Her phone's incessant beeping wailed in her ear, forcing her out of a deep sleep to face another day.
Or night. Or….whatever…
Claire smacked the alarm button off. Flopping back in bed, she rubbed her eyes in frustration. She hadn't slept well; but regardless, she had to get up. Another night of patrol. She wondered what this would bring, since last night was...eventful.
She and Jim had been out for a patrol in the New Jersey woods like they had done every night the last eight months. They had always had run-ins with ill-intentioned creatures; it was an occupational hazard.
Last night, however, introduced a new creature neither of them had ever seen. Whatever it had been, it definitely wasn’t a troll—not any they knew at least. It had been huge, crawled on all fours, and had two rows of dagger-like teeth. That much Claire had been able to tell when it pinned her to the ground.
She remembered screaming for Jim, its jaws inching towards her face as its hot breath burned her lungs.
A blur had lashed out over her head, knocking the creature backwards.
She had scrambled out of the way and turned to see Jim on all fours like the creature, his lips pulled back to bare his own fangs. A deep growl had resonated from him, sounding ominously like the creature.
The thing had lunged for his neck, but Jim reared back and swiped at it with his clawed hands, slicing the creature's face. With a hiss, it had turned and darted back into the forest.
Jim breathed heavily, hunching forward on two legs as though about to give chase. After a moment, his ears perked up, and the growling ceased. He turned back to Claire, about to come to her side.
She backed away, her eyes locked on his bloody claws.
The reality of what he had just done hit him. His horrified expression burned in her mind; his hands, covered in dirt and blood from where he had crawled across the ground, shook violently. He had reached out to her, his eyes pleading for help.
Claire shook her head, now trying to dispel the memories. She didn't want to remember what she had done next. She had practically run from him; perhaps she had even shouted at him to stay away. Claire couldn’t quite remember, and frankly didn’t want to. She felt guilty enough as it was.
A chill still went through her spine as she recalled Jim's face; fangs bared, and animalistic glare in his eye.
That hadn't been her Jim; not the Jim she knew.
She groaned, frustrated with herself. She had to get over this. Jim wasn’t some creature to her, but she was certain he thought that now. Yes, she had been scared, but that was no excuse for her actions. She needed to apologize to Jim; now.
However, the prospect of facing him scared her even more. How could she possibly present herself to him after how she had treated him? If he didn’t hate himself, he would surely hate her.
Maybe I should talk to Blinky first...Clare pondered. If anyone could give her a reasonably answer on how to deal with Jim, it would be Blinky. After Claire, he knew Jim better than anyone in Troll Market. Granted, Merlin would probably know better about what new tendencies she ought to expect from Jim, but she'd rather not come to the old wizard with her emotional problems. He was logical and rational, but Blinky cared for Jim. He would understand where she was coming from...hopefully...
Changing quickly, she darted from her room, praying that she wouldn't see Jim until she had talked things over with Blinky. Thankfully, it seemed like he was already up early; there wasn't any activity from his room, which sat next to hers. "Room" being a generous term for a small cavern or large nook with a heavy curtain that served to give them some semblance of privacy.
Finding the library door closed, Claire rapped on it loudly, making her knock heard through the heavy wood. The scuttle of stony steps could be heard on the other side, and the door swung open to reveal Blinky.
"Miss Claire! A pleasure to see you! Should you not be preparing with—"
"I need to talk to you Blinky, now."
A little taken aback by her abruptness, Blinky stepped aside, allowing her into the warmly lit chamber.
Finding a seat not laden with books, Claire sat heavily, dropping her face into her hands. She felt ready to cry; but she at least had to explain the situation before she fell apart into a blubbering mess.
A stony hand gently touched her shoulder. "Claire? What's wrong, my dear?"
Claire look up, meeting Blinky's many eyes, her own shining with tears.
"Something…happened last night Blinky…I don't know what to do about it…"
Understanding, Blinky cleared the spot next to Claire and sat beside her. He wrapped an arm around her shoulder, patting her gently.
That simple action was all it took to unleash the flood of emotions. Her tears spilled over, and her breathing broke into sobs as she tried to explain. Somehow, through the tears, she managed to make some sense about the creature and Jim’s reaction. However much of it Blinky understood, she wasn’t sure, but he at least seemed to understand the gist of it all.
Blinky rubbed her shoulder sympathetically, "I had expected that Jim would take on some more troll-like mannerisms, so I am not entirely surprised, but it’s still concerning nonetheless. I can't imagine how upsetting it must be."
Claire shook her head, sniffling loudly in an attempt to compose herself. "But that's not what's upsetting me! I'm mad at me!"
Blinky grew silent, waiting for her to explain.
"I was horrible, Blinky! I yelled at him, I wouldn't let him touch me; I tried to run away! How could I do that to him, Blinky?? He was scared too; probably more scared than me. He probably still is. And I made it worse! He's already having a hard enough time as it is, and now he must think he's a monster, when he's not at all, I'm the terrible person here!"
"Now Claire," Blinky wrapped his arms around Claire, letting her sink into him as she fell apart into tears again. "Don't be too hard on yourself; you were frightened. But the important thing is that you are sorry. I think you and he need to have a good, long talk about this."
"A talk about what?" A gruff voice asked from the back of the room. Claire lifted her head and saw Merlin striding into the cluttered library.
Blinky huffed in annoyance, as he usually did when he saw the wizard. "Apparently, Jim's more trollish tendencies came out last night. It's nothing for you to be concerned about."
Merlin straightened rigidly, his feathers clearly ruffled. "It sounds exactly like what I should be concerned about. He is my Trollhunter; I transformed him."
"And that makes you some expert?” Blinky retorted. “You said yourself, you did not know what would happen either!"
Claire lifted herself up, wiping away some tears. "Actually Blinky, it may not be a bad idea to talk to Merlin, too. He should know about what’s happening, at least.”
Blinky look ready to argue, but logic held him from making any solid fight against Merlin.
"It is a very good idea," Merlin replied without hiding his smug grin. He cleared a few tomes from a nearby chair and sat erect, facing Claire. “Now explain.”
Claire huffed, annoyed at his commanding tone. “As usual, Jim and I went on patrol last night, but we ran into a creature we’ve never seen. It was...almost trollish, but not like any we know. Especially the teeth...It attacked us, and well, Jim acted out in a way we had never seen before. He was down on all fours and snarling like--”
“What did this creature look like?” Merlin interjected.
Claire was a bit taken aback; why was he more concerned with the creature than Jim? “I couldn’t see much, but it crawled on all fours, and it had two rows of teeth, which got uncomfortably close to my face.”
Merlin’s brow furrowed further. “What was the creature’s skin like?”
“It was too dark to really tell, but it didn’t look like troll skin; definitely wasn’t human skin.”
“The face? How was it built?”
Claire puzzled, trying to remember past the horrible fangs. “It was long, almost like a horse.”
“And the fur? What color was it?”
“Black, but...” Claire paused. She hadn’t mentioned fur.
Merlin stared into space. Stroking his beard and thinking hard. For the first time, he seemed genuinely worried about something.
After a moment he snapped out of it. “You were telling me the Trollhunter’s reaction, yes?”
Claire was put off by his sudden change but tried to brush it off as more of Merlin’s odd antics. “Well…yeah. He got down on all four and was snarling at the thing. He hurt it pretty badly with his claws, and it ran away. I think Jim’s reaction scared us both more than that thing. I’ve never seen Jim act like that, and I don’t think he meant to, either. It seemed more instinctual than logical.”
Merlin shrugged, his haughty demeanor back. “This is not unusual. Most of the more combatant troll species react the same way when faced with danger. I’m surprised it took this long for him to have such an experience. It’s nothing to be afraid of; however, I would discourage reacting as such on a regular basis. Jim needs to retain his humanity, and I fear delving too deeply into these trollish instincts may make some more human tendencies dormant.”
Merlin stood from the chair, many pops and cracks of age accompanying him as he approached Claire. “You, Miss Claire, will have much influence over that balance.”
Claire blinked in surprise. “How so?”
“You are the last connection he has to his human life here in Troll Market. It is quite fortuitous that you chose to join him here. Without you, I would be greatly concerned about his well-being.”
Claire tried to wrap her mind around the concept that Merlin was, in his way, complimenting her and expressing some sort of concern for Jim. “Um, thank you? I guess?”
Merlin chuckled. “Oh, don’t thank me just yet; not until you hear my offer at least.”
Claire and Blinky side-glanced at each other, concerned as to what the wizard meant by “offer.”
“Considering the fact that you are a necessary life-line for the Trollhunter, and the issue that his lifespan is now considerably longer than yours, plus the fact that you have shown some aptitude for magical abilities, I am offering you the chance to learn under me as my apprentice in the magical arts, Miss Nuñez. What say you?”
A wire burst in Claire’s brain momentarily; there were at least three things she was trying to comprehend in an instant. First, she was apparently the one thing keeping Jim on the brink of sanity, no pressure; second, Jim did have a longer life-span than her and she had failed to consider the true weight of that fact; and third, Merlin, one of the oldest and most influential wizards in history, wanted to train her as his apprentice?
The last statement seemed to solve the first two, which in a way relieved some of the pressure for her, but by no means made the idea less intimidating. She dropped her head into her hands. “Wait wait wait...hold the phone...you want to train me?”
Merlin nodded, although Claire didn’t notice, as wrapped up in her thoughts as she was. She tried to consider all the options, everything such an opportunity could mean for her. Despite all the questions swirling around in her head, one took dominance.
Merlin chuckled. “Why you? Well, you do have some natural ability, outside of what Morgana gave you, which does also concern me; Morgana does have a connection through you, and that could be problematic when she regains her strength. You need to fortify yourself against her powers, but also cultivate your own for the good of Troll Market and, quite frankly, anyone and everyone you could influence.”
Claire nodded, adding these facts to the dozens of considerations she had to face.
“I don’t need an answer right away; I actually do need to run to the medical unit to help whip up some remedies, but I will allow you to consider this for a few days. If you need to discuss it further, I will make myself available as needed.”
Claire nodded absentmindedly, still lost in her thoughts.
A heavy hand on her shoulder snapped her back to reality. She looked up to Merlin, standing ominously over her.
“I do hope you accept my offer, Miss Nuñez. It will be best for everyone.”
With that, Merlin strode out of the library, leaving Claire and Blinky alone once again in the cramped room.
Neither said anything. What could be said?
In his fashion, Blinky spoke first. “Well...that is quite an offer, no?”
Claire chuckled nervously. “Yeah...never would have guessed Merlin would stoop so low as to accept a student.”
Blinky laughed out loud, enjoying the jab at the crotchety old wizard. “Indeed! But if even he admits it, then you must truly be a talented young witch, Miss Claire!”
Witch...That word echoed in Claire’s mind. It...didn’t sound as bad as she thought. The idea rather excited her, if anything. Claire Nuñez; a witch? A real magic-wielding witch? It sounded better and better the more she repeated the prospect to herself.
“What do you think, Blinky?” She asked hesitantly.
“What do I think?” Blinky wrapped an arm around her shoulder comfortingly. “I think you know; I believe you can achieve anything, Claire. You are by far the brightest and most capable human I have ever known, including Master Jim!”
A shock ran through her, “Jim!!! My gosh, if I should be asking anyone, it’s him!” Claire bounced up and raced to the door.
Blinky cheered triumphantly. “Of course! Tell our Trollhunter the excellent news! Soon, Troll Market will have two magic-wielders!”
Claire ran through the caverns of Troll Market, unable to resist the smile growing. This could be the solution to all their problems! Plus, an amazing new adventure for Claire; one she had never considered. What could be the downside?
But where was Jim? She hoped desperately that he hadn’t gone out on patrol yet; it would be impossible to find him in the forest at this time of night.
Thankfully, this Troll Market was considerably smaller than the one in Arcadia. Well, it wasn’t good for the number of Trolls who had to live there, but at least while Claire was running back and forth through the caverns, she was glad of the size.
She rounded a corner into the cavern containing the new Heartstone. There he was, standing beside the golden gem, deep in thought.
“Jim!” Claire called out, racing to his side.
Jim turned to see who had called out to him, and practically reeled back in shock as Claire barreled towards him.
Nearly slamming into him, Claire grabbed Jim’s arm to steady herself. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” She panted out.
Jim looked to the side, not meeting her eyes. “You...you were looking for me?”
Claire gulped, trying to catch her breath. “Well yeah! I’ve got the most amazing thing to tell you!”
Claire stopped, noticing how far he was holding himself from her. “But what?”
Jim continued to stare at the floor, letting her use his arm for support but clearly uncomfortable.
Claire suddenly remembered the previous night’s events. In her excitement over the prospect of learning magic, she had completely forgotten.
She released his arm and backed away a step, suddenly feeling sheepish herself. How could she possibly explain her behavior last night? Truthfully, there was no explanation; it was inexcusable. She needed to apologize; she had been meaning to since the moment she woke up. Now was the time.
“Jim...I am so sorry.”
Jim looked up, baffled by her confession. “You’re...wait what???”
“I’m...I’m sorry. I was horrible last night. I got scared but that is no excuse for how I acted. You were scared too, and I just made it worse. So I’m sorry.”
Jim’s eyes darkened. “You shouldn’t be; you had every right to be scared. Whatever I became last night...it was terrifying.” He clenched his fists, seeming angry with himself. “You...you should be scared of me.”
Claire grabbed his hand, “No. You are not some creature to fear, Jim. You only acted out to protect me.”
“But what if I hadn’t?” Jim finally met her eyes. “What if I lashed out like that to anyone who made me mad? What if I did that you?” He yanked his hand away, revealing his disgust with himself.
Claire grabbed his hand again, refusing to let him give in to such thoughts. “But you wouldn’t; I know that! And so do you!”
He shook his head. “I’m not sure about anything anymore Claire...”
She rolled her eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“What I mean is...” He took a deep breath. “I...I think you should leave Troll Market.”
She was certain she hadn’t heard him correctly. “I’m sorry, what?”
Jim scuffed the ground with toe of his boot. “I think you should leave Troll Market.”
Claire’s heart skipped a beat. She dropped his hand, shocked at the prospect. "Leave?”
He crossed his arms, trying to appear stoic. “Yeah...leave...because, well, I obviously can’t keep you safe, and then there’s the age issue...I was so sure we could make this work, but now I think—”
“Merlin offered to make me his apprentice.”
This effectively shut Jim up. He blinked in bewilderment.
Claire continued, using his silence as a spring board. “If I learn under Merlin, I can protect myself, and my life will be longer.”
Jim stayed silent.
Claire stepped closer, trying to coax him to look at her. “Jim, don’t you see? All those things you’re worried about, they would mean nothing! There would be no boundaries! Nothing to keep us--”
“You really trust Merlin?” Jim snapped. “After everything he’s done, you seriously trust him to keep any of his promises?”
Claire struggled to find a counter-argument; frankly, Jim was right. Could she trust Merlin to keep his word? Could she trust that she would be able to learn enough to protect herself? Would her life be longer? Or by the time she learned he had lied, would it be too late?
Only one argument came to mind. “It’s...it’s our only option Jim. If I study under him, we at least have a chance!”
Jim rolled his eyes. “A chance...that’s all Merlin can ever give; a chance. A chance that I’ll have to watch you die, really, is what he’s giving.”
“That’s not fair!” Claire practically shouted.
“Is it fair to force you into a life that would amount to nothing and ruin you, Claire?” Jim retorted, nearly matching her volume. “I refuse to let you ruin your life for a thing like me!”
“That’s my choice, Jim Lake Jr.! And I’m not throwing my life away!”
He chuckled, mostly out of annoyance with Claire’s stubbornness. “Well yeah, you kind of are! If you decide to study with Merlin, then you’re giving up the chance to go to college, live with your family, and...and...and everything that I already gave up! I can’t watch you make the same sacrifices I made but get nothing from it!”
“Nothing???” Claire jabbed a finger into his chest plate. “You are not nothing! This is my choice to make, Jim!”
He pushed her hand away roughly. “And I won’t sit by and let you do this!”
“And you think you can stop me??”
Jim growled in frustration. He pushed past her. “I have to go; it’s getting late and I still need to patrol.”
Claire whirled around, livid with him, but trying to control it. “Then what am I supposed to do, Trollhunter?” She regretted the sneering insult as soon as it came out of her mouth.
Jim halted in his tracks, catching the obvious disdain in her voice. “Just...” His anger seemed to have lost its flame. He sighed heavily, still facing the vast cavern. “Just go cover the north and east ends. It’ll go faster if we split up.
Guilt settled in on Claire, but she was unsure what to say to dispel the situation. “Fine.”
He remained silent for a moment longer. “Fine.” He mumbled; he whisked down the corridor, disappearing into the shadows.
What just happened? Claire wondered. If she had thought that the wall built from the previous night’s incident could have been broken down, it had only thickened, and Claire could see no way to breech that barrier.