Skycloud’s tunnel system was as dark, silent, and gloomy as ever.
A mouse scurried along, vigilantly scanning its surroundings for danger. It skittered through the dark, unknowingly growing closer to the figure hunched in the shadows. It was unmoving, silent, giving the rat no indication it was there. Then – at just the precise moment – it struck.
The rat squeaked in terror.
A young man held the rodent tightly but didn’t give it much chance to struggle. HE clamped his teeth into the rat’s back, into its meat and through its spine. Hot, fresh blood filled his mouth.
The young man didn’t have a wastelander’s ability to eat anything. Before he could even swallow the foul scent and flavor made him vomit. Only after days of starvation the only thing that came up was stomach acid.
In his mind the situation was clear. He had to persist if he wanted to survive. Dying down here wasn’t an option, not if he wanted revenge. To do what he had to do. Suppressing his disgust he took another bite, and this time he swallowed.
Suddenly a light. Somewhere behind him. How was there light down here?
The young man’s head snapped around and the light revealed his features. Long and tangled hair jutted out in all directions, framing a dirty face that might be handsome underneath the grime. Bloodshot eyes glared through the bright light and his mouth was smeared with a mix of blood, vomit and fur. He looked as feral as he did repulsive. Chains clinked, connected to shackles on his hands and feet. Wounds covered his body.
His deep, hoarse voice croaked through a parched throat. “Who’s there!”
The one who held the light was a young man, dressed all in black – black boots, black pants, black gloves, black hood. Even his face was covered in a black mask that hid his features, leaving nothing but black eyes looking out. Even holding the light the stranger was like an eerie living shadow. 
Atlas didn’t reply. He just looked the young man over, then bent over and placed the light to one side. Reaching behind him the assassin pulled a black dagger soundlessly from its sheath. Its dark blade reflected no light but oozed malice.
Squall’s whole body went stiff. He guessed this person had to have been sent by Skycloud to kill him. He tried to scamper backward, to run.
Then Atlas lunged at him.
His attacker was so fast Squall didn’t even see what he’d done. Suddenly his hands and feet felt lighter, and then his shackles clattered to the floor. Finally an almost forgotten sense of freedom returned. Atlas then flicked his left wrist and flung something toward him. Squall wrenched his body to the side just in time for something to whiz by. A clank, then he turned to see an iron pipe lodged in the wall.
Squall knew what Atlas had thrown at him when he saw it. An exorcist rod, the sort used by demonhunters. He didn’t understand the man in black’s intentions. When he looked questioningly at him he saw Atlas standing silently on the border of the light. The light rippled over him, as though the shadows were fighting to steal him back. His black dagger was clear as ever, though, and promised blood.
“Pull it out.”
Atlas didn’t seem accustomed to much talking. His words were curt, his voice hoarse, making it hard to tell his age. But Squall got it. He was giving him a chance to fight back.
If he wanted a fight, then he got one!
As he pulled the staff from the wall Squall felt his heart surge with the will to survive and a thirst for vengeance. He attacked first, rushing at Atlas like the wind. Despite several days of starvation in the darkness, he still had impressive speed and strength.
He had some skill, at least more than your average soldier. However even after half a dozen swipes from the staff Atlas was unscathed. He flit through the shadows like a feather, hardly real at all. Squall didn’t even catch a scrap of clothing.
Atlas half-heartedly waved Deathstalker.
An unbearable pain jolted through Squall’s shoulder. The assassin’s black blade was buried in his skin.
He stopped and stared at the wound, but just for an instant. With a roar he knocked the small sword away and took another swing at Atlas’ throat. The attack was easily deflected and followed by a swiping cut across Squall’s chest. The former merchant and one-time demonhunter hopeful fought through the injuries to keep up his assault. A third cut caught him in the leg.
They went back and forth seven or eight times. Fighting with all his strength Squall never even got close to his assailant. Every exchange ended with Atlas giving him another wound for his trouble. However, none of them were life-threatening. The gulf in abilities was evident, so why didn’t Atlas just kill him? Was he going to torture the boy to death?
Squall wasn’t an idiot, he knew he didn’t stand a chance. But he wasn’t going to go die like a coward.
Atlas lazily kicked off the ground, sweeping his leg around in an arc. Squall’s exorcist rod clattered as it was knocked down the tunnel.
He fought for breath, gasping a lungful of fetid air. The wounds were painful and he staggered under their weight, hardly able to stand. But he stood his ground, fueled by anger alone. He roared at the man in black like a dying beast.
Atlas stood across from him, unmoving. From the start of their exchange up to now he hadn’t moved from that spot. It was painfully obvious how handily he dealt with Squall. Black eyes wandered over the feral young man without a glint of emotion in their depths, but not cold. Absolute indifference, without pity or malice
“Is that all you can handle?”
As he broke the silence Deathstalker fully awakened. A caustic purple haze hung around the blade’s edge like an eldritch flame. In the bleak tunnels it looked like Death’s own weapon come to claim him. Although Squall didn’t know what was the power of Deathstalker, he immediately recognized it as a relic, and a strong one.
This man was a demonhunter?
All through their fight not only had he been holding back his skill, he hadn’t even used a fraction of his abilities. Hopelessness washed over Squall, there was no escaping this killer.
“If you’re so weak…” Atlas brandished his sword and slowly stepped closer. “… then you are of no use alive. I’ll send you on your way.”
Trepidation seized him as Squall watched, helpless. He knew there was nothing he could do. Was this his fate, to die down here at this demonhunter’s hands? Denial filled his mouth with bitter flavor. His life couldn’t end so uselessly in these tunnels.
He snatched up the exorcist rod. Atlas maintained the same languid speed as he hacked toward him.
But speed was relative. To Atlas he was hardly showing any effort, but to Squall he seemed fast as lightning. He hardly had time to lift the staff before the deadly attack came crashing down. An unspeakable sense of peril filled his mind. He knew nothing on Deathstalker, but he knew every relic was remarkable. One hit was all it would take.
This was it, his moment of life or death.
With another roar Squall clearly felt a mysterious power well up inside him. It roared through his body like a vibration strangely in tune with his weapon. Then the exorcist rod began to spin. It screamed like a cyclone and friction birthed a shower of sparks.
The power of a relic! He’d awakened the staff’s power!
Potential as a demonhunter had been found in Squall, but he had never undergone any proper training. Nor had he ever actually used a relic, yet he had summoned the staff’s power. There were few in the city who could do so without training.
But none of that crossed Squall’s mind. Death loomed close, he didn’t have time to stand in wonder.
He heaved his weapon with all his strength toward atlas. Staff and sword met and-
Deathstalker stopped. Squall’s exorcist rod was knocked right out of his hands.
The metallic clang of their meeting hung in the claustrophobic chamber.
Huge cracks appeared as once again the exorcist rod hit the wall. The psychic energy Squall had filled it with was released all at once into the stone. He just stood there, stunned, for he thought for sure the attack was strong enough. But to Atlas it was not even worth a second thought.
The dark blade with its slithering purple flame inched toward his throat.
This is it! My life ends here!
All hopes were dashed to pieces as he waited for death, but the pain he expected never came. Atlas’ sword had stopped less than a centimeter from his neck.
The purple fires slowly faded away, along with its lethal aura.
Atlas unceremoniously returned the relic to its sheath. “Pick up your weapon.”
Squall didn’t understand. “What…”
“I’ll say it again. Your weapon. Pick it up.” Atlas kept staring at him with those lifeless eyes. “Three days, I’ll teach you. How much you learn is up to you.”
Squall couldn’t believe his ears.
Although he’d never learned the man’s name, his skill alone proved he was no typical demonhunter. Without a doubt he had to be a master, but this sort of mission wouldn’t give the likes of him or someone like Frost any accolades. Why offer to teach him? What was the logic? He was a criminal!
“Don’t ask. Don’t think. Don’t thank. Just follow orders.” Atlas’ voice was soft as a shadow’s caress. “I owed a favor. This is payback.”
Who would dare trust someone like this? But that didn’t matter, he’d spared Squall’s life. He’d even offered to teach him. By all rights this was beyond anything he could expect!
Squall knew that after all of this he would never be a demonhunter. That path was closed to him. But his strange new master, maybe he could give him the training he needed.
“What are you going to teach me?”
“Time is limited. I’m going to teach you to survive.”
Squall’s heart thundered in his chest and he clenched his hands into fists. Survival was exactly what he wanted to learn.
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Now who does Atlas owe a favor to, I wonder?