Author's Note: Hello all! I'm not dead! I've actively been writing this chapter on and off over the course of 2019. It was a chaotic year for me. I was very sick most of the time and when I was well I was working. So yeah, overtime and being allergic to literally everything caused the delay. Hopefully time will be kinder to me this year. But welcome to Chapter 27! A lot of juicy info and a titan from cannon snk makes his appearance.
Summary: A young adult Atlas struggles against the cruelty of the world, but it can be beautiful. Meanwhile, truths replace lies.
If there are errors please PM me. Also, I update when I can, so please don't ask about updates. Don't worry, I'm always working on this fic.
Wind carried the scents of animals across the forest into the plains, its touch ruffling his hair and nipping at the long blades of grass. Practiced golds watched over all before him, the creature silent as he studied. The beast shifted in his seat, placing himself upon his rump as his gaze examined the young adult Hunters engage in various activities with one another – those activities being anything but a friendly social gathering. Currently, the adolescent titans were testing themselves and practicing the art that their species was known for. Below the knoll that he was perched upon, the young titans were either going over their own strategies or participating in friendly duels. Around the clearing, his keen senses could pick out the few curious Mentors in search of a potential pupil to select for the coming ceremony to choose an Advancer. He couldn't help but do the same, the next day he would have to announce his choice to the pack as well.
Titus sighed, his breath long and drawn out as he continued to examine his potential apprentices – a great way to spend the time as he waited for his current pupil to arrive for one last but very important lesson. Below him, practicing certain moves that they had seen in the duels and exchanging practice blows and counters were Kana and Tano. The two had grown a lot over the passing of time as pups do when they reach three years of age – the titan equivalent of a teenager according to a passing human. Kana was certainly appearing more feminine from her previous childlike physique – reminding him of Jade at that age. Her hips were more curved – built to cradle a heavy belly full of pups in the future and her chest was more pronounced. Like most young titans at this stage, her muscles were beginning to become more defined; shoulders broadening and any ounce of fat left over from the days of being less than nine and a half meters tall was long gone. From his quiet observations, he could tell Kana had a lot of energy and spunk – something quite useful to a Mentor. Tano was shaping up to be more like an adult male, his body having grown slightly taller than his friend's with his muscles giving away his gender – stomach lined with faint indications of coming abdominals. The two's hair had grown out, similar in length and texture but with Tano showing some signs of gaining a small amount of facial hair in the future. Though Tano was lanky like most, one look at the titan's hands and their masculinity showed that he would be quite the picturesque image of a Hunter. Tano had a different personality compared to Kana. He was calm and calculative – aspects that were also useful. Intelligence went a long way when it came to the art of combat and hunting. The two were good choices for a pupil, not to mention they treated Atlas well which was a major plus.
Titus remained still, almost like something poised to attack prey as he kept his gaze onto the two titans. Kana raised a fist, sending it directly at Tano who blocked and countered with a low sweep as to which Kana smoothly avoided. He smiled, watching as the two paused to complement one another before returning to their activity. He held the two with high regard.
The Mentor's ears shifted at the sound of his current pupil's voice and advance. He rotated his head to see Jade lowering to take her seat with him, he himself offering a low grunt in greeting. For a moment, she was quiet, her eyes scanning the young titans below before she heaved an almost inquisitive sigh. "YUU… LIKE ANYY?" Her query fell upon his ears clearly, but the simply question left him to hesitate.
He finally hummed. "HMM… KANA AND TANO. THEY… BOTH… SEEM… TRAINABLE. BRIGHT… FUTURES." Titus replied finally with Jade nodding in agreement. A sudden series of snarls met their ears, instantly drawing their attention to none other than Mitus who was brawling with another titan on the far end of the glade. Titus watched, taking notice of the young titan's bristling hair and face that had pulled itself into a menacing snarl. Like a wolf he was, ready to make his move and use any means necessary to win. Mitus's opponent was clearly stiff, nervous to advance. If it was one tactic that Titus noticed the young titan favored and mastered it was the art of intimidation – something that the beast had practiced since he was a pup. The young titan puffed, making himself appear even bigger as he nearly stood on the tips of his toes with his teeth barred and nearly ready to snag flesh. Mitus then released a screech, not capable of a deep roar like all titans of the age, as he seemed to revel in his opponent's apparent flinch. Then, as smooth as he could, Mitus performed a low sweep with his fist – hitting his opponent in the jaw to stun them. Before his foe could make a move, the young behemoth tackled the other to the unforgiving ground and sunk his teeth into the other's shoulder. The titan beneath him yelped loudly, clawing in an attempt to get free before Mitus voluntarily let go, standing upright only to kick his spawning partner in the spine. The other young titan nearly let out a scream as he curled up at the agony. Mitus huffed, the smirk so broad Titus could clearly see it from his position, before he turned to his so called allies before proceeding to make their way across the glade. Titus's lip slightly curled, disgusted.
"MITUSS. HE… HASS NOOT CHANGEDD." He heard his pupil mutter, her eyes narrowed at the young titan. "WHAT AH BULLE."
Watching the young titan, Titus let out an exasperated sigh, his mind referring to darker days a number of years before. "HE'S ARROGANT AND A DISGRACE." He paused, watching Mitus try to take on another opponent. "HE'S LIKE… HIS FATHER."
Jade shifted her gaze at his words, looking to him with a questioning glance. He knew the look well; she was about to force him into talking about a difficult subject. "HISS… FATHER?THORN… WAS IT? HE WASS UR… STUDDENT ONCEE… BUTT YUU DONTT TALKK ABOUTT HINN MUCHH."
Titus leaned back in the slightest. "HE'S NOT… A PUPIL I LIKE… TO SPEAK ABOUT. I… STILL REGRET SELECTING HIM. THORN IS… WAS DIFFICULT TO TRAIN… AND DEAL WITH. HE WASN'T…" Titus struggled to describe the experience. "THORN'S ARROGANCE… MADE HIM COCKY. OFTEN, HE BARELY WANTED TO… HEED MY TEACHINGS. HE FOUGHT… DIRTY… RESORTING TO PRIMAL… BEHAVIOR – WHICH CAN COME… AS A DOWNFALL… IN BATTLE. HE… DIDN'T… BECOME A MENTOR… DUE TO THIS." He announced, with Jade raising a brow. "STRONG TITAN INDEED. ONE OF THE STRONGEST… HUNTERS… TRULY. BUT… IN THE END, HIS PRIDE… KICKS HIM. HIS SON… MITUS… IS FOLLOWING IN HIS… FOOTSTEPS. I… AM NOT SELECTING HIM." Titus concluded with a disappointed grunt, folding his arms as Jadedipped her head with acknowledgement – eyes drifting back onto Mitus who was currently selecting a much weaker titan to spar with. It was a long moment before Jade huffed.
"EII… CAN SEE WEIII YUU WOULDNTT PICK HIIN. ANY…IDEASS WHOO THOGHH?"
Titus bit his lip. "EITHER… TANO OR KANA. BOTH GOOD."
Jade hummed in likeness. "EII LIKK DEMM. GRREAT CHOICES." She paused, seemingly pondering before turning to him with an easy smile upon her face AT EASST… ATLASS IS DIFFRENTT FRONN MITUSS!" The Advancer pointed out, giving a kind huff in amusement. At the statement, Titus couldn't help the warm feeling settling into his chest.
As he nodded in agreement, his mind instantly thought about the young titan under his wing. Atlas had changed quite a bit over the passing months. He certainly didn't look like a pup anymore. Atlas now stood at nine and a half meters, a clear growth spurt since the previous year. Of course, like the stature of most titans his age, he was lanky, almost clumsy looking, hands and feet appearing slightly too large for him. But there was a clear difference the young titan had in comparison to most – a detail that clearly matched the fact that Atlas's body was superior. The adolescent behemoth's budding muscles were more defined. With each movement, Titus could practically see them bulging beneath his skin. If anything, the definition was foreshadowing just what Atlas would look like and just how strong he would be. Other cosmetic changes included the fact that his chubby 'baby face' as humans would say, was completely gone. It reflected a young adult's – his cheeks were starting to sink, his jawline was sharper, nose was growing more pointed, and his ears didn't look so oversize. Atlas's hair had grown longer, nearly touching the surface of his broadening shoulders. In the future, like his body, his face would become more defined and sharper. He was certainly growing up to be a good looking titan.
However, there were some developments that had occurred with Atlas that did concern Titus. For one, due to his indifference, Atlas was quite the loner. In fact, Titus would even say that it seemed as if the young titan didn't live with the pack at all. He stayed in his own territory and just as far away from the heart of the pack's territory as much as possible. Atlas seemed to spend much of his time collecting odds and ends when he wasn't watching Jade training with him. Every time, he would venture into Atlas's den, the young titan's collection seemed to be slightly bigger each time – the titan always eager to show him new things that he had acquired. Not going to the pack's food supply, he knew that Atlas was hunting for himself. The young titan clearly had a knack for the art – he knew that ever since the day that he had killed a nine meter as a mere pup. In addition to that, he would often see Atlas with a bloated stomach – clearly having engorged himself on a meal. The thing though that worried him the most was something that he had feared would happen. Atlas was mentally still like a pup. He was playful and would often try to roughhouse with him during free time and coax Jade into simple games of chase. He sometimes had immature reactions like whining and plopping down upon his rear when faced with a declaration he wasn't fond of. Atlas had thankfully slowed down on his displays of affection, but at points the young titan would get so happy that he couldn't help but nearly tackle him just to get a few rubs and licks in. Sometimes it seemed that Atlas would get overly excited about something so simple which included even the tiniest of kind gestures to just seeing small animals. Titus had grown to tolerate the behavior and would even say that sometimes he even found it endearing. But of course, the other titans that managed to see Atlas's actions did think otherwise.
There was also a trait that developed that Titus was borderline positive and negative about. Atlas for whatever reason seemed very in tune with his more animalistic side. Sure, Hunters did display this behavior, but with Atlas it seemed somehow amplified. It would show through actions and body language all the way to hunting behavior even when Atlas wasn't hunting. The young titan would scent things more, roll over in submission, blowing leaves would become play things, and Atlas would even cover up other animal smells with his own musk. On several occasions did he see the young titan sample another titan's mild scenting – turning back to look at him much like a cat would with eyes wide and mouth hung open in the slightest – panting. It wasn't uncommon either to see Atlas sulking on all fours like some sort of primitive being. The adolescent titan was also very vocal though he couldn't speak. Some of the sounds Atlas made he couldn't even compare to those of common Hunter titan vocals. He supposed this was just Atlas's compensation when it came to communicating – the young titan had to substitute sounds for words after all.
Still, with his discovery of Atlas's level of intelligence the previous year, he held high hopes.
Of course, he still hadn't spoken a word of Atlas's accomplishment for he still was hesitant on the reaction it would receive. He didn't know how Azeroron would take the young titan's self-seclusion from the pack. Inwardly, he often cursed himself on exactly how to say anything, knowing he would be faced with the lack of belief or even backlash.
Even so, he dreaded the day that Atlas would somehow ask him why. Why was he different? Why was he treated the way he was treated? Titus knew the day was coming. Though others would make nothing of it, Atlas did formulate questions in his own way. He would inquire with hand gestures and various noises – rough vocals usually meant he was frustrated while a quiet or smooth one was just a simple query that required no complex answer. Titus couldn't deny the slight clues that Atlas was sometimes frustrated with himself for either something that he did incorrectly or when he received negative reactions from other titans. It was small implications like furrowing of the brow, a slight frown, hunching over in the slightest, a hitched breath, and sinking ears. Essentially, Titus didn't believe there was anything wrong with Atlas. The young titan was just created differently. Though his behavior was odd, Atlas could do some extraordinary things and he was getting along fine living predominantly on his own. There were even times where Titus wondered if all Hunters were supposed to be like Atlas – the young titan after all was of perfect proportions. The first in centuries. Maybe he was what the other Hunters were destined to be one day. For now however, it was an unsupported theory. He didn't know how he could tell the young titan this, that he was special but for good reason. Not a mistake. With all the torment and heartbreak he had been through, he didn't know if Atlas would believe him.
He often questioned his parenting. He wasn't the greatest at it. At all.
"YES." Titus finally replied. "HE IS… THANKFULLY." He sighed, leaning casually in the opposite direction.
"WHEREE ISS… HE?" Jade brought up, pointing out the fact that Atlas's scent wasn't in the area. Titus of course wasn't alarmed.
"PROBABLY… STILL DOING HIS… GATHERER DUTIES." Titus yawned in the slightest, the sound resembling the rumble of the great cats. "YOU KNOW… HE TAKES A LITTLE LONGER. GETS… SIDE TRACKED." He explained with Jade nodding in understanding yet again. Another thing that Atlas and the unassigned young titans did of course was general Gatherer duties. Atlas of course was no exception and such duties were the only thing he really was involved in the pack with besides the fact that he was a full blooded Hunter Titan. However, when preforming such a task, Atlas did often get distracted by other things in nature, sometimes abandoning his work for several hours to do whatever suited his fancy before getting back to the job. Atlas was usually last to finish when it came to delivering the goods to the pack. Sure, Azeroron tolerated this action, but Titus could practically feel the irritation radiating off their leader. He had warned the titan not to do this but his message seemed to have fallen upon deaf ears. Atlas wouldn't be able to fool around later once he was assigned his position.
"AHH YESS." Jade huffed, her smile still soft. "EVERYTHINGG… IS BLOOMINGG…THISS TINNE OFF YEERR."
Titus nodded, knowing what she had meant. It was spring, so there certainly were distractions. The great titan then looked to the shadows' position dancing down from the surrounding trees, giving him the time and letting him know that his search was finished for now. "THE DUELS… BEGIN IN A FEW… HOURS. JADE… GO REVIEW… SOME OF YOUR MOVES. I WILL… GO FIND ATLAS. AFTER THAT… WE WILL MEET UP… WITH YOU. DON'T WAIT… IF I AM LATE… ALRIGHT?"
At his decree, the Advancer bowed her head, gurgling softly with understanding before following his order. Titus then stood, looking over at his potential candidates before making his way back into the forest. Hopefully Atlas wasn't getting too much into mischief.
His ears flickered, turning towards whatever direction a bird's melody originated as well as to the sounds of snapping twigs caused by animal culprits. In his arms, he carried what was needed, branches from pines – sycamore trees all the way to redwoods. He wore a mixed expression, one that looked almost disinterested but yet was alert, looking to break away from the monotony. Atlas was quite bored. This was normal when it came to his Gatherer duties that he and the other young three year titans did. He found them incredibly difficult mostly because he couldn't stand them. He didn't like collecting the branches and quite frankly didn't understand why such a job existed – after all each titan could just collect for their own nests like he did. But he supposed that it was like Titus had said – it was just something that built character.
In comparison to the other young behemoths that took care of their Gatherer duties as quickly as possible, he was relatively slow. This was mostly because of the many distractions he came upon. He was always on the lookout for his horde back at his hollow or the creatures would always amaze him. Of course, he didn't really mean to work at a snail's pace, in fact he would rather get the boring and seemingly useless task done as fast as possible, but his curiosity was easily persuaded at points.
Atlas sighed, head tilting backwards to peer up at the canopy, his mind growing lost in thought. In the past year that he had grown, his mind really began to register the question as to why he was different from the others. Though he tried to ignore Mitus as much as possible, he could tell that the other titans were looking at him a little differently than before. Granted, it was the same look, but it appeared to have only deepened. Atlas would often catch them whispering, or speaking to him nervously, slowly at points and they would often frown when they sometimes caught him having a little moment of fun. He just didn't get it. He knew he couldn't speak and sometimes it took longer for things to register, but he could hunt, run, and fight like them. Still, it did bother him deep down. Sometimes he really wished that Titus would tell him why.
He would even go as far as to say that he was growing irritated.
Shaking his head, he decided to put the thoughts away for now, but as he did his eyes caught sight of something else. A distraction. His ears pricked forward, lifting his head a bit and tilting it curiously just like an intelligent bird as he spied a peculiar creature perched upon a low bare twig of a sapling. Atlas grumbled, the titan's childish and curious side coming forth as he slowly and carefully placed his cargo upon the forest floor and stepped lightly toward the thing of interest. Atlas lowered himself onto all fours with the intent to make his approach successful… the creature small and certainly easy to spook. He didn't quite know what to make of the thing. It was a flying insect most definitely, but the wings it possessed were not like that of a butterfly. In fact, its body was different too. It was long, thin almost like a small stick and had a metallic sheen. Its eyes were larger, but the thing that he found to be the most fascinating were the wings. They reminded him of those of bees, but longer and thinner – it looked to be built for speed. Atlas rumbled, tone changing in pitch as he carefully seated himself right before it. The titan's head tilted again, neck arching to the left in what some could call a painful way as he observed his finding. He remained still, watching with his breath trapped in his chest as the insect lifted itself off the branch for a moment, hovering in the air with wings moving so fast he could barely see them until it returned to its perch. Atlas's ears wiggled, lowering his head a bit as he tried to look at his current subject further, forgetting about his duties for the moment. What was this thing? It was so different. It was a bug but it did remind him of a hummingbird. Could this be some sort of bizarre offspring or was it just a sight that he had not seen? Atlas blinked, tilting his head once again as a plan to get his answer formulated in his head. With childlike intrigue, the titan then lifted his finger and raised it with care, pupils blown wide and a quiet hum vibrating his chest. Just as his nail was about to sample his target, the flying insect took off from the branch – flying into the direction of his face. The sudden movement caught him off guard, making a high pitched yelp leave his throat and making him fall back onto his rump in surprise. With the buzzing ringing in his ears, Atlas's lively greens watched as his subject of interest hovered around his head. Like an excited cat fueled by nothing but instinct he became, eyes blowing wide as he followed the minuscule creature. The titan rumbled, lifting himself to sit upon his heals as he panted – hands ready to grab his prize so he could look at it without interruption. His eyes comically crossed as the insect unexpectedly landed upon his nose. Atlas held his breath, his hands frozen in midair as he tried to decide what to do next in order to get a better look. What an intriguing find!
Slowly, he lowered his chin, watching as the bug wobbled in the slightest but still hung on. A smile spread across his face. This forest seemed to always have new animals. Just when he thought that he had seen it all, there was more and more. There would be little things from butterflies to birds all the way to some kind of furry creature that his sharp eyes had somehow missed. Atlas hummed, his eyes narrowing in determination as his focus remained locked upon his target. He needed to quickly grasp it in hand so he could get a decent look without the thing making his vision cross. Carefully with his movement smooth and not the least bit rickety, Atlas reached upwards with his palm open and ready to take his prize. Easy, easy –
Then when he was close, Atlas made his move, he reached quickly towards his façade, but the mysterious insect suddenly flew off of his snout – the bug's abrupt abandonment causing him to foolishly smack his face. Realizing his failed action, Atlas growled at his error and quickly got the bug into his sights again. Feeling a whole new level of need and the desire to conclude what he started, Atlas released a bellow – the roar not truly a roar but rather a deeper screech, the signature cry of a Hunter not having developed yet. But just as he was about to swipe the tiny creature from the air, he felt something soft impact his thigh, his ears filling with a tiny growl and squeaky chirp.
His ears flickered, brain connecting the dots at his sudden company. Oh –
Atlas abandoned his current activity to peer down at a young Hunter pup in mild surprise. The little beast was currently trying to scale his leg, eyes blown wide as they stared at the flying insect as well. Atlas blinked, remaining still as he took in the sight before him. The pup was comically slipping around upon his skin, little feet trying to get a grip as it squeaked and tried to keep the thing in its sights as it attempted to ascend. Atlas tilted his head, amused. This little Hunter was part of the new batch of pups just born weeks ago. If anything, he found their arrivals to be fascinating and equally confusing. He had noticed several of the pack's female growing – rounder and smelling odd. He had questioned Titus by gesturing to several of them once and his guardian informed him that they were something called 'pregnant' meaning that they were carrying unborn pups. At the time, it puzzled Atlas to the extent that he asked how such happened. Titus's answer was cryptic enough, simply saying that he wasn't old enough to learn such things and perhaps he would in time. Atlas blinked, the pup on his leg was obviously a little male and his black hair was hilariously ruffled with the strands in the front combed upwards into a point. It was just as chubby as he had been once, lipless, and eyes of gold like his guardian's. The pup continued to squeal and squeak, hands playfully swatting at the insect until the tiny male's irises met his. The little titan froze for a moment, jaw hung open in the slightest as he tilted his head in what he could discern as wonder. Finally, the pup beamed broadly with recognition. Atlas hummed a greeting, he had met this little pup once before on his excursions, a little Titan called Conado. If it was one thing about pups, they didn't judge him.
"WHATCHAA DOINN GEEN EYESS?"
Despite the misuse of his name, Atlas beamed softly, pointing at the flying insect that was still hovering over them. He then held up his hands, spreading his fingers apart to suggest a cage – conveying that he was trying to catch it. The pup's face lit up.
"OHH! YUU TRYINN TO… CATTCH BUGG?" Conado beamed, Atlas taking note that several other pups had emerged from the brambles and began to approach him. Inwardly, he beamed and felt a warmth swell up in his chest. He knew what was coming. Finally, he grunted in confirmation, wiggling his ears as he suddenly thought up a plan. Parting his lipless maw, Atlas released a sound similar to a loud beastly bark and rocked back onto his heels, reaching upwards to swat at the flying insect. The larger titan purposely missed, but directed the creature to spiral downwards for the younger pups to have a fighting chance. He watched as their eyes blew wide as a predatory instinct to hunt filled them. Clunky but coordinated they began to leap and pounce as high as they could to reach their prize. Small hands swiped, throwing the insect into a panicked frenzy while the sound of joyous chirping and small growls filled the small glade. Atlas too, felt the need to strongly pursue, the curiosity placed aside for the moment as he crouched a bit, preparing to launch himself into the air, looking not unlike one of the predatory cats he had seen on the hunt in the past. The older titan then saw his opening and propelled himself upward with a powerful kick. With a triumphant shriek, he reached outward and encased his hands completely around the insect.
But unfortunately he made a mistake. A tiny miscalculation in his own strength.
Atlas could feel it, the bug smashing between his palms. His weight came back to the earth, rattling the young pups in the slightest. He knelled, blinking for a moment before parting his fingers to reveal the remains of his catch. He lowered his hands, heart sinking in the slightest. He had only wanted to catch it so he and the pups could enjoy their game, not kill it. With his hands now sitting in his lap, he groaned an apology to the curious little Hunters who approached to inspect his damaged prize. Conado leaned forward to sniff with several of the other pups following his actions. He could sense their realizations and disappointment. Atlas swallowed, feeling awkward and almost disapproving of himself as he continued to watch the upset pups look the bug over and lightly tap it to check for signs of life. He moaned a soft apology, parting his palms to wipe them among the grass, the young titans watched, many of their faces falling as they understood what happened. Atlas would admit to himself that he felt horrible.
But then he had an idea. He always liked to make Jade and Titus laugh, no doubt a bit of toying around would cheer them up!
With his plan formed and calculated. Atlas suddenly wore a smile and gave a high pitched rumble to gain the pups' attention. Instantly, their eyes were drawn to him like moths to light. Once each of the eight pups were looking at him, Atlas chirruped and quickly dropped down to prop himself onto both his knees and hands, ears wiggling as he slowly propped himself onto his feet – wordlessly communicating his bid to play. With his heart starting to beat as his excitement built, Atlas watched as the pups sat still for a moment, still tangled in both awe and confusion before Conado let out a squeal and bounded for him. Atlas however, was quick to stall the playful advance – lowering his head to push the little pup over before giving him a lick across the face. The pup rolled, stunned for a moment before he gave into huffing. Atlas shrieked in triumph, the chase was on!
Quickly, Atlas jumped over the small party of pups, racing for a small tree that he had launched himself onto, nails digging into the bark as he turned to look at the little titans in glee. Below him, they desperately ran for the base of the tree, little hands trying to hoist themselves up so they could reach him. A devious smile spread across his face as he listened to their tiny screeches of determination. With his next move in his head, Atlas leaped from the tree to land perfectly upon the earth and immediately rolled into a summer-salt to roll upon his back – giving the pups the advantage. At his submission, the pups practically tweeted in sheer exhilaration and quickly bounded over to him. Atlas gurgled, shifting from side to side upon his back like a cheerful wolf as the pups took the advantage. Tweeting, they climbed upon him – scaling to sit upon his pelvis and chest while others tried their best in playfully nipping at his hands or ankles. Atlas purred, it was rare that he got to do this and rare that a titan returned the same action with equal levels of enthusiasm. He really loved pups and he got along with them so much better than most adult or other titans his age. Feeling a hard tug on his hair, Atlas arched his neck backwards to look at Conado from the wrong way up. The baby was pulling on one of his locks with all his might, growling as much as he could. Teasingly, he himself parted his jaws and playfully snapped in the pup's direction. At his action, Conado beamed broadly, releasing his hair and bounding over to him to place his palms onto his brow – tiny tongue giving him a friendly lick. Atlas practically trembled in elation. Oh how he loved this!
But his enjoyment was quickly expunged.
A low and threatening hiss pierced through the sounds of mirth and merriment, instantly making his heart stall and pound. With the smell of the new arrival wavering through his nose, Atlas quickly sat up, making the pups upon him roll off into the grass as he turned to see an unwanted sight. He could practically feel his skin crawl and his eyes blowing wide in fear as he absorbed the view before him. Three female Hunters stood intimidatingly just a few meters from him, eyes narrowed and faces clearly wearing looks of disgust. No doubt were they the pups' mothers – the last titans that Atlas wanted to see. Even though he had never fallen into such a situation, he knew by their venomous looks that this was not a welcome interaction.
It felt as though the blood coursing through his veins had frozen like the ice in winter, the hairs upon his neck rising. He could practically feel his heart hammering against his ribcage. He could do nothing to defend himself if they decided to hit him. With his mind suddenly snapping and gripping onto the only safe action he could think of, Atlas scrambled to his feet, hands reaching desperately to pick up the branches he had collected earlier. He bent low to gather several pine branches that had scattered, feeling his body go rigid as he felt their presence nearing. Atlas gritted his teeth, feeling nothing but fear as his brows knitted together and his façade was painted with panic. His breath grew shallow in his chest; he could practically feel his hands shaking as he picked up his bounty. Still, the atmosphere was tense even as a hand didn't strike him. Though he was nervous, Atlas peeked at the trio of mothers from the corner of his eye. The scene was still quiet, the very same as the female looked on with a slight grimace and the pups remained confused – even worried at his show of terror. Atlas swallowed. Time seemed to go by so slowly.
Finally, a soft whine rose up from his throat, but as he did one of the mothers finally spoke.
"COME. YOU… ARE NOT TO BE… WITH HIM."
Atlas's heart stalled at the words, carefully he rose his head in confusion to watch two of the mothers quickly guide the small party of reluctant pups away from the glade. He observed as Conado stared at him silently, looking up at the titan that was clearly his mother in confusion. Atlas watched as the little titan's face twisted with even more puzzlement as the female began to forcefully lead her pup away – the baby protesting by pulling against his mother's hand as she began to lead him away from the clearing. Atlas hesitated at his job, frozen in place as he continued to watch and listen to the scene unfold.
"WHHYY? WHHY CANN… EII… NOTT PLAAY WITH GEEN EYES?"
Atlas swallowed, feeling his head hang in the slightest as his eyes continued to look into the mother titan's. They were a mixture of things like the clear look of displeasure and disappointment. There was also the appearance of reluctance – perhaps this was something that this mother just didn't wish to explain. But even after her pup's innocent question, the mother still remained silent as she pushed her baby gently but sternly ahead of her. Atlas continued to observe as Conado was led away, still looking back at him with his eyes watering and distressed sounds leaving his little maw. Besides the mass of humiliation, he felt sorry – worried for the pup's well-being. He didn't want the little one to be worried. Through his emotions that were pulling at him, Atlas decided to pick up his things and offer a weak smile to Conado to ensure that he would be fine and that he wasn't hurt – disguising the fact that he was in absolute agony. At his action, the pup lifted his head, his tears stalling as he paused for another moment, his mother taking notice of her pup's action – eyes traveling to him again to gaze upon him in a look that he couldn't even discern. At this, he still kept his feeble grin even as he returned to work to collect things he was assigned to collect, discreetly observing as the mother finally turned to face her pup.
"CONADO… THIS TITAN… HE… WAS A MISTAKE. HE – ISN'T RIGHT… IN THE HEAD. HE… THIS TITAN IS SIMPLE." The female explained softly, her voice having dulled down from its sharper tone. He paused, feeling his heart hammer faster at the statement. There it was again. The 'simple' word. He wasn't sure what it meant. But it was used by the pack quite a bit when they spoke of him.
Conado blinked, his little mouth forming into a troubled frown as best as his deformed maw could. "WHATT… IS SINNPLE? WHAATT YUU NEANN NOONN?"
What the mother said next would leave him petrified.
"SIMPLE… IT MEANS… STUPID."
The world then became silent. Mother and son disappeared into the brambles to leave him alone with nothing but the foliage to keep him company. No sound was made, not a single song came from a bird's beak. Atlas stood, his blood and body seemingly frozen yet again. That word – stupid. He had heard that before, from his brother. With his legs feeling like jelly and the gravity of what had just transpired overwhelming him, Atlas fell to his knees. His skin practically crawled, items scattered around him as his hands shook in his lap. Green eyes were blown wide, pupils pinpricks. Stupid, was that the true meaning of the word simple? It couldn't mean anything good. It was always directed in a vile tone, never a sweet one. Atlas shuttered. Was he really stupid?
Slowly the seconds seemed to pass, his nerves spiraling along with his thoughts. Was this stupid – what was wrong with him? Was it why he was so different and treated so wrongly. Slowly, Atlas's hands snaked to his head, fingers digging into his scalp as his body shook even further. His eyes watered, tears started to grace his cheeks. Why? Why was he like this? There wasn't anything wrong with him was there? He… he was a Hunter Titan wasn't he? Atlas's mind began to twist and cripple itself. He was like everyone else. Why did he deserve this? He didn't! He was good! He was kind! He was smart! He didn't deserve to be lonely or hit! He wasn't stupid! He was sure of it! What did that word even mean!
Suddenly, his emotional dam burst. Atlas released a solemn wail, tears pouring from his eyes as he gripped his head tighter and fell onto his rump. He kept his head between his knees, shoulders shaking violently. The young titan cried, his distressed noises catching in his throat as his body rocked back and forth. He didn't want to be yelled at! He just wanted to be normal and play with the others! He didn't want this! Why couldn't everyone love him like Titus, Jade, Kana, and Tano! Why was he discarded by his parents and littermates! Atlas wailed again, nose running and eyes growing more irritated even as his nails broke the skin upon his scalp. He just wanted to be himself and be loved! Was that too much to ask? Why was he stupid! Why was he like this!
His chest heaved, breath heavy and irregular. A storm seemed to swirl inside his skull, head aching. Atlas finally lifted his head, wiping the mucus from his nose as he tried to get a handle upon himself. He didn't need to do this now. He was working and still needed to deliver his bounty. He could give time to himself later – maybe even convey his questions to Titus somehow. Get the answers he needed. He didn't need to get into hotter water with the pack's leader and Elders because of his tardiness. Perhaps he could find something else to occupy his time and make himself feel better as well once the job was done.
He lowered his knees and inhaled deeply before exhaling, chest seemingly rickety. Again, he wiped his nose and attempted to cleanse his face – unable to conceal his reddened eyes and puffy cheeks. Finally, after several seconds, he brought himself to stand and quickly gather the foliage that he had discarded. Atlas sighed as he then began to walk into the direction of the pack. He wasn't in the mood to hear anything else vulgar.
Atlas kept his head low as he continued to carry the mass of tree limbs and leaves upon his back. Though it was difficult to do, he attempted to keep his mind upon other topics such as Jade competing in the coming duels, Titus's current whereabouts, and how was Eren and his friends doing? Atlas blinked at the thought. That was a question that he always had. What was Eren doing and did he miss him as well? Secretly, he had thought about breaking the rules many times in the past to visit the boy, but he knew that would be foolish for there were so many Hunters patrolling and even if he wanted to see him at night, he knew from Titus that humans went to sleep when the sun sinks below the horizon. His eyes narrowed at this. Recalling the episode only moments earlier that left him mortified as well as the amazing feeling he had when interacting with Eren and his friends, it just made him all the more determined to be an Advancer. He would show them. He would show them all.
The smell of his pack became overwhelming as the thick forest thinned. Atlas swallowed fretfully as he prepared himself – hopefully the mothers had not told the rest of the pack of his so called wrongdoings. He seriously hoped that they didn't. He couldn't listen to any more cruelty for the day. With a deep breath, he forced himself through the brambles and into the clearing that was the heart of the pack's territory. Again, Atlas swallowed the lump in his throat. He didn't want to make any eye contact. He just wanted to complete his job and leave.
The sunlight bathed the clearing, unfortunately bringing out every Hunter to enjoy its rays or prepare to hunt. His ears fidgeted, swiveling, and listening to the conversations and loose words. He moved quickly towards the pile of brush that he was taught to drop his collections in, trying to be discreet in both his steps and his observations. Most titans were either preparing for the duels with their Mentors having a few final words of advice with their pupils, satisfying grooming needs, snacking on a meal, nurturing pups, or just the general talk.
But just as quickly as he appeared, the other Hunters took notice of him.
"HE… IS BACK. LATE… AS USUAL."
Atlas felt his ears lower in pity, suddenly feeling both disappointment and insecurities crawl back to him and slowly overwhelm his body. He forced a whine to not surface. Atlas picked up his pace.
"HEE… ISS SLOWW. DONTT KNOO WHHY AZZERORONN… HAS HINN DOINNG DISS."
Atlas gulped again as he finally reached the pile of greens, quickly throwing his bounty upon it before trying to walk away from the others as swiftly as he could – but avoiding their speech was impossible.
"NOT … SMART ENOUGH TO EVEN… DO THINGS LIKE THAT."
"HE… SHOULD NOT BE HERE."
Atlas swallowed the lump in his throat. Feeling his eyes start to water again. Not willing to let anyone see his state, he picked up his pace to the closest tree line in view. The comments however, kept trailing him.
"HE… WAS PLAYING WITH… THE PUPS EARLIER."
"WHHAT? HE… SHOUUDD NOTT!"
"THE PUPS… DO NOT NEED… TO LEARN FROM HIM."
"THEYYY… WILL BEEE CONFUZZED IFF THEYY… WATCCH HIMM."
Atlas shut his eyes tightly, breaking into a jog – the water in his eyes threatening to grace his cheeks. He – he wasn't doing anything wrong! He wasn't!
"HOPPEFULLEE… HE STAYY AWWAYYY FRONN THENN NOW."
"SUCH… A… MISTAKE."
The lump in his throat grew even bigger at the comment, eyes threatening to spill. He practically broke into a run at that – escaping into the trees once again to be alone, something that he really didn't want but needed. Atlas continued to run, heart pounding until his pace slowed into a jog. Finally, he stopped, standing still as stone with his head hung. The aura of the forest darkened as his head ignited with a swarm of questions and thoughts. Atlas's spine tightened and his hands balled up into trembling fists. The words and visions his pack spoke repeated themselves. The tears finally left and began to run across his gaunt cheeks. Atlas stood, trembling violently while his hands snake upwards again to grip his scalp. Green eyes shut tightly and a low whine left his teeth that nearly chattered. He hated this! Oh how he hated it! He didn't deserve such vile treatment at all! Why was being different such a sin? Why was he so called stupid? Why was his life like this! This life wasn't a life at all!
Time passed, a stray bird breaking the silence, bringing him from the confides of his tormenting thoughts. No, he didn't need to linger among such things. He needed to steer his mind away and perhaps take out his frustrations. Atlas blinked, inhaling only to release a deep exhale. The far scent of a Mindless caught his nose, oddly giving him a comforting feeling.
Yes, he would take out his frustration and state his hunger in the process.
Running, it was certainly a form of medicine to him. Something to clear the mind. It was therapeutic as well. The sensation of wind tearing through his hair and his toes digging into the dirt - there was always something magical about it. His heart pounded, lungs heaving and steam leaving his teeth. Not only running but hunting was also a great aliment to the world around him. All he needed to focus on was the scent of his enemy, what it was doing, and where it was heading. It made the rest of the world a blur.
It was just what he needed to do.
However, seeded deep into his mind and threatening to sprout was still the inner battle of confusion and disbelief that he was fighting.
The mere thought of what he was struggling to understand made him snort. No, he needed to focus on his food.
He just needed to clear his head.
Atlas pinned his ears back as he continued his silent charge through the forest. He was far now from the heart of the pack's territory, just where he needed to be. At the age he was, like all pups he was independent for the most part. However, unlike the other pups, Atlas had to be even more independent. He supported himself. He no longer lived with Titus and no longer took his offerings. He didn't like going into the heart of their territory for he hated hearing the comments and feeling judgmental eyes. He had tried once to snack a small distance from a group of Hunters, but he soon began to hear the cruel commentary and the critiques on the way he ate like a starved animal, he could feel his heart grow heavy and the tell-tale lump form in his throat. He could remember the tears gracing his cheeks as he forced himself to keep eating, keeping his shaking hands under control until the embarrassment skyrocketed from dropping his food because he was so distraught. It was that moment where Atlas decided to just be alone for the majority of the time with the exception of his closest friends. This way, no one was to judge him.
Of course, sometimes cruel words were unavoidable.
His nostrils flared, suddenly realizing that the scent was fading, the fact taking his mind away from his current thoughts. Atlas blinked, his pace slowing into a jog. Was it possible that his prey was changing course? He stalled, his mind referring to basic hunting instincts. He needed to recess the direction of his prey and keep himself out of his target's detection. High was a good option. Swiveling his head, Atlas quickly chose a good size knoll and motioned to take his perch just at the edge of the little cliff-side and the overhanging tree, ivy wrapping down it like frozen water. Atlas remained still, every muscle stagnant and not twitching. He stayed silent, keeping his cavernous breath controlled. If it was one thing about Mindless titans, they still had keen senses to the point where they could locate him if need be. Atlas lowered his head, ears pinned back and his shoulders hunched as he concentrated. He sniffed, finding disappointment. The odor of his prey was nonexistent and the wind was still – just his luck. Atlas grumbled, sinking down onto his rump. Perhaps the thing was waddling through the river and the sent was gone for the moment. His body relaxed, shoulders falling as he looked into the landscape. All he could do to not give away where he was located was wait patiently.
Atlas exhaled, his ear swatting away a small hummingbird. As he sat, he began to grow annoyed once again and revert back to his troubling thoughts. He was having trouble connecting the facts. Simple and stupid. They meant the same thing, but what was the meaning behind them? It was then that his eyes widened as a thought hit him – an absolutely alarming conclusion. Could this – stupid thing forbid him from becoming an Advancer? Atlas's skin chilled, brows knitting together as the worry painted itself upon his face. Surely not! He could do everything they could! Titus even said that he was accomplishing things at a tender age that most only do when they are older! He even killed a titan much bigger than himself! Atlas smirked at that. Yes, they would certainly see just how strong he was and this 'stupid' thing didn't matter. Hell, with his skills he could be first pick! Atlas dipped his head, smiling softly to himself, hopefully Titus would pick him. He would love nothing more than to be his guardian's pupil just like Jade was. He would love to make Titus even prouder and prove to his littermates, parents, and all the naysayers that he could be a valiant and successful Advancer.
Maybe he would even impress their leader.
According to Titus, tomorrow was the day that Advancers were to be chosen. Duels to decide Mentors were in just a few hours. He just had a short time to make preparations before the morning. But first, he needed to eat. He would need the energy for what he had in mind later.
The young titan stood, wind shifting again to carry the scent of his prey back to him. Atlas's fists coiled in determination. Time for him to practice.
His prey was chubby, clumsy, but certainly running for its dear life as it charged through the forest. He could have sworn that its eyes did flash a faint hint of fear, but Strange One or Mindless he didn't care. It was a meal. It was nothing but meat to him. It was just one step closer to his goal.
It was a way to get what he wanted and also to settle his chiding stomach.
Green eyes remained locked onto the views of flesh between the trees, the Mindless's form breaking free before hurdling straight into the foliage again – now just running with no goal or sense of its surroundings. This was both an advantage yet disadvantage, but he would work with what he could.
The Hunter moved, carrying himself through the thick landscape in a surprisingly smooth gate. He was naturally designed to be swift, body seemingly floating despite his size – a stark difference to his Mindless prey than ran clunky. In addition, he observed the wolves, how they moved when they hunted, adapting to be just as agile. Steam billowed from his mouth, grunting with each breath he took and his tongue dripping wet from saliva. Emerald eyes were blown wide, wild – hungry. The Hunter's nostrils flared, the scent of his next designated meal overpowering. A growl tore through his throat as he pushed himself faster. He would make quick work of his kill.
Then, the Mindless foolishly charged straight down a steep decline, moving far too fast than its feet could possibly carry it. It nearly tripped, trees and boulders stopping its fall as it kept on going – destroy anything small below it. Atlas snarled, his mind instantly trying to formulate the best way to descend without losing his own footing. Quickly, he dropped down onto all fours and launched himself into the air, sailing just above the earth's ability to pin him down before his body was pulled back again. Atlas threw out his arms, catching the limb of a massive tree to swing himself onward. It was several intense moments before his feet touched down onto a boulder cradled upon the hillside. A loud shriek of dominance left his maw as he charged forward again, his feet carrying him over the rocky obstacles. His eyes remained locked. His prey would not escape!
The hillside leveled and the Mindless titan steadied itself again, running as if it was trying to escape the clutches of hell. Atlas's toes dug into the grass at the bottom of the knoll, dirt flying as he pressed onward with his mission. Prey. Flesh. Food. Blood. Praise. He needed all of it. A jet of steam forced past his teeth. His muscles flexed with each pump of his legs. The Hunter watched as the Mindless brute began to slow it pace, likely worn thin. Atlas felt only encouragement. He was gifted with stamina – he was gifted with every tool he needed to make the kill for the prey he desired. Atlas grinned madly, tongue lolling from his jaws as the scent grew even stronger. The earth thundered as they cut through the wood. He could practically feel his heart beating into his ears. Thump! Thump! Thump! He was getting closer; he could practically see the ragged breaths of his prey. Atlas pushed onward, propelling himself even faster than before. The smell grew overpowering, the scent of fresh meat. He needed to eat, he needed to fulfill his mission. He needed to prove himself!
The wind tore past him. The Hunter's veins began to fill with heat, his skin felt hot. Steam spilled from his nostrils and mouth – leaving behind a cloud. Green eyes seemed to ignite like fire beneath the canopy. His stomach rolled, begging for his fleeing meal. Substance. Atlas screeched loudly. His jaw began to ache, fingers and toes tingling. He needed this. He needed to prove his worth! He wasn't stupid! He was going to be an Advancer. The Hunter then launched himself with surprising strength, hands outstretched like the great cats, jaws open and ready to maim. Then, his nails dug into the shoulders of his prey, the poor creature releasing a wail of agony as the pair began to plummet to the earth. The earth quaked beneath the impact and Atlas sunk his teeth into the Mindless Titan's nape, careful not to sever it completely. Blood poured down his throat, sweet and full of flavor. Instantly, his body went into a frenzy. Tooth tore flesh and bone, his prey's screams providing him pleasure and satisfaction. Eating his prey alive, Atlas continued. Hungrily, he tore away more flesh, his stomach slowly expanding. His body cooled and a purr left his throat. Lifting his hand, his tongue lanced in and out of his fingers, savoring every little bit he could. Atlas's opposite hand continued to hold the titan's face into the ground, keeping it still but conscious as he ate. He couldn't kill it yet for he needed to take it to Titus – a perfect gift to convince him that he was worthy of his wisdom and teachings. A little bribe perhaps. Smacking his crimson stained jaws with another bite, he rumbled. He was so proud!
He would be an Advancer soon enough!
Then, as sudden as a snap of his jaws, something blunt impacted his side and lower abdomen – throwing him back into a tree. His head hit the bark as well as his spine before he crumpled upon the grass and the bloody body of his kill. His head spun, warmth suddenly coating the back of his skull. His stomach twisted from the impact, forcing him to swallow deeply to not lose his meal. Panic began to spread. What had hit him? Inhaling however, he was quickly aware of his incredibly unwanted visitor. He could practically feel his body go rigid. No! Not now!
"ELLOO GEEN EYES. WHUUT YUU DOINGG?"
Atlas gulped, ears sinking as he slowly turned to see his brother Mitus along with two of his loyal allies. Over the year, ever since that day by the river, Atlas had been eluding his brother and littermates. Although he had always said that he would defend himself if need be, he didn't want anyone else to see him do so in fear that he was to break some sort of law and the others would inform the pale titan. Besides, he had better things to accomplish in Titus's territory than constantly hear the vulgar things his brother would shout at him. Now however, he was going to have to take a stand. Mitus was likely here for his own amusement and ruin his bounty from his hunt. This was the last thing he wanted to happen! He needed to see his plan through!
Bravely, he began to push himself up despite his throbbing head, however, before he could do so, Mitus lifted his foot and slammed it into his stomach again. The force lifting him just a few feet into the air and forcing some of his stomach contents to release through his teeth. Hysterical huffing met his ears as he struggled to catch his breath. Atlas shuttered, swallowing to rid the taste of vomit from his mouth and trying to brush the bit from his hair. He wheezed, trying to at least get onto his knees. Suddenly, he felt his kill being pulled out from beneath him – making him fall back onto his stomach. Atlas shrieked, turning to reach for his meal and proof of his doings but was stopped by a foot into his face. His own blood graced his tongue and anger mixed with fear pooled in his gut. Atlas rotated his head to stare at Mitus and his two accomplices – one of them ripping the nape from his bounty to kill it instantly. At the action, Atlas shrieked, the sound ignited in nothing but frustration as he fruitlessly reached for his kill. No! This couldn't be happening! At his desperate action, Mitus kicked him away once again, making Atlas slam back into tree behind him. With his head still spinning, he looked upon his brother who nonchalantly knelt down to stare at him at eye level. Atlas could feel his heart pound and the anger swarm in his stomach at the sight of Mitus's smug face. Casually, the titan before him lazily folded his arms over his knees, cold eyes swimming with amusement.
"YOUU… AREE HUNNTINGG… ARENNT YUU?" The skin at the corner of Mitus's mouth gradually pulling upward into an even more malicious smile. "THENN WHYYY… ARRR YUU… KEEPINGG DISS… TO URRSELFF?" The Hunter Titan continued, eyes narrowing and glowing even brighter. " YUU… KNOWW… YUU ARR SUPPOSSEDD TOO SHARREE." Mitus's smile grew even larger, more wicked. "YUU… ARR NOTT SHARRING."
At the commentary, Atlas felt the need to retort with venom laced in his message. "IANNNSSHHRRRGGGHH!" The strained vocal left his maw, a jumbled mess that delivered no such message to save him. His eyes widened at his realization, cursing his lack of means to successfully communicate that he wasn't breaking any rule – at the moment at least. He was taking his meal to Titus to prove his worth and share it with him. That was all! Although, when he was by himself mostly, he did catch food for himself – otherwise he would never eat anything. Mitus didn't know about that. For all he knew, Titus was still bringing him food. Now though, catching him on a day where he was doing the opposite, Atlas felt inclined to speak up.
Too bad he had forgotten in the moment fueled by dopamine that he couldn't do that.
At the jumbled up disaster that came from his maw, Atlas winced. His eyes widened as the mortification sank in. His chest tightened and his heart began to pound even faster. Curse his inability to speak! He swallowed, preparing for another hit that came quickly in the form of a hard slap that made his head twist to the side and blood spray from his maw. Atlas whined, holding his head and staring heatedly through his messy locks. Somehow, his adrenaline was still pumping and anger was taking over fear. Mitus's huffing echoed across the small glade with his allies mirroring his cruel mirth.
"SOOO NESSED UPP YUU CANT EVENN REPLYY." Mitus spoke malevolently, the coldness that was always present in his father's eyes swimming through his brother's golden irises. "HOWW… DIDD NOTHERR AND FATTHER… MAKE SONETHING LIKEE YUU?" The titan slowly stood, making Atlas practically tremble with rage at the insult. His mind instantly wanted to return to his many questions, but he kept his focus regardless. "BUTTT… YUU HAVEE TO SHARRE. RULEES OF PACK. TOO BADD… IT WASS AHH GOODD KILL." Mitus practically hummed to himself, eyes watching as the titan corpse continued to denigrate – making Atlas realize that his brother's plan was to simply get him in sheer trouble for breaking the rules for not sharing the meat of the Mindless. Destroying his gift to his guardian that proved his innocence. "TITUSS CANNT EVENNN HELLP HINN." Mitus continued with Atlas feeling his hair starting to stand with fury. "TOO… BADD HE HASS TO PUTT UP WITHH YUU TOO."
The comment nearly made him reply with as vicious of a cry as he could produce, but Atlas remained seething in his frustration – his hand twitching. How dare his brother, his own flesh and blood, insult Titus as well! He could practically feel his gut burning in sheer rage, fingers coiling and uncoiling into a fist.
"AZERORONN… IS NUTSS… FOR KEEEPINGG HIM. CAN'T SHARREE… NOO PLACEE IN PACKK. HE ISS… A GATHERERRR." Mitus pressed onward as he slowly stood back up and began to address his allies, Atlas could practically feel the words cutting deeper. "HEE… CANT BE ADVANCRR… HE IS JUSTT… SPOILEDD MEATT."
With the end of Mitus's statement, something in him finally snapped. He was going to be an Advancer! He was doing nothing wrong! But his brother… oh his own blood was another story. He needed punished! He needed to be taught a lesson!
Then, with his crimson boiling hot, Atlas's face drew into a vicious snarl. With one thought in his mind along with an open window, he launched himself forward – fist poised and every muscle bulging in his body. Adrenaline ran all through his frame, eyes like fire beneath the canopy. His knuckles then met their target before he could turn at his arise. The full force of his punch pushed Mitus's head forcefully to the side with a sickening crack that echoed across the glade. Blood coated the grass and the beast, his victim to his own wrongdoing, fell like a dead tree. Atlas's chest heaved, still coiled fist steaming as he stood over his brother. The forest was silent.
His breath was rickety, lungs heaving as he stood over Mitus – fists still poised in the air with one steaming profusely. Green eyes began to burn less intensely, drifting to his brother's form. Time seemed to stop, brows rising and a weakness settled into his knees as his brother's condition became more clear to him. Laying at his toes, Mitus was unmoving, body sprawled out awkwardly upon his side in the grass. Atlas's heart skipped a beat as he beheld Mitus's upper half – precisely his head. His brother's jaw was misshapen, obviously crooked and broken. The skin upon Mitus's cheek looked to have been sheared off, blood decorating his teeth and pooling onto the earth below. The most alarming thing however was Mitus's neck. Like his jaw, it was bent awkwardly with an unnatural bulge sticking up from the flesh. It was then that panic began to replace his anger. His limbs began to shake, eyes flashing toward his fist that had made contact to see that his own skin had been stripped off his knuckles to expose bare muscle. Atlas shook further, eyes flashing to Mitus's allies who wore both stunned and concerned looks for their friend before peering back down at his brother. Had he? Had he just killed him?
The reality of the situation settled in further, pupils shrinking to pinpricks as he fretfully took a step backwards. If he had really slain his brother, he had just broken the biggest rule in the pack. A Hunter is to kill no Hunter. His teeth chattered, a whine leaving his maw. He had done the unthinkable! The pack – they would never accept him now! The pale titan would surely exile… no – perhaps slaughter him! Titus and Jade! Kana and Tano! What would they think! His parents! Oh his parents that supplied his own creation – his father would have his nape in his teeth! Atlas backed further, another distressed vocal leaving his throat. What was he going to do!
That voice drew his attention away from his brother's body immediately. For once, it made his blood run cold. With his own body stiff from fear, Atlas looked up to see his guardian, Titus. The Mentor's face was painted in shock, making the guilt spread even further throughout his veins. Sure, Titus had always encouraged him to stand up for himself – but this was likely not what he meant. The inward battle continued to rage within Atlas, his mind forgetting reason and logic. How could he face Titus after this! How could he become an Advancer! He was nothing but trouble!
He – was a mistake.
Without another second to contemplate or access any facts, Atlas turned and ran.
Golden eyes blinked, his heart pounding. He couldn't believe what he was seeing. He had sensed something was incredibly wrong once he caught the scents of Atlas, Mitus, and blood – the one collection of scents that would make him run faster than he would hunting a Mindless down before it reached the village. As he expected, he found Atlas being a victim of Mitus's bullying again, but then the young green eyed titan snapped. He witnessed something that he had seen on the day that the young Hunter took down a Mindless – the shining glint in the titan's eyes that radiated with such ferocity and violence that it rivaled a wild animal. The thing that had his heart racing so hard against his ribs was the force of Atlas's punch.
A hit like that, from a fully grown Hunter Titan would have decapitated Mitus completely.
Titus watched as Mitus's body suddenly jerked, coughing up a bit of blood before letting out a low drone of agony. His friends immediately knelt to his side in aid, trying to help the absolutely dazed titan. He swallowed. Atlas, if he had been fully grown, could have so easily killed him.
The Mentor heaved a breath, deciding that he needed to attempt in resolve as well as check the young titan. Still however, he couldn't help but be angry. Mitus asked for such an outcome. With his mouth set in a frown, he approached the two titans that knelt next to Mitus, their faces wearing pleading looks as their ally continued to moan and attempt to roll over. With a skilled eye, Titus examined the young Hunter's injuries – still amazed that a mere juvenile titan could do such damage. Likely, Atlas's perfect build and more developed muscle mass was big contributor. And – Atlas probably thought he had done a lot more.
"WHATT ISSS… WRONG?"
The question from Mitus's friend brought forth a long sigh – one sprinkled with irritation. "HIS JAW IS… BROKEN. AS FOR THE NECK… IT IS BADLY… DISLOCATED. HE… WILL BE FINE." Titus spoke, voice low and grim. His golden eyes glowed beneath the canopy as he lifted his gaze from Mitus to the two Hunters. "IF… THEY ASK… HE DID… SOMETHING STUPID." Titus practically growled, projecting his message and wishes upon the two titans with clarity. Satisfaction came to him with their grunts of confirmation. Titus kept his imposing stature as he observed Mitus being carefully lifted and carried back in the direction of the pack's heart – the sound of his neck clicking back into place and his steaming jaw echoing across the glade. Soon, he found himself alone, his mind returning to panic.
He – was not good at being a parent. He knew that. He could hear a bit of the words that Mitus spoke, seen and smelled the bloodshed. Atlas had to be living in his own personal hell. His heart plummeted. The young titan swam in constant confusion from the cruelty. He knew that. It was no way for Atlas to live, but with the titan's handicap he would always endure it. Titus couldn't lie to himself. He was aware that Atlas knew something was off about him and the young beast didn't know the answer.
He… needed to tell him. Tell him everything. Atlas deserved to at least have a bit of understanding.
This was the day he had been dreading.
What was Atlas going to think? What was he going to think once he realized he had been holding the truth from him?
Titus swallowed, his skin prickling. He would need to find the young titan quickly. Likely, with his judgment clouded, Atlas had failed to recognize the fact that Mitus's condition wasn't fatal like he had assumed. But first, he would have to let Jade know of the delay as she was still waiting for him in light of the quickly approaching duels. Then he would find the young Hunter. He gulped again, almost sick to his stomach. He was getting ready to do the hardest thing ever as Atlas's guardian.
He was unsure if he was ready.
Wind licked at his hair, the songs of birds and the roar of a waterfall passed through his ears – the normally peaceful setting nearly tormenting for him. Atlas's chest shuttered as another sob threatened to leave his throat. He sat stagnant, alone and curled in upon himself – fingers nearly digging into his knees. The young titan's eyes burned, skin upon his gaunt cheeks dry from a recent torrent of tears. His mind struggled with what he was to do next.
Atlas heaved a trembling sigh, eyes looking up from the crests of his knees to the horizon of the serine landscape. It was a beautiful one that he often came to just to unwind and occasionally find human trinkets. It was a section of the river that led to a high waterfall that was surrounded by great trees, trumpet vines dangling over his head, and the river itself was clear as crystal. Moss grew upon rocks decorated with fungi and flowers – animals called the place home and there were many kinds that one would find nowhere else in the forest. Atlas swallowed a massive lump in his throat, heart heavy. He didn't think he was ever going to be enjoying this place ever again after the blood he had just spilled.
His own brother's flesh.
Atlas found himself curling even tighter as the distress settled deeper into his frame. What was he going to do now? He had literally just killed another Hunter titan! How was that even possible! He didn't even know he could hit that hard! The titan shuttered, the consequences coming to mind. Once the other pack members and even their leader found out about his sin, he could no longer show his face among them let alone be near them. He would have to leave his hollow, his belongings, friends, and Titus behind to pursue a life of exile. Atlas's brow furrowed with frustration and anxiety. Where was he going to go? He didn't know what lay beyond the Village and the Hunters' territory. He didn't know anything about the world at all. Where it began if it had a beginning and where it ended if it ended. How big was the world anyway?
Atlas blinked, watching the shimmering scales from the fish swimming down below. Titus was probably panicking just as much as he was at the moment. Jade as well. They had both stuck their necks out for him – raised him when no one else would. What was going to happen to them? Would Azeroron punish Titus as well for the catastrophe he caused? Would he be banished too? What was he going to do if Titus could stay with the pack and he couldn't? He found himself lonely enough and the pack would likely not let him live with the humans. His nails reached up to grip his locks, his head starting to hurt from the strain of everything. His real parents…would they hunt him down and slaughter him for satisfaction and revenge? Atlas shuttered, recalling the day that he tried to approach his mother with the intent of love and her reaction to him merely playing with his littermates. Then there was his father's absolutely frigid gaze that he could practically feel his hatred of him cutting into his soul. Mitus was their baby and there was no way that they would let his slaying slide by.
The young Hunter buried his head into his knees. Why was he forced to live this way? Why was everything always so UNFORTUNATE. Atlas sighed, eyes half lidded as he continued to watch the wildlife moving on so easily, birds flying around through the canopy, deer indulging on grassy blades – he envied them. They had it easy. No one judged them it seemed.
He wished he could just sprout wings and fly away from the hell he was currently living in.
Atlas uncurled himself, letting his legs dangle over the ledge of his rocky perch and his hands rest in his lap – staring at the tips of his clawed fingers. He supposed that he should start planning his departure. He didn't want to just leave everything behind. If he could just sneak back to his hollow and take a few precious items without being detected by the pack he could leave without incident. Maybe he would be better off not even saying farewell to Titus and –
His thoughts stopped instantly as a shadow cast over him. His heart stalled and a familiar scent met his nostrils. Before the shock could truly settle and he could realize what was going on, panicked greens beheld golden orbs swimming with rage.
Atlas had no time to react, let alone turn to face his brother as the furious titan slammed his foot into his spine. His body was thrown forward, the ground leaving him as gravity held him in its clutches. His ears could barely hear the roars of fury behind him as the sound of the waterfall drowned out everything. Water sprayed, stinging his eyes so much that he sealed them shut as he was at the fall's mercy. In a desperate attempt to protect himself, Atlas curled inward, but he wasn't quick enough as his body impacted a hard rock. He screamed, pain shooting through his leg and hip – the hit throwing his body into another direction. Atlas gritted his teeth, incisors biting through his tongue as another blunt stone met his head. Pain exploded among his skull and nearly knocking him out. Still, the earth kept pulling him. Darkened eyelids cracked open, only to be faced with the disorienting sight of swirling colors and quickly moving blurry images. Atlas tried to focus, just in time to see the branches of a massive tree catch upon his arm. The sound of tearing flesh and the singe of severed nerve endings forced him to wail – arm torn completely free. Blood sprayed, raining as he continued to tumble. His body rolled, boulder after boulder snapped bone, cut his skin, and twisted his limbs. Atlas's consciousness continued to threaten to depart, mind unable to process any thought as the cliffside was painted red with his blood. Just when he thought it never seemed to end, his maimed body met the water waiting below, sending a wave onto the banks of the river and a cool blanket swarming all around him.
Crystal turned red, warmed by his blood. He felt nothing, eyes half lidded and vision fuzzy as he stared into a sea of crimson. His head was spinning, body useless and slowly sinking. His mind was lost in disbelief, but found itself believing that perhaps this fate was best for him. A good end to a piece of shit that most didn't want around. He just – he just really wondered why.
Atlas let himself drift, eyes sealing shut. If this was how things were to be then so be it.
Suddenly, something warm wrapped around his belly – hoisting him upwards. The crimson blanket began to fall behind and suddenly the haze upon his brain seemed to lift. Atlas gradually angled his head upwards, witnessing a bright light before his form burst from the water. The young titan wheezed, water leaving his lungs by the gallon as the massive amount of pain he was in began to register. He was dizzy, ill, and distraught. Helpless, he cried as his body withered.
"I… GOT YOU."
At the soft but shaky voice, Atlas realized that he was being lifted bridal style from the water and carried away from what he had accepted as his final resting spot. He groaned, his battered limbs trembling as he weakly stared upward at Titus who carried him to the riverbank. His teeth grinded against one another, trying to forbid screaming in agony as Titus carefully lowered him to the mossy bank. However, with the slight movement, his hold loosened. Atlas screeched, the sound hoarse as his body naturally wanted to get away from his pursuer. Without comprehending his condition. Atlas attempted to crawl forward as Titus hurried to take a seat next to him. Pain shot up through his hip – dislocated from the socket and his eyes flashed to his right arm, or rather what remained of it. His stomach nearly turned at the sight of dangling strands of flesh, arm sliced off at the elbow. Atlas's eyes blew wide, greens filled with nothing but horror at the carnage. He couldn't help it, a scream tore through him at the sight and the pain that settled in. He had never lost a limb before! He had never been in so much pain!
A wave of faintness nearly threatened to take him, his head falling backward into a careful embrace. An arm curled around his body, allowing him to rest in his guardian's elbow. Atlas whined, shaking with his blood still leaking profusely upon the moss. Fingers ran through his locks and a hand steadied his gushing stump. With his head spinning and heart pounding, he watched as Titus pressed his chin into his scalp, an attempt to comfort with his opposite hand stroking his shaking shoulders.
"EASY! EASY ATLAS!" Titus spoke to him, desperation sprinkled within his tone. He peered upward into the Mentor's face, trying his best not to scream again. "IT IS… OKAY! I GOT… YOU!"
His throat bobbed, the taste of rusty iron in his mouth, upon his severed tongue. Suddenly, the stump seemed to explode with pain, steam erupting from the wound. He couldn't help but scream at it. He didn't know what losing a limb felt like before, he had seen it happen but he sure didn't see such discomfort on a victim. This hurt! This hurt so bad! A cheek pressed into his still bleeding head, Titus's fingers carefully massaging the throbbing appendage.
"JUST… RELAX ATLAS! IT… ALWAYS HURTS… THE FIRST TIME. SEE? IT… IS GROWING BACK!"
He blinked, perplexed at the words. Looking at his missing limb again, he watched as the bone extended, repaired itself, and formed what it needed to all the while muscle strands began to grow like vines around it. Atlas's breath shuttered, his body going slack against Titus. He hated this. He hated all of this.
"YOU… ARE GOING TO BE… FINE. JUST… RELAX. LET… YOUR BODY HEAL." Titus's words carried softly, gentle. Atlas found himself obeying without question, laying fully against the larger titan and shutting his eyes in discomfort. He felt so humiliated. He had been so ignorant, too stunned to realize that he couldn't have possibly killed his brother without destroying his nape. Mitus has not taken kindly to his action and promptly returned the favor. Atlas quivered at the thought. Just why was this all happening to him? Was it the label of stupid? Why would it give the others a reason to treat him so unkindly? He didn't understand!
Above him, he could hear Titus sigh and run his hand across his brow. Cracking his eyes open just a sliver, Atlas witnessed his guardian's solemn expression. Mouth frowned and eyes looking almost distant as he stared at his regenerating arm. "I… WAS TRYING… TO FIND YOU… TO SAY THAT MITUS… WAS ALIVE BUT – HE GOT TO… YOU FIRST." The titan's voice grew heavier, guiltier. Titus suddenly let out a heavy exhale. "I… AM BAD… AT BEING… A PARENT."
Atlas observed as the titan's gaze lowered even further, into his own lap. It was clear to him that those words were heavy and difficult for the titan to say. Slowly, his lacerations mended and his hip started to realign all the while the tips of his new fingers began to form. What did Titus mean by that? Atlas gurgled mellifluously, hoping that Titus would answer his query. At the vocal, the beast shut his eyes briefly before reopening them, looking down upon him with an expression that looked like nothing that Atlas had ever seen from him before – a face full of regret.
"I… AM… NOT A GOOD FATHER." Titus muttered, brow wrinkled with stress. "I… AM ALWAYS LATE… OR… NEVER THERE… TO HELP YOU." The megalith swallowed roughly. "AND I… I… HAVE KEPT… A SECRET FROM YOU." Titus spoke barely above the sound of a breeze stirring grass. "IT… IS TIME… I TOLD YOU… ATLAS. TELL… YOU EVERYTHING."
Those words drew him out of his dazed and foggy stupor. Had he heard Titus correctly? His guardian – had been hiding something from him? Keeping the truth from him? Despite his aching spine, Atlas willed himself to raise his head in awe and curiosity. Then, a disturbing thought crossed him. Why had Titus been keeping such from him? Was it – was it about what was wrong with him? The distress and pain settled in, making heat pool in his stomach – the feeling of frustration swarmed. Why didn't Titus tell him! He had suffered so much! He deserved to know! He didn't understand! Was there a reason why! With a newly found form of adrenaline pumping through him and despite his still healing battered body, Atlas squirmed out of Titus's hold and gestured to himself, knuckles pressed to his chest clumsily. For a moment, his teeth grinded together, eyes blown wide with desperation despite the water dripping upon his face. "WHHHYANLIIIIKsshhhhk! EISTUUUUUUTKKKKKkk! URRRRRAAAAHHHgkkk!" He practically yelled at his guardian, words not making any sense and a jumbled mess. Atlas gestured again, pointing to himself and his wounds – trying to get his point and query across. Tears leaked from his eyes, still trying to speak his point and show Titus. Even as he did this, his heart plummeted, knowing he was just trying to overcome his handicap in order to question it. "EEEEZZZZZZZ!"
Titus looked on in sympathy, eyes overshadowed in sadness as he carefully lifted a hand to rest upon his mended shoulder. The great beast sighed, a steamy breath drifting gently down to the water. For a moment, he was silent, throat bobbing as he obviously swallowed some sort of nervous lump – the action not at all helping. Finally, the titan looked to him again. "ATLAS… IF… YOU NEED ME… TO REPEAT OR EXPLAIN… SOMETHING AGAIN… LET ME KNOW… OKAY? I… KNOW… YOU CAN… UNDERSTAND… BUT... THIS MIGHT BE A BIT… HARD TO."
Atlas remained still, going over the words slowly. This was something big. He could tell Titus feared to disclose such a complex and troubling thing. Mentally, Atlas prepared himself before he grunted the permission to go ahead. Again, Titus exhaled.
"OKAY. JUST… SO YOU KNOW… THIS… IS NOT YOUR FAULT… ATLAS. IT JUST… WAS YOU… THAT IT… HAPPENED TO."
He watched as Titus noticeably bit his tongue, brows drawing together and the stress lined upon his face. Atlas felt himself shutter a bit. Something was not good. He knew it. Titus then took a deep breath once more.
"ATLAS… THERE IS A REASON… WHY THE OTHER HUNTERS… DO NOT… TAKE TO YOU… KINDLY. THERE IS A REASON WHY… YOU ARE UNDER MY… CARE… WHY MITUS IS CRUEL… WHY YOU ARE… CALLED SIMPLE… STUPID. IT… IS ALSO… WHY YOU CAN NOT… SPEAK." The titan frowned, amber eyes peering at him sadly. Atlas swallowed again, feeling his body heal up as well as a sense of uneasiness settle in. What was this reason that caused all of this and was so awful that Titus decided to keep it from him? What was this reason what made him stupid?
The young titan gurgled quietly, wanting his guardian to continue.
"ATLAS," Titus dithered, nearly biting his lip. "WHEN… YOU WERE BORN," He paused, obviously looking for the right words. "ATLAS… YOUR BODY… IS PERFECT… COMPARED TO THE OTHER HUNTERS. YOU… CAN RUN… HUNT… AND FIGHT BETTER. BUT… INSIDE… YOU ARE DIFFERENT." Titus sighed again. "YOU… WERE BORN… WITH A… DEFECT. A DEFECT…IS SOMETHING… THAT IS NOT RIGHT WITH SOMETHING. LIKE… A DEER WITH… A CROOKED LEG." The titan alliterated with the young titan's chest growing heavy with dread at the word. "ATLAS… YOU WERE BORN MUTE." The large titan frowned, lifting a hand and gesturing to his throat. "YOU… YOUR THROAT… IS NOT FORMED CORRECT. IT… IS THE REASON… YOU ARE MUTE ATLAS. MUTE… MEANS YOU… CAN'T SPEAK. I… DON'T KNOW HOW… YOU CAN EVEN… PRODUCE ANY SOUND AT ALL… I DON'T KNOW… IF YOU… WILL EVER BE ABLE… TO ROAR FULLY." Titus explained sadly, his breath shuttering as he exhaled.
Atlas remained still, eyes blown wide at the news. So the reason he couldn't talk like all the others – was because his throat was malformed? He – may not be able to roar at full volume like the mighty Advancers and Mentors? Like the Hunters themselves? Slowly, his shaky hands lifted to his throat, feeling along the muscle for anything abnormal. His fingers pressed along the flesh, unaware of Titus watching painfully. Squeaks left his maw, his fingers finally coming across a dip in the muscle that wasn't the same as the other side. His heart pounded, Titus was right. His throat indeed was deformed. He was mute. Tears threatened to leak from his eyes, but he kept his surfacing sobs at bay. If he started crying now, Titus may feel that he was too upset to learn the rest of the truth. Instead, he looked down to keep the Mentor from looking at his distraught face. A hand lay upon his back in silent support, Titus releasing a shaky exhale again.
"SADLY… THAT WAS NOT… THE ONLY THING WRONG."
His heart stalled, Titus's statement drawing his attention away from his toes and to his guardian again. There was – something else. What? His eyes observed the other titan practically flinch at his appearance, Titus had likely noticed his inward struggling that was painted all over his face. The older titan's throat bobbed, fingers nervously scratching at his fluffy chest before shifting his weight uncomfortably. Atlas's heart sank further into his stomach. The second truth was likely much worse.
"THE OTHER DEFECT… IS HERE." Titus lifted a finger to point at his head. "I… WILL TRY TO EXPLAIN… THE BEST I CAN. THIS DEFECT… IS THE REASON… WHY THE OTHERS… CALL YOU… STUPID. SIMPLE." The titan noticeably bit his lip. "THIS IS… ALSO THE REASON WHY… YOUR PARENTS… REJECTED YOU. ATLAS… STUPID… SIMPLE… THE WORDS MEAN… SLOW OR DULL… IN THE HEAD." Titus stalled, taking another deep breath. "ATLAS – YOUR MIND… WORKS DIFFERENT… FROM THE OTHER HUNTERS. IT WORKS SLOW. YOU… TAKE LONGER… TO UNDERSTAND SOME THINGS. SOME THINGS… YOU HAVE DIFFICULT TIME… GRASPING. YOU – ACT IN A WAY… THEY THINK TO BE… ODD. LIKE… A PUP AT POINTS. YOU… ARE MORE LIKE… ANIMAL THAN ANY OTHER… HUNTER. I… DO NOT… KNOW FULLY HOW… YOUR MIND WORKS. THE HUNTERS… DO NOT UNDERSTAND IT… EITHER." Titus paused, ears noticeably sinking. "I… REMEMBER… YOU STRUGGLED… TO WALK. THE OTHER PUPS… DID NOT UNDERSTAND… WHAT YOU… WERE DOING… SOMETIMES. THE HUMANS TOO… KNEW YOU… WERE DIFFERENT. I – DON'T… KNOW… ABOUT… YOUR… FUTURE… WITH THE PACK. IT – IS NOT YOUR… FAULT. KNOW THAT… ATLAS. THIS… WAS JUST… HOW YOU WERE… MADE." Titus concluded.
The world seemed silent to Atlas, almost dead though it was green. He was still, looking to his guardian with wide and panicked eyes, irises swimming in shock. He was simple. His mind was delayed. Granted, he knew that he did have difficulty in learning some things, but he didn't know that was what his defect was all about. The other Hunters had a right to call him stupid. Atlas lowered his head, looking away to attempt in hiding his tears that were now streaming down his face. His arms hugged his body, head hung low with his jaw quivering. This was the reason why his parents threw him away like filth. The reason why the other Hunters found him to be a nuisance – always turning a blind eye and not allowing him to play with their pups. Why his littermates wanted nothing to do with him, why Mitus was so cruel, why he had to practically live on his own in mostly exile. It was all because he was stupid. Atlas's shoulders shook, barely noticing the hand placed upon one. Mute and stupid. Different. Why was it him that had to bear this burden?
Then, a startling thought crossed his mind. A reminder that he had thought about previously and denied its credibility.
With the Hunters knowing his handicap – the inability to learn something quickly and the fact he couldn't speak, it was almost certain that no Mentor would want to take him on as an Advancer. Not even Titus. He was going to be doomed to be a Gatherer for the rest of his time living. Cursed to live a life of humiliation and picking up sticks and brush. He had been a fool with a hopeless dream. No Mentor would want to deal with a disabled titan.
He was worthless.
Finally, his emotions burst from their metaphorical seams. His quivering jaw peeled open, releasing a solemn wail as he doubled over in anguish. His hands desperately gripped around him, nails digging into his flesh – body quaking. Another scream tore through his throat, his hands snaking upwards to grip his scalp and tangle his locks. He indeed was a mistake. He was a defect. No wonder his life was hell. Why did it have to be him? Why was he chosen to be different? Atlas screamed again, water streaming down his face just as fast as it flowed down the river. He didn't understand. He just didn't! Atlas whined, shoulders shaking uncontrollably. Suddenly, a tender hand was placed upon his shoulder and his body was pulled against something warm – pulling him from a dark hole that he had been metaphorically sinking into.
"ATLAS! I… WASN'T FINISHED!" Titus alliterated, his tone having morphed into a sympathetic yet warm one. Atlas struggled, holding back his sobs before reluctantly turning to his guardian. If he had an upside to his situation, he doubted it wouldn't aid him. Titus had already stated that he wasn't sure about his future – which was most likely a nice way of saying that he couldn't fulfill his dream. Not being an Advancer, no seeing Eren and his friends ever again. "ATLAS – EVEN THOUGH… YOU HAVE THIS… DEFECT… I HAVE SEEN SOMETHING… ABOUT YOU… THAT THE OTHERS… CAN NOT. YOU ARE SMART… ATLAS. YOU… ARE… AN AMAZING… HUNTER! I… HAVE NEVER SEEN… A TITAN HUNT LIKE YOU! EVER! YOU… LEARN EVERYTHING ABOUT… YOUR PREY… AND HOW TO KILL THEM… QUICKLY! THE MOVES… YOU MAKE… AND EVEN YOUR… PROBLEM SOLVING… IS – NONE CAN COMPARE!" Titus beamed broadly. "YOU… ARE GREAT… IN AREAS… OTHERS ARE NOT! ATLAS… YOU… ARE NOT WORTHLESS. YOU ARE SMART… STRONG… AND KIND. I… AM – THANKFUL… SO HAPPY… THAT YOU… WERE GIVEN TO ME. ATLAS… I AM… PROUD OF YOU." The great titan practically rumbled in fondness, giving him a friendly pat upon his shoulder.
At the titan's honest words, Atlas couldn't help but offer a feeble smile, masking his pain that he still felt. He knew Titus was indeed happy with him and loved him, but Titus and Jade were the only ones who knew how capable he was. None of the others did. And it was likely that Titus would pick another capable Hunter and just continue to allow him around like he had when he was training Jade. Even if Jade won the right to be a Mentor, she would not pick him either. Perhaps even Azeroron had a rule against it.
He felt almost numb.
He didn't know what to do. A part of him just wanted to cry more.
"ATLAS… AS I SAID… IM NOT A GOOD… FATHER. I… STILL… DO NOT KNOW… HOW TO BE ONE." Titus began again with hints of pain upon his face. Though he was struggling inwardly, Atlas listened. "I… HAVE LET… YOU DOWN… OVER AND OVER. I… AM SO… SORRY I KEPT… THIS SECRET FROM YOU. I… CAN NOT FORGIVE… MYSELF FOR… DOING SO." He paused, but suddenly straightening his spine confidently and turning to him with a new fire burning in his eyes. "BUT… FOR NOW ON… I AM GOING TO… BE THE BEST… I CAN BE." Titus beamed, giving a soft rumble before bumping him tenderly with his head. "I HOPE… YOU CAN FORGIVE… MY BAD… PARENTING, ATLAS."
For a moment, he remained still, chin lowering. His weak smile was still on his face despite his inward battle. He could feel Titus's eyes staring at him – waiting on any sort of reaction that would tend to his desire. Deciding that he needed to reply in some way, Atlas lifted his head but before he could give any sort of indication that he was alright, a lie, a distant roar carried over the forest – pulling both of their attention in the direction of the heart of the forest. His ear twitched. It was a Hunter Titan no doubt about it. Another roar followed. Titus's ears twitched, his head tilting upwards before glancing at the shadows around them made by the sun's rays. His guardian grunted a sort of confirmation. Suddenly, he stood, offering his hand to Atlas who took it, allowing the titan to hoist him to his feet.
"THE DUELS… ARE STARTING… ATLAS." Titus paused, looking back at him with a soft smile. "WOULD… YOU LIKE TO COME? JADE… WOULD LIKE… YOU TO WATCH HER."
Atlas felt his chest sink, but nonetheless he grunted in compliance. Quietly, he began to follow his guardian, gaze drifting to his feet once again and his heart dropping. He was devastated. He couldn't lie to himself. He now knew the reasons as to why his life was so difficult and the fact that would rob him of achieving the rank of Advancer. He was doomed to be something that he didn't want to be. He would never see Eren again. The other pups his age would excel while he was left in the dust. He was a stupid and mute titan that unfortunately happened. His fingers gripped his arm, face lining with stress and his eyes watering yet again. He didn't have the guts to let Titus know that he really didn't feel like viewing an event that he himself could never take part in. He felt so sick to his stomach. He wanted to vomit.
He just wanted to be alone.
Just as he remembered, the heart of the forest was full of cries of encouragement and celebration during the duels. The sounds of an ongoing brawl echoed across the glade all the while he and Titus swiftly navigated the crowd of Hunters. Atlas couldn't help but move with hunched shoulders, just wanting to disappear. He just felt distant and stiff. Despite Jade being his best friend, he didn't want to be here. He just wanted to go back to his hollow. He didn't want to see this. He was going to be picking up sticks in his future so why bother?
Not to mention, he didn't want to catch the eyes of his parents again after what he had done to his brother. Let alone any wrath he would receive from the pale titan as punishment. He wished he could pull something over his face at least, so he settled for simply brushing his locks over his features.
The sounds of threatening and vicious roars grew louder, Atlas practically able to see glimpses of two dueling Hunters through gaps in the crowd, Suddenly, his ears flickered at a familiar call, the young titan looking up to see Jade pushing her way through the others, her face coated with concern. At this, Titus stalled, eyes growing wide as the female stopped before them – seemingly out of breath and desperation radiating from her. Shamefully, Atlas remained in his solemn state as Jade looked to him before turning her attention to her Mentor again.
"TITUSS? ISS… EVERYTHINGG OKAYY? WHATT HAPPEN?"
Atlas watched as Titus winced at her urgency, golden eyes sparing him glance. "I… WILL TELL YOU LATER. ATLAS… IS OKAY." The older titan hesitated with Jade instantly picking up on the other's tone. Again, she looked to him, brows pinched together in worry. If it was one thing he knew it was that ever since he started to grow older and bigger, Jade seemed to always be concerned for him. She would check him out every time he had done something dangerous or simply come to him to find someone to hunt with and talk to if she felt lonely. There were times where he was incredibly troubled, but didn't want her aware that he was disturbed. Now was certainly one of those times. To hide his inward battle against the turmoil swarming in his head, Atlas offered her a meek smile. After all, she had a duel to focus on. He didn't need to distract her from winning. She had worked hard for many years and deserved the title of Mentor.
Yes, he didn't need to distract her.
At his gesture, Jade's ears elevated in the slightest, but her expression only softened a little. He could tell that she was able to see through his mask. Was he really acting so poorly? For a moment, it was tense between the three of them, the world muffled. Finally, his guardian cleared his throat, turning to his pupil hastily. "LIKE… I SAID… WE WILL TALK AFTER. FOCUS… ON THE WIN… JADE." Titus spoke, trying to regain his serious composure as he pressed his brow into hers – a traditional gesture. "REMEMBER… YOUR TRAINING. YOU… WILL BE GREAT." Titus's tone changed, words strong and encouraging.
At his change, Jade smirked and grunted. "I WILLL… BE NEXXT MENNTOR!"
Titus grunted, a confident sound and he dipped his head once before releasing Jade's hold. "GO… TAKE YOUR PLACE. ATLAS… AND I WILL… FIND A CLIFF… TO WATCH FROM."
Atlas observed as the two exchanged one more pair of confident grins before Jade quickly turned to head in the direction of the ring. Before he could even comprehend what was to happen next, his guardian wrapped his arm around his shoulder and pulled him closer to him. Atlas couldn't help his own tenseness at the gesture as he looked up to peer at Titus's soft smile – tenderness against the chaos around them. "COME… ATLAS. LET US… SIT UPON THE CLIFFSIDE… IT IS NOT AS CROWDED." Titus continued kindly, already leading the two of them into the same direction. Atlas only reluctantly followed, knowing that he didn't have any other choice to go elsewhere, but if he had to sit and watch from somewhere it would certainly be the cliff side. Most Hunters wanted to be close to the action, but most experienced ones like to observe every move from above where they could have a clear view. Thus, it wasn't as popular as a spot.
Atlas continued to avoid eye contact from other titans as he and Titus carefully scaled the hill. He could already feel the looks from others bearing into him – word must have traveled fast. He gritted his teeth, hoping that his guardian would move a bit faster. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Titus came to a collection of flat boulders that overlooked the glade. The beast gurgled in satisfaction and promptly took his place upon the stone – sitting much like a patient hound. Atlas felt himself grow nervous, nearly wanting to bite his tongue at the other Hunter Titan that Titus had placed himself next to. In his time of living, he had only come across this male Hunter a few times, often when Jade wasn't practicing with Titus or spending her time with him. The Titan was, according to his guardian, from the season of pups just before Jade had originated. The titan himself was well built, lean and muscular. His locks were not nearly as long and a dirty blonde color with his tapered ears having almost nothing to hide beneath. The titan's face was longer, angular with a lipped maw that was almost always in a slight fixed frown. His eyes were teal in color, almost tired looking. His name was Strix, a good Advancer that was often reserved but spoke when needed. He was wise and brave from what he could collect from Jade, but every time they crossed paths Strix seemed somewhat leery around him. Granted, he was friendly around him, asking simple questions but always holding himself back from any deep conversations. Of course now, Atlas was aware as to why. And he didn't feel like being involved with any exchange right now with the titan either.
He just wanted to get this over with and go back to his hollow.
At Titus's voice, Atlas snapped out of his contemplating to seat himself next to the Mentor, shoulders slightly hunch as he peered mostly at his hands and feet – sitting in the same position as Titus. The invisible shield he had metaphorically created was quickly breached with an encouraging pat upon his shoulder, the Mentor looking at him tenderly yet again. "I KNOW… YOU HAVE… HAD A ROUGH DAY… BUT YOU LIKE TO WATCH THE DUELS. MAYBE YOU… WILL FEEL BETTER. YOU GET… TO SEE JADE FIGHT!" The titan spoke enthusiastically, completely unaware of the torment it was really causing him. "AFTER THIS… MAYBE WE CAN HUNT… TOGETHER. WHAT YOU SAY?" The older titan offered, making his heart sink into his chest, but still he knew Titus was trying to help him. Though he was unwilling, he offered a feeble smile and grunted quietly. He almost hoped that by the time the duels were over, Titus would forget about the proposal he made. He felt bad, his guardian felt awful about his mistakes, but he just didn't feel up to anything.
This day had gone from bad to terrible.
"HELLO TITUS." Strix began, eyes adverting from the current brawl playing beneath them to view the two of them. "JADE… SHE IS FIGHTING TODAY?"
Titus nodded. "YES… SHE SHOULD BE NEXT FIGHT." He informed the other who grunted in acknowledgement, Atlas watching as Strix's gaze shifted to him – the young titan dreading what was about to take place.
"HELLO… ATLAS." Strix spoke, swallowing a bit in apprehension. "IT… HAS BEEN… A WHILE. HOW… HAVE," The titan suddenly stopped himself, deciding not to ask the obvious question after Titus had already stated his day had been difficult. "EXCITED… TO SEE JADE DUEL? I BET YOU… GET TO SEE… HER SKILLS… ALL THE TIME."
At the change in subject, Atlas tried to relax in the slightest, but still finding such a practice impossible. He only smiled softly and gave a barely audible grunt to confirm Strix's first query. As for the other titan's second question, he couldn't say yes fully to. Yes, he had seen Jade and Titus exchange in combat, but this time Jade would be going up against titans she had never faced before. She would be going 'all out' as they say. Truly, he himself had only heard of Titus and Jade giving it their all during their own duels for he had been occupied or else ware – something that always made him frustrated that he had missed such a spectacle.
"HE… IS REALLY… GROWING UP… TITUS." Strix directed at his guardian who beamed broadly in return. "I REMEMBER… WHEN JADE… SPOKE OF HIM… TO ME. SAID HE WAS… A LITTLE…CUTE TROUBLEMAKER." Strix huffed. Titus shared his mirth.
"HE HAS GOTTEN… SOME BULK… TO HIM." Titus rumbled, his hand reaching to ruffle his chocolate locks in affection. "TROUBLEMAKER? AT POINTS… YES. BUT… HES A GOOD… TITAN."
Strix let out a soft trill, glancing at him a second time before back to the older titan. "I KNOW… HE IS. ALWAYS SEEMED… FRIENDLY." The Hunter Titan paused, obviously pondering. "TITUS… I NEVER… ASKED… BUT WHAT… IS IT… LIKE… RAISING HIM? IS IT… DIFFICULT?"
Atlas felt his body go numb at Strix's inquiry. Why would he ask such a question right in front of him? Did he not know that he could understand? He looked at his feet once again, not looking forward to hearing the explanation that would follow. He felt almost inclined to cover his ears.
Titus's jaw visibly tightened, but nonetheless he sighed, turning to peer at him and allow his hand to stroke his back, a bid to comfort while he looked back to Strix. "HE… HAS JUST BEEN… LIKE ANY PUP. DIFFICULT AT TIMES… BUT IT IS REWARDING. I… LOVE HIM." Titus explained, words nothing but meaningful and true. Atlas's heart fluttered at that. He just wished there were more Hunters like his guardian. Strix gurgled in consideration before letting out a huff, cheeks tinting red in slight embarrassment.
"SORRY… IF THAT… WAS STRANGE. I… JUST WANTED TO KNOW… WHAT RAISING A PUP WAS LIKE. I… REALLY LIKE THIS… FEMALE. WHEN… SHE COMES… INTO BREEDING AGE – I WANT TO SEE… IF SHE WOULD… LIKE ME AS HER… MATE. I WOULD… LIKE A FAMILY."
Atlas blinked, angling his ear to listen to the current conversation. He had heard Strix mention this same statement to Jade in his brief encounters. A thought then crossed his mind. What if he wasn't going to be allowed to have a family in the future? Quickly, he shook his head. No, like Mentors he was sure he wasn't going to be wanted anyway. He gritted his teeth, unaware that Titus had spotted his distress.
Quickly he grunted to mask his unstable feelings. No, that was right – even the Gatherers had their own pups. Why was he even thinking about such a thing? He wasn't even old enough yet.
His thoughts and inward battle was temporarily silenced by a booming roar, gathering both Titus and Strix's attention as well. Looking below to the circle in the dirt, a titan drew blood, a large Hunter swung another by the ankle – throwing it a good several meters and out of the ring. He observed the defeated beast stagger and the other Hunters roar in support of the winner. Quickly, the two titans moved away and two more contenders were waved into the circle. One, was a tall and lanky male, and the other was none other than Jade. Titus lifted his chin, his keen eyes preparing to watch intensely. Atlas swallowed, Jade's opponent looked a lot bigger than she was.
"ALL RIGHT… JADE. MAKE HIM YOUR… PREY."
Below, the two titans positioned themselves in the opposite ends of the circle. He watched as Jade steadied her breath, eyes locked upon her opponent. The other titan, shifted upon his feet, holding his hands before his face - poised to fight with powerful punches. At his move, Jade mirrored him, ears pinning backward and eyes remaining unblinking. The other titan's hair ruffled, a snarl leaving his maw as he impatiently waited for the signal to begin. Jade however, kept silent, looking like an immovable stone despite her size. He had witnessed this gaze from her countless times with Titus having taught her how to perfect it. It was the regard of a predator locked upon prey. It was something that he felt would shake any titan to their knees.
Then, without wasting any more precious time, Azeroron signaled with a booming roar, giving clearance for the brawl to begin. However, no sooner did their pale leader close his jaws again, Jade launched herself forward with absolutely surprising speed, moving low just like a four-legged beast. Her feet kicked up dirt and her fingers practically twitched in preparation for something to claw at. At her powerful launch, her opponent staggered in surprise, breaking his stance. Atlas knew such a trick from observing Titus's training sessions. Copying your opponent lets their guard down as well as adopting a stance that doesn't hint in the moves that follow. It was an effective strategy. Too bad he probably would never get the chance to learn the art of mastering it.
Jade hissed as she suddenly rushed her opponent who had completely broken his stance. The female titan threw her hands forward, landing excruciating jabs into the other titan's ribs, the sounds of snapping bones carrying across the circle. The taller beast screeched in agony, staggering, but even so Jade was bound and determined to finish him. Before her foe could recover, the female bent down and twisted, throwing her leg out and high – catching the titan in the jaw with a damning blow. Blood splattered and several teeth flew across the earth below them. The female's opponent moaned, clearly dazed as he struggled to stand. Somewhere in the crowd, the titan's mentor was roaring furiously at him, but Jade was not to let him retaliate.
The female titan was quick, rotating around once again to propel herself upon her prey's shoulders. With sharp claw like nails digging into tough flesh, she angled herself, swinging her body in a smooth motion like a graceful fish in the river as she encased her legs around the other Hunter's neck. Using her momentum, she rotated, allowing her upper body to fling outwards. Next, she pulled her opponent face down into the earth. Jade quickly poised herself again, eyes lit ablaze with her maw formed in a snarl. She was confident. Her opponent was no match for her.
"WOW… SHE FIGHTS… LOW… LIKE AN ANIMAL." Strix speculated with Titus nodding.
"JADE IS GIFTED… IN FAST ATTACKS. SHE… IS NOT THE BIGGEST HUNTER… SO THE SKILL IS GREAT FOR THOSE LARGER… THAN HER. JADE'S SPEED HELPS."
"I SEE… AMAZING."
Atlas proceeded to watch the duel. Jade's opponent pushed himself upward, signaling the female to rush forward again. This time, she dropped down onto her hands and feet, but only for a moment as pounced forcefully to land upon the palms of her hands. Before her opponent could react or predict any move, Jade hooked her foot around the back of her prey's neck to pull him towards the earth again. But this time her prey managed to catch himself sooner as he stood, but not soon enough as the she-titan continued her assault, crouched like a spider upon her hands she outstretched her legs once again spinning like a whirlpool with her own appendages acting like blades. Her attack was unavoidable as her kick caught her opponent's ankles and forced him to crash embarrassingly into the dirt again. Adjacent to him, Titus huffed in satisfaction.
"THE TECHNIQUE… IS ALSO… NOT COMMON… AND BARELY A HUNTER KNOWS… HOW TO DEAL WITH IT. LIKE… FIGHTING A… WILD BOAR."
Atlas blinked. He really wished he could learn such a formidable skill. With her opponent barely having the time to lift himself upon his elbows, Jade bent her body nearly in half from her same poised position and brought her foot down upon her foe's skull – hard. Crimson coated locks and dirt flew at the savage impact. The female titan got to her feet, eyes peering down at her lifeless prey, knocked out from the move. The beast likely had a concussion and perhaps a cracked skull. The smaller titan finally roared, announcing her victory yet projecting a stern warning for any other competitors.
He observed, watching on as Jade steadied her breath, and listened to an Elder's instructions on what she was to do next. The female titan then went to seat herself with a group of other winning titans of the first round, her gaze just as cold and determined as it was before the duel began. Atlas had to admit, he wasn't used to seeing Jade with such a look upon her façade. This was a look that he had only seen once before upon her, when he first encountered humans and she and Titus had come to his rescue. It was the look of a predator – calculating and judging its prey. Atlas thought deeper. He remembered a while ago, during a moment with her that she had said he wore the same gaze when he took down his first Mindless. Jade had spoken about how much it unnerved her. She had stated it was the signature appearance of a Hunter.
Atlas frowned at the thought. It was a look wasted upon him. How could he call himself a Hunter at all? He knew what he was doomed to be. Atlas, clenched his teeth, thoughts bristling just beneath his skull. He was probably not even in the right to be in the pack. After all, his mother and father had cast him aside. Perhaps if he was to run away he could do what he wanted, no rules that he had to abide by and no judgmental gazes that practically cut into his soul. He could go to the other side of The Hunter's borders, still be close enough to see Eren – but then there was Titus, Jade, Kana, and Tano. If he went into self-exile he could no longer see them. His heart sank. How could he even think of something like that? Cast aside the only ones who had ever loved him? He almost felt sick at his own selfish thoughts. Hell, he felt sick at all of this. He wanted to puke.
Atlas let out a quiet and shaky sigh, but not without managing to gain his guardian's attention. A small frown pulled at the corners of Titus's lips before the wary expression morphed into an uneasy but concerned and warm smile.
"FEELING… OKAY ATLAS?"
At the soft query, the young titan quickly put on a false façade to ensure that he was fine. Titus already felt horrible enough keeping the truth from him. He didn't want him to feel even more awful than he already did. At his reply, Titus responded with a light grunt and patted his shoulder a second time before peering back down to the ongoing duel taking place below. Unaware that his guardian was still paying attention to him, Atlas let his solemn look return as he proceeded to painfully watch the proceedings.
The sun began to rise higher into the sky, the circle below constantly being painted with blood that would quickly evaporate as if no brawl occurred. Atlas's ears were practically ringing from the constant roars of encouragement and triumph. Battle upon battle had been fought, winners and losers were sorted and then those successful were pitted again. Jade fought ruthlessly, with skill and determination. She was almost graceful, moving as if she could almost float. The blows she landed were always well placed and perfect to render her opponent stunned or injured. She never let up. Low like a beast she was, moving just like the boars that lived about in the forest just as Titus stated. If she needed to, Jade adapted to her opponent, changing her style of fighting. She was incredible, and she was currently awaiting the final match – having defeated all of her opponents.
Yet, Atlas couldn't help but to envy her. Ever since he had seen the duels for the first time, he had always dreamed of taking part in them, becoming an Advancer just to prove his worth. But as time wore on, he could just feel his heart sinking low into his gut and the knot in his throat grow larger. He just couldn't see himself doing such a thing after what he had learned a short time earlier. He could imagine it, being under the watchful eye of a Mentor only to get repeatedly frustrated with his inability to understand everything at a prompt pace. The titan would probably look at him in the eye with his own full of regret at his choice and perhaps even walk away in a huff and request another pupil. He could feel himself shutter at that. He didn't know what to do. He was just going to always be a Gatherer only dreaming of an impossible dream.
He sighed, not realizing that Titus was still discreetly observing him. Atlas then felt the hand upon his shoulder yet again. Knowing just who it was, he prepared to lie again until the roar declaring the winner of the match echoed across the glade. The two then abandoned their impending intervention to peer downwards at the circle. Atlas watched as Jade stood from her seated position and made her way into the circle once again, signaling that this was the final duel. The female titan stood strong, eyes peering at her opponent, the winner of the match that had just concluded. It was a tall male with proportions nearly perfect. He was lean, muscular, and a lipless maw that seemed to almost hold the look of enmity. Black locks dawned the beast's head, clearly longer upon one side than the other and hung messily around his head. The titan's eyes were a bright yellow, pupils almost reminding him of the large brown felines that roamed the forest for their meals. Atlas shifted in his seat. This titan had put up quite an incredible fight each match he took part in. He was strong and could read movements well, not to mention he was surprisingly fast. Whether or not he could adapt to Jade's fighting style was a question he couldn't answer – this Hunter was skilled and Jade would have to be leery.
Atlas put away his own hatred for himself for a moment as he kept focus upon his dear friend. Jade would have to be on her toes. For the first time in the duels, he was truly worried for her being. Next to him, Titus's body stiffened, knowing the same.
"THIS TITAN… MAKES ME… UNEASY." Titus muttered, leaning forward to view the happenings more intently. Strix grunted in agreement.
"I DO NOT… BLAME YOU. SEEN HIM TRAIN… BEFORE – ONCE. TOUGH FOE… FOR JADE."
He blinked at the sight of stress lines upon his guardian's face before turning back to peer at the event afore him. Jade stood before her opponent, hands up into fists just like before. Her eyes gradually gained their feral appearance as she glared unblinking at her opponent across from her. He too, stood similar. But hands lowered with nails clearly sharpened and ready to carve flesh. Eyes were wild all the same. The female's face re-positioned into a threatening snarl, a growl resonating from her throat, a little amount of saliva showing. Jade's appearance reminded him of menacing display forged by a wolf, a complete and utter warning. She was ready to strip him of his confidence. At her vocal, the other titan growled, the sound deeper and pupils turning into slits like Jade's. To them, the world was probably muffled and nothing but the obstacle before them existed. An elder titan oversaw them, ensuring that the circle was clear before bellowing for the brawl to begin.
Before the reverberating sound could cease, Jade sprung forward with frightening speed. Her eyes were locked as she quickly dropped to all fours and charged, low like a hog as she did before. She darted, zigzagging in a pattern as she advanced, her opponent's muscles tightening in preparation to counter or brace for the blow. Atlas had seen this move before, Jade was setting up what was to be a brutal head-butt – a move that she had pulled against Titus once during a friendly spar and knocked the wind out of the titan. Atlas's jaw clinched as Jade drew closer, nails and tips of her toes digging into the ground to gain even more traction. Then with a powerful kick, Jade launched herself and lowered her head.
However, her opponent had read her move.
He positioned himself in the blink of an eye, kicking his leg out to perform a low sweep. Luckily, Jade took notice of the incoming counter move and dropped to roll just beneath the titan's swinging foot. The female evaded, rolling upright again to position herself upon all fours, stance like a spider as her eyes scanned her foe. Her chin lowered, Atlas able to feel her frustration even from where he was perched. She would have to choose another tactic, the male Hunter had the knowledge to deal with her uncommon skillset. For a moment, Atlas swore he could feel a sense of unease swim through Titus.
"HE WILL… BE DIFFICULT."
Atlas swallowed at Titus's words before turning his attention back to the brawl at hand. If his guardian was nervous, he had a reason to be. Jade, with her head poised low, snarled and sprang upright to her feet, sprinting to her opponent with a poised punch. With a bellow, she swung but her advance was blocked by her opponent's hand – simply redirecting her move. Quickly, he returned the unwanted favor by exchanging a blow if his own. Thankfully, Jade shifted, his fist only grazing her locks as she placed a low hit into the male's ribs. To Atlas's amazement, the larger Hunter barely flinched at her move and quickly delivered a well-placed hit to Jade's cheek. At the blow, the female flinched in the slightest but still kept up her assault as she proceeded to get another hard hit onto her opponent's shoulder. She moved quickly, hitting the titan in the ribs and chest. The male raised his arm again only for Jade to block his move with a firm arm. The female titan released a threatening hiss and threw another punch, however with a roar bursting from her foe, his hand caught her fist. A growl rose from the male's chest as he raised his opposite arm to aim his attack directly toward her stomach. However, Jade was quick-witted. Before the chance of breaking bone could occur, she raised her foot and slammed it down upon her opponent's knee. The titan yelped as his leg bent sideways, making him fault and release Jade's hand. Still, even injured, he swiped his claws at her face. Atlas watched as Jade masterfully ducked in avoidance and swerved behind the male Hunter. Like lightening, she dropped to spin upon her back, throwing out her leg to kick the feet out from under her opponent. With an angry shriek, he fell to the dusty earth, but quickly scrambled to his feet. However, still in rotation, Jade quickly threw her foot upward to her opponent's chin as she flipped herself back upright. Her adversary staggered, mouth bleeding where his teeth had nearly gone through his tongue. His eyes were wild as he hissed, shoulders raised and hair standing – looking like a furious lion. He had been humiliated and he would likely fight even harder.
After all, the title of Mentor was at stake.
Atlas could tell, with their feral gazes, blood was bound to be shed.
The two Hunters stood their ground, ears pinning against their skulls with their growls thunderous. The gaze of hunger was nowhere to be seen, but rather the desire to tear each other to nearly the death was swimming within their irises. Saliva dripped, the two like wild beasts fighting over dominance. Then, before he could even blink, the two towering behemoths kicked off, charging right for each other. Atlas's ears flickered, hearing Titus shift nervously in his seat. If it was one weakness Jade had, it was a large titan overpowering her if she was knocked over or pinned. He too, grew nervous as they neared one another, earth like thunder. Jade poised her hands, ready to grab and use her opponent's weight against him. However, in the next second, the male titan lunged with his hands encasing her shoulders and looking much like a great cat hunting his prey. The two met the earth, the male Hunter's weight upon her – creating the situation that they had dreaded.
"NO." Titus nearly snarled next to him, golden eyes staring intensely at the brawl. Atlas swallowed, green eyes wide as he witnessed what was playing out before him, something that made his blood grow cold.
Jade struggled, teeth clacking and a series of furious shrieks leaving her mouth as her legs struggled to get beneath her opponent. Above her, the larger titan snarled, his brow nearly touching hers before his tilted his head to roar furiously – the surrounding audience bellowing their own instigations. Much to Atlas's horror, the male then quickly turned his attention back to Jade and sunk his teeth into her shoulder, jaw clamping down hard with the female shrieking in agony. Atlas could feel his heart pumping with adrenaline as the scene continued, red began to stain the dusty earth and Jade's claws began to cut the skin upon the males back – decorating it in slashes. Atlas's nostrils flared, the scent of blood heavy in the air and almost nauseating to him knowing that it wasn't blood of a Mindless or small prey but rather some of it belonged to one of his only allies. The male's jaw clinched, grip tightening with crimson now decorating his face. Jade continued to trash until it seemed as if her mind locked onto a coherent thought. In defense, the female roared furiously and managed to free her arms and savagely cup her hand just beneath the titan's last rib, tips of her fingers digging into the beast's side as she yanked – her opponent screeching in agony as his rib was broken and now sticking out horribly from the rest of his midsection. Next, Jade did not hesitate as she swung an open palm at her foe's face, sharp nails cutting across his façade and slicing both flesh and cartilage. Again, blood decorated the circle, but still the attack was ill placed as it only grazed the titan's forehead and the bridge of his nose. The male collapsed onto his hands and feet, staggering slightly before staring at Jade heatedly. Once more, like lightening, the male made another move, suddenly coming out of his stance to rotate and kick his leg forward, aimed right for the female titan's head – not even minding his grave injury. With quick reflexes, Jade ducked, landing upon her shoulder and hands before swinging her own leg in retaliation – her claw tipped toes nearly splitting his throat wide open. From where he sat, Atlas felt incredible unease at Jade's irritated scowl. He grew more nervous by the second. Something was about to give.
Rotating from her previous attack, Jade swung out her coiled fist to hit the other in the jaw, knocking the male backward to allow her enough time to get to her feet. Her opponent snarled and quickly stood with a new fire ignited in his eyes. This was about to get dangerous. The two titans charged again, fists both raised – but at the last second Jade began to duck in preparation for a move she could use to her advantage where she could utilize her opponents weight against him and throw the beast to the ground. He had seen the move many times in Jade and Titus's friendly spars and it was quite impressive. However, Jade's move was quickly countered as the male Hunter saw through her plan and re-positioned his fist to land a low sweep right into Jade's stomach. The female titan let out a strained yelp at the brutal blow, saliva spraying from her maw as her body was flung several meters, rolling to a stop just before the border. Atlas's hair practically rippled upon his back as he watched her struggle to stand, hand holding her gut. To he and Titus's horror, her foe came racing forward and embraced Jade's shoulders and began to push with the intention of knocking her out of the ring. Jade screeched as her nails dug into her opponent's chest in retaliation, pushing against him and ignoring the likely broken ribs and busted stomach. Dirt was disturbed as the two behemoths thrusted, heavy steps digging into the soil. A growl ripped through Jade's chest, her mind clearly looking for a way out of her predicament. Then, before the male could make the move to sink his teeth into her shoulder yet again, the female lifted her leg to knee her opponent just beneath the ribs, causing him to double over. Quickly, Jade then lifted her elbow and slammed it upon the back of the male's skull, stunning him. She then circled his body, he himself doubling over in the sand and clearly dizzy. Jade growled, lifting her foot with the plan in mind to bring it down upon her foe's back to push him out of the ring and thus giving her victory.
However, before Atlas could even exhale a sigh of relief, the male titan dug his fingers into the dirt and flung it forcefully behind him, sand fulling Jade's eyes and obstructing her vision. Then, with skill, not the least bit unsteady, and fast as whip, the male swiped at Jade's face, nails cutting deep into her eyes, spraying blood and completely blinding her. Before Jade could even get over the agony and come to her senses, the male got to his feet and took ahold of the impaired female Hunter. Almost with absolute ease, he effortlessly tossed the titan into the air, her body landing outside the circle in a crumpled heap.
The world seemed to stop.
The one thing that Jade had trained for years for was over and she was defeated.
Atlas could only look on in disbelief as the winner began to celebrate and the loser sat in the dusty dirt still trying to get her bearings. He could practically feel Titus's temperature rise, but he couldn't tell if it was anger.
"NO! JADE!" Titus stood from his spot, golden eyes completely ignoring the celebrating victor and crowd. Strix grunted in dissatisfaction, mouth pulling into a somehow deeper frown.
"THAT WAS… A DIRTY MOVE."
"BUT… IT IS… SADLY ACCEPTABLE." His guardian growled out, teeth clenched before he let out a long and drawn out sigh. "STILL… SHE FOUGHT WELL." The large titan continued softly as he began to make his way down the cliffside. "LET US…GO AID HER."
At Titus's wish, Atlas slowly stood and began to trail him, his brain having mixed feelings. A dirty move, from what he knew from listening to Titus's teachings, was an evasive move using some sort of disgraceful means to win. He couldn't imagine how badly it would hurt getting your eyes clawed and from one time that he tumbled down a dusty embankment and got sand in his eyes he knew the great level of discomfort and the excessive washing he had to do afterwards. As they scaled further down the cliff side and soon made their way across level land to Jade, a frown pulled at his face. His friend was the better fighter by far and she really did deserve to win. He had seen Jade train to where she was so sore that she could barely move. Atlas glanced across the glade at her opponent who was speaking to their pale leader and accepting his blessing. He could feel his own stomach heat up despite the lingering queasiness. A dirty trick. What a disgusting way to win!
The smell of blood and hissing steam brought Atlas's attention back to Jade who was sitting up now and holding both her head and covering her face – not even in pain but in what he could discern as shame. Upon their arrival, Jade lifted her head in the slightest, ears facing forward to detect them. Atlas's stomach nearly flipped over the sight of the female's eyes –or what was left of them, practically sliced in thirds with the pieces actively trying to recollect themselves. Atlas paused in his step, bending down to observe her nervously while Titus knelt before her. Jade's ears sank, obviously saddened by the loss, but Titus still wore a soft smile and cupped his hand behind his pupil's head, gently bringing her forward to place his brow into hers. Jade purred softly.
"YOU… DID GREAT. YOU… FOUGHT WELL."
"THANKSSS. EII… DIDNTT SEE DATT ONEE CONNING." Jade muttered, ears sinking further as Strix approached them with water in his cupped hands. Seeing this, Titus quickly helped her cup her own and hold them in place as Strix transferred the water to her, the female titan using it to cleanse the debris away from her eyes. She then trilled weakly in thanks before exhaling heavily. "SORRY."
Titus shook his head. "DO NOT… FEEL THAT WAY. TAKE IT AS… A LESSON… FOR THE… FUTURE. I… AM PROUD TO… HAVE HAD… YOU… AS MY ADVANCER."
At the statement, Jade beamed softly and pressed her head into her Mentor's once again in a wordless thanks. Atlas's mouth opened and closed for several seconds before he let out a soft wheeze. He wanted her to be okay after such a horrifying attack. At his gesture, Jade's eyes shifted to him, the healing process nearly complete. She grunted, dipping her head at him. Atlas's nerves dulled a bit. His friend was going to be okay.
Unexpectedly, a shadow suddenly loomed over them and a new scent swept through his nostrils, making him still. Quickly turning, he was shocked to see Jade's opponent kneeling down before them. Instantly, he could feel his anger get the better of him and he was practically blind to the titan's passive advance.
"YOUU… FOUGHT… W-
Completely ignoring the fact that the beast was making a peaceful approach, Atlas's protective instinct snapped and he released the most threatening hiss he could make, eyes silted and mouth formed into a dangerous snarl. It almost pleased him to see the other Hunter flinch. His threat quickly turned into a growl, ears folded over but Jade's foe simply wore a look of surprise. Behind him, he could feel Strix's hand on his shoulder, but he still ignored the warning.
Ignoring Titus's stern whisper, and feeling that he needed to ward away the male for good, Atlas decided to execute his move. He quickly stood with a loud snarl and proceeded to attempt in lunging, but before he could even lay a hand on his now enemy, Titus's arm reached around him to hold him back from doing any damage. Atlas hissed again at the Hunter before turning to make his argument against Titus, but his guardian's burning gold irises made him hesitate.
"NO." The behemoth spoke sternly, eyes practically bearing into his soul. "YOU… ARE… ANGRY… BUT…IT IS HOW…. DUELS ARE DONE."
A sense or mortification fell over the young titan, making his tense muscles loosen and a knot grow in his throat. He could practically feel his face and ears tint crimson in embarrassment. He should not have done that. Titus was right. Reluctantly, he groaned an apology, still not happy with the outcome of the duel.
To his surprise, the other Hunter huffed, getting back to his feet, his eyes igniting with displeasure once again. "YOUU… NUSST BEEE GEENN EYESS." The male began. "SUCH… ENERGY. YUU ARE… FIESTYY."The titan huffed again. "TOO BADD THOUU… YUUU WONTT BEE ABLE… TO DOOO THAT IN A DUELL."
Atlas's face fell as the reality reminded him of its cruelty yet again. That was right. Any hope that he had of winning a duel for Jade in the future was dashed as well as even being taken seriously by other Mentors. In the adrenaline of the match he had forgotten his predicament that had all but sealed his fate. Stupid. Deformed. Retarted. Handicapped. He began to feel sick to his stomach again. Really sick. He couldn't achieve any dream and he would always be treated as a mistake and scum by the other Hunters. He was never going to be able to do anything or amount to anything. He was worthless.
He didn't want to be here to celebrate, he just wanted to be alone. He didn't want to be a burden to any of the festivities and spoil it to those who he held dear to him. Though there was always a big feast held after any duel or choosing ceremony, he just didn't wish to take part.
"ATLAS?" Titus began again, gentle voice gaining his attention. "PLEASE.. IGNORE HIM. STICKS AND STONES… AS THE HUMANS SAY. NOW… WOULD YOU… LIKE TO STAY… AND EAT THE MEAL? YOU… DID NOT… GET TO EAT TODAY. WE… COULD HUNT IF… YOU WANT."
Atlas felt even more ill at his guardian's words. He just wanted to leave. He didn't think he could even stomach any morsel anyway. To project his decision, he gradually stood, head hung as he raised his hands to press his knuckles to his chest and gesture to the forest with his opposite hand, hoping that Titus would be fine with his decision. The older titan looked stunned, inwardly going over circumstances before giving him a grunt in permission.
"ARE YOU…SURE? IF… YOU WANT… I CAN BRING SOMETHING… TO YOUR DEN LATER." He proposed. In response Atlas gave a halfhearted rumble and gestured to his abdomen. Giving it a small rub with pleading eyes to get his excuse across. Titus remained quiet at his confession but thankfully gurgled in sympathy. "OKAY… ILL… JUST COME BY… LATER. MAYBE… YOU WILL FEEL BETTER… THEN."
Atlas barely stayed to listen to his guardian's words as he began to make his way into the forest in the direction of his home. The amount of concern was so heavy in Titus's voice that he knew the titan would meet him later with bounty no matter what. Titus was likely feeling just as awful as he was. He was still in limbo with how he was to live and just struggling with the fact that he was made much differently from the others. His hand gripped his stomach that felt like waves going through it. Did he even have any sort of future at all?
At the mere thought, his belly finally turned sour, his body shuttering. Knowing what was to happen and feeling the taste of hot iron coming up his esophagus, Atlas quickly rounded a tree to bend over and release the torrent of vomit that he had been holding back. Tears leaked from his eyes, coughing from his sore throat that burned - the horrid taste of bile upon his tongue. Atlas blinked, tears streaming down his cheeks. The world was so cruel to him… and there was likely no end to the torture.
The sun was heading for the horizon, the sky preparing itself for the change of colors like the brilliant reds of fall. Though his belly was full from the bounty of celebration, he had sworn to start hunting soon after. Titus stalled, deep in the forest he was with the smell of apple trees and sap wavering through his nose. It was a good hunting spot, the humans frequented the area to collect the fruit and golden nectar made by the trees, leaving their scent for the Mindless to find. Still, though it was a magnet for a man eating titan, the fact that a Hunter was usually always nearby made it safe for those in the Village. Titus sighed as he started off again, heading for the hidden orchard to check for an easy meal. It didn't take someone that was good at reading emotions to see that Atlas felt absolutely miserable. The poor titan did not take the truth well as he expected as Atlas was smart enough to understand it. He most likely was struggling with what to do and perhaps was even angry at himself. It hurt him to tell the young titan about why he was treated so cruelly, but Atlas was no longer a pup and the day would have come sooner or later. Atlas probably felt worthless. As it was he who had taken the young titan beneath his wing so to speak, it was his duty to comfort and nurture in Atlas's time of need. He needed to be there for him. He wouldn't put it past him that Atlas would be the stubborn type to put himself in a self-imposed exile. After all, the young titan already chose to live away from the pack in his own den. It wouldn't be a surprise if the young titan wished to run away from their territory altogether.
He hoped that Atlas wasn't that stubborn.
Titus quietly moved down a low knoll and continued to scout the area. His nostrils flared, inhaling many stale scents of Mindless and some that were still hours old. His ears flickered, hearing and suddenly sensing two familiar things. One was the scent of man. Thankfully, Atlas wasn't with them for there was the scent of an ever familiar Hunter approaching him. With the crackle of branches and leaves, Titus quickly turned his head to see a titan that he was wondering why he wasn't back at the celebration. With his footsteps light like a graceful deer, Azeroron stepped out of the foliage with an easy smile and calm expression upon his face. The behemoth quickly rumbled a greeting with Titus matching his gesture. The leader of the Hunters let out a soft huff, his approach a casual one.
"ODDD TO SEE YUU HEREE… TITUS. HUNTTINGG?"
Titus offered a smile. "YES. JUST… NEEDED TO GRAB SOMETHING… FOR ATLAS."
Azeroron dipped his head, hand gesturing in the direction of the humans' hidden orchard. "MAYYY EII… JOIN YUUU THENN?"
Titus found himself blinking at the query, but nodded. It was likely Azeroron just wanted to catch up and speak about the duel that had occurred. He hadn't really had any alone time with the titan in quite a long time and hadn't even told him about Atlas's victory over a Mindless when he was just two. Since then, he still wondered if he should even tell the leader even though Atlas had no risk of being taken from him since he was now independent. Hell, Azeroron may not take the news well since he had withheld the information from him. "I… WAS JUST GOING… TO THE ORCHARD… TO GET SOMETHING EASY."
"GOODD CHOICEEE… WITHHH THE OTHERSS… ATTT THE HEARRT…NOO ONNE ISS… THERRR TO WATTCHH HUNNANS." Azeroron spoke nonchalantly as he began to lead the way with Titus soon matching his speed. For a moment it was quiet, the two titans pausing every once in a while to check for any new arrivals to the area. Azeroron raised his head to sniff, ears angling before he started forward again. "EVENNN THOUGHH… YOURR ADVANCERR LOSTT… SHE FOUGHTT WELL. JADE… IS AHH MASTERRR ATT FIGHTTING LOWW… AND FASTTT."
"ONE… OF MY BEST… ADVANCERS. I… HATE THAT… SHE WAS DEFEATED… BY A MOVE LIKE THAT."
Azeroron hummed. "AHH… BUTT ITT WOULDD PRROVE USEEFUL IF ONEE… WEREE TO EVERRR NCOUNTERRR… A HOSTILLEE TITANNN… FROMM ELSEWHERRR… THAT ISSS LIKE USSS."
Titus knew what Azeroron spoke of. In past conversations, just between the two of them, the pale titan addressed the possibility that somewhere beyond their boundaries in the far reaches of the world, there could quite possibly be other intelligent titan species. He theorized about different adaptations, looks, and had even warned that such titans may not be all that friendly. In fact, like Mindless, they could even eat humans. It was a dark theory and if he was honest with himself, even though with the possibility of being docile, he hoped that a thing such as this wasn't true. Hell, there could be a species where Hunters could be on the menu. Titus swallowed at the thought, knowing the reason why Hunters trained in complex combat rather than sticking to such primitive animalistic attacks that easily took down Mindless. Survival.
"YOU… HAVE A POINT." He finally replied as the two drew closer to the orchard. Azeroron rumbled in agreement.
"ANND… THISS… WAYY OF IFFE… MAKESS USS READYY… FOR THATT DAY."
Titus blinked at that, putting the idea into consideration, but then he shook his head to clear his mind. It was something he really didn't wish to think about. If intentions were not of kindness, the only image that came to his head was of a bloody massacre. The very thought made him discreetly shutter.
At the pale titan's abrupt query, Titus returned from the deepest regions of his mind to see the surprisingly tired yet soft look in Azeroron's eyes. He swallowed, this was usually the look that the titan gave him right before beginning on the subject of Atlas. Azeroron then exhaled a heavy cloud of steam, confirming Titus's suspicions.
"ATLASS… I NOTICEDD AND HHERRD… ABOUT… HIS BEHAVIORR." The pale leader began, with Titus inwardly wanting to curse as humans often do. He really did hope that Azeroron hadn't learned about Atlas's act of defending himself or seen his behavior. Quickly, he began to think of a tale to spin. "I LEARNNED… HE KNOCKEDD… HIS BROTHERRR OUT… AND EII… WATCHEED HIM SHOWW HISS DISPLEASUREE… AT THE WINNERR OF… THE DUELLS. WHATT… DOO YUUU KNOWW… OF THIS?"
Titus nearly gulped fretfully at Azeroron's glance alone. Beyond the experienced looking exterior, deep down he could sense a level of intimidation and sternness that made him absolutely uneasy. "HE IS… NORMALLY… BEHAVED WELL… IT IS JUST THAT… I TOLD HIM… THE TRUTH ABOUT HIM TODAY, AZERORON. I… THINK… IT HAS… MADE HIM FEEL BAD."
At his statement, he witnessed the leader's eyes widen slightly and his brows raise before Azeroron adverted his gaze back into the direction they were headed before he exhaled a cloud of steam. "I SEEE. ANDDD… HE UNDERSTOODD… HIS DIFERENCEE?"
Titus dithered, knowing that Azeroron was referring to Atlas's handicap. "YES… HE MAY… BE DELAYED… BUT HE IS SMART. HE JUST… DOES THINGS… AND UNDERSTANDS THINGS… DIFFERENTLY.BUT YES… HE LEARNED… AND… HE IS UPSET."
Azeroron hummed. "EII… KNOW." The leader paused, tilting his head as if he were in thought before continuing. "HE DOESS SEEMM… TO DO WELL FORR HIMSELFF. EII… KNOWW HE LIVVS… AWAYY FROMM USS. THATT ISS… DIFFICULTT… FOR A YOUNGG HUNTERR." Azeroron paused, even stalling in his steps to peer thoughtfully into the canopy. "EIII… DO RELATTTE. EII… LERRNED OF MYY DEFECTT WHENN EII… WAS A PUPP. EIIII… DID NOTT TAKE IT WELLL… WAS TREATED DIFERENTLYY. BUTT…EIII PROVVED NYSELLLFF. ATLLASSS… ISS PROVVINGGG THATT HEE… CANN SURVIVVEE."
Titus knew what Azeroron spoke of, his albinism. There was a reason why their leader was reclusive somewhat and only stayed in the deep forest – only coming out when he was summoned. The pale titan's body and eyes lacked pigment – making him sensitive to sunlight; which was a serious downfall when titans were designed by nature to absorb sunlight in order to get a good majority of their energy. If Azeroron stayed out in the open for far too long, his skin would begin to blister and his eyes would grow irritated. Often, he found Azeroron in the shade or in his den sitting and healing the wounds. Azeroron, had told him once before of his time as a pup. He was seen as an oddity and treated differently by those that were his age, but he was smarter even still – the one skill he had besides strength and combat that rose him to the top position in the pack. To humans and outsiders, the white titan was seen as a great legend, god, deity, a symbol of good luck and even a bad omen to strangers not of the Village.
However, there was something about the leader's statement that left an odd taste in his mouth. He knew the difference between the words surviving and thriving. In this world, surviving meant doing what must be done in order to make it by just to live comfortably. Thriving meant going beyond that. The word meant to excel beyond the standard way of living. To go above and beyond what was expected. Titus felt his gut heat up in the slightest. Azeroron did believe in Atlas, but there were clearly lingering doubts. Titus swallowed as the scent of apples and humans became stronger. Should he just tell Azeroron what he had hid from him?
Then again, even if Atlas was independent, Azeroron was very big on rules and laws. Only those with high ranks could actively hunt Mindless. From time to time, he had seen Azeroron give strong punishment, to the point where a part of him was deeply afraid of the white titan's bad side. He would take whatever he did in stride if he was ever on the receiving end, but Atlas? No. As sensitive as Atlas was, he would be scarred both mentally and physically. He couldn't imagine putting Atlas through such horror.
"YOUU…HAVEE DONNE WELL WITHH HINN TITUSS." Azeroron suddenly began again, pulling Titus back into reality. "THATT… IS SONNETHING… FORR A TITANN THATT HAS… NOT EVERR NATED… OR REARRED YOUNGG." The albino titan beamed back at him with Titus only replying with a curt dip of his head and a deep grunt.
"GLAD… YOU THINK SO." He finally responded as the two Hunters came to a pause upon a small cliffside. Moving away the branches, the pale titan's hand revealing a small glade decorated in several minor and large apple trees. Some were saplings held up by some sort of rope and steak while others would come up to his calf. In the center of the clearing, was a wagon drawn by horses, the two mammals seemingly bored while its two previous occupants collected apples from the nearby trees. The two males doing so were the same two humans that Atlas had a run in with before. A father and son pair with the son having clearly grown a bit since he had last seen the boy in the village. An uneasy feeling then settled into Titus. Hopefully the boy would not yell to him to ask how Atlas was, revealing another rule that he had allowed Atlas to break. With their lumbering footsteps, their attention was drawn away to their position. Instantly, their faces ignited in shock, bodies freezing a bit – almost looking as if they felt guilty for intruding. Titus observed as the two bowed their heads in respect, eyes warily looking at the pale titan in expectancy. For a long moment, Azeroron seemed to stare down at them before he released a gentle gurgle and lowered himself to sit upon his rump. The leader then glanced back at him, a silent invitation to join in which Titus quickly accepted. He shifted to get comfortable, watching as the humans below relaxed and went back to their work but not without sneaking glances every once in a while. Titus remained still, taking note of the boy stopping to stare at him again even as he worked. Like Atlas, he had grown taller and was gaining more mature features. The boy would make a fine young man one day.
"THATT… ISS THE KRUGERR FAMILYY."
Titus blinked in surprise. So Azeroron did know them? "KRUGER?"
"YESS. THEYY… ARE OFF THEE VILLAGEE. MERCHANTSS… I BELIEVEE. HUMANS… THATT SELLL FOODD AND THINGSS… TO OTHERR HUMANSS. THE KRUGERRS… SELL APPLESS… THEY MAKE CIDERR FROM THENN TOO. CIDERR… IS JUICEE FRONN APPLESS. HUMANSS… DRINKK IT." The white titan educated. Titus grunted.
"I… HEARD OF THAT BEFORE. SO… THE KRUGERS… ARE MERCHANTS. THEY… SUPPLY THE HUMANS… WITH APPLES." Titus absorbed the information. Making something to drink from a fruit was a practice that he found intriguing. Humans were incredible at their many crafts. However, he hoped that Azeroron didn't know everything about the family – or anything of Atlas's encounter. Still, he was eager to find out more about the son and father. "WHAT… ARE NAMES?"
However, the question was not answered straight away as the young man paused in his work of loading apples into the cart to warily lift an open palm in their direction. The adolescent human smiled warily, making a fretful huff. Azeroron looked at the gesture curiously before slowly raising his hand, unfolding the fingers to hold out his open palm. At this, the boy seemed to smile, entire face lighting up as he then moved his hand back and forth repeatedly. Azeroron blinked at this before he followed the same notion with the obvious human gesture looking a bit clumsy. The albino then huffed, lowering his hand and watching the boy return to his work. "ITSS… A WEIRDD HUNANN THINGG. SOMETHINGG THEY DOO." He explained, beaming in amusement. Titus simply nodded. Azeroron, the Elders, and Mentors like himself were the only titans in the pack permitted to learn human language and knowledge directly from the Village's leaders and their own elders. They were the only ones allowed to do memory transfers as well. Azeroron even more so. At least once a month, the pale titan would find the Village leaders and converse with them. He would learn the conditions of the human settlement as well as new things that he would pass on to the pack. This 'wave' must have been a greeting that Humans did to one another.
"AS… I WASS SAYINGG." Azeroron proceeded, continuing with what Titus yearned to learn. "THE FATHERR'S NAME… IS ALEXX KRUGERR." The titan paused before looking in the direction of Eren. "THATT… IS HISS SON… EREN KRUGERR. THE KRUGERRSS… HAVE ALWAYSS… BEENN MERCHANTSS. IN WINTERR… THEYY SELL… THE FURR OF ANINALSS."
Titus lifted his head in acknowledgement. Azeroron then blinked, almost tiredly.
"THEYY… ARRE… GOODD HUNNANS."
Titus absorbed the leader's words like a sponge as the two proceeded to watch the father and son below. He observed as Eren generously gave apples to the horses that were clearly appreciating them. It wasn't hard to figure out that the boy and his family had good intensions. After all, they were very accepting of Atlas despite his handicap and had even offered to shelter Atlas from trouble before he arrived to the village to retrieve him. He watched as Eren continued to discreetly glance at him, thankfully out of Azeroron's line of sight. The boy was probably aware of the laws as well and was choosing to say nothing. He was thankful for that.
"SO… TITUSS." The pale titan's smooth but rough voice meeting his ears again. "DO… YUUU HAVVE ANYY… IDEASS FORR YOURR… NEXTT ADVANCERR?"
He could feel his shoulders relax a bit at the leader's change of subject. "I… HAVE WATCHED… FOR A LONG TIME. THERE… ARE TWO HUNTERS… I LIKE."
Azeroron then adverted his gaze away from the humans and looked to him with a soft smile. "WHOO?"
"KANA AND TANO. BOTH… ARE SKILLED… AGILE… AND USE THEIR… WITS." At his explanation, Azeroron nodded in understanding.
"THEYY… ARRE GOOD CHHOICES." The pale titan suddenly paused, reaching up to scratch at the hair on his chin, a habit of the titan's that Titus knew of, the gesture was one of thought. "WHATT… DO YOU MAKEE OFFF… MITUSS?"
His eyes widened in the slightest at Azeroron's unexpected query. He then settled, deciding it was a good time to express his feelings about the young titan. "HE… IS THE STRONGEST… OF THE PUPS… THIS SEASON… BUT, HE IS ARROGANT – AS HUMANS SAY. HE… IS AN AGGRESSOR… A MINDSET… LIKE THAT… IS NOT TRAINING… MATERIAL. IF… HE IS SELECTED… THE MENTOR… WOULD BE FOOLISH."
At his strong opinion, Azeroron lifted his brow before letting out a sigh he could claim to sound disappointed. "EII SEE… AND KNOWW." He muttered. "MITUSS… IS ASSS YUU SAIDD. HE… WOULDD BE DIFFICULTT TO TRAINN. PICKKING FIGHTSS… WITH YOURR OWNN… ISN'T GOOD EITHERRR. EII… DID NOT WANTTT YUU TO PICKK HIMM."
Titus felt is jaw nearly going slack at Azeroron's confession. So the white titan did know how Mitus was. This was a good thing. "SINCE… I AM NOT… PICKING HIM… I MAY… CATCH HELL… AS THEY SAY… FROM HIS PARENTS. ESPECIALLY… SINCE I HAVE NO… INTEREST IN THE SISTERS… EITHER."
At this, Azeroron let out a quiet rumble and glanced back to Eren and his father. For a moment it was quiet once again. The father and son below continued to load up the apples into the wagon, Eren still slipping a few apples to the horses. Suddenly, Azeroron let out a quiet rumble in thought before turning his attention back to him.
"YUU KNOWW TITUSS… YUU CANN BECONNE AN ELLDERR… ANYTINNE YUU WANNT." The pale beast began, catching him off guard with the unexpected subject.
Azeroron dipped his head, turning to face the glade again. "YUU… ARE WIZEE TITUSS. YURR… QUALITIESS… ARE GOOD. YUUU… WOULDD SERVV WELL. YUU AREE RESSSPECTEDD… BY HUNTERRS AND HUNNANSS. EII… COULDD USEE YUU… ASSS AN ELDERR. EII," Azeroron paused, clearly in thought. "WOULDD… LIKEE YUUU TOO TAKKE NYY PLACCEE… SONEEDAYY."
Titus's spine straightened at the statement. Really? Azeroron wanted him to be his successor? That was impossible wasn't it? He didn't even have the ability that the albino titan possessed! He knew that Azeroron trusted him with a lot of things, but this? This was outrageous! Titus swallowed, milling over the act further, cross referencing this statement with information he was aware of. Why would Azeroron make such a decision? He knew that he did not have the same crucial power that he did. So why was he considering him for the job? "BUT… I DON'T HAVE –
Azeroron grunted sharply, interrupting him before giving into a huff. "TITUSS… YUU ARRREE NORRE –
However, the pale titan stopped midsentence, brows raising and pupils shrinking to pinpricks. The Hunter's body went rigid and Titus could feel his blood run cold. Nostrils flared, inhaling the foul odor. Mindless! And from what he could tell, there were several of them.
And the Krugers were still innocently picking apples below.
This was not good. Not good at all!
Before he could even move to stand, Azeroron scrambled to his feet and unleased a loud warning roar, the vocal trembling the surrounding branches and alerting the humans. Titus watched as Eren and his father ran to climb into the wagon and control the horses who neighed and bucked in protest. The aura of the orchard became dark and the smell grew fouler. The pines shook and in the next second the massive figure of a bloated Mindless stepped from the foliage. Saliva dripped from its maw and its eyes, cold and dead in appearance, drifted from the human pair to he and Azeroron – detecting that they were a threat. The small display of realization alerted to him that they were dealing with an even more dangerous situation. The titan was a Strange One – meaning that this titan was capable of having intent. This wasn't good. There were several incoming titans, and it was possible that they were all like the very one before them.
Opening its drooling maw, the titan screeched and took a step in advance, nearly stepping on the carriage – sending the horses into overdrive and charging into the woods with Mr. Kruger barely hanging on to one of them. At this, faster than what his hulking form was capable of, Azeroron lunged from the small cliffside, the earth practically shaking to its roots. Fast he flew, landing upon his hands and feet, bracing himself before propelling into the titan's chest, his teeth enclosing around the ugly beast's neck as they tumbled backward into the foliage. Titus watched as the pathetic behemoth struggled beneath the pale titan's muscle, but with a quick motion from Azeroron's head – blood sprayed green and white. Crimson rain as the thing's head flew and landed unceremoniously with a wet thud. Azeroron quickly stood and turned to face westward, peeling open his lipless and bloody maw to screech a warning. With the sudden shifting of Azeroron's red eyes, his own widened as he registered a titan coming from behind him. With a deep growl resonating from his throat, Titus turned and released a bellow – thrusting his hand forward and into the mouth clear through the back of another titan's skull. Red stained his skin, dripped down his wrist like runny wax. The creature released a pitiful attempt of a growl and fruitlessly struggled to free itself. A low hiss seeped between his clenched teeth, a predator taunting prey before he retrieved his hand forcefully; pulling off the behemoth's head and exposing the spinal column. Taking no time to enjoy the spurt of blood and the alluring smell, Titus promptly reached out to end the vile thing, the titan's nape splintering beneath his fingers. Even though he met victory, the fight was far from over.
His nostrils flared, brow wrinkling at the disgusting yet appetizing musk of the invaders. Like a skilled dancer in the village, he was light upon his feet, pivoting quickly upon the tip of his foot to view Azeroron and five more incoming Mindless. The pale titan bent, clawed hands seemingly itching to grab at flesh. Titus felt his hair rise, skin prickling as a natural anger settled into his gut. A snarl left his lips, canines clearly barred as several more of the beasts approached the edge of the orchard. Each had ignorant looking faces, but all of their eyes held the one thing he feared – intent. They were all Strange ones, angry that they stood in the way of their prey. The Hunter's nostrils flared, sensing that there were more approaching. This situation wasn't good even though the Krugers were long gone and traveling in the direction of the Village.
He hoped that the number of them was manageable, otherwise Azeroron would have to use his power.
Titus was then brought forth into the reality of the situation yet again when a fourteen-meter parted its jaws to let out a shrill screech, furious. With surprising speed, it charged forward – but Azeroron had read the titan's body language before the beast could pronounce its frustrations. With a swift swing, the albino goliath thrust his arm forward and hooked his hand on the inside of the Strange One's cheek. With a deep exhale, steam billowed from Azeroron's incisors. The muscles flexed and contracted in his upper body, veins becoming more pronounced as the Hunter pulled his prey. Like a sack of useless meat, the pale titan lifted the titan upwards with the other's skin upon his face stretching grotesquely. Titus watched, knowing exactly the move that Azeroron was to make as the titan was released in the air – hurdling toward him. Having previously fought beside the albino before, Titus fearlessly caught the beast and hurriedly twisted it so that he had access to the nape. Without another second to waste, Titus sunk his teeth into flesh, skin tattering and red flying with sinew to stain the earth as he tore out the creature's weak spot.
With his ears pivoting to a crashing and low gurgle, Titus turned just in time to face a charging fourteen-meter. Quick like the lightning in the sky, he thrust his hand forward to the beast's throat. With incredible strength, his fingers sliced through flesh and carrion, his digits wrapping around the creature's spine. With a single powerful yank, Titus disconnected the portion of the titan's spine that contained the nape. Taking the piece in hand and ignoring the blood spray upon his face, the Hunter quickly turned to another Strange One that was foolishly running towards its death. Like the Humans used to do long ago when hunting animals, Titus thrust the sharp and jagged bone forward just like a spear. Again, a pained shriek and blood sprayed from the victim, the smell of hot iron strong as the bone impaled the beast's skull. With the titan dazed, the Hunter made his move. Raising his arm, Titus then brought down his fist upon the nape – shattering like ice on impact. However, he could not revel in success as agony sprouted in the flesh of his shoulder and an apparent weight was upon him. Titus growled, lips peeled in a snarl as he turned to see a smaller titan trying its hardest to tear away his skin to expose his precious muscle. With no time to waste, the larger Hunter plunged his fingers into the other's skull and yanked the creature away, losing his bicep, but only enraging and heightening his senses more. Though his right arm was useless until it healed, there were still other tools at his disposal.
Still, there were A LOT of Mindless.
Determined golds then flashed back to Azeroron. The white titan's skin looked to be a marbled mixture of pinks and reds, the smell of blood heavy from him. The leader's eyes were unsettling, somehow redder and laced with rage and frustration. However, the titan's face looked almost calm, neutral even. It reminded him of the Village's strongest warriors, those who held no fear with any obstacle. Like a skilled swordsman. The way Azeroron moved was to be marveled as well, he was fast and to an extent graceful. He could envy him for that, but Titus knew that even his own bulk had its advantages. Still, Azeroron was much more swift than he was. The pale titan twisted to jab his nails into the corneas of his prey. Ears swiveling, Azeroron detected another charge. Like a dancer he moved, pivoting to throw his leg high into the air into a perfectly executed roundhouse to sever his enemy's head clean from its shoulders. Azeroron wasted no time as another charged from his left, he turned and dropped low as a continuation from his previous move. Throwing out his leg, he tripped the titan and like silk he smoothly transitioned to thrust at his prey – landing a hit so brutal that the titan's face caved in. Azeroron began to make quick work of the nape, tendons snapping and blood spraying. However, just as he finished a pair of teeth sunk into his bicep. Though it was clearly painful, Azeroron only appeared slightly annoyed. Quickly, the albino threw his head back to stun the other titan with a blunt blow, dazing the monster. Seeing that it was borderline unconscious, Titus pushed himself to thrust forward and encase his hand around the titan's head, squeezing it to the point where eyes flew from their sockets. With a powerful yank, he tore the nape from the body and regained his focus. His heart started to pound, wind from a coming rain sweeping through the forest and delivering the unfortunate truth to him. There were more coming.
And his arm still wasn't healed completely.
Golden eyes, shifted to the pale titan, seeing the nasty bites on his limb and collarbone. It was clear that Azeroron's arm wasn't going to be fully functioning either. They were in a serious bind.
The pale titan heaved a breath as he slowly stood, holding his wound with red eyes glowing at a low smolder beneath the canopy. His chest heaved, a soft cloud of steam seeping beneath his teeth. The last ounce of sunlight faded and rain began to emerge through the gaps of the branches. Titus heaved a breath, turning to look in the opposite direction. Around the orchard, at the edge of the glade were Strange Ones. Their gazes held a sense of cold and anger, maws slaked with drool decorating many of their chins. A low mist gathered around their feet, a combination of steam and from the increasing rain. Titus watched, ears pinning back but remaining vigilant as he assessed the situation. Their breaths were ragged, like starved animals. Beasts willing to charge blindly to get a meal. They as Hunters were in these titan's ways, and sometimes, when something stood between a hungry animal and its food, the animal was always willing to go to the extremes. Titus swallowed, feeling his teeth clench and a growl resonating from his throat, the sound blending with low thunder. The aura of the forest grew darker and eyes glowed in the gloom. Then, a drop of rain fell from his nose and before it could grace his chest, a shriek sounded across the barren orchard.
A Strange One bolted forward, running as best as it could despite its proportions. Pupils shrunk to the size of pebbles and saliva flew from its maw. Titus prepared himself, prepping his good arm and praying that his other would hurry healing. Though it had seemed like hours since the injury occurred, in reality it had only been just over a minute. He planted his legs, muscles tensing as his eyes judged the titan's movements and figured the best way to make his own. To survive, he would have to be both quick and smart. Even though they were strong, this was how Hunters perished. A crack of thunder kicked him into high gear and back into their current predicament. Titus snarled, his canines bared and ready to fight for his life. The charging titan lunged, high into the air with its jaws ready to sink into his precious flesh. Titus released a roar, stepping forward to swing his fist into the Strange One's mouth. Brain matter flew at the force, sinew caked upon his hand. Quickly, he threw the corpse at another charging enemy that tumbled to the earth.
It then became hell at that point.
Another one of the vile creatures lunged, its weight slamming into him and teeth sinking into his leg. Titus gritted his teeth, eyes igniting in fury and desperation. With another roar leaving his throat, Titus lifted his gore laced hand and brought it down upon the titan's skull. Bone caved like fruit as he quickly finished his current prey before focusing to the next incoming enemy. Titus threw out his leg, slamming his heel upon another titan's kneecap so hard that the limb bent the complete opposite way with a horrible crack. The beast released a howl in agony and fell in a heap back to the earth. Like a pitiful deer hit by a human's cart, it helplessly thrashed and shrieked as it tried to stand. Bringing down his foot again, he swiftly ended its life – like a melon being squashed between his fingers. The remains of the nape bubbled between his toes, but there was no time to relish in the victory.
Pain ignited from his thigh, the agony making him nearly bite his tongue in two. Twisting his head to view the culprit, the Hunter witnessed a ten meter with its face buried into his flesh, Tendons and threads of muscle weaved between the creature's yellow and bloodied teeth. Again, it bit down, the move nearly making him dizzy as the bite was deep. Furious and with the faces of his friends flashing in his memory, the will to keep going no matter what sent another powerful and ferocious roar through his maw. With his arm now healed, Titus dug his claws into the nape and tore out the weak spot and with a powerful yank, he hauled up the titan's body to throw it at more of the incoming creatures. Titus swallowed, amber eyes glancing for a few seconds at the wound – a hole in his leg that was almost to the bone. He swallowed, he wouldn't be able to put all of his weight upon it if he needed to kick and he wouldn't be able to move quickly if he needed to. Inwardly, he cursed himself for the negligence. He needed to avoid an injury such as this.
He could feel his stomach heat up in anger. He was in no mood to deal with his foe and he could not let the horde turn and go after the Krugers. Deep in his mind however, he was struggling with the question of why Azeroron hadn't used his ability yet. Every odd was stacked against them. They needed at least ten Hunters to take care of a horde like this so they were severely outnumbered. If Azeroron was planning to just keep them busy – the plan made no sense. Azeroron, with his power he was the strongest titan in the world. Steam billowed from his nose as Titus raised his fists, vocalizing two loud barks as he brought his fists down upon his chest, beating twice before hissing loudly – a display of dominance that Hunters sometimes used. Of course, they would not take the warning.
Like men on a battlefield, they charged forward. Titus's heart skipped a beat, but he remained stagnant. He would have to rely on his still dependable weapons – no matter the condition. Primal, he roared, his claws slicing across the eyes of a titan and the other enclosing around a nape. Blood flew in all directions, painting fleshy canvases and damp grass. The smell of corpses and blood soaking into mud wrinkled his nose as the aroma filled the orchard. His teeth became red and decorated in carrion – black beard stained. The taste upon his tongue was stimulating, making saliva pool in his jowls and his stomach beg. But this was no time to feed and as the minutes ticked by Titus found it harder to resist a meal even as he just feasted. His goal was currently keeping instinct at bay. He needed to survive. To thrive and live another day. His fists plowed through another titan's spine, bone shattering like glass, ice as it would crack beneath weight. Despite the pulsing pain in his still healing thigh, he kicked – heads flying with blood mixing in the falling rain. He roared, over and over with his throat going raw. Titus sunk his teeth into a small titan's face, tearing it off easily and throwing the body at the feet of his enemy for it to be trampled. Again, he reached out to snag his gory prize, only to feel agony upon his stomach, with a growl – he tore another titan free from his abdominal. He could feel it, more than flesh dangling. Unconsciously, he reached to feel his misplaced organ, but was quickly made aware of another titan bearing down upon his position. Thinking quickly, he pulled his stomach free and threw it into the face of a fifteen meter. Foolishly, it staggered – blinded for a moment but giving him the chance to make use of his sacrifice. Titus charged, wielding his coiled fist high as he brought it forward with such force that his appendage went through the titan's neck and nape as well as breaking his elbow with his own bones tearing through his flesh. He barely flinched at the injury, but the sight only seemed to urge the Strange Ones to call to an unwanted invitation.
He could feel it, his own blood running freely down his face as a bit of his scalp was torn away all the while he clawed and kicked at his pursuers. Titus bellowed as he hauled a small titan away from his head, but was too slow to stop another from sinking its teeth into his obliterated arm. A howl came from his crimson coated lips as the limb was torn free, leaving him with a spitting stump. Three. He had three limbs to work with for the time being and his fangs. For a moment he considered activating the Hunter's own special trait, one that would enhance his own abilities – but even the most experienced Hunters had little control over it. With Azeroron here, he would be playing a much more dangerous game. He would fight in his current state even though he was beginning to grow more exhausted. He couldn't heal fast enough with the rate things were going. Still, he hung on to his confusion, why was Azeroron holding back!
Steaming bodies lay about at his feet, coating the wet glade in a haze. Titus hissed, kicking the stomach in of another titan, before he stood once again to prepare himself. The titans were advancing, and he was at his limit. He was coated in blood, the warm liquid falling into his eyes and seeping out from his healing gashes. His severed limb steamed, bones trying to form – but with his injuries, he was regenerating much slower. There were still more than two dozen Strange Ones approaching. There was no way he could fight them off. He could run, but they were likely to resume pursuit of the humans. And this many could not find their way to the Village. It would spell disaster. Titus took a step in retreat. They had but two options. One would offer a much quicker solution than the other. And they needed a quick one. As he took another step, he bumped into something blunt, he turned his head in the slightest to see that Azeroron had pressed his back to him. Titus's nose flared at the scent of blood upon the albino titan – the beast's own blood. From the corner of his eye, he examined the Hunter. He was missing several fingers and there were several bites taken out of his flesh. The pale titan's arm was twisted. Though he was in better condition, he was still in no shape to keep going any longer – there was simply no chances given to heal completely. Still, there was a fair number of titans slain at his feet, but more closing in upon the edge of the orchard. Titus swallowed, clearing his bloody throat.
"THERE… IS TOO…MANY." He found himself muttering, noticing Azeroron's neutral expression. "I KNOW… YOU CAN CALL… THE PACK – BUT I THINK… IT WILL BE TOO… LATE. AZERORON… PLEASE… USE THE…COORDINATE." Titus beseeched. The Coordinate was an almighty power – one that allowed the wielder to control the Mindless, Strange ones, animals, and even manipulate the minds and bodies of man. The Coordinate could also see into the past and future. There was only one Coordinate among the Hunters, only transferring to another Hunter once the current Coordinate passed on. The Hunter that possessed the Coordinate was the King of all Earth. The most powerful living being of all.
However, to deepen his surprise and perplexity, Azeroron remained silent. The white titan continued to stare forward in seemingly determination, but the slight wrinkling of his forehead and bunching of his brows told Titus a different story. Something – was off. He watched, as the titan's throat bobbed, the smell of nervousness wavering off of the leader – a scent that Azeroron never carried before in the many years that he had known him. Titus frowned, eyes glancing back to the titans that were now beginning to run for them. Panic pooled into his gut. What was he waiting for?
Suddenly, before he could question further, Azeroron threw back his head to release a loud and echoing bellow that swept throughout the forest – shaking their surroundings and masking the clap of thunder. However, the titans didn't stop. To his horror, they never detoured into another direction and never turned against each other. They still kept coming. The sound was the very one that the leader used to rally the pack – nothing different. Nothing like how Azeroron once described it to him. Confused, Titus turned to Azeroron, but was met with stern red eyes that held nothing but seriousness and exacerbation.
"KEEPPP QUUIETT… AND RUNN. EII… MUSTTT SPEAKKK… WITHH… YUUU."
Rain continued to pour, the sky growing darker with the fading afternoon. The forest seemed to have a washed out look. Life had grown silent yet again, hiding away from the sky's bounty. The dull ache in his feet still remained from their running, and the irritation from his wounds still pulled at him. But the thought was swimming inside his head and demanding more of his attention. Azeroron, had been hiding something from him.
The two Hunters had taken refuge upon a high rock cliff inside a vacant cave, water pouring from the overhanging rocks like a sheet. Lightning lit up the sky, illuminating the area with thunder following in the distance. Titus paused in nursing his still healing wound, eyes peaking over his arm to view Azeroron quietly staring out of the cave and into the rain. The titan had been quiet since their arrival, not speaking and looking deep in thought. He too, had said nothing – simply waiting for an explanation that the leader was likely to present. Hearing a sigh, Titus watched Azeroron turn his attention away from the drenched forest and back to his still regenerating fingers, lifting them to his maw to lick them a few times – something that the leader had done enough of and was clearly just a nervous tick at this point. Titus exhaled softly, steam flowing from his lips and nostrils.
The albino lifted his head, his serious red eyes and their intensity making him pause. Perhaps he had been rude, but to his surprise Azeroron closed them for a brief moment before reopening them. His gaze was slightly softer, but his irises still held solemnity. "TITUSS," Azeroron began, brows pinching together again with his voice strong but quiet. "ONLEE… THE ELDERSSS KNOWWW THISS TRUTHH. BUTTT… EIII FEELL THAT YUU… NEEDD TO KNOW, TITUSS."
For a moment, the rain was the only sound heard between the two of them. He found his jaw loosening and his suspicions slowly bubble to the surface. So there was something more to the situation. He found himself opening his mouth, a question lingering, but words could not escape. However, Azeroron's gaze remained locked onto him, expecting a question. Titus's ears lowered, cocking them back in the slightest. The downpour continued. "IS… DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH… YOUR CHOICE… BACK THERE?" He queried, observing as the titan before him tensed before loosening.
"YESS." Azeroron paused, eyes shifting to look at the rainy landscape before his solid gaze landed upon him again. "TITUSS… THEE… HISTORYY YUU WEREE TAUGHTT… ABOUTT THE COORRRDINATE – PLEASEE STATE ITT."
His brows lifted at this, amber eyes displaying his surprise. So he had been right. Something was off about Azeroron's power. Did it have limits and weaknesses he never knew of? Was that why the leader only summoned the pack? His spine straightened, brow wrinkling in the slightest before he grunted to clear his throat. "THE COORDINATE… IS THE LEADER OF THE HUNTERS. THE ABILITY… ALLOWS HIM OR HER… TO CONTROL ANY LIVING BEING… AND LOOK INTO THE PAST… AND FUTURE. ONCE THE CURRENT… COORDINATE… PASSES ON… THE POWER IS… GIVEN… TO AN UNBORN PUP. ONCE… THAT PUP… GROWS UP… HE OR SHE… BECOMES LEADER. THE COORDINATE… IS THE MOST… POWERFUL TITAN OF ALL… THE MOST POWERFUL BEING. THEY ARE THE… KING OF ALL EARTH." Titus responded, witnessing Azeroron's lack of expression.
For a long moment, the albino beast remained seated in his position, fingers and wounds completely healed and gaze at a low smolder. "WELL… MOSST OF THATT IS TRUTHH." Azeroron spoke, his easy words igniting a significant spark of confusion within him. "BUT…THERRE ISS A LIE… WOVENN INTO THE TRUTHH."
Again, Titus found himself unable to speak but rather riding upon the impulses firing off in his brain. Recalling the leader's refusal to use his power, Titus's brows lifted. Surely… Azeroron didn't mean –
"TITUS," Azeroron's serious tone captured his attention again. "EII… AM NOTT THE COORRDINATE."
With the titan's statement, his sudden suspicion was confirmed. Titus's brows lowered. So, Azeroron had presented a lie all along to the pack? The hell? More questions began to bubble up from his gut. Why was the pack unaware? Could Azeroron have been playing a false role assigned to him? What was the reasoning behind this? Titus allowed a barely noticeable frown appear upon his face, placing his hands afore him and sitting up straight with barely a curve to his spine. "SO… DOES… THIS MEAN THAT YOU ARE… NOT OUR LEADER? NOT… OUR KING?"
Azeroron lowered his chin, but stare still stern. "KINGG? NO. LEADERRR? THE… MORRE ACCURATE TERRM IS… HIGH ELDEERR."
The Hunter shifted in his seat, his mind struggling with what Azeroron had revealed to him. He had always been taught a single truth, but this was blind sighting him with a lie. "HIGH… ELDER? AZERORON –
His query was stalled as the pale titan lifted his hand in the slightest to stop, a human gesture while he let a sharp grunt from between his teeth. "TITUSS… ALLOW MEE TO RETELLL THEE HISSTORYY." The white titan spoke, his voice low but still more profound over the rain. Again, it was quiet, the sound of the shower still pattering against leaves prolonging. Finally, Azeroron cleared his throat, an expression of almost exhaustion came to his face, but those eyes of his still held authority. "WHENN THE COORDINATTE DIES… AND A NEW ONNE ISS BORNN… THE HUNTERR WITH THISS GIFTT ISSS… ALERTTEDD WHENN THEYYY COMME OF AGE, MATURRE AND FULLYY GROWNN, BYY THE ELDERRS. THE POWERRR OF THE COORDINATE… ISS KNOWN BYY MANYY. MANN AND PERHAPPS EVNN OTHERRR TITANSS THATT WISSSH TO HARNESSS IT. KNNOWING THISS… THE ELDERRSS… CME UPP WITH A PLANN TO PROTECTTT THE COORDINATEE. AN ELDERR… WOULDD BEE SELECTEDD… TOO BEEE HIGH ELDERR. THATTT HUNTERR WOULDD SERVV AS THE VOICEE AND FACCE… OF THE PACK. THE HIGH ELDERR… ISS IN CHARGGE OFFF THE PACKSS DOINGGS ANDD… THINGGS DEALLINGG WITHH… MANN AND THE VILLAGGE." Azeroron paused, looking out into the rain once again – likely to check for eavesdroppers before continuing. "INDEEDD… THE COORDINATEE ISS KINGG… BUT THE COORDINATEE IS KEPTT HIDDENN. IFF… WE FINDD OURSELVESS ON BRINKKK OF… NATURALL DISASTERR ORR FACCINGG AN UNKNOWWNN AND DANGEROUSS OPPONNENTT… THE COORDINATE… GIVESS THE ORDERSS TO BE… PASSED THROUGHH… THE HIGH ELDERR. WHOO… EXECUTESSS THEMM."
His fingers swam through his beard, the broken pieces in his head coming together. "SO – IN OTHER WORDS… YOU… ARE… A FALSE KING. YOU… MAKE YOURSELF… A TARGET SO THE COORDINATE… IS SAFE."
Azeroron hummed, grunting softly. "YES. ITT… HASS BEEN THISS WAY… FORR CENTURIESS. I AM… A FACCE AND A MESSENGERR. NOTHINGGG MORRE THAN THATT. THE HUNNANS OFF THE VILLAGE AND WALLS DO THE SAMME."
Titus exhaled, shifting again to get comfortable. Something still made him uneasy about this. A sense deep in his gut. Then, a question formed that Azeroron had not explained yet. "AZERORON… WHO IS THE CURRENT… COORDINATE?" He asked.
The simply question however, seemed to erase the tired expression from the high elder's face. Instead, Azeroron leaned forward in the slightest, chin lowering a hair and his red eyes growing even more staid. In addition, there was an unexpected sense of cupidity. "I FIGGURED… YUU WOULDD ASKKK, TITUSS. IT… WAS ENTHERR."
Titus sat back at the news, stunned. He knew Enther. He was a strong titan, but he was no stand out as far as looks went. He had been a Mentor himself, but barely spoke. He went under the radar completely, overlooked most of the time with most of his Advancers as well. However, the reveal that Enther was the coordinate, had pushed his brain into overdrive. Was. "ENTHER? BUT HE –
"WAS KILLEDD… I KNOW. HE… WASN'T FULLYY SKILLED ATT… USING THEE POWWERR YET."
The Mentor's brow wrinkled, his mind moving a mile a minute. Enther had been slain when a horde overpowered him when he was alone – the same situation that they had just escaped from. Titus tried to recall the date, his heart suddenly skipping a beat as the realization came to him. His brows rose, jaw loosening. "THAT WAS… THREE… SUMMERS AGO."
Azeroron grunted. "WHICH MEANNS… THE COORDINATTE… SHOULDD BE ONNE OF THEE PUPSS BORRNN THREE YEARSS AGO. A YOUNGGG ADULTT." The High Elder paused, eyes seemingly glowing in the dim light of the cave, the sense of covetousness suddenly sparking in crimson even more. The world was almost silent, grey, and the aura left him even more uneasy. "TITUSS… HASS ATLASS SHOWN… ANY SIGNSS OF THHHE COORRDINATE?"
Again, silence swept over him like the dark blanket of the night sky. He could feel the hairs upon him stand, his breath hitch. For a moment, it felt as if his blood had cooled substantially. Atlas had been one of those pups. Therefore, Atlas was a candidate to be the Coordinate. Could it be possible?
"THE COORDINNATTE… SHOULD HAVE SHOWNN SIGNNSS ATT… THE AGEE OF TWOO. HAVVEE… YOUUU SEENN ANYTHINGG TITUSS?" Azeroron continued, Titus growing numb.
He knew the signs of the Coordinate from learning them in passing. Early symptoms of control, simple things like animals that were small and things like bugs and birds. Titus thought deeply. He had never felt any other will besides his own wash over him so controlling a Hunter was out of the question. Interacting and controlling humans was inconclusive. Atlas had only come across them twice and like anything small and cute, the humans seemed to fall in love with him. Animals, they did seem to like hanging around Atlas, but such creatures around Hunters were normal for they evaded predators that way. Controlling would be much more evident. Nothing in his memory had changed. No. It wasn't possible. Atlas was three years old and he would have displayed the power by now. Sure, he was mute, but he knew the titan. If something was bothering him, the young behemoth always conveyed it to him somehow with gestures and noises. Atlas was just a normal Hunter with a few special needs. He had no such power. The Coordinate was another titan.
"HE IS NOT… THE COORDINATE. ATLAS… HAS NEVER GIVEN ANY INDICATION OR… SHOWN ANYTHING… HINTING OF THE… POWER." Titus replied, watching as Azeroron's shoulders sank and the High Elder's gaze drift to the rain. However, the titan had not loosened his stance due to disappointment, but rather relief. Titus blinked, perplexed by the reaction. Why would Azeroron react in such a way. His brows wrinkled again. Was it possible that the pale titan was happy that Atlas wasn't the Coordinate? Did – Azeroron still put Atlas's disabilities over his strengths? What would he have done if the latter was true. His body began to grow numb. The day after Atlas was born – what was Azeroron really doing in his den with Atlas? Azeroron's deep breath brought his attention back to the albino again, watching steam seep from his teeth before he shook his head once to get rid of any small amount of water as he settled upon his hip, accepting that they were going to be there a while. Although the white titan was calm, Titus felt absolutely uncomfortable. The rain fell harder and a knot formed in his stomach. Scenarios began to play in his head, each darker than the last. He felt almost dizzy, recalling the fact that Azeroron had an iron fist and a perverse sense of duty that he kept mostly under wraps. Titus bit his lip. "ARE… YOU RELIEVED?"
With his gaze still looking out at the downpour, Azeroron grunted. "YESS."
His chest tightened, heart starting to beast faster. "AZERORON, WHAT… WERE… YOU DOING… IN MY DEN… WHEN ATLAS… WAS BORN?" Titus swallowed roughly as he prepared to deliver the rough part of his query. "WERE… YOU PLANNING TO… KILL HIM?"
The aura grew darker than before, his skin tingling as Azeroron slowly turned to face him. The titan's red eyes glowed like burned ash in the cave – narrowed and showing distaste. Titus felt his joints stiffen, the other titan simply staring at him. Before he regretted his decision, Azeroron exhaled deeply.
"YESS. I WASS… BUT EII REMEMBERRD THE COORDINATEE… SO I DID NOTT. BUT… EII DECIDEDD THAT HEE… COULD BE USEFUL… BUILT THE WAYY HE ISS. SO…. I DID NOTT."
Titus felt dizzy, his stomach wanting to turn sour. Despite it, he proceeded to ask another damming question. "WHAT… WOULD YOU… DO IF HE WAS?"
This time, the darkness seemed heavier and lightening lit up the sky with thunder rolling in the distance. Azeroron's eyes seemed to glow brighter, narrowed and face stoic. The albino's ears folded over, pinning themselves before facing forward assertively. For what felt like an eternity, the High Elder did not answer. He just stared. Finally, the titan heaved a great sigh. "EII… WOULDD HAVVE NO CHOICCE. EII… WOULD HAVE TO KILL HIMM."
At the answer, Titus nearly vomited.
"ITT ISS HARSHH… BUT TITUSS… WE CANTT HAVE A DELAYY… IF WE NEEDD TO ACTT." Azeroron paused, scratching his head before bending over to lay upon his side. "BUTT ATLASS… IS NOTT THE COORRDINATE. HEE IS FINE. DO NOTT WORRY TITUSS. HE ISS ALIVE AFTERR ALL. ALIVEE… AND SURVIVINGG." Azeroron concluded, turning to lay his head upon his hands and facing the rain again, clearly wanting to be left alone until they could get out of their predicament.
Titus however, was still inwardly struggling with what he had just heard and witnessed. The day that Azeroron came to his den, he had this vacant look upon his face. He remembered it well. It had always left him uneasy and now hearing this, no doubt if he had not arrived when he did, the outcome could have been grave. However, Atlas was not the Coordinate and could live a fairly normal life. However, Azeroron's consideration of killing Atlas if the power was not even involved was what haunted him. It was clear, he did not think highly of the pup. He just tolerated him. If he wasn't there to take Atlas in, it was likely nothing would stop the High Elder from slaughtering him.
Inwardly repulsed, Titus turned to lay in wait in the opposite direction, eyeing the passing shower.
The world was utterly cruel to those that were different.
Water, cool, and cold ran down his skin from his face and gradually down his chest, belly, and inside thighs – eventually to his feet and the rock that he stood upon. Through closed lids came flashing blues, the sky lighting up with the storm. Atlas was stagnant, standing in the center of his hollow with no mind to the rain. Still like stone, he remained straight upright, head tilted backwards and simply allowing himself to be soaked. He did this at times, for mostly relief from a day's torment. However, his mind was still buzzing and nearly throbbing at the day's disappointments.
Green eyes gradually peeled open, staring upwards at the grey sky – a tired expression upon his face. For the past several hours, he remained in isolation, not even emerging at the sound roaring Hunters. He just wanted to be alone. Atlas, exhaled, steam vaporizing quickly. He was still struggling with the plan that he was going to have to go with if he wished to stay with Titus and Jade.
The titan lowered his head, wet hair cascading over his face to conceal his eyes. Beads of water crested over his nose and his chest shook a little. The only option he had was to keep living as he was, condemned to live a life in solitude and judgement. If he were a normal Hunter he would have been much more favored. But the world did not like everyone. Atlas sighed, turning to look back at his den in the base of the old hollowed out tree in his home. With his ear flickering at the sound of lightning, Atlas decided to turn in. The titan walked, pausing before his den to ring his hair out of the unneeded before climbing into the empty trunk. Routinely, Atlas ruffled the fresh and dried leaves before rotating several times until finally he flopped upon his side. He curled in the slightest, getting comfortable before returning to his thoughts. It seemed that his decision was a sacrifice, a life of freedom and no downward gazes or a life that was subject to mercilessness and the strict order not to visit humans but with his supported friends or guardians. Atlas sighed for the umpteenth time. He wasn't looking forward to living like this, but he supposed that it could be worse.
Deep down, he was trying to convince himself that he wasn't lying.
The rain continued to pour, sky darkening even further with the approach of nightfall. Green eyes watched the water roll of the edges of the rocks and down into the pond below before rolling over to bury his chin into his arm. Tomorrow, his Titus would be choosing his next pupil that could potentially be a new friend or someone he could seek solace in. Or even another titan that would treat him like the vermin they believed he was. Atlas curled tighter, ears pressing against his head and steam gently wavering from between his teeth. It was likely though that the odds would be in his favor this time. He knew that Titus was looking at Kana and Tano. At this point he was desperate for him to pick either one of them. Thankfully, he knew his guardian was not fond of his littermates so he didn't have to worry there. But still, there were other choices that were not doting of him.
Still, he found himself sick to his stomach at the concept that he would never get to experience the same thrill of being an Advancer. After watching Jade with Titus, he had always wanted to join in on the fun and learn things from his guardian about the Hunters' most practiced art. He could have used it to acquire his prey or defense against his foes. There was a lot of things he could have done. Atlas snorted, facing sudden frustration before letting out a low whine. He was getting so tired of thinking about this. He needed to save such thoughts for the next day. He was probably pitying himself too much as well.
The rain prolonged, the sky now a deeper gray with the thunder far in the distance. With the quickly fading light, he could feel his muscles loosen. Atlas's lids lowered, fingers uncoiling as his body began to fall into repose. Things lightened and his vision gradually went black. He hoped that his dreams at least would be better than the day was.
Flashing, dark and light. His nose wrinkled with the smell of blood while his chest heaved. Legs pumped and his heart pounded. His vision was blurry, almost tunneled. There was a shape running before him, but the forest was grey, sky stained red. His body was filled with nothing but panic and the smell of blood seemed to grow even stronger. He blinked, trying to focus.
Like lightning in a storm, a light blinded him. Peeling open his eyes he found himself elsewhere. Void of trees and the land brown, reddish like mud. A streak of blonde silk, an exotic scent. The scent of crimson was dull, bright blue irises bearing into his as if he was prey.
Flash! The world was soft, blurry. It was quiet, his hand was against something corpulent, warm – a gentle thumping in his ears. He calmed, the sense of panic leaving him, the familiar scent giving him comfort. Fingers swam through his locks. Her purrs putting him even more at ease.
Light practically dug into his eyes yet again, forcing him to close them tightly. Weightlessness, wind tearing at him. Was he falling? Forcing himself, he peeled open his eyes just in time for the sensation of hitting water and liquid quickly surrounding him. He attempted to scream, voice reduced to a garbled mess as water restricted his trashing. Looking up, he saw no light, no surface, just a black space. He could feel his heart pounding yet again, the sound ringing in his ears. Greens began to view the void around him. What was this? Where was he! What was going on? He simply floated, eyes trying to look for a way to escape. But the liquid was black as ink, dark as night, and he was still sinking.
At the voice, he twisted his head, but saw nothing, ears only ringing with an echo. What?
The voice was Titus, he turned in another direction but spied nothing in the void. Was he trapped here too?
"It… just happened –
His ears flickered. Jade? Was she here as well? Atlas shook his head, the words making his skull begin to ache.
"Atlas. It's been so long. Is that you?"
His brow wrinkled. That wasn't anyone's voice he knew of.
"You're an idiot."
"He's the –
Atlas's hands clutched his head. The voices vibrating his cranium.
"I will not allow it!"
"The walls beyond the sea –
"It's huge! What kind of titan is that!"
"You can do this Atlas."
"What… what the hell is that thing!"
"He's special. But he's good."
"The Berserker –
"I think; I think he's just scared."
"So your name is Rogue?"
His breath hitched, teeth gritting. It felt like his skull was to split.
"Rogue, it's okay. Just sticks and stones right?"
"Good job brat."
"What happened to you?"
He tilted his head back when the pain became unbearable and screamed, cry drowned out by water. Suddenly, he was swept downward and it became bright again. Sky overhead, sky around him as he fell – crimson. The smell of fire and blood returned. Tilting his head, there was a human city below – a large red hand overhead. The ground closed in and he braced for impact.
Instead of hard stone, he lay in plush grass, the branches of trees overhead. It was quiet, the sweet smell of flowers reaching his nose. It was serine, dappled light blanketing the area. He rose to sit, seeing that he was in a cove, mossy rocks on all sides along with a massive tree. Atlas rotated his head, eyes widening at a human couple – male and female. They were walking away, leaving the clearing. Could they help him? Before he could make any move, giggling met his ears – that of human children. His eyes widened in both nervousness and curiosity. He twisted, seeing the backsides of two children sitting by a pond. Hair black and yellow. Their mirth was like music, scents comforting. He – needed them. Slowly, he reached out his hand, the world blurring.
Light blinded him.
Green eyes suddenly peeled open, wide and peering at his outstretched hand that reached for the inside of the empty tree trunk. Atlas's breath rattled, chest expanding and deflating rapidly. Around him the forest was quiet and birds sat in the treetops. Confused, he sat up quickly, unnerved green pools discovering that he was indeed in his hollow. Still frightened that he wasn't in the real word, Atlas quickly rubbed his chest and patted his flesh. Yes, this was real. But what was that? Had that really been a dream?
Atlas felt his frame shake, quivering. Slowly, he let his gaze drift to his hands. His fingers shook a bit before he clutched his head. For a moment, he felt dizzy and needed to put his head between his knees. All his life he had dreamed, the sensation of visions playing in his mind as he slept, but this felt so different. It felt far too real. He had so many questions, mostly about the things he did not recognize. He didn't know anyone with hair like sunlight and the voices… he didn't know who most of them were aside from Titus and Jade and even so he didn't know what they were talking about. There were humans too that he had never seen. Who was the couple in the cove – and the boy and girl with yellow and black hair? The only humans he ever knew was Eren and his friends. No one in the Village from what he could tell looked like them either. What were the walls beyond the sea? He had never heard of such a place and could it be possible that was what he fell through – and the big red hand reaching for him. Atlas clenched his jaw, breathing deeply as he continued to attempt to get his dizziness under control. He didn't understand why he and Titus were running either and why the scent of blood was so heavy. The moment inside his tree he didn't understand either. However, what confused him the most was what sounded to be a name, but one that he had not heard even upon the wind.
Who was Rogue?
And from the sound of it, this being was enduring the same situation as himself.
Atlas sighed, exhaling deeply as he slowly took his head from between his knees and curled in on himself, his face reflecting his deep in thought state. He didn't know what to make of this at all. How could he even tell all of this to Titus? He was mute and no way could he convey all of this detail to him through sounds and hand gestures. Perhaps – it was just a dream. Just a strange illusion with many imagined things. Maybe he shouldn't even dwell upon it.
Still, he couldn't help the uneasy feeling in his gut.
Before he could weigh his options or continue his inward struggle, a series of roars caught his attention. Atlas lazily looked at the exit of his hollow, blinking slowly. Ah, now he remembered. The choosing ceremony. They were soon to select the new Advancers. His heart began to falter. Why would he bother to show up when he already knew what the outcome would be? He would just be laughed at and embarrassed anyway. Later he would just be introduced to Titus's new pupil, so there was no reason to join in. Atlas let his hands sink into his lap, brows knitting together as he turned his attention to the landscape of his hollow. Then again, he knew Titus's two most likely picks and they were one of the few that he knew he could call a friend and acquaintance. It would be kind to support them and congratulate. After all, he would be able to finally hang out with one or the other freely without the threat of Mitus. It would only be right to greet them. Not to mention, curiosity was itching at him. It would be alright if he stayed hidden in the tree line to avoid unwanted attention. With a sigh, steam seeping out of his teeth lazily, Atlas stood and began to make his way out of his hollow. He really hoped that he wouldn't regret his decision. Still – oh how he wished that circumstances would be different.
Titus stood stagnant in his den, chin buried into his hand with the chaos outside merely white noise in his ears. He hadn't slept well, his body just as restless as his mind. Normally, in the past, he had always been prepared with his pick for his next pupil. His answer was always clear. However, this time he wasn't sure. Not one bit. His choice was between two titans, Kana and Tano. Both were extremely skilled Hunters that had come from very talented parents. Both were experienced in different styles of combat. Tano was gifted in stealth, silent but quick moves. He had seen him hunting in the forest before, he would stalk quietly, his feet barely rattling the ground and he was sure no human would even hear him upon the approach. Kana was an aggressive fighter and could easily overwhelm her opponent with a fury of attacks. She was one of the nimblest titans he had ever seen, able to master moving quickly among any terrain. He was certain he could mold the two of them into well-rounded Advancers.
However, deep down, he felt that they were both lacking something.
And he really was unsure what it was but he did know that it made him uneasy.
Titus growled, snorting to himself as he plopped down to contemplate in his nest. His fingers ran through his beard. Perhaps it was their drive that was bothering him. Maybe… their fear of protecting Atlas during Mitus's attacks was the trigger. They only came to his aid afterwards. This had always bothered him greatly. Two Hunters that were so skilled always refused to take the stand against the oppressor. Atlas was the only one to do so. He could feel his lips curl into a small smile at that. Atlas's determination was admirable. Ever since he was a pup, he had always seen it. The Hunter was always determined to fulfill a mission and get what he needed, even if that meant defiling some sort of rule or code. He admired it if he was being honest with himself. It was the quality that he had always looked for when finding his next pupil. Kana and Tano were determined, but not enough. This was something that was not easily taught.
His eyes narrowed, his chin burying into his fist. Looking at the two, Kana did have more spunk – she would be easier to mold into the perfect Advancer. Still, he felt as though he had been spoiled. A growl began to bubble into the back to his throat.
However, he paused, an idea coming into his head. Titus elevated his chin away, brows lifting at the epiphany. Could it – really be possible? The solution? The answer? Slowly he stood, golden eyes blowing wide. Could he really do such a thing? Was it possible that he could even make a decision like this? Could he himself even handle it?
Why did he ask, he was positive he could!
For the first time since his searching and consideration began, he didn't feel uneasy.
Atlas remained quiet, keeping his steps light as a feather as he headed towards the perfect place to observe the ceremony without being seen. He had watched things from the heart of the pack before in the area, and he knew the terrain well. If he needed to make a quick getaway, it would be ideal. He had to do it once before – to escape Mitus. Thus, if a Hunter that considered he was sinning just by observing he could get away to save himself a beating or the discomfiture.
He moved through the thick brush, the sounds of mirth and pride ringing through his ears. The scents of the pack filled his nostrils. Atlas felt his heart pound and a knot forming in his throat, he was so nervous and he wasn't even attending the choosing ceremony. Atlas inhaled, trying to calm himself. He couldn't let his shuttering breath alert anyone that he was approaching.
Finally, he came upon a collection of boulders draped in moss and sheltered by branches and greenery. It was his perfect place to peer in secret. Atlas sighed, seating himself upon the highest stone in the pile and lifted his hand to part a bit of foliage. He held his breath, eyes taking the scene in. The glade was packed, all of the Hunters were present even down to the pups. He spied the white titan perched upon the cliffside with a few Elders and the group of hopefuls determined to be chosen to be Advancers lined up outside the great den. He could see his littermate and enemy, Mitus – trying his hardest to stand before the others and puffing himself to look as big as possible. Atlas snorted softly at that, Mitus was so arrogant. Deep down he hoped that the titan would not get chosen and that would be his sweet revenge. Looking more, he spied Kana and Tano standing together. He could tell by their body language that they were just as jittery and nervous. He hoped for the best for them.
Hearing a series of cheers, Atlas lifted his head further to see that the Mentors were exiting the great den. The line of them stood before the entrance, placing themselves several meters away from their potential pupils. Scanning, he quickly spotted Titus standing among them, but even at the distance that he was, Atlas could make out Titus's slightly fretful stance. He blinked at this. What was his guardian concerned about? Was it possible that he was worried about another Mentor wanting his pick? Then again, he did remember him saying that he was the highest ranked Mentor and thus had first pick. Atlas's eyes narrowed, suddenly coming up with a reason that seemed likely. He knew how much his real parents wished for Titus to train Mitus or one of his sisters. His guardian was likely nervous about the backlash he would face from the two of them once he did not pick their son. Yes, that made sense. A part of him wanted to relish in that moment – the look upon their faces. But then again he feared the moment. He didn't want them to turn violent against his Titus. He wouldn't know what to do if he ever lost him.
Then, as all of the Mentors got into place the crowd began to gather closer and obscured his view. No longer able to see Kana, Tano, or Titus, Atlas stood and struggled to get a glance – only to find his efforts a waste. He could not move so he would have to rely on his ears. Atlas sighed, pressing his cheek against the trunk of a tree, ears sinking as his nerves grew worse.
He sure hoped that the results would be good. He didn't want to live in another hell.
Titus stood still, the world seemingly deaf to him. Muffled noise to his ears. Around him, the Advancers stood with looks of anticipation, nervousness. The crowd would roar and be vocal in support all the while the Elders had seated themselves upon the stones overlooking the glade. Their faces bore soft and easy smiles, but Titus could easily see past that – their stern facades. Azeroron himself appeared the same way, and from what the pale titan had told him the previous day, it made he himself all the more nervous – especially since his choice could possibly anger Azeroron to no end.
Titus heaved a breath, chest rattling. The choosing ceremonies were always the event of the year in the pack. New Advancers were chosen or a Gatherer position was assigned – a rite of passage into adulthood for a young Hunter. For centuries he had attended as a Mentor. As he grew more skilled and trained more Advancers into Mentors, he climbed in rank – allowing him to select the best pupils first. Over the years, he became the most sought after Mentor that all young Hunters wanted to serve under and the very titan that parents groomed their pups to impress. A distance away from the hopefuls, he could see the group of females and males that sired the pups up for selection. Thorn and Clymene were among them, eyes looking right at him. Quickly, he adverted his gaze. He was likely to face their frustrations later.
Choosing ceremonies began with a gathering, a morning feast before the Elders spoke their piece and the ceremony would begin with the selecting of the first pup by the highest Mentor. The young titan would receive a blessing from Azeroron before the selection would continue until finally ending with another feast. Titus swallowed, he was uncertain if Azeroron would even offer his blessing or approval at his judgement.
In fact, his choice could very well make the others turn against him.
The idea of his itself was going to cause quite the stir – he was certain. But there was no rule made against it. However, though there was no law forbidding it, he was very likely going to get an earful from everyone. At this point however, he did not care about their thoughts on the matter. He wanted this. The titan had every aesthetic and characteristic that he was looking for. He couldn't deny it. The answer to his predicament had been right in front of him the entire time. Sure, he was going to be facing an uphill battle at points, but he was up for the challenge.
He just hoped that his declaration would not attract more cruelty than before.
A loud howl brought him from his thoughts and silenced the glade. An elder that served beneath High Elder Azeroron, stood up to examine the attendees before clearing his throat and salivating his pipes as he prepared to speak. "WELCONNEE… TO THEE CHOOSSING CERAMONYY! YUU… HAVV WORRKED HARDD… TO GETT HERE. GOODD LUCKK… TO THE YOUNGG TITANNSS HOPPINGG TO GETT CHOSSEN!" The titan paused, allowing the audience to express their enthusiasm before opening his maw to begin once again. "THE MENNTORS RANKING FROM HIGHESTT… TO LOWESST WILL CHOOSE… HIGHESTT GOESS FIRSTT. IFF… YOUU AREE CHOSSENN… PLEASEE JOINN YOURR MENTORR. IFF YOUU ARR… NOT CHOSSENN… YOUUU AREE A GATHERRERR." The titan paused again, swallowing before waving a hand in his direction, making his heart jump, knowing that this was it. "THE MENNTORSS… WILL NOWW SELECTT… THEIR NEW ADVANCERRS!"
At the conclusion of the speech, the pack quieted like a foggy and frigid morning. Titus swallowed back the lump in his throat as he watched another Elder approach the group of Mentors and wave him forward. Fighting back the dizzying feeling of nerves and putting on a determined concealment, Titus took a step forward and sighed. His eyes peeked from the corners to see Jade looking at him curiously from her perch. He had not told her about his change of heart. As far as she knew, his decision was set on either Kana or Tano. This was going to throw her for a loop, but she would be pleased no doubt – and would likely want to help him. Golden eyes then looked back to the group of young hopefuls. His previous selections were looking at him discreetly, trying not to look too expectant. They understood well from the very beginning that their selection by him was not guaranteed. Mitus however, was staring heavily a him in a borderline expression that he would almost take as threatening. The sisters too, were glaring heavily at him as well as their parents that stood a distance away observing in expectancy. Titus quickly adverted his eyes from them, but not without feeling their own burning into him with sheer question and even hostility. He continued to scan the group of young titans, soon noticing something.
The one he wanted was not among them.
He could feel himself grow alarmed at first. Had he just concluded that he was not going to be chosen due to the truth that was told yesterday? And not even bothered to leave his den knowing so? Before he could reach this conclusion and decide what to do next, an ever familiar scent swept through his nostrils. Titus inhaled, confirming. Ah, how had he forgotten. It wasn't uncommon for his pick to watch other happenings of the pack in secret. He inhaled and exhaled again, preparing himself for the outcome. He hoped that things would go for he and his chosen Hunter's favor.
"ATLAS? PLEASE… COME HERE."
His face was stricken with an almost vacant expression, coated in a mix of shock and terror. His breath had grown quiet as the Hunters afore him did at Titus's announcement. What? Had he heard him correctly? His blood ran cold. He couldn't deny that he had heard his name. Had Titus expected him to come and experience the ceremony? Why? Why was there was a need for him to be present?
Green eyes widened, his frame shuttered. Perhaps this was one of Azeroron's rules that he did not know about. He swallowed, hard – feeling almost sick to his stomach again. He had to go stand and just be embarrassed by the disappointment- and be seen by everyone. Surely Titus was just being forced to advise by the pale leader's declaration. Atlas felt himself growing dizzy to the point where he teetered and nearly fell from his position on the rock. His hands shook so much.
"ATLAS PLEASE… COME HERE."
Hearing the unexpectedly gentle voice of his guardian again, Atlas gritted his teeth and stood. He could not just run away from this one. He would only face the consequences later. The world tilted for a moment and he braced himself, breathing shallow as he attempted to get over his case of dizziness. Without any resistance to his own fear, Atlas took a step forward. Leaves peeled away, the sunlight boring down onto his flesh and he instantly felt even more naked and exposed than he already was. He blinked, adjusting to the change in light that just seemed brighter than ever before. The Hunters of the pack wore looks of confusion and were observing amongst themselves as he began to make his approach. He could feel his ears sink and press against his skull all the while his heart thumped even faster with each step he took. Again, he swallowed and prepared himself for any shoving, hitting, or the vile words that were sure to meet his ears. Taking another cavernous breath, Atlas pushed forward, keeping quiet and to himself as he navigated through the crowd. With the embarrassment already falling over him, his shoulders hunched and his trembling hands drew back against his chest. Green pools were still wide, astonishment and fear laced clearly in them.
As he had predicted, it wasn't long until the other Hunters began to take notice of him through the crowd. He could practically feel their eyes beginning to bear into him. Whispers began to carry with the breeze, meeting his ears as he painfully took step after step.
"WHATT… ISSS HEEE… DOINGG HERE?"
"DOESSS… TITUSS JUSTT WANTT HIMM… TO STANDD WITHH HIMM? HEE… RAISSED HIMM AFTERR ALL."
"SURELY… HE DIDN'T!"
Atlas nervously slid by several other Hunters, keeping his gaze away from them and only looking down at his feet. The young titan's jaw clenched. He just wanted to run away. Go back to his hollow to be with his collection and the forest animals. Things that would not scoff at or judge him.
"IS HE – ATLAS?"
"THERRRE… IS NOO WAYY."
"IT… CAN NOT… BE. CAN IT?"
"THATT STTUPIDD TITANN… GO BACKK AND HIDEE!"
"POORRR THINGG. THISSS WILL… BE EMBARRASSINGG."
"IT DOES NOT… MAKE SENSE! THAT TITTAN CAN JUST WATCH FROM THE TREES!"
"EVENN… IFF HEE DIDD… AZERORONN… WOULDD SURELYY… NOT ALLOWW… IT."
Atlas swallowed. He mentally prepared himself for the worst comments that always came. Still, he wondered the reason for their skepticism. He could sense so much confusion. Bubbling rage as well. He bit down harder, trying to keep his shaking as discreet as possible even though he was doing a poor job. He was terrified.
"THEYYYY… SHOULLDD LETT HINN… DIEEE."
"HOPEE… TITUSS… DID NOT…
"SHOULD… NOT HAVE COME!"
"GOOO…. TO YOURR DENN!"
Atlas swallowed roughly, trying not to scream. He wanted to leave! Suddenly, something hard hit his cheek and he instantly felt the hot liquid trailing down his chin. He froze, slowly raising an arm up to his face to brush his fingers across his features. Green eyes widened in horror and suddenly he found himself unable to hide the tremors. A rock had been thrown at him. His hand gradually lowered, eyes wide at the blood that slowly steamed away. His breath hitched – this was a first. Why did he deserve such a thing! Did the others really hate him that much! They seriously did not want him to be here. Huffing soon met his ears, a titan's version of laughter. Instantly, Atlas felt incredibly sick to his stomach. He nearly vomited as the mirth elevated.
He just wanted to run.
"HEE… DESERVVE THAT."
"JUSTTT… GOO HONEE… GRREEN EYESS!"
Titus's loud and booming voice carried across the glade, bringing the insults to a calm. His ears shifted, eyes finally looking upward from the earth to see Titus's stoic stance just a few meters away. His golden eyes burned as they slowly scanned the crowd before landing upon him. Something about the shine in the titan's amber eyes showed urgency. Likely, he wanted him close so nothing else happened and the ceremony could continue. Still, he felt absolutely mortified. Ignoring the stinging nerves as the gash on his face mended, Atlas started forward once again. This time, the pack was silent, only looking on in distaste or skepticism. He nearly held his breath, biting down and clenching his jaw once again as he nervously brushed through the line of hopeful young titans. He couldn't help but sneak a peek of his brother Mitus – the young titan wearing a look so vicious that he instantly looked away. It was likely that the titan had received some kind of punishment yesterday due to his behavior. He hoped that was the case. Atlas's green eyes fell upon Kana and Tano who were oddly looking at him with mouths drawn into – smiles? Why would they be excited? Were they the only ones that were happy that he had come along with his guardian and likely Jade?
This was so confusing that it made his head hurt.
Finally, Atlas came to a halt, breath shuttering in his chest and head hung low, ears sunk and a whine in the back of his throat. He gripped his wrist, standing sheepishly and feeling his face heat up in embarrassment. His eyes watered and he blinked back tears. Titus was probably not only concerned but a bit cross with him as well for failing to show up. Knowing his story, Titus would not scold him in front of the others. He just – wished he was elsewhere. He wished this day would end.
Suddenly. He felt a weight upon his shoulder, a large and familiar hand. Still, he didn't want to look up. He didn't want to see those golden eyes ignite in shame.
Atlas hesitated, caught off guard by Titus's gentle question. Still, his hands continued to tremble against his chest and his head lowered even further. No, he wasn't fine. He was under the eyes of everyone in the pack, everyone that hated him at the most important ceremony of the year. No one wanted him here, yet he had to be. In truth, he was most definitely not alright. Lying, Atlas grunted softly, still unable to look his guardian in the face.
Before he could protest, the hand that rested upon his shoulder lifted and knuckles gently cupped beneath his jawline. Gradually, Titus gently lifted his head to face him eye to eye. For a moment, Atlas found himself still unwilling to look before Titus released a soft purr, a reassuring sound that he had always done ever since he had been very small. Titus would not make that sound if he was angry or upset. He only made it to soothe and comfort. At the fact, he finally lifted his gaze to the bearded titan. Titus looked the polar opposite from his stoic expression that he had worn before. His bushy brows were lifted and his eyes warm, mouth curled into an easy smile. The confusion deepened. Why did Titus appear so collected, relaxed, and calm at his error? Before he could even think about asking his query in a series of gestures, his guardian rumbled to clear his throat.
"ATLAS… YOU ARE… AN AMAZING HUNTER. I… HAVE NEVER SEEN… A TITAN… SO DETERMINED. SO… GOOD AT… HUNTING! YOU… SHOW STRENGTH… STRONG WILL!"
The young titan blinked at his words, his gaze gradually lowering as he realized that this was just another speech to make him feel better. However, Titus huffed softly at his action.
"ATLAS… WOULD… YOU LIKE TO… BE MY NEW ADVANCER?"
The world seemed to stop. Quiet after those words – words that he had to guess if he had heard correctly. His ears had perceived well however. Titus. Titus had just asked – the one thing he…
He found himself wondering if this was real. But he knew that this indeed was.
His eyes widened, the full realization of his guardian's question settling in. Slowly, he lifted is head, bright greens staring into kind golds. A smile began to grow upon his face. The one thing he had always wanted had come true despite his handicap. He had been wrong to think that no one would want him and silly to overlook his accomplishments that Titus had clearly laid out. The top Mentor had chosen him – him! He was going to be an Advancer! He was going to be finally respected and could go and visit Eren! Finally – his life would not be such a living hell. Finally, his dream would be fulfilled!
Atlas could only let the emotions flood through him, a few tears swelled at the corners of his eyes, his body shook not in fear but excitement. At last! At last! He had scaled the otherwise unclimbable wall. With his heart pounding, hammering against his ribs, he finally grunted his answer of confirmation. Green pools beheld Titus once again, blinking back tears that he couldn't control. The older titan's face looked sympathetic yet as comforting as his gaze was. He could tell that Titus was truly happy. He looked confident. The Mentor's mouth drew into an even bigger smile as his hands cupped ever so gently behind his head and tilted it forward. In the next second, Atlas experienced the most exhilarating moment that he had ever felt in his entire life. Titus lowered his head to touch his brow with his, the same gesture he would use each time he greeted Jade for lessons. It was a message that was exclusively used as a greeting from Mentor to Advancer. A purr rose in his chest, eyes shutting and his smile broadening along with Titus's. The Mentor's blessing felt unbelievable. He felt – powerful.
But of course, his moment of ascension was cut short.
A series of loud and disgruntled roars erupted from the glade.
His rapidly beating heart suddenly stalled, head turning away from his blessing from his Mentor to view the mostly angry pack. Eyes were lit, seemingly burning ablaze with frustration and mouths were molded into vicious snarls as many of them approached in protest. Mitus and his real parents wore looks that sent shivers down his spine and made his blood run cold. The Hunters were clearly not in favor of Titus's decree. Not one bit. His ears sank, growing nervous and scared once again like a pup as his body tightened. Suddenly, his parents and several Elders began to make the approach and Titus quickly placed himself before him in protection. Atlas swallowed. Was it possible that they would strip him of his new status and make him a Gatherer despite Titus's wishes?
"WHY CHOOSE… HIM!"
"THISS ISS WRONGG!"
"WHYY PICKK HINN!"
"HE IS… STUPID! TITUS WHY!"
"HE ISSS… AH MISSTAKE!"
Atlas remained stunned, but he supposed that he should not be surprised. This behavior was evident with his history. Even though the pack held malicious intent, he was now more fearful of his fate.
"THIS IS… THIS SHOULD NOT BE… ALLOWED."
"WHERE… IS AZERORON!"
"WE… NEEDD TO JUSTT GETT RIIDD OF HINN! HE… WILLL BE BEHINDD! TAKE YEARRRRS TO TRRRAIN!"
"HE… CANTTT EVENN SPEAKK! HOWW CANN… YUU TRRAINN HINN!"
He swallowed, trying to keep the growing lump down in his throat. In addition to the increasing rage of the crowd, he could hear an exasperated growl bubbling in the back of Titus's throat. He knew his Mentor was prepared to defend his decision. He just hoped that he was able to.
"AZERORONN! STOPP DISS!"
"THIS… CAN NOT BE!"
"SHOULD… HAVVE BEENN EXHILEDD… LONGG AGOO! HEE… ISS NISSTAKEE! SHOULDD NOT HAVVE LIVEDD!"
"HEE… ISS BETTERR OFF DEADD!"
"HE… WILLL DIEE DURINGGG TRAININGG!"
Just as Titus's growl began to grow louder and the crowd closed in to make contact, a loud and ever familiar bellow silenced the glade - the chaotic aura halted in its manifest. The pack was as quiet as a winter morning. Atlas swallowed, heart pounding in his ears as he watched Azeroron scale down the rocky cliffside and make his approach. He began to feel weak in the knees. The pale titan's face reflected his authority, chin held high, brows lifted and eyes half lidded. He didn't quite know what to think of the leader, but he was certain that he felt incredible unease. Azeroron had always had a strong presence, an intimidating one. Sure, he had seen him smile a few times with Titus, but something swam and lay woven in his eyes that reflected animosity. Atlas gulped. His dream was currently being held high above his head and hands were struggling to grasp at it.
Finally, Azeroron came to a halt before his Mentor. Atlas felt himself instantly conceal himself even further behind Titus. Truthfully, this was the closest he had ever come to Azeroron and witnessing him now he was glad he kept his distance. For what seemed like an eternity, the pale titan stared at Titus, face unreadable almost as he blinked and peered behind the bearded titan. Atlas felt himself go rigid as the titan's crimson eyes bore into him. They made him feel uncomfortable, the color of bright blood. It felt as if Azeroron was trying to peel away his flesh to find something he had been searching for. Then, the albino lifted his gaze to Titus again. Suddenly, his expression relaxed ever so slightly and the titan sighed – one that sounded tense.
"TITUS? WHATTT… IS THISS?" Azeroron began, his voice surprisingly quiet but still holding its firmness. To Atlas's amazement, Titus puffed his chest ever so slightly and lifted his jawline – completely confident despite the dire situation at hand.
"I HAVE… CHOSEN HIM… TO BE MY ADVANCER." Titus promptly explained. "THERE… IS NOT A RULE… AGAINST THAT IS THERE?"
At his words, the simple query, Atlas witnessed the white titan flinch. FLINCH. He had never seen any once of unease from Azeroron. Ever. The leader was clearly not in agreement from Titus's decision, but his Mentor seemed far too confident about this choice. Was this… something that Titus knew about and Azeroron never considered it? Again, the towering and imposing creature blinked, the surprise hard to hide upon his face. The leader had never appeared this way – stunned. His brows were lifted and pupils small, his teeth clenching. Then, Azeroron let a cloud of steam escape from his nose, crimson eyes turning back to Titus, chin lowered and a sense of seriousness returning.
"TITUS… DO YOUU… UNDERRSTAND THEE… COMPLICATIONNNSSS… INVOLVEDD? ARRR… YOUU JUSST PICKINGG… HIMM… BECAUSSE YUU RAISSEDD HINN? ORR… AREE YUU REALLY THATT CONNFIDENTT?"
Atlas watched Titus smile despite the questions. "I… WOULD NOT PICK HIM… IF I WASN'T."
At the reply, Azeroron exhaled again, muscles in his face relaxing from their tense position. "YUU... DIDD SAYYY… THAT HE… WAS DOINGG… WELLL FOR HINNSELF." Azeroron paused, looking at him again for an extended moment before returning back to Titus. "HE… DO YOUUU NEED MORRR YEARRRS?"
At this, Atlas watched Titus's mouth frown in the slightest. Obviously mad about the pale titan's statement for some reason. "HE… WILL JUST NEED… THE SAME AS THE… OTHERS." His Mentor spoke sternly.
Azeroron blinked slowly, eyes looking back to him with steam spilling from his nose as he exhaled. For a moment, he looked almost exasperated before turning back to Titus. "HOPEFULLYY, TITUSSS. HOPEFULLYYY. DON'TT MAKKE MEE… REGRETT THISS. PROVV MEE WRONGG." The albino's eyes stared heavily at Titus before they drifted onto him once again, their red flaring like a fanning flame. "ATLASS… COMME."
His eyes widened and spine straightened at the leader's unexpected address to him. Though the aura that surrounded Azeroron was forewarning and he felt apprehensive, Atlas gradually took a step out of Titus's shadow. The young titan placed himself next to his Mentor and before Azeroron. He didn't want to come close to the leader, but his demands could not be ignored. He had to listen. Atlas's ears lowered, pinning themselves against his locks and he could feel his hands wish to draw near his chest and his back arch in the slightest. He could feel his heart begin to pound once again and his breaths grew short as Azeroron simply stood before him and stared. Atlas swallowed, trying to keep any trembling under control. Oddly, the incredible tenseness of the situation had silenced the crowd – obviously awaiting the leader's next decision. It then dawned upon him that it was truly up to Azeroron to approve on him being an Advancer for Titus. His blood ran cold. The white titan didn't seem too keen on him. He knew why too. Azeroron didn't know him like Titus did. The young titan swallowed the wad of saliva accumulating in his throat. His fate was with Azeroron now – the one titan who had the authority to exile him. He supposed that he had celebrated achieving his dream too early.
His eyes shut tightly, dreadfully and terrifyingly waiting for the outcome.
Suddenly, he felt a weight upon his head and a mixture of both mirth and furious protests met his ears. Puzzled, Atlas slowly opened his eyes to see that Azeroron was now facing away from him and toward the crowd. The leader's hand was placed over his head, fingers buried in his locks. He blinked. What was this? Atlas remained skeptical until he heard Titus's characteristic satisfied purr. Green pools shifted to spot his warm smile and ember eyes. His guardian's look was one of both triumph and congratulation. In the crowd, Jade was releasing an enthusiastic roar and Kana and Tano bore broad smiles. It was then that he knew. He had been blessed by Azeroron! Blessed to be an Advancer! The sureness of the situation then settled in. All he could do was smile and let his tears of pure joy leak from his eyes. Against all odds, he had met his dream!
"GOODD LUCKK… TITUSS." Azeroron concluded quietly, nails suddenly digging into his scalp before walking away to witness more Advancers being selected.
Titus said nothing in response, instead he turned to express his happiness – gurgling in glee as his hand gingerly rubbed his spine. He was very proud of him. Atlas couldn't help but to lean into his touch. Finally. Finally, he wouldn't be held down by the many restraints that always bound him. He could finally fulfill his purpose. He could finally be free. He couldn't help but to sit and savor the moment as the ceremony continued. Atlas felt nothing but pure bliss.
As the minutes passed, the other young titans were selected. As he had expected, Mitus was chosen soon after and he would call that Mentor's choice a foolish one. The titan was simply too arrogant and standoffish. That would be his downfall. Attitude. His sisters were also chosen, but by lesser known Mentors. It suited them really. His sisters were no stand outs. They were average at most. To his excitement, Kana and Tano were chosen almost directly after him. Their Mentors were skilled from what he had heard from Titus. He was trilled for them. The two deserved it. They had worked hard, even sparring against one another to strengthen their craft. Atlas's smile seemed to grow even bigger in that passing of time, emerald eyes the brightest they had ever been. Today had shaped up to be a great one that he would always remember. And now he was one step closer to seeing Eren!
Finally, Azeroron had blessed the last young titan that was chosen, leaving behind about ten individuals that had failed to impress Mentors. Each looked disappointed, some angry. He felt sorry for them, but deep down he was just far too happy about his accomplishment. He had impressed Titus enough to where he felt that he was fit to be an Advancer despite it all. He believed in him. He couldn't wait for the training to begin. He couldn't wait to start his new life!
"THESSSE… AREEE YOURR… NEWW ADVANERRRS! WISH… THEMM LUCKK!" The ceremony was then concluded as Azeroron ended his statement and projected his decree with signature roar and initiated the clearance to feast.
Atlas blinked, his stupidly big grin still upon his face. Hearing a deep rumble he turned to see Titus facing him with his toasty façade, hand patting his shoulder. The towering behemoth smiled. "SEE? YOU… ARE BETTER… THAN YOU… THINK, ATLAS. GOOD HUNTER AND CLEVER!" He hummed. "THE ANSWER… WAS ALWAYS THERE… WHO I WAS GOING TO… PICK." Titus huffed. "I THINK… I WAS… MEANT TO BE YOUR… MENTOR TOO."
Atlas soaked up the words like a sponge. At that moment, he couldn't help his excitement and quickly parted his maw to squeal and haul himself upwards to quickly lap Titus's cheek, purring in thanks. At the gesture, the older titan remained wide eyed at the action before huffing again to run his fingers through his locks.
"NOW… MY ADVANCER… WOULD YOU… LIKE… TO EAT WITH THE PACK… OR GO… ON A HUNT?"
Atlas tilted his head in consideration at Titus's question. On one hand, he had always wanted to eat with the others for once without being made fun of. However, the thrill of a hunt was always oh so satisfying – and it would be his first hunt as an Advancer and Titus would be his Mentor! If he ate with the pack, he could finally have a meal with Kana and Tano – who he had never gotten the privilege to eat with. What a decision!
However, his thoughts and considerations were all halted as he watched a clawed hand come from over Titus's shoulder – an incoming swing from none other than his father, golden steel eyes blazing like lightning. It happened in an instant, he ducked on instinct, covering his head as he waited for the blow to come – a hit so strong that it would remove patches of his skin. He closed his eyes, waiting. To his surprise, no blunt force plowed through him. A deep and powerful growl met his ears, the atmosphere grew tense again. Ever so slightly, his eyes peeled open to see Titus angrily glaring and baring his teeth, a snarl resonating from deep in his throat. Titus's hand was wrapped tightly around his former pupil's wrist, forbidding him to get closer. From his left he could see Jade forbidding Clymene and Mitus from getting any closer by standing before him with a scowl on her face. Titus then shoved Thorn forcefully with his elbow, making his father tumble to the earth. A few other titans had taken notice, including his two friends and Azeroron who had bothered to pause and peer from over his shoulder. Atlas swallowed, watching with eyes blown wide as his real father scrambled to his feet. It was painfully clear that his parents were unhappy about Titus's decision. It was also clear that due to this, he was still going to feel and suffer from their resentment – perhaps even more than before.
But knowing that he was ranked the same as his brother and sisters was still uplifting.
Thorn growled, his hand trembling as he struggled not to throw a blow. He kept his eyes narrowed and ears pinned, somehow looking the most threatening that he had ever seen his father. "YUU… WERRR SUPPOSEDD… TTO PICKK… MYYY PUPPS!" His father argued. His mother still giving her venomous stare and his brother clenching his jaw. "WHYYY!"
Amazingly enough, Titus's expression did not change. He just wore a cunning look. "I… DID… PICK ONE OF YOUR… PUPS, THORN. YOU… SHOULD BE HAPPY… THAT ALL YOUR PUPS… ARE ADVANCERS." Titus replied simply. His mouth drawing into a smirk, completely amused at Thorn's stunned look.
His father said absolutely nothing and took a step backward. Finally, his angry expression returned and the titan snorted before turning to walk away angrily. His mother and brother soon followed but not without looking back at he and his Mentor in sheer dislike. A minute seemed to pass before Titus huffed and faced him once again.
"AS… WE WERE ATLAS. FEAST… OR HUNT? WHAT DO… YOU SAY?"
Atlas hummed, weighing his options yet again before he smiled.
For the first time ever, he finally got to eat with every friend that he had.
The very faint light of dawn poured into the hollow. The sky overhead was cloudy and not much life had awoken. Atlas stirred in his nest, rolling over onto his back to look like a lazy feline. In his chest, he purred with a small smile tugging at his maw. His dreams had been nothing like the previous night's. They were good and wholesome – a product of the wonderful experience that he had the previous day. It was still surreal to him that he was officially an Advancer. He could finally do what he wanted and no more collecting branches for others. He had proved them wrong and gained a new sense of confidence. At the feast, he had eaten with his friends: Kana, Tano, Jade, Strix, and of course his new Mentor Titus in celebration. He could finally eat in front of others, even as he ate himself bloated they did not judge him. Even the other Hunters that ate nearby had chosen to ignore him – and being ignored was so much better than being hated. He could say it was the best day that he had ever had.
The titan exhaled heavily, giving into a stretch, spreading his fingers and toes before giving into a long yawn. Atlas's tongue curled, the spots on the roof of his mouth and the rear of his throat showing. An odd sound left his chest before he settled back down, intent on sleeping longer.
However, a blunt push upon his chest quickly awoke him. Startled, Atlas snorted and twisted his head to see Titus standing in the mouth of his tree. Oddly, the titan was grinning cunningly from ear to ear. Atlas tilted his head in confusion. Titus always visited, but never this early. Perplexed, he emitted a questioning vocal but his Mentor only huffed.
"YOUR… TRAINING STARTS… NOW… ATLAS – MY ADVANCER." Titus beamed. "FOLLOW ME."
Atlas blinked, fully awake. Training! Ah! This was his first day! He trilled and scrambled from his nest to follow Titus. Finally! His first training session! What would he do first? Would he learn to throw a good punch? Different types of kicks? Enthusiastic, Atlas quickly caught up to Titus and lay a hand onto the behemoth's shoulder. At the action, Titus quickly turned to him and prepared to watch and listen. Atlas smiled, grunting and chirping as he made motions with his hands. He pointed into the direction of the flower field and coiled one hand into a fist before pounding it into the other – his gesture meaning fighting. Titus huffed yet again.
"OH. IT… IS NOT THAT KIND… OF TRAINING ATLAS." Titus hummed, leaving him confused for the second time. Huh? He wasn't going to learn how to fight like a Hunter? What kind of training was this going to be? Before he could grunt a question, Titus began again. "JUST… FOLLOW ME. FOR… THE FIRST YEAR… YOUR TRAINING… WILL BE DIFFERENT… ATLAS."
He could only blink at the answer he received. Huh? What was Titus talking about? He had only known the combat training that his Mentor taught Jade. Was it – was it possible that Titus taught Jade something else before he had come to be? Atlas gurgled in question, but Titus had not heard him for he had already made his way from the den. He sighed, picking up his pace, he supposed that he would find out when he they arrived at their destination.
Quietly, he followed Titus, keeping to his own inquiries as he observed his surroundings. He had never been here before nor had he been this far away from the pack's territory. The sky had barely lightened, still dim as dusk always was. It was almost foggy but what was truly unusual was that the land had lost every knoll and cliff. It was flat and the trees were not nearly as thick. The air too, smelled different. He couldn't quite place what it was, but it smelled almost sweet. Salty like tears. There wasn't much life around either and usually at this hour, life began to stir. Atlas blinked, turning his attention back to Titus who only looked forward at the direction that they were headed. Just where on earth were they going?
Suddenly, his toes were surrounded and something different was upon the bottom of his feet. Atlas grunted in surprise, turning his focus downward to see something that just added to his puzzlement. It wasn't dirt or grass that he had stepped in, but rather some sort of powder white substance. Atlas raised his brows. It couldn't be snow… snow was cold and only came during the winter months. Curious, he put aside his current objective and squatted to examine the oddity. A low series of grunts escaped from between his teeth, the Hunter looking like an amused human child. Green eyes squinted as he swam his fingers through the patch of white. It felt different than the snow. Yes, it was cool but it did not melt in his fingers. It was grainy and looked like thousands of tiny circular objects. What was this? Atlas lowered his hands again to swim his fingers through the strange sediment but his hand was joined by another. Titus's mirth filled his ears. Looking up, he witnessed his Mentor who had gotten down to his level with a handful of the substance, a small smile tugged at his lips.
"THIS… IS WHAT… IS CALLED… SAND, ATLAS. IT… IS MANY… MANY TINY ROCKS. IT… IS VERY SOFT… AND GETS VERY WARM… IN SUNLIGHT. THERE IS… MORE UP AHEAD… ATLAS. COME!"
Atlas blinked in awe at the discovery before rising up to shadow Titus again. Sand huh? How come it was only here and nowhere near the territory that he had always known? However, before he considered the origins of sand further, a whooshing met his ears, making him pause. His ears swiveled back and forth, rotating forward. What was that? He had never heard such a thing! His ears twitched wildly and he picked up his pace, trilling with curiosity. The salt smell began to grow stronger and he broke out into a jog. Titus made no effort to stop him as he passed so he pressed onward. Foliage smacked his face, but he paid no mind, not even to the pine needles. The trees thinned more, the sound of a bird met his ears – a call that he had never witnessed before. His nostrils flared at the new smells and more of the sand he could feel at his feet. Then, he broke through the tree line, and bore witness to something so astounding that it made him halt in his tracks. Atlas fell into a deep state of awe, jaw slacking and green pools burning brightly.
Before him, was a long stretch of powdery white that met water – rolling water as far as his eyes could possibly see. There was not a single tree upon the horizon, not a single hill, or grassy knoll. It was simply water that seemed to span in all directions. Atlas finally blinked, eyes wide and as big as grapefruits. What was this! He had never seen a lake this big nor smelled like this before! The birds that he had heard earlier flew overhead and rooted around the water's edge. Avians with white plumage and yellow beaks – something that never made residence in the forest. Slowly, he took a step forward, his sinking foot catching him off guard in the slightest. Everything was sand here, not a speck of brown earth. Atlas took another cautious step forward into the alluring new landscape, the sand proving to be a small challenge to walk in. Like a child, he paused at the water's edge, simply looking down at the shallow water that lapped at the sand. He blinked yet again, observing little decorative stones and animals similar to the crayfish in streams move about in the gentle waves. Needing the answer as to what this place was and the giant amount of water that lay beyond, Atlas looked back to his Mentor who stood proudly at the tree line with a broad smile upon his face.
"THAT ATLAS… IS WHAT IS CALLED… THE OCEAN. IT… IS SALTY WATER… THAT COVERS… MUCH OF THE… WORLD."
Atlas gasped softly. So this was the ocean. The ocean! Then, like he always did when his excitement got the better of him, Atlas squealed and catapulted himself into a roll as he tumbled into the sand. The titan grunted, his exhilaration reflected in his repeated excited vocals as he tossed and turned – throwing out his legs and kicking up sand in all directions. An excited bark left his maw as he scrambled to his feet again and made his way to the water once more. Atlas kicked, watching in amusement as the sparkling water flew and birds scattered. The young Advancer released a playful roar and kicked several more times, enjoying himself. What an interesting place this was!
Suddenly, he recalled the fact that this was his first training session, Atlas paused in his merriment and turned back to his Mentor, yet again making his fighting gesture until he spotted that Titus was taking a seat near the edge of the sandy stretch. The titan then looked to him expectedly and gestured for Atlas to join him. Trying not to show his slight disappointment, the young Hunter grunted in reply and made his way to Titus to seat himself next to him. To his surprise, Titus said nothing for a moment, simply closing his eyes and facing the direction of the ocean, relaxed as the wind ran through their hair until he huffed softly.
"THE OCEAN… IS BIG AND VAST, ATLAS. OTHER… WORLDS… LAY BEYOND IT… INCLUDING THE… HUMANS' WALLED CITY… AND PERHAPS… OTHER INTELLIGENT TITANS." Titus explained with the warm smile still upon his face. Before Atlas could question what those things were, his Mentor continued. "WHERE… WE ARE NOW… IS CALLED A… BEACH. BEACHES… BORDER MANY PARTS… OF THE OCEAN." Titus paused, turning to face him. "FOR THE… FIRST… YEAR ATLAS…. I AM TO TEACH YOU… ABOUT THE WORLD. NO COMBAT. ADVANCERS… MUST LEARN ABOUT… THE WAY… THINGS ARE… AND HAVE COME TO BE… FIRST."
Atlas felt his heart sink at the news. So he was not to learn combat training at all for some time, but if this was being taught it was necessary. There was so much still that he didn't know and it would be helpful to him in his personal goals. Atlas grunted, waiting for Titus to continue.
Titus exhaled a long cloud of steam before shifting again to get comfortable. "TODAY… I WILL… TELL YOU… THE HISTORY… OF THE WORLD – OUR WORLD AND… HOW WE CAME TO BE."
Instantly, the young Hunter's brows rose in sheer curiosity. The history of the world? How titans came to be? Atlas felt himself staring heavily at his Mentor, tilting his head in wonder. Titus took a deep breath and cleared his throat.
"GET COMFORTABLE ATLAS… THIS COULD… TAKE A MINUTE. LISTEN WELL… AND ASK QUESTIONS… IF YOU NEED." Titus initiated with Atlas following his order, knowing that his training was about to begin. "NOW… THIS… HAS BEEN… KNOWLEDGE… OF OUR PACK… AND THAT… OF THE VILLAGE… FOR CENTURIES… HUNDREDS OF YEARS, ATLAS. A LONG TIME… AGO – BEFORE THE HUNTERS… WALKED THE EARTH. THERE… WAS A TITAN CALLED… YMIR. SHE… WAS THE… FIRST. SHE… WAS A GREAT… BEING… BIGGER THAN US… AND CONSIDERED SOMETHING… TO WHORSHIP… FROM MAN. FOR MANY… MANY YEARS…YMIR WATCHED MAN. SHE… JUDGED MAN." Titus paused to salivate his mouth before continuing. "OVER TIME…MAN BEGAN TO GROW GREEDY. MAN… BEGAN TO FIGHT… WITH OTHERS. MAN… ALSO BEGAN… TO TAKE TOO MUCH… TO DESTROY… THE EARTH. YMIR… DID NOT LIKE THIS. YMIR… DECIDED TO PUNISH MAN. SO… YMIR… TOOK MAN'S… HATRED… GREED… AND FLESH… TO MAKE…THE MINDLESS TITANS. THUS… YMIR'S CREATION… BEGAN TO… DEVOUR… MAN… AND CLENSE THE WORLD… FROM MAN'S DESTRUCTION." Titus illustrated, his voice growing more stern as he dived into a clearly darker subject. Atlas swallowed, but his Mentor began again before he could think about what had happened. "THEN… WHEN MAN… WAS NEARLY… WIPED OUT… THE THREE GODS – BEINGS… THAT ORIGINALLY… MADE YMIR… AND MAN… LIVE IN THE HEAVENS, ATLAS." Titus paused, pointing upwards at the sky, with he himself following his gaze. "THESE GODS… MARIA, ROSE, AND SINA… DECIDED… TO KILL… YMIR. A BLOODY… BATTLE WAS FOUGHT… AND THE GODS WON. YMIR WAS… SLAUGHTERED… BUT THE TITANS… STILL ROAMED. AS A SOLUTION… THE GODS… DECIDED… TO MAKE… WARRIORS OF THEIR OWN. TITAN WARRIORS… THAT FED UPON THE FLESH… OF MINDLESS. SO… WITH YMIR'S FLESH… BLOOD… AND A BIT OF MAN'S LOVE… AND INTELLIGENCE… THE GODS MADE US… HUNTERS." Titus finished with a slightly cunning smile. Atlas gave into a curve of his lips and Titus promptly began again. "WHEN THE… HUNTERS… WERE CREATED… ONE… HUNTER WAS GIVEN… MOST OF YMIR'S POWERS… AND EVEN SOME… BLOOD FROM… THE GODS… THIS HUNTER… WAS THE LEADER. THE… LEADER OF THE HUNTERS - THE KING OF EARTH… TOOK THE PACK… TO CREATE… THE WALLED CITY… ACROSS THE OCEAN. IT WAS… A CITY… FOR MAN TO BE SAFE IN… UNTIL… THE MINDLESS… WERE… WIPED OUT. THE… LEADER… ERASED… MOST OF MAN'S MEMORY… AND THE HUNTERS RETURNED… TO THE WORLD… TO HUNT THEIR… PREY. TO THIS… DAY WE… STILL… HUNT." Titus concluded yet again, his tone still somewhat serious, but Atlas could detect a slight sense that Titus wanted to add to something but left it out for some odd reason. Suddenly, the behemoth laughed, reaching up to scratch his scalp. "THAT… IS WHAT MOST SAY. OTHERS… IN THE VILLAGE SAY… THAT WE… APPARED AT…THE SAME TIME AS THE MINDLESS… A SUBSPECIES… AS THEY CALL IT. BUT… THE STORY… OF YMIR… IS WHAT WE KNOW." Titus beamed softly, golden eyes fully focused onto him. "ANY QUESTIONS… ATLAS?"
The young titan simply sat in awe. So this was the origin of the Mindless and Hunters? These gods, created Ymir and the humans… and it sounded as if Ymir was created to keep humans in check and she did not find them favorable over their wrongdoings. The Mindless were created to wipe the slate clean and the gods found that Ymir's actions had gone too far. Hunters were forged from her very flesh and blood. The Hunters still protected man, but this walled city intrigued him, and why didn't the humans of the Village go to a place where they were safe? This was the part he struggled to understand the most to his surprise – he could always understand things that were a story better. Atlas clacked his teeth in frustration before he grunted and lifted his arm to point his knuckles in the direction of the Village. Atlas grunted again, jamming two fingers into an open palm to signal human before pointing at the ocean – hoping that Titus understood him. His mentor sat for a moment, fingers reaching upwards to caress his beard before he looked out to the rolling water yet again.
"YOU ASK… WHY HUMANS… OF THE VILLAGE… DID NOT MOVE… TO THE WALLS?" He inquired, getting Atlas's confirmation of his translation before initiating again. "THEY… ARE A GROUP… OF HUMANS… THAT PREFER… TO STAY NEAR THEIR… GURDIANS… THEIR DIETIES TO… WHORSHIP. THEY… BELIEVE IN US… RELY ON US. FOR… MANY YEARS ATLAS… THEY… TEACH US… IN EXCHANGE FOR OUR… SERVICE. THEY… SEE NO REASON… TO MOVE TO THE WALLS." Titus paused, gesturing towards the water. "THE… WALLED CITY… IS VERY FAR… VERY DANGEROUS… TO GET TO. NOT ONLY DO… THEY RISK… MINDLESS AND WEATHER… BUT THE OCEAN IS ROUGH… AND… AS I SAID… THERE COULD BE OTHER… TITANS THAT ARE… SMART BUT DO NOT CARE… FOR HUMANS… OR EVEN… OTHER HUMANS… THAT WANT TO FIGHT." Titus paused, shifting again to get comfortable before relaxing and offering a smile. "THESE… STORIES… TRUTHS… MAY BE HARSH… ATLAS… BUT I PROMISE… THE WORLD… IS NOT ALWAYS BAD. IT…CAN BE VERY KIND… BEAUTIFUL. ATLAS… DURING TRAINING… THE FIRST YEAR… I WILL SHOW YOU… THE HARSHNESS… BUT ALSO THE INCREDIBLE THINGS… OUR WORLD HAS. I… CAN NOT… WAIT… TO START… THIS JOURNEY… WITH YOU ATLAS… MY ADVANCER."
The young titan could only smile a bit bashfully at Titus's statement. Green pools then traveled back to the ocean, watching as several clouds parted to leave gaps for sunlight to beam down – making the coiling water shimmer. The wind blew through his hair, making relaxation course throughout his body. Indeed, Titus was right. The world was full of misfortune and cruelty. He had been cast out and mistreated all his life, even had his own blood shed and there were many mental scars from the torment. He wasn't alone in his suffering though. The many years of humans killing one another and Mindless engorging themselves were nothing short of brutal. Product of Ymir's judgement that was met with even more violence. However, just like sunlight parting through the clouds before him, there was good shining through the bad. Ymir's death gave birth to the Hunters who protected the humans and provided something for them to believe in. His troubles had been rewarded with the rank that he had always dreamed of achieving. Titus, the titan that was the only one that took him in as his own and raised him was now his Mentor. He lived in a spectacular place and had his friends. He could see Eren now with no shackles binding him. All of these were blessings that he was incredibly thankful for.
More sunlight peeked through the sky and lit up the waves, like thousands of glittering gems upon the horizon. The world was cruel, yet oh so beautiful.
He had transcended, and he couldn't wait to start his journey either.
Author's note: Hope you enjoyed! The next chapter will be about Atlas growing and training! Also, Strix is Eren Kruger's Attack Titan from the anime.