. It clamped down. Jim screamed and tried to pull away.

After a few terrifying moments, it let him go.

“I – I’m okay?” Jim examined his hand and forearm. “I’m okay!”

AAARRRGGHH set him on the floor and patted him again.

“Hmm,” said Vendel.

“Well?” asked Blinky.

“… Inconclusive.”

“That doesn’t mean I have to do that again, does it?”

“It means there’s never been a human Trollhunter before. The Soothscryer needs more time to render its judgement.” Vendel turned to leave. “Let us all hope you live long enough to see it.”

Once the old troll was gone, Blinky started up the Forge again. Jim yelped, dodging swinging blades.

“Excellent reflexes, Master Jim!”

“A little warning next time?”

“Your foes will not do you the courtesy of warning you before they strike! Rule Number One of being the Trollhunter – you must always be afraid! Fear heightens your senses – makes you nimble – makes you swift! Arrogance gets you killed! A true hero is not he who is unafraid, but he who is not stopped by his fear!”

Jim jumped onto one of the blades and held onto the shaft. It was dizzying but seemed a lot less dangerous than staying on the ground. Thank you, adrenalin. He hadn’t known he could jump that high.

From that elevated point, he realized AAARRRGGHH was still in the middle of the Forge.

“AAARRRGGHH! Climb onto the Soothscryer! Nothing else is touching it!”

Some of the floor plates were tilting or changing heights, but the Soothscryer seemed to be the eye of the storm. It had not receded into the floor after scanning Jim.

AAARRRGGHH was closer to the Soothscryer than to the arena’s edge. He made a run for it. Jim cried out again when a blade swung for the massive troll. “Step back! Go left! Okay, now forward!” AAARRRGGHH got out of the blade’s path before the backswing could cut his tail.

“Curse these infernal controls!” Blinky shouted. “It’s not shutting off!”

AAARRRGGHH clambered onto the Soothscryer. “Kill switch,” he said, and punched it in the mouth. The blades returned to their hiding places. Jim jumped back onto the Forge floor, landing badly.

“Oh, everything hurts.”

“AAARRRGGHH! Are you alright?” Blinky hurried over to his friend.

“Is he alright?” Jim echoed. “You nearly killed both of us!”

“Yes, well … perhaps that’s enough training for your first day.”

Jim outwardly seethed for the rest of the night, mostly to reap the benefits of Blinky’s conciliatory efforts. He’d been told the other two rules of Trollhunting – “Always finish the fight,” and “When in doubt, always kick them in the gronk-nuks” – and Blinky had loaned Jim the first three volumes of the forty-seven-part A Brief Recapitulation of Troll Lore, and given Jim his own horngazel to get back into Trollmarket if Blinky and AAARRRGGHH didn’t come to escort him.

He was very glad he’d passed on having them accompany him back home when he saw Bular sitting in his side-yard.

“Stricklander tells me the Amulet chose you.”

“Are you here to kill me?”

“Not tonight. But remember this, Impure.” Bular touched his sword to Jim’s throat, forcing the Changeling’s chin up to look Bular in the eye, which Jim had never dared to do before. “You, and that Amulet, are mine to command.”

“Of course, Bular.”

Bular’s smile was terrifying. He sheathed his sword and left.

Jim counted his blessings. He’d been expecting Bular to at least rough him up a bit to make a point. His neck – he checked with his fingertips – wasn’t even cut.

He went inside once his hands stopped shaking enough to use his key.

Jim put two of the books on the shelf in his room – he had a number of books, they wouldn’t look odd unless his mother really looked at them – and got started on Volume One. He chuckled a bit. It had clearly not occurred to Blinky that a normal human would not be able to read troll runes.

Although, the amulet’s inscription had changed to English …

He toyed idly with the amulet as he read. He didn’t want the oils on his skin to damage the ancient-looking pages, so he handled them only to turn them. He’d had enough brushes with death tonight. He couldn’t risk dozing off in his trollish form and being found like that if Barbara decided to check on her son when she got in.

A paragraph, lit by the amulet’s glow, changed to English. Had Blinky known that could happen? Jim would mention it next time they saw one another, as an excuse for how he’d managed to read books in a language he’d claimed not to know.

Did it work the other way, too, for a Trollhunter not fluent in human scripts? He experimentally turned the amulet to shine on one of his textbooks. The letters changed to runes.


Thinking it over, Jim plugged his phone into his laptop and started taking pictures of each page in A Brief Recapitulation. His phone’s memory didn’t have enough storage for even half the book, but his computer did. After a few hours, Volumes One, Two, and Three were in several encrypted folders, and backups were on multiple USB sticks. He’d find safe places for the rest and give one to Stricklander. Blinky would expect the physical books back.

It was six in the morning when he finished, the time that Jim usually got up. He was grateful Changelings didn’t need as much sleep as actual humans, even if they did need more than other trolls. Barbara still wasn’t home. This was concerning but not unprecedented. He left breakfast and lunch in the fridge for her.

“What were you up to last night?” Toby asked eagerly. Jim heaved a put-upon sigh.

“It was stupid, really. You know how I keep going on about living life to the fullest? I … may have tried to prank somebody. I nearly got caught setting it up and had to bail.”

“Who was it? What was the plan?”

“I can’t tell you. You’re my alibi! If you know any details, I’ve as good as confessed.”

At the end of History class, Jim lingered by Mr Strickler’s desk.

“Here.” He held out the USB stick. “For that extra credit project we were talking about. I thought you might want to check my sources before I officially turn anything in.”

“Thank you, Jim.” Mr Strickler put it away alongside his favourite pen. “I’ll take a look at this at lunch.”

Mr Strickler appeared at the end of the school day by Jim’s and Toby’s lockers.

“Jim. Might I have a private word with you?”

“Sure thing, Mr Strickler.” Jim shouldered his backpack and patted Toby’s shoulder. “See you later, Tobes.”

“You want me to wait around for you?”

“Nah, it’s fine.”

“Your extra-credit sources were most … illuminating,” said Mr Strickler casually as they walked to his office. “I was impressed.”

Jim glanced around – no more witnesses. “Bular showed up at my house last night. Luckily Dr Lake wasn’t home.”

“Did he attack you?”

“Not really. It was mostly a show of intimidation. He was doing that thing where he sharpens a sword on his arm spurs. But if anyone had come back from Trollmarket with me, there would’ve had to have been a fight.”

Stricklander growled and his eyes flashed.

“Tell me about Trollmarket.”

“It’s – beautiful. The Heartstone … I never imagined … I don’t have words for it.”

Jim scrambled for something of more strategic use.

“Trollmarket is basically an underground city. I wasn’t there long enough to determine how many trolls actually live there, but apparently there’s a lot of travel in and out from trolls around the world. The streets twist around; I think to follow natural mineral formations. It looks like there are stores and living quarters built into the walls of the cavern, not just along the floor. Everyone was quite scandalized to have a ‘fleshbag’ down there.”

They reached the office. Jim twirled the piano stool to his preferred level.

“The Hero’s Forge is a deathtrap disguised as a training ground. There’s these grindy things that come out of the floor, and blades that swoop out of the walls, and the floor splits up and moves, and I’m pretty sure I saw lava at one point. They’ve got the dead Trollhunters all rebuilt and surrounding the arena.”

Jim shuddered at the memory. It was unnerving. It made Rule One very easy to follow.

“The last Trollhunter had a son, who probably wants to kill me because he expected to be the next Trollhunter. I kind of want to see him and Bular fight. Although of course it would be over quickly and Bular would be victorious.”

“Of course.” Stricklander must have made a valiant effort but couldn’t keep from rolling his eyes.

“I’ve all but confirmed that Blinky, my trainer, is Dictatious’ brother. They’ve got the same last name, and in Blinky’s library he has books in Dictatious’ handwriting that seem set aside from the rest of the collection. Blinky leant me the first three volumes of A Brief Recapitulation of Troll Lore. I’ll ask for the next three in a few days. I confirmed the amulet can act as a translator, so it won’t look weird that a human could read them. Not that Blinky seemed to think of that when he gave me the books.”

Jim held the amulet face-down over some papers on Stricklander’s desk, demonstrating.

“My other trainer is General AAARRRGGHH. He claims to be a pacifist now. He and Blinky acted emotionally intimate. I haven’t seen enough to call their exact relationship, but they should be close enough that, if it comes to that, we can probably use Blinky as a hostage against AAARRRGGHH. Blinky seems more an academic then a fighter – though I could be underestimating him, since you seem that way too at first.”

Stricklander snorted and smiled wickedly.

“There was this other troll named Vendel who I think might be in charge. The last Trollhunter’s son went running to him about me being down there and Blinky and AAARRRGGHH both seemed to defer to him.”

“Continue as planned,” Stricklander ordered. “Report any new discoveries about Trollmarket or the amulet directly to me.”


Stricklander rested a hand on Jim’s shoulder before Jim left. “You’ve done well so far. I’m proud of you.”

Chapter Text

Jim rolled a large wheelbarrow down the side of the canal. It was hard not to let go of it and send it crashing down the slope on its own. He rolled it to the pile of gravel that had been the Trollhunter before him, unfolded a tarp in the wheelbarrow's tray, and started gathering pieces, trying not to cringe over handling a dead body.

He didn't know the details of the fight, but it looked like Bular had smashed Kanjigar and hard. Most of the pieces were quite small. He might need a broom and dustpan for the finest gravel.

Jim started on the outer edges of the 'splatter', grabbing bits that would be most quickly lost in the dark or a hard rain. His eyes began to hurt from staring at the sun-bleached cement.

He started in late afternoon. By sunset, he had started moving rocks from the main pile while trying not to scatter the rest of the stone, like a grisly game of Pick Up Sticks. He didn't think he'd be able to fit all of Kanjigar into the wheelbarrow.

The door to Trollmarket opened. Jim saw colour before shape, and tensed at the sight of blue stone and yellow eyes, but it was Blinky, not Draal.

Blinky and AAARRRGGHH started helping Jim without a word. Kanjigar fit in the wheelbarrow after all. AAARRRGGHH folded the edges of the tarp over the pile, like a shroud.

AAARRRGGHH went down the crystal staircase first this time. He coaxed the wheelbarrow down, step by step. Blinky steadied the handles. Jim kept an eye and an ear alert for fallen pieces, but AAARRRGGHH had wrapped the tarp well. Jim tried not to think about what that implied; about how many times AAARRRGGHH might have helped transport remains of the dead.

Jim addressed Blinky quietly.

"I'm only about fifty pages into A Brief Recapitulation, and there's nothing about funeral customs yet. Are we taking him straight to the Forge, or do we bring him back to his family first?"

"Draal is Kanjigar's only family living in Trollmarket. I think it would be best if he did not see you this night." They reached the bottom of the crystal staircase and started down the much steeper, plain stone staircase that led into Trollmarket. "Please wait here, Master Jim."

Jim sat at the top of the steps and watched Blinky and AAARRRGGHH disappear down the streets. It took a while for AAARRRGGHH to be completely out of view. Jim tried to study Trollmarket, to get a firmer idea of the layout of its streets, or maybe make a guess at its current population relative to its potential capacity. His eyes kept being drawn to the Heartstone instead. He felt an irrational, suicidal urge to change forms, just for a moment, to feel the potent magic's effects on his troll body.

He ended up almost in a daze, watching the Heartstone and resisting the call to shift, part of him idly wondering if this was at all similar to what a gaggletack felt like. Vendel approached him and he snapped to focus.


"Good evening, Vendel."

"How long have you been here?"

"A little after sunset?" He got up, noting he felt a little stiff. He must have been sitting for quite some time. "Blinky and AAARRRGGHH are –"

"I'm aware. They informed me of your assistance in gathering Kanjigar's remains."

"… Is Draal going to be okay? I know what it's like to lose a dad." He was mostly over it – James Lake Senior had been absent for twice as long as he'd been present, and Jim hadn't been as devastated by the abandonment as his Familiar would have been if the human child were the one to be left behind – but rejection stung and he might be able to play the trolls for sympathy by offering sympathy of his own.

They stood in silence for a while, Jim performing some basic stretches, before Vendel answered.

"Draal should recover in time."

"Do trolls have that saying too, that time heals all wounds?"

"Living heals, even if it scars," said Vendel. "In your language, it's closer to your other saying, that life goes on. Or so Blinkous tells me."

Vendel seemed to have decided that a human Trollhunter wasn't the worst possible thing that could ever have happened, or at least decided he needed to accept Jim out of necessity to have a Trollhunter and the new unpredictability of who – or what – the Amulet might choose next if Jim were killed. He'd invited Jim to accompany him to get a closer look at the Heartstone. Jim's staring had not been subtle.

"I'm surprised to see a human have such a troll-like response," Vendel commented.

"I – I don't know if I'd say that." Jim laughed nervously. "It's just so big, and, it's a very human thing to be drawn to brightly-coloured, glowing things. Like, there's this joke that humanity's survival instinct took a wrong turn somewhere, because a lot of really beautiful animals are also really toxic, but the bright colours that warn of their toxins make humans want to touch them."

Trolls were giving him suspicious looks, just like yesterday, but as he was accompanying Vendel no one actually spoke out against him.

"Or there's these other rocks, like uranium and plutonium and some others, that emit radiation that can seriously mess up our bodies over time, but we didn't always know that. One of the first scientists to really study those, she used to take radium out just to look at because it was so beautiful, and eventually she died from it and her notebooks are still so radioactive they aren't safe to study."

Why could Jim not shut up?

"Also, it's crystalline, and our … economy and luxury items mean I've been conditioned to be impressed by crystals. If the Heartstone were just dull rock I'd still be impressed because it's so big, but I would probably be having a different reaction."


"I kind of wish I could bring Toby down here. I know I can't, but he's my best friend and he's really into geology and he'd probably know the names of all … these," gesturing around them at the various crystals growing from the walls, "and he'd absolutely love this place."

And Bular would never be able to find him and eat him if Trollmarket really is warded against Gumm-Gumms.

"Humans aren't made of stone like trolls are, but we do have some minerals in us," Jim continued to babble. "If we don't have enough iron we get sick. We have to get that through our food. Sometimes way back in history, if somebody got sick, their family would boil a horseshoe or something in broth and make them drink it so they would 'absorb the strength of the iron', and I think that's part of why cast iron cookware became popular. Also because, if you treat it right, it lasts forever. But we're more carbon than iron. Some humans, when they die, arrange for their bodies to be burned and their ashes compressed into a diamond. I personally think that's kind of creepy but it's also interesting and creative."

"Do you ever stop talking?"

"It keeps me from asking intrusive personal questions. I have a lot of those."

Vendel sighed heavily. "You and Blinkous are going to adore one another."

"I can be quiet," Jim offered, and went silent, biting the inside of his lips. Two minutes later, Vendel turned to look at him as though to make sure he was still there. The elder nodded thoughtfully.

Jim's silence lasted until they were at the base of the Heartstone. It was even more immense from this angle. Jim burst out, in a harsh whisper, "Can I touch it?"

"It's not sacrilegious, if that's what you mean. Though no one knows what effect it would have on a human body." Aw, Vendel had paid attention to Jim's chatter about radioactivity.

Jim pressed his left hand to the Heartstone, palm flat. Neither the stone nor his hand changed in any way.

"It's warm."

Like sleeping in a tumbled-together pile with the other Familiar-less Changelings back in the Darklands, or like the dryer-fresh baby blanket when the nameless Changeling was first brought out of the Darklands and became Jim, or getting a tight hug from his mother, or hot chocolate with Mom and Toby and Nana Domzalski after a snowball fight, or seeing Jay-Jay laugh at some out-of-sight goblin's antics, or Stricklander's hand on his shoulder while he said Jim had done well, or Mom's unskilled but lovingly-made cooking …

The second he was left unsupervised again, he was definitely going to try breaking off a piece of Heartstone to take with him. The Janus Order needed this.

He didn't end up seeing Blinky or AAARRRGGHH for the rest of the night. At two in the morning, only a few minutes after he first touched the Heartstone unless he had entirely spaced out, an alarm went off on his phone, startling him and Vendel. Jim explained he needed to go back home and sleep before school.

The next night, Draal approached Jim and Blinky in the Hero's Forge. Jim had finally learned how to summon the Sword of Daylight. Blinky was correcting his stance and grip. AAARRRGGHH watched from the sidelines.

"Ah, so the Trollhunter's training begins." Draal's grin reminded Jim of every opponent with a notable size or strength advantage he'd ever fought or seen fight, including Steve Palchuk from high school. "I thought the great Trollhunter might accept my services as a sparring partner." He punched his palm. "Part of your training regiment, is it not?"

"In due time, perhaps," Blinky tried to deflect, but Vendel was there too.

"Why wait? I am eager to see your charge demonstrate his mettle. Let them spar!"

"No harm in it." Draal was too smug to lie convincingly.

At least Jim was frightened enough that the armour shouldn't disappear mid-battle. He didn't know how to fight in this body! Draal would crush him! He tried to keep his breathing steady so he wouldn't be going into the fight oxygen-deprived.

A Brief Recapitulation of Troll Lore mentioned that trolls of Draal's body type had a large blind spot behind them, due to their heavy crystalline protrusions. If Jim could get and stay behind Draal he might buy himself a minute. He would have no qualms following Rule Number Three or yanking on Draal's nose ring if opportunity presented itself. The biggest concern would be Draal's rolling attack –

Which was, of course, what he started with when Vendel shouted, "Begin!"

Jim almost dodged, but Draal clipped his shoulder. The armour that protected him also slowed him down and blunted his reflexes. Jim spun from the force of impact.

Draal rolled past, up the walls of the Forge to build momentum – could he actually see where he was going? Jim wondered wildly – and then up to the ceiling to drop from above. Jim actually had quite a bit of experience with attacks from above. He was able to escape being landed on and managed to hit Draal with the Sword of Daylight. At least, there was a clang when he swung the sword at the troll and it felt like he'd hit something.

Draal rounded on him and landed a punch in Jim's stomach. Jim was thrown across the floor of the Forge.

I'm moving wrong, Jim realized. He was moving like he was in his other form, the only form he'd fought in before, and he had different balance and proportions as a human even without the armour.

Then he landed and everything hurt too much to think or even breathe for a moment.

Jim staggered to his feet, using his sword as a crutch. Draal was charging. Jim dropped into the deepest stance he could and held the sword ready before him. Draal's spikes ground against the blade. There was a noise like a screaming buzz saw. Jim saw sparks. He was being pushed back; this wasn't a sustainable position for someone his size against an opponent as big as Draal. But if he broke form, he'd be crushed.

He turned the sword and jumped, hoping to send Draal ricocheting off to one side while Jim leapt over him. Instead, Draal crashed into him, just as he'd feared, but the sphere Draal had curled into had opened up.

Jim saw his chance and took it, grabbing Draal's nose ring. The troll actually cried out in pain as the Trollhunter turned and pulled.

A massive hand closed around Jim's torso and squeezed. Air was forced out of his lungs. His ribs hurt. He made a pathetic noise but held on to Draal's nose ring. Jim's vision was going grey at the edges and he was starting to feel nauseous. Draal got up.

"I let go, when you do," the troll growled. All Jim could do was release him and hope he kept his word.

Draal dropped him to the arena floor.

"Not as pathetic as I thought," he admitted.

Jim tried to stand again. Draal snorted and kicked him, sending him back down and rolling him over. Jim groaned.

He'd had broken ribs before. They were not broken now. But breathing still hurt so much.

The sword had disappeared in a puff of light during the crash. Jim scrunched his face in concentration and summoned it again.

"That's enough!" cried Blinky from the sidelines. Ringside chatter. Didn't mean a thing. Didn't have the authority to stop the fight. Why was the arena so brightly lit …?

Jim forced himself up. He held his sword unsteadily. His opponent seemed too surprised to attack him while he regrouped.

"Master Jim – Draal – Vendel, please –!"

Jim was too far away to easily lunge and force his opponent to yield with a blade to his throat. But he kept his weapon up, warning his opponent against charging him again either. Stalemate, for now. What would break it?

Which of them would leave Gunmar's Crucible alive?

Wait, no, that wasn't right …

"Enough!" said Vendel.

Blinky slumped with relief. AAARRRGGHH, who had been restraining him, rubbed his back. Draal – not another unnamed Changeling, or an old Gumm-Gumm squishing a blatantly unmatched opponent for Gunmar's amusement – relaxed out of a battle-ready posture. They were in the Forge, not the Darklands. Jim let the sword vanish, but not the armour. This was the Hero's Forge in Trollmarket. He was possibly going to die here, but probably not in the next minute.

"Excellent use of strategy, Master Jim, especially considering your training has only just begun!" Blinky's enthusiasm jarred him solidly into the here and now. "Your endurance was most unexpected!"

"That was, what, a minute?" he wheezed.

"And a half, counting your second return to your feet! I realize you didn't continue fighting after that, but I was very impressed."

"We'll spar again," said Draal, before leaving. It was an odd mix of compliment and threat.

Chapter Text

"Have you ever even held a sword before?" Draal demanded the next night.

"I'm more of a knife guy."

Jim could pass that off as a cooking joke if questioned, but it was true. The scale of the blade he had to work with now was throwing him off almost as badly as fighting in humanoid form.

He was confident enough that Draal wouldn't kill him – or, at least, that Blinky and AAARRRGGHH wouldn't stand idly by and let Draal kill him – that he offered the sword to the troll.

"Show me how I'm supposed to hold it, then."

Draal's eyes widened and he actually took half a step back.

"Ah, Master Jim," Blinky cautioned from the sidelines, "only a Trollhunter can wield the Sword of Daylight."

Jim ignored this and held the sword flat across both hands. Draal took it, slowly, cautiously, with more fear and reverence in his expression than Jim thought the sword really warranted even if it was magic. When Draal raised the blade above his head, it shone blue, and vanished from his hand in a burst of glowing smoke. It reappeared in Jim's hand, like the amulet had when he first tried to leave it with Stricklander.

"The sword is bound to the amulet," said Blinky. "It is not that only the Trollhunter may wield it, but that only the Trollhunter can."

Draal and Jim both winced.

"I'm … sorry," said Jim.

Draal sighed heavily. He walked over to the side of the Forge. Jim thought at first that he was storming off to be alone with his thoughts, but Draal came back with a double-pronged spear, or maybe a pole arm, from the weapons rack. He tested a few strikes against the empty air, and then pointed it at Jim.

"Your blade is but an extension of your body," he said sternly. "And your body, an extension of your eyes. Mimic my movements, Trollhunter."

"I'm almost impressed," said Draal, a few nights later. "I didn't think a fleshbag could survive this level of pummelling."

"You actually … getting tired?" Jim tried to taunt. It was ruined by his wheezing. Draal had successfully run him over three times so far in this match. "Admit it … I'm … wearing you down."

Draal laughed at him.

"Trollhunter!" A shouting woman ran into the Forge, waving her arms above her head. "TROLLHUNTER!" Blinky and AAARRRGGHH rushed to her.

"What is it? Speak, Bagdwella!"

She panted. Jim walked over, trying not to stumble. Draal gave him a sideways glance that could be creatively interpreted as concern.

"Rr … ruh … rogue gnome!"

"So, I learned something interesting about the Amulet last night. Apparently the teleportation thing it was doing is only if the Trollhunter rejects it. If somebody steals it, it doesn't just poof back to me."

"Someone stole the Amulet?"

"I got it back." He'd tempted the creature out of the hole with a candy bar, and stuffed it into a sack and stuffed the sack into a battered metal lunchbox. In order to retrieve her own things, the shopkeeper had been willing to have the wall carved open to get to the gnome's stash. "I'm just saying, that's kind of a counter-intuitive design feature. Thought it might come in handy when Bular kills me and the Amulet picks somebody else."

"Bular is not going to kill you."

It was comforting to hear Stricklander say that. Hearing that stern, parental tone, Jim could almost believe that he could turn to the more experienced Changeling for protection from Gunmar's son, and actually expect to receive that protection.

After school, he was faced with the gnome problem again.

It was secured in its box and very loudly unhappy about it. It had given up shouting and crashing into the walls, and was now singing a lament to the accompaniment of its odd guitar, or whatever the instrument was.

Jim had never had a pet, but the gnome's earlier behaviour reminded him of things he'd heard about ferrets. He was going to feel bad over killing the cute, clever little thief. He really should have done it already, but … as one being that trolls considered vermin to another, he wasn't sure he could go through with it. He hadn't directly, personally killed anything since leaving the Darklands.

He put it off by doing homework and reading more troll lore. Eventually the gnome went quiet. Jim thought it fell asleep.

Considering he had compared it to a ferret earlier, he should have expected it to escape.

Considering how up-and-down his luck had been lately, he really should have expected it to get out his window, drop off the porch roof, and make a run for Toby's house across the street.

Having known each other for ten years, Jim and Toby tended to let themselves in to each other's houses rather than knocking and waiting. Jim went right after the gnome, praying Toby was out and Nana Domzalski was immersed in one of her shows.

He almost caught it in the front hall. It darted into a rain boot that was lying on its side. Jim picked the boot up, but the gnome popped right back out as he was trying to cover the top of the boot with his forearm. It jumped to the ground and he turned the boot over, slamming it down like a glass on a spider, and missing the gnome by a hair.

In the kitchen, he dropped to all fours to follow it under the table and wondered if he should risk switching forms for faster reflexes. He could switch back if he heard Nana or Toby coming.

Before he could make a decision, the gnome jumped from the chairs it had been hopping back and forth between onto Jim's head, yanking his hair on landing, and then onto the floor and scuttled behind the fridge. Without AAARRRGGHH, Jim couldn't move something that heavy.

Well, maybe in his armour he could – he had suspicions it increased his strength, considering the size of the sword – but did he really need a magical suit of armour just to catch one lousy crafty gnome?

He waited by the fridge for it to come out again.

"Jimmy!" Nana Domzalski greeted him. Because of course she was here, in her own house, in the late evening, on a weeknight. "What a nice surprise. I think Toby-Pie is upstairs."

"Thanks, Mrs Domzalski," he said as easily as he could. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the gnome make a break for it and, conveniently and terribly, run up the quarter round of the staircase. "I'll just head on up."

Toby essentially had the entire upper story to himself. He was in his bedroom, staring enchanted at the gnome, which was playing its guitar.

"Aren't you just the best tiny musician in the world?" he whispered. "With such a cute pointy hat –" It bared its fangs at him and he recoiled, falling back on his bed and scrambling away. "And pointy teeth!"

"Toby!" Damn secrecy! Jim was pretty sure gnomes were carnivorous; he didn't want to drag his best friend to the hospital with mysterious bite wounds!

"Jim, did you see that?" The gnome ran again with a chittering giggle and disappeared into a pile of video games. "It was just there! Like a tiny lawn gnome, with a guitar, and fangs!"

"I saw it too, Tobes."

The undercover thing would be to lie and try to grab the gnome without Toby noticing. But Toby had seen the gnome. He hadn't had his phone out to record the musical performance, but he couldn't be put off by being told he'd imagined it. It would be easier to catch with Toby's help. Jim just had to keep Toby from finding out anything else and from comparing notes with Elijah Pepperjack in the aftermath.

The guitar started playing in the dollhouse. Jim held his finger to his lips and Toby nodded. As quietly as they could, they approached the dollhouse and peered into the tiny windows.

"Aw," Toby crooned. "He made a friend." The gnome was serenading a Sally-Go-Back action figure.

"When I say so," said Jim, "you pull the dollhouse open and I'll grab him."

"Come on, Jim, look at the little guy! He sounds so happy. Soul of an artist in that one."

It did seem docile for the moment …

"I just don't think it's safe," was the best Jim could offer without breaking at least one of his covers.

"I'm gonna name him Gnome Chompsky," said Toby.

"You're not serious. You're not keeping it."

"Man, I wish we could tell people about this, but poor Chompsky'd probably bolt again if too many 'giants' like us started crowding him, am I right?"

"You're actually serious."

"Come on, Jim! This is the coolest thing that's ever happened to me! I promise if he bites me I'll drop him down the garbage disposal and you can say you told me so."

Jim returned the empty sack and lunchbox to Bagdwella later that night and let her assume he was, indeed, a 'gnome slayer'.

Chapter Text

Jim had been Trollhunter for nearly two weeks when he found an opportunity to steal a piece of Heartstone.

He was developing something of a routine when he went to Trollmarket. The night would start out with training in the Forge, either sparring with Draal or evading the death traps built into the Forge itself.

Then Blinky would drag Jim off to the library and lecture him on troll lore and history and customs. Jim was starting to 'learn' the spoken and written languages. He had copied and passed Volumes Four, Five, and Six of A Brief Recapitulation Of Troll Lore on to Stricklander, though officially he was still reading Volume Six. Since Jim was such a 'quick learner', Blinky had expressed hope that by the time Jim finished all forty-seven volumes, the human Trollhunter wouldn't need his amulet to translate the text.

Throughout it all, the Trollhunter's training might be interrupted at any moment by a call for aid – usually Bagdwella wanting him to take care of some mundane chore. The rest of Trollmarket didn't seem particularly interested in him, even for novelty value. Jim supposed they weren't expecting him to last long.

That night, Blinky was teaching Jim about the Heartstone, and agreed that the lesson might have greater impact if they went and looked at the stone itself rather than staying in the library. When they got there, Vendel wanted a word with Blinky and AAARRRGGHH, so Jim had been left to his own devices.

Jim had been asking Toby about his rock collection lately, to review his own knowledge of crystal growth. He wondered if it might be possible to cultivate another Heartstone.

There were a few smaller crystal protrusions on the ground near the root of the crystal. Jim sat on the ground and started digging around them. He ended up with his forehead rested against the Heartstone while he worked, looking for a thin point or facet line where he could snap off the piece without damaging the Heartstone as a whole.

To the Changeling's surprise, a bulb of crystals simply came off in his hand. He got up slowly and quickly stashed it in his pocket. A quick look around confirmed there was still no one around to see what he was doing. Jim pressed one hand, palm flat, to the Heartstone, curled his other hand around the fragment, and, feeling only slightly foolish, whispered, "Thank you."

Instead of going home after leaving Trollmarket in the early hours of the next morning, Jim went to the Janus Order's local base. The travel agency front was closed, but there was a Changeling key hidden in a wind chime near the door, so Jim could let himself in.

"Welcome to Omni Reach Travel. Where would you like to go?" said the automatic voice on the phone.

"Where two faces meet."

He should've brought his mask, he considered, riding the escalator down. But he hadn't been able to anticipate this opportunity, and he didn't want to risk anything happening to the shard before he could bring it here. Fortunately, there were spare masks in one of the desk drawers.

The white hallways reminded him of something out of a human spy movie. Possibly some Changelings worked in the movies, but more likely they'd been inspired after watching them. There were many influencers of human culture that were far easier for Gunmar's forces to infiltrate than the highly competitive entertainment industry.

Jim wasn't in the bureaucratic section of the base very often, since he usually gave reports directly to Stricklander. His on-base duties kept him around the cafeteria. He had only a loose memory of where he needed to go and a vague hope Otto Scaarbach was even in the country, never mind his office. Sure, Stricklander was nominally in charge, but the polymorph Otto held special status for his rare ability.

No, Jim wasn't going behind Stricklander's back. He was simply … ensuring the Heartstone fragment wasn't misplaced before it could be brought to the Janus Order. Valuable things in any Changeling's possession sometimes disappeared, among that Changeling's personal effects, before they could be delivered to secure locations.

Unfortunately, Otto was not there.

Jim scowled, keeping his hands deep in his pockets. The Heartstone fragment was comfortingly warm. The Trollhunter Amulet felt oddly cold.

"Jim? Don't see you down here much."

"Oh, hey, Gladys." Jim didn't know Gladys very well but he'd met his fellow Changeling in passing; he and Toby went to the same dentist, Jim far less frequently than Toby, and her human cover was a hygienist at the dental clinic. He knew her voice, and she'd likely recognized him by height. "Any idea where Otto is?"

"Out of town somewhere." She shrugged. "Rumour has it, someone found a lead on the Eyestone, so he's gone to see if it's the real deal and bring it back."

"That's –!" Jim's hand tightened on the amulet. "That's wonderful!"

"I thought you reported to Stricklander, though."

He flashed his eyes gold and red through the mesh of his mask and huffed as though irritated. "You've never had to run an errand for the big important boss types? If Otto's not here, where's the phonograph?"

Gladys pulled away from Jim – he suspected she was alarmed, but it was hard to tell with her mask on – and after a moment, gestured for him to follow her.

The old record player, used to receive messages from the Pale Lady, always had three or four Changelings monitoring it. It was moved regularly between rooms of the base as a security precaution and because the magical signal was inconsistent. The particular delivery felt like it required multiple witnesses if it wasn't going to a die-hard loyalist like Otto.

Two of the three monitors turned to the door when Jim entered. Gladys didn't join him, but didn't leave either, lingering in the doorway to see and hear what was so important.

"My sources are classified, but I've managed to retrieve this."

Jim got out the orange crystal. There were audible gasps.

"Is that –?"

"It can't be."

"No way."


"Heartstone." Jim set it down by the phonograph. One of the other Changelings removed their mask, revealing a reverent, hungry expression. "I can't prove it, but I'm very sure."

He slipped out while the monitors were fussing over the crystal and leaning into the phonograph to learn what the Pale Lady thought of this. Gladys trailed him as he exited.

"That's an exciting discovery you made."

"Yeah … too bad Otto wasn't here. He'd've been thrilled."

"I'm surprised Stricklander let you out of his office with that. Let alone sent it to Otto."

"I suggested Nomura, so we could hide it in the museum," Jim lied. Bular was at the museum, and he would have just chucked it through the Fetch directly to Gunmar. "But if the Janus Order as a whole can benefit from it, that's better than hoarding it away."

She probably didn't believe him, but she didn't question him further or follow him when he left.

Jim went to school early, and straight to Mr Strickler's office. The history teacher was already there. He scowled ferociously at Jim.

"I heard. You stole part of the Heartstone, and you didn't bring it directly to me?"

"Officially you sent me to bring it to Otto." It wasn't like Stricklander wasn't going to get credit for this.

"Do not try to placate me. I ordered you to bring anything you discovered in Trollmarket directly to me!"

"This wasn't information, though. It was an artifact."

Stricklander's eyes blazed red.

"What were you thinking? How did you even explain having it?"

"I said my sources were classified."

"And everyone accepted that?"

"There were only four. Besides, it gives off this … mildly intoxicating feeling. They weren't inclined to be suspicious during the initial rush."

"Jim. I have done my utmost to keep your status as Trollhunter on a need-to-know basis. That secret grows harder to keep if you start doing things like – giving away shards of Heartstone!"

"I did not give it away! I shared it! I always –" Jim cut himself off and sucked in a deep, steadying breath. "When I first felt the Heartstone's power, I wanted to bring the Janus Order down to Trollmarket so every other Changeling could feel it too. That's not exactly feasible right now, so this was the next best thing."

Stricklander rubbed the bridge of his nose. "You've been intending to do this since you first set foot in Trollmarket, then."

"Pretty much, yeah."

"I suppose I can't fault you for kind intentions." He exhaled forcefully and pinned Jim with a look. "But you can't take personal responsibility for the comfort and wellbeing of every Changeling. You may not be the child you appear, but I … I don't want to see you crumble under the weight of the world."

Jim groaned, mostly for show. "The Atlas thing again?"

"You do insist on shouldering ever-heavier burdens."

"Looking after my – Familiar's mother is just good cover, and being Trollhunter wasn't my idea."

"Just try to exercise more caution in the future, Young Atlas."

"Fine. I promise."

A Changeling's promise was not worth very much.

Chapter Text

"Mmm." Barbara sniffed the air in the kitchen appreciatively. "Blueberry waffles, bacon mac-and-cheese … shrimp cakes? What is this, a last meal?"

Depending on when the Eyestone gets here, it just might be.

"Eh, I wanted to bake cookies," said Jim casually. "I decided to make your favourite, and then … all your favourites."

She kissed the top of his head. He hugged her and held on.

"You're angling for something, aren't you?" she teased.

"Come on, Mom. You deserve nice things. And we've both been so busy lately. When's the last time we just … had dinner?"

"I'll set the table."

Conversation was light and casual, with funny stories from Barbara's work and Jim's commentary on his lessons at school.

"I love you, Mom," he said, after their laughter died down from her description of one of the nurse's constant outlandish excuses for being late. The excuses frustrated Barbara to no end, but they were comedy gold when they weren't actively inconveniencing her and her patients.

"Love you, too, kiddo. I don't know what I would do without you." Barbara patted her stomach. "I'd be ten pounds lighter, but still."

Jim started clearing the dishes.

"Shrimp cakes?" Barbara continued. "Gosh, I haven't had those since …"

"Dad made them for us?"

"I didn't think you were old enough to remember."

"I remember enough."

I remember debating asking the Janus Order to track him down and feed him to Bular.

"I remember how his beard would scratch my face when he hugged me. How much he made you laugh while he was here. How much he made you cry after he left."

He forcibly scrubbed the heel of his hand across his eyes.

"And I remember what you said when I was old enough to ask about him – how we just have to take care of each other. I would never leave you like he did. You know that, right?"

Jim swallowed and felt the phantom scrape of Bular's sword at his neck.

"At least by choice."

Barbara squeezed Jim's shoulder. "Don't start with that, mister. I'm still hoping you'll end up choosing an in-state college."


I'll keep you alive once Gunmar is free. I'll find a way we can stay a family.

"You have to give me that waffle recipe." Barbara began packing up the leftovers. "If there's one thing I could eat forever, it's waffles."

"It's … here when you need it." Just like me. I'll always be here for you.

And if anyone tries to hurt you again …

Jim kept the Amulet in the stomach pocket of his blue sweatshirt. He wasn't sure if it had pulsed for a moment or if his gut had simply clenched on its own.

Draal found himself growing … reluctantly acclimated to the new Trollhunter. The fleshbag whelp still couldn't come close to besting Draal in combat, and his voice was annoying and his accent terrible when he tried to speak trollish, but he tried hard and he was getting better.

He would never measure up to Kanjigar's legacy, of course. Draal could relate to him on that point. Not that they ever spoke of it.

Draal let his eyes stray to his father's reassembled remains while waiting for Jim to arrive. Would Kanjigar be proud of Draal now, helping train the new Trollhunter? Or would he be outraged that Draal hadn't challenged the boy, for distorting the proud Trollhunter line by not being a troll himself?

Were they training Jim well? He'd already lasted longer than Unkar the Unfortunate, but he hadn't yet faced Bular or any other real threats, not even goblins.

If they weren't training Jim well … would Kanjigar regret not letting his son take part in Kanjigar's training, only observe it from afar? Or would it simply reinforce Kanjigar's apparent belief that Draal shouldn't be involved? That Draal wasn't strong enough, wasn't fast enough, wasn't skilled enough, wasn't strategic-minded enough, wasn't something enough?

Draal wished his father had just explained why Draal didn't measure up. If he'd known what he was doing wrong he could've fixed it, and then maybe his father would've let him help.

And then, maybe, Kanjigar wouldn't have died.

Or, if he'd still had to lose his father, maybe at least the Amulet would have considered Draal a more worthy successor to bear its mantle than a fleshbag child.

"Hello, Draal," said Jim, in … passable trollish. Draal grunted a greeting. He hadn't heard the fleshbag get there. He should be more alert. Jim continued, in the human language this time. "Do you eat lightbulbs?"

"Do I eat what?"

"Lightbulbs. They're like, glass bottles with a wire inside and a permanently-sealed metal cap. I've noticed trolls eating stuff like that, so I brought some things with me tonight, and AAARRRGGHH already ate all the VHS tapes."

When Jim offered him the bag, Draal felt foolish. He recognized the objects. He just hadn't known what humans called them.

"Yes," he said simply, and tossed one into his mouth. Delicious. "We shouldn't eat much before training, though."

"Yeah, I just thought, you know, it's nice to have a snack for after. I like cooking, but nothing I make seems like it would appeal to trolls."

"Tonight," Blinky interrupted to announce dramatically, "you'll be training together with the Forge active!"

"Wait, what?" Jim rounded on the four-armed historian. The bag of lightbulbs made clinking noises. "I can barely survive this thing when I'm not getting my butt handed to me!"

"And without weapons!"

"If you say 'without armour' too, I will quit right here and now –"

"If you do not have a weapon, your environment can be the weapon!"

The Trollhunter was nearly gutted by one of the blades that erupted from the Forge floor.

"A weapon you use, I mean!"

The Trollhunter had indeed been allowed to keep his armour, but it didn't look like it was helping him very much. Draal was winning more soundly than usual.

"I hate you, Blinky!" Jim yelled as he narrowly avoided a jet of flame.

Draal snorted in amusement. The human was quick, he'd give him that, but there was no strategy to his movement. He hadn't learned the flow of the Forge's movements yet.

There wasn't exactly a pattern – training to a pattern got you killed in a real fight – but there was a rhythmic flow to each of the Forge's mechanisms, and for those who could observe them and predict them, they could be tools as much as obstacles.

That lesson finally seemed to sink in a few minutes later, when the Trollhunter lured Draal into charging him just as one of the swinging blades rolled forward.

Draal would have been proud if he'd had a second's time to think about it.

The giant axe threw Draal into the air. He landed hard at the edge of the Forge's platform and skidded over the edge. He barely caught himself. Draal grit his teeth and tried to reach up with his other arm. He could feel himself starting to slip.

Then the Trollhunter was there, standing over him. Jim summoned the Sword of Daylight. Draal's eyes widened. When the human raised the blade, Draal cringed and looked away.

There was the sound of metal forcing itself into stone. But Draal did not fall.

He looked up. The sword was stabbed into the arena floor and the Trollhunter was holding onto the hilt for stability as he reached for Draal. Draal reached up to him. The armour pulsed with light as the Trollhunter pulled Draal to safety.

Draal was not an expert on human facial expressions, but from his tone of voice, Jim felt hurt and indignant.

"Did you seriously think I was going to stab you off a cliff into a pool of lava?"

"I wasn't sure what to think," Draal admitted.

"Draal." Now Jim sounded … oddly serious, almost like he was making a vow. "Draal, if I ever actually try to kill you, it will not be with your father's sword."

Draal was uncertain how to react to that odd promise, so he said nothing.

Blinky had deactivated the Forge and he and AAARRRGGHH were hurrying over. Jim turned to examine the Sword of Daylight, the blade buried surprisingly deep into the solid stone floor. Draal had thought at first it had been wedged into one of the existing grooves or cracks, but that section had been a smooth panel. The Trollhunter gave the sword an experimental tug. It did not move.

"Merlin might've been real, but I'm no King Arthur," said Jim. "I don't think I can get this out. Luckily," he made the sword vanish, "there's that option."

"Draal!" Draal had neither expected nor wanted Blinky to hug him. "Great Gronka Morka, when I saw you go over the side …"

"I'm fine, Blinkous." It was hard to shove away someone when they had twice the usual number of arms to hang on with. "Go congratulate your Trollhunter on his first rescue."

Part of Draal missed the friendly contact once it ended, but he pushed that down.

"Who puts lava in a training ring?" Jim demanded. "Is it magma since we're still underground, or since we're in an air pocket does it count as lava? Is it not as dangerous to trolls as it is to humans? Why is there lava?"

"Master Jim, please, calm yourself."

"I'll calm down once I get over nearly falling into a pit of lava! Is that there to enforce the 'always be afraid rule' or what? Are we actually deep enough that that's the mantle or is this a volcano? Is Arcadia Oaks built on a volcano?! What if it erupts?!"

"This is not a volcano, Master Jim."

"Then what's with the lava?!"

Chapter Text

The Museum of Arcadia was very different during its hours of operation. Much more brightly lit. Much less filled with the uneasy feeling he might run into Bular at any moment.

Jim veered away from his scattering classmates to loiter near their history teacher and the museum curator.

Eli was peppering Ms Nomura with questions and Mr Strickler was watching with poorly-concealed amusement as she indulged the boy's curiosity about Renaissance-era pottery. After a few minutes she sent Eli off to the exhibit in question and fixed Jim with a piercing stare.

Jim flashed his eyes and Nomura's shoulders relaxed, though her expression remained sharp. She flashed her eyes back at him. They were green in both her human and troll forms, but when she was in human form they lit up gold and red like every other Changeling's.

"At least one of them was actually interested in the lesson plan this year," Ms Nomura said to Mr Strickler. "So few of your students actually appreciate the history of ceramics and how they influenced the build-up to the Industrial Revolution."

They casually walked through a partially roped-off doorway and disappeared behind a hanging tarp. Jim glanced around to ensure no witnesses – all his classmates were elsewhere or actually focused on the displays – and followed the other two Changelings.

"It's more than halfway done?" he gasped in amazement.

Killahead Bridge was mostly under sheets, but the shape was distinct, as was the gap where they hadn't yet finished building the arched form.

"Hidden in plain sight as an upcoming exhibit," Stricklander boasted. Nomura rolled her eyes at his pomposity. Jim sat on one of the wooden crates and started toying with the stones and bricks in the open crate beside him.

"I anticipate full construction within three months, if the latest rumours lead to the final stones," said Nomura to Stricklander. "But just in case they don't … In the interests of growing Gunmar's legion, we're bringing in someone new." Nomura glanced sideways at Jim. The most recently-planted Changeling sat up with an attentive expression. "Any suggestions for their cover?"

Damn Toby for not being young enough to send to safety.

"What about the Nuñez baby?" Jim suggested. The question had been directed at Stricklander, but Jim wasn't sure Claire Nuñez gushed about her little brother to the teachers the way she did to her peers. He rolled a rounded stone thoughtfully over his palm. "Mrs Nuñez is involved in local politics, right? Might be useful to have an eye on the inside."

"It's a good thought," Stricklander agreed. "Now, Jim, Ms Nomura and I have more classified information to discuss. You'd best rejoin your class."

To some Changelings, that would be practically an invitation to spy. Jim tossed two of the three rocks he'd been toying with back into their crate and slipped the third, smallest one up his sleeve as he gave Mr Strickler a casual salute with his other arm.

I'm not ready. I need time; to think; to plan. We can't finish the Bridge yet. I haven't convinced anyone that Mom needs to stay alive.

It was selfish and petty and treasonous and he was being ridiculously foolish and he knew it. Gunmar would not reward the loyalty of a Changeling who delayed his escape.

But Gunmar didn't need to know. No one needed to know.

Jim would sneak the piece back into place once he had a guarantee of Barbara's safety. It should only take a short while longer to wrangle Stricklander into it. Otto might not even be back in the States until afterwards, with or without the Eyestone. Stealing a piece of Killahead was just a momentary fit of harmless foolishness for Jim's peace of mind. He'd give it back.

He slipped it from his sleeve into his pocket.

That night, in Trollmarket, he hid it behind one of the many bookcases in Blinky's library.

"Claire, I'm sorry, I can't babysit tonight."

"But you promised! Mom and Dad have that charity thing, and I have a Papa Skull concert – Papa Skull! I, like, live in their t-shirt!"

"Sorry, C-Bomb, but Dean finally asked me to a movie – and then Hank invited me out for ice cream. Tight Jeans Hank! Love can't choose, Claire!"

"But Mary, I need you!"

"I can babysit," Jim offered. Both girls jumped, having not noticed Jim and Toby listening in on their drama. Toby gave Jim a surprised look. Jim and Claire had worked on class projects together once or twice, but they didn't exactly know each other well.

"You can?" asked Claire excitedly. "Wait, have you ever babysat before?"

"Uh, yeah," Jim lied, and then added, truthfully, "Plus, my mom's a doctor, so I know infant CPR and everything."

"You're a lifesaver, Jim! Come to my house around seven? No sooner."

"Got it."

"I wrote his routine on the fridge – after playtime you can just put him down. He's a good sleeper. And he'd rather play with his food than eat it. He loves games. Peekaboo, hide and seek. What am I forgetting?"

"We'll be fine," Jim promised Claire. Enrique burbled delightedly and bounced in his swing.

"Here's the emergency contact numbers." She pressed a paper into Jim's hand. "Whatever you do, do not call my parents first."

"Because they don't know you're going to the concert, do they?" he teased.

"They'll be back late-late, and I should only be a couple hours. Three max. Um, help yourself to anything in the fridge … and if you eat babies, now is the time to tell me."

He forced a laugh and shook his head and tried not to think of Bular.

There was a honk from outside, presumably her ride.

"Hey – thanks for this." Claire smiled shyly and sweetly at Jim. "You're my hero."

"Have fun," he told her. Once she was gone, he lit his eyes red and gold. "So, Enrique, how's it going?"

The baby changed into a small green troll. It took a while for human vocal chords to develop enough for speech. "Fine enough. Pretty cushy assignment, even if I can't eat the cat."

"I brought some old argyle socks," Jim offered.

"Oooh, gimmie-gimmie!"

The smaller Changeling unbuckled himself from the swing while the bigger Changeling got the bag of socks from his backpack. They settled onto the couch. Jim switched forms as well. The couch felt strong enough to hold him.

"Yummy," Enrique mumbled with his mouth full. He'd bitten right into the zip-locked plastic bag like it was a calzone.

"Enjoy them while you can. After a few years in human guise, they start to lose appeal." Jim crinkled his nose. Even in his trollish form, he hadn't eaten cloth in years. At least plastic, glass, and metal still tasted good.

"Bossman send you to check up on me?"

"Nah. I just had a free evening." He scratched idly at the stub of his horn. "Plus I wanted to know how things have been on the other side, and you've got the latest news."

"Eh, what's to say? Still dark, gloomy, boring. Nobody knows how to have fun."

"What are the numbers looking like? There were thirty when I left, counting you."

"Down to twenty-three now."

Six Changelings lost was not an ominous death count for a fifteen-year period, Jim reminded himself, willing himself to keep breathing evenly. That averaged out to one death every two and a half years. They sometimes went decades without a death only to lose several in the same week.

"Hey, funny story," Enrique continued. "Somebody from this side's been sending blankets and candy and stuff through the Fetch once in a while."

Good; the Changelings left behind had been finding Jim's 'care packages'. He kept his expression mildly curious.

"They send books sometimes, and Dictatious hoards them if he finds them first." Gunmar's advisor was notoriously selfish with reading material. "But here's where it gets good. I've got some of those same books in the nursery here. They're stories for fleshbag kids! And he's been puzzling over the 'code' they're written in!"

Jim cackled at the mental image of Dictatious trying to 'decode' Dr Seuss or Robert Munsch.

His options for what to send had been limited to his own old things until a couple of years ago. Maybe he should print out the photographed pages of A Brief Recapitulation of Troll Lore and send that through, in case he needed Dictatious to do him a favour at some point. On the other hand, his 'care packages' were sent anonymously, and this was comedy gold.

"Hi, Mr and Mrs Nuñez!" Jim, sitting on their living room couch, plastered an I'm-trying-to-look-innocent-but-know-I'm-in-trouble grin on his once more human face. "I'm Jim; Claire and I go to school together. She –" was sneaking in behind them. "She's just in the bathroom. We were doing homework together, and Enrique started fussing, so we took a break to play with him."

They still looked suspicious, but now it was 'a strange boy was alone with our daughter' suspicious rather than 'we found a stranger in our house holding our baby' suspicious. Claire gave him a grateful look and ducked behind a door, closing it quietly and opening it loudly.

"Mom, Dad, hey!" She gave them the same nervous smile. "I, ah, see you met Jim."

"I should get going." He handed Enrique to Claire and grabbed his backpack from the coffee table. "I'll see you at school, Claire. Gracias for your help with the Spanish review. Let me know if you have more History questions."

"Bye, Jim!"

Jim ducked past her parents and bolted like – well, like a teenage boy who had just been caught in a teenage girl's home by her presumably-protective guardians while she was supposed to be home alone.

Damn it, his cover did not need this. He'd hardly ever get to compare notes with Enrique now.

Claire approached him at school the next day.

"Hey. Listen, I'm sorry about last night. I would've called to warn you they were headed back early but my phone died just after Papi texted me. But you were great. That was some pretty quick thinking. I owe you."

"Hey, no hard feelings. Did they buy it?"

"Mm. Sort of." She readjusted her backpack. "I'm still in trouble for having a boy over, but at least they think I was there the whole time. You might've even convinced them we really were studying. You should've tried out for the play."

"Ah … no, I'd never have found the time. Last night was … I've usually got a lot going on. But if you need a babysitter again, I could make time. Enrique wasn't too demanding; I really did get homework done."

Claire kissed his cheek. Jim was not sure how to react to that.

"Or maybe we could have a real study date sometime," she said.

He stared blankly after her as she walked away. Toby elbowed him in the gut and said something congratulatory.

Jim felt awkward and a little gross. Claire didn't know how much older than her he was, but he did, and her kissing him felt … not okay.

It was an innocent and unsolicited gesture indicating affection not necessarily of a romantic nature, he decided. As long as he didn't say or do anything to suggest he was flirting back, Claire flirting with him was no more inappropriate than Toby's crush on Dr Lake. And that was assuming she even had meant it flirtatiously. Platonic kisses and study dates were a thing.

Chapter Text

"Is this … safe?" Jim traced the design on the book's cover. "I mean, I've read stories where somebody reads something out loud that they don't understand, and it turns out to be an incantation and they unintentionally cast a spell, with tragic or hilarious results depending on the story genre. Heck, that's practically what I did with the Amulet the first time I summoned the armor."

"Your understanding of trollish is coming along well enough that I don't think we have to fear that, Master Jim," Blinky assured him. "Though if you'd prefer to start with something else, we are spoiled for choice." He gestured around the library with his lower set of arms.

"No, I trust your pick." Jim opened the book and started to read it out loud. "The Ballad of Maddrux the Many and the Battle of Dooms Cavern."

"Doomscavern. One word," Blinky corrected.

Jim read slowly, haltingly, deliberately mispronouncing a word every few sentences. Blinky corrected him every time, and didn't let him move on until he said it properly, but at the end of each verse he offered some praise or encouragement for how well Jim was doing.

Maddrux the Many had been the Trollhunter a few generations ago. According to this poem, he had once fought and defeated an evil version of himself. Jim suspected a Changeling polymorph.

Blinky had decided they should cross over Jim's lessons in trollish language with the history of Trollhunters, beyond what was covered in A Brief Recapitulation, which Jim had recently finished.

The best-documented of the Trollhunters was Kanjigar the Courageous. He had been the most recent, and so stories about him hadn't had as many ages to which they could be lost, and he had lived in Trollmarket, so Blinky himself had been one of the trolls documenting him.

However, Jim had suggested they start with … older books, with stories the average citizen of Trollmarket couldn't just casually tell him – not that he was in the habit of having casual conversations with the local trolls – and focusing on heroes that wouldn't upset Kanjigar's still-grieving son to hear them discussing and occasionally criticizing, if Draal decided to stop by the library – not that Draal was in a habit of doing that.

"And … barricaded him mightily …"

"Bludgeoned, Master Jim." Blinky moved to lean over Jim's shoulder and pointed to the word in question. "The words are very similar, but if you look here, this line is at a shallower angle, which changes the pronunciation of the rune above. Try again."

"And bludgeoned him mightily," Jim re-read in a more confident tone. Blinky smiled at him and patted his back.

AAARRRGGHH seemed to be enjoying the poem, or at least enjoying Blinky teaching Jim. He'd made himself a nest amongst the books and was watching them. Jim thought idly that it might be nice to lean against AAARRRGGHH while reading, and wondered how often Blinky did just that.

Once Jim got through the Ballad – it wasn't actually very long, as troll ballads went, maybe five minutes to recite if he had done so smoothly – Blinky started questioning him on how well he understood what he'd read. It wasn't as intimidating as Spanish class with Señor Uhl, but that was just because he wouldn't have to take a grade home with him. Blinky was every bit as thorough. At least he wasn't making Jim try to translate it while maintaining the meter and rhyme scheme.

"I find myself almost amazed, Master Jim," Blinky told him. "I'd heard that young humans were fast learners, but you've been picking up trollish remarkably quickly since your calling."

"It helps that I already sort of know more than one language," Jim deflected. "I've heard that, you know, that makes the brain more flexible, better able to pick up new ones. I need a water break." Trollish was scratchy to speak with a human throat.

And this was the difference between Blinkous and Dictatious, Jim mused, as Blinky handed him a water bottle. If he'd been so foolish as to say something like that to Dictatious, Dictatious would have … well, probably just hit Jim in the throat or stomach, but if he'd been feeling vindictive, he would have had Jim read the entire book out loud before permitting the Changeling anything to drink.

Jim had falsely displayed moments of weakness a few times in his first few nights at Trollmarket, and been frightened into revealing true vulnerability once or twice, and Blinky and AAARRRGGHH had helped him most of the time. Certainly, sometimes they had followed the method to which Jim was accustomed, of pushing him through the pain to build his endurance, but other times, the trainers had taken care of their Trollhunter.

Blinky had thrown him into the Hero's Forge with little warning, but he's also tried to stop the fight the first time Jim sparred against Draal, and been generous in sharing his knowledge on any subject Jim asked about.

AAARRRGGHH was still big, but not as scary. In the past month, Jim had grown accustomed to his looming, protective presence and tactile gestures of affection.

Gunmar would probably take AAARRRGGHH back for the army. He'd have to use the Decimaar Blade this time, so AAARRRGGHH couldn't desert him again, but at least Jim was fairly certain AAARRRGGHH would live through the invasion.

He squashed down some feelings he didn't want to deal with, about how AAARRRGGHH didn't want to have to fight again and Jim could relate because he didn't like fighting either. This was irrelevant to Gunmar's plans and so it did not matter. AAARRRGGHH would survive. That was good.

Jim didn't have the clout to ask such a favour, especially if he was already petitioning for his mother to be spared, but he hoped Dictatious would have some lingering affection for his brother – even sibling rivalry would do the job – and ask Gunmar to spare Blinky's life, too.

Heck, for all Jim knew, Blinky was already working for Gunmar. After all, the first Trollhunter to be exclusively trained by Blinky had died on his first night out … even if Bular hadn't been able to get the amulet from Unkar.

Blinkous and Dictatious might still be in contact somehow. If there were any Gumm-Gumms besides Bular still on this side of Killahead Bridge, it wasn't like Jim, as a lowly Changeling, would have reason to know about them. They would have gone underground after the first war, literally and metaphorically, to avoid scrutiny from fellow trolls and provide the Underlord with information that Changelings couldn't access.

That could be why Blinky had befriended AAARRRGGHH; to keep an eye or three on the deserter and persuade him to rejoin the winning side.

It seemed unlikely that Blinky was a Gumm-Gumm. AAARRRGGHH would logically have been quite paranoid about falling back into their hands after deserting, and would have been on guard against any suspicious behaviour on Blinky's part. But that might just mean Blinky was a particularly good actor. Like how Stricklander seemed like a kindly, responsible teacher who would do anything for his students, while simultaneously plotting to unleash an army of trolls who would devour most of Arcadia Oaks High School's population within a night.

After the conquest, Blinky would most likely stay a historian, and AAARRRGGHH would go back to the horde. Draal would probably join Gunmar's army, too. Like AAARRRGGHH, he'd need to be converted by Decimaar Blade, but such a powerful fighter would be desirable and worth keeping around.

Bagdwella was a shopkeeper. She was a non-threatening resource for both goods and information right where and as she was.

Vendel would be left alone, as well. The old troll was respected and beloved and, most importantly, established. Leaving Vendel in charge of day-to-day affairs in Trollmarket would save Gunmar time from either dealing with petty matters himself or appointing someone to manage things, and help keep the general population of Trollmarket compliant and less likely to rebel.

Under Gunmar's reign, Jim supposed he'd scarcely see most of the trolls he knew again. Changelings would be used to manage the human livestock, being sun-resilient and all. But it would be nice to know they were still alive.

Jim was very aware of the stone he'd hidden behind the bookcase, keeping Killahead Bridge incomplete.

He would put it back once Stricklander reassured him that his mother would be safe. Each of the trolls down in Trollmarket would be useful to Gunmar. Jim didn't need to bargain for their safety, too. He'd give the stone back and no one would ever know he had taken it.

It was nice to have insurance, though. Nice to know he had time to talk himself out of his panic and worry.

Jim gave Blinky the empty plastic water bottle. Blinky ate it.

"You okay, Jimbo?" Toby asked over lunch. "You've been kinda … I dunno, like you're distracted lately."

"Just tired. Mom's been working a lot and sometimes it's hard to fall asleep when she's not home yet."

"You can always stay with me and Nana if you want. Or I could come over."

Jim made a non-committal noise, and then a thoughtful one.

"Actually, yeah. Not for the whole night, but why don't you guys come for dinner tonight?" It would be nice to have some human company for an evening. "Then we could play board games or something."

Toby watched his best friend all day, trying to be subtle about it. Something had been off about Jim lately, and Tobias didn't buy that it was just Dr Lake's work schedule.

He'd woken up in the middle of the night a few times and noticed Jim's light still on across the street, Jim at his desk with his phone out, filming or photographing something Toby couldn't see. Jim had been sneaking around, texting Toby to ask for an alibi and then brushing him off with vague answers when Toby asked what he was covering for. Jim even dozed off in History once or twice – his favourite subject! Or at least, his favourite teacher.

That was another thing. Jim was visiting Mr Strickler's office a lot. Toby wanted to believe it was innocent – Jim seemed to have latched onto the man as a father figure back when they first started high school – but he was starting to worry that might not be the case.

What was this 'extra-credit project' Jim kept so elusively referencing?

Toby had internet access. He didn't spend a lot of time reading the news, but he wasn't ignorant. When people didn't want to believe something – not our teacher, not to our friend, not in our safe quiet little town – that was how predators got away with stuff. He didn't want to believe his best friend was being molested, but it was definitely a suspicion that had occurred to him, and if it was true then he had to get Jim to admit it so Mr Strickler could get arrested and Jim could get help.

Come on, buddy. I'm your best friend. Talk to me. Trust me.

And even if it wasn't that, there was still definitely something weird going on with Jim.

Maybe he was … acting as a fence for stolen goods? And Mr Strickler was another picket in that fence, and the meetings were to pass things along?

That didn't make a lot of sense, or explain the late night photography sessions – selling stolen goods online? – but Toby didn't exactly have a lot of information to work with.

Jim acted normally all afternoon and evening, up until after dinner. He started looking sharply at the windows and urging the Domzalskis out with half a pan's worth of leftover lasagna.

"What about board games?" Toby asked.

"I'm – I'm actually feeling kind of tired." Jim smiled toothily, pushing lightly at Toby's shoulder. "Might be able to sleep before midnight for once. But only if you two head home. Like, now."

"Jim …" Toby lingered in the door. "You know you can tell me anything, right?"

"… Of course, Tobes. That's what best friends are for."

There was a tense moment between them. Toby didn't budge. For once, Jim looked away first.

"Good night, Toby." He gently but firmly shut the door. There was a click from the lock.

"You didn't have to make the fleshbags leave," said Bular, sitting on one of the decorative boulders in Jim's backyard. "I could use a snack."

"I didn't want to draw attention with disappearances," he apologized. "So … to what do I owe this honour?"

"You are going to retrieve something from Trollmarket for me."

Jim cut himself off from saying 'what?', which could be seen as defiance, and instead said, "Of course. What is it?"

"A piece of the Heartstone."

Well, he had done it once … Did Bular know that? Had that prompted this test?

"Yes, Bular."

Toby watched Jim's house from his window. Did it count as a stakeout when he was watching his neighbour from his own bedroom?

Gnome Chompsky provided background music, though it didn't sound like anything from a spy movie. Well, maybe from the scenes with the Obligatory Love Interest. Toby tried not to think about what exactly went on between the gnome and the doll Chompsky liked so much.

An hour after Jim had abruptly sent Toby and Nana back home, Jim was leaving. He didn't sneak out. He walked right out his front door, looking around as though he knew someone was watching him, and walked almost casually down the street.

Toby followed him.

"What are you up to?" he whispered.

He almost lost Jim in the woods. He had to use his cellphone as a flashlight to spot the trail they always took, when they were biking to school and cutting through …

"The canals?"

Toby spotted Jim under the bridge once he reached the canal's edge. He zoomed in with his phone's camera, but the image quality was actually slightly worse than just squinting through the dark.

Jim pulled what looked like a glowing orange knife out of his pants pocket. Toby gasped and clamped a hand over his mouth. Jim traced an arch on the canal wall and pressed his hand to the centre of it. Toby wasn't at a great angle to see where it led, but it opened, and Jim went through.

Toby half-climbed, half-slid down the slope. He got to the archway just as the wall solidified again. He patted the unyielding cement. He tried knocking on it. He tried tracing the shape of an arch with an old, dried-up pen he hadn't thrown out yet, which was the closest thing to a knife he had on him.

He climbed back out of the canal and sat under a tree, watching, waiting for Jim to come out. The canal bed itself felt too open. What if someone other than Jim came out first?

That glowing arch looked magical, or maybe very high tech. What had Jim gotten involved with? A secret society, maybe? This was the bridge where they'd found the weird watch thing. Was that connected?

Toby considered texting Eli about this. But, no. He'd give Jim a chance to explain himself before bringing anyone else into it. Jim might not have trusted Toby, but Toby would offer trust to Jim. Jim had never kept secrets or lied to him before. He had to have a good reason.

About twenty minutes later, the archway opened again. It was not Jim who emerged.

The … creature … was huge, and orange, and nearly naked, and had horns. Toby squeaked in suppressed alarm. It turned and, he thought for one terrifying moment, looked right at him. He froze, willing himself to blend in with the tree.

"… Whatever."

It turned away from Toby and started climbing the other side of the canal.

Toby would talk to Jim in the morning. He couldn't take the chance on more of those things coming out and deciding to exit the canal on his side.

Chapter Text

"Your boyfriend's been acting weirder than usual lately," Mary commented to Claire. Claire blinked.

"I don't have a boyfriend."

"Oh, right. Jimmy's just your study buddy. Wake up, Claire! He offered to babysit Enrique for you! He obviously likes you!"

"Or he just likes kids? Guys can like kids."

"I'm gonna side with Mary on this one," said Darci, rooting through her locker. "Even if he does like kids, that kind of favour from out of nowhere? He likes you. And you obviously like him back, or you wouldn't be blushing right now."

Claire's hand jumped to her cheek. "I'm not blushing!"

"You are but that's not the point," insisted Mary. "Lake's been pretty fishy this past month or so."

"How do you mean?"

"Tired, twitchy, like he doesn't always remember where he is. He jumps, like, every time the bell rings. And he keeps doing this face," Mary widened her eyes and pursed her lips together, "when he thinks nobody's watching."

"You're sure you don't have a crush on him?" Claire tried to deflect.

The self-proclaimed Gossip Queen scoffed and tossed her hair.

"Focus, C-Bomb. Something is up with this guy. Don't you want to know what it is?"

"… Maybe."

Sue her, she was curious, and a bit concerned.

"Looks like he's not in school today." Darci nodded in the direction of Jim's best friend – Colby or Tommy or something – who was standing alone instead of at Jim's side. He had the same worried expression Mary had mimicked earlier.

"Go ask where he is," Mary urged, pushing Claire forward.

She approached the boy alone – Bobby? What was his name? – Darci and Mary shadowing her a few paces back.

"Hey, uh … hi." What was his name?! "Is Jim around?"

He jumped and dropped his books. Claire helped him pick them up.

"No, he – he texted me, said he has some stomach thing, he's staying home sick. I think he might just be skipping, though."

"So you're noticed too," said Mary.

"Noticed?" He nearly dropped his books again. "Noticed what?"

"How weird he's been. Has he ever skipped school before? Like, ever?"

"Uh." Jim's friend gave Claire and Darci pleading looks, avoiding Mary's eyes. "Come on, we're teenagers. Weird is normal. The guy's entitled to a mental health day."

Toby hadn't had a chance to confront Jim yet. He fell asleep at his bedroom window before Jim returned home and woke to his phone buzzing with a text that Jim was staying home sick that day. He wasn't even totally sure Jim really was home and not texting him from … wherever that portal led.

Now, girls were talking to him, asking about Jim.

Toby was not sure how to feel about that.

He never got much attention from the ladies, so it was kind of exciting, but also kind of annoying that it was only because they wanted to talk to someone else who wasn't there, but also kind of comforting to know that someone else had noticed Jim's strange behaviour, but also distressing because Jim was Toby's best friend and these girls barely knew either of them, so what gave them the right to pry into Jim's secrets?

On the other hand, he considered, it might be useful to have some backup if Jim snuck out again before Toby could get some answers. Backup that people were more likely to listen to than Eli, if Jim was in trouble and they had to call for help.

He escaped to class, but wasn't able to focus on the lessons.

Jim didn't answer his texts all day. He didn't answer Toby's call after school, or Toby ringing his doorbell that afternoon.

When Toby next saw Jim, the following morning, Jim had a black eye.

"What happened?"

"You know how I was sick yesterday?" Jim smiled ruefully, looking down, like he was embarrassed. "I went to the bathroom to puke, but I was more lightheaded than I thought, so I tripped on the stairs and banged my eye on the bannister."

I saw you, Toby almost said. I saw you go into that portal. Did one of those big monsters do this? What else have they been doing to you? How long has this been going on?

But he didn't say it.

"Man, that's why you're supposed to just keep a bucket with you, so you don't have to run for it like that."

Jim grunted.

"You sure you don't need another day off?"

"I'm fine, Tobes. Totally just one of those 24-hour things."

"Well, if anybody else asks, you need a better story. Like, you got bike-jacked by the mob and had to make a daring escape."

"Sure, Toby." Jim grunted again, pressing his hand to his ribs. "Come on, we don't want to be late again."

Claire gasped when she saw Jim Lake's bruised face. She ran right over to him and demanded, "Jim, what happened?"

"Uh. Hi, Claire?" He stepped away and she realized she had reached out to touch his injury. She stuck her hand behind her back and grabbed it with her other hand to keep it there. "It was an accident. I tripped on the stairs and hit the bannister. I'm fine."

Toby shook his head behind Jim's back, frowning.

"Mister Lake, if you need to go to the nurse –"

"I'm fine!"

Stricklander doubted that. Bular had been … displeased with Jim two nights ago, after Jim had succeeded (again) in a previously unthinkable mission to retrieve a piece of the Heartstone, but hadn't brought back as large a crystal as Bular wanted.

Jim pretended to be ill to give himself some time to recover – Changelings were more durable than humans, if not as durable as 'true' trolls – but was still visibly injured and in noticeable pain when he moved quickly.

"If you change your mind, Mister Lake, I do think you could do with some ice on that eye."

Jim glared at him and even took the risk of making his eyes glow for a second. Stricklander kept a stranglehold on his sense of personal maturity and did not respond in kind.

Jim apparently got sick of everyone expressing concern for him, because Toby got a text saying he'd taken Ms Janeth's offer to go home early.

After school, Toby was approached by Claire and her friends again.

"Colby –"

"It's Toby, actually."

"Right, sorry. Toby – what really happened to Jim?"

"I don't know." Before she could argue, Toby clarified, "He won't tell me. But I know he snuck out two nights ago, the night before he faked sick, and I think that might've been when he got hurt."

He looked around and leaned in towards the girls, dropping his voice to a whisper.

"If he sneaks out again, I'm going to follow him."

Claire got out her phone. "Text us? If Jim's in some kind of trouble, we – I – want to help."

And so it came to pass that Tobias Domzalski traded phone numbers with, not just one, but three girls.

Sure, it was for Jim, but he was still going to savour the moment.

Chapter Text

-Warhammer to Juliet, the Fish has left the Lake. Warhammer in pursuit.-

-… What?-

-It's Toby. Jim snuck out again and I'm following him.-

-On my way. Have you texted Mary and Darci too?-

-Haven't thought of cool spy nicknames for them yet.-

-(rolled eyes emoji)-

-He's going for the canals like last time.-

-ETA three minutes.-

-Last time?-

-Okay, so I followed him last time he snuck out.- -Get here fast, I lost him once he was in the canal.- -It'll make sense when you see it too.-

There was a lot of hissing at each other to "be quiet, he'll hear us" as the four teenagers followed the fifth, who was walking briskly through the woods. The girls had stashed their bikes by the trees and Mary fussed quietly over the lack of narrow saplings or bike racks to which to lock hers.

Jim did occasionally stop and look behind him, but he did not seem aware he was being followed. The trees muffled the sounds of traffic from the surrounding neighbourhood, but the leaves and small animals were far from silent.

Once Jim dropped out of sight, over the lip of the canal, Toby dropped all pretense of stealth and ran forwards.

"Hurry, hurry, if you don't see him do it you'll never believe me –"

They reached the canal's edge in time to see Jim – spraying graffiti? No, carving an arch under the bridge and walking through it like it was just another doorway.

"He did this last time?" Darci asked Toby.

"I figured nobody but Eli would believe me. I needed more witnesses."

"So how do we get in there to follow him?" said Claire.

"Whoa, whoa, time out, bad idea." Toby waved his hands frantically. "This giant thing came out of there last time. Plus Jim came back with a black eye, remember?"

"I thought the whole point of following him was so he wouldn't be alone with whoever – or, whatever – did that to him?"

Toby sagged. "Yeah." His resigned expression became stern. "But whoever makes it out alive gives everyone who dies a very stirring eulogy!"

The four of them snuck down into the canal bed. Darci checked the weather reports on her phone. There wasn't supposed to be any rain that week, so they probably weren't at risk of being swept away by a flash flood. They hid behind one of the bridge's support columns.

Fortune favoured the bold. One of those 'giant things' Toby had mentioned came by a short time later, pulling a cart full of junk. While it – he? – was opening the portal, the humans hid in the cart.

A very bumpy ride down a dark tunnel later, everything lit up.

The teens exited the cart with varying levels of grace and stealth and hid behind a crystal outcropping, and gasped at their discovery.

"It's a city," said Darci.

"And I thought all that was under this town was dirt and plumbing," said Toby.

"What are all these gems?" said Mary. That seemed to snap Toby out of his daze and into a new one.

"Let's see, I spy peridot, topaz, cassiterite, kornerupine …"

"I want to live down here," said Claire. "Think I could live down here?"

"Maybe Jim lives down here," said Darci, "if this is where he's been sneaking off."

"Not sure what the big one is; maybe spessartine or citrine, but I don't think either of them grow in that shape. Or, you know, glow."

They slowly drifted into open view, too busy gawking to realize that they, too, were being gawked at.

The armour did nothing to soothe Jim's bruised face or ribs, but the pressure of his helmet on his scalp was oddly comforting, like scratching an itch.

Sparring with Draal was a world away from being punished by Bular. The troll was still larger and stronger, but Jim was fairly certain Draal was pulling his punches now, not wanting to accidentally kill the 'human'. Jim had time to dodge many of the strikes, and the security to strike back.

Another difference was Blinky, shouting encouragement and suggestions from the sidelines. Not filtering him out was an … interesting exercise in multi-tasking.

"Use your size to your advantage, Master Jim! You can fit into smaller spaces – dodge through narrower gaps to evade Draal's attacks!"

Getting himself cornered in a small space while being pursued by a larger opponent sounded like the opposite of a good idea to Jim.

Although, maybe if Draal (Bular) were chasing him down a street and Jim ducked into an alley …

Draal managed to knock him down. Jim's ribcage cried out as he hit the Forge floor. He was on his side. Draal loomed over him, holding a spear.

"Rule Number Three!" Jim kicked Draal in the gronk-nuks.

Jim scrambled to his feet, but stumbled over the dropped spear. He and Draal both ended up groaning on the floor.

"Ah … perhaps we should call an end to today's sparring session?" Blinky suggested.


Blinky heaved a sigh and rolled all six of his eyes. "What is it now, Bagdwella?"

"Human intruders!"

Jim was on his feet in a second. Had someone from the Janus Order been tailing him? How had they gotten in? He always waited for the portal to close before going down the staircase.

"Where?" he demanded.

There was a crowd of trolls debating what to do with the humans, who were stuffed in a sack that was dangling in the air. Nobody seemed to be shouting 'Changeling' yet and Jim hoped he could defuse this before it came to that.

"Let them down," he ordered, putting as much authority into his voice as he could. "I'm the Trollhunter. I'll deal with them."

AAARRRGGHH and Draal stood behind him like enforcers. AAARRRGGHH was nonviolent, but he was still very large and deeply respected. The troll holding the rope looked at them more than Jim before letting the humans fall.

The sack writhed and there were muffled complaints from within, spoken in more than one voice. Jim held his sword at the ready and cut the drawstring that kept the sack shut.

"… Toby?!"

"Jim!" His neighbour struggled free and ran up to him. Behind Jim, Draal growled, and Toby faltered. He approached Jim more to the side that AAARRRGGHH was flanking. "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, so cool, so cool, so cool! The armour! The sword! Are you seriously glowing right now? Is that the watch thing we found a few weeks ago?"

"Toby, what are you doing here?"

"Following you! After you came to school all beat up, I thought maybe you were in some kind of trouble. The ladies were worried, too." He gestured loosely at the three girls who had gotten out of the sack and were now in a tight pack, guarding each other's backs and watching the trolls as warily as they were being watched. "So after you went through the portal, we waited under the bridge, and we hopped into a cart that brought us down here, and then we … kinda got careless and got caught. Okay, your turn. What's going on?"

"Master Jim, you know these intruders?" said Blinky.

"Toby's my neighbour and my best friend. Claire, Darci, and Mary all go to school with us. You guys need to leave," said Jim quickly. "And swear to secrecy. This is big and complicated and not safe."

"But that's why we're here," Claire protested. "We want to know. We want to help!"

"Do you want to get crushed by angry rock people? Because that's getting more and more likely if you don't get out of here now."

"Master Jim is only slightly exaggerating the danger," Blinky agreed. The crowd of trolls had not dispersed. "Come. We can settle this in my library."

"So … trolls exist," said Mary.

"Yes," said Jim.

"And Jim … basically works for you guys like a combination security guard and animal control officer?" said Darci.

"If that helps you understand it better," agreed Blinky.

"And he's stuck with the job until he dies?" Toby's eyes were wide and his hands were shaking. Jim pulled an energy bar out of his backpack, which he'd left in the library during training, and gave it to Toby, who devoured it in three bites and seemed much calmer afterwards.

"But they're training me, so I'm not going to die for a while yet," Jim reassured Toby.

"And it's all tied to that amulet," said Claire, pointing to the glowing device on Jim's chest.

"Amulet chose," said AAARRRGGHH, nodding.

"There's still one thing I'm not getting," said Toby. "Troll … hunter? Doesn't that make it sound like Jimbo's supposed to be hunting, you know, you guys?"

"The grammar does lose something in translation," Blinky admitted. "A more accurate translation would be, 'the troll who is the hunter', but that's rather a mouthful."

"Hunt bad trolls," said AAARRRGGHH. "Gumm-Gumms."

"Not exactly the most terrifying name," said Mary.

"In trollish, 'Gumm-Gumm' means 'bringer of horrible, slow, painful, and thoroughly-calculated death'," said Blinky.


"Yours in a rich and nuanced language." Jim kept his tone sarcastic even though he meant it.

"So, if Jim's the first human Trollhunter," said Claire, "who or what was the Trollhunter before him?"

"My father," said Draal. "Kanjigar the Courageous. The greatest Trollhunter to ever bear that mantle."

"And Draal isn't just saying that because they're family," added Jim. "Kanjigar was apparently this whole living legend before he died."

"We're … sorry for your loss?" Darci offered to Draal, who grunted and looked away.


"And that delightful shout would be Bagdwella." Jim forced a smile. "She's like an informant. If anything happens in Trollmarket that needs the Trollhunter to handle it, she comes and gets me. Like, say, if a bunch more humans were to sneak in when trolls don't want humans to know they exist."

Bagdwella made her usual dramatically out of breath entrance.

"Vendel sent me. The Hero's Forge is malfunctioning!"

"It's a giant mechanical deathtrap; how can it malfunction? Is it suddenly non-lethal?"

"So, what's going wrong with the Forge exactly?" asked Jim as they hurried to it.

"Left running?" AAARRRGGHH asked Blinky, who shook his head.

"I was sure I deactivated everything when we left to deal with the human problem."

"It turned itself on and won't turn off," said Bagdwella.

"And it's not battery-operated, so we can't just wait for it to run out of juice." Jim wasn't actually sure what the Forge's power source was but he suspected it was somehow related to the lava because everything else about it seemed to be designed to be as scary as possible.

"What is this?" Vendel demanded, when they reached the Hero's Forge and he saw the humans tailing the group. "I accepted a human Trollhunter out of necessity, but this is an infestation!"

"Is this really the time?" Once his adrenalin wore off, Jim would wonder at his daring, but Vendel let it slide.

"You need to get to the kill switch inside the Soothscryer," he told Jim.

Jim gave an assessing look at the chaos of the arena.

"AAARRRGGHH, do you think you can throw me to it?"

"Wait, what?" said Toby. Mary got out her phone, presumably to film the impending stunt. AAARRRGGHH reached out to Jim, who climbed onto his hand.

"I think if I go high enough, I can go over the blades and the worst of the fire, and then I just have to get through the pendulums. Throw me as high as you can, okay, big guy?"

"Ready?" AAARRRGGHH asked.

Jim watched the Forge for another moment. Draal had been teaching him how to read its rhythms.


AAARRRGGHH launched him. Jim literally hit the ceiling, almost dead centre above the Soothscryer, and dropped onto it. He heard Toby and Claire and Darci and Mary scream.

"I'm okay!" he yelled to them. "Don't bite my hand off," he added to the Soothscryer, and reached into it to find the kill switch AAARRRGGHH had used the first time the Forge had refused to deactivate.

The Hero's Forge slowed and stilled. The weapons sheathed themselves. The Soothscryer's red eyes shone blue. Jim shone blue. There was a blinding flash of light, and Jim disappeared.

Chapter Text

"Jim?" Toby called. "JIM?"

"No Jim," rumbled the biggest troll, the one with the mossy fur.

"What do you mean, no Jim?" asked Claire. "There was definitely a Jim!"

"He has been summoned!" The troll with too many arms and eyes looked rapturous.

"Summoned where and why?" asked Darci. Mary frantically replayed her video of what happened, but the final flash of light was too bright to see where Jim had gone.

"Look around you, young humans." Four arms gestured at the palatial arena they were standing in. "This is the Hero's Forge; ancient, sacred proving ground for Trollhunters past, present, and future. The previous Trollhunters surround us –"

"Those aren't statues," Toby interrupted, assessing the rocky skin of the living trolls around him, "are they?"

"Indeed not."

"They train in an arena surrounded by the remains of dead Trollhunters?" said Claire. "That's … really brave, but also kind of ghoulish."

"As I was saying," and wow, a glare from six eyes was way more than three times as intimidating as a glare from two, "the previous Trollhunters surround us, and their spirits can give counsel to the current Trollhunter, in the Void."

"Void?" echoed Mary. "As in, like, total emptiness and nothingness? That kind of void?"

"And," added Darci, "are these friendly Casper-type ghosts we're talking about, or soul-sucking poltergeists?"

"They will not 'suck' his soul," said the pale, grumpy troll who had called them an infestation. "They will peer into it. No Trollhunter has yet been slain by the spirits of those who came before."

It looked like the Forge, only lit in blue and with constellations mapped on the ceiling. Jim summoned his sword. Wisps of blue light flickered and darted around him. They whispered things – cruel, taunting things.

"He is an Impure."

"He does not belong here."

"A mistake has been made …"

"Are you worthy?"

That voice was deepest and clearest. Jim turned to face it, barely in time to block a strike from an armoured troll holding a sword. The troll vanished when their blades met.

Jim switched forms. He could see more clearly now, and hear other whispers that had been mere hisses before. It was more of the same insults they'd said earlier.

"Deceitful …"



"Leave this place …"

He also heard a rush of air behind him and turned in time to catch the spectral troll rematerialize and attack him again.

Using the Sword of Daylight for leverage, Jim almost wrenched his opponent's sword out of their grasp before they disappeared once more.

He didn't turn in time to block the next attack. He was kicked from behind and fell on his stomach, sword clattering out of his hand. The mysterious teleporting troll appeared before him and took the blade, pointing it down at Jim.

"But …" But Blinky had told him, Jim and Draal had seen … "Only a Trollhunter can wield Daylight."

"We are Trollhunters!"

The stranger let go of Jim's sword and their own. Both weapons vanished.

The nose and nose ring on the troll before him were nearly identical to Draal's.

"… Kanjigar the Courageous?"

"James Lake Junior. Or so you claim."

Jim got to his feet, watching for another attack. "You were the voice from my amulet."

"Your amulet?" snarled one of the wisps, flashing in front of his face. Jim recoiled.

"Our amulet!"

"We are the Council of Elder Trollhunters," said Kanjigar. "This is the Void – a place between worlds, for the Trollhunter to receive counsel and guidance from those who came before. We've been watching you." Wow, was there anyone left who didn't fancy themselves as some kind of a spy? "And you are about to make a grave mistake. You cannot allow humans to become involved in your calling."

"I'm not killing a group of children for finding Trollmarket," said Jim sullenly. "I'll get an oath from them that they'll keep it secret."

"That is not the cause of our concern. You are considering allowing the humans to aid you in your mission to defend their world and ours."

You do know I was in the process of getting them out of Trollmarket when I had to come and deal with this instead, right?

"I considered it," Jim agreed. "It'd be easier to keep my cover in the human world if I have someone to make excuses for me."

"A Trollhunter must work alone."

"The humans involved themselves. I didn't invite them to follow me. I can ask them to keep quiet, but I can't ask them to ignore everything now that they know about it. Like you said, their world is in danger, too. If they want to protect it, they have a right to try."

"I understand better than you know, Changeling," said Kanjigar. "I had to distance myself from my son in order to keep him safe. If you bring those you care for into the fight, they will all suffer for it! The Trollhunter's duty is to stand between innocents and danger."

"You say that like you think I would just throw them to Bular."

Kanjigar huffed at that. A cloud appeared, with a scene playing on it like a spectral television. It showed Jim sending Toby and Nana Domzalski home after noticing Bular in his back yard.

"There are no secrets here."

More scenes played out – Jim stealing and hiding the bridge piece; Jim stealing and giving the Janus Order the first Heartstone shard; Jim and Toby watching Gnome Chompsky through the dollhouse window; Jim saving Draal from falling off the edge of the Hero's Forge.

"You don't have it in you to kill." Coming from Kanjigar, that sounded like a commendation and condemnation all at once.

"I've killed before." He took a guess at how to work the projection and held his hand out to it, picturing an unpleasant memory. The image of himself in the Crucible, young and nameless and with blood on his claws and mouth, did not appear. Either it could only show things that happened in the presence of the Amulet or Jim had misunderstood how it was activated. "We don't all get the chance to run that AAARRRGGHH did."

"But can you kill Bular?" Kanjigar asked him. "Many Trollhunters before you have tried and every one of us has failed. If you insist on involving these humans, then slaying Bular – and Gunmar – will eventually be the only way to protect them."

Jim switched and faced Kanjigar in humanoid form, where his ears and tail could not betray his feelings.

"Except you, or Merlin or whoever, gave me the amulet, and the amulet gives me status. Gunmar needs it, which means he needs me, which means I can ask for them to be spared."

There were hisses and roars of outrage from the wisps and another blinding flash of light. Jim was pushed back by the force of it and landed on his butt.


Humans and trolls swarmed him. Toby helped him to his feet. Jim was grateful to have changed faces before being sent back.

"You're okay! You are okay, right? You disappeared!"

"Wow. So trolls and ghosts exist." Claire smoothed the hair that fell across her forehead. "What next? A Midsummer Night's Dream? Fairies?"

"Fairies? Preposterous," said Blinky. "Fairies lost the war to the pixies, centuries ago. What did they say, Master Jim?"

They all looked to him expectantly.

"… First, Kanjigar had a message for Draal," Jim lied.

Draal's eyes went wide and his jaw dropped before clenching. He leaned closer to Jim.

"He knows he hurt you when he pushed you away, trying to keep you safe from the whole Trollhunter thing. Hurting you is his biggest regret, other than dying. I mean, I assume other than dying. He didn't specify that part. Your father loves you a lot, and he's really proud you." Was that too sentimental? "He didn't start crying or anything, but it was a very moving speech."

Draal closed his eyes for a moment and pressed a closed fist to his heart. He gave a long, sad look to his father's remains. He nodded at Jim.

"The rest of it was that none of them are really happy I was chosen as the Trollhunter, and they're majorly displeased that a bunch more humans got into Trollmarket, so you four are going to have to swear an oath of secrecy before you leave."

"And I believe now is the time to discuss the human infestation," said Vendel.

They all cringed.

The trolls wanted the humans to leave and not come back. The humans wanted to come back. It was not a problem with an easy compromise.

Team Human 'won' when they pointed out that they had snuck in once and could probably do so again, so it would be easier for Team Troll to keep track of them if they were allowed to visit openly.

Jim was surprised no one on Team Troll had suggested magically-induced targeted amnesia, but he didn't have any evidence beyond fantasy literature that that was really a thing, so maybe it wasn't. He did not make the suggestion.

Then Blinky suggested, "For everyone's peace of mind, I suggest the humans each be tested with a gaggletack before they leave, to ensure none of them are Changelings."

It took all of Jim's training in stealth and deception to not react.

"There has been no Changeling activity for decades, Blinkous," said Vendel, sounding exasperated. Draal looked uncomfortable.

"Just as a precaution?" Blinky folded his hands beseechingly.

"I thought you said fairies weren't a thing," said Claire to Blinky, puzzled.

"I fail to see the relevance of that statement."

"… Isn't a Changeling a fairy baby swapped for a human one?"

"Ah, no. A Changeling is, well," Blinky looked side to side and lowered his voice conspiratorially. "In the Old World, Gumm-Gumms stole our young, and did something … unnatural, to change them."

"Nasty business," said AAARRRGGHH. "Very messy."

"Their purpose was to spy on the world above. For that purpose, they were disguised as humans. A gaggletack is a rare artifact that forces a Changeling to reveal their true form." Blinky smiled. "Of course, as perfectly normal humans, none of you would have any objection to touching such an artifact?"

"If it's rare, where are we going to find one?" asked Toby.

"RotGut's," said AAARRRGGHH.

Vendel left to attend to other matters. Blinky, AAARRRGGHH and Draal escorted the humans (and Changeling) to an apothecary shop tucked away in one of Trollmarket's less-trafficked neighbourhoods.

Jim did his best to keep his breathing steady and keep up his act of confidence. He was grateful for his habit of keeping his armour on at all times while in Trollmarket, which meant his current internal panic wouldn't set it off. And maybe, just maybe … it was a risk, but the armour might just help him keep his cover.

When Blinky knocked, a small door opened within the larger door. A single eye peeked out at them.

"Ailment or curse?"

Another door within the door popped open, revealing another eye, and a higher voice snapped at the deeper-voiced speaker, "Oi, numbskull, I'm supposed to answer it!"

"But I already did answer it."

"I deal with the customers, you handle the wizardry!"

"Hold a tick," the deep voice said to them, and both doors closed for a moment. The second mini-door opened again and the higher voice greeted them.

"Welcome to RotGut's. How may we service you?"

"Totem, my good troll," said Blinky. He switched to a conspiratorial mutter again. "We suspect one of these fleshbags may be a Changeling."

"You'll be needing a gaggletack, then," confirmed the deeper voice.

"Unfortunately, you see, we're running a bit short on those," said the higher voice. "Very hard to get."

"But I've got a bag of them right here?" protested the deeper voice.

"What in the world –?" The eye belonging to the higher-voiced troll glared at the eye belonging to the deeper-voiced troll. "If you'll excuse us for just one more moment!"

The mini-doors slammed shut again. They could hear the proprietors bickering.

"What are you doing? I'm trying to drive up the price over here."

"I thought we were trying to help these nice lads?"

A slot in the door opened and a heavy object shot out, hitting Toby in the chest.


Toby fell. Jim helped him up and – praying he was right, but acting while his head was down so no one else could actually see his face, just in case he was wrong – he picked up the gaggletack in his gauntleted hand.

He was right. The armour insulated him from the magic. Even if he had transformed without feeling it happen, he would be able to feel his tail.

"It's a … horseshoe," said Claire.

"Made of pure iron," said AAARRRGGHH.

"Why would you put such a precious thing on a horse's foot?" asked Blinky.

"Well, Tobes definitely touched it," said Jim, patting his friend's shoulder with the hand not holding the horseshoe. "Ladies?"

Claire took it from Jim and passed it to Darci, who passed it to Mary, who looked around and shrugged and passed it to the nearest troll, who happened to be Draal. Draal didn't have as many pockets or such large pockets at Blinky did, but there was some kind of pouch on his belt, and he tucked the gaggletack away.

"So, Jim," said Mary, as they climbed the crystal staircase back to the surface. "Is Mr Strickler in on this?"

How in the name of EVERYTHING did you figure THAT out?!

"Why would Mr Strickler be in on this?"

"He's always excusing you when you're late or miss class, no matter how lame your excuse is. It's because he knows the real reason, isn't it?"

"Uh – well – actually – the thing about that is – He's got a thing for my mom," Jim invented. "I get away with stuff in public because then he has an excuse to talk to her about his concerns." Jim forced a laugh.

"Does your mom know?"

"Of course not. If she notices me acting out, she figures it's to get her attention because I've got lingering abandonment issues from my dad, which are being exacerbated by her working all the time."

"No, I mean does she know Mr S likes her?"

"Oh. Maybe? She's never said anything, but, heh, it's not like I've asked her. I try not to think about it."

Jim chose not to divulge his encounter with the ghost Trollhunters to Stricklander, nor his close call with a gaggletack, but he did reveal that four human teens had found Trollmarket and might start poking around other Arcadian supernatural events and locales.

"Mary Wang, having an investigative personality, is probably our greatest concern. She asked if the reason you let me get away with things is because you know what's really going on, which I denied. But I … may have claimed the reason I'm your favourite student is actually because you want to date my mother." He ducked his head and tried not to flush. "Sorry. I panicked."

Stricklander blinked at Jim and said nothing.

"If you want to flirt with Dr Lake or something to give the appearance of truth to that lie, that's fine. It might actually be kind of helpful." Jim shrugged, and then added flippantly, "But of course, if you break her heart or push her past her comfort level, then for the sake of my cover as her son I'll have to end you."

"Truly you have the gallantry of Perseus."

"Usually when you bust out the Greek references, you call me Atlas."

"After Perseus slayed the Gorgon, he used the petrification abilities of her severed head to save his mother from an unwanted suitor."

"That seems unnecessarily complex. Considering Medusa's backstory, he could've just told her 'hey this guy is creeping on my mom' and she probably would've helped him willingly."

"Yes, well, the quest began before he knew, but you are likely correct. The Ancient Greeks used her likeness as a symbol of sanctuary on women's shelters."

Jim got up and stretched. "This has been informative, but I should go. I've got three lives to keep up now and I need to take care of the 'normal human' one for a while. Unless you'd like to persuade Señor Uhl to put off the Spanish test for a few days?"

"Go to class."

Stricklander spending time with Barbara might not actually be a terrible idea, Jim mused. She was a lovable woman. If Stricklander socialized with her, he would likely grow to care for her, and then he'd have a personal incentive to support Jim's bid for Barbara's protection after Gunmar's conquest.

He ought to find an excuse to save Mary as well, Jim supposed, if she ended up inspiring the plan that spared his mother's life. Claire and Darci as well, since they were such close friends.

Of course there was the 'breeding stock' option, but that was only a temporary solution, and if any of them were sterile it couldn't save them for even the fraction of their potential lifespan in which humans could reproduce.

Enrique might have some ideas for protecting the Nuñez family by now. If Claire spent a lot of time with her friends at her house, Enrique might know something that could help Jim spare the other girls, too.

The easiest way to check would be to babysit again. Would Claire trust him more as a babysitter, after the last successful sitting and now that she knew he was a 'magical protector of the innocent'? Or less, because she'd worry his duties as Trollhunter would call him away and leave Enrique unsupervised?

Of course, Enrique couldn't know Jim was the Trollhunter – didn't know, unless Claire let something slip where he could hear her – so that would be an additional complication. Jim needed to warn Claire not to say anything in front of her brother, without exposing his fellow Changeling's cover. Was Enrique old enough for his human guise to start talking? Maybe Jim could pass it off as not wanting to risk Enrique repeating suspicious words in front of the Nuñez parents.

Chapter Text

"We should go back to Trollmarket tonight," said Toby.

"Tobes, we're in public right now," said Jim. "Secrecy, remember?"

It was loud in the cafeteria. Jim and Toby weren't popular enough to have a crowd of hangers-on, or socially-rejected outcasts to the point where someone was likely to start a scene with them. The odds of being overheard were low. Stricklander had luckily been amused to hear the trolls' vaunted secrecy had failed them, rather than angry that four humans now knew of trolls and might learn of Changelings – that was one reason Jim had left the gaggletack out of his report, so Toby and Mary and Darci and Claire wouldn't have to be 'removed' for knowing Changelings existed – and Mr Strickler wasn't on lunchroom duty today.

But it was the principle of the matter.

Claire, Mary, and Darci joined them at their table.

"Can you take us back down to Trollmarket tonight?" Claire asked Jim eagerly. He groaned.

"Why don't we just invite the whole school? Uncharacteristic behaviour is totally the way to keep a secret and avoid drawing attention."

"You've been acting weird for weeks and we've already been seen talking to Toby about it," said Mary.

Jim wished he'd made something for his and Toby's lunches today that required a fork so he could stab his food. He had to settle for taking an unnecessarily vicious bite out of his sandwich.

"Sorry, I just – I promised Blinky and everybody that I'd keep it a secret and I feel like I let them down. I shouldn't be taking that out on you guys. Sure. We can meet in the canal at seven?"

"For once I don't mind taking the stairs." Toby tapped the glowing crystal staircase in awe. "What sets off the phosphorescence? It's probably not motion-sensitive, or the steps we're on would be brighter, but it started at the top and then spiralled down – does it do the same thing in reverse when you're going up?"

Claire raced ahead.

"Whoa, slow down!" Jim called.

Blinky, AAARRRGGHH, and Draal were nearly at the staircase when Claire reached the foot of it and, not realizing she was on level ground yet, stumbled into AAARRRGGHH, who caught her.

"A most eager young adventurer, I see," said Blinky.

"Heh-heh. Sorry. It's just – wow. Your home is the most amazing place I've ever been to."

"It is pretty sweet," Darci agreed, as the rest of the group caught up.

Jim cleared his throat.

"In the interests of basic safety, I am proposing a buddy system. If you guys are going to come down to Trollmarket, you have to stay at least in pairs until the trolls get used to you."

"You come down here alone," said Mary.

"I also have a magical suit of armour," said Jim. He'd activated it, as was his habit, as soon as the doorway to the surface closed behind him.

"Oh, oh, oh, we should totally all get cool magic weapons!" said Toby. "We'd be a superhero team!"

Jim stared open-mouthed at Toby, then turned to Blinky with a beseeching expression. The last thing they needed was for actual human kids to be risking goblin wrath or trying to take on Bular.

"If Master Jim is any indication," said Blinky, not knowing Jim was a Changeling and therefore vastly misinterpreting his pleading look, "human whelps do have an adaptability and quickness to learn that can translate into aptitude in a variety of skillsets, including weaponry."

"Is that a yes?"

"No!" snapped Draal. "Look at them, Blinky. None of them could even lift a weapon crafted for trolls."

"He's got a point," said Jim quickly. "I mean, I'm pretty sure the armour boosts my strength somehow, and even with that, the sword had to shrink a lot when I first summoned it."

"So what you're saying is, we need magic armour," Claire decided. "Would that RotGut place have any?"

"It might not have to be magical," said Darci. "I mean, even shin-pads and a helmet would be better than nothing, right?"

"That Bagdwella lady said she had a store. Does she sell armour?" asked Mary.

Their reactions shouldn't be surprising. What did one do in a market? Shop. At least they were taking Jim's safety concerns seriously.

"Master Jim, why don't you let AAARRRGGHH and I show your friends around while you and Draal spar?" Blinky offered. "Your training has already been interrupted and delayed."

"This isn't enough," said Draal.

Jim rolled under the jets of flame and dodged a blade that erupted from the Forge floor. "I'm getting faster."

Draal caught Jim's sword with his spear and wrenched it to the side. Jim dissipated the sword and rematerialized it. Draal's spear struck the floor when the resistance of the sword was momentarily gone.

"That's not what I meant."

Jim stabbed at Draal, who stepped back, tucked, and rolled. Jim managed to avoid being run over this time, but Draal circled around him and was able to strike from behind. Jim ducked and barely turned in time to block him.

"Then what did you mean?"

Sword and spear clashed against each other with ringing metallic noises.

"Your battles will not always be in arenas, Trollhunter," said Draal. "You won't have time to study your opponents, to learn their habits and weaknesses, as you have me."

"So, you're saying I should fight other people?"

"If your human friends were able to track you to Trollmarket," – Draal didn't have the leg length to effectively use kicking in most fights, but he did have the weight to stomp hard on Jim's foot even with Jim's armour – "what is to stop anyone else from tracking you from Trollmarket to your home? Every time you leave here, you could be walking into an ambush."

"That's true of anyone." Jim twisted around behind Draal and tried, and failed, given their strength differences, to get the troll in an arm lock. "I can't just stay down here forever." Draal threw him to the floor. "People notice when kids disappear." He kicked Draal's kneecap and rolled out of the way as Draal lost his balance and staggered.

Draal reared back when another floor-blade popped up right in front of his face.

"You are the Trollhunter," he growled at Jim. "It is time to start being afraid." He pinned the human down, forcing Jim's arms out to the side so he couldn't summon the sword at an effective angle to drive Draal off. "Your home is unguarded. We should fix that."

"What, are you gonna move into my basement or something?"

"Mom?" Silence. "Mom, I'm home!" Still nothing. "Okay, she's not here. Come on in. Watch the spikes!"

Draal fit through the back door better than AAARRRGGHH had, but he was still a lot bigger than Blinky, and human architecture wasn't designed with trolls in mind.

"So, here it is. The Lake house. Mom's almost never home, and when she's here she's almost never in the basement, so you should be safe down there. Just … duck behind the furnace or something if she comes down."

Draal sniffed around the main floor. Jim couldn't believe himself for accidentally suggesting this or for agreeing to it. If Bular came to his house again and he and Draal caught each other's scents …

Jim rubbed the back of his neck and scratched uncertainly at his hair.

"Any metal or plastic or glass in this blue box, you can eat. It's recycling. Just don't eat the box itself, we need that. The bathroom's on the top floor. That's the TV. Don't eat the tapes, either, some of those are important."

Draal went downstairs and popped a burning coal from the furnace into his mouth. "This is nice."

"I'll get you some blankets or something. The floor's concrete."

A sleeping bag wouldn't work, with Draal's spikes, but Jim could at least offer him something softer to sleep on than the cold, hard basement floor. They had to have some old blankets stashed away that his mother wouldn't miss, just in case Draal decided to snack on them.

"Toby's right across the street," which Draal should know, since they'd walked Toby home just minutes ago, "but otherwise the house is kind of isolated. Benefits of a dead-end street."

They had gone through the woods from the canal to Toby's and then Jim's backyards, rather than following the streets. Draal made a good point when he noted how easily Jim had been tracked. He couldn't afford to grow complacent again.

Jim looked thoughtfully at the basement wall.

"We might be able to dig a tunnel to the sewers so nobody sees us coming and going. We'll have to set up a tarp or something over the entrance so Mom doesn't spot it, though. I don't think she'd be okay with us putting a hole in the basement."

That would keep Draal's scent from getting established around the outside of the house, as well, keeping him more thoroughly hidden.

It might open the home up to ambush from a new direction, but really, there was nothing to prevent anyone from digging their way into the basement in any case, and having an established tunnel could provide a surprise exit in the unlikely event of a siege.

Draal nodded thoughtfully. He ate some more coal. Jim had tried coal before, but never while it was still burning.

"Bah-buh-rah will never know I'm here."

Jim did not mention his new housemate during his next meeting with Stricklander. Stricklander would be obligated to pass along something as important as a troll temporarily lodging outside of Trollmarket to Bular. Jim didn't think knowing Draal was there would incentivize Bular to stay away from his house.

If anything, it might make Bular come by more often, intending to end Kanjigar's line when Draal inevitably noticed the other troll and tried to avenge his father, and never mind if Barbara saw them or if Jim were exposed as a Changeling in the process. Bular did not care for subtlety.

Instead, Jim addressed a minor but persistent problem he'd been struggling with lately. He switched forms and ferociously scratched at his horns.

"Sorry. They've been really itchy for a while now and it's started giving me phantom itchiness on my human scalp. I don't suppose you have anything to make it stop before Mom thinks I've got lice?"

Stricklander looked thoughtfully at Jim and circled the younger Changeling.

"Your horns are growing out. I thought you still had a year or two before that happened, or I would have warned you. They should finish in a few weeks."

"My head's going to itch for weeks?"

"Aloe vera might help a little."

"For the next few weeks?!"

"If you were a troll, the process would take years. Be grateful your body is developing at a human rate so you'll get this over with quickly."

"Growing extra fingers wasn't this uncomfortable." Some Changelings' hands would sprout the additional finger that humans had on each. Stricklander had them, too, as did Nomura – although Jim had seen trolls who looked like Nomura down in Trollmarket and they had five-fingered hands as well, so she may have already had them. Jim growled. "I wish puberty was, like, an actual separate person, so I could strangle them."

"Having taught high school for some time now, I can say with confidence that what you are feeling is perfectly normal." Stricklander patted his shoulder. "Although some adolescent behaviour still manages to baffle me. Tobias Domzalski approached me the other day, wishing me to write and sign a testimonial asserting to your responsible nature."

"… I have no idea what that's about."

Mary and Claire weren't able to visit Trollmarket the next night. They were both involved in the school play, and there was a rehearsal that evening. Toby and Darci stuck together – Jim's "buddy system" suggestion wasn't unreasonable considering they were in an unfamiliar place and some trolls were big enough to step on them by accident – and poked around the various stalls.

Darci wasn't sure if trolls used money or not. She certainly saw gems and metal coins that seemed to be used as currency, but other things were traded between shopkeepers and customers as well, suggesting they might actually use the barter system.

For example, just now, she and Toby were watching a troll trade a handful of socks for a broken television.

"I'll have to bring my old gym socks down here next time," said Toby.

"What's up with all these old TVs?" Darci wondered out loud. "Is the static like a white-noise machine? My mom uses one of those to help her sleep."

"Maybe it's food? That couple a few stalls back were eating circuit boards."

"But wouldn't they get electrocuted if they ate it while it was on? Or – wait, they're rocks. Would they just get a buzz? Oh my gosh what if eating live electronics is like coffee for them?!"

"Getting juiced on the ultimate energy drink!"

The humans laughed.

"Ah, there you are," said Blinky. "Now where have the other two gotten?"

"They're not here, they've got rehearsal."


"Do trolls have theatre?" It would be hard to explain what Claire and Mary were up to if they didn't.

"Oh, indeed! What theatrical enterprise are your thespian friends undertaking?"

"Romeo and Juliet; it's the school play." Darci had thought about auditioning, but Ms Janeth was exhausting enough to have in class without seeing her for an extracurricular.

"By your so-called 'Immortal Bard', correct? You know, every human library I've been to in the past century has had his works."

Blinky, it transpired, was just as interested in human culture as the humans were in troll culture, or possibly more so. They volleyed questions back and forth for a good twenty minutes until the differences in troll and human lifespans came up – trolls, he told them, lived fifteen to sixteen hundred years on average, with the oldest being over five thousand, and Blinky himself being around six hundred – and that segued into a chance for Blinky to explore a bit of human culture first-hand.

"You know," said Toby, "Jim's birthday is coming up next week …"

Chapter Text

"Wake up, wake up," Barbara crooned. "Don't want to sleep through your big day! And your big day begins with – Mom's Special Birthday Pancakes!"

The pancake stack had a screaming syrup face. "He looks excited," said Jim, blowing out the burning candle nose.

"I know you're not crazy about your birthday," said Barbara. "But sixteen is a big one. We should do something tonight."

"Mom." Jim put the breakfast tray on his desk and hugged her. "We don't have to –"

"Non-negotiable." Barbara kissed the top of his head. "You eat. Once you've had your fill, there's another surprise waiting for you downstairs."

Barbara had over-mixed the pancake batter, which was easy to do, since perfectly-mixed batter for light and fluffy pancakes was supposed to still be lumpy, therefore looked under-mixed. The result was a rubbery texture that deeply appealed to her Changeling son.

She also seemed to have heated the skillet too high, searing the outsides of the pancakes before the insides were fully cooked. There were slash lines where she must have cut them open with the spatula to see how the insides were doing. Each pancake was thoroughly cooked this year, at the cost of a few burnt spots.

Jim usually favoured human food over troll food, but Barbara's cooking really felt like the best of both worlds. He loved Mom's Special Birthday Pancakes, even if he didn't love the occasion.

For the first five years of his human cover, this particular date had meant nothing to him.

It wasn't his birthday. Or, maybe it was; it wasn't like he knew.

It wasn't the anniversary of the day he'd been swapped for Jay-Jay, either; that was in three months – and, based on the human reproductive cycle, was probably also the approximate anniversary of when Jay-Jay had been conceived, which was … awkward to think about.

This was the anniversary of the day James Lake Senior had abandoned Barbara and young Jim, leaving Barbara without her husband or her biological son, alone with a Changeling she felt obligated to comfort, to make this day special for so that her ex-husband would not permanently taint all association with it …

Jim shook his head to dislodge the bitter thoughts and took another bite of the bitter pancakes. Mom had used baking soda instead of baking powder again, and possibly mixed up the tablespoon and teaspoon.

If Draal was going to be their housemate, Jim should sneak some of Barbara's cooking down to the basement for Draal to try.

It was later than usual when Jim went to brush his teeth. When he spat on the mirror, Jay-Jay was getting cuddle time. A goblin had crawled into the crib and partially unswaddled the baby, to hold him close and protect the tiny human from suffering skin hunger. Jim cooed. He didn't usually see this part of the daily routine.

"Happy birthday, Jay-Jay."

He spat on the mirror a few more times to enjoy the cuteness. He wished idly – should've tried that on the birthday candle – he could check on other Familiars, too. Enrique had been partially his idea, so he felt partially responsible for the kid's wellbeing, and it would be nice to confirm he was settling in okay. Jim supposed he could ask Enrique at some point to show him the other Enrique, but that was kind of a weird and personal request.

He neatened his hair and took his tray downstairs. Barbara sprang up from the table.

"Wait! Wait right there! Let me get your present ready in the garage."

"The garage?"

There was absolutely no chance at all that she'd bought him a car, but Jim had expressed interest in Vespa scooters. She'd said 'no' at the time, but if she'd planned it as a surprise …

"I know you've wanted one of these for a while, and now that you're the big one-six, maybe it's time. I think you'll get a lot of mileage out of it."

He heard a motor. Jim ran into the garage.

"Did you seriously get me a –?"

"A Food Magic 3000! From those cooking shows you like." Barbara beamed. "It slices – it dices –"

"It's perfect." Jim half-hugged the food processor and put it on a shelf to hug his mother. "I knew you'd remember. I …" He picked up the Food Magic again. "I can't wait to cook you something with this. I've got to get this to the kitchen."

He couldn't find an unoccupied nook in the kitchen for future storage, so for the moment he left it sitting proudly on the counter and grabbed a dishcloth to make sure it wasn't dusty from the garage.

This present really was much more in character of his mom. You could hurt yourself with one, usually by dropping it on your foot, but every day Dr Lake saw multiple people at the hospital who'd been injured riding non-enclosed vehicles.

"JIM!" Toby let himself in and didn't bother shutting the door behind him. "Jim, you've gotta come quick, there's an emergency at –" He froze, realizing Barbara was there too. "At, the place. With the thing." Toby's eyes darted around as he backtracked. "Not even an emergency, actually – hey, is that a Food Magic?"

"3000," said Barbara. "I'll leave you boys to it. But Jim? Tonight? Celebration."

She went upstairs. Toby went on edge again.

"Seriously, we've got a DEFCON 1 situation in Trollmarket."

"What? How do you know?" Was this really Toby, or Otto trying to trick Jim into bringing him to Trollmarket? He could've just ordered Jim to bring him there and not risked potential witnesses of two Tobys.

"I – I just do! Come on!" He tried to physically pull Jim to the door. Jim went with him.

The Changeling was ninety-five-percent certain he was being led into some kind of trap, but if there really was an emergency, the Trollhunter couldn't just ignore it.

No, please, by Fair Morgana, no.

It was one of Jim's worst nightmares come to life – General AAARRRGGHH on a rampage. His eyes hadn't changed colour and his carvings weren't glowing, like in the stories, but his roars were powerful enough to shake the cavern. The only good surprise was that no one seemed to have been killed yet.

"It's too late, Master Jim! AAARRRGGHH has lost his mind! Save yourself!"

AAARRRGGHH almost grabbed him. If it had been a few weeks ago, Jim would not have dodged in time. His new training regimen was really paying off.

"Toby, run. Get to the surface and stay in the sunlight!"

I did not risk Bular's temper just to see you eaten by AAARRRGGHH instead.

Jim ran around the attacking troll and jumped onto his back.

I'm gonna die. I'm gonna die.

AAARRRGGHH twisted and reached. Fingers bigger around than Jim's legs barely missed him.

Please don't do that tuck-and-roll thing Draal can do.

Jim climbed AAARRRGGHH's fur and – please let this work, I don't wanna die – caught his scruff, and grabbed, and pulled.

Like cats, trolls had loose skin behind their necks and between their shoulder blades. Jim had seen adults around Trollmarket scruffing their whelps and depositing them on their parents' shoulders. He suspected the whelps held onto their parents' scruffs while being carried about.

His own experience with scruffing was as a dirty fighting trick, since the troll scruffed instinctively relaxed – if only for a second before trying to tear their opponent's hand off. He had no idea if it would work the same on AAARRRGGHH as it did on Changelings, but if Jim could snap AAARRRGGHH out of this without anyone actually dying –

AAARRRGGHH collapsed.

"Wha-what?" Tobias, who had not run, gasped. "What did you do to him? Was that a pressure point thing?"

"AAARRRGGHH!" Blinky recklessly ran up to him and gently patted his massive grey face. "AAARRRGGHH, are you alright?"

"Didn't expect that," AAARRRGGHH rumbled. Jim's relief – AAARRRGGHH was coherent, at least aware enough to speak again – was almost enough to deactivate his armour, before he felt it start to fade away and his burst of panic at being unarmoured in Trollmarket forced it to solidify.

Jim moved to a spot on AAARRRGGHH's shoulder where he could see Blinky more easily, but still quickly scruff AAARRRGGHH again if he had to. Blinky was on his knees, all four hands in the green ruff that framed AAARRRGGHH's face. Their noses were pressed together. They were murmuring back and forth in trollish. AAARRRGGHH bent his head further forward. Blinky matched the gesture. They gently knocked horns.

The contrast in AAARRRGGHH's body language now compared to the attack earlier was so extreme as to be surreal.

Jim finally noticed the crowd. They hadn't really registered in his mind earlier beyond 'screaming trolls', but this was an unusual number of them to see in the Forge. Probably. Jim wasn't usually in Trollmarket this time of day. Mary and Darci and Claire were there, too.

"Are we still throwing the party?" asked Bagdwella.

"… What party?"

"Ah." Blinky looked up at Jim. "Well – you see …"

Claire and Darci pulled ropes, unfurling a banner and unleashing a cloud of balloons and confetti.

"Tobias informed us of your human custom, the 'surprise birthing day party'. Are you not … surprised?"

"… That's … definitely … one word for it." Along with 'frightened', 'betrayed', and 'angry'. "You all … made me think … I might have to kill AAARRRGGHH … to stop him killing anyone else … possibly me … as a party prank? Yes. I am very. Surprised."

And now he was crying. Wonderful. It's a chemical release valve, let it out, if you're crying it's because you need to …

"Jim." Toby.

AAARRRGGHH got back to his feet and picked up Toby – the sight of the fleshbag being lifted towards the ex-Gumm-Gumm's mouth brought Daylight to Jim's hand before he could stop it – no, it's okay, don't stab AAARRRGGHH in the neck, DO NOT STAB AAARRRGGHH IN THE NECK – and put him on his shoulders beside Jim. Jim was still mad at Toby, but Toby was soft and warm and sympathetic and the best guy to cling to and cry on.

"I hate you so much right now," Jim snarled into Toby's shoulder.

"I – we – must apologize, Master Jim," said Blinky. "You have devoted much time and effort into learning troll customs and we thought you might appreciate a chance to indulge in a human one. It did not occur to any of us that we might cause you distress."

"You were awesome-sauce, though," said Toby, patting his back. "I had no idea you were that fast, and the way you jumped AAARRRGGHH like that – I mean, I'm sorry we scared you but I wish you could've seen it. You took the big guy down."

"I got it on camera," said Mary, waving her phone. "Don't worry, I stopped filming before the crying part."

The tears seemed to have stopped. Jim pulled his face off Toby's shirt and scrubbed his eyes. Claire stood on tiptoe to give him a tissue from her purse.

"What is the meaning of this?" Vendel bellowed. The elder entered the Hero's Forge and burst a balloon with the pointy head of his staff.

"Balloons … pop," observed AAARRRGGHH, taking one and biting it. It seemed to amuse him, because he took another and did the same thing.

"You will remove them post-haste. I don't want anything to interfere with the Trollhunter's training."

Blinky was once more impressed by the human Trollhunter's resilience. After the disastrous attempt at a surprise party left the boy clinging to his friend in tears, Blinky thought he might falter and stumble in his training, and would have let him skip it for that day if not for Vendel's orders. But perhaps the illusion of mortal terror spurred him on. Rule Number One, after all.

Master Jim was training alone in the Forge. Sparring sessions were on hold since Draal's departure from Trollmarket. Blinky could see the logic in setting up protections around the Trollhunter's home in Master Jim's absence, but it created some difficulty for the Trollhunter's trainer. They would need to determine a new sparring partner for Master Jim in the interim, and had not yet found one.

Blinky had been intending to ask AAARRRGGHH to consider the task. He'd fully expected the answer to be 'no', in accordance with AAARRRGGHH's longstanding oath of nonviolence, but Blinky had hoped that sparring matches could fall under the heading of 'not truly fighting', since neither truly intended the other harm.

But after what had transpired earlier, it would be cruel to make such a suggestion.

Blinky felt horrible for his part in frightening Master Jim so badly. He could only imagine how AAARRRGGHH felt about it.

On the other hand, there was some encouragement to be found in this mess. If swiftness, agility, and the first hint of ruthlessness were how Master Jim responded to imminent threats to life and limb, perhaps this meant the young Trollhunter actually stood a chance now of surviving his first encounter with Bular.

It was odd, Blinky reflected, that such an encounter had not yet occurred. Did the Son of Gunmar perhaps not know of the human who now wielded Daylight's mantle? Or … had Bular left Arcadia entirely after Kanjigar's death? There had been no sightings reported of late. Where was Bular, and what evil might he be plotting?

Master Jim lost his balance and fell from an elevating platform. He caught the edge and swung himself to land in a roll on the next level down – just in time for it to begin tilting, sending him scrambling for more stable ground.

"I messed up," said Toby softly. "I knew Jimbo hates his birthday. I really thought we could turn it around."

"Why would he hate his birthday?" Mary asked. "Getting overwhelmed by a party I could see, even without the scare, but hating his birthday?"

"Birthdays always remind him of the day his dad disappeared."

Disappeared? "Interesting," said Blinky. "I did not know that Jim's father was a magician."

"Not … 'magic' disappeared. More like, 'walked out because he's a deadbeat' disappeared." Blinky turned three eyes to focus properly on Tobias while still keeping three on the Trollhunter. "I had just moved into the house across the street, and Jim's dad got him this sweet bike kit for his fifth birthday, and then he just took off. Last I heard, he ran off with his girlfriend to become a ski bum in Vermont. Those bike pieces just sat there in the garage for months before Jim put them all in a wagon and carted them off somewhere. He never said where."

Blinky closed his lowest pair of eyes in solemnity and put a hand on young Tobias' shoulder. "What a horrible tragedy. Made even more horrible that I had no idea."

The rest of Jay-Jay's birthday was less perilous for Jim, or at least perilous in different ways. Once advanced training was over, Claire and Darci and Mary and Toby started their beginner training with weapons selected from the racks around the Forge. They'd brought bike helmets and shin and elbow pads, which weren't much protection but better than nothing, and definitely lighter and more flexible than Jim's armour.

Toby picked a hammer he could barely lift, let alone swing. Claire wanted to try all the varieties of spears. Darci went for a crossbow, which Jim encouraged – a ranged weapon meant the wielder was, ideally, far away from the actual danger. Mary picked a sword. Actually, to a troll it was a dagger, but for a human it was a sword.

Blinky corrected the humans' stances and grips, and then Darci started target practice while Toby tried to pick his Warhammer up. Mary and Claire had to leave – the school play had Saturday afternoon rehearsals.

"Hey," said Claire, "I'm sorry the party didn't work out. Happy birthday."

She kissed Jim on the cheek.

Jim stared awkwardly after her as she and Mary started to leave the Hero's Forge. He had to do something about this before it got out of hand.

"Claire, wait!" He ran after them. "Can I, uh, talk to you for a minute?"

She let him lead her to the side while Mary blatantly eavesdropped.

"Listen, um, I know it might not actually mean anything, but, you've kissed me twice now and it's kind of making me uncomfortable? Like, I don't know if you're actually flirting or not, and I get that you might not be," he added hastily, "but, I'm not interested in you, that way? So … little awkward."

Claire tensed, subtly, and blinked twice. "… Okay. I … won't kiss you again, then."

She and Mary left.

After about twenty minutes, Toby and Darci were ready to leave Trollmarket as well, and Toby dragged Jim over to the Vespa dealership. Jim finally got to test-drive one of the scooters … with the help of the testimonials Toby had been gathering about Jim's good character, and a bribe of six dollars cash in lieu of Barbara's parental signature.

"I brought cake!" Barbara sing-songed, closing the front door with her hip. She always bought one for Jim's birthday, rather than risk ruining the cake by making it herself or having Jim bake his own birthday cake. "The decorator said they'd draw a scooter on it, but the bakery was nearly closed when I got there to pick it up so I didn't have time to check."

Jim took the white cardboard box from her, set it on the table, opened it, and laughed.

It was a picture of a scooter, alright. A motorless, collapsible scooter, rather than a Vespa – a simple, nearly abstract arrangement of three lines and two circles.

"I guess this must have been easier to draw."

"Oh …" said Barbara. "Sorry, honey. I guess I should've been a lot more specific."

"It's fine, Mom. We've got a funny story now, right?" He got a knife and cut the small, round cake in half. "Which side do you want?"

"Jim!" she scolded teasingly. "At least let me put in a candle and sing first!"

There had been a candle on the pancakes, but Jim went along with the song-and-wish ritual. Then he cut one of the cake halves in half and served Barbara a quarter. They often ate dessert before dinner on birthdays, so Barbara had a chance at staying for cake before an emergency call could come in and she would have to leave again.

Chapter Text

Jim had gotten into the habit of closing the curtains and blinds after his mother left, or in the morning after nights when she didn't make it home, so Draal could come upstairs during the daytime.

He'd shown Draal how to work the remote control – with a pencil to push the buttons, since the troll's fingers were far too large – and Draal sometimes watched television when nobody else was around.

That morning, Draal was watching Jim, who was chopping vegetables.

"I'm making chili," Jim told him, which meant nothing to Draal beyond probably being the name of some human food.

The human used the tip of his knife as a pick to remove seeds from a bright plant he called a bell pepper. It didn't look much like a bell to Draal. Maybe for a moment, once the end opposite the stem was chopped off, but not especially.

"It's a flexible dish. You can eat it on its own or over cornbread or as a pasta sauce. I want to get the vegetables chopped before school, and then I can start sautéing them right away when I get home after. I'm thinking I'll try making the tomato paste from scratch this time instead of getting it out of a jar. You know, use the birthday blender Mom got me."

Jim twirled the knife as he set up the now-seedless pepper on the cutting board for dicing.

He truly did seem comfortable and skilled with knives. He should learn how to use one in a fight, even if he would normally be wielding a sword.

"I will go to Trollmarket maybe tonight, after the … food is … ready." Jim frowned. "Do trolls have a word for 'chili'? Or 'cooking', for that matter."


"Which one is that?"

"Well, considering I've never heard of 'chili' …"

"Tonight when I am done cooking, I will go to Trollmarket."

Claire kept a firm grip on her pepper spray.

She was allowed to visit Trollmarket, but dependant on Jim to get inside. While Vendel had, begrudgingly, granted permission for 'future human intrusions', he had refused to allow additional horngazels, and Jim guarded the crystal dagger even more closely than his amour-generating amulet, which could teleport back to him if misplaced.

Usually that wasn't a problem. But today Claire had been running lines for some important scenes, and had to stay late until Ms Janeth was convinced 'Juliet and her Romeo' were actually showing chemistry.

Eli Pepperjack had originally been playing Romeo, by virtue of being one of the few boys to audition and the only one to already know his lines. A few days after auditions had ended, Steve Palchuk showed up at rehearsal and charmed Ms Janeth into letting him join the cast late, and Eli had been bumped from leading man to narrator because Steve, according to Ms Janeth, 'has a more commanding stage presence'.

If that means 'attention-grabbing diva who can't stand sharing the spotlight', she's right.

Steve was a jerk, and harder for Claire to fake interest in, even for the sake of theatre. She, and Mary, and most of the cast, and at least half the stage crew, were convinced he'd only wanted to join the play so he could take the lead role from Eli.

So, Claire was late, and waiting alone under the bridge for someone to come and let her in. Mary had offered to wait for her when Ms Janeth asked the leads to stay back, and Claire now wished she'd taken her up on that instead of insisting, "no, go on."

The archway appeared on what had been a blank wall. It wasn't any of her human friends waiting for her on the other side, but the giant mossy boulder of a troll.



Claire stashed her pepper spray in her purse and skipped down the glowing spiral staircase.

"Where's everybody else?"

"Library. Blinky teaching to speak trollish."

Claire gasped. "Count me in! Can you teach me some on the way there? How would I say, 'nice to meet you'?"

"Gra min skob ogluk ka."

"Gremlin scrub oglooka?"

"Gra min skob …"

"Gra min skob."

"Ogluk ka. Two words."

"Ogluk ka. Gra min skob ogluk ka."

"Good accent. Sound like Vendel."

"Flatterer." Claire had a good ear for languages and a good head for memorization. "What's trollish for 'thank you'?"

Learning to speak trollish would, Jim conceded, help the humans endear themselves to the Trollmarket locals. Said trolls had been considerably less rude to Jim since he'd decided language lessons had gone on long enough to hold simple conversations without suspicion. Reading trollish script would also be useful to them – not so much for navigating Trollmarket, where most signs were simple pictograms to accommodate language barriers and illiteracy, but for enjoying Blinky's library.

Oh, Dictatious would be so upset if he ever found out, Jim thought with vindictive glee. Not only had a Changeling gotten his grubby Impure hands on Dictatious' precious, precious books, but soon mere fleshbags would have read them as well.

There was still one item of concern; one aspect of the language lessons with potential to blow up in Jim's face. He approached Claire once the lesson was over to take care of it.

"Claire … don't practice at home, okay? At least not where your brother can hear you."

"Why not?"

"Remember how Vendel thought you guys might be Changelings? Apparently they get swapped for humans at a pretty young age, and I don't know how many of them might be in Arcadia or how they decide who they kidnap and replace, but if Enrique starts mimicking trollish words in public and a Changeling notices, then they'll probably decide your family's worth spying on."

Claire's eyes were wide and her shoulders were tense. Her hands tightened on the first volume of A Brief Recapitulation of Troll Lore, which Blinky had been using to demonstrate how the trollish alphabet, like the Roman one, used approximately phonetic letters.

Jim felt a pang of guilt for his fear-mongering, but his other option was telling Enrique he was the Trollhunter, and Jim didn't think Stricklander would give him clearance for that.

Now he just had to quell the odd pang he'd felt, seeing the four humans clustered around Blinky learning basic phrases while Jim, the 'advanced student', quietly practiced his handwriting from a table in the corner.

"What's all this for?" Toby asked Vendel. The old troll hit the back of the human's hand to keep the boy from rooting around in the cart full of orange crystals.

"These are pieces of Heartstone. And not to be played with."

Toby sulked. "I was just looking."

"Why'd you cut all these pieces off?" asked Mary. "Is something wrong with it?"

Vendel sighed heavily; whether at the nosiness of humans or the inquisitive nature of whelps in either species, Jim couldn't guess.

"You humans cleave stones to unlock their beauty. We trolls cleave stones to unlock their power. The Heartstone is alive, and one of the most magically potent stones in the world. It requires careful, regular tending, to encourage healthy growth."

"So it's like pruning a tree?" said Mary.

"What do you do with the bits you've … cleaved off?" said Claire.

"Some are distributed around Trollmarket, or even around the world, for medicinal and magical purposes. Other pieces are fed back into the Heartstone at its root."

"Whoa …" Starry-eyed, Toby made another attempt to reach into the cart. Vendel swatted his hand away again.

Jim normally operated under the principles of 'better to ask forgiveness than permission' and 'what they don't know can't hurt me', but some simple misdirection and a half-truth might work better here.

"Could I take one of these for Draal? He didn't bring a lot of stuff with him other than weapons."

Vendel looked at Jim with narrow eyes. Jim let the elder assess him, his nerves prickling uncomfortably. Vendel must have found what he was looking for. He handed Jim a crystal half the size of AAARRRGGHH's fist.

"Thank you, Vendel."

Jim brought the crystal home in a sack, which felt unceremonious considering what it was, but for that same reason was a good way to avoid calling attention to it. He hadn't been returning or planning to borrow any of Blinky's books that night, so he hadn't worn his backpack.

He and Toby walked Claire, Darci, and Mary to Mary's house, and then Jim walked Toby home and cut across the street back to his house. He didn't go to the basement. He went to the garage. He unwrapped the Heartstone and just … held it for a moment, soaking in its warmth.

He set it on the old, rarely-used workbench. Hopefully he could do the next bit quietly. Mom was out for the night, but Draal was downstairs and on watch.

Jim had been buying extra coal since Draal moved in, so Barbara wouldn't notice how quickly it was disappearing.

It would have wreaked havoc on Jim's allowance if he hadn't convinced Barbara when he was twelve to let him handle the grocery shopping, to make sure he had the right ingredients for his recipes. She'd given him access to a credit card, and when he proved responsible with it, she also started trusting Jim to take care of other household maintenance issues if he noticed them before she did.

The occasional charge from the hardware store would barely register in Barbara's mind, and if she noticed they were spending more on coal, she'd be more likely to assume it had gotten more expensive than that they were buying more of it.

With more diligent coupon clipping and subtle dropping of the house temperature, the cost difference wasn't as extreme as it could be.

On his last trip to the hardware store, he'd also bought a chisel. He could have gotten one in Trollmarket, possibly better-quality and less-expensive, but that might have gotten back to Blinky, who would wonder why the Trollhunter wanted stone-carving tools.

The Lakes owned a claw hammer and a mallet and a few screwdrivers and an adjustable wrench, but had no particular reason to own a chisel … until Jim read, in one of Blinky's older books about past Trollhunters, that he could put different stones in his Amulet to unlock new powers and weapons.

He'd been planning to experiment on his own. The book had been dusty and the pages and spine weren't creased, suggesting it wasn't read often or recently before Jim got to it. The knowledge might have been, if not 'lost', then at least uncommon. That could give Jim an edge if he needed one. If he could get the Amulet to conjure some knives instead of the same old sword every time …

That could be a game-changer. He could use the amour's adaptability to create temporary slits to reach the knives he carried in his troll form, but he would prefer getting it to create different weapons, rather than having to switch forms and create gaps in his armour where a faster foe could strike him down.

Useful as that would be, it wasn't what he was working on right now.

Jim wrapped the crystal halfway again, so shards wouldn't fall away and be lost, and set it up in the woodworking clamp, so it wouldn't shift. He angled the stone just so, lined up his chisel with the almost invisible line that ran through the crystal, and tapped softly on the chisel's handle with the mallet.

Jim held his breath as the crystal cracked. He set up his chisel along the same cleavage line and tapped again. The stone fractured. The two pieces continued to glow. Jim sighed. This had been the biggest gamble – to see if he could break the stone without damaging its properties.

He unclamped his project and determined the larger fragment, which he wrapped up to give to Draal later. He hadn't exactly lied to Vendel. Jim fully intended to give Draal a piece of Heartstone. Just not … quite so big as the one he'd left Trollmarket with. It wasn't like Vendel would be visiting Jim's basement to check up on that.

He examined the piece he was still cleaving. He wanted to break it into at least four more pieces. Ideally six; one for each of the four humans who had found Trollmarket, to begin Operation: Geology Project, one for Jim to keep, and one to hold in reserve in case Bular decided to demand another Heartstone shard or Jim needed to bribe some fellow Changeling for a favour.

It would make more sense to break the larger of the two initial pieces, but … Jim had said it was for Draal.

Examining the stone, Jim found two good lines to cut, but couldn't see whether he'd be able to easily divide those pieces afterwards. He set up the crystal in the woodworking clamp again.

The sound of chiselling stone was both soothing and unnerving.

Jim ended up with three roughly equal-sized pieces and a tiny chip. He couldn't see a good spot to cut any of them further, and didn't want to just snap them apart at random. Whatever instinct seemed to be guiding him said that this was where he should stop.

He picked up the chip and rolled it idly in his fingers. It was jagged, but not sharp enough to cut even his humanoid skin. He took the Amulet out of his pocket and examined it. The book hadn't explained how a Trollhunter put new stones in the Amulet. Jim could ask the ghost Trollhunters, but it was worth trying to figure it out on his own first.

He turned it over. There was a starburst design on the back. The Amulet made a whirring sound and the back opened up, like the suckermouth of a lamprey. There were six little indents. Jim put the Heartstone chip in one of them and the Amulet closed again. He double-checked that the garage door was shut.

"Daylight is mine to command."

Jim had been experimenting with the amour in his room, and determined he didn't need to say the full incantation. If he tried hard enough, he could even summon the armour without saying anything. It didn't exactly count as a stealth option, since the armour still glowed, but should come in handy if Jim ever had a broken jaw.

He could also summon or dismiss specific pieces of the armour, not just his weapon. He'd found that out when he'd discovered and tried to dismiss a faceplate, and accidentally unsummoned his helmet entirely.

Jim stretched and went through a few simple solo drills, using his chisel as a substitute for a knife. After the third time he'd knocked over his constellation globe, he's restricted more active armour experiments to the garage rather than his room.

The Amulet's blue stone turned orangey-red and pulsed and turned blue again. Jim dropped the chisel with a clatter as a proper throwing knife appeared in his hand.


"Tobes. Tobes." Jim poked him. "Tobes."

Toby mumbled and rolled over. From the dollhouse, Chompsky chittered at Jim. Jim didn't speak gnome – Enrique was the only Changeling he knew who did, having picked it up eavesdropping on goblins and gnomes trading – but Jim could recognize 'be quiet'/'go away' in a number of languages he didn't speak.

He put on a high-pitched voice. "Toby-Pie!"

"Five more min'ts, Nana …"


"Jim?" Toby sat up and tangled in his blankets and flopped back down. "What time is it?"


"In the morning?" He groaned. "Why, Jimbo?"

"Well, if you don't want a magic glowing crystal, I can take it back …" Jim produced the Heartstone piece with a dramatic flair worthy of Stricklander. It was really a shame Toby's eyes had been shut. They went from squinty and sleepy to wide and alarmed.

"I thought you said you were giving that to Draal?"

"I am. I just, also broke off a piece for you."

"You broke it? What did you do, drop it on the floor?"

"It's fine. See? Still glowing and everything. And I had the best idea." He sat and leaned in conspiratorially. "Remember those old crystal-growing kits we used to play with? What if you could grow this one?"

"Vendel said it grows on its own."

"Yeah, but how? And how fast? You could learn stuff no human before has had a chance to learn – maybe even stuff that trolls don't know because they didn't think to look for it."

If Toby found a more efficient way to grow Heartstones – if Toby could grow Heartstones – he'd become the most valuable human in the world and Officially Inedible.

The initial plan was for all four human teens to be involved in Operation: Geology Project, but the girls could be brought in later. Localizing the project at Toby's house would keep Enrique from finding a Heartstone in Claire's room and putting her in danger before Jim could explain and spin the situation.

Toby looked at the crystal and rubbed his hands on his blanket.

"Leonardo da Vinci used to say he'd only collaborate with apprentices and journeymen, not master craftsmen," said Jim, "because apprentices hadn't yet learned what's supposed to be impossible." He thought it was Leonardo. It might've been a parody of him in a fantasy novel. Either way, it made an accurate metaphor for Toby's mineralogical knowledge relative to a troll's, especially a troll like Vendel.

Toby took a deep breath. His hands tensed. He snatched the stone. Jim flinched back just a little. He'd expected that reaction, after Toby'd had his hand swatted away from Heartstone shards twice earlier, but it was still startling.

Toby squealed and hugged the crystal like a teddy bear.

"Should probably keep this a secret," he said when he could speak again. "Don't want Vendel to make me give it back."

"Good idea."

"Hey, Draal." Jim went down to the basement casually, as though he'd only just gotten in from Trollmarket. "You've got a care package!"

"I don't know what that means."

"Oh. Yeah, I guess there's a culture gap there. It's a thing humans do when people go away, on vacation or missions or moving away for good. Their family or friends from where they lived before send them stuff, to make them feel more at home when they're away from home and remind them that people still think about them and care about them. I was just making a joke because Vendel said I could bring you this."

Jim handed Draal the sack. Draal didn't look especially impressed until he opened it.

The troll sat down abruptly. It didn't make much of a difference in his height. Draal's legs were most charitably described as 'short'.

"Thank you, Trollhunter. And pass my thanks on to Vendel, as well."

Is there any particular reason you are seeking out cookbooks, Master Jim?"

Blinky didn't have a large selection of those in his library – he thought the one Jim was currently reading might actually be Bagdwella's, and he knew the one atop the small stack at Master Jim's elbow had been borrowed from Vendel some years ago and never returned – but the Trollhunter had apparently hunted down every recipe book in Blinky's possession. A few medical books lay opened on the table to the pages about nutrition.

"It's … for Draal."

Blinky blinked. Draal had never, to his knowledge, expressed interest in food except to stave off hunger and build strength.

"He's been eating coal out of the furnace, or digging through the trash and recycling bins, but I guess I just wanted to know what I should actually be feeding him? I mean, I know he's an adult and can take care of himself, and he can just come back to Trollmarket if there's anything he really needs or wants, but I don't want him missing out on vital nutrients because he's doing me a favour."

"A commendable concern."

"Plus, I understand that trolls eat … metal and plastic and glass and paper and cloth and … other stuff humans throw out. But between me being a chef and my mom being a doctor, everything in me recoils at the idea of literally feeding someone literal garbage."

Blinky patted Jim's shoulder and left him to it. Far be it from Blinkous Galadrigal to get between a student and knowledge.

Chapter Text

Nomura was in grave danger. She had been doing an inventory of the recovered pieces of Killahead Bridge, and discovered that one of the stones recorded as being in the Janus Order's possession was missing.

It was a small stone, not structurally essential, buried deep within the bridge to fill a gap between two larger, irregular stones. If the magic sealing the portal to the Darklands didn't require them to acquire and assemble every single stone, it could be replaced with mortar, or left out.

She did not envy Gladys, the Changeling responsible for first acquiring this crate and bringing it to the United States. Bular might execute Gladys out of hand if he decided she had falsified her report that all the Killahead pieces in Madagascar had been recovered.

As the one who realized it was missing, Nomura's neck would also be on the line for finding it when – if – Bular found out. He did not believe in sparing the messenger.

Previous inventory, from three months ago, attested that this piece had arrived in Arcadia Oaks and made it safely to the museum. Who would have had access to the stones after that? Nomura herself, and Bular, of course, and the goblins currently nesting in the museum, and Stricklander …

… And Lake.

The museum could not have functional security cameras while Bular lived there. Officially, the digital security system was temporarily down for maintenance and upgrades, with the cameras left in place as dummies to fool the casual would-be thief or vandalizer. Thus, Nomura could not review past recordings to double-check her theory.

But now that she considered the matter, she distinctly remembered the young Changeling who currently called himself Jim Lake, following her and Stricklander to Killahead Bridge, when Stricklander checked up on the reconstruction under the cover of a school field trip. Lake had been sitting on a crate and holding two or three of the bridge's smaller stones while they talked about bringing in a new Changeling, and there were soft clacks of stone on stone as he returned them to their crate, and neither she nor Stricklander double-checked that crate's contents after Lake went to rejoin his classmates.

Oh, they were devious.

Lake was relatively new to the surface; a 'young' Changeling. Under normal circumstances, he wouldn't play an active role in the Janus Order until his human form had 'grown up' and could distance himself from his Familiar's family and disappear without calling attention. Stricklander was the head of the Janus Order, and his role as a teacher made him Lake's primary contact. The boy would be eager to prove himself useful.

Stricklander was probably holding the stone in reserve, to reveal that he'd 'found' a harder-to-trace piece of Killahead the next time Bular got angry, and poor little Lake was the scapegoat who'd actually taken the stone and would take the fall if Bular caught on that one had been stolen before Stricklander could play his hand.

Nomura huffed in annoyance at Stricklander's power-play. Oh, sure, he talked about how his ultimate goal was the good of all Changelings, but that didn't stop him from using them like … well, like every Changeling used everyone, but that didn't make him less obnoxious.

This should be simple enough to handle. She knew where Lake lived. She'd intimidate him into either giving her the stone back or revealing where Stricklander was hiding it. Bular didn't have to be involved. Lake didn't have to know that Bular wasn't yet involved. Stricklander had probably told Lake that this was a test of Killahead's security or something.

It was too bad Nomura wouldn't be able to trust anything Lake cooked for a while after this.

He insisted he would never 'insult' his own cooking by poisoning it, and no one could conclusively trace it back to him, and none of them had died from it, but Changelings who insulted Jim tended to find themselves mildly to severely ill, if they ate in the base's cafeteria on one of his nights.

Jim sorted through photos of book pages on his computer. He wanted to arrange what he'd found on troll nutrition and food into a single document with some kind of legible flow.

He still needed some excuse for how he'd gotten his information before he could bring the new cookbook to the base's kitchen. Maybe if he bought an old-fashioned-looking sketchbook and copied it out by hand … Stricklander was the only Changeling who knew what Jim's handwriting looked like. A 'recovered' book would be easier to explain than a bunch of printouts; Jim could speculate that some troll must have dropped it while on the surface looking for ingredients.

He'd have to batter it up a bit to make the book look used – spill some ingredients on relevant recipe pages for authentic-looking 'used in a kitchen' stains, tear some pages at the edges, fold in a few corners to imply favourite foods – and he should come up with some excuse for why he was suddenly so much more fluent in reading trollish – maybe claim that Stricklander taught him after he found the recipe book, because that wasn't of enough strategic use to keep locked away in a vault or office, and might as well go to the kitchen – but it could work.

Jim had not technically lied to Blinky when he said he wanted to know about troll food and nutritional needs for Draal's benefit. He'd just left out that it wasn't only for Draal's benefit.

He'd noticed his metabolism changing since he'd started visiting Trollmarket. More accurately, Jim had noticed his metabolism not changing when it should. He was training hard, and going through growth spurts in both his forms, and thank Stricklander and the Pale Lady that aloe vera worked and Jim's horns weren't itching anymore, and by all logic he should be ravenous all the time, but his hunger wasn't any more intense or frequent than it had been before. Likewise, he didn't seem to be sleeping longer than usual or showing any signs of sleep deprivation.

His best guess for why that was, was that he was also getting regular Heartstone exposure now.

That first Heartstone piece he'd stolen weeks ago was safely ensconced in the Janus Order's base. Once he could start making real troll food during his nights on kitchen duty, the Changelings stationed in Arcadia Oaks could finally enjoy a full range of nutrition in both their forms.

He'd offer to cook something for Bular as well, to demonstrate the side benefits of Jim's undercover assignment, if he weren't positive the Gumm-Gumm would take offense to any offering of food that wasn't human meat.

Someone was knocking. Jim saved and closed his work and went downstairs.

"Ms Nomura?"

"I know what you and Stricklander are up to." She pushed her way into the house. Oh no. Please don't let Toby be looking out his window. "Where's the stone?"

Jim mentally stumbled. "Stone? What stone?" Her opening suggested she knew about him being the Trollhunter – Was this about the Heartstone piece? He'd implied retrieving it was Stricklander's doing. Did she somehow know he had more now? Had she seen Bular with the second piece Jim retrieved and want one of her own?

Nomura pinned him to the door he had just closed.

"The stone from the bridge that you took from the museum."

Well. There went his half-baked plan to cover up the theft by claiming he'd taken it from Trollmarket when he brought it back. Unless Nomura hadn't told anyone else yet.

"Why would I take a bridge piece from the museum? That's where we're building it. We want them there. I'm not stupid."

"Oh, that's debatable." Her eyes glowed at him. "You'd do it if Stricklander asked you to."

"Why would he ask that?" Jim lit his eyes back at her. "Are you questioning his loyalty?"

She spun them both around and threw him to the floor. He cried out involuntarily on impact.

No armour, no armour, if she doesn't know I can't let her know –


Draal charged up the stairs to the rescue.

The troll's eyes widened when he saw Nomura. Draal picked Jim up by where his scruff would be in his other form, setting him on his feet and setting him aside, as though for safekeeping.

"Stay back, fleshbag – she's a Changeling!"

Draal drew something – a dagger? – from his belt, and thrust it at Nomura's heart. Jim leapt between them, his armour flaring to life.

"Draal, don't!"

The attack grazed Jim's face. His armour sent out a burst of light that pushed Draal and Nomura to opposite ends of the hall and knocked Jim down to sit on his tail.

Oh no.

Draal had been lunging at Nomura with a gaggletack. Jim's face was the only part of him that the armour didn't cover.

"You're the Trollhunter?!" Nomura shrieked.

"You're a Changeling?!" Draal roared.

"Stricklander knows," Jim told Nomura quickly. He stood again, still between them, keeping an eye on each possible attacker. "It's an infiltration mission." He drew one of his knives. Not an amulet-conjured knife, but a very specific one of his own.

Draal attacked Jim. Jim dodged and slashed Draal's arm. The troll cried out as the limb began stiffening. The wound turned grey with flickers of purple light.

Every Changeling carried a Creeper's Sun blade. Jim was one of the few living members of the Janus Order with experience brewing the antidote.

"I don't want to fight you, Draal."

"You are a disgrace," Draal snarled at him. "You are not worthy of that Amulet … Impure." He spat on the floor.

Jim growled. Nomura transformed and reached for her swords. Jim still wasn't sure which of them she was more likely to attack.

A car pulled into the driveway. They all froze. Jim unfroze first.

"My mom's back!" He switched forms but didn't drop the armour just yet. "Nomura, switch. Draal, basement." The troll looked about to argue. Jim steamrollered him. "We can fight to the death later, but you insist on doing this now, it'll be your fault a human found out about trolls." He shoved Draal to the stairs.

"This isn't over," Draal growled, but let himself be shoved.

Jim hesitated, then nicked Draal's leg with the poisoned knife to slow him down. Even if Draal went for the tunnel, if he was injured, Jim could catch up to him before he reached Trollmarket.

"I know you won't believe me right now, but I really don't want to have to kill you."

He shut the basement door in Draal's face, let the armour fade, and hid the amulet in its usual pocket along with the knife.

"Jim? I'm just in for a minute, I forgot my phone – Zelda?"

"Hello, Barbara," said Nomura, now perched innocently on the couch. "How have you been?"

"You know each other?" Jim thought he knew, or at least knew of, all his mother's friends. Unless they'd met at the hospital. It was nearly impossible to track all the patients there.

"We're in the same krav maga class – I'm doing fine – Zelda, what brings you here? Especially at this hour?"

"I was out for an evening walk and thought I heard someone following me," Nomura covered, putting on a wary and concerned expression and hunching into a more anxious posture as she related the excuse, then relaxing again. "It might have been nothing, but I know my ex lives around here, so I knocked on the first door with a porch light on and your son let me in. I was about to call a cab."

"No need for that," said Barbara. "Just let me grab my phone and I'll give you a lift home on my way to work. I'm already late, I can spare a few minutes. Jim, make sure all the doors and windows are locked once we're gone – or would you rather come with me? I know where you could set up a cot."

Normally he'd take her up on that offer, but he had to deal with the Draal situation. "I'll be fine here. If I change my mind, I'll go over to Toby's."

"Okay. Love you." She kissed his forehead and went to get her phone.

"Love you, too." Once Barbara was out of earshot, Jim turned to Nomura and said softly, "If she's hurt and I live, I'll kill you. If Draal kills me, he'll kill you no matter what happens to Mom. Wish me luck."

Nomura huffed. "Your sentimentality is adorable. Don't die. I still want answers."

"You can drop me off at the museum. My car is there."

"Wow, you walked a long way. Do you go for evening strolls a lot?"

Barbara didn't know Zelda very well – the other woman kept to herself before and after class and didn't chitchat with her training partners – but that felt like a safe topic. More neutral than asking about the ex who might have been following her.

"It varies," said Zelda. "My job hours aren't as regular as you might think. A lot happens in the museum after it's closed to the public."

"Hey, if anyone understands irregular work hours, it's me."

They drove in silence for a little while. Barbara tried dropping another conversational hook.

"I don't go to the museum as often as I'd like, but you've got a really eclectic collection there."

Zelda smiled. "I prefer to think of it as 'well-rounded'. We don't quite have room for everything to get the display space it deserves, so instead we give the public little tastes of each and hopefully inspire guests to go learn more on their own."

"Do you have a favourite exhibit there?"

"Definitely 'Ceramics Through The Ages'. That one actually started life as a pet project of mine. I have a private collection, not housed at the museum – the public doesn't appreciate pottery like they should," she said with a sigh. "We've been sourcing pieces for an architectural reconstruction lately, which has been taking up a lot of my time, but I've managed to find some pottery to add to my personal collection during the hunt."

"Everything I know about pottery comes from a camp I went to when I was twelve," said Barbara. "My projects always broke in the kiln."

"Everything I know about modern medicine comes from a first aid course I took years ago," Zelda returned lightly.

They reached the museum. Barbara parked beside the only other car in the lot, presuming it was Zelda's. Zelda got out.

"Thanks for the ride, Barbara."

"See you in class."

As she drove away, Barbara noticed in the rear view mirror that Zelda went into the museum rather than to her car. Maybe she'd forgotten something.

Jim kept a bottle of half-brewed Creeper's Sun antidote hidden under his bed, labelled 'Science Project – please do not throw away' in case Barbara found it.

Once most of the ingredients were boiled in oil, they could be kept for months, waiting for the final catalyst. Heartstone was ideal, but any magically potent stone would do. A troll or Changeling in a pinch could even use a piece of their own stone flesh. The first time Jim brewed the antidote, he'd chipped off the tip of one of his elbow spurs.

He brought the bottle downstairs when he went to talk to Draal. Draal had not made a break for Trollmarket through the tunnel. He was huddled behind the furnace, pressing the chunk of Heartstone to his injured arm and breathing shakily.

"What did you do to me?" he growled.

"It's called Creeper's Sun. As it spreads through your system, it will gradually turn you to solid stone. The speed depends on how vital the spot I hit was. Interestingly, this toxin is fully reversible, so long everything you want to save stays attached. Changelings have even been revived from complete petrification."

Draal snarled at Jim. Jim sat down a short distance away and showed him the bottle.

"I brought the antidote. It needs one more ingredient, and then you just apply it to the affected areas. I got your leg, too. I had to slow you down so we could talk."

"I'm not interested in anything you have to say."

"Are you going to listen anyway? You're hurt, Draal. Your options are limited right now."

Draal was clearly weighing those options carefully. He could attack Jim, and maybe even overpower him, but he didn't know what the 'final ingredient' was or even if Jim was telling the truth about the antidote. He could make a break for the tunnel, and if he rolled instead of ran he might outpace Jim for a while, but his injuries would slow him down and Jim could catch up. Draal's best option would be to hear Jim out, get the antidote, and then turn on the Changeling, though that might just get the troll poisoned again.

Draal glared at the bottle. "Talk."

"I can't let you tell Trollmarket that I'm a Changeling. I don't want to kill you, but that doesn't mean I won't. You see how my options are also limited."

Kill Draal, or risk Draal killing him, or risk Draal exposing him, which would basically be the same as killing him but probably take longer.

"… Why didn't you let me die in the Forge?"


"When I fell off the ledge. Everyone thinks you're human. I thought you were human. No one would have been suspicious if you hadn't been strong enough to pull me back up. If you're a Changeling, why did you save my life?"

In all honesty it had been an impulse decision, but Jim had had time to think it over and justify his actions if anyone found out and questioned him.

"Saving you would improve my reputation around Trollmarket and put you in my debt. If I failed, either I'd still look good for trying to save you, or it would look suspicious that you, the guy who basically said when we met that you'd be a better choice of Trollhunter than I am, had died while alone with me and my trainers."

That was another reason Jim hoped he wouldn't have to kill Draal tonight. He could claim Bular had found him and Draal had heroically sacrificed himself driving Bular off, or something along those lines, but it would still look bad if Draal died while Jim was the only witness.

"You'd mostly let go of your open resentment for me being Trollhunter by that point, and you value honour and like to think of yourself as heroic. If we'd both started slipping, and AAARRRGGHH didn't rush over in time to save us, you were more likely to yourself fall than pull me down with you."

And Draal would be a useful member of Gunmar's army, but that was the secondary excuse for Jim to give to his fellow Changelings, not something Draal would accept even if he believed Jim meant it.

Of course, if Bular were the one to ask, Jim had done it in case Bular wanted to personally kill the Son of Kanjigar.

"The strength boost really was the armour, though."

"And why did you let me move into your home? You had to know you were risking being caught."

"It would've been suspicious of me to refuse protection for my mother."

"The human woman you left alone with Nomura?"

"Nomura's too practical to draw attention with disappearances."

Especially so close to the completion of Killahead. Bular was on edge, which meant every Changeling in Arcadia was even edgier. Anything that might compromise the mission would be … harshly dealt with, and anyone in proximity could be collateral damage. That was likely why she'd come to threaten Jim herself rather than setting Bular on him.

"How much did you hear, before you came upstairs?"

It hadn't been enough for Draal to recognize Nomura before he saw her, but it might have been enough to expose the bridge reconstruction.

"I heard the knock and the door open, but I wasn't paying attention until you screamed."

"It was really more of a yelp," Jim muttered.

"Who is Stricklander?"

If Draal hadn't been paying attention, how did –? Blast it, Jim has said that right in front of Draal, hadn't he?

"Another Changeling. But he's not using that name in his human cover right now, so that won't help you track him."

Unless Draal repeated the name in front of literally any of his actual human acquaintances, who would notice the resemblance right away. It was more secure if a cover name changed entirely every time, but easier to remember to answer to your name – and bluff if you answered unthinkingly to a previous, now 'wrong' name – if it remained basically similar. That was why so many Changelings named themselves with some variant of their Familiar's name.

Jim sighed heavily and pushed his hand through his hair.

"So. Are we going to fight to the death or are you going to keep my secret?"

He knew he was asking a lot of Draal. Draal's first loyalty was to Trollmarket. If anyone found out he knew about a Changeling and had kept them secret, well, it was a good thing he had already moved into Jim's basement, because he could probably be banished for that.

Or executed. Draal could see himself in a no-win situation, unless he recognized the 'win' of nobody finding out Jim's secret and Jim then being able to vouch for Draal's trustworthiness once Gunmar ruled.

Not that a Changeling calling someone 'trustworthy' means much, or that Draal would willingly side with Gunmar … No, Jim, stop that, think positive …

"I have a condition," Draal decided. Which was a fair thing to demand. Jim would owe him for this. "I won't tell anyone, if you tell Blinky, and he agrees to keep your secret."

Jim swore in admiration. "Well played." He rolled Draal the bottle. "Dip the Heartstone in and then pour it on your cuts."

Chapter Text

"Leave the gaggletack here," said Jim. Draal growled. "I'm not saying 'throw it in the furnace and get rid of it forever' – in fact, don't do that, because that would probably really mess the furnace up – just don't bring it with us."

Telling Blinky was dangerous enough. He didn't want Draal abruptly forcing him to switch forms in the middle of Trollmarket. Draal could still decide a promise made to a Changeling was as unbinding as a promise from one and break their deal, but it would take longer for him to prove to anyone else that the Trollhunter was a Changeling if he had to go find a gaggletack.

"Leave your knife," Draal countered.

That wasn't much of a sacrifice. Even without the Creeper's Sun blade or the Amulet of Daylight, Jim was well-armed.

He held the gleaming green knife out to his side, pointed at the floor. "Drop them on three?"

Draal held out the gaggletack likewise. "One … two … three."

The gaggletack hit the cement floor with a clank. The knife made more of a clatter – cling-clack-cloi-oing-click.

Jim did not take a deep breath. If he stopped to psyche himself up, he'd never go through with this.

"Let's go."

The tunnel Draal had built linking the basement to the sewer system was sturdily constructed. It was wide enough for a troll Draal's size to move easily, big enough even AAARRRGGHH could possibly use it to visit, but narrow enough that Draal alone could easily defend the passage.

Jim walked beside Draal, not wanting to march ahead and feel like a prisoner, nor to linger behind and make Draal think he was trying to bolt. Being in arm's reach of an angry troll, a troll angry at him, was nerve-wracking. Jim's respect for Stricklander and Nomura ticked up a few more notches for how often they handled Bular.

Even if it was partially Nomura's fault that Jim was in this position.

Nomura called Stricklander from the museum's phone. He couldn't afford to ignore a call from the place where the bridge was being stored and rebuilt, the way he might ignore a fellow Changeling's personal phone number if they called at an inconvenient time.

"Good evening."

"Stricklander," she growled at him. She'd shed her human face as soon as she'd locked her office.

"Ah, Ms Nomura. To what do I owe this very late pleasure?"

"When were you planning to tell the Janus Order that Lake has the Trollhunter Amulet?"

There was a pause. She smiled mockingly, imagining him scrambling to wake all the way up and invent an explanation.

"Once we have the bridge completed," he claimed. "For now it's in our hands, and somewhere no one would think to look for it. Don't tell me the boy's been showing it off."

"No, no," Nomura said lightly. "I'm acquainted with his mother and happened to see him with it." When he interfered in a fight to try and protect me. That boy may be too invested in his cover. "I wanted to be sure I didn't have to worry about Bular finding out and venting on the antiquities that it hadn't been delivered to him."

"Bular knows," said Stricklander quickly, either because it was true or as a lie to keep Nomura from being the one to report it.

"I'm surprised Lake is still alive, then … unless Bular only knows he has the amulet, not that he can use it."

Another pause.

"What exactly did you see?" Stricklander's voice was soft in the way it got when he tried to hide tension.

"Oh, you didn't know the new Trollhunter's identity?"

He growled at her, creating a rumble of static.

"Jim Lake is on a highly classified mission to infiltrate Trollmarket, in a position above suspicion of being a spy. Tell me you didn't cost us that opportunity by killing him."

"I did not kill him," she said honestly. Cost him the position, maybe. "The boy was breathing and in one piece when I left his house."


"Careful, Stricklander, or I'll think you've gotten attached."

"Infighting weakens us. We need to be at our full strength to bring about Gunmar's return."

"Acknowledged. Nothing further to report." She hung up.

Nomura decided against reporting the missing stone from Killahead Bridge for now. Lake had been clever, acquiring that piece of insurance. He could claim to Bular that a part of the bridge was in Trollmarket, where only Lake could retrieve it. The Janus Order couldn't take Trollmarket by force; they needed Gunmar's army to stand a chance against so many trolls.

As the only Changeling who knew Lake had taken the bridge piece, Nomura now had some unique leverage over the Trollhunter. That wasn't a position she was willing to give up so soon.

She wondered idly how he was going to cover up Draal's death. Creeper's Sun didn't leave much of a trace, magically speaking, and once the body was broken it should be easy to hide. If no one knew Draal would be at the Trollhunter's home, it should be easy enough for Lake to claim ignorance when the troll was reported missing, and if anyone did know, he could claim Draal had never arrived.

On the other hand, he'd implied Draal might live through tonight … maybe, despite Draal's reaction, the young Changeling had actually made some headway in converting him.

Nomura had been unsuccessful when she tried that, but … that had been a long time ago. Maybe something she'd said had finally started to sink in, and given Lake a foothold to claw deeper into Draal's stubborn head. It would be nice, if they could be on the same side one day.

Quiet trickles and splashes of water would make a soothing sound in any setting but a sewer. There was the occasional metallic groan echoing off a distant pipe, and the squeaks and scurries of rats fleeing two large predators, for all that trolls didn't usually bother with them.

The canal was lined with storm drains. Arcadia Oaks' human population had first constructed the canals to reroute water from heavy rains and prevent flooding. Jim had never gotten around to asking if Trollmarket was ever flooded by some hapless troll, opening the portal without knowing the surface weather.

Jim told himself it did not hurt that Draal flinched when Jim got out the horngazel. Jim should be the one skittish and flinchy right now. The dagger-like crystal didn't even glow the same colour as his Creeper's Sun dagger, and any resemblance to a Darklands-native stinger crystal was entirely cosmetic.

Jim would admit to himself that it hurt when Draal growled at him again, this time for summoning his armour. He did not conjure the sword. Considering his promise not to use the sword against Draal, this was probably only hollow comfort.

Blinky was passing a leisurely evening in his library, not studying for any purpose beyond a pure love of knowledge and appreciation for the written word.

First he read A Compendium of Swamp Trolls, containing what little outsiders had gleaned of the cultures and traditions of the Quagawumps and their cousin tribes. Then he perused a work of human literature loaned to him by Tobias from the boy's grandmother's collection; a gristly and suspenseful detective novel, for which Blinky only solved the mystery himself a mere half-chapter before the protagonist.

Now he was comfortably immersed in a treatise he'd read before but enjoyed as a sort of scholastic palate cleanser, on the effects of static on a troll's mental clarity and emotional wellbeing. Blinky felt the essay had a soothing effect on his mind not dissimilar to static's own properties. He chose not to indulge in static itself more than sparingly, lest it cut into valuable reading time.

Next on his informal reading list was a dictionary that claimed to translate the goblin tongue – transcribed in phonetic trollish, as, if goblins had a written language, no non-goblin had yet discovered it, and given the proclivity towards vandalism in the goblin species, one would expect their written language to be known, if only in the form of graffiti.

"Good, you're here."

"Draal?" Blinky jumped. Draal wasn't a frequent visitor to the library even when he lived in Trollmarket. "Has something happened to – Master Jim." He hadn't noticed the Trollhunter at first.

"And alone," Master Jim noted. "Where's AAARRRGGHH?" Draal shut the door.

Blinky frowned and shut his book. "What seems to be the problem, gentlemen?"

"Jim has something to tell you."

Master Jim looked wide-eyed at Draal, who scowled back. The human's breathing was quick and shallow.

"I … I …"

His eyes darted from troll to troll to door. He settled mostly on Blinky, two eyes meeting four – Blinky kept two eyes on one side pointed at Draal.

"Please don't hate me," Master Jim whispered.

Blinky turned a third eye to Draal, who gave no sign what this was about save that it was serious.

"I … haven't been entirely honest with you," said the human boy. He wrapped his arms around his middle and hunched his shoulders. "Draal found out something, and, it's gonna make you think less of me" – Draal snorted – "but if you agree to keep it secret, he won't tell anyone either."

"You're blackmailing him?" Blinky summarised, glaring at Draal now. He put his upper pair of hands on the young Trollhunter's shoulders. "Master Jim. I have come to know you quite well in these past months. I do not believe any secret could make me think less of you. As your mentor, I vow not to expose any matter you tell me in confidence. And frankly, Draal, I'm disappointed in your behaviour."

Master Jim's smile looked forced. "It's nice to hear you say that." He put his hands on Blinky's for a moment, before stepping back out of arm's reach.

"I'm a Changeling."

Blinky did not absorb these words at first. His reaction when he did was disbelief. He blinked disjointedly, all six of his eyes on the seemingly-human boy.

"Show him," Draal pressed.

Master Jim did not transform. But his eyes glowed with otherworldly light, sclera turning from white to gold, and blue irises turning red.

Blinky recoiled, stumbling back into a table. The Changeling flinched. His eyes became human again.

"But … the gaggletack." The night the other humans had followed him to Trollmarket, Master Jim had picked up the artifact without hesitation.

"That only forces a transformation if it makes skin contact." The boy flexed his hands, drawing attention to his gauntlets.

"But you're the Trollhunter," Blinky protested. "How could Merlin's Amulet have thought a Changeling was a good choice for a Trollhunter?!"

"I have some theories on that, actually." And oh, that academic excitement that had been so endearing in a human child became ominous and threatening in this new light. "I wondered if maybe it just called out to the first troll who got close enough to it after the last one died, you know, other than whoever killed them. Or it could've broken when Bular threw Kanjigar off the bridge? Or maybe sunlight exposure damaged it. I mean, it is a troll artifact."

No wonder he'd adjusted to the existence of trolls so quickly, he knew of them all along! No wonder he'd learned to speak trollish so quickly, he must have already known it! No wonder he could fight so well, Changelings would be trained in combat, and no wonder he never hesitated to use Rule Number Three, a Changeling would have no qualms about 'dirty fighting' the way human literature suggested a human ought to have. No wonder he'd been cunning enough to scruff AAARRRGGHH, what human could have possibly thought to do that –?

"This should not be possible!" The troll waved all four arms as though to swat this knowledge away, like a human pestered by an insect.

"It makes a little more sense than it picking a human, right? Changelings are still technically trolls."

Blinky had grown accustomed to seeing the Trollhunter armour shrunken to fit a human shape, but this new information made the familiar sight blasphemous.

"No," said Blinky, without thinking, "you aren't."

Chapter Text

"Changelings are still technically trolls."

"No, you aren't."

Blinky's rejection burned in Jim's gut, magma-soft and shuddery, before it hardened into something sharp and brittle like obsidian.

Either Blinky was denying Changelings were trolls, or he was still trying to deny Jim was a Changeling. It didn't particularly matter which. He had been presented with a fundamental aspect of Jim's nature, and he had rebuffed it.

It was like watching James Senior drive away and realizing all over again that he never intended to come home, except this time, Jim had something ready to throw at him.

"You really are Dictatious' brother."

The attack struck true. Blinky didn't have time to do more than gasp. It was at this tumultuous moment that AAARRRGGHH returned to the library.

Jim tensed up and bent his legs to spring. If need be, he could jump to the top of one of the shelves, and from there jump for the door without being in arm's reach of AAARRRGGHH or Draal for more than half a second. AAARRRGGHH, at least, should be too startled to try and catch him.

AAARRRGGHH looked at Blinky, who looked dumbstruck; at Draal, who looked confused; and at Jim, who tried not to look scared.

"What happened?" AAARRRGGHH asked.

"My brother is alive?!"

As of a few weeks ago, Jim chose not to specify. The latest updates from the Darklands focused on the Underlord's army, not his advisors. There may or may not have been a status-related assassination since then.

"How you know?"

"He's a Changeling," said Blinky.

"Your brother?"

"No, Master Jim!"

"That doesn't count," Draal assured Jim quickly. "Blinky was always bound to tell AAARRRGGHH."

"Jim … Changeling?" AAARRRGGHH looked at Draal again. "You knew?"

"I found out tonight by accident. I made him tell Blinky."

AAARRRGGHH frowned and shook his heavy head and turned back to Jim.

"Why not kill Draal?"

Jim flinched.

"I … Because it would look suspicious, if he died when I was the only witness."

"No one checking on Draal. Wouldn't know until you say."

"The Ghost Trollhunters would. I mean, they can probably only talk to other Trollhunters, or they would've told somebody I'm a Changeling by now, but Kanjigar would find a way around that if I murdered his son."

That was conjecture on Jim's part, but Gunmar and Bular were probably a good example of the devoted nature of troll father-son relationships, right?

Blinky came a short way out of his shock. "The past Trollhunters know your secret?"

"Changelings good at excuses," said AAARRRGGHH. "Could say they lied, just don't like having human hunter. Touched gaggletack before."

"Why do trolls keep questioning why I don't want Draal dead?" Even the Ghost Council had brought that up when they first summoned him, showing Jim saving Draal in the Forge as an example of his lack of killer instinct. "What, do you want me to kill him? I thought you guys thought you were the good guys!"

"Logically," said Blinky, "a Changeling should be willing to kill anyone who might compromise their cover. Unless you intended from the start to kill all three of us, killing Draal would have been the more expedient solution to him discovering you."

The intellectual challenge of puzzling out a Changeling's reasoning seemed to be bringing Blinky back to himself … though not yet back to his usual level of intelligence.

"If that was the plan, I would've killed Draal first." Did Blinky really think Jim was so impractical? "I'm a good fighter and AAARRRGGHH says he's a pacifist, but why would I set myself up to have to take on all three of you at once?"

"And so the question remains. Why would a servant of Gunmar seek not to kill an enemy?"

"Draal's not my enemy! He was trying to help!"

The library went silent. The ambient sounds of haggling and conversation were a constant background murmur in Trollmarket, even here with the bookshelves and layers of tightly-packed paper to act as a sound buffer, but in that moment it seemed to drop ominously away.

"Another Changeling came to his house," said Draal. "I … knew her, once. They fought. I got out the gaggletack so Jim would know she wasn't human. He got in the way."

"And Draal didn't deserve to die for trying to protect me."

Well, maybe by Trollmarket's laws he did, since he'd been 'aiding the enemy', but that was irrelevant to Jim's motives.

"What happened to the other Changeling?" asked Blinky.

Jim groaned and almost covered his face with his hands before he caught himself.

"She went home. My … supervisor, knows I'm the Trollhunter, and I told her that, so she's probably reporting me right now. But she's not likely to tell anyone else, at least for a while."

No Changeling would just give away information that valuable, especially if they had the chance to make their sources pay dearly to keep it secret first.

Jim was honestly surprised none of the trolls had tried to restrain him yet. Maybe they had already worked out that, if they did, he would bolt, and they'd lose any information they hoped to get out of him.

He hadn't technically told them anything yet that Draal hadn't known or that they couldn't have inferred just from learning he was a Changeling, other than the bit about Dictatious.

That part had been reckless. Jim didn't know how long Dictatious had served Gunmar, but considering the high esteem in which Blinky held his brother, demonstrated by the treasured books, Blinky had not known about it … unless Jim's old suspicion was right and Blinky worked for Gunmar, too, but he'd only ever had circumstantial evidence for that – namely, how quickly Blinky's pupil Unkar had died, and some speculation about Blinky's motives for befriending AAARRRGGHH – nothing solid or conclusive.

AAARRRGGHH moved away from the door. He kept as much space as the room allowed between himself and Jim – because he saw Jim as a threat, or trying to look nonthreatening himself? – and circled to reach Blinky's side.

Blinky was leaning on the table and holding its edge with his lowest pair of arms. AAARRRGGHH grabbed the chair Blinky had been sitting in when Draal and Jim arrived and moved it to where Blinky could sit again, which he did, heavily.

"So … to be sure we haven't missed anything …" Blinky began counting off points on his many fingers. "You're a Changeling. At least two other Changelings know about this. One of them attacked you, but got away, after Draal saved you from her. You decided not to kill him for learning your secret out of respect for that debt. Draal then insisted you tell me – us," he corrected himself, looking at AAARRRGGHH. AAARRRGGHH patted Blinky's shoulder. "So, essentially, you've placed your life in our hands. I'm surprised a Changeling could trust someone so much."

"Don't make me think about how big a mistake I'm making," Jim mumbled.

"We won't tell," AAARRRGGHH promised.

Blinky twisted sideways in his chair and gave him a shocked look. AAARRRGGHH looked back at him levelly. Blinky gestured sharply at Jim with one lower arm. AAARRRGGHH slightly shook his head. Blinky's four fists clenched.

AAARRRGGHH put his massive hands, palms up, under Blinky's, cupping two hands in each one. Blinky's shoulders and fists lost a bit of their tension, but six eyes narrowed and his mouth pursed. AAARRRGGHH bumped Blinky's cheek lightly with his nose. Blinky sighed; his hands relaxed and ran lightly over AAARRRGGHH's.

"We won't tell," Blinky agreed.

He turned forward again, extracting the arms on one side of his body from AAARRRGGHH's hands, to give Jim a serious look.

"But I expect full honesty from you from this point forward. I realize deception is probably a habit for a Changeling, but if we're going to keep something this important hidden from Trollmarket, we need to be able to trust you."

Jim pressed his lips together tightly and glanced around the room. His gaze deliberately did not linger on the spot where he'd hidden the stone from Killahead Bridge.

"I can promise not to lie to you, but I can't promise not to keep secrets from you."

"… It's a start." Blinky folded his upper pair of hands, leaving just one lower hand held in AAARRRGGHH's. "Now. What do you know of my brother?"

Looks like you, but green, and his hair sticks up and has white streaks. One of Gunmar's advisors. Kodanth's main rival, assuming Kodanth hasn't managed to convince Gunmar to kill Dictatious by now and become sole counsel again.

"I don't actually know if he's your brother," Jim admitted. "I just inferred based on resemblance and apparent relative ages and books in your library with his name on them. I mean, how many six-eyed, four-armed, Dictatious Maximus Galadrigals can there be?"

"Maybe we should focus on what to do about Nomura instead?" said Draal.

"Who?" asked AAARRRGGHH.

"The Changeling we fought earlier."

"I've got some things I can bribe or blackmail her with, but nothing as big as what she's got on me now," said Jim. "And we can't just lock her up down here." That wouldn't work even if Jim were willing to let the trolls risk exposing his secret to Trollmarket by revealing there were Changelings in Arcadia. "She's locally known. Humans and Changelings would both notice if she went missing. For now, I think it's safer to do nothing."

"You said she was going to report you to another Changeling."

"And I'll get in trouble for that, but I can handle it."

"Don't have to know you're exposed," said AAARRRGGHH thoughtfully.

"What?" said Blinky.

AAARRRGGHH shrugged. "Lie. Tell other Changeling Draal's dead."

Jim had already considered that, but, "No, that's too risky if – if anyone comes to my house again. But it's fine. I've already got a justification for letting him live."

"Which is?" Draal rumbled.

Well, he wasn't going to like it, but it would be easier to pull off if he'd at least play along in front of other Changelings. Hopefully Draal was sensible enough to value his life over his reputation.

"You agreed to keep quiet in exchange for your life. You'll be useful when Gunmar comes back, so if I can, it's more efficient to convert you to our side than to kill you."

There was another moment of ominous silence.

"I would never willingly serve that monster!" snarled Draal.

Yeah, that's what the Decimaar Blade is for, Jim didn't say. "You don't have to. You just have to let them think that you would."

"You said 'when'," said Blinky. "When Gunmar comes back. Not 'if'."

Jim bit his tongue to hold back a swear word. "Any Changeling would say it like that. We've been working to free His Dark Eminence from the Darklands ever since he was trapped there. Expressing doubt as to whether that's possible is tantamount to treason."

Bular got … murderous … about things like that. And about things that were far less important, but especially treason.

"I can't believe there are still active Changelings," Blinky muttered, shaking his head. "Trollhunter, this is important. How do they plan on freeing Gunmar? A Fetch would destabilize before it could be enlarged enough to fit a grown troll, and the only other way I can think of would be …" One at a time, his eyes went wide.

"Killahead," said AAARRRGGHH.

"I can't tell you about those plans," said Jim immediately. "I – I'm pushing things, but I can still excuse everything else I've done and said tonight. Telling you about this really would be treason."

"Killahead Bridge was torn apart and scattered," said Draal. "It would take decades, centuries, to collect and rebuild it all."

"They've had centuries," said Blinky. "And quite possibly an army to do it, we never did learn their full numbers, that was part of what made them so unnerving – AAARRRGGHH?"

AAARRRGGHH had let go of Blinky's hand. His tattoo-carvings were starting to flicker green. He curled in on himself. His eyes went dark for a moment, black with green pupils instead of the other way around.

"Gunmar … coming back?"

"AAARRRGGHH, look at me." Blinky got out of his chair and knelt in front of where AAARRRGGHH crouched. "Listen. Gunmar is not here. And he will never be here. We are not going to let him come back."

Jim managed to hold in his bitter reaction to that until AAARRRGGHH's eyes went back to normal.

"So you're fine with Changelings being vermin instead of full citizens, then."

It was AAARRRGGHH, rather than Blinky, who responded to that.

"Gunmar keeps threats, but not promises."

"… You deserted centuries ago. You don't know that anymore."

"Gunmar not respect Changelings, even when needs them. Won't respect them when doesn't need them."

"He'll owe us."

"Won't care."

AAARRRGGHH leaned in. He was still across the room from Jim, but Jim felt like AAARRRGGHH was looming over him.

"As Changeling, you live like human. Not human, but care about some. Toby. Darci. Mary. Claire. Friends, yes? Gunmar comes back, they all die."

Jim shook his head forcefully. "They can be useful alive."

"Humans only useful to Gumm-Gumms as food."

"And if they want to keep eating humans for more than a few years, they'll need to keep some alive as breeding stock! That's just logic!"

"Eternal Night kill any humans not eaten already."

"Eternal – that's not a real thing! That's a metaphor about taking over the surface that Gunmar used for recruitment, not something he can literally make happen. Anyway, once we free him from the Darklands, anyone who played an instrumental part in that will be in position to ask for favours, and I've got multiple good reasons why Toby and Mom should be kept alive and one reason each so far for the girls."

AAARRRGGHH growled. Jim reflexively double-checked his escape route. Draal was a bit closer to the door than he was comfortable with, but he could still make it.

"Gunmar not honour debts to Impure slaves."

Jim felt his eyes lighting up. His growl didn't quite work in a human throat. The amulet pulsed with light in response to its bearer's distress.

"We're not slaves and we will be rewarded."

"Willing to bet friends' lives on it?"

Jim felt something inside him crack.

Chapter Text

Jim was shaking. The glow in his eyes was catching on his tears and spraying little spots of light at odd angles around the library. His teeth were bared. His arms were tight to his sides, hands gripping his thighs instead of clenched in fists. The amulet was flickering, sending ripples of light over his armour.

Then, he collapsed.

There was a clanking noise as the Trollhunter fell to his knees. Jim gasped out a sob. He covered his face in his gauntleted hands and breathed, still shaking.

AAARRRGGHH wanted to get closer and offer comfort, but he didn't want the Changeling to panic, thinking AAARRRGGHH was attacking him. He also wasn't convinced that Jim wasn't just faking his distress. Showing false pain was a classic move in Changeling combat to lure an enemy into striking range.

AAARRRGGHH hadn't had much to do with Changelings before he became a general. He saw them around the edges of camps, scuttling about like goblins, kicked aside or stepped on if they got too close to anyone important, and he sparred with them sometimes if he was ordered to, but no self-respecting Gumm-Gumm socialized with them.

Even when he was first promoted, the Changelings reported to spymasters who reported to General AAARRRGGHH for them. After a few times important information had been left out, AAARRRGGHH started insisting the Changelings give their reports directly to him.

He still thought the spymaster had been angling to get a particular Changeling killed for incompetence, because it was always Stricklander's reports that were missing information when the spymaster delivered them, and Stricklander never left anything out when reporting to AAARRRGGHH in person. Stricklander liked to show off that he was fluent in trollish, which not every Changeling was, so it could be hard to get him to stop talking.

The Gumm-Gumms didn't bother teaching their stolen whelps to talk. The fighters would pick up what they needed from what got yelled at them and the Changelings would end up speaking whatever fleshbag language their Familiar's family used.

AAARRRGGHH didn't know how exactly a Changeling was tied to their Familiar. He knew something was done magically to the future Changelings when they were first taken – he'd watched the first steps of the transformation, once or twice, when he was put on guard duty for that, and the way they screamed when the magic pushed through them made AAARRRGGHH glad he'd been picked as a fighter instead of a spy – and the whelps stopped growing after that but still learned how to walk and speak and fight, and he knew something else was done when they were planted in the fleshbag home.

Stricklander had explained a bit of that part to AAARRRGGHH once, during a long and boring mission, when the general randomly asked the spy what it was like being a Changeling. After years without growing, they aged human-quick for two or three decades – it slowed down after the second, so they weren't sure when it stopped – and then finally went back to aging like normal trolls.

He'd said more, but he'd switched without noticing to human tongue when he started talking about his life among the humans, and AAARRRGGHH hadn't understood or, at the time, particularly cared about what he was saying. He'd just wanted Stricklander to talk so AAARRRGGHH could be lulled to sleep. The quiet had kept him on alert for an attack. Chatter was soothing.

Jim's human form was relatively young, so he couldn't have been out of the Darklands for very long. He must have been low-ranking before finding the amulet. His insistence Gunmar could be swayed by logic and gratitude told AAARRRGGHH just how inexperienced Jim was. The youngling still equated 'status' with 'safety' rather than 'constantly fighting off challengers'.

General AAARRRGGHH had possibly been the closest any troll could be to having Gunmar's respect.

This had not spared him from the warlord's temper or made Gunmar inclined to listen to him.

By the time Gunmar was banished from the surface lands, the Skullcrusher had built himself up into a nearly godlike figure. No one had dared openly challenge him until Deya the Deliverer had rallied trollkind against his army.

There had been a persistent rumour before AAARRRGGHH deserted, that Skarlagk the Scorned – daughter of the previous warlord, Orlagk the Oppressor – was building an army of her own within the Gumm-Gumms' ranks, planning to overthrow Gunmar and to avenge and succeed her father. AAARRRGGHH had considered throwing his lot in with her before deciding to run away from the Gumm-Gumm army entirely. If she was still alive, Skarlagk might have found more recruits in the Darklands, among Gumm-Gumms who blamed Gunmar for their imprisonment.

She was as proud as she was scornful, and wouldn't have a Changeling in her forces if one begged to offer her their services, but Jim might know whether she was alive or not. Infighting would weaken Gunmar's army if they ever did manage to escape.

AAARRRGGHH shuddered again. He'd thought it was over, or would be once a Trollhunter finally managed to defeat Bular. It never occurred to him that Killahead Bridge might be rebuilt one day.

Jim seemed to be done crying on the floor. His eyes had stopped glowing as well. He brushed his face off roughly and pushed himself back to his feet. The Sword of Daylight appeared in his hand.

Draal braced himself to either attack or block the door. AAARRRGGHH put one arm in front of Blinky. He had sworn to never fight again, but he would not hesitate to put himself between his beloved and danger. He heard some rustling from Blinky and wondered if he was carrying one of those dwärkstones he collected. That seemed like a bad idea to set off in a library, but that wouldn't necessarily stop Blinky.

Jim smelled angry and scared. He'd smelled that way since AAARRRGGHH got to the library, but the scents were both stronger now.

"No one. Is hurting. My family. Or. My friends. Not even Gunmar. I won't let him."

The drama of the moment was broken by a mechanical chirping. They all knew that sound. Jim used an alarm on his cellphone to remind him to go home and get a few hours of sleep before school, rather than spend the entire night in Trollmarket and risk being found missing by his mother the next morning.

Jim had one of those awful nights where he repeatedly dozed off and drifted back into wakefulness, so that by six, when his alarm clock beeped, he felt like he hadn't slept at all.

It was painful to consider what AAARRRGGHH said. AAARRRGGHH hadn't served Gunmar in centuries, but he had also served him for centuries, and had been higher in his hierarchy than any Changeling could hope to be. He would logically have some insight on Gunmar's character.

Jim made himself toast for breakfast and pulled together a three-bean salad to leave in the fridge for when Barbara got home. He stared blankly at the empty cans from the beans. Would Draal eat them, or would he not trust food Jim gave him anymore now that he knew he was a Changeling?

He watched the empty cans do nothing for two minutes, then rinsed them out to avoid attracting bugs and left them in the recycling bin for Draal to decide on later.

Yes, the curtains were all closed. Jim swept the hardwood floor without paying much attention, and checked the lightbulbs and lightly dusted the living room entirely by muscle memory.

Oh, right, Toby's lunch.

He put together some sandwiches. Almost painfully simple sandwiches, by Jim's standards; toasted bread, cold cut roast beef, a bit of Dijon mustard, with a lettuce leaf and tomato and onion slices in a Ziploc baggie to be assembled later, so that the bread wouldn't get soggy before lunch.

It wasn't even seven yet? Jim made a frustrated noise and left anyway. It would be fine. The Domzalskis had a spare key to the Lakes' house and vice-versa.

–Tobes, I'm going to school early today. Left your lunch in my fridge.–

Jim barely remembered to lock up his bike before going to Stricklander's office.

"Ah, Mr Lake." The older Changeling set his pen down. "Ms Nomura and I were just discussing you last night."

… Right. That.

"How much trouble am I in?"

Stricklander frowned. "You seem to have other matters on your mind. Sit down. What's bothering you?"

With more consciousness than he'd given any other task that morning, Jim closed the office door and adjusted the piano stool.

"Is the Eternal Night … literal?"

Stricklander picked his pen back up and toyed with it. "It is a sincerely held intention, but so far as I am aware, not one that Gunmar yet has the power to bring about."

What prompted this question? Walt wondered.

Jim did not seem particularly concerned about Nomura catching him with the amulet the other night. Walt would suspect Jim hadn't realized she'd spotted it, except that Jim hadn't been at all surprised at the possibility of being in trouble, either.

Maybe the near-completion of Killahead Bridge was making him think more about the future. Killahead itself had been the Order's primary goal for so long that it seemed amazing to be able to think about what would happen afterwards as more than an abstract idea.

Jim looked anxious and exhausted. He was tugging at the cuffs of his jacket and had larger, greyer bags under his eyes than usual.

"But how's he going to eat humans if they all freeze to death?" the younger Changeling asked. "I guess that would also preserve them, but it limits them to a finite quantity."

Ah. That was it.

The simple answer was that Gunmar hadn't fully considered or understood the consequences of permanently blocking out the sun, but that wasn't truly what Jim wanted to know.

"Barring a nuclear winter or supervolcanic eruption, it will likely take decades after taking over the surface before a way is found to begin the Eternal Night. Any humans you know now should be long dead by then."

"It's not actually that, for once," Jim insisted. Walt raised both eyebrows, expectant and skeptical. "I …" The boy sighed. "I guess it's Trollmarket influences? As far as they know, I've never met Bular, so they've been giving me lots of warnings, and General AAARRRGGHH talked a bit last night about when he was a Gumm-Gumm. It made me realize how little I actually know about the Underlord's goals and motives. I know I don't have to know, but, I can't help wondering."

This line of questioning was not something Walt should be encouraging. Questioning Gunmar on any level was technically treason. Bular would have both their heads for this if he knew.

"He won't need spies anymore," Jim continued, "once we take the surface. So, when trolls don't have to worry about the sun anymore either … what's going to happen to the Changelings?" He flinched. "I know that's selfish."

"Selfishness can save your life," said Walt easily. "It's true that we won't be … necessary, anymore, once all that happens, and it's true that there are … certain … risks, associated with that." He stood up, pocketed his pen, and walked slowly around his desk to Jim's side. "That's why loyalty is so important. The Janus Order is invested in Gunmar's success, and the payoff on that investment is a place in Gunmar's world when it arrives."

And if it never came, well, the Janus Order was positioned to take over the fleshbag world themselves and rule it themselves … but that was a plan to hold in reserve, lest it be taken as a challenge to Gunmar's 'rightful authority'.

Walt put his hand on Jim's shoulder. Jim nodded. His expression was still thoughtful, but there was a bit less tension around his mouth. Walt patted Jim's shoulder and went back to his seat. Jim stood and tugged at his backpack straps.

"Thanks, Mr Strickler. I … I like talking to you."


Jim left. He was still moving slowly. How much sleep was he getting?

The boy had a twice-weekly shift at the Order's base, and that meant he was probably spending the other five nights in Trollmarket. Jim had told Walt he justified absences from Trollmarket on the nights he worked at the base by claiming to Blinkous Galadrigal that he needed those nights off to fulfill his human academic responsibilities and avoid drawing attention.

His grades hadn't dropped – Walt was not above hacking his fellow teachers' accounts on the school computers to keep an eye on a Changeling student's activities – so he had to be doing his homework at some point.

Changelings didn't need as much sleep as humans, but they did need more than an unaltered troll.

Walt frowned and looked through Jim's student file. Where was that contact number …?

It was answered on the fourth ring. Knowing the particular human worked in a hospital, he'd been expecting to have to call a second time, after which he'd planned to leave a message.


"Good morning. Dr Lake?"


"My name is Walter Strickler; I'm your son's history teacher. Jim isn't in any trouble." Walt had been teaching long enough to know how parents reacted to unexpected calls from school. "But I have some concerns I would like to discuss."

Eternal Night was a real plan. Gunmar was setting himself up to not need Changelings anymore. Once he didn't need them, he wouldn't bother keeping them around.

The farming plan had been workable. Logical. The Eternal Night … was not. How could anyone rule over a world that was destroyed? Even trolls could freeze to death eventually.

For the good of humanity, his fellow Changelings, and all of trollkind, Jim could no longer support Gunmar's escape from the Darklands.

He was really glad he'd stolen a piece of the bridge already.

Chapter Text

"How're you holding up, Jim?" Toby opened up his half-made sandwich to put the vegetables on it.

Lunches by Chef Jimbo that required a final, in-cafeteria step to assemble weren't that odd, but usually they were more complicated than cold cuts and veggie slices. This was Jim's 'day off' lunch, for days when something was stressing him out to the point where he didn't even feel like cooking, or didn't have the time.

"Not great," Jim admitted. "… Did you talk to Draal this morning?"

"I've met that guy, like, twice. Plus, don't trolls sleep during the day?"

"We had a fight."

Toby gasped. "But – you don't look smushed."

"More of a 'hurt feelings' fight." Jim's hands tightened on his sandwich. He put it down without taking a bite. "He said I was unworthy of the Amulet. Then I said it still picked me, so I was obviously more worthy than him. And, considering his dad was the Trollhunter before me and Draal really wanted the job …"

"Ouch. Like in The Book Of Life, when Manolo told Joaquin he'd never be as great a hero as his father. What the heck set all that off?"

Jim grimaced and shook his head. Toby could respect that.

"Got a plan for apologizing?"

Jim hated having anyone mad at him. The very few times he and Toby fought, Jim was usually first to try and make amends.

"Wait for tonight, so he's had some time to cool down, then say sorry and see if he's ready to hear that. If he's not … I dunno. Go into the Void and ask his dad's ghost for advice, maybe."

"If you need to avoid him for a bit, you can crash with me and Chompsky."

Jim half-smiled and started eating, which meant he wasn't tensed up with nerves anymore. Toby patted himself on the back.

Barbara parked, neatened her hair in the rear view mirror, and sighed over her steering wheel. She wanted to go home, wolf down some food, take a hot, soothing shower, and collapse into bed. Instead, she'd agreed to meet her son's teacher for lunch.

"For Jim," she reminded her reflection. Her child needed his remaining parent to be involved in his life.

There were a few tables set up outside the café. Seated at one of them was a man in a brown jacket and blue turtleneck. She didn't notice him until he stood when she walked past.

"Dr Lake?" Barbara jumped a bit.

"Yes–? Oh." She recognized his accent from the phone. He probably guessed by her teal scrubs. "You must be Mr Strickler." She put on a smile and held out her hand to shake. He kissed it instead, making her blush.

"Indeed. Lovely to meet you at last." He pulled out the chair opposite him and she sat. It was so nice to be off her feet.

A waiter appeared, or perhaps Mr Strickler had signalled them now that she'd arrived, and asked if they wanted drinks to start. Barbara ordered a coffee. Mr Strickler asked for something she assumed was a blend of tea.

"I'll start by repeating that Jim's not in trouble." He folded his hands on the table. "I've noticed he occasionally has trouble staying awake, or that his focus seems to drift, snapping back to attention when called upon but wandering again soon after."

"That sounds like he's tired. He's always up early … I'll talk to him about when he's going to bed." Barbara had heard, and seen evidence at the hospital, that a lot of teenagers were sleep-deprived. With the way Jim tried to take care of her …

"He also has a habit of, shall we say, overstretching himself," said Mr Strickler, following the same train of thought as Barbara. "Taking on more than his share of responsibilities."

The waiter returned with their drinks. Barbara hadn't even looked at the menu's lunch options. She took a gulp of coffee and ordered the first thing she spotted with 'sandwich' in the description; a 'croque monsieur'. Mr Strickler ordered the same thing.

Maybe it was the hunger or the exhaustion talking but it actually sounded more appetizing when he said it.

"With all respect," continued Mr Strickler, once the waiter left, "Jim's behaviour is not uncommon among children whose parents have demanding careers; they seek to ease the pressure on their parents by being helpful –"

Barbara nodded; that certainly sounded like Jim.

"– Or they see the sheer number responsibilities their parents hold, and conclude this is a normal level of activity for anyone. Or, in some cases, are encouraged to be perfect because their reputation reflects back on their family, but I don't believe that's the case with Jim."

Barbara fidgeted with a napkin. "I've never meant to put him under pressure … But I have, ah, encouraged some of his habits."

Like the cooking, or cleaning the house, or doing yard work, or helping her budget the utilities …

She'd viewed it as practical, teaching Jim things like how to operate a washing machine or handle money so he'd know how to do it when he was living on his own, but, was she interfering with his academic education, letting him take on – praising him for taking on – so many responsibilities at home?

Mr Strickler touched her hand, lightly, briefly, bringing her back to the present.

"Jim is a kind boy," he said. "He wants to help people. But it's impossible to help everyone, and Jim," the teacher steepled his fingers and contemplated his words, "Jim is young enough to not necessarily recognize his limits."

Over lunch – croque monsieur turned out to be a ham and cheese sandwich fried in white sauce – they discussed ways to encourage Jim to cut back without making it sound like his helpfulness was being rejected or like he was being criticized for not being able to do enough.

They didn't come to any solid conclusions. Barbara could encourage Jim to sleep or ease up on his chores; both adults could remind Jim of the importance of taking care of himself; but Barbara didn't want to ground him from extracurriculars or socialization to force him to rest. It hadn't gotten to that point, and hopefully it never would.

"I should be getting back to the school," said Mr Strickler, checking his watch. He uncapped the pen he'd toyed with off and on during their conversation and scribbled onto a sticky note from one of his jacket's inside pockets. "My phone, Dr Lake."

"Please, call me Barbara."

She took the phone number and he kissed her hand again.

"Barbara." Her name sounded lovely with his accent. "Walter. Do call if there's anything you'd like to discuss."

He summoned the waiter and paid their cheque and then he was gone, and Barbara was left feeling unsure if she'd just had an unorthodox parent-teacher conference or an even more unorthodox first date.

She went home and had the relaxing shower and nap she'd been craving.

Draal was conflicted. He was unaccustomed to that feeling. He did not care for it.

He wanted to believe he had done the right thing, not killing the Changeling immediately upon discovery.

He wanted to believe the Amulet of Merlin knew what it was doing when it chose … one of them … to be the Trollhunter.

He wanted to believe Jim's oath to turn against Gunmar was genuine, and not yet another act.

There was a pipe in the centre of the basement, and if Draal stood by it, he could hear nearly everything from the main story of the house. He'd heard Jim quietly threatening Nomura over Barbara's safety last night.

He should've been listening at the pipe when Nomura first came to the house; he might've learned more about what the Changelings were up to –

Draal's failings aside; the exchange he had eavesdropped on suggested Jim had been truthful about Barbara still being human instead of another Changeling collaborator, and that he felt a certain level of protectiveness for her, matching his explanation of why he'd let Draal move in.

As Blinky and AAARRRGGHH had each independently pointed out, Jim could have simply, easily, killed Draal that night, instead of agreeing to expose himself as a Changeling.

Or Jim could have stayed out of the fight, rather than exposing himself as the Trollhunter to protect Nomura.

If the helmet materialized with a faceplate, Draal still wouldn't know what Jim really was.

They hadn't spoken on the return journey from Trollmarket. Jim hadn't come downstairs before leaving the house that morning, either. Draal had gone upstairs midmorning to scavenge some food. A pile of cans waited for him in the blue box in the kitchen.

He brought them back to his living space and sat behind the furnace, on the blanket Jim had given him when he moved in, now somewhat ragged after a few encounters with Draal's spikes. He slowly snacked his way through cans and coal, and stared at the little Heartstone piece.

Why had Jim given him that? It wasn't like Draal had been expecting one. The Changeling could've kept it for himself. Jim had, by his own confession, been working for Gunmar up until last night, and that was assuming he really had changed sides.

That was what made Changelings dangerous, Draal supposed. They thought differently than normal trolls. You never knew what they were thinking. And even when you knew that, you still found yourself wanting to trust them.

Draal really hoped he had done the right thing.

Barbara woke up when Jim got home from school.

"Hey, Mom." He hugged her hello. Jim had never outgrown how affectionate he'd been as a small boy. Barbara hoped he never decided he was 'too old' to hug his mother. "How was your day?"

"I had lunch with your history teacher."

Jim's shoulders tensed, just slightly, under her hands – typical teenaged surprise and alarm over unforewarned parent-teacher interaction? Or, wait, with how Barbara phrased it, did Jim think she meant she'd gone on a date? Well, she was uncertain herself, but never mind that now.

"He's worried you aren't getting enough sleep."

"Oh, that." He relaxed in her arms. "Yeah, he's asked me if I'm sleeping okay. My eyes just bag up really easily, I guess."

Barbara held Jim out a short ways from her, examining him for signs of fatigue. Noticeable bags under his eyes, yes, he'd started getting those when he was twelve, but his pediatrician hadn't been concerned when Barbara mentioned it. Jim wasn't swaying on his feet, and his eyes were focused, and he wasn't jittery like he'd been using caffeine or sugar to compensate for exhaustion.

"Jim … if you ever need a break. A mental health day? One less chore on the roster? I get it, okay? You're a kid. A very responsible, considerate kid, but still a kid, and you need time to be a kid. And I'm your mom. It's my job to take care of you. So if you need anything, you know you can tell me, right?"

"Do what's good for you, or you're no good to anybody," Jim recited.

Mr Strickler – Walter – had shared the same quote at lunch when he asked Barbara when she'd last had time off, and gently suggested taking some might demonstrate to Jim that it was okay to prioritize oneself once in a while. Adolescents, whatever they may claim of their near-adulthood and independence, do look to actual adults for guidance, approval, and example.

"I know, Mom," said Jim. "I don't feel like I need anything right now, but I'll give it some thought and get back to you, okay? We could … revisit the topic this weekend?"

What books were on those packed shelves of his? Sometimes Jim talked like he was an office manager or something. He hadn't picked it up from her.

It was a good idea, though, so Barbara agreed.

"If you and Mr S met for lunch, then the three-bean salad's been marinating all day, not just for the morning. We can have that for dinner. Maybe a light soup and some rolls. I think we still have some frozen from last time."

"Mr Strickler seems very nice," said Barbara. "And he really likes you. I've never seen a teacher take such an interest before."

Jim, now rummaging in the freezer, made a vague affirmative noise.

"Is he single?"

Jim bumped his head on the ice cube tray.

"Um, I think so? His office has a bunch of curios but no family photos." Which implied the lack of them wasn't because he didn't care to personalize his workspace.

Jim had no confirmation Stricklander was on board with the plan yet, but Barbara spending time with Stricklander and getting him attached to her seemed to be off to a good start. That would be a good backup to keep her alive if Gunmar won anyway and Jim was exposed as a traitor.

Once his mother was asleep, he went downstairs to update Draal before going to Trollmarket.

"I've been working on our cover story. If any of the humans ask, we had a sparring match last night. I lost. You got mad and accused me of slacking off in training and said I was unworthy of the Amulet. I got mad and said I was still more worthy than you since it picked me. You took that as an insult to your father, and I apologized for that but we're both still upset; that's why things are awkward between us now."

"You didn't tell them what you really are?"

"Are you kidding me? I'm in enough trouble that Nomura knows you know; I'd be dead meat if it got out Blinky and AAARRRGGHH know, and the humans'd be dead meat with me if they knew, too."

"Hello, Trollhunter."

"… Blinky?"

"I know you speak this language. Did I actually teach you anything in our lessons?" Blinky asked bitterly.

"Blinky …" Jim scuffed his foot on the floor. "I'm sorry I … lied to you, about how much I knew. But you really did teach me a lot. I knew … keywords, before; every Changeling does, in case we overhear something about Killahead or Gunmar. I knew directions and distances and quantities. I understood … many words I heard you say. But the syntax and grammar and etiquette and culture were all new to me. That first thing you taught me, that greeting? It is my honour to meet you. I had never heard that before. I was barely literate. I … I faked how much I needed to learn, but, yes, I did learn from you."

"You don't actually know our verb for 'to deceive', do you? I'm fairly certain that comes under the heading of irony."

"Um, only as a noun. It's deception, right?"

Blinky rummaged in his pockets and got out a notebook. "Deception. Deceiving. To deceive. It's a regular verb, following the same rules as to see. Now, I have a number of questions about my brother I'd like you to answer."

"Okay. Deception, deceiving, to deceive, same rules as to see," Jim muttered. "I don't exactly know Dictatious well, but we've met."

"Describe him. I want to be sure we really are talking about the same troll."

"Okay. He mostly looks like you, except green instead of blue, nose is dark grey instead of orange, and … his horns point more up than back?"

Jim made an upward-sweeping gesture from his own head.

"Hair sticks up, too. It's got a couple of white streaks that might not've been there when you last saw him. And … I don't know if you know who Mark Hamill is, but he's a human actor and I've seen some of his movies and they sound alike. Like, uncannily alike."

Blinky slumped and sighed into his list of questions. "That's him. Next question. When and how and why did he join Gunmar?!"

Jim recoiled from the shouted inquiry.

"Survival? Maybe? I wasn't there. I'm not old enough to remember anything before Killahead closed. But either he was a double-agent already who got stuck in the Darklands with us, or he was too close and got pulled in by accident and offered the Underlord his services in order to not get killed."

Chapter Text

"Behold." Toby opened up a tied grocery bag. An absolutely awful smell wafted out. A nearby troll leaned in for a better sniff. "Month-old sweat socks. Shopping spree tonight, on me." To the relief of the humans, and disappointment of the curious troll, he tied the bag back up.

"Speaking of buying things, I got my tickets for the play," said Darci. "My parents said they'd come, too." Assuming her dad didn't get called in to work.

"Nice," said Mary. Claire groaned.

"I'm not ready. We're not ready. Opening night's practically here and Steve still can't really get into character. I mean, he knows his lines, finally, but his delivery could still do with a lot of work."

"I thought he was doing fine," said Mary. "Everyone but you and he and Eli keeps stumbling. I feel like I'm doing tongue twisters. At least when Steve messes up, he acts like he meant to say it that way, so most of the audience probably won't notice."

"Sure, it's 'good enough', but it feels like he's using that as an excuse not to try and get better. Iambic pentameter is supposed to flow, and he just … blasts it out."

"Toby, do you or Jim have tickets yet?" asked Darci.

She knew he had. As the Mole, she'd been helping sell tickets at a table outside the auditorium that afternoon. But none of her friends knew she was the school mascot yet, so she asked.

"I bought two, for Nana and me. Jimbo said he's worried some emergency might come up in Trollmarket or at the clinic so he's not sure he or his mom can make it, but I'm working on him to buy tickets in advance just in case, so he doesn't get to the door and find out they're sold out."

"How many emergencies does he get called in for?" Mary gestured at the bustling underground marketplace as the four humans stood aside for a few carts to pass by. "It's busy down here but it all seems pretty peaceful. And when stuff does happen, most trolls seem like they'd rather fight out their own problems."

They all jumped when a gnome popped out of the wall beside them and chittered angrily. They reminded Darci of squirrels that way.

"Have you noticed the hat colours?" Claire wondered out loud. "Red and blue, like in Gnomeo and Juliet. Except these little guys don't seem to be fighting each other."

"Have you noticed," said Toby, "how there's now at least two movies that take a Shakespeare tragedy, rework it for a happy ending, give it a surprise cast, and set it to Elton John music?"

"What's the other?"

"Lion King is supposed to be based on Hamlet."

"… Yeah, I guess I can see that," said Claire. "The sequel to that one was Romeo and Juliet, too, and the, what's it called, interquel, was like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead."

"I think it's a sidequel?" Toby looked it up on his phone. There could, amazingly, be a better signal in some parts of Trollmarket than in some areas of the town above. "An interquel happens in the time between other stories. A sidequel basically overlaps another story in time, but with different perspective or locations."

"Elton John also did the Road To El Dorado soundtrack," said Darci. "I've heard the first song was supposed to have another verse, where it talks about a prophecy of the gods coming to live in the city of gold and that's why everyone was expecting them when Miguel and Tulio showed up, but it got cut for some reason."

"We should do a slumber party this weekend," said Mary. "We could marathon a bunch of 'contemporary takes' on Romeo and Juliet and tell our parents it's for school."

"I really need this to go well," said Claire, going to fidget with her hair. Her hand brushed one of her clips and she stopped herself. "My parents have been on me practically since I auditioned. The one time I got a B, what was their advice? Drop the play. If this doesn't go great, they're going to be all, 'we told you so'."

"Hey, no matter how bad the rest of us stink, you'll do great," Mary insisted.

"You both will – AAAHH!" The gnome hopped onto Darci's shoulder, and from there onto a green troll with an orange – pelt? A beard and a fringe of fur across his shoulders – who was walking the other way. The troll either didn't notice or didn't care about the sudden passenger.

"You okay, Darce?"

"Yeah, just startled me."

"It's wild watching them jump," said Toby. "I wonder if anybody's recorded, like, a record, for how high and how far they can go. We should ask Blinky. Or Chompsky; he'll do anything for a Nougat Nummy."

"Who's Chompsky?" Darci brushed off her shoulder. She was pretty good with names, and that one sounded familiar, but she couldn't put a face to it.

"Kind of my roommate? He's a gnome who lives in my dollhouse. I don't speak gnome so I don't know his real name, so I named him after that linguist guy Noam Chomsky; Nana's got some of his books; and Chompsky rolled with it."

Pedestrian traffic had eased up, so they were able to wander onward without fear of being stepped on.

"You have a dollhouse?" Of course that was the part that would draw Mary's attention.

"It's technically Nana's but it's in my room. It's the perfect size for Sally-Go-Back and digging it out of the basement was easier than saving up for the Moon Base."

"How'd you end up with a gnome in your room?" Mary asked next. "Did it follow you back from Trollmarket or something?"

"Stow away in your backpack?" Darci could see that. They seemed to like small places, being so small themselves. An open bag would look like an invitation.

"I think he followed Jim, actually. It was before I found out about, you know," Toby spread his hands in an expansive 'ta-dah' gesture, "this. Chompsky showed up one night, and then Jim came in and saw him and was all, 'oh no, we need to catch him, this is unsafe, what if he bites?', but then Chompsky found the dollhouse and kinda settled in, and I thought he was cool, and … I guess Jim decided he had to keep his cover, so he dropped it."

Toby's face fell a little. It had to hurt, knowing his best friend had been keeping something this big from him for so long. Darci felt bad sometimes about keeping her mascot job secret from her friends, and that wasn't nearly on this scale.

Jim was in the Hero's Forge. Usually he spent some of the night with the four of them, but apparently he'd lost a sparring match a couple of nights ago, and things were tense between him and Draal and Blinky now. As Darci understood the explanation, Draal had accused Jim of slacking off and Blinky took that as an insult to his capacities as a trainer when he found out.

So Jim was ramping up his training.

AAARRRGGHH, at least, was acting as calm as ever. Darci wasn't sure the placid troll could get mad for real.

"Hi, Bagdwella," Mary greeted when they reached her shop. It looked like a junkshop to human eyes but Bagdwella advertised it as 'fine gifts'. "How's business?"

"A little slow this week," she answered. The humans liked to stop by her place because she'd let them practice speaking trollish with her. "Not unusual for the season. It should pick up in three or four days. Rumour has it" – Darci and Claire exchanged amused looks at one of the first phrases they all learned, since it was one of Bagdwella's and Mary's favourites – "some of Glug's relatives are planning to visit from Floor-ee-dah. They always forget to pack a few essentials and they like to bring home souvenirs."

"What's this?" asked Claire, suddenly, sharply. She held up a stuffed rabbit and switched languages. "Where did you get this?"

"My suppliers brought it in a while ago, I don't recall exactly."

"This is my brother's bunny! He's been acting weird ever since he lost it. Suzy Snooze was here the whole time?"

"Uh, Claire?" Toby waved at her. "First rule of bargaining, don't let them know just how bad you want the thing." He turned to Bagdwella. "I'll trade you three socks for the … toy. I don't know the words for 'stuffed rabbit'."

"It's a stuffed rabbit if it's cooked and a cloth rabbit if it's a toy. Twelve socks and a bedspring."

"Four socks and a candy wrapper."

"Ten socks, all argyle."

Toby checked his pockets. "Six socks, a candy wrapper, AND a pen full of delicious dried ink."


"You didn't have to do that," Claire said to Toby when they left.

"I kinda did. She runs a store, not a Lost & Found. Even if she believed you about it being your brother's, she wasn't gonna just give it back."

Claire cuddled the plush rabbit. Darci's skin crawled a bit, watching her. Who knew what the toy had gotten into while it was missing? Trolls were amazing but not very clean.

"You'd better run that through the laundry a few times before you give it back to Enrique," she said.

"It'll be good for his immune system," Claire joked. "But seriously, yeah, I will."

Chapter Text

It was Saturday, just barely. Jim's hopes of an extra hour or two of sleep were startled away at four, when he awoke to scrabbling and chittering at his window.

He sat up in bed and pulled his blue sweatshirt on over the T-shirt he'd slept in. By the time he'd located and put on his jeans, the goblin had figured out his window latch.

"Fragwa," Jim greeted the swarm's current leader in a growl. "~Did Stricklander lose my~ phone number?" He was too tired to remember if the goblins had a word for 'phone'. They probably did. They ate them often enough.

"~Bular said to bring you to Killahead. Otto is back!~" The mustachioed goblin bounced a little. Otto was the goblins' favourite Changeling.

Jim held back a shiver. "~The Eyestone?~"

"~Yes! Otto found it!~"

No, no, no – no fear, goblins smell it.

Fragwa hopped onto Jim's shoulder. "~Bring the Amulet.~"

"~I have it.~" Jim got it out of his pocket. Fragwa took it and turned it over, then lightly bit it. Goblins were like toddlers and sharks – always investigating things with their mouths. Jim wiped off a speck of spit and put it away.

Changeling and goblin left through the window. Jim climbed over the roof, switched forms, and dropped into the backyard. There were some noises of approval from the shadows. Many eyes began to glow. Together, they swarmed into the woods.

This was not how it was supposed to go. Jim's very loosely sketched out plan was that Stricklander would call him to bring the Amulet to the Bridge, and then he could tell Draal on his way out and Draal could bring word to Blinky and AAARRRGGHH. He'd been tumbling possibilities through his mind and still hadn't come up with contingencies for not being able to warn his allies a fight was coming.

Killahead Bridge … shouldn't work, with a piece missing. Bular would be enraged, and likely go on a rampage. Jim hoped to get a chance to imply Deya must've done something else to the bridge besides tying the portal to the amulet, and if only he could go to Trollmarket and see if she'd left a diary or something …

Bular would insist on being taken to Trollmarket, and Jim, as a lowly Changeling, would be in no position to deny Gunmar's heir anything, even for Bular's own good.

The sheer number of trolls would overwhelm Bular as they fought to defend their home, and the battle would be contained underground, preventing human or Changeling casualties.

Jim would probably never be forgiven for letting a Gumm-Gumm into Trollmarket, but odds were good Bular would decry him as a 'treasonous Impure' in front of witnesses, so Jim wouldn't be able to go back to Trollmarket anyway. And, since Jim was the only one who knew there was a piece of Killahead hidden in Trollmarket, let alone where in the market it was, his banishment would keep the bridge from ever being fully reassembled, trapping Gunmar in the Darklands forever.

The remaining Changelings could be rescued by Fetch. He wasn't sure what to do about the Gumm-Gumms who opposed Gunmar, but so long as they were still human-eaters, Jim wasn't inclined to set them lose in a dimension where the humans weren't under the ferocious protection of a goblin horde.

Arcadia Oaks was not a fully 'green' city. There were few solar panels or wind turbines, and the recycling program was limited, and proposals of community gardens with attached communal compost heaps were shot down, citing the city's chronic raccoon (goblin) problem. But the people there took pride in the strips of woodland twisting around and through town.

Jim and the goblins made it two thirds of the way to the museum before they had to leave the trees. Half of them continued on lampposts and rooftops. The other half, including Jim, took to the sewers.

Fragwa and two other goblins lifted a panel in the ceiling and shunted it aside. Jim, not wanting to risk squishing one in an attempt to assist, waited for the goblins to get up and through and out of the way before approaching the trapdoor himself.

A massive claw lifted him through by the scruff. Jim thrashed and almost attacked before recognizing Bular and assuming a more appropriately submissive posture and expression.

He offered the Amulet. Bular took it and dropped him – thankfully over the floor rather than back down the hole. Jim moved to a sideline position near the back of the room, with Nomura and Otto. Stricklander was by the Bridge, and glaring at Bular. The goblins chanted Gunmar's name.

Otto had a goblin on each shoulder and a third sitting on his head. He was grinning and flickering between forms, a mishmash of trollish features as he decided on the best face with which to greet his Underlord. Nomura seemed more at ease to a casual glance, but her forward-leaning stance and subtly twitching hands betrayed her excitement.

Jim was surprised there weren't any other Changelings there. He understood building the bridge in the museum instead of at Headquarters – museums received more packages than travel agencies – but surely the entire Janus Order would want to be able to say they were there for Gunmar's return?

Maybe it was a power play on Stricklander's part? The fewer Changelings were there, the easier it would be to catch Gunmar's attention, to be remembered, if the Underlord were ever inclined to express gratitude.

… Or was it a protective gesture? To spare the majority of Changelings from Bular's wrath if the portal failed, or from Gunmar's army if he decreed the Changelings 'no longer needed' right away instead of waiting until after blotting out the sun?

Bular was standing on the bridge, holding up Jim's amulet and making a speech, which ended, "Tonight, we take back the surface lands! Tonight, we feast!"

Bular put the Amulet into the Eyestone. Blue light filled the lines between the stones. A haze gathered under Killahead's arch. A wave of glowing mist fanned out from the bridge, washing over the goblins and Changelings. Then everything, except for the blue stone in the amulet, went dark.


The Amulet of Daylight burst out of Killahead Bridge, bounced a few times on the floor, rolled to a stop, and fell silver-side up.


Bular jumped from the bridge, shaking the floor when he landed.

"What happened? He stormed on all fours over to the trio of Changelings. "Why didn't it work?" He scruffed Jim again. Jim whimpered involuntarily when he was lifted close to Bular's snarling face. The goblins, scenting fear, went quiet and attentive. "What did you do? Explain yourself, Trollhunter."

"Bular, stop!"

Bular gave Jim a hard shake before rounding on Stricklander. The green Changeling was holding the amulet now. He gestured to it, tracing the edge.

"The inscription. 'Daylight is his to command'. The Trollhunter once sealed the bridge, and now, the Trollhunter must open it."

"Unless –" Jim cut off in a squeak when Bular jerked him sharply in midair. "If I can't, then – I could go to Trollmarket. See if Deya" – he squeaked again – "wrote down what she did? Or told someone?"

Bular let him down and shoved him towards Stricklander. A glance backwards revealed Nomura had slipped almost out of sight near the doors, and Otto had settled on brown skin, large arms, and curling ram's horns. Stricklander lightly touched Jim's shoulder when the young Changeling took back the amulet.

It was cold in his hands. Jim's fingers were numb when he got to the top of the bridge. He took a deep breath and pressed it to the matching round indent.

Magic swelled, coalesced … and burst.


Bular roared. There was fury and agony in that sound. Mostly fury, and a promise of sharing that agony with everyone else.

So. This is what he's going to kill me for.

Jim didn't realize his armor had formed around him until Bular threw him into a wall. He ripped a tapestry on the way down. It fell over him. He scrambled to free himself from the heavy cloth. Bular tore it away. The large troll pinned the smaller Changeling to the wall in a crushing one-handed grip, and drew one of his swords.

"No," Jim begged shamelessly. "No, please …!"

"Let him down," said Stricklander – or perhaps Mr Strickler? It was the same tone he used in class when students goofed off. "We still need –"

"We need the Amulet," Bular growled. "We don't need the Trollhunter. He failed."

"Amulet … teleports," Jim wheezed. "I die … You lose it." He coughed. Was Bular strong enough to crush his ribcage doing this?

"Then I'll just have to kill the next Trollhunter as well."

Bular slammed Jim into the wall again. Jim saw bursts and flashes too vague to call stars, and bursts of shadow, too. His arms were pinned to his sides. He didn't have the leverage to kick and make it count. He heard a high keening sound and didn't realize it was him.

The museum faded into a blur of darkness, light, and pain.

"Bular, stop!" Walt shouted again. Jim was lolling, unconscious but still armoured. The armour was fading. If he'd been in his human form, Walt might have thought he was dead.

Bular ignored Walt. He dumped Jim onto the pile of shredded tapestry. As though in surrender, Jim's armour vanished. Bular raised his sword.

Walt threw a knife.

It missed Bular's face, as intended, and struck the wall where Jim's neck had been. Bular's wrath refocused.

"You would stop me from executing a traitor?"

"Jim is no traitor. He is our best chance of opening the bridge. Your father would not want you to throw away this opportunity in a fit of temper –"

"MY FATHER is still locked away because of YOUR AGENT'S failure!"

Your father is a short-sighted brute with unsustainable plans and you're worse than he is because at least he values patience!

"Jim alerted us to the possibility there may be more at work here than a simple lock. If allowed to live, his contacts in Trollmarket may reveal –"

"Enough 'maybes'! You Impures may be content to play games of chance, but I am the Son of Gunmar, Heir to the Skullcrusher, and I demand absolutes!" Bular ominously stopped bellowing. "My terms for letting your pet Trollhunter live were simple. 'He will help open Killahead Bridge, or he will die.' The Impure had his chance. And the Bridge. Is not. Open."

It would be more effective to reason with an inanimate rock than with this living one. Walt tried again anyway.

"One mistake does not erase years of loyal service. You can't –"

Bular swung his sword at Walt, forcing Walt to leap back out of range.

"Do not presume to command me!" Bular attacked, ruthless and reckless, abandoning his intended target to pursue a new one. "I've had enough of you and your orders! You will not live to see our victory!"

Walt threw another knife. This one ricocheted off Bular's broken horn.

"Stricklander's gone mad!" cried Otto. The polymorph sharpened his tusks, horns and claws.

Walt dodged Bular's swords, jumping over them and springing off the enraged troll's head. Otto charged him, clumsily. Otto could assume any form, but that didn't mean he could use them all equally well. Bular swung at Walt again. Walt was forced to run towards Otto to avoid bisection.

Otto knocked Walt down, but didn't twist his head in time to gore him. Walt rolled tightly. He grimaced as the move tugged his shoulder. The goblins cheered Bular's and Otto's names. Nomura had vanished.

Walt tossed knives at both of his attackers. One blade tore at the canvas blocking off the rest of the museum, and Walt caught a glimpse of the skylight.

He was herded to the wall by the two larger trolls. Bular chuckled ominously. Walt grabbed a goblin by its spindly leg and threw it in Bular's face. The unfortunate creature burst into green slime.


While Bular was occupied and Otto tried in vain to redirect the goblins' wrath at the thrower rather than the target, Walt ran for Jim. He heaved the boy over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, grabbed the fallen amulet, and made a break for the atrium.

Bular shoved Otto away and pointed at Walt and Jim. "Get them!"

Walt rearranged Jim so the young Changeling was held securely in both arms – ideally he'd be conscious and able to hold on – and opened his wings. He launched into the air and through the glass.

Otto flew after them, in a mimic of Walt's troll form. He crashed much more roughly into the window, not being adept in flight. Walt dove and led him through the trees until he stopped hearing crashing behind them.

The sun was rising. They had a day before Bular could come after them. They needed to get somewhere out of sight before any humans woke up.

Walt circled around to the canals. Jim had told him which bridge hid the entrance to Trollmarket. It was the one nearest to the school; the one Kanjigar had died under.

He landed, and set Jim down on the cement as carefully as he could. The boy wore much the same outfit in his troll form as his human shape. Walt checked the stomach pockets of Jim's sweatshirt. On one side, he found a phone, a pen, and a small brick of sticky notes. On the other, he found the horngazel.

Changelings could transfer the contents of their pockets between forms, even without carrying over the same clothes, or hide things on one form that were inaccessible on the other. Walt didn't know enough about magic to understand how or why that worked, but he was profoundly grateful it did, and that Jim had chosen to keep his pockets full. He put the amulet in Jim's pocket and took the horngazel out.

"Trace an arch, then press your hand in the centre, like you're giving the wall a high five. The door does this cool spiral thing when it appears. Disappears? When it makes the hole."

Walt settled the two of them on the flat platform inside, well away from the top of the stairs. He wanted Jim conscious to lead him into Trollmarket.

Bular was a loose cannon and could not be trusted. Gunmar was out of the way and his long-term strategies were inherently flawed. If they could get Bular out of the way – there were a few, like Otto, who might make trouble, but the majority of Changelings could recognize power and opportunity. From certain questions Jim had asked recently, Walt suspected he was one who could be made to see reason.

If the Gumm-Gumms could not appreciate the Changelings' help, then the Changelings would just conquer the world for themselves.

No more accusations of treason when a plan didn't function perfectly on the first attempt. No more kneeling to brutes with more muscle than brains and more temper than sense. No more insults for being what their Lady had made them.

Walt always had to play his hand carefully during recruitment, of course. Even after that beating, Jim might remain loyal to the Underlord over his fellow Changelings. He'd work on persuading the boy while they searched for any records of how Deya truly sealed Killahead Bridge.

Walt had been certain the amulet was the key. Perhaps there was also an incantation?

He realized he was flexing his wings in agitation. That was one reason he kept them hidden most of the time; so they couldn't reveal his mood. Walt shifted to his human form and neatened the lapels and cuffs of his jacket.

Jim coughed. The younger Changeling brought his hand to his mouth. In a flash, he turned human as well.

"Good, that suggests you don't have a concussion." Head injuries could affect the ease of transformation.

"Strick– Mr Strickler? What happened?"

"Bular finally discovered the human Trollhunter. Your history teacher happened upon the fight and we fled in my car. You directed me here. We had to abandon the car to open the portal, and presumably Bular destroyed it in a fit of rage when we escaped him."

Walt didn't expect the trolls to go up to the surface and look for his car, but it might make them more sympathetic if they thought 'the new human' had made a sacrifice to help their Trollhunter, and it would explain why there wasn't a car in the canal bed if anyone did go look.

"Once inside, you succumbed to your injuries and I, unsure how to get out or what might await below, have been waiting for you to regain consciousness. Now you need to find all the information you can about Killahead Bridge, to learn what Bular might be plotting."

Jim stood, slowly, carefully.

"You crossed the Rubicon for me."

"… Jim –"

"Bular thought I failed on purpose. He was going to kill me. You stopped him. You saved me. Even with loyal intentions, in his eyes, that makes you a traitor, too. You crossed the Rubicon."

Well, you're not wrong.

"And now I suppose I have to give you extra credit, for not only remembering that turn of phrase, but using it in such appropriate context."

Chapter Text

Nomura sensibly retreated to the shadows when the Bridge failed to open on the first try. There was an inverse correlation between Changeling longevity and proximity to Bular's temper.

He drew the correct conclusion for the wrong reasons. Nomura bit her tongue. As far as anyone but Jim knew, she was uninvolved. She'd see if the Trollhunter could get out of this on his own. Purposefully drawing Bular's attention right now would be foolish.

"Bular, stop!"

Stricklander, it seemed, was willing to play the fool.

Killahead Bridge didn't open on the second try, either. From Jim's wheezy speculations about Deya and his insistence he could find answers in Trollmarket, she concluded he must have hidden the Bridge piece down there.

Was this partly her fault? Nomura wondered. After the confrontation between her and Jim and Draal, had Jim revealed the stolen stone to regain the troll's trust?

Oh, no, Stricklander the Insufferable was trying to sway Bular with logic. One would think he'd figured out by now that his condescending tone just made everyone angrier. Nomura slipped behind the curtain into the museum's atrium while they were distracting each other.

Killing Jim would be a self-defeating move if they didn't get the Bridge piece back first. Bular wouldn't know that unless Jim confessed to taking it. Nomura had still hoped to recover it herself without Bular having to know. Curse Otto's efficiency and dedication.

She went to her office when the sounds of combat grew louder. Nomura grit her teeth against the urge to turn back and join in. Someone was going to die today and it was not going to be her.

Glass broke. Bular roared. Nomura quickened her pace as much as she dared. Hooves on tile were not ideal for silence.

"You can't escape me forever!" She almost broke into a full run under the cover of Bular's bellowed threats. "I'll hunt you down, and drink your blood, from goblets made of your SKULLS!"

Jim and Stricklander had both escaped, then – likely with Otto and the goblins in pursuit. It was too close to sunrise for Bular to risk it. Stricklander had advised waiting to open Killahead until the following sunset, to allow the Gumm-Gumms to begin pillaging and feasting on Arcadia Oaks the moment they emerged from the Darklands, but Bular had vetoed him in impatience to see his father again.

Nomura wasn't especially worried about Bular following her. Her office had surprisingly large, north-facing windows, giving her ambient sunlight all day. They weren't hooked up to any alarms, but could still double as emergency exits in the event of a fire or gas leak or attempted shooting.

Likely Bular would either sulk in the gallery with the Bridge, or go to the windowless former archive room where he often spent the day during the rebuild project, or storm out through the sewers.

Nomura locked her office door from the inside, put on her human face, and left through the window anyway. Just in case.

The museum was closed today – odd, for a Saturday, but the world was theoretically supposed to end. She had a krav maga class she intended to skip. Barbara would be there, and if Barbara somehow realized Jim was missing instead of thinking he was out with friends or some excuse along those lines, then Barbara would be sad, and Nomura hated dealing with sad humans. They got so … gloppy.

Hold that thought.

Jim was attached to his Familiar's mother. Even if he'd had the sense not to reveal what he was, or tell her anything about trolls even after getting a second secret trollish life, Barbara could still be the key to getting Nomura the information she wanted. If Nomura played her cards right, Barbara could even be her key to Trollmarket, and to currying favour with the Trollhunter just in case he did manage to defeat Bular.

As long as the last piece of the Bridge was missing, Jim technically had the upper hand.

If there was one thing every Changeling knew, it was the value of being on the winning side.

Nomura drove to the Lake house slowly, working on her plan of action. It partially depended on whether her two fellow Changelings had retreated there or gone somewhere else. Stricklander no doubt had a few boltholes hidden around town. Nomura had been to his office at the school, which, like hers, had enough magical defenses prepped to be easily fortified.

They might even run for Trollmarket if they could reach it soon enough past sunrise. They could claim Stricklander was new in town and had just barely beaten the dawn with the Trollhunter's guidance. Or he could switch forms and claim to be a human in need of help – if the trolls had accepted a human Trollhunter, they'd probably buy that, too.

Going to the Janus Order was unlikely but not impossible. They'd defied Bular, yes, but Bular wasn't especially popular, and so long as Jim kept his mouth shut about taking the Bridge piece he could insist he was still loyal to Gunmar and that Bular had simply let his temper get the best of him. Or they could approach one of the agents who supported Stricklander's 'backup plan' to take over the world even if Gunmar didn't escape.

Stricklander was not as subtle in his machinations as he liked to believe.

No matter where they'd hidden, though, Jim would eventually come back for Barbara, if only to stash her somewhere out of reach during the invasion. He'd made suggestions in the past about how logical and efficient and useful it could be to keep human doctors alive in Gunmar's world.

Jim's attempted subtlety fooled no one.

No wonder Jim was Stricklander's 'favourite student' in their human covers. They're so much alike, they're practically family, Nomura thought scornfully, glaring over her steering wheel at an inoffensive cyclist.

Well, in Jim's defence on the subject of Barbara, it was hard not to love your Familiar's family a little. Humans had a high infant mortality rate back when Changelings were first created. To increase the odds of a young Changeling's survival, the goblins generally planted them in affluent and affectionate families. 'Good providers', as the humans termed it.

The official reasoning for continuing this practice was that it gave them early access to humans of dominant social status, teaching the Changeling by example how to think and behave to get humans to treat them as an authority when they 'grew up'. They'd been on the bottom rung of hierarchy among the Gumm-Gumms, but among humans, Changelings started at the top, or at least near the middle.

The care that humans, with some exceptions, showered on their offspring far surpassed any kindness a young Changeling might have experienced among their brethren. The most tender moments in the Darklands were in the wake of pain – it was always hard to sleep after you'd been forced to kill another Changeling in the Crucible – or when someone wanted something.

Nomura's car curled around the end of the street and parked in front of the Lake house. There was no car in the driveway. Hopefully that meant it was in the garage or she'd have to find a way to linger in their neighbourhood, keeping watch for Barbara and for Jim.

She got a box of tea out of her glove compartment and double-checked the scent. Yes, that would do nicely. Potent, but ultimately harmless.

Barbara answered the doorbell quickly. By the smell of burnt toast, Nomura had interrupted her breakfast preparations.

"Zelda, hi!"

"Hello, Barbara." She fidgeted with the tea box in a deliberate display of uncertainty. "I was wondering if we could … talk."

"Of course. Come in. Jim's still asleep, I think, and should be for a while yet. I'll heat up some water?" gesturing to the tea. "Hopefully that won't turn out as bad as my toast did."

"Thank you … This blend steeps better if you heat up the water before adding the teabags."

Nomura wasn't passionate about tea but she did know that over steeping could ruin the flavour. If it didn't taste good, Barbara wouldn't drink enough for it to be effective.

Barbara microwaved two teacups of water rather than plugging in an electric kettle or turning on the stove.

"What did you want to talk about?" she asked.

"I'm … not quite sure where to begin." That was a tactic Nomura enjoyed for filling time in the early part of a con. If the mark came up with the topic themselves, they were more inclined to believe whatever she said about it, which made it easier to lull them into complacency.

Barbara got the cups out of the microwave and Nomura dropped a teabag into each one. Barbara already had milk and sugar on the table, and an abandoned half-mug of coffee.

"If it's medical, then as a doctor I have to advise you to speak to a physician on duty instead of one who just got up," said Barbara easily. Then, more gently, she said, "If I'm out of line, tell me, but, is it … your ex? You said they lived in this area. And you know I'm divorced, so, I understand about breakups."

"I've been thinking about him a lot lately." Nomura took a sip of her tea, prompting Barbara to try her own. It wasn't a lie. Since that night, Draal kept popping up in her thoughts at odd moments. "We … There were reasons we ended, good reasons, but sometimes I miss him."

"Feelings don't always make sense," Barbara agreed.

"It started … stupidly. One of those wild, young, 'we might be dead tomorrow so let's at least enjoy today', sort of flings." A lot of Changeling relationships were like that. Or power plays. Sometimes both. "I think court– dating me was partly a way for him to get his father's attention."

Barbara's expression was attentive. Even humans who pretended they were above such things loved gossip and scandal. She took another drink.

"He was racist," said Nomura in a rush. It wasn't exactly analogous but it was close enough that it could translate into terms a human would understand. "His father. I mean, he was, too, but … I … stupidly thought he could grow out of it. That he wanted to. It turned out impressing his father was more important to him than …" Than I was. "Than personal growth."

"I'm so sorry, Zelda." Barbara put her hand on Nomura's shoulder. Nomura tensed. Barbara took the hint but she took her time about it.

There had been a number of other factors to the relationship's collapse, of course. Nomura's plot to steal the Amulet of Daylight, for example. Things would never work out between her and Draal without one of them changing sides.

Barbara took another slow, deep drink of tea, and started blinking, slowly and heavily. Nomura carefully didn't look towards the coffee cup. Caffeine wouldn't actually help Barbara wake up right now, but there was no need to draw her attention to it and create distress when it failed. The human had been tired when she started drinking. One more sip ought to do it.

"Is it good?" she asked, raising her own cup.

This brew could affect a Changeling's human form in large enough quantities, but she was safe having a little of it. Drinking it yourself was one of the best ways to convince a human to take their potions like a good target. It wasn't always necessary – humans were amazingly trusting of gifts of food and drink – but it was disarming.

"It's very nice," Barbara assured her. "It tastes familiar … I think this might be one of Jim's relaxing teas. Would you write down the brand for me? If he hasn't tried this one, he should." She drank again, and collapsed over the table.

Nomura checked the human's pulse – steady – then got up and checked the kitchen cupboards. Yes, there it was; the exact tea she'd just used. If she'd known, she might've left hers in the car and steered her 'hostess' towards offering tea; of course, then Barbara would probably have continued drinking coffee and Nomura would've had to find some other way to drug her.

Nomura stole two teabags out of Jim's box to replace the two she'd used.

Draal charged upstairs as heroically as last time and startled Nomura again.

"What did you do to Bah-buh-rah?!"

"… Has Jim just been keeping you in his basement for the past week?"

How? Why? How?

"Answer my question!" he growled at her. She growled back, stretching out into her troll form.

"She's asleep. It's a potion, it's harmless. Unlike Creeper's Sun, which you seem to have fully recovered from." Nomura hid ogling Draal under the cover of giving him a coolly assessing look.

Okay, she'd been thinking about Draal a lot, as she'd admitted just moments ago, but she hadn't expected him to actually be there. This reformatted a chunk of information and implications about Jim. Nomura was going to have to rework her plan on the fly.

"Bular's out to kill Jim." That felt like the quickest way to get Draal to spill information.

"He knows he changed sides?" And there it was.

"He knows that Killahead Bridge hasn't reopened and decided to blame the Trollhunter for it. Stricklander took Jim's side and they're on the run. Eventually it'll occur to someone to use Barbara as a hostage to recapture Jim and the Amulet."

"… That's not why you're here?"

It could be, if that turns out to be what serves my interests.

"If the Bridge can't open, the Trollhunter wins," said Nomura simply.

"And you want to be on the winning side," said Draal grumpily. "Typical Changeling."

"You should take this as a compliment. It means I actually think you stand a chance."

"For all I know, you're lying about all of this." He went to the stairs and bellowed. "JIM!" Nomura pinned her long ears tight against her head. She hadn't quite covered them in time.

Nothing happened.

"All that proves is Jim's not here," said Draal. "Not that he's on the run."

He looked at Nomura with narrow eyes. She glared back at him.

Draal was a lot of things. Brash. Impatient. Handsome. Stubborn. Brave. Mostly honest. He couldn't quite follow Changeling strategy, which relied heavily on emotional insight into your opponent which he tended not to have, but he had a decent grasp of strategy overall.

"There's one place no one can reach Bah-buh-rah. Trollmarket. And Blinky should have some way of contacting the Trollhunter, so he'll be able to tell us if you're telling the truth or if we need to drop you into a lava pit."

Not a wonderful grasp of strategy – letting a potential enemy into a stronghold – but decent.

He honestly thought he could take her in a fight? She'd have to take him up on that later.

Barbara was curled up, bundled up, and carried to Trollmarket in a sack, carefully held by Draal. Nomura was technically strong enough but Draal's size made him a little steadier. The basement felt surprisingly comfortable, and had a tunnel excavated from one side. They took a twisty series of passages Nomura hadn't known existed, and suddenly –

She gasped. It was like sinking into a hot bath. It was like listening to her favourite song. It was like the fleeting moments in all her doomed relationships where she'd thought maybe this one would last –

"Why'd you stop?" Draal asked her. Then, "Oh. The Heartstone." He nudged her, shockingly gently, considering that, if she'd been expecting it, she would've expected a shove. She stumbled anyway. "You get used to it."

Chapter Text

Jim's reports had not done Trollmarket justice. Walt didn't hold that against him. The young Changeling's artistic skills lay in cookery, not wordplay.

The Heartstone dominated Walt's first impression. Even filtered through his human form, it was strong, and nurturing, and protective. The urgency of their task felt slightly less dire. They would find help and shelter here.

So long as we keep alert and keep our cover, Walt reminded himself sternly.

He scanned the layout of the streets. Based on Jim's reports, the ring around the Heartstone was the main shopping district; those lights climbing the cavern walls mostly shone out of residential caves; but there were some stores mixed in with trolls' homes and some houses, older houses, closer to the Heartstone, and of course a few shopkeepers lived above or below their shops.

There was no real order to how the buildings had sprung up, save for a 'first come, first serve, unless you want to fight me for it' attitude towards real estate claims.

Jim had smuggled a few pictures and drawn a patchy map. Walt might be able to navigate alone if he absolutely had to.

"Blinky's library, first?" suggested the younger Changeling. "If he and AAARRRGGHH aren't there, that should be a safe place to hole up without drawing a lot of attention, and if they are there, they can help us research the Bridge. You don't have a Glamour Mask, do you? Trollmarket's almost used to Toby coming down here now."

"Sadly, I didn't have time to stop by my office during our dramatic escape."

"I'm tempted to set a stopwatch on my phone to see how long it takes for somebody to stop us." Jim took a deep breath and squared his armoured shoulders. "Keep close."

Walt fell easily into step behind Jim. There was, as with so many aspects of a spy's life, a delicate balance to it – close enough not to lose each other, far enough apart not to get in each other's way if they had to fight.

It's just another infiltration mission. Act like you belong, and few will question whether you do.

In a way, it was to the Changelings' advantage that some humans had discovered Trollmarket. Now the trolls were somewhat used to the Trollhunter leading a strange human through their streets. Jim and Walt drew some second looks, some disapproving looks, and any number of whispers and mutters, but only one attempt to start trouble.

Someone threw a gnome at Walt.

He didn't realize it was a gnome at first. He only registered sharp projectile incoming and caught it still in the air. Or rather, nearly caught it, and nearly lost his fingers to the Sword of Daylight when Jim deflected the attack with the side of the blade.

"Who threw that?"

Jim's voice was stone-calm. His eyes were blazing, and thankfully still blue. It took Walt a moment to recognize that Jim had asked the question in trollish.

There was some shuffling in the crowd. A troll attempted to bolt. They were caught and shoved forward without mercy.

The scene was reminiscent of those moments in the Janus Order, when a Changeling was condemned so that Bular's wrath didn't spill over onto the rest of them; or like those moments Walt sometimes happened upon on school grounds, a ring of students around two of their own, before they realized there was a teacher present and scattered. He was curious how it would play out with Jim as the wrathful, powerful party.

"Tagaw. Do you have something to say?"

"I – I'm sorry?" the troll tried. Jim wasn't pointing the sword at them but he still had it in his hand, which couldn't have been reassuring. Neither was Jim's smile.

"That is nice to hear, but I hope – hoped? Hoping? – I wish for more of a story. Why do you need the attention of the Trollhunter so urgently, you must throw gnomes?"

The gnome in question was fine. It got up, shaking its head and chittering and waving tiny fists, and ran off. It hadn't even dislodged its blue hat.

"There's another human in Trollmarket!" whined the gnome-thrower, Tagaw, pointing at Walt.

"I know. He did not hide he was following me."

"Why'd you have to bring another one?"

"… I do not have enough troll words. I will use human words." Jim projected to the whole growing cluster could hear him. "Before sunrise, Bular tried to kill me."

Gasps. Recoiling. One troll covered a nearby smaller troll's ears.

"This human, Mr Strickler, is a teacher at my school. He saw the fight and helped me escape. I owe him my life."

"How?" someone in the crowd asked. "No human could take on a Gumm-Gumm."

"I didn't say he fought Bular," though Jim also didn't deny it, "I said he helped me get away. Cars are faster than trolls."

A bald-faced lie did the job just as well, but there was some fun to be had with 'not technically lying'. Jim was at an age where most Changelings favoured that technique when they saw a chance to use it. The appeal tended to cycle.

The troll who threw the gnome looked at Walt and said, much more sincerely and in English, "I'm sorry I threw a gnome at you."

"Apology accepted. No harm done."

Walt memorized Tagaw's name and face in case this one caused problems later.

"Now," Jim hung his sword on his back, "Mr Strickler and I are going to go meet with my trainer and discuss what should be done next. Does anyone here know if Blinky's out of his library?"

There was a general mumbling, to the effect of no one being sure but Jim's guess being a safe bet. A path cleared before them. Jim spoke in trollish again, telling everyone he appreciated their cooperation.

"They respond better when I speak trollish," he said quietly to Walt. "I think it reinforces their impression of me as their Trollhunter instead of some human."

"Is that also why you keep your armour on?"

"No, that's just in case someone attacks me."

Blinky and AAARRRGGHH were in the library. Well, AAARRRGGHH was, with his mossy back to the door and his tail swaying. Jim knocked on the door frame. AAARRRGGHH's tail stilled, his shoulders tensed, and he lifted his head. A troll who had to be Blinky stepped out around him, both arms on one side pulling up a fallen shoulder strap on his suspenders.

"Ah, Master Jim." Blinky's grin looked forced. AAARRRGGHH began the careful process of turning around in a tight, cluttered space without knocking anything over. "What brings you here? You don't usually visit Trollmarket in the mornings." Blinky's uppermost pair of eyes spotted Walt and narrowed. "And who is this?"

"I promise I can explain." Jim held up his hands and stood between Walt and the two trolls. "This is Mr Strickler."

AAARRRGGHH's ears twitched. "Stricklander?"

"No, Strickler," said Jim, as though AAARRRGGHH had just mispronounced it instead of possibly identifying Walt. "He's my teacher. Well, one of my teachers. You'll like him, Blinky. He's a historian, like you."

Hopefully AAARRRGGHH was only reacting to the similar name. It had been centuries. Besides, when they'd known each other, Walt had hardly ever shown his human face around Gumm-Gumms. If they were going to kill him, he'd rather be smashed like a troll than eaten like a fleshbag.

"What is he doing here?" said Blinky. Jim began the same explanation they'd given moments ago.

AAARRRGGHH loomed into Walt's personal space. Walt took a couple of steps back and leaned away. He held up his hand as though unsure whether he was offering it to another person to shake or to an animal to be smelled. AAARRRGGHH sniffed him, then delicately took his hand between two fingers and shook it.

Blinky sighed in resignation. "It's good you're safe. How much have you told him?"

"Trolls exist, some want to eat humans and some would rather be ignored by humans, and I'm the Trollhunter, which means I have to protect the hidden ones from the human-eating ones, which is why Bular was after me."

"He doesn't know about … anything else? Any other reason Bular might have … tracked you down?"

Walt, who had been trying to smile at AAARRRGGHH, frowned instead. It almost sounded like Blinky knew Jim was a Changeling, and was trying to ask if Walt knew without exposing Jim if he didn't.

"Blinky!" A blue spiky troll with long, branching off-white horns barged into the library, carrying a sack and accompanied by a slender pink troll with bright green eyes. "We need to contact the Trollhunter."

Jim raised his hand. "I'm right here?"

The spiky troll took a second to process this. "That was fast."

"Draal, what –?"

"Stricklander?" the pink troll interrupted Blinky.

"Nomura?" Walt responded on reflex – and immediately started kicking himself and mentally cursing his idiocy in every language he knew.

"Knew it," said AAARRRGGHH smugly. He gave Walt the most terrifying pat on the back that the Changeling had ever experienced.

The six-eyed troll pinched his orange nose on the septum rather than the bridge, perhaps because his stubby arms couldn't reach that high without considerable contortion.

"Master Jim. Would you like to … rephrase … anything you've just told me?"

Jim was also pinching his nose and cringing.

"Well, first I'd like to know why Draal brought Nomura here."

Draal set down and opened the sack he carried, revealing an unconscious human.


Jim went from defensive-awkward-embarrassed to vicious protector in half a second. He crouched by his Familiar's mother and vanished one of his gauntlets to check her pulse.

"How did you knock her out?" he snarled.

"Spindle gloss," said Nomura, casually, as though Jim's shift in body language hadn't sent her reaching for her khopesh. "I left the bag in the water but she drank less than half the cup. She should wake up in twenty minutes or so."

"No." Jim relaxed fractionally. "Mom's chronically sleep deprived. Now that she's out, she won't wake up for a few hours. AAARRRGGHH, help me put her on the table?"

A table half-cleared of books stood behind where Blinky had been standing when Jim and Walt arrived at the library. AAARRRGGHH lifted Barbara with both hands and placed her on it. Jim rolled her onto her side, adjusting her arms and legs just so.

"I thought humans generally slept on their backs," said Blinky.

"It's called the recovery position," said Jim. "If she vomits while unconscious, this makes her less likely to choke on it and die." Very carefully, he removed her glasses and put them in easy reach for when she woke up. "Hmph. It'll do. Do you have any pillows or blankets down here you can guarantee don't have mold or bugs in them?"

"We do not." Blinky cleared his throat pointedly. His top and middle left eyes were on Jim, his top and middle right eyes on Nomura, and his lowest pair of eyes on Draal. "She is here, because …?"

"Nomura said she was in danger," said Draal. "That Bular might try to use Bah-buh-rah as a hostage against Jim."

Jim went a shade paler. "If Otto thinks to contact Gladys, they'll have Toby as a hostage. He's got an all-day dental appointment today."

"Bular won't want more Changelings involved than absolutely necessary," Walt pointed out, hoping to project an air of calm reassurance. "If Otto … sidestepped him, he would be more likely to go to the base than contact anyone specific."

"Besides, Otto and Gladys hate each other," said Nomura.

Yes, that was true; Walt remembered now. Something had happened in the Seventies, where a mission went wrong and they both blamed each other. No one else knew the details. There was a betting pool on what exactly happened and whose fault it had truly been.

Jim chewed his lip. "I don't think I've talked about anyone else on base, so the others … should be safe. Claire and Mary have rehearsal, so they'll be around people all day, and Darci … I don't know Darci's plans. I just know she won't be here. She respects the buddy system too much to come down here on her own."

Blinky made a noise that wasn't quite a growl but was on its way in that direction.

"Master Jim! What? Happened?"

AAARRRGGHH rubbed Blinky's back and bumped his nose against Blinky's upper shoulder.

Jim looked at Walt and shifted his weight from side to side. "I was hoping I could kind of ease into this reveal subtly …" He fidgeted with his re-conjured gauntlets. "I guess that's not an option anymore." The Trollhunter straightened his posture and stared Walt dead in the eyes. "Stricklander, this is an official declaration of treason. I no longer serve Gunmar. I intend to work towards his defeat."

… Well. That would make recruiting Jim a little easier.

Now the Trollhunter stared Nomura down. Her hands were on her sword hilts, though she didn't draw them.

"Nomura, you were right. I did steal a piece of Killahead Bridge."

… What?


"I knew it!"


"Blinky, AAARRRGGHH, Draal, Killahead has been fully rebuilt. Or, so everyone thinks. Bular accused me of treason when the Amulet couldn't open it. That's why Stricklander saved my life. I mean, he thought it was a wrongful accusation at the time, but, if he cares about his fellow Changelings enough to fight Bular for one, I'm pretty sure we can talk him around to how releasing Gunmar would be a bad idea."

Nomura began snickering. Walt glared at her.

"I think he'll be amenable to persuasion," she teased.

Chapter Text

Mornings were often a relatively calm time in Trollmarket. Trolls who frequented the surface were back home and settling in to sleep; their families and neighbours often found themselves doing the same, pulled along by social instincts and the forces of inertia; and trolls who didn't bother following the cycle of day and night kept their volume down to a dull roar as a courtesy.

It should have been the perfect time for Trollmarket's Elder to unwind with a quiet drink.

"Vendel, there's a new human in Trollmarket!"

"Vendel? Vendel! The Trollhunter brought another human down here!"

"Vendel, did you hear yet? The Trollhunter says he fought Bular this morning!"

"Vendel, the Trollhunter's here with a human he says he saved from Bular!"

"Vendel! The Trollhunter has a human with him he says fought Bular!"

"Vendel, is it true? Did the Trollhunter face Bular last night?"

At least Jim had waited until Vendel got most of the way through his mug before setting off the latest uproar. There had been little enough left that Vendel was able to toss it back – rushing what should be savoured, but at least getting to finish his drink this time – before setting off for the library.

"Vendel –"

"I have heard the rumours and am on my way to verify them."

"About the Trollhunter threatening a civilian with his sword?"

"He did what?!"

"That's not what happened; he just used it to block a gnome somebody threw at him."

Vendel sighed and stopped walking. He gathered a disjointed account of the Trollhunter either threating a resident of the market for daring to be upset at an additional human intruder, or protecting himself and a companion from unwarranted assault. He promised the now-bickering pair that he would question the Trollhunter on the matter, and walked on. They were too deep in their argument to notice.

He paused again at the library doorway.

"But you promised!" Jim was pleading inside.

"I'm sorry, Master Jim, but this situation has officially gotten out of hand. We have to tell Vendel."

An excellent cue for his entrance.

"Tell me what?"

There were actually two new humans in the library. One of them seemed to have fainted, and was lying on a table. The other, Jim made a spirited but fruitless attempt to hide behind his back.

"Jim, please." The human put a hand on the boy's shoulder. Jim made a small, disappointed noise and settled.

"Well, Blinkous?"

Blinkous wrung all four of his hands together. "How much have you already heard?"

"The Trollhunter fought Bular, escaped, and brought a new human to Trollmarket. Which does not explain the other one."

"Draal brought Mom. So Bular couldn't track my scent to my house and use her as a hostage against me."

Vendel doubted Bular would have thought to do that. Hostage taking was more of a Changeling tactic than a Gumm-Gumm one. Killing her and leaving the body for her son to find might be more Bular's style, if he could hold himself back from eating the fleshbag once he killed her.

Either way, what was done was done, and having his mother safe in Trollmarket would probably grant the Trollhunter some peace of mind.

"There's only one new human in Trollmarket right now," said Draal. "The other one's an Imp– a Changeling."

Jim tried once again to block Vendel's line of sight to the conscious human. "He really did save me from Bular, though."

Vendel used his staff to ease the Trollhunter aside. AAARRRGGHH helpfully pushed the Changeling forward.

"Don't hurt him!" Jim cried.

The Changeling's human form was unremarkable. Grey hair, in a puffy style like a rooster's comb. Pinkish hide, the colour of a plucked chicken, similar to Jim and his friend Tobias. Green eyes like Tobias, as well. Taller than the Trollhunter or his friends; perhaps an adult.

"Who are you?"

"He's my history teacher, Mr Strick–"

"Waltolomew Stricklander." With what had to be sarcasm, the Changeling added, "My friends call me Walt."

"I knew him," said AAARRRGGHH. "Before. Clever. Could help us."

It was rare for AAARRRGGHH to speak about his time as a Gumm-Gumm.

Jim's judgement was obviously compromised. If the Changeling had been passing as the boy's teacher, he was probably interpreting any actions performed to maintain a human cover as evidence that Changelings weren't really so bad.

But, Vendel supposed, AAARRRGGHH's assessment would have to be taken into account in deciding what to do about this.

"You believe a Changeling could be trustworthy?"

"Master Jim has been. For the most part."

The Trollhunter gasped as though struck. Vendel almost hit the Changeling in the face with his horn turning to look at Blinkous.

"What are you talking about?"

Blinkous was still wringing his hands. He looked everywhere except at Vendel or Jim.

"It has – very recently, I ought to emphasize – come to light, that the Amulet did not, in fact, choose a human to be Trollhunter."

There was a moment of silence while Trollmarket's Elder processed these implications. If Blinkous had come to him alone with these words, Vendel could've dismissed it as the latest in a long list of conspiracy theories, but –

"Blinky, you promised!"

"And you promised us full disclosure! Would you have even mentioned the Bridge again if not for what happened this morning?"

"I had it handled! It can't open with a piece missing, so there was no reason to upset anybody!"

"You almost died!"

"A life of almost is a life of never!"

An angular woman in a purple dress was snickering beside Draal. As the smallest troll in the library, she hadn't drawn Vendel's notice earlier. "I might end up collateral damage, but I am so glad I got to see this train wreck."

"Surely Merlin would have included a safeguard to keep the Amulet from selecting a Changeling." Vendel frantically ran through every memory he had of Jim. Had there been any sign at all of an imposter, an infiltrator –?

"Unless it's true that Merlin can see the future." Stricklander was outwardly resigned to whatever fate awaited him. He hadn't turned his back on AAARRRGGHH or Vendel but he had begun to browse the library shelves. "If he foresaw the rebuilding of Killahead Bridge, he might have foreseen the advantage of a Champion with inside access to the project."

Why had Blinkous and AAARRRGGHH and Draal let a Changeling Trollhunter live? Draal especially. They could have blamed Jim's death on Bular if Blinkous worried that revealing Jim as a Changeling would cast aspersions against past bearers of the Amulet.

"Or, the Amulet's partially self-aware, right?" Jim pulled his upper lip behind his teeth. "Maybe it looks at whatever killed the last Trollhunter and picks the new one based on who's least likely to die that way? From where Kanjigar's body was and how he was posed when you guys … rebuilt him, I think Bular threw him into sunlight and he tried to tuck and roll back to the shadows but wasn't fast enough."

"Or possibly," Vendel mused aloud, "the Amulet truly did intend to select a human." Jim could clearly use it – he was wearing the armour right now – but maybe it only worked while he wore his human shape? "Did it call your name, or the fleshbag name you stole?"

Stricklander and the pink woman – who she was and how she was involved were still a mystery – both flinched. Jim's eyes went red.

"No. No, you don't get to do that. You never gave a damn about a human in your life before you thought one had been chosen as the Trollhunter." Jim stabbed a finger at Vendel. "You do not get to stand there and act like you care more about Jay-Jay than I do."

"Jay-Jay?" said AAARRRGGHH.

"Besides, if it had meant to choose him, you should be grateful it ended up with me instead. Pulling an actual human child with no combat experience or awareness of trolls into this job would've been unfathomably irresponsible."

Jim took a deep breath and let it out slowly. His eyes settled back into their usual blue colour.

"You nicknamed your Familiar?"

"What, you didn't?"

At least that exchange almost explained the troll woman's presence, Vendel thought sourly. A third Changeling. Ugh. He'd already been getting too old for this when the last war ended.

"To return to the more salient points," said Blinkous, "Killahead Bridge is nearly rebuilt, and Bular is out for blood."

AAARRRGGHH cringed. Blinkous rubbed one of his arms comfortingly. AAARRRGGHH wrapped that arm around Blinkous and pulled him close. Blinkous nuzzled AAARRRGGHH's cheek and reclined against his chest. AAARRRGGHH relaxed, slightly.

"Bular is a simple problem to resolve." Stricklander drew something from his jacket – a knife? No, a pen – and toyed with it as he spoke. "We just have to kill him. The Bridge is of greater concern, despite the missing piece." He looked at Jim. "The missing piece is largely unknown. The necessity of the Amulet is not."

"Steal rest of it?" AAARRRGGHH suggested. "Trollmarket has vault now. Keep pieces there?"

It wasn't a terrible idea. Except for the detail of Changelings now having access to Trollmarket.

"How do you propose to kill Bular?" Draal growled. "Every Trollhunter to face him –"

"Fought him alone," said Stricklander. "There's something to be said for outnumbering your opponent … Draal, is it? I presume you'd be willing to help Jim, in the interests of avenging your father. Between the three of us, we ought to stand a chance."

"Four." The Changeling woman drew a hooked sword from behind her back. It turned from blue to orange in her hand. Jim and Stricklander exchanged a look too quick for Vendel to read.

"Wouldn't you rather stay here and claim a place on the winning side no matter who wins?" said Jim.

"But in the fight, I can be the deciding factor." She sheathed her blade. "… Besides, I still owe you for those Helheetis."

"Aw, Nomura …"

"Don't get sappy."

"It's just nice you remembered. In case you ever needed an excuse to help me."

"What did I just say?"

"Any other volunteers?" Stricklander was looking at AAARRRGGHH. The Krubera's head and ears drooped.

"AAARRRGGHH's a pacifist; Vendel is … necessary, for the day-to-day running of Trollmarket, and so probably shouldn't get dragged into fights willy-nilly," which was probably the most polite way Vendel had ever been dismissed as 'old'; "and Blinky, um, should stay here, because … he'd be the best one to explain things to my mom if she wakes up while we're gone."

Everyone looked at Jim. Blinkous was the one to say it.

"You don't intend to wait for her to wake up and tell her yourself, before going into battle?"

"Of course not. Ideally, she sleeps through this, Draal and I take her home after it's all resolved, we set her up on the couch with the TV on, Mom assumes she dozed off, and we don't have to tell her anything."

"Such lengthy somnolence wouldn't concern you?"

"She's never had a bad reaction to spindle gloss before."

"How often do you dose her with it?" Vendel wasn't an expert on human emotional expression, and he wouldn't trust a Changeling's expressions anyway, but Stricklander almost appeared concerned.

"Every couple of weeks, no more than twice a week. Her nights off don't always overlap with my nights out. It's been over four days since last time unless she's been brewing it for herself."

Stricklander nodded.

Jim started rummaging through Blinkous' overstocked shelves.

"Have you got a map of Arcadia's tunnels and sewers down here? Oh, you'll want to read this." He handed Stricklander a hefty tome. "It's one of Blinky's; an account of the first hundred years of the development of Trollmarket, both in physical construction and politically amongst troll communities. I haven't gotten around to it yet but it sounds like your kind of thing."

Sticklander's eyes shot wide. He clutched the book close to his chest. He glanced at Vendel, who stood closest, then at AAARRRGGHH and Blinkous, then at Draal.

Evidently deciding they weren't going to attack him the instant he looked away, Stricklander opened the book, holding it so he could easily peek at them over the top of it, and started to read greedily.

The Changeling woman, Nomura, rolled her eyes but smiled slightly.

"Okay, here we go." Jim partially unrolled a scroll. "Draal, could you move a table, not the one Mom's resting on, to the middle of the room?"

Several books fell off it with loud thumps and thunks. Blinkous left AAARRRGGHH's embrace to pick them up, but settled comfortably against his side again when AAARRRGGHH came up to the table as well. Jim opened the map and used books to weigh down the corners.

Stricklander closed the book he held and pointed to it. "I'm borrowing this later."

The two Changelings moved to roughly flank the Trollhunter. Blinkous and AAARRRGGHH were on the other side of the table. Vendel and Draal were at either end, Draal beside Nomura. Vendel kept his staff between himself and Sticklander. He didn't like blocking the Changeling from his line of sight, but on the other hand he wanted to be able to block or trip up any sudden attacks.

"The museum is here," Nomura pointed with her long, clawed finger, "and Bular might still be there. If you want to steal the whole Bridge, we'll have to lure him away from it."

"If he expects the fight to stay underground, he won't bring Otto with him," said Stricklander, "but then Otto and the goblins will most likely be standing guard over the Bridge. Unless Otto is still out hunting for us."

"Do we all want to come from the same direction or should we try flanking him?" said Jim. "The goblins will probably let him know where I am, but I could see them opening manhole covers to cut Draal off from joining the fight."

Jim left a note at the library for Barbara, just in case she woke up before he got back.

Mom, we're both safe, was the opening lie. She was; Jim wasn't. Trolls are real. Magic is real. I found a magical artifact which is now tied to me. I have to sort some stuff out with the trolls because of it. Please stay in the library! The librarian, Blinky (the blue one with six eyes), can tell you more. AAARRRGGHH (the big one with green hair) doesn't talk as much, but he's very nice. I'll come back as soon as I can. Love, Jim

"Don't tell her about Changelings, try to downplay the 'until death' part about Trollhunting, and for the love of everything do not tell her there are other human kids involved, because she will insist on telling their families and then we'll have, like, triple the number of humans knowing about trolls," he said to Blinky.

"You would truly prefer to fight Bular, rather than tell Barbara Lake that you're a Changeling?"

"There are a lot of things I would rather do than hurt my mother."

He slipped the folded note between the lenses and arms of Barbara's glasses, so she'd see it right away when she reached for them. Jim brushed aside a lock of his mother's red hair. He kissed her forehead, and went to join Stricklander, Nomura, and Draal by the library entrance.

Jim couldn't blame Nomura for being afraid to be left alone in Trollmarket. If it got out that she was a Changeling … well. Jim had considered inciting a mob to kill Bular. He was pretty sure fifty or more trolls could take down Nomura.

He still half-expected her to turn on them once the fight started, though.

Draal led them through Trollmarket, to one of the side entrances. Nobody threw any gnomes at them this time.

Once they were outside the market and the portal had closed, Stricklander switched to his troll form. Jim hesitated, looking sideways at Draal, and then did the same.

Draal growled softly. Jim's ears drooped and his tail curled down. Nomura swatted one of Draal's shoulder spikes.

"Let's go," said Stricklander, ignoring this little byplay.

Per the plan, Jim went with Draal, so it would be harder to create a sunlight barrier and keep Draal out of the fight. Open manhole covers could still let in the light and pen him in, but that would trap Bular as well.

Stricklander and Nomura snuck along parallel pathways, to circle around and attack Bular from behind or both sides.

If Nomura betrayed them early, Stricklander would kill her, and if she managed to kill him first, Jim would still have Draal backing him up.

They hadn't actually discussed that part during the planning session, of course, but Jim took it as a given.

They weren't far from Trollmarket when Jim's long ears caught the sound of goblin chatter. It was too soft, and the tunnel too echo-y, to make out exactly what they were saying, but he caught Bular's name, and "~angry~".

"~Hello?~" he called softly.

A pair of them peeked around the corner, screeched in alarm, and bolted.

"Don't chase them," he told Draal. "Goblins use tunnels too narrow for a troll to fit. They'll lead Bular to us."

Jim turned and started walking down the pipe where the goblins had been.

Arcadia Oaks had amazingly spacious sewer maintenance tunnels. Trollmarket's residents had expanded the tunnel system for their own purposes, but the human-accessible part was enlarged to troll-accommodating dimensions thanks to the Changelings. They'd been in town since it first sprang up, and influenced its development for their convenience.

Jim hadn't gone far before he heard a distinctive metal-on-cement scraping sound. Bular must have been scouring the tunnels for Jim and Sticklander, for the goblins to find him so quickly.

Bular loomed into the tunnel. He dragged one of his swords along the wall beside him. Some distant part of Jim's brain worried about sparks and methane and explosions.

Bular savoured his approach for maximum intimidation. He moved slowly, letting his intended victim see and hear and smell death coming.

At least, that was probably his plan before Draal roared, tucked and rolled, and ploughed into him.

Bular crossed his swords between them, holding Draal at bay but being pushed backwards by the force of Draal's charge. There were definitely sparks now.

Jim climbed the tunnel wall and magically adjusted his gauntlets and sabatons to substitute for his claws. The Armour of Daylight was wonderfully responsive. He scurried along the ceiling while Bular was focused on keeping Draal back.

Jim conjured his sword. His intent was to drive it into the back of Bular's neck from above, using gravity and all his weight to force the blade in.

But Bular saw the flash of light and dodged, sending Draal ricocheting down the tunnel like a giant spiky pinball and causing Jim to crash to the ground. The sword disappeared.

"Did you think it would be that easy? Trollhunter?"

Jim threw a knife at him – one of the Amulet's knives, not one of his own. Bular knocked it away in midair with one of his swords. Jim resummoned the knife and did it again. This one missed because Draal rolled over Bular from behind, before careening out of sight once again.

Bular spat out something that had gotten into his mouth. Or maybe the spitting was an insult. He used one sword to guard himself and the other as a prop to stand.

One of Stricklander's knives hit Bular's shoulder. That was the arm the troll had been using to get up, and so he staggered. More blades, a quick flurry of them, stabbed into the troll's arm and side. Bular shook them off, leaving him with tiny pockmark injuries.

He swung at Jim. There was a blaze of orange. Nomura deflected Bular's swords with hers.

"All of you will die today," said Bular. "You will be reduced to gravel and washed from this sewer by the next rainstorm."

"You first," Nomura sneered. At the same time, Stricklander threw his Creeper's Sun knife, and sliced Bular's arm.

The Gumm-Gumm roared. Nomura was flung into the wall. One of Bular's swords clattered to the tunnel floor.

Jim was grabbed by the throat and lifted into the air. He pulled out his Creeper's Sun knife and sliced the back of Bular's hand. It only made a small cut, but the injury went grey and purple. Bular dropped Jim with another roar.

Draal roared back. He wasn't in a ball anymore, but running on all fours. He nearly hit Jim while charging Bular a third time.

The tunnel shook from the forceful collision. Stricklander's next knife-throw went wild. He must not have had enough time to stop entirely before Draal threw himself in the way.

The two trolls began grappling. Draal forced Bular to drop his second sword. Bular forced Draal to the ground. Draal's long horns nearly let him head-butt Bular even from that position.

"The Son of Kanjigar would follow an Impure?" said Bular to Draal. "You must be desperate for the Amulet's approval … now that you can never have your father's."

Draal punched Bular in the mouth.

Bular punched Draal in the mouth.

Draal kicked Bular in the gronk-nuks.

Bular reached for his fallen swords – which Jim had already stolen and pulled out of reach, bringing them to where Nomura was extracting herself from a new crater in the wall.

With the option of stabbing taken from him, Bular instead grabbed Draal's horns, pulled his head up, and slammed it back down. Jim and Draal both cried out.

Jim picked up one of Stricklander's knives, now littering the tunnel, and threw it into Bular's side. Stricklander had the skill to throw three at once. Bular was starting to weaken under the barrage and slow down as Creeper's Sun toxin worked through his body … but not fast enough.

Bular struck Draal again, and left him groaning on the floor as he got up to retrieve his swords and finish the job. Jim stood between Bular and the weapons.

"Give up, Impure."

Was that a smile on Bular's face? Was this fight entertaining, amusing to him?

"Every Impure who thought they were strong enough to challenge me has been crushed beneath my feet."

Stricklander's cape frill was starting to run out of knives. He was holding very still, watching Bular for an opening without drawing attention, ready to make his last few blades count.

"Every Trollhunter before you has died at my hands."

Behind Bular, Draal was starting to turn over. If he could get onto his stomach he might be able to push himself up.

"Yield, and I will forgive your treason enough to grant you a quick death."

Jim couldn't see Nomura, behind him, but he could hear her breath. Steady and deep, with no audible sign of an internal injury. She was always good at covering those, though, until after they got out of the Crucible and no Gumm-Gumms could hear.

"You've never endured the Darklands," said Jim. "I've fought Nyarlagroths. They're bigger than you."

Bular grabbed Jim by the back of the neck and held him in the air. Jim's scruff was protected by the armour but the dismissive message still came through clearly. Jim snarled.

Bular laughed when the scrawny Changeling threw a punch at him.

Jim didn't have the strength to damage a large troll by punching, even in his own trollish form. But he did have the power to conjure a magical sword. With Jim's fist nearly to Bular's chest, Daylight manifested, forming inside the Gumm-Gumm and making the impaled troll howl with agony as he began petrifying from inside out.

"DRAAL!" Jim screamed.

And Draal was there, delivering the punch that Jim could not, breaking Bular to pieces.

It was suddenly very, very quiet.

"My father's death … has been avenged." Draal was panting. He dropped to stand on all fours. When he met Jim's eyes, he seemed at peace. "Thank you, Trollhunter."

"We – we just killed Bular," said Jim, stunned. He used his sword to push himself to his feet, shaking off Bular's claws and letting them crumble. He dissipated the sword and whooped. "We killed Bular!" He went pale and summoned a knife. "We killed Bular. Gunmar is going to – oh god, we killed Bular!"

"Perhaps you'd feel less unnerved if you stopped shouting confessions," said Stricklander.

Jim took hold of one of Bular's horns. The Changeling began to chisel at the Gumm-Gumm's neck.

"We should take his head back to Trollmarket as proof he's dead. The rest of him … What do you think? Grave Sand?"

"Grave Sand," Nomura agreed.

"It will be laced with Creeper's Sun," Stricklander pointed out without actually objecting. "Probably best not to mix that in with the general supply." He started gathering up his knives and preening, arranging them around the neck of his cape.

"Draal, do you want the swords?" Jim offered. "I mean, I get if you don't want to use them, but, like a trophy?"

"I'll take them if you don't," said Nomura. She sheathed her swords on her back and, with a grunt, hefted one of Bular's. She needed both hands on the hilt to keep it steady.

Draal didn't look directly at any of the Changelings. "We should take care of Killahead Bridge."

Chapter Text

She was not in bed, Barbara realized as she woke up. She had no blanket, and even if she had just collapsed onto bed without covering herself, her mattress wasn't nearly this hard.

She was on her side, with her upper arm bent so her hand tucked under her head and her lower arm bent further away from her. Her upper leg was pulled over the lower one so her knee kept her from rolling onto her stomach. It took a moment for her sleep-muffled mind to recognize she'd been put in the recovery position.

Barbara ran her palm over the surface she rested on without opening her eyes. The floor, maybe? Had she hit her head in krav maga? Fainted in her kitchen? The last thing she remembered was having tea with Zelda.

She opened her eye a crack. It wasn't blindingly bright, so she couldn't be at the hospital, and likely she didn't have a concussion. She opened her eyes wider. The room was a blur, of course, and mostly orange and brown. Her glasses were near her, along with a note in Jim's handwriting.

Barbara didn't get up yet. Depending on what had just happened, she might only succeed in making herself dizzy and passing out again. Instead she put on her glasses – the blobs of colour sharpened into bookshelves – and read Jim's note.

Mom, we're both safe. Trolls are real. Magic is real. I found a magical artifact which is now tied to me. I have to sort some stuff out with the trolls because of it. Please stay in the library! The librarian, Blinky (the blue one with six eyes), can tell you more. AAARRRGGHH (the big one with green hair) doesn't talk as much, but he's very nice. I'll come back as soon as I can. Love, Jim

Barbara frowned and slowly rose into a seated position. She'd been lying on a table. She certainly did seem to be in a library, but the rest of Jim's notes didn't make sense.

Was it some kind of practical joke? Jim and his friends in masks and costumes, and a hidden camera to film her reaction?

But how had she been unconscious? Did they just … move her there while she was sleeping, and she'd forgotten the rest of the day? She was still fully clothed, not in her pajamas. She even had her shoes on.

And if Jim just wanted to scare her with pretend monsters, why would he put together an entire library setting? He could have just asked her to come to the basement and had someone jump out from behind the furnace.

She got up and opened one of the books shelved near her. The text was not an alphabet she recognized. Maybe the angular shapes were runes? She opened another book and saw diagrams of some kind of creature, also labelled in runes.

Someone came in. "Ah, Barbara, you've awakened."

She turned, and screamed, and threw the book at them. They yelped and shielded their eyes with their hands.

Their six eyes. With their four hands.

Trolls are real, Jim's note claimed.

"Barbara, I'm sure you have questions."

The creature – the troll – approached her, hands raised.

"I can expl–AAAH!"

She threw a punch at the big orange nose.

"If I could just –"

Her next punch hit one of the eyes. Barbara regained some room to move when the troll stumbled back.

"My eyes! My six vulnerable eyes!"

She kicked the creature in the stomach. The troll tripped over some books that had been piled on the floor instead of shelved and toppled over. Barbara grabbed the largest object in arm's reach and raised it like a club.

"Cease, you violent woman!"



"Mom, it's okay!" Jim put down a big black rock he'd been carrying. The silver and blue armour he wore didn't clank like metal should when he ran to get between his mother and the troll. "This is Blinky. Did you read my note? He's not going to hurt you."

"Blinky okay?" An even bigger troll had followed Jim into the library. Barbara dropped whatever she'd grabbed – another book – and pulled Jim away from the grey troll helping the blue one up.

"No permanent damage, I believe." Blinky patted his struck eye cautiously and winked it a few times. "Your mother is a ferocious woman, Master Jim. I take it your mission was successful?"

There was a flicker of movement and flash of pink light near the door. Barbara looked and saw another troll – also blue, with spiky crystalline growths and impressive horns – and two humans – Zelda and Walter.

"Am I … dreaming?" she asked cautiously. Jim grimaced.

"I really wish I could say yes but I feel like we're past the point where we could play it off that way." He urged her back toward the table she'd woken up on. "Let's sit and I'll explain."

There was an armchair against one wall, and a rolling office chair Jim retrieved from across the room. Barbara hesitated to sit, and perched on the edge of the armchair.

Walter pulled one of the books off the library shelves, leaned against the wall, and started to read. Was that one English or could he understand the runes? Zelda pulled a knife out of her boot and a handkerchief from her pocket and started to clean the knife.

The spiky troll seemed content to watch Zelda and Walter. The other two trolls, Blinky and … probably AAARRRGGHH, from Jim's note? Barbara hoped that was 'the big one' because she didn't like imagining they could get even bigger. Blinky and probably-AAARRRGGHH settled down in the corner nearest the door. AAARRRGGHH seemed to be watching the doorway. Blinky was watching Jim and Barbara, but had the courtesy to hold an open book and give them an illusion of privacy in the crowded room.

Jim pulled a round metal object from the breastplate of his armour. The armour vanished. The object made a soft ringing metallic hum and ticked once.

"We're in Heartstone Trollmarket," said Jim. "It's a city underneath Arcadia Oaks. Trolls are … living stone. Sentient or sapient or whatever the term is for having self-awareness and free will. They evolved underground. Sunlight hurts them. Well, mostly. There are a few kinds who can survive in sunlight, but most trolls will die if directly exposed."

Barbara looked over at the three trolls. Blinky nodded solemnly.

"The Heartstone is … I don't know exactly, but from what I've heard, I think it emits a kind of radiation that trolls process which helps keep them healthy? Like how humans get Vitamin D from sunlight. Their diet is pretty mineral-heavy, as you might've guessed, but they can eat a lot of stuff."

Jim grimaced.

"Including meat. After trolls discovered the surface, and the animals that live on or near it, um, well, there's a sect of trolls that want to eat humans. Not here! They, um, there was a war over it, a few centuries back, on account of hunting on the surface is super dangerous because of the sun and humans' weapons were getting better all the time, and the trolls that still want to eat humans were mostly banished to another dimension."

'Mostly' was not a comforting adverb.

"They still have spies on the surface. Some young trolls were put through a magical process that lets them be linked to a human baby. As long as no harm comes to the human child, and they stay in different dimensions, the troll child can assume their form and grow up in their place. The troll is called a Changeling and the human is their Familiar. Changelings are one of the types of trolls who don't get hurt by sunlight, except in this case it's induced, not inborn."

Jim rolled the disk of blue and silver clockwork between his hands.

"The human babies are kept in a nursery in the Darklands. That's also where the Changelings live who haven't been assigned a Familiar yet. Not the nursery, but the dimension. Oh, and, uh, the Darklands is also the dimension the human-eating trolls got banished to."

Barbara gasped.

"But don't worry! The nursery is guarded by goblins. The babies are totally safe. The Changelings have spent the past few hundred years trying to reopen the portal to get the Gumm-Gumms back out of there. There are some double agents, too, sabotaging the project from inside."

He put the clocklike device he'd been toying with on the table.

"That's where this amulet comes in. Apparently Merlin was an actual guy. I don't know enough to confirm or refute King Arthur's existence yet. And Merlin made this amulet which lets a chosen person, the Trollhunter, summon magic armour and a sword."

"Troll … hunter?" Barbara repeated, looking sideways at Blinky again.

"It doesn't mean what it sounds like it means," said Jim. "Trollish and English grammar don't always cooperate in translation. The Trollhunter's job is to protect trolls and humans from Gumm-Gumms. Ah, those are the trolls that want to eat humans. They've done a lot of damage to other troll communities, too. The amulet picks whoever it thinks is right for the job, and then it bonds to them so they can't just quit in the middle of a crisis."

He picked the amulet back up and threw it to the other side of the room. It flew back to his hand. Jim got up, put it on one of the shelves, and sat back down. The amulet reappeared on the table beside him.

"Although stealing it messes with its ability to teleport back to the Trollhunter, which is counterintuitive. If I ever get thrown back in time to when Merlin was making this thing I'm going to suggest he do that the other way around, so the Trollhunter can quit and let the amulet choose between some volunteer candidates but can't have it stolen."

If Jim meant what it sounded like he meant, Barbara would have some choice words of her own for Merlin on that hypothetical time travel trip.

"One of the past Trollhunters, Deya, used the amulet to seal the bridge between worlds and keep the Gumm-Gumms trapped. She's like a combination saint and superhero down here. They call her 'Deya the Deliverer'."

"And now this magic amulet's decided to pick you?" Barbara shot to her feet and grabbed the accursed thing. "What were you thinking?!" she yelled at it. "Jim is sixteen! He can't fight trolls!"

"Mom –"

"He should be worrying about grades, and crushes, and –"

"Mom –"

"Not fighting for his life against giant evil rock monsters!"


"You said it can be stolen, right?" She pocketed it and put her hands on her son's shoulders. "You don't have to worry about this anymore, Jim. We'll figure it out together."

"That's not … everything." Jim put his hands on top of hers. "There's … some other stuff, that … might be worse." He hugged her. Barbara held him tight. "Please sit back down?"

Somewhat settled now that she had that ominous glowing device away from her baby, but disturbed he had something to tell her that he thought was worse than being drafted as a magical troll-fighter, Barbara sat.

"There were … a lot of questions, when the amulet first picked me, about how and why it chose … me. The biggest issue was that it's only ever chosen trolls. Nobody thought it could pick a human."

Were Jim's hands shaking? He gripped his knees before Barbara could tell.

"And, well, it didn't. I'm … not … I …" He made a fearful high-pitched noise. "I can't. If I tell you, you're gonna hate me. But if I don't and you find out, you'll still hate me."

"Jim, you're my son!" Barbara leaned over and touched one of his hands. Jim tensed up tighter. "I could never hate you."

There was an angry noise from Zelda and a shushing one from Walter. Once Jim told her this secret and Barbara finished reassuring him, she wanted to know what those two were doing here and how long they had known about Jim's troll-fighting. He seemed too aware of this bizarre magical world for all of this to have just happened today.

"I'm not … who you think I am." Jim hunched in on himself and didn't meet her eyes. "I – I do think of you as my mom, I do, but if I'm your son, it's by adoption. I'm a Changeling."

Barbara's mind and heart froze up.

The bit of her brain that was still functioning was grateful she was sitting right now.

She felt her mouth shaping the word, what, but she didn't hear it and wasn't sure she was breathing so she might not have actually said it out loud.

Her mind started revving back up and more questions began forming, faster and faster.

Who are you really? Why did you take Jim? Why us, why our family? How do I get him back? Who else, how many have been stolen and replaced?

"How long have you …?"

"James Lake Junior was three months old when I took his place," said the boy she'd spent so long thinking was Jim. Barbara gasped and smothered a sob. "He's still alive! Uninjured and well taken care of. If any harm comes to our Familiars, Changelings lose our ability to shift forms. I can show him to you." He patted his pockets. "If you've got a mirror."

Walter had been listening in. Without looking up from his book, he took a small folding mirror out of one of his jacket pockets and flipped it open. There was a collapsible comb held in the other side. Jim took the compact, spat on the mirror, and handed it to Barbara.

The reflection swirled with green light and changed.

"… He's still so little," Barbara whispered. Her eyes watered. Her baby, he was still just a baby …

"Yeah, um, the, the age-freeze gets transferred over. I think it started so they wouldn't, you know, so we'd have a full troll's lifespan in disguise instead of just a human one –"

"What is that?!" Barbara thrust the mirror away from her. Jim cupped his hands around hers and the mirror without actually touching her.

"It's okay, it's just a goblin! They feed the babies and look after them and guard them. You couldn't ask for better protectors. A goblin's pack bond is a deep and powerful thing. One time I saw them take down a Nyarlagroth for getting too close to the Nursery. I mean, it was a little Nyarlagroth, probably an adolescent looking to find and establish its own territory, but it was still bigger than a car."

"What were you doing that close to the Nursery?" asked Walter.

"Helping fight the Nyarlagroth."

"He used to steal blankets out of the supplies."

"Nomura!" Jim protested.

"And he used to wander into Nyarlagroth territory –"


"Because he was convinced there was some secret food source hidden out there –"

"And I was right," said Jim defensively.

"They eat rocks and each other." Zelda rolled her eyes.

"Yeah, but I found out what kind of rock."

The fat, spindly-limbed creature in the mirror held the bottle to her son's mouth. His chubby baby arms flailed in the general direction of holding the bottle as he drank. The … goblin … held the bottle one-handed and helped the baby put his hands on the bottle. Barbara remembered being taught about that. Encouraging bottle-holding gave the child a head start in learning to feed themselves.

The image faded away. Barbara pressed her fingers to the glass like she could reach through it and bring her baby back. "What –?"

"Oh – one sec." Jim tilted the mirror and spat on it again. "The spit-check only lasts a little while. I usually check on Jay-Jay when I brush my teeth."

Jay-Jay. She and James used to call Jim that. Their sweet little Jay-Jay, their Jimmy, baby Jamie Junior … oh, god, so many of those endearments had been directed at some kind of troll thing and they'd never even known.

She looked at Jim. It was so hard not to think of him as Jim.

"What's your real name?"

"Jim," he said firmly. "I'd like to keep the name 'Lake' if you'd let me, but either way I'm keeping 'Jim'." He took a deep breath and let it out in a gust. "Changelings don't have real names before we're given assignments. Most of us name ourselves after our Familiars."

Barbara blinked. "That makes no sense. What does anyone call you before you get a name?"

"Changeling. Or," he hesitated, dropping his voice and his eyes, "Impure."

Across the room, Walter made a startlingly ferocious noise. Barbara jumped. She could've sworn his eyes turned red.

At a normal volume, Jim continued, "From a Gumm-Gumm perspective we're basically interchangeable at that stage. Among ourselves, we have nicknames. Sometimes those last and get picked as real names. Not often."

Barbara took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. "This is … a lot. I don't know how much I'm actually absorbing right now."

"We can take a break –" She held up her hand and Jim fell silent immediately.

"So, trolls are real," she recapped, "and … you are one. And you're also some kind of Chosen One in a fight against human-eating trolls, and you're also a double-agent the human-eating trolls think works for them as a spy?"

"That last cover's probably blown by now, but, yeah. That covers a lot of it."

Barbara put her glasses back on and forced herself to make eye contact with Jim again.

"What do you really look like?"

He kept his eyes on hers as he changed.


Blue light crackled over him. The office chair he sat in made an ominous creak and he stood up. The glow faded out.

Jim's eyes were still blue, but with slit pupils and without visible sclera. His skin was the bluish-grey of slate, his nose the freckled pinkish-grey of granite, and his horns and claws and hair were all coal black. His backswept horns and elongated ears were shaped like an impala's, if set at a different angle. He had little tufts of hair on his ear tips. Short tusks poked up from his lower jaw over his lip.

He was about the same height, noticeably bulkier, with short spurs on his elbows. From the front he appeared to still have the same basic frame as his human form. From any other angle, she could see his broad and stubby tail.

Actually, he might be slightly taller as a troll. The addition of a tail changed the angle of his spine and gave him forward-slanting posture.

His legs were much thicker in this form, more like saplings than twigs, ending in stumpy elephant feet, but not nearly so short relative to his body as the legs of the other trolls Barbara had seen so far.

"You don't have eyebrows."

Of all the silly, minor details, why was that the first thing she felt compelled to comment on?

"I kind of do." Jim pinched a ridge of stone over his eye and ran his fingers along it. "Just without the hair."

He was wearing nearly the same outfit as a troll that he wore as a human, except the sleeves of his sweatshirt were pushed up by his elbow spurs and he had on black cargo pants instead of blue jeans. His pants were on backwards, likely because of his tail.

Barbara shifted to sit deeper in the armchair. She leaned onto the backrest. "I think I need some time to process all this."

"Of course." Jim switched back to wearing her child's face. Barbara flinched. "Do you want to go home or do you want to stay here and we'll wait outside?"

"… Here," she decided.

Jim herded the trolls – the other trolls – out of the room. Zelda glowed pink and turned into a towering, angular troll, much thinner than the others. Jim had been smaller than the three big ones, too; was that a Changeling trait? Walter didn't shapeshift but did take the book with him. Barbara wasn't sure why Blinky glared at Walter. This was a library, right?

Once she was alone, she started poking around again.

Barbara couldn't think about Jim and Jay-Jay and what that all meant right now. The idea her child had been taken from her and she hadn't even noticed made her throat and stomach hurt. The idea that this … troll spy … had been living in her house, watching her, studying her, made her skin crawl.

She needed a distraction. Let her subconscious mind sort through this mess for a while.

All the books were in the same indecipherable angular script. That was probably the trolls' language.

The lights were made out of glowing crystals. They were pretty. Under different circumstances she might have liked to paint them and how their facets affected the play of light and shadow in the room.

There was a mismatched assortment of human-made junk scattered about. The office chair Jim had been sitting in. A laptop computer, wired into some kind of crystal array she didn't dare touch but speculated might be meant to substitute for a battery. Some sealed plastic water bottles. A pile of empty and collapsed cardboard boxes, a few of them with what looked like bite marks taken out.

Barbara opened a water bottle and chugged it down and didn't even mind the plasticky aftertaste bottled water always developed.

The rock Jim had brought in with him was disturbing. It looked like a severed head.

Was it a severed head? Barbara had watched a cartoon called Gargoyles in college, and they'd been made out of living stone just like Jim said that trolls were, and they turned to stone when they died. Did trolls do that too?

"You brought back his head?" Blinky repeated.

"Proof of death," said Jim. He tried to stay mostly between AAARRRGGHH and the wall. It felt weird being in Trollmarket without his armour on. "I'll show Vendel later. Once Mom's had some time to calm down. I don't think introducing them to each other is … wise, just now."

"If she doesn't calm down," said Stricklander, still not openly looking up, "you may need to look into … alternative lodging arrangements. You're welcome to stay with me, if it comes to that."

From his eye movements, Jim guessed that Stricklander was speedreading. He held the book like he was expecting someone to try to snatch it out of his hands at any minute and he was ready to fight to keep it.

"I appreciate that, but a student moving in with their teacher could look super creepy. Toby's already made a standing offer for me to stay at his house for a few days; he thinks Draal and I are fighting. I can probably stretch my stay with the Domzalskis for a week without anyone getting suspicious."

"And if a week is not enough?"

"… If Mom decides she can't handle this, I could fake running away. It'll still be stigmatizing, but her reputation won't take near as bad a hit from her teenage son 'running away' as it would if the official story was her kicking me out."

It would also look less suspicious when (if) (when) she let him move back in.

"But it probably won't come to that. She might resent me for taking Jay-Jay's place, but now she also knows I can show him to her. Mom's a smart lady. She'll work out that working with us is her best chance of getting him back."

That surprised Stricklander into looking up for longer than a quick glance. Nomura and Draal and AAARRRGGHH and Blinky each turned their heads, some further than others, to look at Jim.

"Without reopening Killahead Bridge," said Blinky, "how do you propose to retrieve a human child from the Darklands?"

"Steal a Fetch, rent a cherry picker." Jim had been working on this plan since he'd changed sides. "Find out where the Nursery overlaps with the surface. Use the spit-check to make sure Jay-Jay's unattended and the cherry picker to get high enough to reach him. Pull him through the Fetch – boom. Done."

The plan would probably need three people; one to operate the heavy machinery, one to hold the Fetch steady, and the third to lift the baby. It really was better to lift babies two-handed.

The step that would take longest would be finding the Nursery. A telescope or binoculars might not be a bad idea, to look through the Fetch without the inherent risk of sticking one's head through an interdimensional portal that may or may not lead into a monster's nest.

"If Barbara would be willing to wait, and fake a pregnancy," said Stricklander thoughtfully, "a Glamour Mask would even allow you to maintain your human life after the retrieval, with your Familiar identified as your brother."

"There's no rush," Jim agreed. "If we can get control of the Fetches before anyone reports Bular's death, no one on the other side will know what's happening until they can build another one. Jay-Jay's safe with the goblins, and it's not like he's getting any older. She might want him back right away, but Mom should still at least be practical enough to want to re-baby-proof the house first."

He frowned, remembering another detail he hadn't had a good moment to segue into while explaining things to her.

"Speaking of the house, we should probably also tell her Draal's living in the basement."

Chapter Text

"I don't think we should tell the Bah-buh-rah about me," said Draal. "If she is … upset, enough to ask Jim to leave their home … She cannot tell me to stop guarding her if she does not know I am."

"Good point," said Jim. "It's still possible someone might come after her. If I'm staying with Toby and Nana, I can guard them until this blows over. Claire and Darci and Mary should be safe. I don't think I've ever talked about them on the base, so Stricklander's the only one who would even know I know them."

And Enrique, Jim didn't add.

Jim was grateful Blinky's library was in one of the quieter areas of Trollmarket. There were fewer potential eavesdroppers, and the passersby barely glanced at them before moving on.

He probably should have gotten the Amulet back from Barbara before going outside. He felt so exposed without his armour. This was Jim's first time in Trollmarket without it on since Blinky and AAARRRGGHH first announced him as the new Trollhunter.

She'll give it back, he told himself. Either Barbara would want nothing to do with trolls and return the Amulet as part of rejecting his world – his eyes stung and his throat closed up – or she'd accept him and return it because she wanted him to be able to protect himself.

"It's unlikely a message can be sent to the Darklands without us being forewarned," said Stricklander. "The only Fetch in Arcadia is currently in my office. Anyone attempting to steal it would disturb an Antramonstrum and … cease to be a threat shortly thereafter."

"You brought an Antramonstrum into a school?" Nomura shook her head. "Oh, Stricklander, I thought you liked children."

"You've been to my office. You know full well how unlikely it is that an ordinary human could gain access to anything dangerous."

"Other than the Glamour Masks."

"Which they would need to recognize as such in order to activate the enchantment."

"What about the other Fetches?" asked Jim. "There's half a dozen, right?"

"There were." Stricklander sighed. "Two have been badly damaged over the centuries and are no longer usable. One was lost and presumed destroyed when an earthquake caved in our base in Japan. The last two functional Fetches outside of my direct control are in Germany and France at the moment."

"So all Otto has to do is call a friend back home and we're exposed." Jim shuddered.

Nomura snorted. "No one is going to want to be the one to tell Gunmar his son is dead. You know what he does to bearers of bad news."

The Changelings, and AAARRRGGHH, all cringed. Nomura was the one to say it and even she cringed.

Stricklander pressed on. "Considering Bular's reputation, we can use the fact Jim was able to kill him as proof of strength. There are a number of Changelings who would desert if they felt they had a feasible alternative. This victory asserts that Jim has the capacity to protect them."

Blinky huffed. Jim couldn't tell if he was annoyed or amused.

"I can't imagine how Trollmarket is going to react to this. Master Jim allying with one or two Changelings is scandal enough – being a Changeling is a whole other matter – but the idea of, what? Mass recruitment to sway Gunmar's forces on the surface to our side?"

"To their own side," corrected Stricklander icily. "Many Changelings have 'gone native', one way or another, getting attached to particular humans, or to human culture and technology. They only remain loyal to Gunmar for fear of what Bular would do to them if they tried to break away … and knowing that Trollmarket wouldn't take them, if they tried to reach out to your kind for aid. Jim changes everything."

"How does your recruitment speech usually go?" Nomura couldn't resist mocking him. "Something along the lines of, 'if Gunmar fails to escape the Darklands, there is a vacant throne for the taking'?"

"This isn't about that," he growled back at her. "This is about presenting a third option, beyond 'loyalty to Gunmar or death'."

"We all know you want to take over the world."

"This isn't about that!" Stricklander's eyes flashed red. He scrunched them shut. The glow still seeped between his eyelids.

"Both of you knock it off!" Jim snapped. "We can't afford to be fighting amongst ourselves. If we're going to turn the Janus Order against Gunmar, it has to be fast and clean and everyone."

Blinky made an alarmed squeaky noise when Jim mentioned the Janus Order by name. Jim ignored that.

"Somehow I doubt the Pale Lady will vouch for Merlin's Champion. So. How do we sell that siding with me is a better bet than staying with Gunmar?"

"For one thing," said Stricklander, his eyes green again, "you don't have a track record of killing underlings for failure."

"I've never had underlings."


"You're more-or-less respected," said Nomura. "The food thing helps, and the poison thing doesn't hurt."

"Poison?" echoed Draal. He shifted his weight and lightly touched his leg, where Jim had stabbed him with a poisoned knife barely a week ago.

"Supplying, not applying," said Jim. "Most of the time. And I know all the antidotes."

"Vendel coming," AAARRRGGHH warned.

Jim ducked into the library. Barbara turned sharply. He gave her a sheepish grin and grabbed Bular's head.

"Sorry, I just – need this."

He left before she could say anything.

Vendel was about the same size as Draal, but the authority in his stance as he looked at them all made him seem even bigger than AAARRRGGHH.

"Is there a reason you're all standing about in the street?"

"Mom's awake and slightly panicked so we're giving her time to calm down." Jim cleared his throat and tried to assume a powerful stance of his own, praying his limited vocabulary and stilted grammar could match the impression he wanted to make. His English would do the job, but saying this in trollish felt more … appropriate. "Vendel, Elder of Trollmarket, I have good news. Bular the Vicious is dead. This is proof."

Vendel recoiled. His Heartstone staff made a clattering noise as he fumblingly caught himself from staggering back.

"You brought back his HEAD?!"

Blinky had reacted in much the same way earlier.

"Is that … not something that trolls do?"

Jim had seen skulls around Gunmar's palace. Bular had worn skulls on his belt. Jim knew 'hunting trophies' were a Gumm-Gumm thing, which was part of why they'd had to hurry to gather Kanjigar's remains. It had not occurred to Jim that other trolls might not do that.

"Among many human cultures," said Mr Strickler, "warriors would bring home and display the corpses of particularly notorious foes, to prove they were dead. It served as a morale boost for their people and demoralization for their enemies. Executed criminals were displayed likewise with the intent of deterring crime. Taking only the head was more economical than transporting the full body a great distance. Considering Bular's size, it would have been impractical to try and bring his entire corpse to Trollmarket, even if it were still in one piece."

"… What happened?"

"Well," said Jim, "Bular found us and tried to taunt us, Draal ran him over, we cut Bular up a bit, Nomura and Stricklander managed to get one of his swords away from him, Draal ran him over again, Draal and Bular punched each other a few times, I stabbed Bular with Daylight, and then Draal hit him really hard and he fell apart."

That was probably all Vendel wanted, but Jim found himself unable to stop talking.

"We took his head and his swords and made a sidetrip to the museum to get a few Bridge pieces and confirm Otto wasn't there, and then we came back here and my mom woke up and I had to explain everything to her, and now she's mad at me and we were talking about what to do next, because now that Bular's dead there's a chance we can get more Changelings to –"


Jim snapped his mouth shut. Vendel leaned heavily onto his staff.

"Come with me, Trollhunter. Blinky, AAARRRGGHH, Draal, keep the human – and, them," gesturing at Nomura and Stricklander, "in the library."

"Do I bring this or leave it here?"

"… Bring the head."

Jim was reluctant to go far from his mother, considering how upset she seemed, teetering on the edge of an emotional shutdown; or his Amulet, considering how dependant he had become on the armour to boost his confidence when talking to trolls; or his fellow Changelings, considering what trolls generally thought of Changelings and how badly outnumbered they would be – they'll be fine, they've got Creeper's Sun if this gets bad – but Blinky and Mr Strickler both waved him off and gave Jim similar forced smiles, so he followed Vendel.

Vendel did not bring him to the Hero's Forge, or the Heartstone. He brought him to the pub.

Vendel grabbed a mug and thunked it against his staff, making a ringing sound that drew everyone's attention.

"Our Trollhunter, Jim, was victorious in battle! Bular the Vicious has been slain! In accordance with human traditions, Jim returns with Bular's severed head as proof of his demise."

Jim took that as a cue to lift the head above his own. There were gasps of shock, and some of horror. Then several trolls raised their mugs and cheered. Soon the entire pub was toasting 'Jim the Bular-Slayer'.

"Not that I object," said Jim carefully, putting the head on the table at which Vendel had sat down, "but this was not the reaction I expected from you."

"You'll need all the goodwill you can get in Trollmarket, in case your secret gets out."

Jim huffed in amusement and accepted the mug some troll pressed into his hand. "Cheers to that."

He didn't actually drink it. He had no idea what it would do to a human, and it would not be good if he were seen consuming something his human friends couldn't stomach, if they ever dared sample the trolls' drinks or idea of pub grub.

"Is that why you didn't mention Draal? Or … anyone else?"

"The Trollhunter is expected to fight alone."

Jim frowned. He swirled a patch of condensation on the mug with his fingertip.

"Deya had an army. When she banished the Gumm-Gumms to the Darklands."

"Exceptional circumstances," said Vendel. "If Gunmar had not become such a threat, she would never have been able to unite such diverse tribes towards a common goal."

"Mr S and Nomura could use some good press down here, too. And Draal's going to be mad if he's completely cut out of the narrative. They were all part of it."

"Can you tell the story without revealing things best left unmentioned?" Vendel challenged in an idle tone. "Or were you planning to expose your friends in front of all Trollmarket?"

Jim growled and suppressed the urge to light his eyes at Vendel.

"Believe it or not, Trollhunter, I invited you here as damage control. It would not have ended well if someone had seen you carrying a severed head, even that one. Thanks to … your teacher's explanation … we can pass it off as a human custom followed in ignorance of other ways. Corpse desecration is a serious crime amongst troll kind."

"Somehow that never came up in my lessons."

"I thought not. This is another reason not to mention Draal's involvement. I'm surprised he didn't tell you."

"He did look uncomfortable."

"But he neither said anything nor stopped you."

"Well, in fairness, Bular did murder his father. And taunt him about it."

Vendel made a noncommittal noise and drank deeply.

Chapter Text

Enrique didn't understand why humans were so fixated on changing and washing their clothes.

The Nuñezes rotated through clothing at least twice daily. Daytime outfits were usually something fresh each day, even if it looked about the same as yesterday, while the nighttime outfit tended to be reused for several nights in a row. Sometimes the humans would change clothes in the afternoon or evening, and then it was fifty-fifty whether they would switch back to what they'd been wearing even earlier before it was time to put on their nighttime clothing again.

They changed the sheets and blankets on their beds and the towels and washcloths in the bathroom at least once a week. And then they piled it all into specialized machines to scrub off the scents and stains of use.

The socks would wear away to nothing before a decent flavour built up at that rate!

Sure, he knew humans didn't eat socks, but still. A Changeling had to keep an eye on his food supply.

Claire had started her 'laundry' after getting home from 'rehearsal' that afternoon. She came into his room holding a basket of folded clothing and bedding. She took out a pillowcase and untied a rubber band wrapped around the open end. Enrique hoped she would drop and forget the rubber band. Those were tasty.

"I have a surprise for you, hermanito! I found Suzy Snooze!"

The surprise was a ragged old plush bunny with button eyes.

Claire dangled the toy over him. Enrique reached up, since that was probably the expected response, and grabbed one of the ears when it flopped down. It was pleasantly soft. Claire dropped the toy into Enrique's arms.

He hugged it. That seemed to be what his Familiar's sister wanted, because she smiled and cooed.

It was nice. The bunny toy was soft, its surface indenting and molding where Enrique squeezed, but there was a … solidity to it, as well. A … firmness? There was more substance than just fluff. He could tell that what he was holding onto was something real.

"Oh, good." Ophelia paused, passing his door, and peeked in. "You decided to let your brother have that after all. That's very mature of you, Claire."

Claire scowled. Enrique was sure Ophelia must have noticed how the girl's shoulders tensed. But the woman said nothing, and continued on her way downstairs.

"I didn't take it back, Mom, it got lost."

Claire spoke quietly, through her teeth. Enrique got that. Sometimes a complaint or disagreement had to come out, or it would build up and explode (or you had the perfect line and couldn't let it go to waste), but it wasn't safe to openly complain or disagree.

Surface life so far was a lot softer than the Darklands, but authority was authority and defiance was defiance.

Claire curled her finger and stroked the curve of Enrique's cheek with her knuckle. Each of the Nuñezes did that semi-regularly. He was almost used to it. There was only a faint urge to tuck his chin and press his back to something, to guard his throat and scruff.

"You and Suzy take good care of each other, okay? I had to make a deal with a troll to get her back for you."

… What?

That was probably a metaphor, right?

Had to be a metaphor.

Once she left him unsupervised, he switched to his troll form. The bunny, Suzy Snooze, was still pleasantly soft-but-solid in his arms.

Humans put things in their soap to cover up the chemical smells with flower and fruit smells. Enrique wrinkled his nose over the mix and sniffed deeply.

Laundry soap; a lingering scent of Claire, and Javier and Ophelia, and his own scent while in human form – probably his Familiar's scent, he didn't remember seeing Suzy before; some other fleshbags, not strong enough to identify more specifically than by species; and there, faintly, faintly, the fading scents of goblins and trolls.

Maybe the goblins had stolen Suzy along with Enrique, to keep in the baby's cradle in the Darklands? But where did the trolls come in? How had Claire gotten Suzy back? Why would she take back the toy, but not her brother?

Was this a message? Did she know he was a Changeling? Was she telling him she was okay with that? Or was this an obscure warning? 'I know what you are and I will oust you from my home.'

What sort of deal had she made? And with whom? A Gumm-Gumm wouldn't negotiate with a human. Any other troll would probably just curl up and pretend to be a rock if Claire spotted them.

Maybe it was a message from some other Changeling. They'd sent it through his Familiar's sister instead of approaching him directly because … because … to remind him that they could reach his Familiar's family whenever they wanted, and warn him not to get complacent and attached.

But why Suzy? What kind of message was a cloth bunny supposed to be?

Was there a message hidden inside Suzy? He didn't really want to rip it up to check. Besides, if there was and it was written on paper, it would have gotten destroyed in the wash, and he'd feel anything more solid than that through the cloth.

Enrique shook his head and put his human face back on. This undercover gig was getting to him. He was overthinking things.

He just had to wait until the family was asleep, sneak into Claire's room, and see if she had anything else that smelled like trolls. Once he knew who she was talking to, that would tell him how much she probably knew and how worried he needed to be.

"~Otto! Otto!~"

The Changeling was collapsed on a bench in the park across the street from the museum. He'd lost Stricklander and the Trollhunter hours ago and been procrastinating on confessing his failure by breaking into Stricklander's apartment and office.

Each place had been deserted. The antramonstrum had been the worst of the security measures. Otto was nearly consumed before the Book of Ga-Huel fell open and revealed the incantation to force an antramonstrum back into its home crystal.

He was in his usual human form, his glasses off and his hat tilted to cover his eyes. He pushed the hat up and put his glasses back on reluctantly.

"~What is it, Fragwa?~"

"~You must come. This way. Quickly.~" The goblin beckoned and bounced in agitation, and scurried into a storm drain.

Otto sighed, forced himself back onto his feet, and leaned back to stretch. No humans were watching him. He compressed himself into the shape of a goblin.

"~What is it?~" he asked Fragwa again. The goblin shook their head, oddly solemn.

More goblins were ahead, gathering around a pile of dark, jagged stones.

Otto smelled trolls and Changelings. Stricklander, Nomura, Jim, some troll he didn't recognize … and, from the rubble …

"~No.~" He stopped. Fragwa tugged his arm, urging Otto forward. Otto swelled into a troll shape and fell to his knees. "Bular …"

The mighty Gumm-Gumm prince, defeated, destroyed

"~He shall be avenged,~" Fragwa vowed. The other goblins took up the chant. "Waka chaka! Waka chaka!"

"Nein," said Otto, more sharply. The goblins' bushy eyebrows went up. "~Yes, he will be avenged, but not today. There were many traitors here who killed him.~"

Three. He'd been so sure Nomura, at least, was loyal and uncompromised. How many Changelings had Stricklander and the Trollhunter turned against the Underlord already?

"~We must know how many more there are. And then … Bular shall be avenged.~"


The canal's cement walls were golden orange in the sunset. Barbara followed Jim and Zelda, both in their human forms. Zelda was walking them home because her car was still in their driveway. Walter left Trollmarket with them but went in a different direction.

None of them spoke. Barbara still wasn't sure what to say to the troll who had been pretending to be her child, or the other trolls pretending to be human.

She hadn't been sure what to say to the trolls who weren't pretending to be human, either, but at least them she could leave behind.

It was surreal, returning to her human home in her human neighbourhood in her human city. Far beneath tidy houses of wood and plaster and wiring, there were buildings of stone and reused rubbish. Under the smooth asphalt roads, with their painted lines and tall streetlights, there was a second city lit with neon and glowing crystals.

Humans were going about their Saturday evening – some kids chasing each other on their bikes, a teenager walking a dog, a lesbian couple bringing in groceries from their car – completely oblivious to the hundreds, maybe thousands of trolls going about their lives right below them.

But Barbara wasn't oblivious, anymore.

Zelda came inside when they got back to the house, rather than getting into her car and driving off. Barbara narrowed her eyes at the woman's back.

The remains of breakfast were on the table. There was a small plate of burned toast, covered in butter and jam to camouflage how burnt it was, a cold mug of coffee, two cold cups of tea, and the box of tea Zelda had brought and was retrieving.

Barbara was sure Jim had the same kind of tea. Still without a word, she went into the kitchen.

A cupboard was open. The tea box sat on the counter, also open.


"… Yes?" He sounded shy, nervous, like he was the one whose world had been upended.

"What is this?" She picked up the box and brought it out. Zelda winced.

"… Tea?" said Jim. He looked between the box in Barbara's hands and the box in Zelda's hands and must have known that wasn't going to be good enough. "It's a soothing, relaxing blend … for Changelings. For humans, it's a … very mild, completely safe …"

His eyes dropped to the floor. His voice dropped to a whisper. Barbara heard the last word as clearly as if he'd shouted it.


Zelda bolted. Barbara heard Zelda's hasty footsteps, heard the door open and shut, heard a car start up and drive off, heard Jim's carefully even breathing, heard her heartbeat pounding in her ears, and did not move.

Barbara had fond memories of this tea. Sometimes, on her nights off, Jim would brew it for her. It would be hot and warm, like a heavy blanket, and all her tensions would fade away, and … she would always sleep so well on those nights …

"You've been drugging me," she said softly. "Zelda drugged me. That's why I woke up in the library." It all built up and flooded out and now she was yelling. "You've been drugging me! For years! How could you possibly think that was okay?!"

"I didn't want you to find me gone in the middle of the night," Jim told his shoes. "You'd worry."

"And you decided the best solution was to drug me?! You steal my baby, invade my home, disregard my bodily autonomy – I, I can't do this." Barbara put the box of tea on the table. "Get out."

"… What?"

"I can't live with someone I can't trust. Take your – troll stuff – and just go."

He stared at her. His mouth opened and shut a few times. He didn't speak, didn't argue. Part of Barbara was grateful Jim was speechless. She didn't know what she would have done if he'd called her 'Mom' just then.

Jim disappeared upstairs. Barbara collapsed onto one of the dining room chairs and stared into the deceptively innocent-looking teacups.

They hadn't turned on the lights when they got home. It was dark when Jim came back down and flicked the light switch. He had on his backpack, and was carrying a duffle bag.

"I'll be at Toby's."

If he hadn't sounded so sad, it might have been any of the dozens of other times he'd gone around the cul-de-sac to spend the night at the Domzalskis'.

She almost objected. Sure, the Changelings thought their 'sedative' was harmless to humans, but what if it reacted to one of Nancy Domzalski's medications?

On the other hand, Nancy had severe cataracts and probably wouldn't notice if Jim transformed right in front of her, let alone if he replaced himself with a few pillows in a sleeping bag, and that assumed Nancy ('just call me Nana, dear,') even climbed the stairs to check on the boys while they were supposed to be sleeping.

For all Barbara knew, the reason Jim and Toby were nearly inseparable was that Toby was a Changeling himself.

She decided not to ask until she could decide whether she actually wanted to know. Just like how she wasn't asking if the reason James disappeared might be because he'd found out something he shouldn't.

"Here," Barbara said instead, holding out the box of tea (sedative) in one hand, and the Amulet in the other. She didn't want either of those left in her house. Jim took them carefully, so that his fingers didn't brush against hers, tucked them into the open top of the duffle bag, and zipped it shut.

They stared at each other for a moment, and then Jim left.

It wasn't until she heard the door lock behind him that Barbara realized she hadn't asked him to give back his house key.

Chapter Text

Jim sliced apples into neat segments and cored them. Nana rolled out a pie crust. She had taught him how to make those but still rarely let him do it when they were in her kitchen.

Red Delicious apples were aesthetically pleasing for their shape and their uniform, saturated colour, but they tasted absolutely terrible. Nana Domzalski persisted in using them in pies.

Jim suspected it was due to her failing vision. Toby wasn't picky enough about fruits to steer his grandmother towards a different type while helping her shop, so she just chose the reddest apples now that she couldn't see the labels clearly.

When had Jim last gone grocery shopping? Maybe a week ago? He had been planning to go shopping today, but then there had been the bridge and Bular and telling Barbara everything, and now it was dark and the shops were closed and he just hadn't had the time.

Well, at least that meant fewer ingredients would rot in the fridge because Barbara didn't know what to do with them …

"It's nice to have an extra pair of hands in the kitchen," said Nana. "If you like I can teach you how to make a lattice top once we put the apples in."

"I would like that." She had taught him before, but it had been a few years. When Jim made pies, he usually gave them a crumble topping, or a solid top with cookie cutter incisions.

He grabbed a bottle of lemon juice and sprinkled droplets over his apple segments, to keep them from turning brown. And hopefully add a hint of tartness to those flavourless chunks of so-called fruit, so the finished pie would taste like more than crust, cinnamon, and cloves.

Toby wasn't home from the dentist yet, which wasn't doing Jim's nerves any favours. Nana hadn't questioned why he'd come in with luggage – well, she had, but the question was, "oh, are you and Toby-Pie having a sleepover?" and it wasn't even really a lie to say "yes."

"You could take one of these back home with you tomorrow," Nana continued.

Jim capped the lemon juice with unnecessary viciousness. "That would be … great."

He could probably sneak it into the house while Barbara was out. If he cut out a slice and left it in the fridge, she might think it was leftovers and not question it.

Now there was a thought.

If Jim could make some meatloaves or casseroles and just leave them at home, Barbara might not remember they hadn't already been there. Between change blindness and how infrequently she looked through the fridge, when her food was usually on the table or a tray on her nightstand or in a labelled bag …

Of course, she might be suspicious of the quantities.

Nana was talking again, telling Jim once more about how her grandmother taught her a trick to keep dough from sticking to a rolling pin.

"Sprinkle flour over your dough and don't push down, that's very important. Just let the weight of the pin do the work. It's the same for pie crust as it is for cookies. Of course you'll want another bowl to put the scraps in once you've cut the cookies out. Extra flour changes the texture. Not much, but you shouldn't mix it right back into your other dough. Save it up for later batches."

"I'm home!" Toby called. "These Jimbo's bags? You moving in, bud?" Jim had left his duffle and backpack in the living room.

"Toby-Pie!" said Nana delightedly when he entered the kitchen. A cat was twisting around his ankles in hopes the newest human to arrive wouldn't know the cats had already been fed that evening. "Jimmy's here for your sleepover. He's just helping me with the pies."

"… Right," said Toby. "Our sleepover."

"Nana's going to teach me how to make a lattice pie crust," Jim added.

"Dude, did you bring your whole room with you?"

Toby had insisted on being a 'good host' and helping Jim bring his bags upstairs. He had not expected how heavy Jim had managed to make his backpack. Toby could barely lift it. All that troll training must've given Jim superhuman strength.

"Practically." Jim adjusted the strap of his duffle bag again. "Want to switch?"

The duffle was, if possible, heavier. Toby had no idea how the straps weren't tearing off the bag. That was a feat of engineering, right there.

Toby had to surrender his lofty ideals of hospitality and allow Jim to carry his own luggage.

"Okay, seriously, how are you still standing?" he demanded once Jim made it to Toby's room and put his stuff down. "You're not an ant, Jim; you can't carry more than your own bodyweight. Is this a Trollhunter thing?"

Jim sat on Toby's bed and pulled the blanket around himself like a cape.

"Mom found out."

"… Found out … what?"

"That I'm the Trollhunter. She … she didn't take it well."

Toby could see that. Jim had been lying and sneaking around for months now, coming back hurt, and, well, Toby tried not to think about the whole 'until death' part but he could definitely get why Dr L might not approve of her son's 'after-school job'.

Chompsky came out of the dollhouse, scaled the bedside, and patted Jim's knee. Toby sat down on Jim's other side and rubbed his back through the blanket.

"She told me to take my troll stuff and get out."

Toby hugged Jim. Jim hugged him back as best he could without giving up the blanket that hampered his arms.

"I think she just needs time and space," said Jim, his voice muffled in Toby's shoulder. "I told her I'd be here. So she knows where to find me and won't worry I'm, you know, in trouble somewhere, once she calms down."

Toby had read comics where parents kicked their teenagers out for being secret superheroes, but he'd expected better of Dr Lake.

"Say the word and her car is egged."

"What?" Jim laughed. "No!"

"Open offer."

It took only a day for opportunity to knock on Enrique's door. That was the expression, right? Whatever. The point was his chance had come.

Javier decided Ophelia had been working too hard lately and that he should take her out for a romantic evening. Claire was drafted to babysit. After a masterfully executed complaint about giving up the last part of her weekend on zero notice – seriously, the Changeling was impressed – she was allowed to invite her friends over.

Enrique was, so far as the humans knew, taking well to sleep training. He needed to hold off another week or two to make it believable, but once they believed he consistently slept through the night, it would be a lot easier to sneak around.

Nice of the fleshbags to discuss 'expected developmental milestones' where a Changeling could hear, wasn't it?

Once Darci and Mary showed up – nice enough as fleshbags went, quick to baby-talk at him but not too in-his-face about it – Claire was good and distracted. She brought them up to see him, and had checked on him once since then, and he'd faked being mostly asleep for the last one.

He could hear a movie playing and the girls talking. The undertone of static from the TV was different than the one from the radio. As long as Claire didn't hear him over all of that, Enrique should be able to search freely.

He'd bartered an old and only slightly gnawed tape player from the goblins to record some breathing sounds for the baby monitor. Enrique carefully tucked in Suzy Snooze, making a baby-sized lump under the blankets in case anyone peeked in. They wouldn't dare actually come inside, or they might 'wake the baby'.

Enrique held his breath and pressed play. He'd set it up under his crib two days ago and recorded himself sleeping, in case he snored or something, so it'd sound extra natural, and to fill up the whole tape so it wouldn't suddenly blare out loud music or something.

(Jim had suggested the setup and been very careful to warn him about filling the whole tape. Jim had luckily just returned when the music started and been able to turn it off quickly, so his Familiar's parents had blamed a passing motorist with a loud radio.)

As light-footed as a being of living stone could be, Enrique left his room and went to Claire's.

He didn't have a ton of experience with human houses, so he couldn't tell at a glance if anything was odd about Claire's room. But he wasn't here to look. Suzy Snooze hadn't looked suspicious either.

Enrique closed his eyes and sniffed.

It smelled like Claire, of course. A bit like the rest of her family, a bit like her friends, but mostly like Claire.

Enrique sniffed harder. Just a hint, come on, give him somewhere to start searching …

The laundry basket was an odd mix of scents. On the one hand, the socks in particular smelled like food. On the other hand, they smelled like Claire, and Claire was … Not Food.

He would, ah, not be including that last statement in any kind of official report, if he found anything in here that warranted making any kind of official report.

Come on, he hadn't imagined troll smell on Suzy. Where was Claire hiding her secrets?

He stuck his head under the bed and sneezed. He caught a dust bunny and ate it. Linty.

He kept sniffing, trying to let the human scents fade into the background and catch … yes, there was something. Something … in the laundry? The scents were faded and mixed.

Her jacket.

Claire had worn that jacket while around trolls.

The light snapped on. Enrique didn't even have time to elaborately curse – just for a quick gasp before the screaming started.

Claire had been having a nice evening.

Darci and Mary had been debating which movie to watch next when Claire suggested doing manicures during the movies. She'd gone upstairs for her nail polish and found – a goblin or something sniffing around in her bedroom.

Of course she screamed.

The monster made a break for the window. Claire got ahead of it and threw it onto her bed and wrapped it up in the sheet, like they did for the cat when it was time to go to the vet. Mary and Darci came running and found Claire pinning down the thrashing … whatever it was.

"Cat carrier," Claire said shrilly, "in the basement. Get it."

Darci and Mary looked unsurely at each other, but Darci helped Claire hold the monster down while Mary went to get the cat carrier.

"I came in and there was this – goblin or gremlin or something," Claire explained. "If we can lock it up, we can take it to Trollmarket, and Blinky can tell us what it is and why it was in my room."

The thing went still for a moment, then made a break for it. Darci and Claire both yelped and held it back.

When Mary came back, Claire stuffed the sheet in with the monster so it couldn't claw or bite them. Darci filled Mary in as best she could while Claire looked around. Nothing was missing. It hadn't had time to steal, if that was why it came in.

Her windows were latched. That was … odd. Claire usually left them that way, but if it came in through the window, why would it close them? Had it gotten in some other –?

"Uh, Claire?" said Mary.


"You screamed pretty loud … so … shouldn't Enrique be crying?"

Going to check on her brother was like a scene from a horror movie.

The three girls ran to the nursery, Claire carrying the caged creature, and stopped in the door. The room looked peaceful and undisturbed.

Mary reached in and switched the light on. Nothing appeared different. Then Darci, shaking, pointed at the old-fashioned tape player by the baby monitor, playing peaceful breathing sounds.

Claire approached the crib, flipped back the blanket, and found Suzy Snooze alone.

She dropped the monster's cage. The creature made a noise like, "oy!" Claire barely heard it. There was a roaring in her ears. She'd read that phrase but didn't realize it described a real sensation. Her eyes were hot and stinging and her vision went wavery. She clutched tight to the side rail of the crib.

Enrique was gone. She was supposed to be watching him and he was gone. It was her fault, all her fault. She had lost her brother. She had let something take him.

She picked up the creature's cage again and shook it.

"What did you do to my brother?!"

Okay. This was … not ideal.

But she didn't seem to have worked out he was a Changeling yet, so if Enrique could get away before they got to Trollmarket and get out of sight, he could change back and let Claire find him, and then his cover wouldn't be completely blown.

Chapter Text

"Oh! I almost forgot to tell you!"

Toby paused their video game and started rooting under his bed.

"This'll cheer you up. Remember that Heartstone piece you gave me?"

He pulled out a shoebox.

"I've been keeping it in the dark, mostly. Dunno if sunlight would actually hurt it, but quartzes lose some of their colour if you leave 'em in the sun and, considering what sunlight can do to trolls, I didn't want to take the chance. Figured a magic troll-rock would be even more sensitive."

Toby opened the box. Jim blinked twice at the orange glow, brighter than he expected it to be, before realizing the box was lined with foil. The Heartstone sat in a little pile of dirt.

"Obviously I can't recreate the pressure down in Trollmarket, but I filled a baggie with dirt down there after you gave me the seed crystal so I could, you know, at least copy the local mineral composition? And I've been measuring all its planes," pointing to a notebook wedged between the foil and the box wall, "and it's nearly a whole millimeter longer. That's, like, insanely fast when it's not salt or sugar grown on pipe cleaners."

"Tobes, that's … this is amazing."

"I mean, it could also be growing faster because it was recently cut," Toby acknowledged, "like Nana's friends' flower cuttings. Or like how martial artists break bones on purpose so they heal stronger."

"So, I get the box as protection from the sun, and making sure the dirt doesn't just get everywhere, but what's the foil for?"

"If the glow is magical, I thought maybe reflecting it back on itself could make a feedback loop and it'd get stronger."

"I am Gun Robot," Jim's phone began chanting. "I am Gun Robot." Toby's phone started buzzing and chanting as well.

"Hi, Mary?" said Jim.

"Hey, Darci, what's up?" said Toby.

"We need into Trollmarket," said Mary briskly. "Get Toby, Darci's filling him in, and meet us in the canals."

"Jim's right here, actually –" said Toby in the background.

"Whoa, wait, what happened?" asked Jim.

"Claire found a goblin in her room and her brother's missing and Blinky doesn't have a phone. You know, we should really fix that."

Jim had gone cold. He listened with half an ear as Mary talked about burner phones and emergency contact lines. Had Otto gone after Enrique? To attack him on suspicion of treason, with three confirmed traitors involved in his planting? Or to recruit the Changelings' newest surface agent before anyone else could get to him?

"Jim? You still there?"

"What've you done with the goblin? They're vengeful. Hurt one and you'll have the whole swarm after you."

"It's fine. Claire locked it in a cat carrier. We're bringing it with us."


Toby looked over at Jim in askance.

"We probably shouldn't bring a goblin into Trollmarket. You guys are at Claire's house, right? Her parents are out?" If Claire had been the one to notice Enrique was missing, that meant she was probably babysitting.


"Tobes and I'll meet you there. We can sneak back out if her parents get home, and then they won't freak out coming home to find both their kids missing."

Toby closed the Heartstone box and slid it back under his bed. "We'll be there soon, Darce."

Claire was pacing on the porch when Toby and Jim got to her house. She practically dragged Jim inside. Toby took care of locking both their bikes to the porch before following them.

The cat carrier was on a table in the living room. Darci and Mary were on the couch, Darci holding a baseball bat. Claire was still pacing, recapping how she'd found the thing in her room (Toby shuddered) and her brother's crib empty.

"But why was the goblin alone?" Jim wondered out loud. "Goblins are pack creatures. They should've called for help by now."

"I don't care!" Claire snapped. "Just armour up and make it tell us where Enrique is!"

Jim got out his amulet. It ticked, the hands shifting to a new position – not all of them going clockwise – and the Trollhunter's armour appeared in a flash of light.

"I'll need to open the cat carrier."

"Better you than me, buddy," said Toby, picturing sharp teeth and looking at Jim's armoured hands.

Jim unlatched the cage, pulled out the squirming towel-shrouded beast, held it securely under one arm, and uncovered its face. Its eyes and Jim's bugged out in surprise at the sight of each other.

"Ssshh," Jim soothed. "It's okay, little guy." He adjusted his grip on the creature to hold it more like a baby. "Claire, this isn't a goblin; this is a baby troll. I've seen a few like him down in the market. He probably got curious about the surface, wandered off, and followed your scent."

Jim started backing towards the door.

"Here's the plan. I'll run this little guy back to Trollmarket – his family's probably freaking out – and you four stay here and keep looking for Enrique. I'll bring Blinky and AAARRRGGHH back with me to help search."

"… You're lying," Toby realized.


That was said by Jim, Claire, Darci, Mary, and possibly the 'baby troll', but it was hard to tell under so many other voices.

"I – I don't know about what, but you lied, just now. That's exactly the kind of slightly-too-perfect excuse you use for cover stories."

No witnesses, no space for questions, and getting potential corroborators alone so they could be filled in before being questioned.

"Busted," said the 'baby troll'. Toby hadn't imagined that Cockney accent.

Jim hmphed. "Well, now we are. I can't believe that was my tell. I can't believe someone figured out that was my tell."

"How'd you end up the Trollhunter? Always thought that gig went to, you know, the trolliest troll."

"Everyone did. I was a surprise."

Claire picked up the nearest thing – a pillow – and held it up threateningly.

"What's going on?"

Darci got off the couch and gently swapped Claire's pillow for her bat.

Jim turned blue, and sprouted tusks and a tail. The metal horns on his helmet turned into real horns. Holes appeared on the sides of the helmet to let out his ears, which grew long and twitchy.

He let go of the 'baby', which landed on all fours and would've bolted if Mary hadn't pounced and caught him in the towel again.

"I'm a Changeling. I've been living as James Lake Junior for sixteen years." Jim summoned his sword, spat on the blade, and turned it around. "As you can see, Jay-Jay is perfectly fine. Also, that's what goblins actually look like. Note the mutton chops."

"So, if this isn't a goblin –" Mary stuffed the towel into the cat carrier again, "what are you?"

"I'm a Changeling, too – wuzznit obvious?"

"He's … Enrique."

Claire dropped the baseball bat.

"No. That is not Enrique. You – you kidnapped my brother?"

"Or, had him sent into sanctuary, away from an increasingly dangerous world," Jim offered. He made his sword disappear.

"Oh, god." Claire looked like she was about to faint, or throw up. "That's why you offered to babysit, isn't it? So you could switch Enrique for – this thing!"

"Naw, that was after the swap," the green Changeling said. The cat carrier stood on its end, like a bucket, with the door open. He'd wrestled his way out of the towel enough to stick his head and one arm out.

"I just wanted to check how he was settling in –"

"Settling in? You invited a monster to replace my baby brother and wanted to know how well he was settling in!"

"He's not a monster!" Jim insisted. "Getting out of the Darklands is a rough transition. It's harder for Changelings on our own. I didn't want him to feel isolated."

Claire punched Jim. Toby winced. It probably hurt her hand more than Jim's face. More weakly, tears in her eyes, she punched him over and over in the chest.

"You took my brother from me. Now he's all alone in the Darklands …"

"He's got the goblins. They'll tend to Human Enrique's every need. The Nursery is one of the safest places in either of our worlds. If any harm came to Human Enrique, Changeling Enrique wouldn't be able to transform anymore."

"How can I possibly believe you when you've lied to me all this time?"

"Hey, I never said Enrique wasn't a Changeling. The only stuff I've lied to you about either wasn't your business or would've put other people in danger."

She hit him in the face again. He grabbed her fist.

"I get that you're upset, and that's your right, but I'm not just going to stand here and let you keep hitting me."

He let her go. Claire picked up her bat again, and pointed it in the smaller Changeling's face.

"Bring. Enrique. Back! Right. Now."

The green Changeling bit the end of the bat. He didn't bite it off entirely, just held onto it with his shark-like triangle teeth. It looked like Claire was playing tug-of-war with a particularly ugly dog.

Jim sighed heavily.

"It doesn't work that way. The Nursery's not easily accessible, and he's been there for months, not aging. Even if we could bring him back tonight, he'd look like he's regressed in development. Any pediatrician would notice, and then your parents would get upset, and if you tried to prove to them what happened, that would just put you in danger."

"Bular'd love an excuse to eat a whole fleshbag family," Enrique's replacement agreed, without letting go of the bat.

"Actually, Bular died yesterday, but there're still other Changelings who'd take action if they saw our secret about to be exposed."

"He's dead?!"

"Wasn't Bular one of the scary-evil trolls Blinky warned us about?" said Darci. "The gummy guys?"

"Gumm-Gumms. Yes, officially, most Changelings work for them. I failed an assignment, he decided I was a traitor, and I had to kill him in self-defence."

"… Is that how your mom found out?" asked Toby, before it occurred to him that Jim might not want to talk about that particular detail.

Then he decided it didn't matter. Toby didn't think this was hitting him as personally as Claire – if he had the timing right, then this Jim was the only version of Jim Toby had ever known – but it still hurt, finding out that the guy he'd considered his best friend had been keeping so many secrets from him. As long as Jim was sharing answers, Toby was going to keep asking questions.

"Wait, does she know about the Changeling thing, or just about the Trollhunter thing?"

"Both. And, yeah. Draal brought her to Trollmarket to keep her safe and I had to tell her everything."

"The Boss is gonna have your hide," said the green Changeling. Jim made a non-committal noise and didn't look at anyone. Claire made an angry noise, tugged the bat out of the Changeling's mouth – leaving ugly scars on the tip – and thunked her weapon against the armrest of the couch.

"You can't just replace my brother," she snapped. "You are not Enrique."

"You don't exactly get a say in this, Big Eyes," Not Enrique shot back. He turned into a baby – they all jumped – and wailed, before turning back into a troll. "What exactly do you think's gonna happen if the parents get back to find something's happened to their ángelito precioso?"

Jim covered his eyes and groaned. "Don't antagonize her."

"And you!" Claire rounded on Jim. "When exactly were you planning on telling me about this?"

"… Ideally never?"

"Yeah, that's what I thought you'd say. No wonder you kept telling me not to practice trollish at home! I can't believe I ever trusted you! I can't believe I ever liked you!"

"Uh, Claire?" said Mary. "This is probably super-cathartic and I hate to interrupt, but your parents are supposed to get back in like, two minutes," waving her phone, "so maybe for now we should roll with the fake-baby thing and Jimmy-Jam and TP should am-scray."

Toby never should have let them find out that Nana called him Toby-Pie.

Claire pointed her finger half an inch from Jim's nose, making him go cross-eyed. "This isn't over."

Jim looked at the Changeling. The other Changeling, Toby mentally corrected. Jim said something another language, which didn't quite sound like trollish. Not Enrique shook his head and waved Jim off. Jim said something else, which got a snort and a short, barked answer.

"So what were you and Not Enrique saying at the end there?" Toby asked on the bike ride back to his house.

"I asked if he felt safe being left alone with Claire or if I should sneak back over and lurk on the roof. He doesn't think she has the nerve to actually go through with hurting him or telling her parents. Then he promised to steal her phone and call me if anything did happen."

"What language was it?"

"Eh … It's what we spoke back in the Darklands. Some trollish, some goblin, handful of human words, plus a few terms Changelings invented ourselves. No one exactly taught us to talk, so we had to pick it up by trial and error."

That raised a lot of questions and alarms in Toby's mind that he couldn't quite find the words for.

"All things considered, I think that actually went really well," said Jim. "Reactions have been a lot less murderous than I've been trained to expect."

Many questions and alarms.

"Did you ever plan to tell me?"

"No. I mean, I thought about it, especially after Draal found out and made me tell Blinky and AAARRRGGHH, but I was scared you might hate me, or that I'd get you killed for knowing things you weren't supposed to."

Jim laughed the kind of laugh that came from stress, not humour.

"I am the worst Changeling ever. A decade and a half without a slipup, and then nine people find me out. Or a few dozen, if you count the Ghost Trollhunters, but considering I'm technically supposed to kill anyone who finds out I don't know how it counts when somebody finds out who's already dead."

"The Ghost Trollhunters know?"

"Well, it's hard to keep secrets from people who could be watching you at any time through a magic artifact you literally can't get rid of. I'm almost glad you know now. A bit less lying, a bit less sneaking around. Still some, because I really should've noticed you following me to the market that time and I can't afford to get complacent like that. But –"

Toby looked at Jim in concern when Jim cut himself off.

"I'm being selfish. How are you feeling about all this?"

"Mostly confused," Toby admitted. "I … I understood, kind of, when I found out about trolls and that you hadn't told me. The whole 'sworn to secrecy' thing. But once I knew that … then you knew I'd keep secrets for you. Even something as big as that. So, it hurts that I thought you'd told me everything, and then found out you didn't."

They didn't say anything for a block and a half.

"You can still stay with me and Nana, though. Until Dr L's ready to forgive you for the whole 'stealing and replacing her baby' thing." That would probably take a while. "Hey, does this mean we can talk to Dr L about troll stuff?"

"Better if you don't. She doesn't know there are actual human teenagers involved. Tell you what – you four talk it over, and once you're all ready to tell your families, then we go to Mom."

Toby nodded. As a Responsible Adult, she'd probably feel obligated to tell their families.

"Any other secrets I should know about?"

"… I know who a few other Changelings are in their human identities. But I can't tell you who or confirm if you guess, because those aren't actually my secrets to share."

"Fair enough."

Once they got home, Toby texted Darci and Mary with the new information Jim had shared. He left it to them to update Claire. They'd known her longer. They'd have a better idea of what and how to tell her while she was upset.

Chapter Text

Only about two thirds of the Janus Order's Acadia branch made it to the meeting Stricklander called. His message said that, although the matter was urgent, they should prioritize maintaining their human covers. If slipping out to the meeting would draw undue attention, they were to wait and receive the briefing through other channels.

It was still more agents than they usually had on the base at any one time.

They met in the orientation room. The Changelings picked out seats, wondering in whispers what was so important, some of them grumbling about late-night meetings when they had to get up early the next morning. It would be Monday in half an hour.

Instead of a video, Stricklander stood before them in person. He wasn't wearing a mask. He rarely did. Masks were encouraged but not technically obligatory. Everyone already knew who he was.

"It's been an eventful weekend. Early on Saturday, Killahead Bridge was rebuilt. Bular attempted to retrieve the Amulet of Daylight to reopen the portal and free Gunmar's forces from the Darklands."

There were gasps and hisses of shock. They – the Janus Order should've been told about Killahead's completion in advance, shouldn't they? There were supposed to be announcements. There was supposed to be a warning. Some Changelings had humans they wanted to stash out of the way for the initial invasion. This sounded like they might have to do a rush job.

"Unfortunately, Bular's impatience proved his undoing. He is dead, presumably slain by the Trollhunter."

Stricklander whipped a tarp off a mound of rubble on a wide wooden dolly beside him.

"This is what could be gathered of his remains. He was in a sewer maintenance tunnel near the museum. The museum itself has been raided. Killahead Bridge is lost to us."

That was an unusually fatalistic attitude for Stricklander to take. This must have truly devastated him.

"Do we –?" That was Bernie Sturges, local head of the Alchemy, Chemistry, and Toxicology Department. Bernie gulped and tried again. "Do we know who the current Trollhunter is?"

"That knowledge died with Bular," said Stricklander solemnly. "The goblins who witnessed the battle were not able to report anything useful to that end. We have old intelligence that Kanjigar's son, Draal," there was a beat as several people looked at Nomura, perched perfectly still in the second row, "expected to succeed his father as Trollhunter, but we are currently unable to confirm whether this held true."

Near the back of the audience, Otto suppressed a growl. He could not give in to his own feelings. He had to read the room around him.

Otto could accuse Jim Lake, here and now; Lake who hadn't shown, Lake who was conveniently not on hand to be exposed carrying the Amulet; and Otto would be dismissed as irrational with grief.

Otto could insist on publicly questioning the goblins on what they heard and smelled and saw; the goblins whose idea of important information only occasionally overlapped with anyone else's, the goblins who could barely tell Otto what happened when he already knew most of it, the surface goblins who spoke a different dialect than the Darklands goblins and so most Changelings could barely understand them; and all he was likely to get coherently out of them was their vow to avenge Bular.

Knowledge of the Trollhunter's identity died with Bular. That message was clear. If Otto didn't tread carefully, Stricklander would arrange for him to be 'tragically slain by the Trollhunter' as well.

Arcadia Oaks was clearly Stricklander's territory. None of the other Changelings were questioning his version of events – or, if they were, they had the sense to keep those questions inside their heads.

This was where the Janus Order's cultish nature worked against itself. They were trained to be suspicious of everyone except for their superiors.

"In light of these events," Stricklander continued, "every Changeling with nonessential duties on this base is to go into deep cover. Immerse yourselves in your human lives. We don't know if the Trollhunter knows about us or if they think Bular was operating alone. I don't want any Changeling to be caught and killed, and I especially don't want an enemy to be led right to our base."

He allowed himself an artfully strained chuckle. Otto almost couldn't tell that the strain was the faked part.

"I would have emailed this information rather than calling you all here, if I felt I could trust the encryptions. Having also lost our best means to dispose of bodies, this would also be the worst possible time to draw attention from human espionage groups."

Otto followed Bernie to the wing affectionately dubbed 'the Potions Lab' after they were dismissed.

"Odd, isn't it," Otto commented, "that Stricklander gathered the body himself."

"Maybe they were close," said Bernie noncommittally, rather than suggesting – to Otto, of all Changelings, widely known as the goblins' favourite – that goblins might have done the work. "Neither of them would have advertised that."

Wrong. Stricklander would have lorded that over everyone if it were true. Bular would have let him get away with it, if it were true.

Bernie puttered around their lab, stabilizing and recording the experiments in progress. Otto looked but did not touch. He had no desire to lose a hand.

Even if the brews wouldn't do that, Bernie well might. They had asked once – well, she had, the gender-fluid Changeling was going by 'Bernadette' at the time – she had asked whether a polymorph could regenerate severed limbs. So far as Otto knew, this was not the case, but he had no interest in testing it personally "to create a more scientifically viable sample size".

Then there was the time Bernard had been pestering Otto for tissue samples to see if he could induce shapeshifting by prodding the tissue with a gaggletack before the cells died.

"It works on blood and cheek scrapings, but not hair or nails, probably because those parts are technically dead, even when the hair's plucked out with the follicle, but that's all with regular Changelings, see, and polymorphism introduces huge variables and I want to see what happens."

Changelings didn't know enough about their own anatomy for Bernie to feel confident performing surgery to take samples from internal organs, so at least Otto hadn't had to fend off requests of that nature.

Otto would have preferred to approach someone else first, but Bernie had been the only one to ask any questions when Stricklander told them Bular was dead, which suggested they might also be the most open to questioning their leader.

"I will be questioning the goblins on what they saw," said Otto, realizing he was being ignored.

"We don't have any truth potions or memory aids on site," said Bernie. "Never did confirm the truth potion was even real. It might just lower inhibitions and reduce capacity for complex thought. Which is the last thing a goblin swarm needs." They cleared their throat. "They're impulsive."

"Bular has defeated many Trollhunters. I wonder if the new one thought to poison their weapon. If so, I will need your help identifying the toxin."

"… Can you get me access to his remains? If we're not making him into Grave Sand, I won't have an excuse to examine him. We should rope Stephan in. I mean, crematoriums don't do autopsies, but he works with morticians."

Otto didn't know who Stephan was, but nodded anyway. His network was beginning.

Barbara woke up with her glasses askew. She must have forgotten to take them off before bed. She sat up and removed them, wiping the smudges with a handful of her bedsheet. She looked reflexively towards her bedside table.

No breakfast.

Right. Jim wasn't home.

She dressed and went downstairs. Even she couldn't ruin a bowl of cereal.

Unless she let the milk spoil, she realized, when her first bite was sour. She'd have to (tell Jim to) go grocery shopping.

There was also an apple pie in the fridge. It wasn't the most nutritious choice, but a slice of pie was healthier than skipping breakfast entirely.

It was easier at work. Barbara was good at compartmentalizing (most of the time) and work meant she didn't have to think about – home. (Jim.) (Jay-Jay.) (How she hadn't brought a lunch and by the end of the day was running on bad coffee and a bag of vending machine chips.)

She would adjust. She would. It was just hard right now because it was a fresh change.

Jim skipped lunch.

"Claire doesn't want to see me right now," he told Toby. "I'm going to hide out in Mr Strickler's office."

"He won't wonder about that?"

"I … I need to talk to him about some stuff. I …" Jim looked around and leaned in closer to Toby and dropped his voice, not quite to a whisper. "I know I'm hundreds of years older than her, but I do think of Mom as … well, my mom. Mr S is a teacher, so he knows how to talk to kids who're fighting with their parents. Nana's great and all but I, I need to, to talk to a grow-up human who's more outside the situation."

"Didn't you say he also has a crush on Dr L?"

Jim's eyes widened and his breathing got shallower. If they weren't in public Toby might have hugged him – Jim liked an anchor when he got upset. He settled for patting Jim's shoulder.

"Well, all the more reason to tell him, right? So he knows now's not a good time to talk to her."

He was trying to cover something up again. Toby gritted his teeth and let Jim bail on him.

"Jim's not coming," he told Darci and Claire and Mary. "He's hiding in Strickler's office. I'm like, ninety percent sure Strickler's a Changeling, but Jim says he can't tell me who is or isn't."

Mary nodded and got up. "I'll go snoop."


"I got this."

"She's good," Darci agreed, waving goodbye.

Claire took Mary's sandwich and started cutting the quarters into narrow, bite-sized strips. Toby recognized that trick – the 'sneak food into class' sandwich. Pop one in when the teacher isn't looking, and push it into your cheek like a hamster if you got called on before swallowing.

"Not Enrique's a jerk," said Claire, softly and viciously. "He was crying, like, all night, and when Mom had me take a turn checking on him, he asked me to go out and get him a burger! I locked my door and windows before bed. I'm thinking about getting one of those knobs where the lock has an actual key so I can be sure he stays out of my room when I'm not home. This morning he tried to butter me up, offering to help me learn trollish, and I wrote down what he said to double-check with Blinky but I'm positive it's all swears. Some of it sounds familiar from when random trolls start yelling at each other."

"That actually sounds kind of useful," said Toby.

"Sure, if your teacher's not insisting, 'this is how you say hello and this is how you say I'm sorry and this is how you say please don't kill me'."

Mary leaned against the bank of lockers by Strickler's office door. She totally wasn't eavesdropping. She had her phone out and was sweeping through her old photos to decide if any should be deleted. It wasn't anyone's fault if she just happened to overhear what was said on the other side of the door.

The school walls weren't thick enough for soundproofing. She strained her ears anyway.

"Otto will probably make trouble. I've intimidated him enough he shouldn't openly expose you as long as he doesn't actually have you on hand as evidence, but I'm sure he's plotting against us."

"What if … I know you won't like this, but what if we snuck a Heartstone piece into his office?"

"You believe Otto can be bribed." Mr S sounded amused. He was probably twirling his pen.

"I mean more that it, ah, wouldn't hurt to plant some evidence implicating he might've really been in cahoots with us the whole time."

"… That point is worth considering. Do you think you can get another piece?"

"Probably," said Jim decisively.

"… You took more than one."

"… Yes, sir."

"Toby's right. Stickler's a Changeling, and I think he might be Jim's boss. They were also talking about somebody named 'Otto' who might make trouble."

"Should we tell …" Darci wracked her brains. Which of the trolls wouldn't get Jim in trouble? "Blinky, maybe?"

Mary, rushing through her late lunch, only shrugged.

"Did he say anything about Enrique?" asked Claire.

"No. But they might've before I got there."

"Or Jim didn't mention him because he didn't want Not Enrique to get in trouble," Toby suggested. He finished off his slice of apple pie. "Or to protect us. He said last night … well, you guys remember."

Toby had texted them about how Jim was supposed to kill anyone who learned his secret. Darci couldn't believe Toby could hear something like that and still chow down on food he knew Jim had made. Killing someone in the middle of a high school cafeteria wasn't exactly subtle, but there were time-delayed poisons and poisons that looked like normal food poisoning or allergic reactions, right?

"So …" Darci hated being the one to say it, but they couldn't save Enrique if they were dead. "Maybe we shouldn't tell anyone in Trollmarket about Not Enrique yet."

Claire looked like she was about to explode.

"The way Blinky talked about it when they thought we might be Changelings," said Darci, "it sounds like they … aren't exactly popular. Jim's their magically destined hero and he can't even be publically found a Changeling."

There were some metaphors in that situation that Darci did not like.

"I feel like we should at least talk to Jim, and maybe get Not Enrique more on our side, before talking to Blinky and AAARRRGGHH about this."

Barbara came home to a dark, empty house. She saw a light on in Toby's window across the street.

As she locked the door, she wondered at herself for not having the locks changed. She'd done that after James had left, in a fit of temper, and had only regretted it a few times before she no longer wanted him to come back.

Jim was right across the street. He had his key. He could come home at any time.

Maybe it was some kind of subconscious test of whether he'd actually respect her boundaries? Barbara didn't think she was that devious.

There was a chain on the door. She slid that into place.

Barbara curled up on the couch and hugged a pillow. She'd have to do something about dinner eventually.

Without distraction, she couldn't get the image out of her mind of Jay-Jay in that mirror, with the goblin fussing over him.

She cuddled the pillow more like a baby. She'd ended up in the neonatal ward today – a pregnant woman in a side-on car collision delivered early, thankfully mother and child and the other driver would all live and there had been no other passengers to worry about – and realized how out of practice she actually was with newborns.

If she got Jay-Jay back, what would she do? A blood test should prove he was hers, but how was she going to explain a baby? Would she have to leave town for a year and come back with a child, or fake a pregnancy and a delayed birth to cover why he was three months old already?

If she were a man it would be a little easier to cover up; just say he was conceived during a brief relationship and the mother had surrendered custody and didn't want to be involved.

Barbara could pretend she'd found Jay-Jay abandoned and wanted to keep him, if not for potential blood tests seeking his 'real family' that would expose her as a liar, and the bureaucratic hoops of fostering and adoption. That plan might've been feasible a hundred years ago, but not in the modern world.

She hadn't planned on having another child. She'd barely been around for Jim's childhood, and Jim, Jim was secretly an adult the whole time, and not even human with a human's social needs – how could she raise an actual human baby all by herself?

On some level, Barbara was grateful Jim had nicknamed Jay-Jay. It made it easier to mentally distinguish between them.

Even if she did keep catching herself thinking of both of them as her sons.

It had only been a few days, and Stephan Jorgensen-Warner already felt superfluous in Arcadia now that Bular was gone.

His human cover worked in a crematorium. His main duty to the Janus Order was sneaking bodies out before they were to be burned – cool and stiff, filled with formaldehyde, but still human flesh – so Bular's cravings wouldn't drive him to hunt constantly and draw attention.

Bular had still hunted and still drawn attention. Nomura had complained extensively about the museum guards getting eaten. But Stephan's efforts curbed it to within a manageable level. Stricklander always said so.

Then Otto Scaarbach the Polymorph and Bernie Sturges the Alchemist recruited Stephan, specifically Stephan, for a project, and for a moment he felt purposeful again.

Until he learned what they wanted him to do.

"I can't autopsy a rock."

He spoke with a level of disrespect he would never have dared in Bular's presence if Bular could hear him. He wasn't worried. Even if Bular was a ghost, he'd be spending his afterlife finally seeing his father again, not checking up on his own corpse.

"First, I don't know how to do autopsies. My medical training is basic first aid, how to set a bone, and what to do for burns. Second, he's in pieces. We'd have to rebuild him to get any idea of what the kill strike might have been. And that's assuming it was something that leaves a mark."

He'd seen trolls die in the sun before. It always made him grateful to be a Changeling.

"You can help us rebuild him," said Bernard. He was Bernard today.

Bernie introduced themselves to everyone they spoke to every day so others would know how to refer to them. At least around the base. Changelings switched physical species regularly; changing gender identity wasn't a big deal for most of them. The ones who did have a problem, Bernie either beat in the sparring ring or non-fatally poisoned after the first offense. There were not many second offenders.

"He's. A. Pile. Of. Rocks," said Stephan, gesturing at what had been the last Gumm-Gumm to roam the surface. "I wouldn't know what's what unless we start from the outside and work in, and even then, who knows."

"Otto can model."

"Wait, what?"

"And if he ever collapses, we'll have to start all over again, unless you plan to explain to the Underlord why you superglued his son's remains together."

"So, just to be absolutely sure I understand this, let's go over it again. You snuck into your house … to do chores."


"… Nope. Still not getting it."

"You literally just described what I did."

"Because it's ridiculous, Jim! It's, like, reverse hooliganry! You snuck into your house to do chores."

"I won't get caught."

"That is so not the main point of concern."

"Look, after James Senior left us," Toby had noticed Jim never referred to the man as his father, even before Toby knew Jim was, arguably, adopted, "Mom and I promised to take care of each other. She's all alone now and I worry."

Jim patted Toby's shoulder and forced a grin.

"It's okay, it's all subtle stuff. Replacing old bulbs, checking in with Draal, putting leftovers in the fridge, sweeping, dusting –"

"You're leaving food? How is she not going to notice that?"

"Because it looks like takeout. Chicken salad, fried fish, stuff you might pick up at a nice but not expensive restaurant. I bought some Styrofoam containers to put it in and I plate up the main and sides together and everything. She'll think she just bought it for herself and forgot about it."

"… Okay, new concern. You do know making someone doubt their own memories is a feature of gaslighting, right?"

Toby was relieved that Jim looked ashamed.

"Yeah. We're trained for that."

"They don't teach you to talk but they teach you to gaslight people?"

"We're taught to talk!" said Jim defensively. "Just, not right away. We're briefed on what we need to listen for when we're due to be assigned a Familiar. It would be a waste of resources to train Changelings who might not live long enough to serve in the field."

Talking to Jim about his past made Toby's heart and brain hurt. He shouldn't have brought it up right now. He wanted to argue Jim's points but it was probably more important to keep addressing the part where Jim was gaslighting his mother.

"Jimbo, if Dr L can't remember buying the food, is she really likely to eat it?"

"Inertia should take care of that. She's used to coming home to food already there. The takeout format is just in case she's awake enough to question it."

"Jimbo. That is. Literally. The problem here." Toby tried for another angle. "She's not sure she can trust you right now, right? And you're not giving her a choice about whether to trust you enough to eat your cooking."

"But she won't eat if I don't cook for her," said Jim, like he was being logical and Toby was the one acting irrational and stubborn. "Do you want her to starve?"

That was another gaslighting trick. Toby had been doing research. He wondered if Jim was doing it on purpose right now, or just imitating what the Changeling had been taught was normal and acceptable behaviour.

"She's a grown woman. She can feed herself. And she's at the hospital literally every day. If she passes out from low-blood sugar or something, she'll be getting the best treatment in five seconds flat."

"Not if it happens at home. Or in the car. If she's lightheaded from hunger, her judgement will be compromised and she won't notice she shouldn't drive and if she passes out at the wheel, she and a bunch of other people could die."

Toby pulled his blanket off his bed and wrapped it around Jim. Jim clung to it. Toby wasn't sure if hugging him would be a good or bad move right now.

"I promised."

Jim's voice was small. They might be getting to the heart of the matter now.

"I've broken so many promises lately. Keeping trolls a secret. Keeping Changelings a secret. Freeing Gunmar. Keeping you out of this. Keeping Mom out of this. I'm supposed to take care of people. It's what I'm good at. It's what I'm for. And I promised Mom I'd never leave her by choice."

Toby was in way over his head. He decided hugging Jim couldn't make it worse.

"But if she's not choosing to trust you … I mean, your choice isn't the only one that's important there." Toby had an idea. "Jim … I want you to promise me you won't go back there unless Dr L invites you. Or it's an emergency like the house is on fire or something. And no fair setting the house on fire to get back in."

Jim gave a watery laugh into Toby's shoulder. "Arson feels like it would defeat the purpose."

"Do you promise?"

If promises really were important to Jim, which seemed like a weird trait in a secret agent but Jim had already admitted he'd been compromised, then Toby had him.

"… One more visit. Tonight. To tell Draal what's going on. After that …" Jim's sigh was as shaky as his laughter. "I promise, Tobes."

It had been a week, Barbara realized.

A week since her world had turned upside down. Or gotten more layers; that might be a more apt metaphor.

A week since she'd discovered trolls and Changelings and a secret war and a spy in her home.

A week since she'd seen Jim.

Also, a week since she'd seen Zelda, who may or may not attend krav maga today.

Barbara had more questions now. She'd had a week to think, and now she wanted, needed, answers that only a Changeling could give her.

But she could not bring herself to face the Changeling she'd thought of as a friend, or the one she still thought of as her son.

But, she remembered slowly – it was hard to think of him that way when she hadn't seen his troll form – she did know one other Changeling who was still at the 'acquaintance' stage.

It took a while to find the number. She hadn't programmed it into her phone and the note had gotten buried in her purse.

"Doctor Lake," he greeted, in an elegantly neutral voice. Doctor Lake, not Barbara – back to formalities, it seemed.

"Hello, Mr Strickler. Um …" How to begin? "How much has Jim told you?"

"That he is currently living with the Domzalskis. I presume you knew as much and are not calling to inquire on his whereabouts."

"No, I – that I knew. I just … I need to talk to someone," she admitted. "Someone who knows about trolls and knows I know about trolls and isn't hiding in an underground city I can't get to."

"… I believe my schedule allows for an early lunch."

Chapter Text

Barbara arrived at the bistro first. She was tempted by the stew, but opted for the fish and chips. Those would be less likely to stain the seat of her car if the container tipped. She perched on one of the benches that sat on either side of the hostess stand while she waited.

Walter didn't keep her waiting for long. He greeted her scarcely a beat after a waitress offered Barbara coffee.

The waitress looked uncertainly between Walter and Barbara. She kept her arm, carrying the pot of coffee, between the standing man and the seated woman, ever so casually. She seemed ready to politely but firmly direct Walter to a table, or the opposite bench, before Barbara greeted him and gestured for him to sit down.

Barbara made a mental note to come back to this place, and to try to get that waitress so she could leave her a good tip. She'd had men ask to join her while attempting to dine alone in the past, and the waitstaff didn't always notice he might be unwelcome, leaving it to Barbara to try and get out of an awkward situation when she was supposed to be relaxing. It happened less often, since college, but still once in a while.

"Under other circumstances, I might suggest wine," said Walter. "This place has a higher-quality selection than its casual décor might suggest. But I suspect we'd both prefer to keep out wits about us."

"Also, it's barely noon."

The waitress poured a mug for each of them, and Walter also asked for fish and chips.

"To go?" He glanced at Barbara as he said it, and she nodded. "Yes, to go."

Barbara got out a small book. "I've been writing down my questions. I didn't want to forget any. I'm sure I'll come up with more as we talk."

"The park offers some privacy, if you'd like to stay in public spaces."

"I was actually thinking of my house."

Walter looked startled. She supposed it looked odd, inviting a Changeling in practically right after throwing another one out. Barbara had debated a few places, after Walter agreed to meet with her, and decided she wanted to stay on her home turf.

As long as neither was the one preparing food or drink, nobody should come out of this poisoned or drugged.

There was a half-formed joke in her mind about her cooking and poison and the usefulness of poison in interrogation. Barbara didn't trust her ability to deliver it as wittily as her imagination did, since she could only catch the concept rather than the exact words.

"Why him?"

That was the first, most urgent question. It ripped out of her while they were still in the driveway, in a snarled hiss.

"Why Jay-Jay? Out of all the babies in the world, all the babies in this town, why mine?"

"I don't know." Walter had the gall to keep his expression neutral; no fear; no apology. "There are parameters, but there's a certain degree of randomness as well, to avoid predictable patterns."

"That's not an answer."

None of her neighbours were in sight. That was probably the only reason he elaborated while outside.

"The switches are generally done with affluent families, initially to increase the odds of surviving childhood in times when infant mortality was high. I believe most in this country in the past two centuries have been white or white-passing, to facilitate later assertion of social dominance in this political climate. It's also possible you or your husband had an influential friend, who believed they were doing you a favour by keeping your child out of harm's way."

"Out of – Jim said – What exactly happens to them?" Being stuck in a dimension with human-eating trolls sounded very much like Jay-Jay was in harm's way, to Barbara.

Barbara opened the front door sharply and Walter, when she gestured sharply at him, preceded her into the house.

"It's a complex process. There are several steps."

Barbara tugged the door shut but didn't lock it.

"The first is – well, technically the first is the creation of the Changeling. The Familiar comes later. Once selected – usually by the goblins, though as I've said, it's not unheard of for a Changeling to request that a friend's infant relative be taken – the Changeling is brought out of the Darklands and the bonding ritual occurs."

Walter sat at the dining room table. Barbara took her food with her into the kitchen while she got cutlery for both of them. Walter projected his voice a touch louder so she could still hear him clearly.

"This usually happens in the infant's room, so the new Familiar can be taken back to the Darklands right away, lessening the window of time in which a caregiver might discover an empty cradle."

"What happens if they're caught?" She sat across from Walter and passed him a knife and fork.

"Hopefully, as caretakers to an infant, the human is sufficiently sleep-deprived they can be convinced they were dreaming. Goblins are adept at chaos magic, including illusions."

Barbara had new questions now. She dug out her notepad and scribbled –goblin illusions? so she would remember it later.

"In any case, the Age Pause is transferred from the Changeling to the Familiar, and the Changeling's glamour is tied to this particular human. Should any harm befall the Familiar, the glamour will fail and the Changeling will be forcibly reverted back to troll form. The spell is anchored when the Familiar is brought into the Darklands. Taking the Familiar out of the Darklands will also deprive the Changeling of their human form."

Barbara scribbled faster, resorting to crude shorthand for some words.

–age pause? –what if C is Drklnd & F is 'real world'? –is 1C:1F or many Cs:1F?

"What happens to the Familiars if they get back to the real world?"

"Surface," Walter corrected her.

"Do they … start aging again, or rapidly age though all the years they missed, or are they still stuck?"

If she got Jay-Jay back, would he be a permanent baby; or perhaps an infant in an adolescent body?

That sounds like my first boyfriend. No, Barbara, focus.

"So far as I know, the Age Pause has to be removed from an individual for them to begin aging again. Although Changeling aging is distorted in any case."

Barbara skipped ahead a few questions.

"What do you mean, distorted? How old are you? How old is Jim? And, what does that mean in human terms?"

Walt ate a chip and folded his hands. He chewed thoughtfully.

"When Changelings become Changelings," he said once he'd swallowed, "our aging is magically halted. We do age mentally, still, but not physically. We're at the, I would say, equivalent of early toddler-hood in most cases, at this time."

Barbara inhaled sharply. She'd been cutting her fish – her knife made an odd squeak, grating suddenly on the Styrofoam box.

"When we get Familiars, we age at a human rate until the body is fully mature – sometime between twenty and thirty years – and then finally go back to aging like trolls. I believe a one-to-fifteen year ratio is accurate, but my dealings with … non-Changeling trolls, is considerably less extensive than my dealings with humans."

Walt ate another chip.

"I would estimate my age to be between seven and eight hundred – the equivalent, as my human appearance also matches, of being in my early fifties. I was one of the first successful Changelings."

He held his head up a bit higher when he said that. Barbara could hear pride in his voice over the ringing in her ears at the implications of how old Jim might be.

"Jim is considerably younger. He was one of the last Changelings created before – well. He can't be younger than four hundred and I doubt he's four-fifty yet, so I'd say the human equivalent would be the mid to late twenties."

Okay. That … that wasn't as bad as it could've been.

God, she was grateful they'd bottle-fed him, though.

She'd been a new medical student, and between school and a baby the stress had her barely producing milk, and she'd had to pump to be sure he'd have any real breastmilk and they'd had to use formula as well to make sure he'd get enough to eat.

It had been yet another source of guilt and stress at the time, to not be nursing her baby, but now it was one less thing to feel awkward about after learning he wasn't really a baby.

"Jumping back a bit in topic," she said, "what happens to the Familiars in the Darklands?"

"The goblins attend their personal needs. Feeding, diapering, guarding, comforting …" He shrugged. "I know very little of what they do, but I do know that the children are cuddled and played with as well as fed and cleaned."

"That mirror trick?"

"Catoptromancy. Also known as captromancy or enoptromancy." Walter grimaced. "Although I believe some of my brethren have taken to calling it the 'spit-check'."

Brethren. That word, in this context, made Barbara uneasy.

"How many of you are there?"

"Several hundred." His expression closed off. "I obviously can't give you exact numbers, nor confirm or deny any Changelings' identities save those you've met as Changelings."

Well, so much for asking Walter if Tobias Domzalski was a Changeling, then. She'd have to ask Jim instead.

"And what are you … Changelings, I mean, as a whole … Jim said you're spies, but what is it you're trying to do?"

Walter ate some fish. Barbara started her chips. After a half minute of silence, she thought he might refuse to answer her.

"That's … complicated."

"So uncomplicate it. If Changelings could have, hypothetically, anything in the world, but only if they all agreed on one thing to wish for –"


"… That doesn't sound that complicated."

"Oh, but it is. There's a great deal you've yet to learn about troll politics, Barbara. The issue of whether humans count as food is only a fraction of it."

At least he was saying it like she was inexperienced in the subject but could learn, not like she was stupid for not knowing already. He was probably a good teacher, part of Barbara thought.

"To partially answer the initial question, we're raised to follow and obey Gunmar. Many still serve him. Other have … gone native among humans, or become disillusioned with promises of power from one who cannot be bothered to extend even basic courtesy."

She nodded. "Charismatic leader, cultish structure, with a few starting to see other options and break loose?"

"… In summary, yes. I, personally, am in something of a position of leadership – I mentioned my, ah, seniority – and I hope to recruit my fellow Changelings in turning against Gunmar entirely. With the Trollhunter on our side, it's possible we won't simply be butchered by every other troll tribe the minute we're away from the Gumm-Gumms' protection."

"How can they be protecting you? They're in another dimension."

"Metaphorical protection. Strength and intimidation. Our current and greatest protection is, of course, our stealth."

That reminded Barbara of another of the questions she'd written down.

"I noticed Jim and Zelda had longer legs, proportionally, than those other three trolls. Is that normal, for Changelings? Do you have human traits that stay even when you're … troll-shaped?"

Walter chuckled. "No, that's a matter of troll race. The three of us happen to come from long-legged tribes."

Barbara still hadn't seen Walt's troll form. She tried to imagine it and nothing came to mind, save for a vague image cobbled together from Jim and Nomura and those other three trolls. Was he blue, maybe? Three of the five trolls she's seen so far had been blue.

"The only human feature – well, some have their hair or eye colour change when bound to their Familiars, or grow an extra finger on each hand, and we usually have a bit more appreciation for human foods in our stone skins than Jim tells me most trolls do – but the only universal human feature Changelings keep in our troll forms is that sunlight does not harm us. Which is, itself, debatable as a human feature, as we have it before we're assigned Familiars."

"What about as humans; do you still have troll features?"

Walter waved vaguely. "There's often a passing resemblance between the two forms, but considering the degree to which one's appearance is influenced by wardrobe and hair style, it could be induced rather than innate. An appetite for more trollish food, which can be passed off as pica, if caught."

Barbara suddenly and vividly remembered Jim, six years old and eating eggshells, and his offer to crush them and cook them into his omelette after she warned him of salmonella.

"Some have heightened senses or a hint of their true strength, but that varies a great deal and might just indicate some quirk of their Familiar's physiology."

To Barbara's shock, his eyes glowed yellow, his irises turning red.

"Again, our universal traits are debated – some, but not all, trolls have the ability to make their eyes glow."

"How can you see like that? With the light source in your eye, you should be blinding yourself."

"… Magic?"

"That's not an explanation!"

"I'm sorry, Dr Lake, but not being a physician myself, I've only a limited knowledge of my own anatomy. And as magic is real –"

… That's right, it was, wasn't it? Amazing how that detail, of all things, could ever slip Barbara's mind …

"– and trolls are an innately magical species, and Changelings are further enhanced with magic, I stand by my statement. Magic allows our physics-defying eyes to function, just as it allows our physics- and biology-defying transformations to occur."

"How deep does that go? You – you said something about goblins and illusions, earlier, is that what this is?" gesturing at him. "A … a shell? If you went through surgery, would we hit troll parts if we went deep enough?"

Walter shifted in his seat, now looking uncomfortable. "As far as I know, the transformation runs all the way through, save for the magic itself, which is not yet detectible by human medical instruments."

"So, a blood test would show you're human if you took one like this?"

"As far as I know, the majority of tests would indicate us to be members of your species. The only failure would be genetic compatibility, but that's because we've been sterilized, not because our shapeshifting is inadequate."

Barbara's brain fizzled. That had, ah, not been a question it occurred to her to ask. Walter's expression went from discomfort back to thoughtfulness.

"Although I suppose it could also be because the anchors of our human forms are sexually immature, and the sterilization only applies to our troll forms. Injuries and new scars carry over, but scars that we had before being tied to our Familiars do not, so why would an induced sterility remain if our bodies are completely reforming?"

He shook his head.

"It's irrelevant, in any case. Contraceptive use is strongly encouraged. An unplanned pregnancy would be the least convenient way to discover what we've been told was … incorrect."

"On a completely different note," Barbara looked frantically at her list, "what happens if a Changeling goes back to the Darklands and their Familiar is on the surface? Can they transform as long as they're in different dimension?"

Walter looked startled. He carefully gathered his utensils and cut a piece of fish.

"I don't know." He chewed a moment. "I suppose it's possible, but it's never been tested."

"What about – multiple Changelings with the same Familiar?"

"That one was tested once. A pair of Changelings, either under cover as a married couple or truly married, I don't recall; it doesn't truly matter; they took in an abandoned human infant, intending to turn it over to the goblins and bring another Changeling out of the Darklands."

Barbara wasn't sure how she felt about that. On the one hand, an abandoned child would be given a home and care; on the other, they'd never actually grow up, just be stuck in a crib in a cave forever.

"As they were moving between towns in any case, they tried to bring out two new Changelings to pass off as twins. The bond was unstable and only one of the new Changelings could be disguised at a time, so the experiment was deemed a failure."

"Does it work the other way around? Can one Changeling have more than one Familiar?" Creating multiple disguises that way would be smart, if cruel.

"One of the 'twins' later volunteered to test exactly that, in hopes of a stable human form at last. Attempting to forge that bond created magical backlash such that the Changeling died."

Tears welled up in Barbara's eyes, imagining hearing an explosion in Jay-Jay's room and running in to find –

"There was another volunteer at a later time," Walter continued, "hypothesizing the backlash was because the 'twin' had an unstable bond already, but the same results occurred. The human babies," finally seeing Barbara's dismay, "were fine, likely because they didn't already have mass quantities of magic coursing through them."

"Do you have to use Familiars? You said goblins can cast illusions; if you're already immune to sunlight, can't you just use those to look human?"

"Not stably or long-term."

Barbara had to gulp to force down the bile rising in her throat when she reached one of the most urgent questions on her list.

"… What happens … to the baby … if the Changeling … dies?"


She didn't believe him.

"Goblins are immensely protective of those they consider their own. If a Changeling's death brought direct harm to our Familiars, the goblins would have made their displeasure known."

… She might believe that he believed that.

"And after … everything, that happened last week … what's going to happen to Jim?"

Walter folded his hands.

"That depends on a variety of factors. His actions, Trollmarket's actions, my own, other Changelings', yours … My personal ideal would be that he inspires our people to set Gunmar aside and carve out our own place in the world, unbeholden to anyone else, and that his position as Trollhunter gives him enough clout with other tribes that we are at least left to our own devices while establishing that place, rather than attacked at every turn."

Hidden in the basement, listening at the pipe, Draal snorted at the Changeling's optimism.

Chapter Text

In addition to their permanent collections, the Museum of Arcadia played host to a rotation of touring exhibits and collections throughout the year. Geology collections were especially common, since Arcadia Oaks had begun as a mining town during the California gold rush, and humans loved interesting rocks.

One of these shows was opening the weekend after the weekend where the world had been supposed to end. Since the world had not ended, Jim and Toby were there, metaphorically drooling over the mineral samples.

"I bet I could eat that," said Jim, about a chunk of torbernite. The interfolding swirls of green crystals resembled a head of cabbage. "If it wasn't radioactive." Torbernite contained uranium. Probably not enough to actually kill someone, since it was on public display, but eating it would be an entirely different degree of exposure than simply standing by the case.

Jim took a selfie, angling his phone so the glass case wasn't creating too much glare, and opening his mouth like he was about to nom the rock. Toby, in the background, pointed at Jim, his other hand on his cheek, mouth and eyes wide in comically exaggerated shock.

"Remember the April Fools' jawbreakers?" said Toby. In elementary school, Steve Palchuck had given a jawbreaker to everyone in class and claimed they were gumballs. Jim had crunched right through his. "They might have some stone orbs in the gift shop if you wanted to recreate that."

"Or I could just get some marbles from the dollar store. You know, cheaper."

It was a safe conversation for a public space. Two teenagers, talking about stupidly eating things they shouldn't, possibly to film for the internet, possibly as hypothetical boasting they would never follow through on. Nothing suspicious there.

"Whoa, check out that chrysocolla formation!" Toby moved on to some blue-green spikes. "The nodes don't usually get this long before something happens to break them off. This probably has a higher ratio of silicates; that would make it harder. Or maybe it's mostly quartz, with chrysocolla inclusions for colour."

The chrysocolla made Jim think of Draal, except for the rounded points. Maybe Draal once he reached Vendel's age? Did trolls' facets lose sharpness as they got older, the way humans got wrinkly?

Toby was examining an emerald in pyrite from various angles when Jim started to feel watched.

Had the museum gotten its security cameras back up and running now that Bular was out of the picture? … No; well, maybe; but Nomura was on the other side of the room. When she saw Jim look her way, she titled her head in a 'meet me outside' gesture.

"I'm gonna go to the bathroom. I'll be right back."

"I really am just here for the rock show."

"Of course you are." Nomura rolled her eyes. "If you were here to check up on me, it would be as a distraction while someone with actual subtlety searched my office."

A plan which would have already failed, since Jim and Nomura were in her office now.

"… Okay, feeling like I should be offended by that, but I really can't argue."

"And because you have no subtlety, I thought I'd help you out, in case the next agent to catch you isn't as merciful as I am." Nomura got something small and shiny out of her desk and tossed it to Jim.

Jim fumbled his catch and blinked. He flicked one of the device's watch-like hands. It was a nearly perfect replica of the Amulet of Daylight. It didn't glow and it wasn't warm, but for a second he almost thought she'd gotten the real amulet from him somehow and this was a lesson on how not to be pickpocketed.

"Two questions," he said.

"Stricklander made it," Nomura answered pre-emptively. "Decades ago. He thought a fake amulet might be able to trick Killahead Bridge into reopening."

Like using a lockpick instead of a key. There was some logic to that.

"He gave it to me when I was … infiltrating Trollmarket. If I could get close enough to Kanjigar to switch them, it would muddy the waters as to when and how it was stolen. After that mission failed, the first idea remained a possibility – at least before it was rendered moot when we gained access to the real thing – and I kept the fake out of sight so Bular wouldn't destroy it in a fit of temper at the implication we doubted he could defeat the Trollhunter."

"Still one question."

"If someone sees you with the Amulet, but not in armour, you can now pretend Stricklander gave you the fake one for safekeeping. Everyone knows you're his favourite."

"I … wouldn't say 'favourite'. Favoured, maybe –"

"You're his favourite," she repeated flatly.

Jim rotated the false amulet. It was remarkably similar to the real one. How many snippets of reports and distant glimpses had Stricklander had to piece together for this imitation?

This would also come in handy if Jim was ever in a 'surrender your weapon' situation.

"You really like having me in your debt, don't you?" the Trollhunter asked the Changeling.

She smiled. "I believe I'm owed four favours, now."

"Three," he countered – just on principle. A quick mental tally confirmed she was right, assuming they were counting the same things, but some of Nomura's favours could be argued as self-serving beyond putting Jim in her debt.

Toby was waiting for Jim down the hall.

"You know, they have public bathrooms here," he said casually. "You don't have to break into the Employees Only areas."

"Did you follow me?"

"I had to go, too. You weren't back at the rock show when I came out, so I figured you were still here."

"… Toby, I –"

"Don't. Just – just tell me it was because of your volunteer work, because otherwise I really am going to freak out."

"Yeah. Yeah, it was."

"And next time maybe just say that's why you're leaving. It's not fun to think 'is he lying?' every time you tell me something."

Jim had been avoiding Trollmarket for the past week. Blinky and AAARRRGGHH were getting worried – worried enough that, just a few days ago, they'd taken the tunnels to Jim's house to check in with Draal.

Jim had not been there. According to Draal, Jim had followed through on his plan to live with Toby after Barbara evicted him from her home.

Jim still visited the house in Barbara's absence, and Draal reported that the young Changeling did not appear particularly distressed – though Blinky was hardly inclined to trust Draal's assessment in matters of emotional sensitivity, nor did he think Jim was likely to confide in Draal regarding such things.

Perhaps Jim thought, falsely, that the need for a Trollhunter had been lessened after Bular's death. Perhaps he thought, also falsely, that Vendel would bar him entry now that his true species was known. Perhaps he thought, falsely, that it was now widely known that the Trollhunter was a Changeling, and therefore Trollmarket was no longer safe for him.

Blinky didn't know what Jim thought, because Blinky had not spoken to Jim in nearly a week. It was very frustrating.

Bular's severed head was still in the library. Jim had brought it back from the troll pub but hadn't taken it to the surface with him. Blinky, grimacing, had covered the head in cloth and put it on a low shelf, where it wouldn't be in the way or immediately draw the eye. He'd wanted to dispose of it somehow, rather than keep it in his space, but AAARRRGGHH had been adamant that Jim should be the one to decide what to do with it.

AAARRRGGHH had not been very clear on why, only enough to confirm that such gristly battle trophies were part of Gumm-Gumm culture and doing anything to Bular's head would now be an insult to Jim.

Blinky had made the mistake of pointing out Gumm-Gumms didn't count Changelings as members of their society. He'd been intending to follow up with the point that while Jim, like AAARRRGGHH, had once served the Gumm-Gumms, neither troll did so anymore, but before he could say as much, AAARRRGGHH roared at him, and growled for Blinky to stop saying Jim wasn't a troll.

(AAARRRGGHH had not been in the library when Blinkous made that grievously mistaken statement, but Blinky had given him a full run-down of the conversation prior to his arrival.)

AAARRRGGHH did not roar at Blinky. AAARRRGGHH seldom roared at all. Being roared at by AAARRRGGHH was nearly as shocking and upsetting and unthinkable for Blinky as the idea of AAARRRGGHH hitting him.

Blinky had covered and shelved Bular's head, and declared they could discuss the matter further once they were both calm.

AAARRRGGHH apologized later, of course, for losing his temper and for acting like Blinky wasn't sorry for hurting Jim's feelings and for not being able to explain battle trophies better. Blinky, too, had apologized, for pushing a subject that he knew AAARRRGGHH found rightfully upsetting instead of taking the information AAARRRGGHH volunteered and accepting that as launching point for future research that did not require AAARRRGGHH's direct input.

Blinky did not apologize to AAARRRGGHH for saying Jim wasn't a troll. That was an apology that needed to be made to Jim.

The head stayed covered and shelved, waiting for Jim to come back to Trollmarket and decide what to do with it.

Blinkous would prefer for this to happen soon.

"Tomorrow night," he announced, "we should go back up there and look for him. It's been a week, that's a respectable length of time as humans measure it; if Master Jim needs space, no one can say we refused to allow him that; but we cannot allow the Trollhunter to simply – shrug off his duties and vanish."

"Other Trollhunters did," AAARRRGGHH pointed out. "Sully-fairy quests."

"Solitary," Blinky corrected reflexively, "meaning 'alone' or 'independent'. Yes, but they also traditionally notified Trollmarket's elder that this was what they were doing before they went and did it."

"Blinky? AAARRRGGHH? Knock-knock – you guys here?"

That voice, that was one of Jim's human friends!

"Mary!" Blinky greeted warmly. "It's good to have you back. And Claire, as well! Are Tobias and Darci elsewhere in the market?"

"They dragged Jim right to the Forge," said Mary. "We said we'd get you. I come bearing gifts!"

She handed Blinky a rectangle. He almost popped it into his mouth.

"This is a prepaid cellphone. I programmed the number into ours and all our numbers into it so we can call and text each other."

Mary also gave Blinky a pen.

"I'm not sure how well a touchscreen will work with stone skin, but this pen's been specially designed to work on phone screens, just in case. Push this button here," Blinky followed her instructions and one face of the rectangle lit up, "and then drag your finger or the pen across the screen to unlock it. I didn't bother with setting up a password."

AAARRRGGHH leaned over Blinky's shoulder as Blinky experimented.

The device did seem to respond to Blinky's touch, but the phone screen proved too small for the pad of one of AAARRRGGHH's fingers when the larger troll gave it a curious, gentle tap. Blinky handed AAARRRGGHH the pen; AAARRRGGHH held it delicately, and tried again, successfully pushing one of the onscreen buttons.

"Now we don't have to depend on Jim to let us come down here," said Claire. She sounded … bitter? Had she resented her enforced week outside of Trollmarket while Jim avoided the place? "We can contact you directly."

"Claire …" said Mary.

"Did you know Jim's a Changeling?" Claire asked, apropos of nothing. "He said you knew but we don't know if he was lying."

"Claire," said Mary again, more sharply.

"This … did recently come to our knowledge, yes," said Blinky. "Considering the pains he took to keep it secret, I'm surprised and relieved to learn he's confided in you."

"He didn't. We found out he was one when we found out he replaced my little brother with one."


Chapter Text

Nomura had successfully avoided Barbara for the entire class. She hadn't been partnered with her, or even made eye contact. Now she just had to get to her car and she would be in the clear for another week.


Curse how the human had longer legs than Nomura did in this form!

"Can I talk to you?"

"Can I stop you?"

Jim leapt over a spinning blade as it erupted from the floor, and used it as a shield from the fire jets, giving him a moment to catch his breath before the floor began to tilt and he had to run again.

He was surprised to realize he'd missed training in the Hero's Forge during his week away from Trollmarket. The Forge was like a friendly rival. It didn't actively wish him harm, not having a conscious mind, but it would utterly crush him if he didn't put his all into one-upping it.

He put on an extra burst of speed to cross the path of a pendulum-axe … but not fast enough to compensate for the tilting floor. The axe clipped his calf. Jim cried out and fell on his stomach.

Barely, he grabbed a floor groove and pulled himself up and forward, so his legs were out of the axe's path on the backswing. Jim climbed to the top edge of the floor section he clung to, and slid down it to the Forge's centre.

"Master Jim!"

The arena rumbled. The training equipment returned to starting positions. Toby and Darci weren't standing alone – Claire and Mary had rejoined them, and Blinky and AAARRRGGHH were at the Forge's controls.

Jim stretched his arms and flexed his hands as he walked over. He should start doing chin-ups or handstands or something. Despite Coach Lawrence's rope drills, Jim wasn't used to suddenly having his full body weight on his hands. If you did the rope drill right, a lot of your body weight was on your legs.

"You're limping," said Blinky. "Let me see your leg."

"I don't think it's cut, I think it's just bruised from impact force."

Jim vanished the armour from the knee down on his aching leg. Blinky practically pulled it out from under Jim. Jim reeled forward and AAARRRGGHH caught him.

"Also, I'm pretty sure this is a yoga pose." Jim stuck out his arms like he was playing airplane. Toby snickered.

"You are correct that your leg isn't cut." Blinky poked and prodded at Jim's calf muscle. "Hard to tell just what condition it's in, through this material, but it doesn't seem severe enough to require that you disrobe for a more thorough examination."

Blinky released Jim's leg and AAARRRGGHH tipped him back upright, giving Jim a gentle one-fingered tap on the top of his head as though to make sure he was properly balanced.

(Jim held down an impulse to rub his forehead against AAARRRGGHH's hand. That would be … weird. Like hugging Mr Strickler in public.)

"I thought the armour was an all-or-nothing deal," said Darci.

"No, it adjusts. I've been experimenting." Jim reconjured his leg armour and closed the helmet's faceplate. "Amazingly, I can see through this."

Reluctantly, Nomura let herself be dragged off to a coffee shop. She picked at a scone while Barbara poured out her problems, clumsily avoiding any direct mention of trolls or Changelings.

"I feel like I'm seeing things more clearly now, after talking with Walt. He explained a lot about … mmm, cultural differences. History. What I might expect from Jim, going forward. But I don't want to just base all my judgement on one source, so I wanted to talk to you, as well …"

"As fascinating as the Amulet's properties are, we have other matters to discuss. Claire has updated AAARRRGGHH and myself on certain … recent developments."

"She spilled the beans on Not Enrique," said Mary. Jim glared.

"His name is Enrique until he says otherwise. More than one person can have the same name."

Claire made a noise not unlike a growl. "He already took my brother's life, he doesn't get to keep his name, too!"

"Claire, what the heck?" said Darci. "This was not the plan!"

"Plan?" repeated AAARRRGGHH.

"We were gonna play it cool and encourage Jimbo to bring the Changeling thing up," explained Toby, "so we'd know he really had told you, like he said, and you guys weren't going to arrest him or something for it."

Blinky, standing between the rest of the group and the Forge's main entrance, stretched out his lower arms like a barrier, patting the air in a quick 'keep it down' gesture with his upper hands.

"Trollmarket at large has not been informed. It would be in Master Jim's best interests for it to stay that way." He frowned at Jim. "You arranged for Claire's younger brother to be replaced?"

"Don't sound so disappointed. This was months ago, back when I still worked for Gunmar. You hadn't even met Claire yet. Also, technically all I did was make a suggestion. I don't actually have the authority to decide who gets swapped."

"Oh – question!" Darci half-raised her hand. "If we weren't friends yet, why did you, you know … 'suggest' Enrique, specifically?"

"Mrs Nuñez is active in local politics and it's always useful to have an eye on the inside." Jim grimaced. "Sorry, that's the, ah, Changeling reason, I guess. We might not've been friends, but," he gave Claire a hopeful look, "we were at least friendly. We've done projects together, we got along. You talked about your brother so much, I thought you'd be happy he was off the menu when the Gumm-Gumms invaded and ate everyone."

"How would I possibly have known that?" She had backed up to the weapons rack but not reached for anything yet.

"Okay, that part I didn't really start thinking about until after we were friends," Jim admitted. "I had a few arguments prepped for how you'd be more useful kept alive, too, but I didn't get a chance to present them before I changed sides, so that's not relevant anymore."

"What arguments?" asked Mary.

Jim froze. He'd been exaggerating – he'd really only come up with one argument.

"I thought you guys could be … useful … for something I found out wasn't going to happen anyways. So it doesn't matter."

AAARRRGGHH must've caught on, because he stepped back, looking stricken.

"You can't just say something like that and expect us to drop it," said Claire. She had her hands on a spear now. Her back was to it, and her grip was more like she was holding a guardrail than clutching a weapon. That could change quickly.

"Well, it turns out Gunmar's primary goal is to permanently blot out the sun, which is self-defeating because then all the surface life the Gumm-Gumms want to be free to hunt is going to die off, so farming humans wouldn't work out, and –"

Jim hoped to jabber out some long string of something to bury 'farming humans' in the middle of a ramble. He didn't speak fast enough. They all gasped.

"You thought," said Claire, "I'd be grateful, that you stole my baby brother, so he wouldn't get eaten by trolls, and were keeping me alive, to have more babies, who would get eaten by trolls?"

In the interests of sustaining a genetically diverse breeding stock, they probably wouldn't all get eaten, Jim had the sense not to say.

"That," said Darci, "is literally one of the most horrific scenarios I could possibly think of."

Mary looked green. Toby was shaking his head, an expression of disgust growing on his face.

"I know I'll regret asking this but I'm not gonna be able to stop thinking about it if I don't," said Toby. He swallowed. "What about your mom?"

"All these years of secrets and sneaking around, and I want to believe he means well, and I want to understand where he's coming from, but I still get so angry thinking about it …" Barbara stirred her coffee with a biscotti. It had been in her drink for so long it was probably mush below the waterline. "What do you think I should do?"

"… Personally? I think you should let Jim come home, and go about your life pretending you never found out about any of this."

Really, what was the woman expecting from her? Nomura didn't remember volunteering to be the human's confidante.

Barbara sighed heavily and got up.

"Well, thanks for letting me vent."

"Mom's a doctor. She'd be totally useful alive."

"That's … that's messed up, dude. What made you think she'd even go along with that? I mean, what's to stop her just mercy-killing everyone?"

"Bribery," said Jim simply. "I'd go back to living as a troll full-time, and Mom could have Jay-Jay back to reward her compliance and as a hostage for future good behaviour. Which would also extend her life, because if she taught Jay-Jay medicine apprentice-style, then once she got too old to practice, he could take over, but she'd still be kept alive as his reward-slash-hostage."

"I am incredibly creeped out by how proud you sound of that plan."

"Well, I know now that it wouldn't have worked out," said Jim defensively, "but it felt totally reasonable when I came up with it." Back when he'd thought Gunmar had considered the practical concerns of running the world after taking over.

There was a rumbling noise. The Soothscryer rose and glowed.

Because of course the Ghost Council couldn't have called him in three minutes ago and let him avoid most of that conversation.

The last thing Blinky said to Jim, before Jim went into the Void, was, "This conversation is not over."

The first thing Kanjigar said to Jim, the second time Jim was in the Void, was, "I did not say that."

"Didn't say what?" Jim rubbed his head. The abrupt shift in location and topic of discussion left him with whiplash.

A vision floated in the air beside them, of Jim talking to Draal after the Trollhunter's first summoning by the Soothscryer. In the vision, Jim was claiming Kanjigar had instructed him to tell Draal that Kanjigar loved and was proud of his son, and how sorry he was for pushing Draal away.

"I did not say that," said Kanjigar sternly.

"Yeah, well, you should have. Because maybe if you'd said that to Draal while you were still alive, he wouldn't have been so damn desperate to inherit the stupid death-sentence amulet, because he'd know you valued him just as much as you valued being the Trollhunter. Forgive me for trying to give your son closure after he found out I could go chat with his dad's ghost and he wasn't invited."

"I wanted to keep Draal as far away from the amulet as possible! You have only encouraged him to endanger himself!"

"By refusing to sideline a skilled and powerful warrior for sentimental reasons?"

"You dragged my son into your fight with Bular –"

"I don't know what fight you were watching, but I did not drag Draal anywhere. He had at least two chances to run after the fight started."

"And thanks to Draal, Bular is dead." The eyes of the past Trollhunters' bodies sometimes lit up when they spoke. Deya the Deliverer, on the highest pedestal in the Forge, had her eyes glowing. "The Changelings have a point about the efficiency of fighting with backup."

"Thank you." Jim nodded to her.

"This is not why we called you here," said another Trollhunter; one who looked like Kanjigar, but had died in a fighting stance, sword in hand.

"We told you before;" this speaker had long, wavy horns that stuck out to the side, like Vendel's; "if you wish to protect your human friends, you will need to kill Bular, and Gunmar."

The wispy lights began circling Jim.

"You have defeated the son, but not the father."

"But there's no way to kill Gunmar."

"He's invincible."

"No, he's not!"

"So far as we know," the previous voice clarified.

"What do you know?"

"He may have started a cult around himself, but he's not a god," said Jim fiercely – and blasphemously, having being raised in that cult. "And besides, tons of myths involve gods being killed."

"Legend has it that Merlin found a way," said Deya. "If he did, he never told his Champions. I suggest you talk to your mentors."

Barbara knocked on the door to the Domzalski house. After a minute, she tried the doorbell. She hoped Nancy was home, and had her hearing aids on.

A cat came out as soon as the door opened wide enough. It wound itself around Barbara's ankles.

"Barbara, dear!" said Nancy warmly. "What a nice surprise."

"Hi, Nancy. Can we talk?"

"Of course. Come in. Is this about how Jimmy's been staying here for the past week? I was starting to wonder if you were out of town and I'd forgotten."

Chapter Text

"The Ghost Council is pleased Bular's dead, and they said it's a good time to strike against Gunmar, but supposedly, conventional methods won't work, so I've been advised to ask my mentors. Blinky, AAARRRGGHH, thoughts?"

"No poison," said AAARRRGGHH immediately. "Built up resist-dances."

"Much of Gunmar's personal history is shrouded in legend," said Blinky. "Supposedly, even the Sword of Daylight was unable to wound him when he battled Trollhunters in ages past."

"Well, he can't be immune to actual sunlight, right?" said Toby. "Or else he'd've been able to go after humans in the daytime. You said he couldn't do that, right?"

And he wouldn't care one way or the other about the Eternal Night …

"We're not letting him out of the Darklands to test that," said Jim.

"No, but you can get UV and full-spectrum lightbulbs at the hardware store," said Mary. "My stepmom's got a bunch set up in spotlights for her indoor plants. Put one in a flashlight, I bet you could at least hurt a troll."

"And once he's gone, we can get Enrique back?"

Jim managed not to roll his eyes at Claire's one-track mind.

Be nice, he reminded himself. Wanting the Familiar back could just as easily have been how Mom reacted. It could still be how Mom reacts.

"I might have some reference books in my library which could be of help," said Blinky. "Along with something of yours, Jim, which I'd prefer you take with you when you leave."

"This is Bular, huh?" said Toby. "I can't believe you brought his head back with you."

"How else was I supposed to prove I'd killed him? After Vendel found out about me, I couldn't know how far or fast he'd spread the word, and if he hadn't kept my secret nobody would've trusted me not to just … lie."

"So what are you gonna do with it? Seems a bit heavy to hang on the wall."

"Aha! Here we are." Blinky drew their attention to the study table. "Gunmar's origins. At the beginning of our histories, trolls lived below ground, unaware of the world above, while humans lived on the surface, oblivious to the world below. Eventually the two species discovered each other and … clashed, each wanting to claim the full world as their own. Blood was shed. Wars broke out."

He flipped through a series of pages, showing a crystal growing dark veins, crumbling to pieces, and a shadowy troll climbing from the remains.

"Our first Heartstone rotted from within. And from it, Gunmar was born."

"… Well, that's obviously propaganda," said Jim. "Rewriting his backstory to make him look like some kind of magically-created 'Chosen One', so he's more impressive to his allies and unnerving to his enemies." He frowned, conceding, "Unless budding off the Heartstone is how trolls are normally born. In which case it might just be exaggerated to make the timing more symbolic and make it look like he was born full-grown."

"You don't know where baby trolls come from?" asked Mary. "But … you are a troll."

"I've also never needed to know that stuff."

Blinky had all six eyes on Jim and his mouth slightly open.

"We'll … come back to that later," the librarian said after a moment. "The point is that a fragment of that Heartstone supposedly still exists, known as Gunmar's Birthstone." He pulled another open book over the illustration of Gunmar. "There is a legend of three stones, the Triumbric Stones, which are tied to Gunmar's life force."

"That still sounds made up," said Darci, putting her hand on Toby's shoulder as she leaned over him for a better view. "I mean, I know magic is real and all, but, 'three stones magically connected to the bad guy'?"

"Classic quest set up." Toby might've been agreeing or disagreeing with Darci's point; Jim couldn't tell.

"What are the other two?" said Claire. She squinted at the runes. She was on the other side of the table, so from her perspective they were upside down. "The Birthstone … the Killstone … and the … I don't know that last one. I mean, I see the 'stone' suffix but I can't –"

"Eyestone," read Mary. "Ew. Is that literally an eye?"

"Gunmar lost his right eye in the challenge fight when he took over the Gumm-Gumms," said Jim. "It's probably that."

"Indeed." Blinky tapped the paper. "An indication that Gunmar can be wounded, a symbol of his origins, and a remnant of his first kill."

"And Merlin found these?" When everyone just stared at him, Jim remembered he hadn't actually told them that part. "Deya – I think it was Deya – when I was in the Void, she said Merlin supposedly found a way to kill Gunmar but hadn't told the Trollhunters what it was."

"Merlin dead," said AAARRRGGHH. "Lost."

Blinky sighed. "AAARRRGGHH is correct. If Merlin truly did possess the Triumbric Stones, they may well be found in his tomb; whither no written record, nor anyone living, knows the way."

"So we're going on a quest to find the lost tomb of the wizard who made Jimbo's amulet?" said Toby eagerly. "Find the tomb, find the stones, beat Gunmar, get Enrique back."

"Uh, no." Jim scowled. "Switching the Enriques back has nothing to do with whether Gunmar's still alive … Okay, it does a little, but that's not the sole factor. I'm not ousting another Changeling just because Claire's mad at me."

"Also we don't actually know Merlin has these stones, or if they're real," Mary cut in before Claire and Jim could start fighting again. "But speaking of other Changelings, what if you asked Mr Strickler about these magic rocks? If you guys have been working for Gunmar, I'm guessing some Changeling at some point looked into the guy's weakness … you know, to 'protect' him."

Jim would have interrupted her right away, and probably proven her theory, if it hadn't taken a moment for his brain to reboot.

"What makes you think Mr Strickler's a Changeling?"

"He accepts any lame excuse you try on him, he or someone who looks exactly like him has been teaching History at our school for at least as long as we've had yearbooks, and one time I eavesdropped on you guys and you mentioned the Heartstone. Plus the way you froze up just now, and how nervous you got the first time I asked if he knew you were the Trollhunter."

"Is 'Strickler' not the name of the Changeling who came here with you last week?" asked Blinky. Mary shot finger-guns in Blinky's direction.

"I didn't know that part till just now but I'm counting it anyway."


Jim's voice, on the other end of the phone line, was very small. Walt had a vision of the boy in his troll form, crouching with his ears pinned down and tail curling under him.

"I messed up."

Walt's hand tightened around the phone. Was Jim hurt? Dying? Had Otto set a Stalkling on him?

"Your cover's been compromised. It's contained!" the boy added hastily. "I – They're not dead but nobody's left, and I – Is anyone with you right now?"

"I can speak freely."

There was a rush of static, perhaps a sigh.

"It's the four humans I told you about before. Plus the, ah, old acquaintance of yours and the fellow historian we met with last week."

There was a less-clear background voice, telling Jim he could just use their names, to which Jim countered that cell phones could be tapped and recorded and now the speaker's voice would be on that recording if there was one.

"Perhaps it's best if I come to you and we speak in person," Walt suggested.

"… You remember where the door is."

Despite, or perhaps because, he was being escorted by AAARRRGGHH instead of the Trollhunter, Walt made it to the library without any gnomes being thrown at him this time.

"Mr Domzalski. Ms Nuñez. Ms Scott. Ms Wang." He nodded politely to each of his student. "I imagine this comes as something of a shock."

"Not really," said Claire.

"Once we knew about Jimbo, you were kind of obvious," said Tobias.

"Even before we knew the Changeling part," added Darci.

"Were we also right that you know about the Triumbric Stones?" Mary shocked Walter to the point of having to sit down.

"The term is … familiar."

Walt had been in charge of destroying any works referencing their power and locations, after all.

Chapter Text

It was weird, seeing Mr Strickler in Trollmarket.

Darci got that he was secretly a troll as well, like Jim or Not Enrique. But she was so used to only seeing him at school, and so used to not seeing other (supposed) humans in Trollmarket, that this felt like that time in second grade when she'd first seen a teacher at the grocery store. Or like seeing a lifeguard wearing clothes instead of a swimsuit.

"The Triumbric Stones," he said, unknowingly reiterating what Blinky had told them before Strickler arrived, "refer to three stones magically intertwined with Gunmar's life force. They can supposedly be forged together into the only weapon capable of slaying him. A troll scholar by the name of Bodus –"

"The Dishonorable Bodus," Blinky corrected. Strickler gave him the same look he gave students who interrupted him in class. Blinky, to whom Strickler could not assign detention, seemed unphased.

"The Dishonorable Bodus, then, discovered where these stones had been hidden. Naturally Gunmar's forces hunted down Bodus and his pupils and destroyed any copies we could find of his work. But here is where the scholar proved himself to be particularly clever. Rather than writing down the path to the Triumbric Stones directly, or even in cipher, he magically concealed a message within his Final Testament … a message which reveals itself when the book is burned."

Blinky and Jim both gasped, with very different facial expressions.

"Like how The Book of Ga-Huel can update itself?" Jim asked.

"Not quite. The Final Testament of Bodus is completely destroyed in the process, not merely altered. The message embeds itself into whichever surface on which the burning occurs."

"And how do you know this?" demanded Blinky, clutching a book to his chest with all four hands. "You stood idly by and allowed knowledge to be desecrated?"

"Obviously I was the one ordered to destroy the books. Only a deeply foolish Changeling would risk accusations of treason by reporting to a superior that they'd seen a way to destroy Gunmar."

Strickler and Jim both looked at the petrified severed head Toby had been poking at earlier. Darci wasn't sure if Strickler shuddered or he was just shaking himself to get back on topic.

"Defiler!" Blinky roard. Even AAARRRGGHH's gentle hug – oh, he was lifting Blinky right into the air, maybe he was actually holding him back from attacking – didn't calm him down. "Book burner! You – this is a grave injustice! A loss perhaps on par with the Library of Alexandria!"

It was not an appropriate moment to laugh. Darci, Mary, Claire, Toby, and Jim all made sounds of amusement anyway. Mr Strickler drew himself up and began the same speech he'd given them at the start of their unit on the Crusades.

"The loss of a centralized bastion of knowledge such as Alexandria was considerable. It was not as extreme as popularly portrayed. The majority of collected volumes were copies of books that existed elsewhere. The libraries of Islamic nations were vital in preserving ancient knowledge over the centuries –"

Jim cleared his throat. Blinky had settled, and AAARRRGGHH had set the smaller troll back on his feet. Strickler deflated.

"I took no pleasure in it, I assure you. Fortunately, the method of concealment meant it was not a security risk to transcribe the text into an unenchanted volume before destroying the originals."

"And the secret message?" said Mary. "I'm guessing that would've been a security risk to keep around."

"Indeed. But as it was thoughtfully composed in rhyme, it was a simple matter to memorize it." Strickler and Jim held weirdly-significant-feeling eye contact. "Entirely as a precaution. In the event that someone else found another copy, we would need to know what they learned."

"Of course," his fellow Changeling agreed.

"So what's the rhyme?" pressed Claire.

"In darkest tide, when daylight darest wane," Strickler recited, "the Myrddin Wylt obscured a shadow's bane. Three forces elemental thou must seek, in marshland, caverns deep, and mountain's peak. Where worthy perish, ye'll prevail in night, and eclipse all who quarry with thy might."

"Okay, I have several questions," said Toby. "One, after all that, it's still a riddle? Two, what's a medi-fred wench? Three, anyone else a little freaked out by this 'evil parish' we're forming?"

"That's not what he said, Tobes."

"Myrddin was one of the earlier recorded names of Merlin," said Strickler. "There has since been some speculation as to whether it was in fact a title, akin to, say, Archbishop, raising the possibility that the legends actually refer to several different men. After the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066, the nobility spoke French, and Merlin was renamed after the species of falcon. It was presumably difficult to take seriously a figure whose name was a false cognate of the invective merde."

Darci would not call herself fluent in French, but before and during her family's trip to Paris, she had learned enough of the language to laugh now. She hastily muffled it behind her hand, so all that got out was "Pffthmmhm!"

"Daylight probably refers to Jim's sword," said Claire. "Or, well, the Trollhunter's sword. You said that couldn't hurt him," speaking half to Jim, half to Blinky.

"Using fading sunlight symbolise loss of hope is more of a human thing," Jim agreed.

"And the next couplet, that's where the stones are hidden." Claire was starting to grin. "In marshland, caverns deep, and mountain's peak."

"So we just need to find out which marsh, cave and mountain these stones are in?" Darci hated to rain on Claire's parade, but … "Simple enough. That's only, oh, about a third of the world to search."

"We already have one, which means we can skip the caverns." Mr Strickler took his favourite pen out of his jacket and toyed with it. "The Janus Order … recovered Gunmar's Eye, some centuries ago."

For some reason he was looking over Blinky's shoulder at AAARRRGGHH. Was he scared of him? AAARRRGGHH could be intimidating if you didn't know what a sweetie he was. But Strickler hadn't seemed at all concerned when AAARRRGGHH escorted him into the library, and they'd been alone together then. Plus, AAARRRGGHH has been the one to hold Blinky back when Blinky was yelling at Strickler.

"We haven't been able to retrieve the Killstone or Birthstone, but I'm reasonably confident that the marshland Bodus refers to is the swamps of the Quagawumps. Gunmar unintentionally created the Killstone when he shattered their beloved Wumpa King – a sorcerer of great power."

"Like how Voldemort accidentally gave Harry the power to defeat him!" gasped Toby.

"This sounds more like a revenge curse," said Jim. "That explains a little. I mean, it's the one Triumbric Stone that was never physically part of him. Unless Gunmar ate the body and, uh, I'm gonna stop talking now."

Everyone grimaced.

"We should talk to Glug," said Mary. "She's a Quagawump, and she has family visit from the swamp sometimes. She might know if they have it. Or if she doesn't, she might know who to ask."

"I'm all for getting an insider crash-course in swamp troll etiquette before we actually go there," said Darci.

"The Quagawumps are indeed reputed to be unfriendly to outsiders," Blinky agreed. "An insider might be our best chance of getting in and out alive."

That was like a splash of ice water. Darci shivered.

"… If I frame it as avenging their Shattered King," said Jim, paging through the book on the Triumbric Stones that had been left open on the table, "and promise to give it back once Gunmar's dead, they'll probably agree to lend me the Killstone without making any other demands."

"You're gonna build a super-weapon and give part of it back?" Toby shook his head and clicked his tongue. "Jimbo, Jimbo, Jimbo."

"It's an artifact of historical, cultural, and possibly religious significance to the Quagawumps, and it's a body part from a possibly-vengeful dead sorcerer. Yes, I'm going to give it back."

Chapter Text

Stricklander managed to avoid mentioning there was a Janus Order base in Arcadia when he promised to retrieve Gunmar's Eye. Jim was pretty sure Blinky and AAARRRGGHH had worked it out for themselves, but the troll adults would also hopefully have the sense not to seek it out, while the human children could not be trusted to make such a judgement call.

It still burned the young Changeling sometimes, realizing he hadn't noticed he was being followed.

Everyone started looking through the cartography and geography texts to create a list of most likely mountains where the Birthstone would be hidden.

"Perhaps Mount Atlas," suggested Stricklander. Jim half-laughed. Everyone else looked at them in confusion.

"He's, ah, called me Atlas a few times," Jim explained, ducking his head over a guidebook of Banff National Park. Oldest national park in Canada, eh?

After a few minutes, Blinky got up. "There is something Master Jim and I need to discuss privately. The rest of you should continue the search."

He pulled the Trollhunter into the next room. Jim brought the guidebook with him, mostly so he'd have something to do with his hands. He couldn't fidget with the Amulet while he was armoured up.

"To begin with, Master Jim, I must apologize."

"… For … what?" The Changeling braced himself, in case his trainer was about to say 'this' and begin a surprise attack.

"You are a troll. I should never have implied otherwise. I am … deeply sorry, and hope you can forgive me."

Jim was not sure how to respond to that. He was still a little angry about Blinky's immediate denial upon learning Jim was a troll. He was glad for the apology – he hadn't expected it, had thought at best that it would just never be brought up again – but he didn't know if he was ready to accept it yet.

Blinky had paused, but continued speaking, sparing Jim the need to sort out his feelings and make a decision right away.

"As a troll, there are certain things you have a right and responsibility to know about your own biology. Such as where troll babies come from."

Uh-oh. If Blinky really did remember every "we'll come back to that later" point of tonight, Jim was in for a lot of awkward discussions he'd thought he had managed to dodge.

"I kind of assumed the gronk-nuks were involved?" Jim sat down uncertainly on a low bookcase. This room didn't have chairs.

Blinky cleared his throat. "Trolls biologically have two parents. Each parent removes a fragment of their living stone – yes, from the gronk-nuks – and they join the facets together to form one. The seed crystal is then implanted into a birthstone, where the whelp grows and develops over the next thirty years before emerging."

"So … trolls kind of hatch from eggs?" Jim scratched the side of his head, just under the lip of his helmet. "Externally fertilized eggs, like how some kinds of fish do it. Can any kind of rock be a birthstone?"

"Heartstone is ideal. Vendel told you, I believe, that it can be harvested for many purposes?"

Jim nodded.

"But overharvesting would probably kill it," the Changeling speculated, "which is part of why trolls have a low birthrate? So the population stays within what the Heartstone can sustain?"

That explained why the Gumm-Gumms hadn't procreated in the Darklands … Jim remembered hearing Dictatious say that Gunmar's throne was carved into a Heartstone, but its glow hadn't felt anything like the one in Trollmarket, so he doubted that was really the case.

"The population is at a low ebb while communities recover or establish themselves after the war," said Blinky. "Centuries of having whelps snatched away made many couples hesitant to produce them."

Jim's mouth tightened. Blinky winced and shook his head, looking away.

"I hadn't intended to lead into that point."

"We know where we come from."

"Do you?" Blinky sounded so innocently startled, looked so harmlessly intrigued. Jim didn't think he meant his questions to be cruel. "Do you remember your parents?"

"I meant we know that we're taken. And written off as dead. And can't go back. Because, if we tried, they'd kill us for real. They don't want us anymore."

Jim tried so hard not to connect that with Barbara telling him to get out. I can't do this.

By the Pale Lady, if Blinky used this as a springboard to bring up again Jim suggesting Claire's brother be swapped, Jim wasn't sure how he would respond.

Instead, Blinky … sniffled? And hugged him.

Jim tensed up, his armour ready to create that concussive burst – he couldn't quite do it at will yet but he could feel it coming – and then Blinky's upper hands were where Jim's scruff would be if Jim were in troll form, and Jim's head was tucked under Blinky's chin, and Jim felt so amazingly secure that his armour melted away. He heard the Amulet roll under the bookcase.

"I know you've had a hard life," said Blinky. "All of you Changelings. Harder than I can ever truly understand, not having lived it myself. I cannot undo that, and I cannot personally change every troll's opinion. There will always be those who see you as a painful reminder of the children we could not protect. But by Deya's grace, if by some miracle you succeed in turning your fellow Changelings to our side, I will do all that I can to ensure that each one of you has a home and a family in Trollmarket."

Jim basked in the hug for a moment longer before extracting himself. Blinky let him go. Jim brushed at his stinging eyes.

"Once trolls are willing to trust us with kids, it'll be good for the adoption rate," he tried to joke.

"… I don't follow."

"Orphans? Foster kids? Changelings are sterilized. So, if we become part of the local troll community, any Changeling who wants kids would be adopting them."

Blinky looked nearly as horrified at the word 'sterilized' as he had when Stricklander confessed to book burning.

The humans and Changelings left Trollmarket shortly after three in the morning. Jim had forgotten to turn on his phone alarm to remind them to leave at two.

Jim and Toby returned to the Domzalski house to find Barbara helping Nana bake cookies. Half-full mugs were abandoned on the table, as were a pair of wine glasses and a bottle of … well, Jim was pretty sure it was meant to be cooking sherry, but it could still technically be drunk, and evidently had been.

"Butterscotch chips make cookies extra special." Nana nodded sagely to herself.

"Hey, Nana. Dr L." Toby gave them a shiny metallic smile.

"Toby. Jim."

"Oh, good, you boys are just in time for cookies!"

Jim snatched one off the cooling rack and stuffed it into his mouth to avoid having to speak.

He hadn't been expecting to see his mother again so soon. What – what did he even call her, he wondered wildly. He couldn't stand it if she told him not to call her 'Mom', but he didn't know if he could call her 'Barbara' to her face, and 'Dr Lake' felt too formal and distant, unless that was what she wanted, but he couldn't know unless he asked or until after making a faux pas …

Also, how much had she told Nana? How much did either of them assume that Toby knew? This situation was not stable.

Why was she here? Did she want him to come home?

(Was he ready to go home? Of course he would go if she asked him to, Barbara needed him, he missed her, and if he said 'no' now he might not get another chance to say 'yes' later, but was he ready to move back in with someone who had thrown him out once already?)

Jim swallowed his cookie and settled for saying, "Hi."

Chapter Text

Nancy had offered Barbara hot chocolate when her neighbour appeared on her doorstep, and Barbara hesitated only a moment before accepting. She refused to spend the rest of her life questioning the motives and methods of anyone offering her something to drink.

"Jim's been … He's involved in something confusing and dangerous," she confessed to the woman who had been housing him for the past week. "He finally told me what's going on, and I … I didn't handle it well. He's a troll, Nana."

Nancy gasped. "That's so sad! That's one of those internet bullies, isn't it? And Jimmy always seemed like such a nice boy."

"Not an internet troll, a real troll."

Nancy put her mug down and put her hands over Barbara's. When she spoke, it was in the carefully non-judgemental voice she'd used when asking whether Barbara and James were temporarily separated or if Barbara planned to divorce him.

"Barbara, dear … Are you on the drugs?"

"No, Nana, he showed me. Jim turned into this blue – creature, with tusks and horns and stone skin, and admitted to how he replaced the original Jim when he was just a tiny baby. He's not the only one – one of his teachers, and a woman I know from krav maga, they're trolls too. And there are other trolls, who can't make themselves look human, and, and it's not entirely clear in my head, but Jim's been helping them, and fighting them."

"And you're sure he wasn't just telling you about a video game."

"I saw him shapeshift."

"But those costumes nowadays are very realistic. My Toby's been learning to speak troll for some game or other. That might be the same one Jim was telling you about."

Nancy shook her head, smiling.

"All these invented languages nowadays. It seems like every book or show or game has one. Reminds me of how Monique and Betsy used to argue about whether we should take club notes in Vulcan or Klingon. Did I ever tell you about the time we met Leonard Nimoy?"

Nancy spent the next hour or so giving Barbara an audio tour of her memories. Barbara decided this was the best response she could hope for. She'd wanted, desperately, to talk this out with another human being, but without any evidence to present, trolls did sound as made up as any Star Trek species.

"Toby and Jim are out awfully late tonight," Barbara noted several anecdotes later, peering out the dark windows.

"It's not a school night." Nancy produced a bottle of sherry. "Let them have their fun."

Barbara would never entirely remember how they ended up baking cookies. Nancy might have suggested it as a way to pass the time, or Barbara might have been bemoaning her lack of cooking and baking skills, or maybe they'd just wanted cookies and realized the Domzalskis were out of them.

"If my Ralph had come back from that cruise," said Nancy, seemingly apropos of nothing as she put the first bowl of dough into the fridge to chill, "and I found out sixteen years later he wasn't really my Ralph, I don't know how I'd feel. But if he'd been raising Toby-Pie, then to Toby, that Ralph would be his father, and I have to assume he'd see Toby as his son."

Barbara cracked an egg too forcefully, getting shell fragments in the bowl and under her fingernails, and getting egg white on the counter.

"I know how I feel. I'm angry, and guilty, and sad. I should've noticed something was off right from the start. What kind of mother doesn't notice when her baby gets switched for a different one? What kind of mother never realizes her son's been sneaking out and putting himself in danger? What kind of –?"

Her voice cracked like the eggshell had.

"What kind of mother can't think of any kind of solution to a fight with her child besides throwing him out of the house while she tries to get her head together?"

Of course she was still angry at Jim, for the lies and the sleeping potions; and at James, who was as guilty as she was in failing to notice Jim and Jay-Jay were different people; and more abstractly at trolls and Changelings as a whole; but Barbara was so, so angry at herself.

Nancy took the bowl away and pressed a fresh mug of hot chocolate into Barbara's hands, generously spiked with sherry.

They'd been drinking it out of wine glasses, but it was good mixed into hot drinks as well. Between them they'd finished off the bottle (already two-thirds empty when they started) and baked several different types of cookie by the time Jim and Toby finally returned.

What did you say to a kid a week after kicking them out? Get your stuff, we're going home?

He's technically not a kid, a small part of Barbara reminded the rest of her, which wasn't actually helpful in deciding what to say and was therefore dismissed.

Jim gulped down a cookie. "Hi."

Barbara got up, nearly tripped over the cat which had been underfoot all night, crossed the kitchen, and hugged him.

I'm sorry. I've missed you. I still don't know what to say or do and I'm confused and scared but I want things to be better between you and me and I don't want you to feel like I'm punishing you for finally being honest even though I'm still angry about some of the things I learned.

She was not drunk. She'd been snacking, and sherry was … actually she wasn't sure how strong sherry was, but she was pretty sure she was not drunk. She was probably tipsy, but she was sober enough to know she should be careful about what she said, especially in case Jim mistakenly assumed she was drunk.

Jim made a soft, squeaky noise, perhaps a whine, and hugged her back.

"There's nothing in the oven right now," said Nancy. "We'll give you two a moment." She chivvied Toby out of the kitchen.

"I'm so sorry, Jim," said Barbara. "I should've … I'm the grown-up here. I should have figured out a way to deal with my feelings without … I made a commitment, a promise, to raise and take care of you, and I went back on that."

"You promised Jay-Jay," he corrected, muffled by her shirt. "You didn't know about me."

"You're the one I told, 'we just have to take care of each other'."

"And I shouldn't have used spindle gloss on you. Or at least not kept doing it after I changed sides."

Right, he'd been working for the eventual downfall of humanity when he'd first replaced her biological son. It was such an absurd concept, so far out of Barbara's range of experience, that it was hard to imagine, especially with Jim clinging to her and sounding like he was about to cry any second.

"I'll show you Jay-Jay any time you want," he said. "I've been experimenting with my phone. I can take photos and videos and send them to you. You'll always know where he is and how he's doing. I'll help you learn to cook so you don't have to worry about what I might be putting in the food. I, I don't know what else I can offer to help you feel safe with me. But if there's anything, just tell me. Please."

"Oh, Jim … sweetie …" Barbara blinked back tears. "You don't … Okay, we are going to have to rebuild some trust here, but it goes both ways. I don't want you to be scared of me either. I never should've told you to leave home."

They cried on each other in the neighbours' kitchen until Toby came back in.

"Jimbo? Hate to spring yet another thing on you, but Dr L told Nana about trolls. Nana still thinks it's a video game, so it's mostly contained, but I thought I should give you the heads up."

Jim groaned. Barbara was about to apologize again, but he said, "I get it. I saw this coming when I saw you here." The Lakes untangled themselves. "Tobes, if she thinks it's a video game, let her think that for now."

"If Toby's involved, she has a right to know it's real," Barbara countered.

"But to avoid the Changelings who haven't changed sides coming to kill us all to plug the leak," said Jim, "it's better to leave her with an innocent explanation."

"And what are you going to tell her if Toby doesn't come home someday?"

"Skip town, hack his phone, and text her that we ran away to LA to start a rock band," said Jim promptly. "My pre-cellphone plan was to fake his handwriting and send postcards, and before we turned ten I was going to say we were searching for his parents and James Senior."

"Wait, if I died, you were planning to leave Arcadia forever?" said Toby.

"No, no, just a few years, and then come back and claim we got separated and I didn't know what happened to you."

"Jim, that's horrible!" said Barbara.

"It's only if he dies in circumstances that don't allow a mundane cover-up!" Jim insisted, as though that made it better. "If I could just make it look like a hit-and-run car accident or an animal attack, of course I'd go with that instead and let Nana have closure."

"Do I want to know your plans for …" Toby looked from Jim to Barbara warily. "Anyone else we know?"

"Initially, it was just 'deny everything', because we weren't seen together in public often enough for anyone to think to connect me to their disappearance. Now I don't know. The rock band cover could still work."

Barbara narrowed her eyes.

"Who else is involved in this?" she asked.

Jim, still off-kilter (part of Barbara was ashamed for pushing him like this while knowing he was desperate to regain her favour), broke first.

"Some girls we know from school. I got careless and they and Toby followed me into Trollmarket."

"And I'm guessing their families don't know."

"One has a Changeling brother who knows she knows and vice-versa?" Jim offered, attempting a grin.

Barbara sighed heavily.

"It's …" she glanced at the clock on the oven, "four in the morning. We aren't going to wake everyone up now to tell them their children are fighting trolls. But you will tell me who they are and we will be telling their families."

"And," said Toby, "since it's a bit late to be packing and hauling bags across the street, how about you both stay here and you can sort out the move back tomorrow – or, later today."

Jim froze up, but Barbara nodded.

"Good idea, Toby."

Jim gasped and looked at her, wide-eyed, and then hugged his mother again.

Chapter Text

"So, what did Blinky say when he dragged you off earlier?" Toby asked Jim.

The Changeling rolled over in his sleeping bag and propped himself up on one arm, facing the bed.

"He apologized for some stuff he said when he found out what I am, and he told me where troll babies come from. Whelps incubate in Heartstone chunks called 'birthstones' – which I think explains the thing about Gunmar's Birthstone being 'a rotten Heartstone'. It makes a lot more sense now. Like calling someone 'a bad seed' or 'a bad egg'. Birthstones are kind of like fish eggs, except both parents fertilize it externally. And it takes thirty years for one to hatch."


"I know, right? I wonder if some Changelings might've been taken as birthstones instead of whelps. I mean, it's got to be easier to carry a rock than a squirmy baby. I know I'd already hatched by the time I was changed, because I kind of remember it, but that's probably just so we actually know stuff by the time the age pause switches over to our Familiar."

"You remember getting turned into a Changeling?"

"Kind of," said Jim again. "It hurt a lot, especially my hands because I grew an extra finger on each one. And there were other Changelings there, too, and … our Creator."

He said the last part softly. Toby took that to mean Jim didn't want to talk about it. Them. Whatever.

"… Do you remember anything from … before? Like, your first family?"

"No, that's mostly blocked out. I half-remember being warm? And some blurry noises and smells? But I don't know if any of those are real memories or just something I invented. Like, I figure one of my parents must have been blue, but I don't remember that, I just think it because I am. And I've always been really drawn to soft things, so I think one of them might've had fur and I subconsciously remember that? But I don't actually know."

Toby didn't mean to snort, really, but –

"One blue and one with fur? So, Blinky and AAARRRGGHH?"

There was a moment of silence before Jim huffed amusedly. "Well, Blinky did just give me The Talk. But if I were going to claim any troll as my dad, I'd probably say Stricklander."

"Wait, if you guys are both Changelings, doesn't that make you the same age?"

"No, no, he's, like, centuries older than me. Enrique's around my age, though."

Bernie increased magnification and switched forms. It was a habit of hers. Trolls and humans had evolved in different lighting conditions, so troll eyes could catch a detail that human eyes could not, and vice versa.

Bular's death was tragic, of course, a deep setback to the Order's plans and an agonizing blow to the Underlord (or would be, once someone was brave enough to bear the bad news), but his remains offered a wealth of knowledge. Bernie intended to wring every scrap of information possible from the stones.

The Janus Order had not had troll remains available for study since before most of Bernie's lab equipment had been invented. Changelings who died in troll form tended to explode. Bernie had samples of the dust and was eager to see how Bular's chemical composition compared. She felt like a human paleontologist studying a mostly intact dinosaur fossil after decades working with tiny bone fragments.

First she was running a series of passive tests on the stones. More intrusive testing could wait until she and Otto and Stephan had rebuilt Bular enough that she could take samples from pre-determined areas. There could be any number of factors differentiating between what had been his horn or his stomach or his tail, and the chemical analysis would run more smoothly if she knew what she was testing.

The stones were not responsive to blacklight and showed no response to infrared other than warming up. Bernie hadn't quite dared expose Bular's remains to ultraviolet light yet – it shouldn't do anything, with the tissue already dead, but she didn't want to risk degrading the samples so early on when there was such a finite quantity. She was using infrared and ultraviolet cameras as well as a standard one to record everything.

"So far," said Bernie aloud to the video cameras, "Bular seems to be composed of a sedimentary version of the same mineral that comprises Changeling dust. That suggests we aren't as different from unaltered trolls as previously believed. Possibly the changes are more noticeable in live tissue."

She wished he had been willing to provide tissue samples while still alive. The Son of Gunmar had made it clear in life he was not interested in indulging Changeling curiosity. Decades ago, Bernie developed a formula that should work as a sunblock for trolls, but the Gumm-Gumm prince had taken offence at the request that he, as the one sun-sensitive troll available, consider testing it, and the Changeling scientist had gotten broken ribs and a broken wrist for the 'insult'. After that, Bernie stopped asking for the troll's aid in experiments.

Between comparing Bular's remains to Changeling dust and cross-referencing that with some of the old notes recovered from the Pale Lady's workshops, Bernie might be able to reverse-engineer how Changelings were made. Their numbers were limited with their Lady currently inaccessible, but if new technology could substitute for raw magical power, then their numbers could grow once more.

Bernie would meditate at the gramophone to seek Her Ladyship's approval before actually trying to recraft the formula, of course. Bernie Sturges was a lot of things, but not a blasphemer.

(Bernie thought of herself as 'Bernie' all the time, regardless of how her gender fluctuated, but classically-gendered names like 'Bernard' and 'Bernadette' were a useful verbal shorthand, to sidestep having 'the pronoun conversation' with every casual acquaintance and speed up telling those 'in the know' which pronouns to use at the moment.)

She switched back to human form to write a few more notes. She liked having a written record as well as audio-visual.

"The fact these remains are Bular's, specifically, raises another possible field of comparison," Bernie mused. "A comparison to the Eye of Gunmar may yield vital data, not only on how our eyes work, but on how genetic ties manifest in living stone. It is hypothetically possible some Changelings are related and don't know it."

Maybe siblings, maybe cousins, maybe an aunt or uncle and their niece or nephew.

"Will investigate the vault and determine which security measures I need to override to access the sample."

Bernie had been living on the base since Stricklander had sent the Order into deep cover. She was between human identities at the moment, so her disappearance would draw less notice in the world above than trying to slap a new cover together in a rush. Fortunately, she maintained a small apartment just off the lab, in case of projects which couldn't be left unsupervised.

The base had three underground stories. Bernie's lab was on the middle one, but off to the side so that any explosions could be contained by the emergency blast doors and nothing was directly above or below.

The vault was down a level and on the opposite side of the base. It had been built to store the gramophone, before it was determined that the magical wards interfered with the signal, pieces of Killahead Bridge, before construction had begun, and two other artifacts which were considered too vital to move about without direct instructions from the Order's head or the Pale Lady herself.

Bernie swapped her safety glasses for a mask and brought a few of her smaller scanners along. If she could get into the vault, she could run some tests on Gunmar's Eye before reporting the security system's weaknesses.

To her surprise and concern, the Order's head was already standing at the vault's door.

"Stricklander," she greeted. Bernie never bothered with introducing herself to him, because –

"Dr Sturges."

– Stricklander always called her that. She had a few doctorates by now, from decades infiltrating human universities to keep up with their scientific progress. 'Bernadette Sturges' was not so accredited as 'Bernard Sturges' yet, but the degrees under Bernadette's name were more recent.

"I'd like to access the Eye of Gunmar," she said, because it wasn't like Bernie had any other excuse for being on this level and Stricklander usually supported her studies.

"… Why?"

"I've been examining Bular's remains," which he'd know if he'd read the reports she'd been leaving on his desk, but he might not have been to his on-base office recently, "and I wanted to do a comparative study. Since we know they're related."

Stricklander frowned.

"You have fortunate timing, Dr Sturges," he said after a moment. "The Eye of Gunmar is about to be moved to a classified location." More classified than a secret underground bunker? Well, if Stricklander was the only one to know where the new location was, that would be more secure than a vault most Changelings knew about. "I see no problem with you studying it under supervision for the next few hours."

Opening the vault was a complicated affair. There was a Changeling lock, of course, to keep out any other trolls or humans who somehow got into the base, and then a combination lock, and then some other form of combination lock involving floating, glowing runes that Stricklander rearranged into what was probably a password – Bernie could read trollish but it still looked like gibberish – and then some kind of scanner for which Stricklander changed to his troll form.

Inside was dark and surprisingly spacious. Perhaps not surprising, considering it had held about half of the Bridge at one time. There was a shelf along the back wall, which held two boxes, kept a respectful distance apart from one another. Each box sent a faint light up the wall and to the ceiling.

Bernie was mildly surprised that both boxes were open. One would think they'd be kept sealed so that, on the off-chance a thief made it this far, they might still grab the wrong artifact.

One, the Eye of Gunmar, glowed blue. The other, the Inferna Copula, glowed golden.

"I should study the Inferna Copula as well," said Bernie. "Not now, but at some point. Legend says it's a metamorphosed piece of Angor Rot's own flesh, which he sacrificed as an offering to our Lady when he swore himself to her service."

Stricklander took the box with the eye. Bernie stayed near the vault door, ready to bolt for it if her presence set off another security system.

"He could avenge Bular," Bernie realized. "He's slain Trollhunters before, in our Lady's name."

Stricklander let out a sharp but quiet gasp. He handed Bernie the eye box and took the ring box.

"I think I had best keep this close for now."

Walter was nearly positive that Dr Sturges was working with Otto. Sturges hadn't been told the full story of Bular's demise, or they wouldn't be so open with Walt about their current project.

As Sturges examined Gunmar's Eye, talking to the various recording devices set up in the lab, Walt examined Sturges' notes. Sturges had copies of papers recovered from several of the Pale Lady's workshops, which the Order's linguistics and cryptography team had done their best to decipher and translate. Sturges was no linguist, and only a hobbyist cryptographer, but insisted on having copies of the original pages as well as translations.

The papers Walt was studying had to do with Angor Rot.

Angor had turned to the Pale Lady midway through Gunmar's first war for the surface. A few history records that Jim had recovered from Blinkous' library claimed Angor had been a hero, once, defending trollkind from the Gumm-Gumms. Perhaps that was what had driven Angor to Morgana, seeking the same power that her rival Merlin had bestowed on the Trollhunters?

If so, it seemed she had gifted him with even greater power, because at least four Trollhunters were confirmed to have died at Angor's hands, and half a dozen more were rumoured.

Angor was controlled by the Inferna Copula, the ring which contained his soul. Wielding it was hazardous; every past bearer had died gruesomely, either as or shortly after it was taken from them. The assassin himself had vanished centuries ago, supposedly having been imprisoned by Merlin, but the Janus Order had acquired his ring.

Walt could not let Otto get it. If there was a chance Angor Rot was still alive, Otto could set him against Jim, and Walter himself.

But, looking at Morgana's notes about her Champion, and the weak and sentimental heart which brought him to her … If Angor were alive, and Walt were to get to him first …

It would be a foolish quest; more foolish than the quest for the Triumbric Stones, considering that those, at least, were known to still exist.

Walt couldn't just pack up and leave Arcadia. It wouldn't look entirely suspicious to his fellow Changelings, for him to up and leave the town guarded by a Trollhunter strong enough to slay Bular, but it could incite panic and mass exodus.

And who could he leave in charge in his stead, who wouldn't be killed or overthrown but also wouldn't overthrow him? Nomura, maybe. 'A last chance to redeem yourself after the Bridge was stolen from your post.' But could he trust her that much? Could he afford to put her in the position of becoming the scapegoat if anything went wrong with the Order in his absence?

He couldn't send someone else to retrieve Angor Rot. That only raised the same questions, of who wouldn't either be killed or keep the assassin in their own service.

And could Walt really afford to take away the token protection his presence gave Jim against Otto, even for a short while in exchange for a chance to acquire a more powerful ally?

He put down the papers and examined the ring. Gold, chunky but spiky; its bulk reminded him of some Borgia rings he'd seen or worn in the past, with their hidden compartments for poison. He couldn't find any mechanisms. More out of curiosity than anything, Walt tried it on.

Vines and moss and the crushing weight of stone. Sunlight filtered through gaps in an old roof, not quite able to reach him and burn him. Arms and legs spread uncomfortably and held firm, even after centuries. Tired. Hungry. Thirsty.

Walt pulled the ring off quickly. He didn't have a perfect internal compass, but the connection between the ring and the troll had created one, if only for a moment.

Angor Rot was alive, and Walter Strickler knew exactly where to find him.

Chapter Text

The second thing Jim did when he got home, after putting his backpack and duffle bag in his room, was dust the house. It hadn't built up much in a week, since dust was mostly human skin cells and Barbara was rarely home in any case, but Jim usually dusted every day. Then he checked the lightbulbs, swept the floors, and scrubbed the bathroom. He wouldn't need to take out the trash until Monday.

Barbara didn't have work that day, and since she'd slept all morning, she was awake while Jim cleaned, which was a little weird – he usually took care of these things before making her breakfast. She half-followed him, helping dust and sweep.

"You know you don't have to do all this," she told him from the doorway, as he was wiping toothpaste stains out of the sink.

"I like taking care of you," Jim insisted. "And I wasn't sure how much you'd trust my cooking now, but this I can do."

"You understand why what you did was wrong." She hesitated. "… Right?"

"I know why it upset you," which wasn't quite the same thing. Jim knew he'd caused his mother stress when she found out about the sleeping potions, but how much more stress would it have caused her to wake up and find her child missing? "I won't do it again." She knew now, that he might be gone in the middle of the night.

Toby: -So Jim told me something last night that's really freaking me out.- -He's had a plan *since before we were ten* for how to cover up my death if I got killed by a troll.-

Mary: -… I'm sorry but also curious.-

Darci: -You OK, TP?-

Toby: -Just freaked out that my BEST FRIEND has BACKUP PLANS to HIDE MY DEATH!- -Sorry, Darcy.- -Didn't mean to snap.-

Darci: -Understandable.-

Toby: -Also sorry my phone keeps autocorrecting your name.-

Darci: -It happens.- -You're going through a lot right now. It's good to let it out.-

Claire: -Jim said WHAT?!-

Toby: -Yeah, he said if I died and he couldn't make it look like a bear attack or car crash, he'd hack my phone and tell Nana we ran away to be rockstars. He'd come back without me in a few months and say we 'got separated'.-

Mary: -That's nuts.- -I mean I might believe it but it's still nuts.-

Toby: -Back when we were kids he was gonna send a postcard saying we were looking for my parents and his dad.-

Darci: -(wince emoji) That hurts.-

Toby: -It gets worse, amazingly. He said he thinks the rockstar story could also work for you guys if *any* of us die.- -Because Dr L found out about you. Not specifically, no names- -but she knows we have other friends who know about trolls, and she wants to tell your families but Jim said no and Dr L asked what he's going to tell our families if we get killed.-

Darci: -(three wince emojis)-

Mary: -Not to derail but this means his mom's talking to him again?-

Toby: -Yeah she was at my house when we got back last night.- -She let him move back in. That's where he is now.-

Claire: -She trusts him again already? After he kidnapped and replaced her son?-

Toby: -She had this whole speech about how she adopted him and he's her son too.-

Mary: -Aawww-

Toby: -I think she was a little drunk but she didn't take it back when she sobered up.- -She's still mad about the drugging and the lying and everything, she didn't say she forgave him. Just that he can move back home.-

Claire: -So at least you're not sharing a bedroom with somebody with a plan to cover up your death anymore.-

Mary: -OMG Claire I know you're mad at Jim and I get it and you deserve to be, but will you chillax? Yeah, I just used outdated slang. That's how long it feels like you're dragging this out.-

Claire: -I'll *chillax* when my brother's not stuck in troll-hell.-

Darci: -What if we told our parents ourselves?- -You know, got ahead of Dr L and told them what's up on our terms.-

Mary: -That's a good idea. Let's talk to Jim first so he can tell us from experience what not to say.-

Toby: -Jim might have to use those cover stories because I think Trollmarket would kill us.-

"I don't want it facing where I sleep, but I've no objections to you keeping your trophy here."

"Excellent." Jim positioned Bular's head on one of the basement shelves. "I got called into the Void while I was there. The Ghost Council is really impressed we took him down. Your father wanted me to say that he's proud of you for avenging him."

Draal puffed up at the praise. It made Jim want to pat him on the head or something.

"And I wanted to thank you again for – being here. Keeping an eye on my mom."

"She faced no danger on my watch."

"You know, if you ever wanted to help out around the house, too –"

Draal snorted, making his nose ring flap. "I protect. I do not clean."

"Except for taking care of the recyclables," Jim teased. They'd had this conversation before. Draal rolled his eyes.

Jim's phone chimed. "Toby wants to meet up in Trollmarket for 'strategic brainstorming'," he read. "You want to come along?"

"What is HE doing here?!"

Jim stared, wide-eyed and jaw twitching, at Enrique, who blew a spit bubble at him from the stroller.

"I told my parents I was meeting friends at the park, and Mom said 'why don't you bring your brother?', and if I said 'no' it would've become this whole thing and they'd think we were really planning to sneak into an R-rated movie or something."

Draal had declined to leave his post, so instead of taking the tunnels and opening the door from the inside, Jim had walked with Toby to the canal. It didn't take long for the girls to join them, accompanied by an undesired extra.

"Okay," said Jim, failing to calm down but trying to at least fake it. "What are you planning to tell your parents if he's discovered and executed?"

"Not everyone spends their time coming up with ways to cover up the deaths of everyone they know!"

"I don't have plans for everyone." That would be absurd and unnecessary. "Just the people I'm close enough to that it would be more suspicious if I didn't at least know they were missing." Jim took a deep breath and let it whoosh out. "Let's get inside. Now I need to brief Enrique before we go downstairs, and that'll be easier if he can ask questions."

Stricklander and Nomura had both been startled into revealing their connection when they first visited. Jim couldn't let Enrique be exposed so easily.

After the portal's arch closed behind them, there was a crackle of green light mixed with the blue glow from the crystal staircase. Enrique unbuckled himself from the stroller and hopped over to Jim.

"Is it supposed to look like a Nyarlagroth's lair in here?"

"Creepy, right?" Jim transformed as well. "It's just the colour of the stairs. You get used to it. Tobes, would you keep watch for us? Just say my name if anybody starts coming up."

Mary snapped a photo of the two Changelings.

"The one you need to watch out for most is Vendel," said Jim. "He's in charge down there. Pale, long curly horns, carries a Heartstone staff; hopefully you won't actually meet him. Blinky, my trainer, you will meet. He's the one who looks like Dictatious. They're brothers. Don't bring that up if you're found out. If he catches you staring, just giggle like the six eyes are funny and –"

"Peek-a-boo routine, I know. I'm more in practise than you are at the baby gig right now."

"AAARRRGGHH is going to be there, too."

Enrique ducked into a crouch, ears up, slit pupils thinning to eyelash width and then dilating.

"But it's okay! He's a pacifist now. He won't attack anybody."

"You're jokin'."

"No, really."

"Why is that a shock?" asked Claire. "AAARRRGGHH's a sweetie. Unlike some trolls I could mention." Jim and Enrique didn't answer her. "Plus, I already told Blinky and AAARRRGGHH about Not Enrique, remember?"

"You what?!"

"Enrique didn't need to know that," the blue Changeling growled, holding the green one suspended in the air. "He can't risk dropping his guard down there."

"Getcher hand off me scruff or I'm taking it off your arm!"

"You guys even keep secrets from each other?" asked Toby, sitting on the top step. Darci was sitting next to him. Both humans were watching their friends over their shoulders rather than peering down below.

Jim set Enrique on the ground rather than dropping him. Enrique growled and reached behind his shoulders, rearranging and grooming his scruff as best he could, but he was glaring at Jim rather than Claire, so Jim counted it as a win.

(If he could keep fights between the Nuñez siblings from turning violent, it would be easier for them to bond, and less likely Enrique would lose his home at Claire's hand.)

"We want to tell our parents about trolls," Darci said to Blinky and AAARRRGGHH. Since she had come up with the idea, she'd been informally elected the one to tell the trolls about it.

Jim made a shrieky noise. When the group turned to him, he shook his head and waved them off, taking notably deep breaths.

AAARRRGGHH shook his head. "Bad idea. Vendel mad."

"I must concede the point. Vendel would never agree to have more humans made aware of trolls."

"Jim's mom is out to tell them anyway," said Toby. "She already told Nana. Nana thought she was talking about a video game, but still. The only thing holding Dr L back is that she doesn't actually know who to talk to yet."

"But if we tell them ourselves," said Darci, "then we can make it sound a bit less terrifying then she probably would, so they won't try to call in the army or something."

"We're not really asking permission, here," said Mary. "We're asking how to tell them, not if we can."

"… We should discuss this with Vendel," said Blinky. Darci thought his hands might be shaking, before he clenched all four into fists.

They made a tense procession through Trollmarket. Jim practically hovered over Claire and Enrique. AAARRRGGHH, at the rear of the group, made quiet snuffling sounds every few moments.

Trollmarket paid more attention to them than was usual anymore; trolls glancing at them and then muttering or whispering. Darci hoped it was the stroller drawing attention. Though, even if anyone was picking up on the mood, grimness could be passed off as 'some serious Trollhunter matter just came up'.

The stroller's wheel caught in a crack in the ground. Not Enrique made a whiny noise at the jostling, but didn't commit to the part enough to start crying.

"Vendel?" said Blinky cautiously, tapping on the Heartstone to the side of the hollow leading into and under it. "A matter of possible urgency has arisen."

There was a long pause.

"Come in, Blinkous." Vendel sounded tired. "What is it this time?"

He was at a worktable with a number of gems. Darci only recognized a few of the tools; a hammer and chisel, various sizes of tongs, a grindstone. She didn't know any of the crystal names or their properties, even after months of part-time exposure to troll culture, but Toby might.

Darci cleared her throat, and then gulped, and then cleared her throat again. She tried not to let her voice shake.

"We … Claire and Mary and Toby and I, we want to tell our parents the truth. That trolls exist."

Vendel peered at her with his seemingly blank eyes. When she'd first met him, she'd assumed he had cataracts. Now she thought his eyes were opal or moonstone. He could definitely see; she'd seen him reading.

"I suppose I have no way of stopping you. Short of having you executed, or imprisoned here forever … which I daresay our Trollhunter would object to. But know this, young humans. Should you expose the secret of our existence, a secret which you have given your oaths to guard, you will no longer be welcome here in Trollmarket."

Chapter Text

"We're not trying to break our oath of secrecy," said Darci. "We just want permission to … expand the circle of people keeping the secret."

"Permission denied." Jim had known Vendel long enough now that he could tell the dour-looking troll truly was scowling.

"You think our parents are untrustworthy?" asked Mary. She didn't sound indignant, only concerned, but she was glaring too.

"By your own admission, one of the first actions a human adult undertook after learning about trolls was attempting to expose us."

"Because she didn't have any other humans to talk to about something she was upset about," said Darci.

"And if she's going to keep trying to tell our families," added Toby, "which she probably will, then it's only a matter of time before trolls get exposed anyway."

"But if we tell them first, we can make it sound less … terrifying," said Mary.

"Banishing these four from Trollmarket won't solve the problem," Jim admitted. If he'd thought that would work then he would've pushed for it when they'd first discovered trolls. "They'll just keep looking for evidence to present, and if they run into the wrong Changeling," or worse, discovered Arcadia's other secret underground troll hideout and ran into all the Changelings, "then Gunmar's forces are going to get a windfall of information Trollmarket would rather stayed secret. Assuming they survive long enough to be interrogated."

"… You're exaggerating," said Mary.

"No. Every Changeling you've met so far has had personal incentive to keep you alive. That's not going to be universally true." Especially if Otto found out that these humans were important to the Trollhunter.

Vendel put his hand over his face. Hopefully that meant he didn't see Enrique's eyes flicker red.

"Anyway," said Darci, "our parents are going to be worried and upset, but they'll be more worried and upset if they find out about trolls and that we didn't tell them. If we tell them on our terms, we can … hold? We can … contain their reaction. Calm them down. Let them meet Blinky and AAARRRGGHH, see trolls aren't so scary, before telling them about Gumm-Gumms and Changelings."

"For the record, we have not yet agreed to that," said Blinky.

Claire spoke up at last. "The citizens of Trollmarket are accustomed to us. They could adjust to more humans being here."

"The citizens of Trollmarket believe your presence here to be a temporary measure," Vendel countered, "for our current Trollhunter's mental wellbeing, until his human fragility gets him killed."

Each human gave Jim a sharp look, eyes wide, mouths slightly open, brows just starting to pinch in the middle. He forced a tight smile. "Vendel knows. Most of Trollmarket do not."

Claire's point was actually a tempting one. If Jim could recruit more Changelings, and Blinky and AAARRRGGHH could get Vendel's support in reintegrating them into troll society – well, not every Changeling was going to want to give up their human shape. If the trolls were already used to having many humans around, and accustomed to interacting with them as people, that might create a safe environment for the shapeshifters to go about their lives in either shape.

"Besides," continued Vendel, "you four are younglings, and therefore less likely to be taken as a threat than an adult."

"How many trolls would even know that, though?" Toby asked.

"Enough that you have been permitted relatively free passage through our market without a guard to supervise you."

"So, some kind of probationary period after we tell our families, then?" Darci suggested, slipping back into English. "Like, they can't be in Trollmarket without Blinky or AAARRRGGHH?"

Vendel used his staff to push himself up a little taller. "That is irrelevant, because your families will not be visiting Trollmarket at all."

Good attempt at the 'act like permission has been granted' manipulation technique, though, Jim thought.

"Troll have remained hidden from humans for centuries. I will not risk another war with the surface by initiating contact. My foremost responsibility is to the wellbeing of Trollmarket, and my word on this matter is final."

"If a bunch of kids could find you, it's only a matter of time before you're exposed anyway!" snipped Mary. "Just about every human carries a videophone nowadays, and not all the footage is going to be a Bigfoot-style blur! Wouldn't it be safer for trolls then if you already had some human contacts who aren't kids?"

Vendel growled. Jim stepped between them, not all the way, just enough that Mary was half behind him.

"Good talk." AAARRRGGHH picked up Toby, who was closest, then Mary, Darci, and Claire, depositing the humans onto his back. "Talk more later." He scooped Jim up in one arm and Enrique, stroller and all, in the other, and exited the Heartstone's hollow walking on his back legs.

"I hope you all realize the severity of what you're attempting," said Blinky.

"It would've been nice if you'd backed us up," Darci grumbled. "You know Vendel better than we do; you've got to have some idea how to change his mind."

"You are asking that we set aside centuries of hard-learned caution. The best thing to do now is allow our Elder to consider your reasoning in peace."

"My parents have a right to know about Enrique." Claire's voice was soft and bitter.

Because that's going to help, how, exactly? Jim did not say.

"And Jim, you said Changelings are sterile," said Darci, "so since none of us are adopted, it's not like we have to worry about our parents being Changelings."

"Well, there's my stepmom, I guess," Mary said. "I don't think Jen's a Changeling, though. She was super mad that time she caught me breaking curfew and her eyes never turned red."

"That's under semi-voluntary control," Jim muttered.

AAARRRGGHH was still carrying all of them. Jim understood AAARRRGGHH not wanting to expose his scruff to a known Changeling. But knowing the humans were on the giant troll's back, and Jim was not, was giving him the same squirmy feeling in his gut as when Blinky first started teaching the humans trollish and Jim wasn't his only student anymore.

"You can probably put us down now," said Jim, more loudly.

Barbara ordered a pizza for dinner. Jim did not outwardly take offense. She studied him carefully. Nothing about him had changed that she could tell, since she'd found out, but she felt like she didn't know how to read his expressions anymore.

Barbara cut her pizza slice in half. "So. Did you and Toby have a nice time in Trollmarket?"

"Not really." Jim put his slice down. "We were mostly debating Vendel. Da–The humans, who know about trolls? Suggested they should tell their families themselves. Toby warned them that you know. They agreed their families would probably take it better from them than a stranger."

Barbara could see the logic in that. She was glad to hear these kids were taking initiative. Even if it would have been better for them to be honest with their parents from the start, at least the truth was finally coming out.

She internally celebrated too soon.

"Vendel thinks it's too big a risk. He said if they tell anyone, they won't be allowed in Trollmarket anymore. Part of me thinks they shouldn't go down there anyway, I don't want to be the Trollhunter who got a bunch of human children killed, but I don't think they can be trusted not to look for more trolls, you know? And if Ot-ther Changelings found them, that would be … bad."

Jim gulped some water.

"But Vendel's worried, and for good reason, that too many humans knowing might reignite a species war. And just because these trolls were on the 'killing humans creates more problems than it solves' side of the last big troll war, doesn't mean humans are going to react peacefully to learning there are human-eating trolls. I mean, it's not like you can tell before you're in eating range. And just because a troll doesn't eat humans doesn't mean they care about preserving human life."

Barbara bit her tongue and nodded. This was troubling, but good. Jim was sharing things with her, being honest with her, just as she'd asked.

"So, I have a favour to ask."

"What's that?" she asked.

"Give us a month? Before you start trying to figure out who else knows and whose parents you need to call for 'troll-intervention'. To let them convince Vendel and at least give us a chance to tell people ourselves."

Barbara got out her phone and opened the calender app. She didn't name the notice, just put an exclamation point.

"Thirty days, starting tomorrow."

"Thanks." Jim smiled at her. He didn't say anything more.

He hadn't called her 'Mom' since she'd kicked him out.