Chapter 1: Prologue
In a time lost to the pages of history, in a land where the recent emergence of science outweighed a centuries long reign of the enigma of faith, war was the one and only constant; endless and without pause. Every nation vying for more, expanding upon their once god-granted rights under new banners, turning once lush and lively regions to desolate desert wastes where no man would ever walk again. Poisoning the land further with the even more destructive seeds of death and decay, the people caught in the crossfire, their citizens, their subjects, were forced to live in fear, forced to flee in terror, and it was when an entire village seemingly vanished overnight without so much as a trace, a faint whisper of dark deeds done on a dark night, leaving one meek, insignificant, but wrathful child as its only survivor, that this changed forever.
Alone and forced to fend for herself, after a lifetime spent in ruined and war-torn lands and much hardship, this child blossomed into a woman who united the world with a mysterious power and became a mighty ruler. This woman was named Ymir Fritz, and unlike those before her, she ruled benevolently, with her mind close to her heart, ever beating in favor of those less fortunate, of those less able to pull themselves from the tragedy of war; ever bleeding for those who sought to continue the tyranny of the past, the disappearance of hopes and dreams for so much as to fill their chests and stomachs with greed.
She spent a long time rebuilding the world in her image; thirteen grueling years of using a gift many perceived as a curse, a black murmur of the past back to punish the world that had abandoned it, passed before all was peaceful, all was quiet, all was calm, until she was usurped—murdered in her sleep when her eyes were shut—her body disemboweled and decapitated and her mysterious power split nine, the world plunged into a great war that lasted a lifetime longer than she herself had lived. Its victors rewrote history, the defeated ousted, butchered, and enslaved as the world came back under the thumb of oppression and savagery until history dared repeat itself again. Another rebellion, another great war, colossal, violent, and more devastating than the last; another beheading, a new victor, the shackling of the old, and, in the midst of this all, the child that was reborn.
But, the world… the world was unforgiving.
Its wounds never healed and the scars tarnishing its surface left it puckered and sore with horrendous, atrocities galore.
The child was taken, growing up beaten and bruised, then sacrificed for the greater good before her rule truly had a chance to begin.
The year is 845, and the world was still cruel.
Humanity has been beset by monsters known as Titans for a hundred years. A seemingly endless tide of giant, humanoid devourers that managed to wipe out all life save for a lucky few, and nobody knew where they originated from, what their purpose was, and, most important, most dire, how to effectively end them once and for all. So, in desperation, these lucky few shut themselves behind three fifty meter high walls for their own protection, thinking themselves safe. Only, they were being kept in the dark, gathered like cattle in cages for the inevitable until, one day, one red-colored, quiet, unassuming morning after dawn, this all changed when they were given a grim reminder of what it meant to be locked away.
And, in the midst of it, a child is reborn.
All she remembers is the blood, tissue, and bone. All she remembers is the torment of the mindless. All she remembers is the face that haunts, the face that always reminds her of the cruelty of the world. That it always has been and that it always will be; that it should always be held in a certain light, and that she was never meant to be born, molding herself as someone who was nothing, who thought herself worthless. Crimson nightmares, bringing death, the world her enemy, her string, and her fate. A causality in a world which resented and cursed her as it always would.
So, the girl ran away from her fate and the world, in retaliation, in retribution, started its end, but, the child, the girl, she kept running, and running, and...
Chapter 2: Characters (Part I)
Point of View Characters
Art by Keelan Taylor on instagram (@bervolart)
Ymir - refugee
Historia Reiss / Krista Lenz - refugee
Rita Iglehaut - member of the Garrison Regiment, West Division (Quinta)
Mathias Kramer - heir to the Kramer Merchant Association
Gabriel - member of the Military Police Brigade, First Interior Squad
Achi Almen - refugee
Ada - survivor outside the Walls
Taki - leader of the survivors outside the Walls
Amanda - member of the Garrison Regiment, West Division (Quinta)
Doris Iglehaut - Rita's adoptive mother
Henning Iglehaut - Rita's adoptive father
Ducio - member of the Garrison Regiment, West Division (Quinta)
Wilco - member of the Garrison Regiment, West Division (Quinta)
Bernhardt - leader of the outlaws
Jarratt - member of the outlaws
Klaus - member of the outlaws
Nikki - member of the outlaws
Suzanne - servant of the Kramer family
Jörg Kramer - Mathias's father
Isolde Lenz - farmer
"Baggy-pants" Leon - member of the Garrison Regiment, West Division (Fuerth)
Chapter 3: Keep Moving
Running, running, running away.
She wanted to keep running further and further away. Though, her legs wouldn't carry her anymore, and so the girl fell.
The ground began to shake.
She tried to stand, desperately tried, but her arms wouldn't move, either. She was forced to listen as it got closer, and closer, and closer still, until its shadow loomed over her and something, something sharp, hooked underneath the skin of her back. It hoisted her high and she cried out in pain as she was slowly lowered into its waiting mouth. Mere seconds an eternity of pain. Unthinkable pain as its teeth sunk into her legs, ripping into her, chewing to her waist. Gorged on her innards, pulling them out as she vomited. Spat and coughed blood, juices spilled down her chin. They dripped onto her chest as upward still its hunger moved. Her ribs were crushed when it reached her chest, and gasping for air while she tried to suck in more, her heart was beating so fast it were about to burst from the strain. Veins ready to explode, the whites of her eyes filling with red, she let out a scream that died in her throat as the world became dark.
Frightened awake by the horror in her mind, the girl slammed the back of her head into a tree, delirious. Nauseous. Hungry. Hungering, and, standing to her feet, she looked down at her trembling, frost-touched hands.
They were normal. Normal, human hands. And they were cold, as she put one of the back of her head. She winced, feeling something wet.
She was bleeding, and laughed, tears falling from her face. Staring at her now bloodstained fingers, she stuck them down her throat, wanting to gag. Wanting her past to wash away with her tears. But she had to keep moving, and drew her bloody, saliva-covered hand across the tree. She didn't want to go back to the way she was. Didn't want to be that way again, as agony split through her skull and her vision was filled with blinding shades of red; scarlet flashes of pain as she tried to expel the monster from her mind. As she tried to remember it: her name.
She had to keep moving, and stumbled on, wandering the wilds, fighting her hunger, fighting the urge, the scent of it, and—now wiping those bloody, saliva-covered fingers into blackened, slushy mud, her nails scraping the hard soil beneath—the blood which still licked her tongue. The blood of innocents, the blood of the damned, the blood of the dead. She heaved. Harsh, ragged gasps of dry air, spittle drooling from her mouth, sticking to her skin, and nothing more, as, with them, came again those images of panic and fright which crept back into her mind like beasts roused from their black slumbers, circling her while she was left exposed. Closing in, bright eyes in the dark waiting for the moment to strike. Tear out her throat. Haul her body off. Bring her back into the fold. Into the nightmare. Working their way, working their way, gradually, gradually…
The girl curled into a fetal position on the wet ground and covered her head, as if doing so would make them go away—make them disappear.
She vomited. It seeped into her hair, her clothing, her skin. Soaked the ground, as those haunting howls of hunger whispered into her ear.
The memories; they were still there.
She chuckled to herself.
At her own naivety.
Of course they wouldn’t simply disappear; seared and branded into her brain forever. The smoldering remains, smoke billowing toward that red sky. Red as the blood on her once clawed hands as they dug into the ground, her small, beady black eyes staring down upon them against the sun: her prey. How she snatched one, the rest running for their lives in her wake. Its insignificant whimpering. Garbled noises made dangling above her head as her jaws widened. Biting down, the taste, the feeling. Blood—swallowing, spitting, devouring, savoring—and bone—snapping, breaking, pulverizing, crushing.
These memories assaulted her and she buried her face into the earth to suffocate them, to overcome them, only to collapse from their weight.
And, outside that decimated village, a gathering of monsters much like her self stood waiting, watching her every move. They began to speak. Childish attempts at communicating their thoughts into one word. The word being spoken to her. The word being chanted to her. Repeated. Repeated. Repeated. Over, and over, and over again.
Mind breaking, the girl concentrated all her thoughts on that one word—that one desire to know her name—and sunk her teeth so deep into her hand she hit bone because of the pain. Except, nothing happened. Nothing, except, more pain. More blood. More vomit, as another memory came to her: a shelter of light within a distant, dark dream. Of someone caring and kind. Someone who told her that no matter how painful it was, that she must keep moving. That she needed to get back on her feet and keep moving.
Pushing herself up and staring at the messing of her face in the mud, she couldn't give in. She couldn't die here and, scratching and tearing herself on thorns, continued following a path overgrown by time until she reached it: a shelter of light.
Unlike the one from her memories, a quiet respite dredged up from that howling darkness, this one was in ruins. Ravaged, raped, despoiled—just a shell of what it’d once been, and while she was afraid of what lay inside, lurking, and would’ve moved past it, continue even further on, if not for that voice—oh, that gentle, loving voice—beckoning her from that dark. It persuaded her otherwise. Intimidated, pressured, pushed, her on. That voice of someone caring and kind, turning vile and cruel, ordering her forward. Into that darkness, into that unknown, to brave the peril, swallow her dread, face the beasts, and conquer her own fears. It shouted. Screamed. Keep moving, keep moving.
Chapter 1 illustration by Tatong on DeviantArt
And before she realized it her body was at its splintered doors, arms weakly creaking them open, blood rushing through her veins as her heart pounded in her ears. Thump. Thump. Thump. She had to keep moving, and forced her way inside, tripping, tumbling on.
Falling in a dusty heap, eyes to an open ceiling above, there were no stars and around her nothing moved, nothing stirred.
Only silence reigned.
The voice that spoke to her faded in kind.
Eventually, she caught her breath and sat up on one of the old and rotten wooden pews lining either side of her, assessing even in her own awful state a lone podium flanked by two large statues at the front of the room. Behind them, was an altar, and slowly, but surely, she continued her way towards it and, reaching it in time, its worn and aged plaque, rusted and cracked, was cold to the touch and small dark shapes began to appear as her focus narrowed. Knowing them to be letters, she stepped back and squinted, trying to sound out the word they formed. Though, she couldn’t, and, instead, looked at them again, closer—the statues. The depiction of what they were. What they were called—long abandoned, long forgotten, only, she couldn't, she couldn't... she was so very tired...
The girl doubled over beside the podium.
It was hollow in back.
Scrunching herself into the void space, she put her knees up against her chest and rested her chin on top of her hands, an infant inside her mother’s pregnant womb, eyelids heavy for the first time in what felt like ages, and it wasn’t long before she was fast asleep and the world became dark once again.
Art by Gjergji Zhuka on instagram (@gjergjiart)
Chapter 4: The Fall
Their frontline had been slaughtered in the blink of an eye, while the majority of the second had fled at the mere sight of the horror they were about to face, and astride her horse in the outlying town before Quinta's gate, Rita Iglehaut, a member in the third, felt her stomach churn as these monsters, these skin-wearing mockeries of themselves, twisted and tortured shapes, towered over the survivors of both with blood-letting glee, pulling them apart and gouging on their insides and devouring what remained. These gigantic, unclothed monsters with no glint of sentience in their dark eyes.
Dozens of wagons were still thundering frantically for the gates, fleeing across the open plains, kicking clouds of dust behind them as the artillery along the walls rang out, bombarding the advancing Titans, putting massive holes through their bodies, blasting apart their limbs, and turning their heads to mush. Steam exhausted from their corpses, forms contorting and conforming and repairing themselves to rise again; these seemingly unkillable, ever-hungering mindless hunks of flesh. There was no hope for the people in those wagons, yet her commander had ordered them to cover their retreat. Protect and escort as many of them as possible inside Quinta, as he and the rest of the senior members of Quinta’s Garrison dealt with the Titans nearest the gate at she and her fellow rookies’ backs.
Beside her, Amanda straddled her own horse, a low whistle escaping her lips as one of the wagons was knocked into the air, its occupants thrown free and slamming into the ground below with distinct, heart-stopping thuds. The Titans converged on the overturned wagon in a frenzy, ignoring the whining horses with broken legs and going straight for the screaming people with broken limbs. The blue sky turned red as the remaining wagons gave it a wide berth.
Rita glanced back at the town, catching a glimpse of a soldier with three Titans giving chase, galloping in sight of the artillery and careening away just in time for them to blow their legs off, others swinging in to finish them by hacking at the nape of their necks—the only proven way to kill them for good—and, hearing an ear-piercing cry among the crowd of Titans in front of her, crying out for help, turning back to face her fellow rookies, all of them shared the same face of dread because it was solely up to them now. They had to go out there. There wasn’t any other choice. So, raising a trembling hand, Rita readied on her blades and put her head down, as she then gave the order to charge, galloping alongside Amanda, the wind bitingly cold against her exposed ears, as they made a frantic beeline for the overturned wagon, managing to evade one of the Titans stretching an arm towards her by slipping under its legs and coming out the other side, the cannons at the wall covering their advance as they met the Titans, attempting to grab any survivors and then retreat toward the remaining wagons even though most of them were really just trying to stay alive.
She spotted a man trapped beneath the body of a horse and a girl cowering not far from the wagon, somehow going unnoticed by the monsters surrounding them.
Riding up to them with Amanda still by her side, Rita hopped off her horse and crouched down to help the man, trying in vain to lift the horse’s body off him, when Amanda pulled her harshly by the collar of her uniform and threw her to the ground, chastising her for the attempt.
“Leave him!” she roared, herself and her blade already covered thick in blood. Steam billowed from both, indicating that the blood was of a Titan’s, and not her own or another person’s.
Looking back, Rita saw a Titan down on its knees, ankles cut down to the bone: the same Titan she’d went under mere seconds before. Despite its injuries, it was looking straight ahead, leering at them, and even tried to stand, only to fall back down again with a crash. Chin in the dirt, but eyes still focused solely on them.
“Get the girl!” Amanda said, flying free of her horse and using her Vertical Maneuver Gear to position herself on its back, then ram her sword into its nape. The blade shattered into pieces as blood sprayed forth and the Titan howled in its death throes. Thrown from its back, Amanda hit the ground, tumbling hard, her horse fleeing in the ensuing panic.
Rita leaped back on her horse and was about to race over to her friend, but a high-pitched squeal of terror spun her sharply around.
The girl was gazing up at a Titan reaching down to take the man—her father?—as it lifted the horse with ease, and, for a split-second, Rita hesitated.
Her friend, or the girl?
No, it wasn’t even something to consider.
Eyeballing around the Titan’s nape, she steadied her aim then fingered the trigger of her Gear and an anchor fired from the barrels slung around her waist. It oscillated violently, held fast by her belt, as its wire cut through the air and the anchor caught hold of the Titan’s flesh, sinking deep. She reeled it in, an incredible pressure exerting itself on the belt as she was pulled abruptly forwards and gave into the momentum. She caught her breath as the world flickered around her, taken off her saddle and propelled rapidly at the Titan.
The Titan cocked its head and one of its hands reached for the anchor attached its neck, but Rita released the anchor before the Titan could grab at the wire, pirouetting like a dancer and simultaneously positioning her blade to slash at its nape like she remembered in training, except, for whatever reason, the Titan stood up, and she crashed into its stomach instead.
The impact made her world go dark for the briefest of moments, as she soon found herself sprawled out on the ground, spasming in pain and letting out a senseless wail. Yet, upon hearing the girl scream, she managed to sit up in a daze and raise her head just enough to see the Titan pulling out the man’s insides while it looked down at the girl, her small eyes stretched wide, as if she were simply a toy it’d dropped while playing, before it bent forward, blocking the sun and reaching down with both hands toward her, discarding the man in favor of this newest plaything.
Thankfully still having a grip on her blade, Rita summoned all of her courage and swung at the Titan, slicing through its fingers that were each as thick and wide as her entire body before it could touch the girl.
Fingertips the size of clubs, all severed at the first knuckle, and enough blood to fill a bathing tub, rained down.
Plumes of steam immediately gushed from the stumps as the Titan reared back. It gazed at its fingers in child-like bewilderment and she could feel the heat from where she stood, its cut appendages already regenerating as it seemingly forgot the girl existed, and, using the opportunity, Rita shouted for her to run.
But, the girl didn’t move, her eyes focused on a single point beyond Rita and the Titan, as Amanda, alive, came flying through the air to deal the death-blow that Rita couldn’t, cutting the Titan’s nape and landing in an exhausted heap before them. She rolled over, breathing heavily.
“... The girl...” she wheezed.
Seeing the dire state her friend was in, Rita grit her teeth but turned her back and sprinted for the girl as she resheathed her blades, about to scoop the girl up and get her onto the horse and—she knew what she had to do, that she had to leave her friend behind so she and girl made it out alive—but, despite herself, she left the girl hugging the horse for dear life and put her arm underneath Amanda’s shoulder. Helping her friend up, she tried to get her on the horse first but Amanda was too weak and she too light to lift her.
When she couldn’t do it after another try Rita was almost forced to lay her back down again when a thunder of urgent hooves approached. It was Wilco, a recruit from her year who’d been one of those to join the Garrison with her, coming toward them in haste. He slid to a halt beside them and got down from his horse, taking Amanda from her in the same motion.
“You can thank me later!” he said in a rush. He helped Amanda onto his horse, made sure she was secure and then got back on. Her arms wrapped around his waist and tied to his belt so she didn’t fall off and dash her head upon the ground as they rode, he pointed at Rita’s horse and the girl. “Come on! Quick!”
She nodded. “Thanks!”
Running over to the girl, she cupped her hand for her to use as a step-ladder, keeping Wilco and Amanda in her peripheral vision as he kicked off toward a nearby Titan, flanking it and slicing it behind the ankle and severing the tendon. He disappeared into the steam erupting from the wound as she pulled herself up and got into the saddle, then followed after him, avoiding this latest Titan as the girl covered her eyes at the sight of it gawking at them unable to give chase.
“Damn! How can there be so—it’s barely been a day..!” Wilco raved somewhere close up ahead. “Not even a day since they breached—!”
Squinting her eyes to see him through the steam, Rita held her breath within it, lest she burned her lungs, as another volley of cannon fire rang out, overpowering his voice, and the air around them shuddered. Before long, they were free of the steam and she checked on the girl. No reaction. Dead eyes. Lips shut tight.
“We messed up! Should’ve waited until nightfall! Not now, not in daylight!” Wilco went on. She could see him clearer now. Amanda was resting against his shoulder, unconscious. “Evacuate, how?!”
News of the fall of Shiganshina had just arrived the previous evening, resulting in an immediate decision of the government officials residing within Quinta to abandon the District, being little farther west along the Wall than Shiganshina, and they were supposed to have evacuated to Wall Rose, to Krolva District, only the Titans had reached Quinta faster than expected. Which meant Shiganshina’s inner gate had been breached in less than forty minutes of its outer gate. The evacuation was planned around the notion that it’d take the Titans at least several hours to breach the second gate, if at all, but that plan had obviously fallen through, and it was in the midst of the new emergency evacuation that the Titans had fell upon them and everyone who hadn’t been caught in the initial onslaught was now scrambling to get back into Quinta before its gates shut, though it wouldn’t be long until—
She dropped instinctively, pushing the girl down with her, just as an enormous hand swiped above them. She tugged on the reins, rearing her horse faster onward, feeling the girl stiffen against her abdomen, and stole a backwards glance.
A Titan on all fours with elongated limbs was racing toward them.
She urged her horse on even faster.
Soon, she and Wilco were beside one another, and they moved to rejoin the other rookies who were escorting the surviving wagons as they reached the outskirts of the town when a horrific, skin-peeling scream resounded through the ranks.
Ahead, the soldier who’d been leading the Titans away from before had been caught in front of their formation, the town overrun despite her commander’s efforts, a Titan with both hands clamped around the man’s shoulders. He was devoured headfirst, and there was a loud, sickening crunch as his skull splintered beneath the Titan’s teeth. His headless body still in the Titan’s clutches spasmed, then went limp, and that was when everyone scattered, a new horde of Titans barreling into them from the town. Some braved forward, bracing themselves amidst the Titans, but most backpedaled, making a mad dash for Wall Rose like the original plan, in vain though it was. For, much to their dismay, emerging from the open plains at the crest of an incline beyond the wagons, was an even greater mass of Titans. Several were three times the average recorded size, and fearing the worst, the inevitable, Rita looked down at the girl, then up to the town, outer gate, the symbol of Wall Maria above, and Quinta beyond.
If nothing else, she had to get this girl, the people within Quinta District, her home, to safety.
And, glaring at the approaching Titans in rage and disgust, pulling up in front of her, Wilco drew his blades in preparation. “Stay behind me!” he shouted. “We can get through this if we just—!”
Wilco’s words were cut short by a volley which crashed into the houses in front of them, obliterating them and sending a massive wave of fire and dirt into the Titans about to bear down on them as, the blast staggering them and it was in the moment shortly after, before most of the Titans were able to find their footing again, that their commander came riding out from behind the horde with what few remained of Quinta’s senior Garrison, bloodied and battered but still alive. He rode up to them, blood running down the side of his forehead and soot caking his face, waving his blade. It was steaming.
“You two!” he boomed. “Return to the wall! Ensure the gate is closed!”
Wilco shouted back. “But what about the—!”
“No time! Now go! ”
Then he was gone.
Watching him kick off toward the Titans alongside those who’d came with him as the cannons continued to roar, though most volleys were now missing their targets, their operators’ accuracy a far-cry from earlier, Rita’s eyes widened in disbelief when she realized what unthinkable thing the commander had done and heard Wilco curse as he came to that same conclusion: the commander had rallied those senior members of the Garrison manning the cannons in a suicide charge, leaving this year’s Training Corps, the 103th Division—greener-nosed kids than themselves who had enlisted only a year prior and even more in over their heads than she and the rest of her fellow rookies were—in charge of the cannons. Furthermore, the gate must’ve already begun to close, and instead of trying to save more lives, he was prioritizing those already secure inside Quinta.
… He wasn’t just sacrificing himself and his men, but their fellow rookies’ and the remaining wagons, too!
With the fire spreading rapidly around them as burning debris began to rain on top of them, carried by the cold winds, there was no time to debate—they had to follow his last orders. They had to keep going, even as their former classmates and juniors, her friends, fell in rapid succession as, soon, fierce battles in the gathering flames broke out all around them.
Left with no other choice, Rita covered the girl’s eyes as they hunkered down, broke free of the carnage, and raced into the town, devoid of its people.
Its residents had left for Wall Rose the moment word of Wall Maria’s fall arrived, making the journey on foot because they couldn’t afford the transportation like those actually living within the District itself; the horses, wagons, and carriages of the mid-upper classes. Forced to cover as much ground as they possible could on foot, given the circumstances, Rita knew that none of them had probably made it to Wall Rose alive, and she teared up just thinking about it, knowing it to be true because if she dared look back, the Titans would be busy devouring everyone they’d left behind, and it was only a matter of time before those monsters were after them as they hurried toward the gate.
If she to get the girl to safety, if she wanted to survive herself, then she had to look away.
“Shit!” Wilco, though, couldn’t. “Shit! Shit Shit! ”
They still had a chance.
“The commander is—!”
She had to look away..!
And it wasn’t long before they reached it, just in time: a passageway with a barrel-vaulted ceiling leading inwards, five meters tall and three meters wide, suspended on an array of chains above with iron plates, reinforced in multiple layers of the same width. Wagons and people being swallowed and spat out one after the other through it, while those who were still attempting to foolishly flee the District clashed with those clamoring to get back in—and it was closing fast.
There was a multitude of wounds, a large number of men, women, and, unfortunately, children, with bent noses, cuts to their eyes and mouths, bruised fists, and broken limbs, all without being attacked the Titans themselves, and the amount of shouting, crying, and screaming was enough to make Rita’s ears bleed.
Overhead, the cannons were still firing.
Raising herself up in her saddle, she couldn’t see how they could possibly get through when Wilco started strapping the still unconscious Amanda on his saddle, operating his Gear, telling her to get ready to push through the mob as he launched an anchor in their midst, slicing deadly close over their heads and parting them enough in the panic afterward to give them that much needed final stretch.
As it embedded itself into the ceiling of the passageway was going to force his way through, Rita bent forward and told the girl to hang on.
Just then, a nearby building burst apart, having been hit by shrapnel from one of the cannon shells. The explosion sent fragments of debris flying toward them, and a large splinter struck the side of Wilco’s head with a wet, splitting thump. He was thrown from his horse, the wire reeling itself in and slamming his body hard against the ground as it dragged him forward, knocking into the mob as they scrambled further out of the way. His lifeless body lifted higher and higher off the ground until it crucified itself where the anchor had dug in. There was a squelch, followed by a crunch, as his remaining bones shattered, some visibly poking and jutting from his body, as even more blood spilled onto the mob below.
This frenzied them further, and as the cannons again continued to pound into the approaching Titans, the panic grew cannibalistic as they all fought for one way or the other.
Having no time to spare, Rita took her chance and rode through them, holding onto the reins of Wilco’s horse with Amanda and keeping the girl close, giving a farewell to Wilco’s body when she passed under it and through to the other side, pulling them around to look at the gate as it finally closed shut, trapping them inside and leaving those unlucky hundreds outside to the eager mouths of the Titans.
She covered the girl’s ears until the screams stopped.
And, in the silence that followed save for the clawing of the Titans at the outer gate’s iron plates, she and everyone else within Quinta immediately knew that the Walls they’d once built to keep them safe, had now become their cage.
Chapter 2 illustration by Tatong on DeviantArt
Chapter 5: The Fall (2)
Yesterday, Mathias fell asleep reminiscing of the past. Scenes from his childhood fading in then out again until one eventually stuck.
It was nothing, at first.
Just one of many a collection of bright specks on a blanket of black which seemed so far from his reach, until, it grew brighter and brighter still, coalescing into a single star and shining within it the girl he called childhood friend.
She stood there, smiling wide, gazing up at a statue in a corridor of his childhood home. Her features were lit underneath a thin column of light protruding from a gap within the corridor's ceiling, illuminating her soft, strawberry blonde hair in a halo of brilliant shimmering gold; the shining angelic beauty of innocent youth, just within his grasp. Then, the light waned until shadows deep and deeper and darkest yet filled its place and it fell down, her innocent youth cracking to reveal the cold, remorseless truth as the statue crumpled, the corridor collapsed, and she grew in stature, saddled on horseback at the head of a detachment of soldiers, features grim, gazing up at the inner gate of Wall Maria and the gleaming cannons atop wearing the colors of the Garrison upon her shoulder: red ruby roses entangled in thorns and, freshly stitched above it, a single white stripe, denoting her promotion to leadership status.
The distance separating them was now a chasm, he could never hope to reach her now, and hesitated to step forward to call out to her for fear he may fall in.
And, today, sitting upright in his bed in the guestroom of his father's second house in Fuerth after the fall of Shiganshina, Mathias regretfully wished he had. He'd stayed here many times before while accompanying his father on business and this time would've been no different, if not for the fact that he no longer had a home to return to. The family mansion was in Quinta… and so was Rita, along with half of the District population.
His shoulders slumped.
Remembering the conversation between his father and his father's colleagues in the Merchant Association along with a few he didn't recognize though could identify based upon their attire—mostly delegates from the surrounding Districts and leaders of the villages within the territory, but also at least one representative from the Royal Government itself, all of whom traveled day and night to reach Fuerth once word of Wall Maria's breach reached their ears—they'd gathered in the study around a large writing table packed tight, discussing their most immediate courses of action when he'd simply barged in, demanding to know what they planned to about Quinta. About Rita.
The response? They were working on it.
A day later, and they were still working on it.
He sighed, but got down from his bed and slipped on his shoes. The air was cold, and he went over to the closet and put on a jacket. Heading for the door, the luggage he hadn't bothered to unpack yesterday upon hearing the news of Quinta's situation to was done and sorted, and he heard hushed voices on the other side, though when he opened it and stepped out into the hallway there was nobody in sight. They must've come from downstairs, and, half-lumbering down the steps, found it to be Suzanne speaking quietly with a worker. Other than being one of their servants and his home tutor, she'd been in the employ of the Kramer family for as long as he could remember. Though she was well into her late-thirties, she looked ten years younger, and the two of them were more like friends instead of teacher and student and the only servant Rita was especially fond of, as she was of Rita in turn—almost like sisters, really. Suzanne was the one who told him about Quinta's isolation and the likelihood of Rita's survival being more likely than not based on the fact of the refugee shacks right inside Fuerth's walls and eyewitness accounts of Quinta's Garrison retreating back into the District. Except, Rita herself being alive was mere speculation on her part, but one that he himself also wanted to believe.
When he approached they were finished, asking if any progress was made regarding Quinta—if the decision to send support was finally in motion—and he didn't miss the faint flicker of pain across her face.
He couldn't have missed it, even if he wanted to.
He took a step closer. "So did they?"
"Not yet." Suzanne's ambiguous answer told him all he needed to know, even before she averted her eyes. "But your father is doing everything he can right now."
Which meant nothing at all.
"I see," Mathias replied. Head down, he understood his father's position, but, even so. "If you'll excuse me."
He shouldered past her and fled the house, fearing he might go mad if he stayed there a moment longer.
Mathias roamed the streets with no clear purpose in mind. The ground was grey, cobbled stone, with white stuccoed buildings raised on either side. Fuerth's appearance remained unchanged since his previous visit, though as he mixed in with its residents, the atmosphere was tense as everyone wore tight expressions and nobody smiled. Until now, the District had been located wholly in the Interior. Great walls and vast tracts of land had locked it away from the Titan's domain. But the status quo had undergone a dramatic shift overnight. Those monsters were converging toward Fuerth's own outer gate. For the residents, the events in Shiganshina and Quinta were very much their business.
And, before he knew it, he arrived at it on the side facing Wall Maria—the newly mapped Exterior.
The setting sun cast it in a dark shadow, where below as it met the ground were rows upon rows of basic shacks thrown up together by the refugees from within all corners of Wall Maria's territory. Though some of these shacks were noticeably sturdier than the rest, built from more substantial materials, the great majority of them were little more than cloth strung over wooden frames scavenged from disassembled wagons and crates and huddled between them were the refugees busy preparing evening meals, lighting stoves and setting pots and pans and clearing what limited space was available, shoulder to shoulder and back to back. The smell of cooking wafted over, carrying with it the stink of sweat and gag of human waste.
Just a single day had passed since Shiganshina, and already there were so many. He felt something hot begin to swell deep down, like the coals in a furnace sparking to life within his gut, and grit his teeth as the heat spread to his chest and out toward his limbs. His ears turned a delicate shade of pinkish-red and he fumed, jaw tight.
Citizens of the privileged classes were bound by duty to serve the masses; obligated, to help. And yet here he stood, unable to. Glancing back at his father's house, there they were, not lifting a finger. Concerned about the impact upon their shareholdings, their business-ventures and profit-margins and how the economy would handle the burden of mouths to feed, cozy and secure while these people were forced to live in discomfort and fear. And Rita… there was even the possibly she'd given her life in an attempt to protect everyone else. To see them safely to Quinta. But, no, he wanted to believe Suzanne was right. Rita was in Quinta and she was alive. Waiting…
She had to be.
His rising anger began to ebb, and gradually, he let it fade. The sparks flickered, then went out and he relaxed. His jaw loosened. He breathed deep, then sighed. Getting worked up over it wouldn't do him nor the refugees nor Rita any benefit, and that was when he noticed the line of people in the periphery of his vision. Most of them were young men.
Following the line to where it led, the crest of the Garrison Regiment towered over all present, where outside the building and where the line ended was a desk. Two uniformed members of Fuerth's Garrison sat behind it interviewing those at the front of the line, scribbling notes, handing out separate slips of paper to each before sending them on their way while what appeared to be a member of the Military Police stood beside them, shaking each one of their hands and offering a word or two of encouragement.
Upon a closer look, it was the barracks and he began to walk toward it, until he was sharply pulled back by a strong hand.
"Don't even think 'bout it."
Startled, Mathias spun with an accompanying bite of hostility, locking eyes with a barrel-chested young man around his age, maybe a little older, who crossed bulging arms denoting him as a laborer or craftsman's apprentice. In either case, he was someone larger in size than Mathias would rather have to deal with if it came to blows, and cooled his temper and otherwise abrasive response in favor of one more polite, but firm though his body trembled.
"I'm not about to cut in line. And I won't." He couldn't tell if it was his previously built-up frustration leaking out, or fright at the sight of the young man's arms each twice the size of his own, or both—neither of which would stop him. "But, what're you all doing? Why are you all queued up here? Food provisions?"
The young man exchanged glances with the men lined up around him. "Yeah, right."
"They're recruitin' volunteers. Don't bother if you ain't got the backbone!" a squat, older man with broad shoulders and a slight lisp added from behind.
"We're gonna take back Shiganshina," he explained. "If we jam that hole, that'll stop any more of them Titans gettin' in! After that we take down the ones between Rose and Maria, and all's well that ends well!"
"It's only just been announced," cut in a fat man.
Mathias mulled this over for a moment. True, better to deal with a limited number of Titans than a never-ending flow, but why Shiganshina and not Quinta, first? How could they be planning to leave Quinta alone when Rita and so many other people were trapped inside?
The fat man shrugged. "It's safe. Well, maybe not safe. But the Titans haven't gotten in, at least."
"I'm worried too. My wife and kids're back there," the older man said. "But they're tellin' us we gotta deal with the Titans first. Who're we to say otherwise?"
"I'm sure we'll check it out, at least," the fat man added. "Lots of villages between them and us, besides Quinta. Might be people who didn't make it all the way."
"Meaning, we do what we can, but the main thing is Shiganshina," the young man said back in, in conclusion. "But dressed like that, I don't imagine you need it," he added with a sneer.
Mathias glanced down at himself. He wasn't dressed in a particular way that made him stand out among the rest. Just a cotton shirt with woolen trousers and a jacket. A common, and unassuming outfit. But, it was the cleanliness of his skin and hair, the quality of the fabric, which gave him away. Eyes back up, nobody else was as well groomed, and it was then he became acutely aware of the innumerable, suspicious looks being tossed his way. He cast a fresh look down the line, the back of which seemed to stretch even farther still.
"I see. And that's why you're all…" His voice trailed off as he went into thought.
Of course, he'd heard of the ill-nurtured dislike of the first and second classes by the third. That they held the privileged classes responsible for everything lacking in their own lives. Finger pointing and nothing more. Except, Mathias knew, that it were true. That all the talk of the privileges' able efforts of supporting the people, who would have no other choice but to forage like animals if not for the elites' intellect and knowledge, was a bunch of nonsense.
But, no, he wasn't like that…
He wasn't like his father. He wasn't Jörg Kramer.
But, he also couldn't openly speak out against such accusation. Condemn his father, a member of the wealthiest class and tied directly with the Royal Government, in public. There were rumors of people disappearing, even members of the privileged classes, overnight for bad-mouthing men like his father. Whispers of men in dark clothing, and it was only because he was his father's son that he knew their name: the First Interior. Though, even being Jörg Kramer's son wouldn't save him, and so, he had to keep his mouth shut lest he find himself far from home—farther than he was already—in a dungeon deep and dark or yet worse.
Only… only inasmuch as this plan to retake Shiganshina placing Quinta on hold, the thinking matched his father's. Or, rather, it was probable that his father had played an important part in drafting the plan and seeing it in motion. It was very likely that whatever they'd really been discussing in his study involved it. If nothing else, which supplies would be provided by which associations and to which theater. But, most of all, most in line with Jörg Kramer, head of the Kramer Merchant Association, was that he'd chosen to keep his son in the dark, already confining him to a dungeon of his own making.
Thanking the three men for their time, drifting away from the line, he passed by the end of it, then abruptly stopped. He couldn't do anything to help the refugees, he couldn't publicly go against his father, but... he that didn't mean he couldn't still try.
Chapter 3 illustration by Tatong on DeviantArt
The sun had set, and lights began to flicker through windows.
Mathias' fear was that they might announce they were done for the evening. This didn't happen—instead his turn came around faster than he'd anticipated, and the two Garrison soldiers, who weren't the same as he first saw, working in shifts, and the Military Police soldier, who continued to stand, told him and one other to come up. A bonfire crackled behind the three soldiers, casting harrowing shadows over their features and a vibrant, orange light over that of Mathias and his fellow volunteers.
The sullen-faced of the two with striking white hair—he couldn't have been much older than his own father, though in far better shape—dealt with the man beside him, while the younger, uninterested looking one dealt with Mathias himself. The slight redness of the younger soldier's nose was perhaps the result of regular drinking.
"Name, age, previous employment, health issues." The younger soldier didn't look up from his papers.
"Kramer, Mathias. Nineteen. Previous employment…" Mathias stumbled to an unwitting halt. How could he…? "Uh… assistant… bakery… A bakery assistant!" he lied. "No health issues."
"Uh huh. Okay, I guess you can help with some of the kitchen dut—"
"Did you say Mathias Kramer?" the Military Police soldier interrupted.
The Military Police soldier shared a side-glance with the older, white-haired Garrison one. The white-haired soldier then nodded, and his eyes went to Mathias; the younger Garrison soldier wasn't paying any attention.
"I'm sorry, but you'll need to go home."
Mathias' blood started to heat up. "Excuse me?"
"You're not qualified," the Military Police soldier added clearly.
"That… that doesn't make any sense!" Mathias shot back. "I'm obviously in better health than some of the other people who were just here! Even an old woman was before me, and you accepted her! So why won't—!"
"I'm afraid I can't say. You will need to leave the line."
It wasn't a suggestion.
His blood boiled and he opened his mouth to retort, then froze. His veins turned to ice, and he felt the furnace in his chest grow cold as it dawned on him—his father.
Reading his son's thoughts was nothing for the head of the Kramer Merchant Association. It wasn't a mystery, but a whisper in the dark. It was why this Military Police soldier was stationed here, both to help further sway the refugees signing up and also apprehend any notable persons attempting to blend in. Which meant that the instruction had been given to every recruitment post like this one: turn down Mathias Kramer's application. And with that, effectively ending his own plan of joining the campaign and traveling to Quinta, but also something else… something he dare not say aloud, as he nodded in begrudgement and took his leave.
… Something far more sinister.
And he dreaded what he believed it was and just how deeply embedded his father's role in it might be.
Chapter 6: Fake Smile
For the first time in a hundred years, Wall Maria, the outermost wall and the first line in humanity’s defense against the monsters at their door, fell, a great many people perished, and today, four days after, the sole thought in Historia’s mind was that nothing mattered. That nothing was the one, singular absolute in the world. The end. The book shut. Curtains closed. That being nothing meant everything, and looking down at her feet dangling off the carriage, watching the blood seep between her toes on that night again, four days earlier, the moment her life was nothing from the very beginning was the best in her entire thirteen years of existence. When, again, she saw those frightened eyes of her mother, with her pathetic attempts at struggling against the knife drawn across her throat, slicing so deep it carved straight to bone. When, again, she felt that warmth when in sprayed, violently striking a vital vein, as it rushed down her mother’s neck, drenching her clothes and soaking the ground beneath in crimson regrets, her final words cut short by her killer's blade. When, again, those final words, their intent clear, had been that one, defining thing that set Historia's mind at ease everytime she relived it in her head—she was the bastard child who shouldn’t have been born.
Now, gazing out at the farmland stretched out before her in all directions, far as her bright blue eyes could see, rows upon rows upon many stalks of wheat and barley and other grains swaying briskly in an evening breeze—territory within the confines of Wall Rose set aside for orphans in the unlikely event of Wall Maria’s fall—it meant that while her mother was little more than a whore, she herself who was nothing, meant everything. The only surviving daughter of her late father, the impoverished noble with a weak heart and only one drop to spare. A heart that had finally run dry the day the Wall fell. Who's actions were entombed in her memory forever, the same as her mother’s death, with his last act being to shield her from harm and send her away with a few parting words, lest his legacy, his secret, die then and there.
"Goin’ to sit there all day?" the man hired to move her from place to place that same night and at current—after one too many fights, after one too many bitten fingers and after one too many refusals to do what was what demanded, what was expected—had brought her to this place in the middle of nowhere, asked. Sweaty and reeking heavily of alcohol, he motioned her down. "This your stop. Come on, move it."
She glared at him and didn’t budge.
"I said move!" With a raised hand, he slapped her. Hard. Then, lifting her by a tuft of her blonde hair, he dragged her to the front of his carriage, behind the horses. "You'll learn one way or another." Taking a last swig of his bottle, he poured the few drops left down her throat and tossed it. “You’ll learn!”
She spat it out. The man’s rough hand caressed up her thigh, and she thought of her father's words as he clumsily tried unlacing her undergarments beneath her dress, punching her in the stomach out of frustration when he couldn't quite do it as her eyes went to the bottle he'd tossed away as he licked her cheek, groping her chest, her small fingers closing around it, because she knew what those words meant: that she was more than nothing.
Historia brought the bottle down as hard as she could on the side of his head. It shattered into a dozen dazzling shards and she picked up one of the larger ones and slashed his neck as he whimpered on the ground from the sudden blow. He made his last sighs in gurgles, grasping where she’d left the shard buried deep in his throat.
Staring at the body, she fastened her undergarments on again and inspected her hand.
Blood ran along the crevices of her palm.
She wiped her hand on her dress and turned to the horses, then to the farm. She looked down at the man again, back to the farm, then to the horses, and, managing to climb her way up onto the end of the carriage, crawled to the front and took the reins of both horses between slippery fingers. Unhooking the harnesses that bound them, she let them go and watched them glance around in confusion, awkwardly sliding onto the nearest one’s back and leaning forward. She wrapped her arms around its neck.
"Everything's going to be alright," she told it. "You're free now, so you can do whatever you want. You can go wherever you want." The other horse was already gone. "Your friend left you… you're all alone now…" Tears rolled down her cheeks. They tasted sweet. She tugged at its mane. "You're all alone with nowhere to go, but, you're free now so it doesn't matter. So go! Leave already!"
The horse just flung its head forward, then back, and threw her off—but, when she raised herself up, didn't attempt to run away. Instead, its tail swishing this way and that, the horse simply trotted over to the side of the dirt road and began chewing some wheat.
Historia laid her head back down, eyes on the drifting clouds above as she sobbed.
From here on, she had to forget herself. Who, and what, she was. Her father's first, last, and only words to her.
From here on, your name is Krista.
The tears wouldn't stop.
Because she was special.
Chapter 4 illustration by Tatong on DeviantArt
She named the horse Almond, after its color.
Since leaving the farm, Historia had gone a far distance, retracing the trail the carriage took, reaching the edge of a small village by midday. She didn't recall them ever passing by it, but she hadn't exactly been paying attention to anything other than her own thoughts the entire time and, drawing nearer, could hear the villagers up and about, working, toiling, slaving away. The thump and thud of hammers and nails on wood, the splashing of water and hoisting of buckets from wells, the flapping of clothes left out to dry, so unlike the stillness of the servant-tended ranch she was raised on, brimming with the hard work of everyday folk that was lost on someone like her.
Sliding from Almond's back, she led him over to a tree in the shade nearby. He plopped down, exhausted.
As she stroked his mane, now observing the villagers go about their daily tasks from afar, something swelled in her chest that she’d only felt when her mother's blood splattered her cheek: warmth. So, letting Almond lay, curiosity getting the better of her, Historia set her sights on one of the houses closest to her, furthest away from any equally curious eyes.
She went underneath one of its back windows and peeked inside.
Seeing a table set for evening supper, her stomach rumbled.
She hadn't eaten in the past few days and could smell the freshly baked bread from where she was hiding. Gulping, she moved away from the window because, regardless of how hungry she was, lingering any longer was risky. She especially didn't want to be around in case that man's body had been found, as the only thing between here and there was the plain, everyday, unassuming countryside. Though, just as she was about to slip away, a slumping, groggy-eyed girl with long, red-brown hair came into view, and, keeping against the window, Historia held her breath as the girl opened it further, yawned, grumbled to herself, then left. She waited until her feet pattering across the floor were distant, and, slowly, started back before something else happened. That was when she saw the girl leave out a door from the house, carrying a bucket.
She gulped, again.
That's right, she hadn't drank anything in the past few days, either. Her mouth was dry as a bone.
She looked after the girl as she disappeared around a bend. It lead into a forest, and though she thought of following her, there was already a well not far away with a bucket and rope already set up. Approaching it, she glanced around.
Quickly, quietly, she pulled on the lever. The bucket dropped with a hollow thud and dark crash, and she peered down at it in splinters at the well's bottom. The well was empty, and realizing the noise it must’ve made, one of the villagers—that other girl—probably heard it. She reared back. She had to get out of sight before someone ca—
Bumping into someone, they cleared their throat, the rim of their hat blocking out not nearly enough of the sun, angled just enough to blind her, prevent her from seeing clearly and making a fast get-away without stumbling, as Historia peered up into an old woman's wrinkled, sun-kissed face.
… Too late.
"That one's no good," the old woman said with a slight hoarseness to her voice. "Better off comin’ inside and takin’ what I have stored there."
Watching her go, Historia noticed that the old woman was heading straight for the same house the other girl had come from and proceeded to panic. She turned to run, eyes down, the sun behind her, but the old woman called out, reaching her before she could. With a grip strong as iron, the old woman took her by the wrist and dragged her to the house. As she stepped inside, Historia glanced back to where Almond was.
"Your horse is gonna be fine. I already gave him some water and an apple after you'd came sneaking over. Don't worry about him right now,” the old woman assured. She led her to that same table she'd been eyeing earlier and sat her down, then went to a counter, poured a cup of water, and offered it to her.
Taking the cup with her good hand, Historia hid the other underneath the table. She drank it with hesitation. The old woman didn’t seem to have any intentions of hurting her, or worse, though she could never be too careful, and when she was finished, the old woman gave a tilt of her chin at the concealed hand.
"Let me see it."
Historia laid it on the table, palm side down. She realized that if the old woman did, it’d have already happened.
"Flip it over."
She did as told.
Grabbing a cloth and a bottle of what could only be a strong alcohol because of its smell—she knew it well—the old woman firmly held her hand down. For all her strength, her harshness, she went over the cuts and wiped away dirt and dried blood with extreme care, rubbing it in with a gentleness that was surprising. Then, she sighed as she began wrapping the cloth around it. "Young girls shouldn't behave so recklessly. I’m still makin’ today’s bread, but I’ve some leftover from yesterday. It's still safe to eat. Otherwise, it’ll be for the livestock."
Historia watched the old woman get up and go get some.
"Why are you being so kind to me?" she immediately asked when the old woman brought it over and sat back down.
"My own selfishness." The old woman didn't hesitant and ruffled her hair gently. "My daughter, you resemble her..."
"Your... daughter...?" Looking down at the table, she now noticed it was actually set for three, and then turned her attention over to the door.
"No, not who you're thinkin’ of," the old woman said with a coarse, though sincere chuckle. After a moment, she continued. "My daughter is much older—joined the Scouts before Maria fell. Hasn't been home since, the ungrateful child..." She chuckled again. "No, that one’s Achi. She's… been through a lot.” Reaching over and ruffling her hair again, the old woman gave her a smile. "And I know that you have, too. I can see it in that face you're makin’. Saw you comin’ down earlier, and figured ‘ ah, here comes another one… ’ So… naturally, I suppose... "
Eyes going to her hand still on the table, Historia had no words. She didn't have anything to say. She didn't know what to say, as the atmosphere between them began to part and the silence grew; she didn't know what it meant to feel that way for another person. Let alone, a stranger she just met. For someone as caring and kind as this old woman appeared to be, she herself was—She felt the old woman’s hand on her head fall away, and looked back over.
"My daughter…" There were now tears in the corners of the old woman's eyes. "... They burn the bodies, you know that? Could just be ash by now... and I wouldn't even know." But, through the tears, in those eyes, was nothing except pride. "She's alive," she continued saying, fiercely. "Otherwise, I’d know… ain’t any Titans worse than me, after all."
Searching the old woman's face, Historia placed her own bandaged hand over one of hers. It was covered in calluses. "I believe she is... has to be…" She looked into her eyes; eyes so full of what she’d never received from her own mother nor her father nor from anyone else. "Can I... stay here a bit longer, before I move on...?"
The old woman nodded. "Of course. I wouldn't have let you say no for an answer, anyway." She wiped her tears away, all hint of heartfelt emotion of the past buried down deep again. Locked in a cage only she could open. "My name is Isolde. Isolde Lenz."
Her father's words coming back to her, Historia nuzzled her head into the old woman's shoulder, squeezing her hand tighter, and returned her smile. "Krista."
"Welcome to your new home, Krista."
A smile that was all too fake for her own good.
Because she was better. One of a kind.
Art by shinidei on DeviantArt
Chapter 7: A Girl Had A Name
The girl had no way of knowing how long she’d been here, in this place, but the sun had risen into the sky and sunk beneath the earth several times since, this shelter of light that she remembered now was something called a church. In that time, she’d gathered enough twigs, branches, and other usable materials to build a fire, intending to keep warm and instead leaving it unlit to spend her newfound freedom simply gazing up at the stars. Those twinkles of bright white fighting against the night that attempted to swallow it, snuff it out and plunge everything in darkness, through the hole in the ceiling.
She often found herself looking to the brightest, most brilliant one, reciting and repeating words learned so long ago, once forgotten and now returned. Words she couldn’t yet place, from whom and from where—much like the rest of her past. Who she was, where she was from. Though, as with these letters, words, and phrases which slowly came back to her, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, so too would they. Her strength was also returning and, gradually, her battered body, her cold and beaten bones, would fully heal. For some reason still unknown to her the girl knew that she couldn't stay here and would have to continue on. To keep moving still, as the voice inside her head kept telling her, a constant faint whisper in her ear.
Tonight was the night. The fire was finally lit. She stared into its heart, watching its flames lick the air and devour the wood, again reciting and repeating those words learned so long ago as wisps of light danced and disappeared and embers fell to the ground. That, while words held meaning, names—names held power. They were undying labels, etched on the actions of the past, present, and future. A representation of who you are and what you were; your identity to the rest of the world until the end of time.
So, then, what was hers?
The girl lumbered back inside the church, glancing up at the beginning of a cloudy, grey morning before settling underneath the podium the same as she’d done her first night and every night since.
Closing her eyes, she thought of that voice in her head, the one which told her to keep moving, to get up and march. March until her feet were sore, eyes straight ahead, facing front. March until she couldn’t march anymore. It wasn’t gentle any longer, but, cruel and harsh and it shouted, like before, at them, at her, warning them that if they didn’t advance, that their superiors would do worse things to them than their enemies ever could. No, on the contrary, to be killed by the enemy would be a blessing. She remembered it over the hum and drop of the shells, over the bullets whizzing past her head, the screams of dying children all around, and that whistle blowing in her ear. With it came the sight, smell, and feeling of the ground, muddy, blood-drowned, and ridden with holes. The sweat on her brow, rolling down her cheek. The stink of gunpowder, emptied bowels, and dead bodies. Of her dirty uniform, the rifle in her small hands grasped tight with knuckles white.
She tried to put a face to the voice, but couldn’t—her head still hurt something horrible when she did—and got out from under the podium, deciding to take a walk away from the church and into the wilderness, thinking that by retracing her steps she might more easily make sense of the things which assaulted her mind—these scarlet flashes of pain, and her past which accompanied them.
Her journey of self-discovery led her to the entrance of a forest, its trees so enormous they seemed to touch the stars themselves. The trees appeared wicked. Looming, misshapen tawn tower-gates blocking passage to the secrets that lay inside. The girl peered beyond them into the forest’s heart, seeing only blackness. She felt her chest tighten, a rumble in her heart in anticipation at what might be waiting inside. She dare not risk it, but, again, the voice told her otherwise, that her past would only come to light if she plunged into the dark and dragged it out herself. That she had to go forward, keep moving, ever onward, until the land disappeared beneath her feet and there was nowhere left to be.
Thus, she stepped in that dark, glancing up at the luminous twilight through the canopy of the trees, casting silver pools of light upon the ground she now trod, highlighting the many shadows surrounding her, and within a grove not far ahead, she saw them clearly that which she never wanted to be again, their eyes shut and bodies still. Slumbering. She approached one of them. The rumble in her heart became quiet, the girl thinking of her own ugliness, of what she'd been and what she still was, deep down, as the voice in her head grew louder, telling her to put her hand upon it, but not why. Anything might happen, or nothing at all, the alternative being to stay her hand, leave this place, and never learn what she wanted most. She didn’t have much of a choice. Holding out her hand, she touched its skin, leathery and warm, and kept it there, waiting for something to happen. Anything, or nothing at all.
Until, she saw it: a light. A pale orange light outside her peripheral vision, and her head turned so her eyes could take in the full view. A line of wire at the edge of the grove, half-concealed in the forest’s dark and half-revealed in the moon's light. Twisted, haphazard, barbs of razor-sharp, skin-sticking steel wires, and peering closer, all of them were trampled, their frames flattened against the earth as faint flickering flames smoldered just beyond them and wisps of smoke rose to the sky.
The girl took a hesitant step toward the wires, careful not to remove her hand from the flesh, when there was a hum in the air, turning the quiet in her heart dead silent, and she abruptly stopped. The sound had come from the flames, deeper in the forest. Deeper in the dark.
She waited. For anything, or nothing at all.
The hum became louder, and more intense, and with it, footsteps. Sloshing, heavy beats upon the ground. Each footstep falling with a distinct purpose, a harrowing, impetus rhythm, toward her. Her silent heart sunk down into the depths of her gut, her insides swimming around as she fought to keep it down. Her breath caught in her throat, and she suffocated in that silence, the hum a roaring pain to her ears, the footsteps so close she could hear the jostle of bodies, side by side, and the rattle of weapons, rifles, pressed against their shoulders. Afraid, she dared pull her hand from the monster though the hum was still there. The footsteps were still there. Get closer, and closer, and she looked down at herself, to the rifle in her small, shaking hands, and her dirty, mud-covered, blood-smeared uniform, again. The bodies, ridden with red. Broken, bullet-eaten children festering with worms and maggots and torn apart by hungering beasts and all manner of other telling signs of prolonged death and decay. Half-bodies, half-skeletons, limbs and torsos and heads sunk into the earth, sodden and soaking in scarlet. She looked back up. The shadows beyond the wires became the lines of human shapes, and she raised the rifle, instinctively, expertly, and fired at them, and reloaded, and fired, and reloaded, and fired, until it clicked. Until her rounds were spent, and then the smoke cleared, and she saw even more bodies littering the ground. Approaching one, fresh with wounds, face down in the mud, she turned it over with the butt of her rifle, and her eyes widened. Her mouth opened, and she screamed.
And then the world, her world, became dark.
The girl woke up with a start, the harsh light of the late morning blinding her as she sat up, hands resting in her lap, head down. She coughed blood. Crimson spittle fell from her mouth. She wiped it away and looked around. The things, these monsters, no, these Titans, were thankfully gone. They hadn't noticed her presence.
Standing up, she yawned, stretched, then made her way back to the ruined church and to the statues. She stopped, gave them one look over, then moved on to the podium.
Angels. They were called angels.
Spinning around to the rest of the place behind her, she let out a tiny laugh and didn't give them or any of it a second thought as she walked outside into the world. A new world. A different world, because, laughing even louder now, she knew what it was—what she had been waiting and searching for until now. The girl mouthed it as pleasant, hot tears streamed down her cheeks.
Words hold much. They have meaning, but names—names have power. There is power to be found in a name. They are undying labels, etched on the actions of us, the living and the dead and yet to be born, the sins of the past, present, and future; a representation of who you are and what you were; your identity to the rest of the world until the end of time.
And her name?
Her name was Ymir.
And it was time for her to keep moving.
Chapter 8: Mathias
Mathias was having trouble sleeping.
One week had gone by since Shiganshina’s fall and Quinta’s isolation and not for one minute had he stopped thinking about it until this night, a seething anger encroaching upon his thoughts where Rita previously walked, keeping him awake and unable to shut his eyes for very long. Anger, at his father for having made a preemptive move, for having seen through him—at having allowed himself to be so simple to read. Tonight no dream of any kind came to him and he stared at the ceiling with furrowed brows deliberating how to proceed before he eventually sat up because his patience was spent, what little he'd held onto.
Fuerth was on higher ground than Quinta and those other Districts along Wall Maria, the Walls built upon slanted earth with the Royal Capital, Mitras, the seat of the Royal Government and home to King of the Walls himself, being the highest. This meant the air was colder, and more-so the further into the Interior on the opposite end of Wall Rose the air which was even colder still, at its coldest in those Districts in the north—but no amount of a cold night was enough to quell his fiery heart, as he swung his feet to the floor and pushed his toes into frosty slippers. Lighting a candle, he left for some fresh air, hoping a quick walk might help settle him.
Coming down to the staircase, slivers of light trailed from the door to his father’s chamber and he paused when he heard his name spoken aloud.
Careful not to make a noise, Mathias got as close as he dared to the door. The voice on the other side, hoarse and disconcerting, almost sounding strangled because of the fat around his neck, was most definitely his father’s. Like himself, his father hadn’t visited Fuerth for a long time, so it was possible he’d forgotten that the walls of the house, while a bit thicker than the Districts to the south, Quinta and Shiganshina and the rest, weren’t as thick as they were at their mansion. And, as though compelled by the sound of his name, Mathias stayed to listen.
“But why? Is there someone you care about?”
The voice that answered, he knew well. Lighter, a touch world-weary and saddened, it belonged to Suzanne and Mathias’ breathing stilled.
Since the loss of his wife, his father often shared his bed with her, and when he first discovered this—unbeknownst to the two of them—he'd had been incredibly uncomfortable. Not only was it was betrayal of his mother, but to think Suzanne would willingly degrade herself by being with his father, it was unfathomable. His father was a terrible person, and also on the heavier side. Suzanne, on the other hand, was thin. How they made that work was up to imagination because he really didn’t want to find out. His stomach churned just thinking about it, and the only reason he hadn’t confronted Suzanne about it in private was the very fact that she wouldn’t lay with the kind of man his father was without having a reason of her own. She loathed him far more than even Mathias himself did. So he understood that there must be a reason, a purpose behind her decision that was a long time in the making, and as of this moment it finally appeared to be paying off... Making him want to gag.
“Not really. Well, there are some acquaintances, yes. And people are more important than anything else, that goes without saying—but I left certain items behind, too.”
“I showed them to you before. The artworks. There was no time to haul them out, so I was forced to leave them behind.”
“... Are they so valuable?”
“A significant fortune, but nothing compared to the whole. I brought everything in the way of tender. And I’ve always kept the majority of my assets here in the Interior.”
“So this is a simple question of attachment?”
Mathias broke into a sweat, his heart pounding hard and fast upon realizing what artwork his father referred to: numerous pieces of old, indistinguishable art, stored away in the basement. To call them significant was an understatement for anyone besides Jörg Kramer. They were worth a fortune, and extremely valuable to the history of the Walls. He’d only known about them himself because of his countless explorations of the mansion with Rita. At the time he’d thought nothing of them, just a lot of dusty canvases like all the others adorning the walls throughout the mansion. Though, it was only until much later when inkling of their true worth came to his attention, during a once-in-a-lifetime visit to the Royal Capital to meet with the King at his throne. He remembered seeing similar pieces behind him, hung upon the wall. He asked the King’s adviser about them, and she said they were part of a larger mural, the missing paintings believed to have been lost long ago and extremely valuable if ever recovered. Except, no, they were being hoarded by one of the wealthiest men within the Walls for years. And his father had left them back at the mansion in Quinta. And Suzanne… It must be what she was after.
But the question was why.
It took quite a lot for a man like his father to open up about himself, let alone anything having to do with his fortune. A lot of time, and patience. A lot of trust. And Suzanne accomplished exactly that. For years, she was softening his father’s heart in order to slip in and take the artworks when the opportunity presented itself, then sell them to the highest bidder. What better way was there for artwork like those? It only mattered to whom they were offered, and what to ask for in return.
… At least that’s all Mathias could think of as a reason.
But the question of why still remained, and he continued running plausible explanations through his head, wondering if there was anything he might’ve missed her doing. Any idea why she might be doing this in the first place, and that he wasn’t just hoping it to be true because he desperately wanted to go back to Quinta himself to find Rita and, if possible, bring her back with him. And Henning and Doris—her adoptive parents—as well. But for that he’d need a horse. Otherwise he couldn’t hope to outrun the Titans. Not on foot. Which was why he decided to join that line: to volunteer on the off-chance that he’d get access to one. Yet his father had made it certain he’d never be accepted. So, his only option was either to steal a horse with little chance of success, or, now, if Suzanne was truly not who she seemed, as ridiculous as that sounded after her being such a constant presence in his life from when he was a young boy without a hint of it—or just that she kept it so well hidden—that he might offer her a deal. Or, no. Perhaps he was letting his own resentment of his father cloud his perceptions and Suzanne was innocent. That she really went willingly to her father’s chamber to help him heal. He knew that Suzanne’s life hadn’t been a happy one. She was an orphan, like Rita, and, from what little she talked of her past, a lot of her youth was spent in Mitras, in the Underground. Rough, indeed. And, if that were the case, then he couldn’t ask her to suffer more because of his own selfishness.
But, again, if he didn’t try, then he would be stuck here, never knowing if Rita was safe.
And that was something he wasn’t ready to let go of.
Thus, the next night, wearing the plainest clothes he could manage to find, here he was at the entrance to a tavern in a more inconspicuous part of the District, having followed Suzanne after she’d officially retired for the day. Tucked away deep within a spider’s web of back alleys, many of which led to deadends, the tavern was far away from his father’s house and the Garrison barracks. Far away from prying eyes, and only further proof that his suspicions about Suzanne were correctly placed.
He hesitated at the entrance, though this only lasted a few seconds because whatever awaited inside surely couldn’t compare to the Titans as the din and heat seared out the moment he opened the door.
Abnormally hot inside with enough vapor and smoke to obscure anyone from clear sight, the inside was larger than he’d expected. From what he could see, most of the seats were occupied by uniformed men. It was a hangout for soldiers, but the kind of that attracted less savory types. Somewhere where it was common to get drunk and make noise and not to enjoy quick-witted conversation or lengthy debate. Which made Suzanne and the shady individual in the corner of the room all the more conspicuous when he finally spotted them. It begged the question if they were actually attempting to be discreet or if it was intentional and they knew he’d follow her. Which meant he had a role to play in their plans than he hadn’t anticipated. But, either way he wasn’t about to back out now.
He looked around some more. He didn’t know where to sit, even whether he was supposed to choose a seat of his own or one of the servers would see to that. None of them had spared him a glance. So, he decided to move farther in. If it was a trap, so be it. If it meant the chance to see Rita again, gladly, situating himself in the middle of the establishment.
By putting himself right in the thick of it, he hoped that by blending in none would be the wiser. That Suzanne wouldn’t recognize him, now seated in his perpetual vision and, with his head turned slightly toward them, he saw that the man’s back was pressed against the wall, the hat on his head tilted down, masking any distinguishable features, and while he couldn’t hear what the two of them were discussing over the noise, Mathias assumed it was about the artworks.
Glancing over at a table where some men were gambling, glaring at the cards in their hands, Mathias thought of joining in to blend in even further—only he hadn’t the faintest idea how to play, and after a time, observing, waiting, listening, one of these men closest shared a look with him. The stink of booze wafted over. Then, the man clicked his tongue and went back down to his cards as if Mathias didn’t exist. He waved his hand at one of the servers with turning around. The server, skin-headed and muscular, nodded. Mathias did the same before the server left, seeing him give a second nod. Hunkering down at his table, though much of his free time after Rita left was spent in establishments such as this, the majority had been a great deal more… sophisticated. Quieter. He felt like a lost child. Soon, he heard a whistle, and turned to the sound, spotting the server he’d flagged down from earlier sending him an expectant look from behind the bar.
“Ale!” he shouted, but the surrounding racket drowned him out. The server raised a hand to his ear and Mathias pointed at the table of men playing cards and then back at himself. The server gave another nod and walked off, presumably to get his order.
Hoping that would do, Mathias surveyed the tables around him again, this time taking note of a man—a Garrison soldier with cropped hair, thick eyebrows, and thicker mustache—at a game of dice. Appearing to be out of luck, he was banging copper and silver coins on the table continuously. These coins were relentlessly scooped up by the other players, his fellow soldiers, and as he continued to guzzle drink after drink, firing off mumbled slurs at them, the servers, and anyone else who caught his attention, they grew more confident and more reckless. It was only until all of them put down large sums of money that the trap was set and truth revealed when his next turn came: he’d been his faking his bad luck the whole time. Sure enough, he rolled and got the highest almost every single time until he controlled the game and the other players quit one by one. In the end, he sat there with the biggest pile of copper and silver coins and most empty cups of alcohol Mathias had ever seen excluding his father’s expenses. Also, with the man’s deception in mind, Mathias doubted he'd ever really been drunk, either. And so engrossed in the man’s winnings was he when he happened to look back to where Suzanne and other man sat that both of them were gone.
The server came by with his order then, and as soon as he left, Mathias slumped forward in his seat, staring into his cup.
Afterwards, Mathias still sat in the tavern, a bit tipsy from one too many ales. He couldn’t go back just yet, not without coming up with a proper way to confront Suzanne about everything. Furthermore, given the time of night, she’d likely noticed his absence and informed his father, who hadn’t even batted an eyelash, and was currently staying up to wait for him. The longer he stuck around here, the higher chance he’d receive a scolding from her because of course his father hadn’t the time nor any of the other servants would dare. Only Suzanne, and Rita, had ever gotten on him for his behavior outside of any business-related happenings, the sole times his father ever did it himself. Which, were few and far between.
He couldn’t think of anything besides Rita again and put his head down on the table. Staring blankly at the wall, he needed to relieve himself. So he pushed himself up from the table and started for the washroom, but his knees buckled underneath him and he dropped to the floor, retching. It wasn’t until a dozen haggard, shallow breaths later that he realized it, and by that time he was on the dirty ground outside the tavern and not the wooden floor inside—they’d kicked him out for being too drunk.
Managing to prop himself upright, he slumped against a wall trying to stand only to slide back down, and after two more of these attempts, strained his eyes against the morning sun through a cloudy sky to finally rest his chin on his chest with a sigh of defeat. His clothes were stained in vomit. He’d more to drink that originally thought, and after a short while his head felt something terrible. He cradled it in his hands. When it cleared enough to wonder just how long he’d been out, he heard a voice above him.
“... Ah?” Through teary eyes, Mathias peered up at a tall, older man in uniform. It took him a moment, but he recognized him as the same one who’d won that dice game earlier.
“Mathias Kramer, I presume?”
The old soldier proffered a hand.
Wondering if he was actually hallucinating because the longer he looked at the old soldier’s face the younger he seemed, Mathias stared at it, unsure if he should take it. Partly out of mistrust. Partly out of being hungover. He appeared to be around fifty, but Mathias would’ve believed were in his thirties if someone told him even with his cropped hair being silver and streaked with white. The mustache made it hard to guess his age. Though, one thing was certain: he was the most powerfully build old man Mathias had ever seen. And more to the point…
—How did this old man know who he was?
Had his father asked the Garrison to search for him?
“Nice work, boss.”
Another soldier appeared from behind. Middle-aged, and equally well built. He wore a big grin. Mathias was immediately under the impression he was always smiling. Two more soldiers filed in behind him. They wore brand-new uniforms. One was a boy who looked around the same age as himself. The other was younger—no, a young woman.
He was beginning to feel confused and shook his head. He really did have too much to drink, hadn’t he?
“Come on, lad! To your feet!” The old soldier extended his hand further.
With nothing else to do, Mathias clasped hold of it and let himself be pulled up. He was still a little dizzy and wobbled, putting his hand on the wall to steady himself.
“... How do you know who I am?” he said after he felt his feet beneath him again.
“How do I know?” The old soldier glanced back. The middle-aged soldier was still grinning, while the boy his age was coldly looking away and the young woman gave him a narrow eyed once-over. Perhaps they were part of a search party. Perhaps they’d seen his father’s notice. Perhaps they’d been watching when he got ejected. Except, the old soldier’s tone and expression suggested he’d known who Mathias was since a long time before—but Mathias didn’t recognize him in the slightest. Not in that way. “How would I not know the scion of the renowned Kramer Merchant Association? It was clear the moment I saw you wander in!”
… Mathias backed up a half-step. This old soldier had not only been outsmarting those other players at dice, but kept his eye on him without drawing attention? Without him noticing it?
And if the old soldier noticed his growing suspicion now, it didn’t show. “The abundant intellect! The oozing refinement! Ill-matched for a cesspool like this!” He indicated at the tavern’s sign above its entrance. Then, suddenly, his head swung closer and half-whispered into his ear. “Which brings me to my next question: you’re in possession of some rather hefty information?”
This time Mathias backed up to the wall. If his suspicions had previously gone unnoticed—which he highly doubted—they were clear now. He couldn’t make the same mistake twice. Surely this was his father’s doing. He’d found out about him eavesdropping about the artworks, and send these soldiers to apprehend him. Unless… Taking a closer inspection of their uniforms. They seemed awfully familiar with the way of the world, and, despite their air of having witnessed many battles, all four just had simple marks on their collars. The same as Rita, who, though on her shoulders was the white stripe, the rank of a team leader, had no actual combat experience. At least not when he’d last seen her. But, these four, they had it in abundance.
He swallowed. “Who are you, really ?”
The old soldier spread his arms out. The middle-aged soldier continued to grin though it now appeared more like a smirk. The boy tutted. And the young woman scoffed.
“Oh, we’re just a group of humble volunteers. Who have only just gotten their uniforms. Though, I can assure you, we’re a fair amount more pliable than regular soldiers,” the old soldier said, casting a look over his shoulder and exchanging a knowing smile with the middle-aged soldier. When he turned back, it was still there along with another hand, except this time he forced it into Mathias’ own. “Call me Bernhardt. A good name, wouldn’t you say? Nothing like yours, but it does have a certain… dignified charm to it.”
Mathias was inclined to argue. Though, the only thing he could do was run. With his heart in his throat, he pushed the old soldier away and barreled through the other three, stumbling over before picking himself up again and making a mad dash out the alleyway, hearing the old soldier holler after him as he rounded a corner and into the web in his flight to make it back to the house.
“... We’ll be waiting!”
And he didn’t like the sound of it one bit.
When he made it back to the house, Suzanne was there waiting for him but not his father, as he’d expected. Though, instead of suffering through her flurry of questions or getting straight into the events of the previous night, who she might be, what she was doing, the artworks, he climbed the stairs and shut himself in the guestroom and locked the door.
Heaving against it, his heart fell back down into his chest and he took a deep breath. His hands were shaking. His body was burning up. He felt sick, and it wasn’t because of the hangover anymore.
… Who were those people? The shady individual Suzanne had been talking to? Suzanne herself? His father’s schemes behind the scene? Just what had he truly gotten himself involved in? Something was going on and he had a continuous, sinking, dark feeling that it was far bigger than the issue currently taking place in Quinta and maybe even the breach of Wall Maria and fall of Shiganshina themselves.
Suzanne - Main Servant of the Kramer family & tutor of Mathias
Chapter 9: Cattle
Rita thought of her childhood friend, Mathias. A scene from their youth together, seven to eight, exploring his family’s estate with one of his family’s servants, Suzanne, accompanying them so they didn’t break anything as their fathers were busy discussing matters in private. It was the first day they’d met, having quickly became attached not because they suited each other but because of circumstance, he an outgoing rich man's son and she the shy adopted daughter of his mother’s physician. His mother was physically ill, getting worse by the day with not much longer left to live and hers already deceased beyond the Wall. They had almost nothing in common except loss, and through their loss they’d stuck together during those tough times and she touched the pendant he gifted her kept high around her neck. Part of a matching set, it was a soothing reminder that someone, somewhere out there, would always be there for her. Would always share the same pain, the same comfort, and that together they’d be stronger for it. It was her light in the dark and she held onto it dearly atop her position on one of the more intact buildings within the outlying town, overlooking the aftermath of the failed evacuation.
She sorely hoped Mathias was safely beyond this nightmare, as the repulsive aroma of scorched wood and charred flesh wafted up from what remained, watching one soldier pulling what they believed to be a person from a ruined house closer to the gate, only to discover in dismay that it’d only been their lower half, the streets dotted with countless holes and craters from all the cannon fire as her attention went back to the task at hand.
Titans still clawed at the gate, though there were fewer of them since the week prior, a great number having lost interest and wandered off to who-knows-where within the territory. Thus, with the initial rioting within the city over, the Titans in the single digits, it being safer to begin a sweep for survivors now, all able-bodied members of Quinta’s Garrison and the 103th Trainee Corps unlucky enough to have been stationed in this District and not dealing with clean-up in the District itself were ordered to do their part. They were currently on day five. The number of survivors totaled zero.
A sigh escaped her lips.
As for the task of clearing out the Titans still harassing them with the more experienced members of the Garrison—that is to say, all rookies able to stare up at a Titan and not soil their pants immediately, of which there weren’t many, after that disaster of an evacuation—why, she could count them on her fingers—it was slow going and she glanced back at the gate, its iron plates covered in dark, dried blood, still not entirely certain why they’d put her in command than simply for the fact she was officially the highest ranking member of the Garrison left alive in the entire District. Which, what did that matter if no one listened to her? Amanda would've been the better choice, by far.
In the first week after being trapped, she and the rest of the military was forced to stand by as the people looted and ransacked every abandoned shop in Quinta. Hence their current situation. And, now, the District was quickly dividing itself between the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd class citizens, each sectioning off and claiming specific portions as “theirs”, forming their own vigilantes and policing them and almost entirely ignoring the military’s presence that, in their minds, had failed to protect them, and were thus also incapable of maintaining any semblance of law and order in the isolated District. Amanda would've already squashed this growing problem and restored order and Rita rubbed her pendant between her fingers, wondering just how long it’d take Amanda to recover.
Two years ago, she’d been made a team leader with Amanda as her second, but everyone knew Amanda was more talented, more suited for such a role, especially now, when leadership was needed the most with only her brash behavior when working with others having kept her from the promotion back then, and Rita’s gut twisted as her grip tightened around her pendant, smothering it in her palm, its rounded edges pushed into her skin. Her frown curled back into a snarl. Amanda had suffered a concussion and her father suggested she stay bedridden for some time more, and yet… she... No. Amanda saved her life. She should be grateful, but it also felt like a punishment, being forced into the position of acting commander when she didn’t have the same cadence in her step, no authority in her voice, stumbling over her words as she did her boots, standing shorter than most her age, with even more child-like features. Amanda was her opposite, her rival, the exemplar anyone in their right mind should follow, while Rita herself was the one always seen behind. Hiding, in their shadow. The quiet and meek little girl, tugging at her father’s legs too afraid to show her face.
Her hand relaxed. Her expression softened. Her gut untwisted. Her heart sank.
Amanda. Amanda was her best friend, and if she wanted to take control of the situation, live up to her example, be the one others would follow, that would have to change; she would have to change. And without Mathias here to keep her warm nor Amanda to keep her safe, it meant in order to change she needed to start making the tough decisions too and not just the easy ones. No more being ignored. No more letting things go. No more hiding. No more being afraid. No more searching for survivors they’d never find. Because, for Quinta’s Garrison, the 103th Trainee Corps, the citizens within the District, loss was the one thing all of them had in common now, and it was time to grow up.
The District hall was completely deserted. As silent as a graveyard. Before the reality of their situation had completely sunken in, and in an attempt to quell the mounting unrest of those citizens now corralled like cattle in Quinta and scrambling into their own factions, Rita had come here in the hopes to find anything that might be useful, seeing that all the officials who would otherwise be navigating their current circumstances were gone—not a single one remained in the entirety of the District—and, so, it’d somehow fallen on her shoulders to be the person to do something about it. Looking up the marble stairs of the building, one of the trainees she’d brought with her remarked about the silence, how it was weird to see the once busy hall abandoned.
Ducio was his name. The trainee she’d put in charge of the others, and her temporary second-in-command. He was young, fifteen years old, but promising as a leader. More promising than her, anyway.
When she failed to appreciate the bigger picture after the first day because of Amanda, Ducio had been the one to rally the others in the commander’s absence and convinced her to leave her best friend’s side to lead them to take over what little authority they ended up having over Quinta’s survivors. He believed in her ability even if she hadn’t at the time, and this gave her all the greater reason to change. To be the example. Though it only added to the mounting pressure and, as they climbed the marble stairs to the top, each step she took was heavy. By the time they reached it, she was exhausted even though she shouldn’t have been. Like she’d just climbed a hundred steps up a mountain path with stones in her backpack during the Trainee Corps and not just a few dozen with nothing on her shoulders. And even though they’d reached the top the steps continued on, the mountain path was hidden in mist and fog. The white wisps of things yet to come. Rita pulled on the collar of her uniform, almost as if she were choking due to the lack of air. Behind her, she could hear Ducio casually talking with the other two trainees in their group as she slowed her breathing and waited for her anxiety to subside, keeping her focus solely on her boots.
They had dry bloodstains.
Wilco’s blood, whose unrecognizable, bloated body they’d pulled down and burned only two days prior. Two days. It should’ve been two weeks . She couldn’t get the image of his corpse on the pyre, his belly bursting like an overcooked sausage and the stench of his ripened guts mixing in with the smell of his flesh peeling away and what was left of his bones became flakes of dust in the first of many funerals they’d set alight that day—at least for the bodies that were left whole—out of her mind. And for the many that weren’t, regurgitated by the Titans in saliva-covered sacks of fused meat and bone, mass pyres were built and after it was all said and done the ground was permanently black. Anyone who went to the site of the pyres, either to sweep the splinters or pay respect, came back stinking of death, the smell of which never truly went away no matter how many times they bathed. It clung to the skin, soaked into the fabric of clothes, and, yes, stained the mind forever.
But that was the past. A grim reminder that they needed to come together if they wanted to survive, and that it was up to her to see that realized.
Walking into the building after her first visit, up to its second floor and beyond to the tall-ceilinged hall which lead to the mayor’s office, after the riots and the ransacking, it was still relatively untouched. Looking back over the balcony from the hall where Ducio and two other trainees were waiting, the only thing on the first floor was the desk for general, day to day requests and inquiries of citizens. Nothing of value was behind it or in its drawers. As for the second floor she was currently on, it was reserved for the staff to go about their clerical duties and also, via the mayor’s office through the set of doors in front of her, overlooked the plaza the District hall presided over. She knew if there was anything worth looking for here, it would be there. Though, again, per last time, there’d been nothing. Only that large desk and obnoxiously larger chair, the bookshelves lining either side, and the window behind. No, she wasn’t here a second time for that. She was here to make this their new headquarters, and was thinking of how best to utilize the areas they had to work with within it.
Heading into the mayor’s office, she went to the window and stared down at the empty plaza and other surroundings.
“Where should we start?” Ducio was at the set of doors, the other two trainees at each shoulder behind.
Rita half-turned, seeing their eyes so full of expectation. The prospect of someone close to them becoming highly-influential, it seemed, also an exciting one while all she wanted, meanwhile, was to be liberated from the role. But, until then, from here, she would unite everyone and protect them, as was her duty as a member of the Garrison Regiment. No matter her personal reservations on the matter. For Wilco, for Amanda, for the commander, for that little girl she saved, her parents, and all the rest of them. If nothing else, she would become the leader they needed in such turbulent times, even if that meant she had to change.
“You, the commander? Really? I can hardly believe it.” Doris made a show of rolling her eyes.
That night, Rita sat with her parents at the dining table. Previously, her promotion to command had been unofficial, but once they cleared out the District hall and held a meeting, those who remained in the Garrison and 103rd Trainee Corps “officially” approved her capacity as their commander. Their acting commander, as she kept having to point out to her mother, who was looking at her like she’d just finishing banging her head on the table like when she was younger and entirely thick-headed. Her parents, Doris, especially, hadn’t been keen on the military keeping order before Wall Maria was breached, and certainly not after—the main reason being their apothecary.
For whatever reason, the commander—the previous commander—was always at odds with them. Always coming by to check and see how their business was going. At the time, Rita figured it was out of concern, but with everything she’d seen now, the world was full of surprises that could turn what she thought she knew upside down in an instant and her parents, the apothecary, weren’t excluded.
“For all the officials to flee like that, I still can’t believe it,” Henning said, sipping some after-dinner tea.
“Absolutely. And to think how they always acted so important.” Doris sipped her tea too and peered at Rita over the rim. “And now you’re doing their work? Well, what about the stockpiles—money, supplies? Do you know how much we have left?”
Rita shook her head.
“What about horses?” Henning asked.
“Less than twenty.”
The idea had floated around to send small groups out, earlier, before things got as bad as they were, but they’d decided against it in the hope that reinforcements from Fuerth would arrive. More than a week had passed since then. And even if they managed to clear the surrounding territories somehow, if they ran into the ones that were fast on their feet—those “aberrant” Titans—it was suicide. They’d be wiped out. Then there would be fewer horses, fewer soldiers, and fewer manpower within the District. Not to mention the citizens' lives. No, Rita knew what her father was thinking, but it wouldn’t work. As for supplies, with them running the apothecary unbeholden to any of the three sides, not only were their hands full tending to anyone who walked through their door, but their stock of bandages, medicine, herbs, and other ailments were dwindling rapidly day by day. It was a miracle that nobody thought to loot it overnight, but it was only a matter of time.
Glancing out the window, the world outside was shrouded in dark. Rita’s mind traveled back to the evacuation, and that was when her mother muttered to herself about the Kramers. Their thoughts seemed to be moving in the same direction. As Doris’ footsteps as she slipped into the kitchen, Rita would do everything within her power to keep Quinta safe—so that she could hold her head high when she saw Mathias again, before she got up from the dinner table herself and wished her parents goodnight and she went to bed.
It was a dream she used to have regularly, but with everything that’s happened, this was the first time in a while.
In it, she stood motionless in the doorway to a room she didn’t recognize. Sunlight streamed through the windows, but the room was eerily black. There was a table. Some chairs. Against the wall, the shadow of a person. A grown man. He was crouched down, huddled into a ball. Her vantage point was low, still a child, younger yet than when she and Mathias had first met. Gently, she placed a hand on the man’s back. It lacked any warmth. His face, she knew well. That she’d definitely seen somewhere before. One that she couldn’t bring to mind, the person it belonged to. This man. As if the memory of him had simply chosen to abandon her. The man cradled a wooden box in his arms. Leaning on it. Limp, perhaps even asleep. On the floor next to the man’s feet as a small vial about the size of her thumb. A few drops remained inside. A transparent liquid.
She shook him, but he didn’t wake.
Deep was his love for the wooden box.
And standing there, staring at the man against the floor in the dark, Rita could smell the faint stench of decay...
Art by Halimun Ali on ArtStation
Ducio - soldier in the Quinta Garrison Regiment & assistant of Rita Iglehaut
Chapter 10: Toll
Thorpe sat near the edge of Wall Sheena, close to the outlying District of Yarckel. Other than having to acquire fresh water from other sources during seasons of dry spell, usually from the forest not far away, it was self-sufficient. Almost everybody lived in self-build homes in a wide circle, each connected to a separate longhouses made primarily of wood, their floors lightly covered in hay or grass. The livestock and food were all located inside these longhouses, sectioned off from one another, maintained in rotating shifts by everyone in the village, young and old, and as a result the community was tight-knit. It kept stress down, work steady, and brought them closer day-by-day. Its main purpose was the raising of pigs, chickens, cows, and goats and the production of grains, stalks of wheat, barley, and others, with only the fattest and well harvested hauled off to the Interior, where the product was further processed foremost for those citizens within Mitras, the Royal Capital, then the leftovers distributed to everyone else in Wall Sheena, and last—and certainly the least of the Royal Government’s concern—whatever remained given to the residents in the Underground, all but forgotten by those living on the surface.
Before the fall of Wall Maria, it was one of several villages that provided primarily for Wall Sheena, but since its fall, resources—which were already scarce enough with the overcrowded population—were being stretched so thin now because two Walls were forced to provide for three, what survived, and had been somewhat before, and thus with so many “extra” mouths to feed, that Isolde said it was simply a matter of time until the Royal Government would take drastic measures; that they would probably send a number of the refugees from Maria’s fall somewhere else. Exile them, she’d said. Throw them to the wolves so they wouldn't have to worry about their already limited resources dwindling down to nothing in less than a year forward. In other words, the government plot that’d been on the tip of everyone’s tongue since Shiganshina.
This also meant that Thorpe and these other villages were working twice as fast, and producing twice as fast, to meet the needs of the people.
Currently, Historia was getting her bandage replaced after one of these laborious day’s normal events.
“It’s healin’ well,” Isolde said, peeking underneath the grimy bandage on her hand before gently unwrapping completely and setting it aside. There was a visible pink gash in the center of her palm, and Historia winced when Isolde wet it in alcohol. “But’ll leave a scar alright.”
Her mind flashed back to the drunken carriage driver, each sting of pain she felt like another slash at his throat until the new bandage was on and the pain subsided and the memory of his death faded, too. Soon enough, she was staring at his lifeless body on the dirt road, eyes wide and mouth agape, gazing back up in shock and surprise. No word had yet reached her ears of a body nor the carriage being found, but, rubbing her wrist as she brought her scarred hand closer toward her chest, she wondered how long she should continue to stay here.
The Fall of Maria was still fresh in many peoples’ minds. The day that red, huge, skinless Titan peered over the Wall, staring down at the citizens of Shiganshina, right before the outer gate exploded inward, and then disappeared almost as if it’d never really been there to begin with, though there were those who swore otherwise. Of the one that broke through the second gate, the inner gate, into the territory of Wall Maria itself, which cannons had no effect on, and spewed fire from its mouth, its body armored head to toe. The news of Quinta District, a District not far from Shiganshina that was surrounded during their evacuation, those within its gates barely managing to shut them in time before a similar fate befell them, as well. The whispers of a government plot, a last resort, that villages such as Isolde’s were being pushed to prevent—it wasn’t safe for either her or the people living here. Eventually, perhaps even already, they would find her. They would silence her. Then she wouldn’t be able to learn the truth about her family, about her father, whether the stories he’d raved and ranted of weren’t just that: stories.
Historia looked up from her hand, watching Isolde prepare their late evening meal. She was a tough old woman, not as old as she looked, years’ worth of hardship having taken its toll, and since becoming a part of her world three weeks ago to the day after she first stole her way in, had immediately put her to work around her farm.
Actually an extension of the house farther out in the territory, this farm was one of the few larger properties connected to the village and was responsible for herding sheep that weren’t kept in the village like the rest of the livestock for fear of wolves, setting down different crops like corn and potatoes, and producing bales and stacks from vast abundance of wheat, barley, and rye in the fields.
The work seemed far too large for one person alone.
But, according to those in the village, Isolde managed just fine by herself until she or Achi came along, excluding the help she occasionally got from the village children whose families were indebted to her for some reason or another, and those individuals who simply wanted to help—which wasn't so rare a thing around these parts.
Already it was a common daily task for her now.
Bruises and sores regularly covered her body, dirt and sweat her clothing, and tiredness her eyes with dark circles beneath.
Nothing she wasn't used to be before.
Except, unlike before, when other people would look at her, they saw a delicate creature taken in by a lonely mother. Their stares, their whispering, their accusations and assumptions—they wouldn't go away. Things had changed, but not for the better, exchanging one for the other, and at times it honestly felt like nothing ever truly would.
Historia hated that word: nothing.
She could never escape it no matter which way she turned. Left, right, up, down, north, east, south, west—it didn't matter, and, catching a glimpse of a mouse as it scurried back into its hole in the wall, whether she was one of these mice that scurried along the floor, or one of the hawks that circled outside in the skies above, waiting for them out in the open to snatch them up, she didn’t know.
Was she the mouse, or the hawk? Was she the sheep, or the wolf? Was she something to be used, like her mother and father before her? Or something to be cherished, like Isolde always reminded her?
While she was learning a great deal in her time here—most notably the importance of herbs and medicine—from Isolde, a relatively peaceful existence mending the locals’ various cuts and scrapes wasn't enough.
Her hand closed into a fist. It hurt.
It just wasn't enough.
She was still nothing.
She was still worthless.
Later on, night approached swiftly, and Historia was finishing up in Isolde’s study when she chanced upon a book tucked away in a corner, well-hidden and well-worn.
Isolde’s study was one of the first things Historia had been introduced to on the farm. Given free reign of it so long as she kept it well-maintained, it was well worth the extra work. Through the books in the study, she knew better all the things Isolde taught her about medicine, herbs, ointments, and ailments and the mending of those cuts and scrapes. The truth behind them. That there was one she overlooked was a delight, because she previously thought she’d read every single one of them twice over already and was hungering for something new.
It’d been sitting there for some time.
She blew on the front and wiped the dust off and opened to its first page, seeing it blank, then began to leaf through the next several pages expecting it to be full of diagrams and instructions related to medicine and bodily functions like the rest. For an old woman who spent most of her time instructing others in how to properly rack a field, Isolde having a serious study that smelled of moldy paper and dry ink was a welcome, if not entirely unexpected surprise and certainly whatever was contained in this book would offer no different. Upon a first look it seemed exactly that: just another in-depth examination of the body, inside and out, detailing everything from skin to muscle to bone but with one distinct difference—it was in a text she couldn’t read.
… While she could decipher that names were given to each part examined, what appeared to be with a brief description or two of their make-up, functions, and about the specimen itself, there were also strange measurements and weights, unorthodox comparisons and differences, a plethora of information about something that looked like an intricate, connected root with its stem at the head. It was a size and body of work much more advanced than anyone within the Wall excluding what physicians in Mitras might be capable of understanding let alone using and only until she attempted to sound out some of what was written on the pages that the realization dawned on her: these were just like her father’s ramblings only in written form.
She was sure of it. These words, these symbols, this… language … Historia had heard it before.
Lost in his stories about the King, the King’s adviser, the whole lot of nobility that did their family wrong, she’d heard her father often mumble to himself using words and phrases that nobody understood. To most, the whines of a washed-up alcoholic, once noble and now a pauper, but, to a few, to her he’d been trying to say something. Something unspoken, which couldn’t be uttered openly. Something damning, and horrible. Something that sent those men to murder him, her mother, and have her taken away, the men in black who carried out the deed.
And if she wanted to know whether his stories were real or ramblings, she’d have to seek them out. Learn more than just the words on a page and uncover the truth behind her father’s—her family’s—descent in obscurity under the watchful eyes of the Royal Government and nearly severed forever in the immediate aftermath of Wall Maria’s fall.
Historia closed the book and put it back where it lay. She wouldn’t ask about it even though the old woman didn’t seem like the kind of person to hold many secrets. The fact that her father wasn’t completely delusional was enough. The fact that she still lived, was enough. Thus, her next course of action would be to find a way to Mitras. Records, reports, registries, documents, notes—anything that might help her discover more about her family’s history. About the Reiss noble bloodline. Only, they knew her face. Showing it in the Royal Capital would be foolish and her father hadn’t died to see the last of his legacy willingly throw herself to the wolves. No, she would have to become that wolf, and claw her enemies to shreds. Cut out their throats like they did her mother’s. Sink her teeth into the truth, and not let go. She already had blood on her hands, after all.
But she couldn’t do it as she was. She couldn’t do it alone.
And it was then she remembered: Isolde's daughter.
Her only daughter.
Her real daughter.
The old woman spoke a lot about her; about her being a soldier in the military and one of the protectors of humanity. A member of the Scouting Legion, the only branch of the military to extend their arms outside the Walls and face humanity’s greatest threat head-on. Said that, in the end, Riecka and the others were the only thing between them and those things. Their saviors, putting their lives on the line for a cause greater than themselves, and their martyrs, dying for that very same cause in humanity's struggle to survive against the Titans. Those things, those monsters which breached Wall Maria and its lands within. Two of them, the Colossus and Armored—as they’d been officially named by the Royal Government—being the ones personally to blame. That, these two, specifically, needed to be dealt with before they breached Wall Rose, too, and Sheena after, and that the military's soldiers would stop them. That the Scouts would stop them. That they would eventually take back Wall Maria and drive the Titans out.
She couldn't rely on the Military Police. They would be on the lookout for her. Nor the Garrison, who were a lax bunch of drunkards. But, the soldiers in the Scouting Legion. They were people to be proud of. People worth value—fighting for what they believed and sacrificing themselves for what humanity might accomplish in beating the Titans once and for all.
Historia stared at her feet, the book back in the corner, and whispered her father's words beneath her breath, adding to it.
From here on, your name is Krista Lenz, a soldier of humanity.
A person worth value.
And she knew where she needed to go next.
Chapter 11: Mathias (2)
“To our first official meeting!”
Bernhardt raised his mug of ale aloft.
The room was cramped, stuffy and closed off from the rest of the bar with a round table and six chairs around and although the two were only separated by a flimsy wall, the clamor dropped away the moment the door shut behind Mathias, who stared across the limited space at the mustached old soldier as his muscled arm cast long, overbearing shadows over everyone else. He’d just been shoved a mug of his own and had one of the empty chairs already pulled out for him before even fully stepping inside. It was next to Klaus and Nikki, the former giving him a brief, moody glance while the latter snuck a wink in between guzzling down drink after drink.
Nobody followed his cue. Bernhardt shrugged, finished the gesture alone, then took a deep gulp and continued talking. “Charming bunch! Wouldn’t you say, Mathias?”
Squished awkwardly between Klaus and Nikki, Mathias kept his head down, but managed to give a sheepish smile. Bernhardt smiled back and knocked mugs with Jarratt, who chuckled heartily.
These people were outlaws. The kind whom saw fit to steal others’ possessions and sell them for profit. They couldn’t be trusted, yet here he was among them having previously resigned himself to join their merry band of thieves after several long days and sleepless nights contemplating whether he should or shouldn’t, if Suzanne was or wasn’t, while the campaign to send the first volunteers outside the Walls reared its head and would be underway tomorrow, which left him with only one option in the end like it or not.
Their leader, Bernhardt, who’d accepted him into the fold almost instantly, was truly an ex-soldier unlike the others. A former member of the Military Police Brigade. Only the highest achievers from the Training Corps were able to join them.
Mathias had seen first hand the corruption in their ranks, and knew his being here meant he’d been caught. Rerouting supplies to the black market, the Underground, turning a blind eye to smuggling, giving questionable parties the times and locations of shipments—instead of a cell he was given a slap on the wrist the first time around. The second time, a fine. Third time, an honorable discharge so as not to tarnish the Brigade’s reputation, at least to those ignorant enough to believe the lies. Over fifty years of service, nearly five decades worth of cheating the Royal Government and the people within the Walls of their money, and the only difference between then and now was he couldn’t move through official sources anymore. He was a thief, a fugitive, an outlaw, but the law would never catch him because he was once one of them. He was the Royal Government, he was the people within the Walls, and he sure as damn well knew it.
As for the others, Klaus, Nikki, Jarratt, they were three of his former business partners. They were his friends, his family. His children. And just yesterday Mathias had learned their names.
Tonight he would learn their plans. Tomorrow their lives.
A few hundred soldiers were already gathered before the gate. A handful were regulars, and the rest volunteers. The former were on horseback, while the latter were pressed together in so many wagons.
Mathias and the others were with the wagons. He shared one with Bernhardt and Nikki. Klaus and Jarratt rode in another.
In charge of Mathias’ wagon was a sloppily dressed soldier who’d been yawning for a while and seemed half-asleep. Despite appearances, he was outfitted with a set of Vertical Maneuvering Gear. Its launchers and sheaths for his blades were slung over either side of his waste and Mathias was convinced someone else forced him to don it because it looked like he wanted to still be in bed.
The departure for Quinta had come early in the morning, before sunrise, and they had yet to see any morning light from behind the wagon’s canopy.
Nikki, who sat facing him, answered his unasked question. “Titans have a bed-time, too.” She grinned, then punched him in the chest. “You were lucky!” she said immediately after, likely talking about the random volunteer they’d bribed to get him inside.
Hard, and precise—right where it hurt the most—on the badge pinned to his shirt. The pin poked his skin and he winced. For all the drinks she’d had the previous night, she showed no telltale signs of hangover, and might’ve been a compliment to her fortitude any other day but Mathias sorely wished she were a little tipsy. At least then she wouldn’t be so coordinated in her punches, and pain.
His response ended up sounding half-hearted because in the end they hadn’t needed to bribe any of the soldiers in charge of signing up volunteers like he’d suspected. For the volunteers, there had been minimal risk of being turned down since they were mostly in it for the money. During the evacuation from Quinta, many of them had seen the Titans. A number had developed second thoughts and dropped out of the campaign even before passing through the gates.
“If I’d known it would be this easy, I’d have managed it by myself,” he then blurted out.
“Such folly…” Bernhardt said, shaking his head at the back of the wagon, turned away from them. “How would you have reached Quinta, if you’d been on your own? You’ve no horse, and lack the guile to rob one from the soldiers. Even supposing you did break away, you’d be a meal. That is if you even know how to ride—and what about a gun, lad?” He motioned at the allocated weapon against the canopy next to Mathias.
“You can use a gun, right?” Nikki asked.
Mathias glanced at it. The gun had two barrels, side-by-side; a shotgun for close encounters. “A bit. My tu…”
He paused. He couldn’t reveal that Suzanne was the one to teach him the basics on how to shoot, not to these people—not to this old man. While he wasn’t certain if Bernhardt knew her, it wouldn’t help matters to bring such information to light. There was still a lot about Suzanne that Mathias didn’t truly know and if anything he’d want to hear it straight from her mouth when they saw each other again. After he’d rescued Rita and her parents.
“M-My father. He showed me how.”
Bernhardt looked back with one bushy, raised eyebrow. The skepticism on his face was telling. He brought his head in uncomfortably close and looked into Mathias’ eyes for what seemed like a lifetime, then drew back and smiled. “Well, that’s a very good decision!” His voice became a whisper. “Wouldn’t have guessed…”
The old man was suddenly a lot more frightening than usual. “The rich often find themselves gaining the antipathy of the poor,” he said, his voice no longer hushed as he sat back. The smile was gone. “And you have a good chance of being robbed. A gun is necessary for your own protection, as your father was aware.”
“But surely these aren’t good against the Titans,” Mathias countered.
“Your folly knows no bounds,” Bernhardt lamented with another extravagant shake of his head.
“It fires buckshot,” Nikki said, holding it with ease and familiarity, having slipped it from under him when he wasn’t looking. She opened the chamber and showed him the cartridges.
“Against a ten-meter class, it wouldn’t help. But for a five-meter class? Perfectly serviceable. Guns are far more than simply killing the enemy.”
“Use your imagination, lad!”
Mathias had only ever seen a Titan in person once.
Many years ago, a connection of his father’s had enabled him to visit the top of Wall Maria. From there, he’d gazed down at the world beyond, spotting a lone Titan barely visible in the distance. But even then it’d been a substantial shock and, for a while afterwards, recalling the image of it at night, he’d been unable to sleep soundly. Now, though, a lot more than the Titans would steer him away from getting to Quinta, or having a good night's sleep. Speaking of, if Bernhardt or Nikki showed any sign of shock or dread or lack of sleep about venturing beyond the wall, neither were. The same seemed to be true for Jarratt and Klaus. Their nonchalant attitude stood out among the volunteers, the majority of whom Mathias had seen wore tense or apprehensive expressions. It came as no great surprise that many were withdrawing from the campaign. The ones who didn’t were either stupid or, like their wagon driver, too tired to care at the moment. Unlike Bernhardt and the rest, who were unfazed.
Bernhardt in particular was in high spirits. “Our goal is to help people nearby. We wouldn’t be able to find anyone at night, even if there were people out there. Isn’t that so,” he said in a singsong manner. “But, Titans? We might find a few, or they us.”
“We’re not going today, then. To Quinta.”
“The District has the wall,” Bernhardt answered. “They’ve judged that Quinta can fend for itself for the time being. Our first duty is to reconnoiter the land between Wall Rose and Wall Maria and to save anyone still living there. The judgment itself is sound.”
It was just as Mathias himself heard days prior and suspected as much the entire time. There were no allusions as to his father’s hand in it if he still held any beforehand. The Royal Government betrayed no concern for the people stuck in Quinta. Their main priority was to reclaim Shiganshina. It was suicide. Government-funded mass suicide, under the guise of liberation and fueled by the volunteers’ revenge against the Titan threat and longing to see their families again.
“And that is where we enter the picture.”
“Hey, it’s opening,” Nikki spoke up, a bounce in her voice. The shotgun rested on her lap, cradled with one hand as she pointed ahead with the other.
All eyes turned to the gate. Its mighty chains began to roll, hauling the iron-reinforced barriers up. Dawn’s light filtered through the inside portion of the cave-like passageway. A commotion stirred among the volunteers, and lots of them were holding their hands over their mouths, as though to stifle an urge to throw up. Some were pale-faced and shaking, while others were pleading with the regular soldiers to close the gate again. No doubt, memories of the Titans were beginning to resurface and spread like wildfire amidst the crowd. Burnt deep into their heart, wrenching their insides free as a few did to spill their guts; the combined smell of fear and regret.
At the front of the crowd, the commanding officer appeared to be giving a speech. A short while later, a rally cry rang into the air and throughout everyone present. There was no backing out now.
Their wagon lurched forward without warning.
“Here’s to getting rich!” Nikki exclaimed, slapping him across the back right as they went over a large bump.
Thrown with the momentum, Mathias came dangerously close to toppling off. He grit his teeth and hung on desperately to the lip of the wagon. The up-down motion was worse than he’d expected, and he had to be careful lest he bit off his own tongue.
When he finally managed to haul himself back up to safety Nikki was fiddling with her rifle and he gave her a begrudged look as he took his shotgun from the floor and sat down. The campaign had only just begun and here he’d almost died.
“And… We’re off!” Bernhardt cheerfully announced.
… It was going to be a long journey, indeed.
Art by Halimun Ali on ArtStation
Bernhardt - leader of the outlaws & former soldier in the Military Police Brigade
Chapter 12: A Purpose
Since leaving the church, Ymir could hear the boy’s screams echoing in her head when she slept, but, gradually, bit by bit, they were being drowned out by the faint whispers from her life before which massed amidst the cadence of marching boots and war-drums. The memories of a battle fought long ago, brought upon by blinding flashes of red that came as piercing pains against her frontal lobe, bombarding her with frequent fragments, each night, every night, to the point where she got little sleep for fear that simply shutting her eyes would induce another skull-splitting headache. Though, the longer she resisted the worse it became. Last night was her longest time awake thus far. She’d somehow managed to stay awake for several days, on the verge of complete collapse where the pain felt as if someone was taking a mallet to her skull, chiseling away piece by piece, exposing her brain and leaving to get picked clean by the end of it, and today she suffered for it.
With still no clearer idea where she was going, or where she was from, the church a long ways behind, having stumbled from place to place, the stars above blank, a blanket of black, no voice neither cruel or caring nor distant light to guide her, hallucinations ran rampant in her mind. Soldiers walking with her, beasts stalking her steps, the pound of shells and the spit of gunfire, all shadows of her past that she didn't know where they'd lead whether to freedom or the grave every time she braved venturing out to learn more about them though she never got far for varying reasons until now. Until right now, that is, where she was following after the trail of guts and blood left by the boy bearing the scars of his death. The boy she'd killed, who's sacrifice allowed her the mercy to become whole again. Everything below his waist was absent, his intestines dangling and dragging across the ground. He walked with his hands, holding himself up and wading along. The back of his shirt was torn, skin shredded and spine exposed. He leaned further left than right, his right arm not much but loose sinew and bone. His black hair was spread out in patches atop his peeled head, his crimson skull beneath the flaps partially eroded. His neck was partially ripped open, what remained of his jaw hung low, mouth snapped wide with a drooping tongue. The only thing wholly intact was his upper half, barring the bottom of his nose.
She knew he wasn’t real. Knew that he was guilt personified, molded from memory and nothing else, though different from the rest in that he wasn't a causality from that battle, and when she’d at last caught up to his unexpectedly lithe form, knew that the only way to learn more about him was the same as her past, to keep moving forward. Except, no matter how far she went, the land seemed endlessly empty—every place she came upon was deserted.
There were signs that people once lived in these places, these villages, but if not for the fact her scavenging them for leftover food and clean clothing, Ymir might’ve thought herself to be truly be alone. Herself, and her hallucinations. She had to find people, civilization, but the farther she traveled the riskier it became, as well. Dotting the land also were these forests of giant trees in abundance, not unlike the one where she saw the barbed wire, the bodies of children all around, that rifle in her hands, and discovered her name. She didn’t linger any near them than she had to, avoiding them entirely whenever she could because of the sounds from within. In the day, it was the grunts and groans and earth-stomping feet of the Titans, those mindless monsters she never wanted to become again. During the night, it was the howls and growls and struggle of wild animals that prowled around as the Titans slept. They were full of dangers, full of nightmares, and full of death—and she’d her fill of all that for two lifetimes, and wasn’t so keen on revisiting those times anytime soon.
… Not that it was up to her to decide.
The boy’s jaw swayed as he turned to look at her, his vocal cords closing and opening like an insect’s mandibles. No sound came out expect one short higher-pitched, blood spurting wheeze, but Ymir could hear his words in her head because his screams would never truly go away. He was a part of her, and as she replied to him, constantly asked herself the question as she stood reluctantly on the precipice looking down onto one of these forests of giant trees: what was her purpose? Why was she reborn, spirited away from the nightmare which had consumed all the mindless others like her? That this boy had to die so she may live again? She felt her name was only the beginning in a long, estranged history, because, after all, there was power in a name.
Sitting up in the middle of the night, wrapped in a blanket from the last village she passed through, having taken refuge in a hollowed out tree-trunk shortly after finding her way inside this latest forest of giant trees, Ymir was awoken to a sudden boom of thunder, accompanied by an unwelcome bout of rain. The boy was gone. Pulling her blanket closer around her shoulders, she peered into the distance, wary of what lurked in the undergrowth, then up at the treetops. The canopy in this particular forest was so thick that no light, let alone rain, touched the forest floor. Perpetual darkness enveloped her, and in the gloom she was reminded yet again of a certain battlefield from her past that she kept being returned to.
The barbed wire. The bodies of children all around. The rifle in her hands. Her name. And, most recent, most horrible, that she didn't want to ever see again nor hear the very mention of: a woman’s joyous smile and beckoning hand, juxtaposed by fresh corpses torched black and being thrown in with so many others piled high in a mass grave behind her.
Still, it wasn't for her to decide. So, she walked the forest floor until she came to it: that deep, dark place, strewn with those charred corpses, what was left of their rotten, maggot-ridden flesh hanging off their blackened bones, wrapped in tattered, bullet-chewed uniforms that once might’ve been blue, or grey, now soiled red, and there, in-between the thunder which continued to crash, she heard something behind her and spun. The boy had reappeared, but this time there was someone else with him—that woman.
Ymir instinctively backed away in fear. A dread overtook her because, yes, there was power in a name, and she didn’t want to think what the woman’s might be. Only, just the same as she surmised the things previously unknown and questioned by her would be revealed, the words, phrases, and symbols of her past, through these fragmented memories too would she remember that woman’s—and the boy’s—name, like her own, and thus more about her past. So, she swallowed her fear and stepped forward, approaching the woman and standing before her, shaking like a wet and wounded dog with its tail between its legs.
The woman opened her heart to her, and Ymir fell into her arms, burying her face into her breasts. Caring and kind, the woman stroked her hair and whispered to her, telling her that everything was going to be alright. That there was nothing to be afraid of. Though, that was a lie. No amount of comforting embrace nor soothing tone would hide the bloodthirst behind the woman’s words—that hunger, hidden underneath the mask of an angel skinned alive, of the devil disguised.
Yes, this woman was the nightmare.
She was the battlefield.
But, if Ymir wanted to know her purpose for being reborn, she would have to accept the woman. Brave the nightmare. Traverse the battlefield. Wrestle the beast. Strike down the devil and emerge victorious upon the other side.
She looked up into that face, so very kind. She smiled, said okay, before like an infant in her mother’s womb, now a child vying for her mother’s love.
... That was when the façade ended.
The woman’s angelic face melted away, taking her left eye along with it, showing the lidless socket. Her smile became a scowl, the back row of her teeth peeking through the gaping hole of shrapnel-mangled tissue in her upper cheek on that same side. Then, her everything disintegrated, slipping through her fingertips.
It was like sand.
Ymir moved her hands toward her chest, and fell to her knees, then curled up on the spot where the woman had just been. She rolled over on her back and was left staring at not the thick canopy of a forest of giant trees, but a clear blue sky full of large, round-shaped objects in the sky, peppered by clouds of smoke and the hammering of artillery as she found herself sprawled on the ground, pulled back into the mud and the blood and the stench of that battlefield she knew well but never left the trenches before now. And unto there she sank, the battlefield a muffled quake to her shellshocked ears, before a hand reached down and saved her, only to push her once more into the fray.
It was the terrible day she’d her first taste of combat.
The one who saved her had been the woman, and at the end of it, the two of them standing there in front of those many fallen from that day, did the soldiers surrounding them chant amidst their victory, and it was then that Ymir learned the woman’s name.
“... Hail, Helos.”
Ymir opened her eyes. She must’ve blacked out again, touching the back of her head, hoping she didn’t crack open her skull. She ran her fingers over the crease from the last time, but it was gone. Mended like it never happened, and she frowned. All of her wounds have disappeared overtime, regardless of their severity, and she still didn’t know why besides it having to do with her rebirth. Though, there was one thing about it she was acutely aware of: the pain. A gift that came with a cost, and coupled with the pain induced from her lost memories, sapped her strength away, leaving her fatigued and unable to do much until it healed. Vulnerable. Helpless.
The last time, she barely managed to drag herself into a place to hide before the sun rose, and quickly tried to get a hold of her surroundings, until she realized she was no longer on the forest floor, but inside a cave.
She was lying on a soft bed of leaves, and could see a light somewhere just outside her field of vision and raised her head. A young boy was gawking at her from afar, peeking from a corner. She cradled her head. Shook it back and forth, then focused back on the boy—but he’d vanished. Was she just hallucinating again?
“About time you were awake,” a voice said.
Ymir turned to the direction of the voice. Her eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness within the cave. A woman stood behind her. Around her above and below were these pointed rocks that looked like teeth inside of a Titan’s mouth closing in. The woman appeared to be holding something over her shoulder. A stick?
“Don’t know what you thought you were doing out there, but I can tell what you were doing. And it wasn’t smart, rolling around and yelling like that in the rain. How did you survive out there, being that stupid? Hah?”
Her features were grim, two massive cuts across her face, hair cut unevenly short, crudely as if by a knife, brandishing old marks, old burns, along her muscular forearms and, yet her movements were somewhat delayed as she set the stick down, her eyes were bright and intense, betraying her youthfulness.
“Ada,” she said.
Ymir hesitated. Then, she opened her mouth, struggling to get the words out though she’d spent so much time saying it back to herself alone. “Y.. m… Ym…” So much time. Alone. Her and her hallucinations. She stopped, took a breath deep, then tried again. This woman wasn't one. “Ymir.”
“Well, Ymir, you’re one lucky kid.” Ada crossed her arms, leaning against the cave wall. “Kelly should be back later, so in the meantime I’m in charge.”
“... Kelly?” Ymir asked.
“Our leader,” Ada answered. “Just wait. She’ll be here. Get some rest. Gonna be a long day.”
Lying back down, Ymir placed her hands over her stomach and gazed up at the ceiling of the cave, unsure what was to come next. But, she didn’t care, just relieved that she’d found people again. She wasn’t alone anymore. And the thought of what her life had been up until now, those many years of torment, stuck as one of those monsters, a monster she never wanted to ever be again, brought tears to her eyes. Before she knew it, she was crying—she didn’t have to live in fear anymore, and, in the moment, the damp, safe silence that followed was the greatest comfort in the entire world.
Art by Halimun Ali on ArtStation
Ada - survivor from outside the Walls & former soldier in the Scouting Legion
Chapter 13: Sticks And Stones And
In two years the military would start their next Training Corps. She had to be ready. In preparation, she would do more work around the farm, build up her strength. Remove Historia far from her current state of mind, and develop her persona as Krista further. A monumental task, but—if she wanted to succeed—this is what she must do. Historia needed to die, and be reborn.
In order to do that, she found herself back in Isolde's study, in the late night.
Plans for the first undertakings to cull the refugees, so a messenger who'd traveled all the way from Fuerth District and heading to Mitras, didn't say but was relayed back to them as such by Isolde, were being made by the Royal Government, which meant their long days spent doing twice the usual workload around the farm would start to come to an end sooner. Which meant more time to indulge in whatever free-time Isolde gave them. Which meant, for Historia, a means to explore the study in-depth.
And it this one day when work was slow that she was able to get away from it for a brief time, using a stool to reach the higher places on the shelves that she couldn't before, thereby opening a whole new chest to explore the contents of, a wealth that she'd never the chance to have until now, for her mind to hoard.
It took her several days after to read through the majority of what books she found, her fingers bandaged from repeated cuts because of how fast she turned their pages. Something that Isolde teased her for, telling her she'd grow a head too big for her shoulders if she kept going at the pace she was. But I'm glad to see someone enjoys to read as much as I do, the old woman had said bemusingly.
Isolde's love was a small comfort in the world Historia knew, and just that. She couldn't stay. She couldn't replace Isolde's daughter nor act like another in turn. The dream of a peaceful existence constantly tugged at her heart on nights such as those.
... Only the carriage driver's hand tugged harder.
She killed him in her sleep over and over again, watching the blood seep off her hand, down her wrist, onto the ground and shattered glass. Stabbed his throat, again and again and again and again, until morning came. Whereupon, her thoughts were consumed by that of her mother, begging for her life. Of her father, sending her away. Those weeks being rode around, forced from place to place, touched and defiled and raped, until nothing was enough.
And that was how she knew that it was only just that; because her most comforting moment was when nothing was enough.
Where she finally stared down upon the carriage driver's lifeless, convulsing corpse lying on the dirt road, covered in his own blood, and knew, for the very first time, that she was more than nothing.
That nobody—not Isolde—was ever going to change that.
She took a book from one of the top shelves, and blew on its cover.
The plethora of medical knowledge wasn't the only reading material that Isolde's study had to offer. It also held on its shelves a colorful assortment of books related to the Titans. Many were simple stories written down from the mouth of old wives, of legends and tall-tales for frightening misbehaving children, but some were first and secondhand eyewitness accounts from before The Fall—one of which caught her rapt attention, that she held in her hands now once more. It was entitled Titan's Son and detailed the adventures of a boy born from the belly of a Titan and locked away, or so claimed, and the girl who taught him about the world then set him free.
Together, they braved many perils.
One such peril was the boy's harrowing encounter with a Titan outside the Walls, face to face with what could only be one of a special kind because the author had given it a name: Ogre. Described as imposingly large, with bulging, veinous muscles, it'd been strong, and fast. Far stronger and much faster than any previous written encounters by the Scouting Legion.
Another was the pair's involvement with the messy internal affairs between the Scouting Legion, the military's misfits, and the Military Police Brigade, the military's elite, that had boiled over from years of wasted resources and even less to show for them—an issue that she discovered was continued to still be debated over today, when she'd asked Isolde about it one evening. A question that surprised the old woman, and one she dare not ask again for fear of drawing her suspicions. That of a child in the midst of such tragedy wondering about a feud decades old, over the Fall of Maria like everyone else. An overly curious mind invited trouble, and trouble wasn't allowed under Isolde's roof.
Others included the various attempts on the boy's life that were thwarted by his friends or their help in the efforts of a man whose name but not his achievements erased from official records, so claimed, to create a tool to effectively combat the Titans. The tool, in fact: Vertical Maneuvering Gear.
Though, above all, it was the girl's struggle that went on to barely be mentioned within its pages that intrigued Historia the most. That resonated with she, herself, and her own plight.
On the surface, they shared much.
Both the girl and she were the daughters of a noble household and held a lust for literature. Both their fathers were obsessively single-minded, selfish bastards, and when trouble came knocking on their doors, did what had to be done to protect their legacies. But, that was where the similarities came to their end because while the girl was the daughter of a wealthy, self-made merchant, she was of a broke, washed-up disgrace. While the girl loved fantastical tales, of the world beyond the Walls, she cared for the practical, with her mind seated closer to home. Whereas this girl's father looked to the future, murdered by cultists, hers dwelled on the past, murdered by the Royal Government. And, when life as she knew it drowned in its own blood, the girl fled to help another and rely on others, but when Historia fled her only thought was to rely on one person, and one person only: herself.
A thought that still rang true, at least for the time being.
She sank her teeth into her bottom lip, sucking in the particularly cold night's chilling air through her closed mouth, remembering the kids whose parents mocked her father, harassing her in turn. Of her mother, who turned a blind eye to her daughter's suffering and let her get pelted on the streets, shutting herself indoors and rarely seeing the light of day because she was afraid. Always afraid; lost in her own tiny, miserable world. Hoping that, if she ignored everyone and everything not inside its sphere of imaginary solitude that her troubles would just go away.
... Her mother died because she willing closed her eyes, plugged her ears, silenced her heart, and caged her mind from the truth.
That nothing mattered except what you chose to believe.
To Historia, when she'd murdered the carriage driver—no, even before then, watching her mother hidden behind a door as a young child, she realized nothing mattered unless you made something out of it.
Grasped it with your own two hands and never let go.
That was why her mother died—not because she loved a man like father nor gave birth to a bastard, but the simple, appalling fact that she did nothing about them. The one moment her mother actually did, was when she fought against that knife drawn across her throat, when she stopped being a victim and started to live. A moment that'd arrived too late.
Ignorant and timid and weak. That was her mother. That is who she would have to become. Except, she couldn't. She didn't want to be anything like her mother.
And that was the moment she thought once again of the girl in the book, Sharle.
She had to be more like Sharle, that was it—that was how she would carry herself from now on. Not the terrifying wolf, but the shy sheep. The smallest, most vulnerable sheep, who hide among the herd. Who helped others, and relied on them just the same. Yes, a girl like Sharle is who Krista ought to be.
Isolde Lenz - farmer and resident of Thorpe & caketaker of Achi Almen and Historia Reiss
Chapter 14: Broken Bones
Seated in the mayor's office, Rita was mediating citizen disputes, work normally reserved for the staff of the Royal Government, but, seeing as they had disappeared and left no one capable for the task, there was no other choice except to do it herself. Even if she herself was also incapable. To try and remedy that, she'd read up on all the previously thought to be useless documents and papers and reports and miscellaneous notes within the District hall, learning nearly not enough that may as well be nary at all to successfully traverse the peoples' problems, though for the past few weeks she'd been forcefully committing herself to it now that Amanda was up and able.
In the beginning, she'd convinced herself this was because it was a necessity if she needed to change, but from the moment her best friend strapped her boots back on she became more or less irrelevant. Being in the mayor's chair did little to sooth the citizens' worrisome hearts and minds and it was Amanda, not Rita, who everyone was looking to even while Rita still held senior rank and Amanda herself didn't care for the role.
Now, she broke her mind away from the idea. It wasn't a necessity and it wasn't that it would help her change. She could've passed the task on to Ducio, constantly by her side, who was consistently going above and beyond with a quick mind to match. It was just an excuse for her to run and hide, rather than be out there, on patrol, cleaning up the streets. Unlike Amanda, the only things she fought here were the sores on her behind and a lack of sleep from long, restless hours stuck in a much too large chair because she was afraid to assume the full mantle as the acting commander like her predecessor. Telling herself that she should stay within these walls because it was her duty to see it done. Not Amanda, not Ducio, nor anybody else. That it set an example, a standard all others after her should strive to meet, lest she fall.
Because, at the end, duty was all that mattered.
But her example was meager, her presence small, and, warm air streaming through open windows coupled with the faint afternoon glow, Rita was beginning to think she'd settle into her new role. That she would never change, because she was afraid.
On the other side of the desk stood two middle-aged women engaged in a shouting match. One was abnormally thin, with an oversized chest that appeared to weigh heavily on her back as she hunched forward slightly. The other was short and chubby, with frightfully greasy long hair tied back by a cloth whose posture wasn't any better from a lifetime of working a, likely, labor-intensive job. Although they bore no physical resemblance to each other, by way of hurled insults back and forth, firing spit into the air and catching Rita in the crossfire, the fact that they were siblings couldn't be more apparent.
"I'm telling you, you lost all claim when you left town!" the short and chubby sister—the older of the two—spat, jabbing her finger into her sister's bosom.
"You left first!" the younger barked back, slapped the older's finger aside.
The older sister huffed, crossing her flabby arms. "Don't be ridiculous. You should hear yourself! Just upped and left us, first chance you had! You abandoned us!"
"It's not like I was leaving you!" the younger sister said with a rolling of the eyes as she threw up her hands. Her chest jostled up and down on her wiry frame.
"Oh, but you did! Didn't spare us a single thought!"
"Dad said we had to go! But I was thinking of you."
"Uh huh, sure!"
"It's true, dammit! I looked after him! Stayed with him all the way to the end. Even had to see what I did… The things I saw..." the younger sister's voice trailed off then, her eyes glossing over no doubt recounting a gruesome memory as her mind seemed to close itself off for the briefest of moments until it was quickly torn asunder by her older sister's ear-drum splitting, rising voice.
"And how the hell do I know that's not just another lie?" the older sister accosted. "That you didn't really just left him to die?"
Having listened longer than she liked, Rita finally decided to intercede. Ducio was diligently jotting down everything being said. She cleared her throat.
"So let me get this straight: you, the younger sister, were living with your father. While, you, the older sister, had married and moved away from home." Both sisters nodded in unison. "Okay. Then, when the evacuation began, you, the younger, left Quinta with your father. Is that right so far?"
"Yes, and leaving us behind," hissed the older.
By "us" Rita assumed the woman referred to herself, her husband, and their children.
The younger sister let out an exasperated sigh and turned her head around. "Didn't I tell you that's not what happened? What else could we do? Make the trip to your place? In the middle of all that… that chaos? Our house was a mess."
"I'm not surprised, the way you tried grabbing anything remotely valuable."
"That was Dad's—"
Rita held up a hand. "Please. Let me just… During the evacuation, you and your father were attacked by Titans… yes?"
"Right, but I came back. Our wagon was destroyed, I lost everything. And Dad was killed!"
Rita's mind went back to that day, the overturned wagon, the father trapped underneath the horse and his little girl she'd saved. Just the same, the sisters' father had been attacked by a Titan, no doubt eaten alive. Without needing the grimsly details, the younger sister must've witnessed the entire thing, a Garrison soldier having rescued her, and she'd barely made it back to Quinta with her life.
Remembering that little girl's unresponsiveness afterward, similarly the younger sister must still be in some kind of shock about the ordeal. And, yet, here she was, locked in a fierce battle with her older sister who'd remained in Quinta over the ownership of their father's belongings that still resided at home.
Such greed. Such spirit. Rita was both repelled and impressed in equal measure. Also, compelled, as tears started at the corner of the younger sister's eyes and her face crinkled, showing her ugliness under an otherwise beautiful, blemish-free complexion. Perfection laying bare its cracks underneath.
She bawled at the top of her lungs. "After what I had to go through! To be left with nothing… How, how, how could anyone just expect me to accept that?"
And, yet, the situation wasn't so clear-cut as it seemed.
The woman, essentially, wanted compensation. Some material benefit to give meaning to the horror and desperation she'd had to experience, or, perhaps, to fill the hole rendered in her heart. It appeared she had been single her entire life. Having devoted herself to her father, it was possible she had never owned anything of value that she could truly say was hers.
The other was, in her own way, desperate too. So much that she couldn't even properly mourn her father's death. Instead, she was willing to come to physical blows with her very own sister over his worldly possessions.
And while Rita could sympathize with both of their plights, the whole of Quinta was still in crisis, and she couldn't spend all her time dealing with private matters.
Besides the cost of necessities like food and water were soaring, the mobs from all sides were beginning to see the Garrison as the military force it was supposed to be, and as a result were banding together against her and the other soldiers, which wasn't what she'd meant by uniting to survive.
… As much as she knew it was a necessity, her duty did extend outside this office, and it was these two that finally helped her decide about it: nothing would change if she continued to stay behind a desk. Nothing would change, if she let Amanda do all the hard work. Thus...
"Ladies. I will now hand you my decision as the Garrison's acting commander." Rita hardened her tone. "The decision is only for the interim, until a suitable official is appointed by the Royal Government. Understood?"
"That's a fair decision, I guess."
They faced her—the older first, then the younger—and fixed her with bewildered, but defiant stares. At least they were willing to listen. Though, until she got down there in the streets and found out for herself, she didn't know if it was just her tone, title as acting commander, or the blades hung around her waist that had some effect
Rita took a deep breath to gather her thoughts, then opened her mouth to speak again. "For now, I request that you maintain the status quo. You, the younger sister, will look after all assets left behind by your father. Their value will be calculated when my replacement arrives, so don't go and sell any of it please. Once the assets have been valued, we'll start proceedings to divide them evenly between the two of you."
Of course she realized she was simply passing the real decision-making onto a non-existent Royal Government staff—who'd also raided the vaults and storehouses of the District hall during the evacuation and taken everything with them just as her mother suspected they'd do—but it was all she could honestly do at the moment. It was all she cared to do.
"So, you're just going to assign someone to keep watch, then, I assume?" the older sister cautioned straight away. "Because if she does go off and sell anything…"
"I'm not going to sell anything off!"
"Yes," Rita lied through her teeth without pause. "Soldiers will be monitoring the house. I'll make sure they aren't conspicuous, so they don't get in the way. Agreed?"
The older sister snorted. "I suppose…"
"You're happy then, big sister?"
"Oh, don't sound so puffed up!"
The older sister squared her shoulders then left without exchanging another glance at any of them, but appeared to more or less satisfied with the outcome. The younger sister let go of another sigh, thanked them, and followed suit. The two of them looked more alike from behind.
Once they were completely gone from sight, Rita slumped over the desk and exhaled a sigh herself.
"... And that was the last for today." Ducio declared, sorting his sheets and getting up. "Good work, Commander!"
Despite her tiredness, Rita managed a thin smile. "Thanks. You too." She felt her heart and mind lighten a little. Then, summoning all her remaining willpower, she got to her own feet and straightened her back.
Going over to the window and noting the black and gray clouds overlapping in the distant sky, she was eager to find out which were true, thumbing the handle of one of her blades.
As of late, the majority of the mobs were taking action in an area over several blocks not far from her family's business. Recent reports told of a particularly violent gang of 3rd class citizens—laborers, workers, the less fortunate and poorly adjusted types of society—who'd previously sacked the many businesses lining the street she, Ducio, and several others she'd brought along were currently walking down. They had since holed themselves in these shops and thereby established a foothold against the Garrison and those in the 2nd and 1st classes who'd already submitted to their authority. One of the last holdouts, it was Amanda's duty to weed them out, but she was occupied with other riots and looters across the District, and with their numbers so limited, Rita and those in the District hall were the only available personnel capable of dealing with them at current. So, the opportunity presenting itself, she'd taken up the task and, this evening, she was determined to know if she were truly qualified to be the acting commander or not. She also feared for her parents, and hoped to turn that fear into conviction to be more like Amanda, to be more like the leader Quinta needed her to be.
As a precaution, she had Ducio fetch guns for everyone without the intention to actually use them unless as a last resort. Most of the soldiers with her were youths from the 103th Trainee Corps. Fresh recruits that all seemed younger than even Ducio, likely next to no training under their belts. But, if things did come to the use of firearms, anyone could shoot a gun.
So, to the apprehension of a steady influx of onlookers, Rita pushed her way past the rubberneckers and approached the first building on the suspect list that was, as suspected, a shop whose proprietors had evacuated, coming before a burly man whose forearms were nearly twice the size of her head. The man subsequently blocked her way further inside.
Peering around him, Rita took note of the others inside and counted their numbers, then clenched her teeth. She'd underestimated just how many of them there'd be.
"... I am Rita Iglehaut, acting commander of the Garrison Regiment here in Quinta," she stated, loudly. Seeing the others farther in stir, roused by the sound of her voice, she started to unsheath one of her blades. Dammit. Her grip on the hilt was tighter than she'd imagined it'd be, blood boiling up to her ears as the adrenaline kicked in. Perhaps it wouldn't be enough, after all. "Our reports say there have been a number of transgressions in this area and I ask you surrender yourselves to the full extent of the law."
"Or what?" the burly man on watch sneered back as he stepped closer, leaning over her menacingly. "Well?" Though, before she could answer, he continued. "You should put that thing away before you hurt yourself, girly." Then, he shoved her aside, calling the others out, likely for another raid somewhere in the District and, as they ignored her presence one by one and everyone else gave them a wide berth—Ducio and the others included—Rita lowered her head in humiliation.
A humiliation that everyone around her could see.
In that moment, Ducio put a comforting hand on her shoulder, telling her that it was for the best this time—there was little they could do without somebody getting hurt, maybe even badly, and that they should just leave it to Amanda to deal with instead when the time was right.
The suggestion pierced her heart.
In her mind's eye, she saw Amanda back as they were during their trainee days', standing among the top ten of their graduating class and she herself just one of many in the faceless, gawking crowd.
Her grip tightened further still.
Eyes on her boots, Wilco's dried blood as a reminder of what she fought for, her duty as a member of the Garrison and now as the acting commander of Quinta's Garrison Regiment, she couldn't… She couldn't just continue to sit by and let Amanda do the heavier lifting, the dirtier things they didn't teach in the Corps. It was her duty, and nobody else's.
Shrugging Ducio off, she raised her head back up and extended her blade toward the burly man and his gang. "Hey!" she shouted, wincing at the quiver in her voice. "All of you, stop where you are!"
And hers alone.
The gang did as told, and turned to face her.
The burly man, who Rita could now appropriately surmise was their leader, started back. The sneer was gone from his face, defiance set in its place. He came within lethal distance of her blade, unfazed and unimpressed. But, before he could open his mouth to speak, she ordered Ducio and the others to raise their rifles. They did so reluctantly. Fearfully. And rightly so.
"Big mistake, girly," the man said, air escaping from his nostrils like steam from a Titan. Though, compared to those monsters, he wasn't anything to be frightened over. Yet, her wrist shook, and her legs trembled. Yet, she was afraid. Only, not enough.
"Please, surrender peacefully. Or otherwise we will be forced to—"
Next she knew, Rita was facing the sky, a ringing in her ears so violent she couldn't hear herself think, let alone register the muffled, frantic screams that seemed so near to her but so far away in the same space. Her vision was fuzzy, blotches of blue and bursts of red, twinkles of black. Her body felt extremely cumbersome as she tried to move, finding it difficult to breath like her chest were caving in on itself.
When she finally did manage to move, roll her body over, the first thing she noticed as her visible began to clear was her sword. It'd been knocked from her hand, and she didn't so much feel as see her fingers close around it. That was when the ringing subsided, and her ears popped, pain exploding across the right side of her face. The screams were coming from the crowd. She raised her head. People were scrambling, citizens and her own soldiers alike, from the gang. She could only see out of her left eye, but spotted one of them amidst the mayhem, surrounded. Elbowed in on all sides, his rifle had been torn from his grasp and he was being stripped of the rest of his equipment. Calling out to him, she coughed blood on the street, clutched her chest, then threw up.
Planting her sword between the cobblestones, she attempted to stand, only for it to snap, break in half as they were designed, and herself to falter and collapse on her knees. Hunching over, she gagged and spat and sputtered.
"A very big mistake."
The burly man, their leader, loomed over her. He held one of the trainee's rifles in his large, calloused hands. He pointed the muzzle down at her, the barrel dark and ominous and spelling out her death, her doom, finger on the trigger, and opened his mouth to say something else but the only thing that escaped his lips was a bout of surprise. The front of his shirt became wet with blood, and his free hand hovered over the area of his chest where the wound was.
Then, the top of his head exploded.
Rita's world turned crimson, as bits of brain and bone splattered her, what remained of the man's head smoking. His lifeless body crumbled forward. She put her hands up to stop it from crushing her, struggling in vain as her body gave way, his open mouth and lolling tongue so close she could smell his gunpowder-coated, stale breath and glimpse his yellowed, shattered teeth, before it abruptly stopped and fell to the side.
Standing in his place was Ducio, and his flabbergasted, anguished, blood-drained and blood-stained face was the last thing she saw clearly before her vision waned, dimmed, then completely failed her and everything became darker than the darkest night and she passed out.
Chapter 15: To Quinta
The villagers' corpses lay strewn over the main road and the fields nearby, their limbs missing, bones and viscera exposed, slathered with translucent mucus.
"Titan spit," Bernhardt remarked.
This was the first village they'd come across after multiple fruitless endeavors in their search for survivors with fresh signs of struggle—days old rather than weeks worth—strewn around a bridge crossing one of the rivers that cut through the territory. Relatively large, this village had once acted as a transport hub due to its position intersecting Quinta and Fuerth, like all such villages in the territory situated near the rivers between the Districts, and it seemed that up until the final hour was still attempting to ferry people downriver, though Mathias hadn't recalled seeing any boats along the way. Wooden houses lined the main street, while the thatched roofs of various, more remote, log cabins dotted the grasslands and hills surrounding it. There were people, but no boats. No wreckage. No Titans. It was strange.
The Titans gorged themselves on people. Chewed raw flesh and bone. They wouldn't just leave the dead to rot like this, right? But no Titans appeared to be in the vicinity, either, and Mathias couldn't help but wonder just where all of them had gone. Following after a boat that'd somehow managed to get away in time? Busy tearing it apart, eating those unlucky enough to have been onboard and chasing down those who escaped into the wilderness?
These questions swam around in his head as his eyes burned from the stench in the air as they came nearer the bridge, reeking of excrement and something reminiscient of vinegar. A putrid, sickenly sweet smeel of the advanced stages of decomposition.
Many of the bodies were bloated.
Gaseous intestines. Swollen tongues. Bulging eyes. Alabaster skin.
This day's march of the rescue force came to a halt before the village threshold. Progressing any farther would mean crushing the bodies under horse and wagon. The commanding officer seemed to harbor qualms about doing so, green in the face, until he ultimately ordered them forward. Wheels climbed onto corpses, pulverizing them with loud cracks and ghastly crunches. Puss-filled pops and rotted, mashed guts. Like stepping on branches and tea being left far too long to boil. The sensations rode up through the floor to where Mathias sat, and he gagged.
Bernhardt slapped him on the back. "Show a little fortitude, lad!"
Once clear of the corpses, here and there wagon drivers began pulling their horses to a stop. Volunteers jumped down from their wagons, splitting up into two groups to search the bodies and the buildings. The majority of the soldiers accompanying them remained on their horses so they could keep alert, and to set the wagons running if something went wrong. And yet the wagons were too closely packed for that, liable to crash into each other or plummet into the water if they all tried to flee at once. Someone shrieked after tripping over one of the corpses.
"Shall we try searching somewhere else?" Bernhardt called out to their wagon driver.
The soldier shot him a suspicious look. Now that he didn't have the luxury, the man wasn't slumped over like all the other times and looked more the part of the soldier he was supposed to be instead of the slob Mathias first pegged him as. Nikki had given him the nickname Baggy-pants but his real name was Leon.
"The buildings are crowded together. The Titans would've moved through this area first." Bernhardt motioned his chin down one of the side roads. "We're here to find survivors. I think we might do better over there. The house on top of that hill." He pointed to it. "See it? Looks like there could be people inside that one."
The soldier gazed at the structure. Whether or not there were survivors, there were far fewer bodies on the ground. Though, Mathias doubted the smell would be any better.
Leon nodded, pulling his eyebrows into a frown. It meant he had to get off the wagon and actually participate in the search himself. He couldn't leave them without an escort, and glanced at the soldier in charge of Jarratt's wagon, who understood Bernhardt's intention and was suggesting the same. He pulled on the reins of the horse and turned the wagon around.
"Fine, but don't expect me to do much," he said, patting his pot-bellied stomach. It sloshed from all the booze he'd drank earlier. A gift he shared with Nikki, though he had so far refused to turn it into a competition. It ain't a race, was what he'd said on the matter.
Trampling and riding over bodies as they went, the two wagons proceeded past the row of buildings and up the hill. They came to a stop at the house not long thereafter, which consisted of a main building, a barn, and an outhouse. There were no corpses. And contrary to what he thought, the smell wasn't worse. In fact it was almost entirely gone.
"Hunh, umf!" Leon hopped to the ground, rubbing his back. "Well, let's take a look."
Urged on, they stepped down from their wagons.
Underfoot Mathias felt the earth and grass. Saw the flowers thriving. Smelled the fragrance of the wide-open world. Life continued to bloom though everything around it died. He had the profound thought that long after humanity was gone, whether it be by the Titans as their end or by some other means, life would go on—and it was in moments like these, contrasted with the death and decay, like back on the main road and fields, and suffering, like back in Fuerth in the refugee camps, at Shiganshina, Quinta, that he wished to be able of bringing the same to the people within the Walls. Use his influence, his standing in society, to serve the less fortunate instead of having the humiliation of being bossed by men like his father because he lacked the fortitude to go against the flow he'd been strung along his entire life. A life of comfort and luxury which he hoped he was making up for now—and, after he got to Quinta, rescued Rita, disassociated himself with Bernhardt and his gang, would work hard to correct.
"Ah—how we underlings must suffer!" Bernhardt said, not the slightest bit disturbed by anything they'd seen on their journey thus far.
Together, the five of them headed towards the house.
Mathias stepped into the main building.
Surprisingly, or rather, miraculously, the place appeared to have been used recently. Days ago, in fact.
They'd never intended to look for survivors, but only take for themselves what supplies the residents had left behind, and his heart jumped in his chest at the chance that this could be the day they actually found someone alive out here, and ventured into the kitchen. A place like this was bound to have all assortment of cured meats, cheeses, oils, and alcohol, though a lot of the food stuffs were missing and it looked like whoever had been here, cleared out in a rush.
He knew they didn't have the time to be making a serious search, that they needed to get clear of the rescue force as soon as possible and make haste to Quinta, but after days spent passing empty village after empty village, mingling with the other volunteers and trying to make an honest effort amidst the chaos, this was the first real sign that people still survived. Which meant that it was all the more likely that Rita, safe behind the gates of Quinta, wasn't dead. And while what impatience he had from the start of the journey had since worn thin, his vigor was renewed at this revelation.
"Everyone! Over here!" a shout erupted from outside. It was Jarratt.
Nikki pulled her head out from a storage bin. "Huh? Someone say something?"
"I think so."
"Righty-oh," she said. Punching him on the shoulder, she hurried out. "Catch up!"
Mathias rubbed his shoulder as he followed after her. Her hits hadn't gotten any lighter.
The voice seemed to come from somewhere inside the barn.
Everyone was gathered there, even Leon, who despite being in charge hadn't moved from beside the wagon.
It was a stable, not a barn, and tied up within an enclosed space were two imposingly big cows. Both the feed and water troughs were empty, suggesting they hadn't been fed in a while. The air was vile. A mountain of excrement had piled up beneath the two animals and Mathias had to face away from the stench as it overwhelmed his senses even more than the corpses from just earlier.
Pinching his nose, he could still taste it in his mouth but tried his best to ignore it as he watched Jarratt and Bernhardt going right up against the enclosure, seemingly enthralled by the animals and unaware of the offensively repugnant smell.
"This is an amazing find," the soldier in charge of Jarratt's wagon said, wide-eyed.
Nikki put a finger to her temple and scratched. "Er, this is enough for… how many days?"
Forever. At least that's what Suzanne would have said, if she were here. When I was younger than you I survived on nothing but bugs in the dirt, and scraps dropped from the sewer grates in Mitras. If I'd had even a little of what you've been privy to, I'd never left the Underground. To be in the employ of the Kramer family was a fortune to her that was greater than all the wealth his family possessed. To the refugees starving in Fuerth, these two cows could be their fortune.
"Think we could transport them?" the soldier asked aloud.
"Think about about," Bernhardt calmly pointed out. "They're too fat. The wagons won't hold them, and even if they could, we'd be too slow to outrun any Titans that might appear."
"We could let them go, if that happened."
"And how many seconds would you waste doing that? How many tens of seconds? If a seven-meter class takes one step for every second, how much would it gain on us in, say, five seconds?"
"Damn." The soldier's hand tightened over the hilt of one of the blades around his waist.
"Be lighter if we butchered them," Jarratt said, extending a hand through the enclosure to stroke one of the cow's heads.
"... Butcher them?"
He simply shrugged. "Used to be in the business. 'Course if we do that we wouldn't be able to milk them and all. But if we take the meat and the skin, got rid of everything else…"
"That's…" Bernhardt brushed his hand over his chin.
The soldier cut in. "How long?"
Jarratt looked back. "Two hours."
"Two hours per cow, you mean." Bernhardt corrected.
"Butchering the cow, huh…" the soldier trailed off.
"First we'll need to get them outside. It's difficult to move in here, and the stink won't have anywhere to go," Jarratt stated.
"Get him outside?" Mathias found himself asking.
"'Course." Jarratt was already opening the gate to the enclosure. He nodded over at a rope wrapped around a wooden peg. "Fetch that. Never know when they might struggle. And, see? Just loop it around the neck, like so…"
Everyone followed his instructions and led the first cow out of the stable. Leon had given them the slip partway through, making a beeline for the outhouse to relieve himself. For a man as lazy as he was, Leon sure was fast on his feet when he wanted to be.
The cow ambled forward, shaking its head like it was being tickled by the sunlight.
They encircled it.
"Would someone pass me a gun?" Eyes fixed on the cow's Jarratt turned his right hand so the palm faced upward.
Nikki took her rifle from the leather belt slung over her back and held it toward him. "Here."
"Perfect." Jarratt took it and positioned the muzzle against the cow's forehead, right above the eyes as it slathered its long tongue around its mouth, showing no awareness of its impending doom.
That was when they heard a scream. Ear-shattering and panic-stricken. It came from the direction of the outhouse.
They all turned to see him with his pants around his knees, staring in white-faced horror at something above them, and following his gaze, saw it, too.
The creature had both hands clamped on the roof of the main building. Showing itself from only the nose up, its enormous human-like face peeked over, watching them with an almost perversely joyous glint in its eyes.
"When did it…!"
"How didn't we notice…?!"
Jarratt lifted the barrel of the rifle, but Bernhardt outstretched a large hand and and stopped him.
"Don't fire!" he commanded.
"What are you waiting for?!" the soldier shrieked, all blood gone from his face. "Shoot it!"
Moving as silent as a cat, surprisingly light on his feet for a man so big, Bernhardt closed on him and suddenly threw his arms around the soldier, then whispered into his ear as he unsheathed the blade from his waist.
Before the soldier could utter another word, Bernhardt stepped away from him and in that same motion blood gushed from the soldier's neck. It all happened in a split-second, or even less than, and it took Mathias a whole second more to register what the old man had just done, as the slashed soldier's hands went toward his bloody throat. His arms fell limp before getting halfway. His whole body began to tip forward. By then, Bernhardt had circled to the side. There wasn't a drop on him.
Mathias' own throat trapped shut. He struggled to breath. Too much was happening that he couldn't process quickly enough. For the first time in his eighteen years, he'd seen a Titan up close. For the first time in his eighteen years, a man had been murdered right before his eyes.
Out the corner of his eye he saw Leon make a run for it, holding up his pants for dear life. Klaus was about to give chase when Bernhardt stopped him, too, looking down at the body of the soldier before flicking the sword free of blood.
"This is the opportunity we've been waiting for. I believe the main force has yet to notice the Titan. Unharness the horses. Now we head to Quinta! Everyone, to work!"
Air finally filled Mathias' lungs and he clutched his chest, twisting. He shuddered. The fact that this man was a vicious outlaw, that the others were, too, sunk in with visceral clarity. Forgotten over the course of this journey, he now fumbled around next to his thigh. His shotgun was there, slung in a leather belt. His fingers found the grip, but he couldn't summon enough strength to pull it free as every instinct in his body told he that he was next. But one shout from Bernhardt and he broke from his spell.
"Come on, lad! Hurry it up!" he said, hand on his shoulder pushing him onward as the sound of labored, hungering breath came down from overhead, unusually slow.
The expression on the monster's face was unchanged. It was reaching down now, still wearing the same unnaturally bright look, like that of an infant.
Klaus clicked his tongue. Alongside Nikkie and Jarratt, he ran stumbling for the wagons as Bernhardt urged him to do the same.
"No time for daydreaming, Mathias! Your precious friend awaits!" With the bloodstained blade still in his hand, Bernhardt motioned his eyes upward, glancing back.
Mathias twisted around. The Titan had hauled itself onto the roof of the building without him even noticing. It was crawling in their direction on all fours, the expression on its face now like that of a small child with new toys to play with. The cow bellowed senselessly and backed away, back toward the stable huddled with the other.
"Now, to buy us more time," Bernhardt said, as again without Mathias having noticed the muscular old man shot something from the side of his hip to pierce one of the Titan's eyes which itself was the size of a human head. The oversized eyeball exploded with a wet pop, and steam funneled out to obscure the bloody cavity. The Titan padded a slugged finger over its ruined eye socket and brought its hand back down to examine it. "Excellent! Haven't lost it!" Bernhardt remarked, singing his own praises.
Mathias' heart pounded in his chest. He was soaked with sweat. Cold. He couldn't stop himself from shaking, and found himself unable to move, staring at the Titan as it pawed at its face, pulled the skin off and exposing the muscle beneath, its expression even more jubilant than before. Almost as if it was excited, that the wire still lodged in its eye was some new game it hadn't played before. It didn't seem to be in pain.
"Lad. Get ahold of yourself." In a crouch, Bernhardt spent a moment reeling in the wire he'd fired and make quick work of appropriating the Vertical Maneuvering Gear he'd taken from the dead soldier. He got back to his feet in the next instant and took him by the scuff of the neck and pulled and hauled him easily away.
The Titan was still moving as they ran, heaving its naked, dumpy frame over the roof the stables. Large, maybe seven meters tall. The cloud of steam around its eye was beginning to clear and a fresh, round, glossy eye emerged anew from underneath. Its huge frame slide off the roof and crashed face first into the ground. It cranked its arms around, the muscles in its enormous shoulders tensing, as it then continued toward them using only its arms. Crawling.
Bernhardt dragged him relentlessly, and they rounded the corner of the main building just as one of the wagons appeared before them, overshooting before it ground to a halt. Jarratt was at the reins. Klaus and Nikki were in the back.
Jarratt's eyes blinked repeatedly as he took in the sight of the Titan chasing them. "Hop on!" He had tremors in his voice.
Tossing the Gear then Mathias into the wagon, Bernhardt lamented about the horses still being tied to the wagon then changed his tone to chide Mathias himself. "You might not weight much, but I wouldn't say you're light as a feather!"
Mathias felt a sharp jab of pain when he'd hit the floor, but that, too, was like something happening in some far-off world, as the wagon tilted as Bernhardt clambered in beside him and he looked back at the Titan as they sped off, knowing in his gut that, no, this was real, and it was a living nightmare.
Art by Halimun Ali on ArtStation
Jarratt - member of the outlaws
Chapter 16: Cage
For the second time in a long while, Rita stood still within the doorway to a memory she always used to dream, peering into a dark room where no light tread, at the man slumped against the wall opposite the window, partially hidden behind the table and the chairs—only, this time something was different; this time, the man wasn't alone.
Her younger self was there, holding the small vial in her tiny hand with her big eyes on the wooden box open at her feet, the contents of which were empty, while a second man—a lanky, bespeckled man—held her other. Rita couldn't see this second man's face, but she immediately knew who he was.
When the young Rita looked up, her face was contorted in pain, tears streaming down her soft, rosy cheeks and he crouched down to look into her eyes. He smiled, wiped her tears away then picked up the wooden box, about to cry himself as he straightened back up and turned to face the light.
It was Henning, her father.
Rita tried to call out to him, but the only thing that came from her lips was an incomprehensible jumble of sounds that may as well have been nothing at all. She moved a hand up toward her face and felt around, coming away with dried blood on the right side, below the temple between the eye and ear. She let her crimson fingers fall, and continued to watch as Henning took her younger self's hand in his again and led her from the room, parting from the doorway to let them pass and, as they melded into the light beyond, looked back to the man in the room.
She still couldn't remember his name, and only took one step forward before hearing a voice call to her from afar.
It, too, was a voice she knew.
Her heart thumped, joyous, at the sound of it, and she spun back toward the light, seeing a woman standing there. The light was harsh, blinding the woman's features to her but not the uniform she wore nor the signature green cloak draped around her shoulders, denoting her as a proud soldier in the Scouting Legion.
Her real mother.
Rita's heart stilled. Her breath caught in her throat. Her hesitation vanished, and with tears rolling, she rushed forward, reaching out to her mother, only to grasp at great, thick clumps of black and green mist, falling through a silhoutte that filled her lungs with soot and ash, lighting her insides as she collapsed on her knees, clutching at her chest.
It was death, and it surrounded her.
Rita heaved, wiping scarlet-flecked spit from her chin.
Longingly looking back at the figure with watery eyes, she no longer saw the fantasy of a loved one she'd barely known but the reality of a lonely little girl with the weight of the dead upon her shoulders. The shadow of her betters, of the citizens of Quinta, of Wilco, and all the rest, and she woke up frightened by those same shadows, dancing upon the ceiling and bedroom walls, before coming to her senses after seeing Doris in a chair beside her bed with a candle on the floor. Doris was sound asleep. It was the middle of the night. They'd finally moved her from the apothecary. Which meant she was well enough now to move freely.
So, she rose, feeling the bandage wrapped around her head with a grimace, guiding her fingertips along the dent in her forehead that was certain to leave behind a scar—a point reminder that she wasn't, in fact, the leader she needed to be. That she wasn't Amanda. That, in her hesitation, her dimwitted moment of thinking that simply because she wore the uniform, others would fall in line accordingly, they would relent, stop disrupting and resisting and altogether causing conflict—that by a simple thrust of her sword that matters could be resolved.
... That she wasn't the leader she thought she needed to be, as her eyes wandered to the door to her room, noting the soldier she'd ordered to protect her parents still awake and able, but the leader she never wanted to be.
She took her pendant and gripped it between her fingers, wondering what Mathias would think if he were here, recalling the day she'd left Quinta after her promotion. The only time she'd left Quinta for any length of time in all her eighteen years, and the last time they'd spoken face to face. She imagined he'd tell her continue doing what she thought best. What she thought was right. Even if it meant going against the flow, grinding it down to the foundation if necessary and rebuilding it anew. The result of his discontent with his family's business practices, harboring on malicious intent for his father, that he sought to change for the better.
The plight of others was ever not far from whatever Mathias' current mind, and just one of the few that'd rubbed off on her.
He'd say that her perhaps permanent injury was but one measly scar which paled next to what this meant going forward for the good of the people. That now they would listen, rather than her words fall on deaf ears like his father, or the other businessmen within the Kramer Merchant Association. That she, as acting commander, had the power to do what he couldn't. It was the thread that connected them when they were young, though hers was one of confusion, of mystery, and the unknown, and not seeped in lies, deceit, and hate—the pain they'd shared was all they had in common, and where their similarities came to their end. Where his influence, or in actuality, Suzanne's, ended.
And Rita was all at once relieved.
She loved Suzanne like a sister, but she also wasn't blind. Suzanne came from the Underground, the sums beneath Mitras, and though she had reformed herself as the chief servant of the Kramer family, her upbringing had no doubt slipped through the cracks with Mathias as a perfect example of what type of recklessness wasn't needed for the leader Quinta required; what Rita felt she had to become.
Her childhood friend harbored a deep, dark fiery resentment of his father and it oftentimes clouded his judgments. It more than not got him into trouble that saw his succession in jeopardy and while in recent years he'd calmed down, the resentment was still there. Just like the plight of others was always at the back of his mind, so too was a plight of his own: the death of his mother.
Suzanne was using this. Exploiting it. Leading him on into something dangerous that he couldn't untangle himself. At least that what she remembered, on the day of her promotion. That look in his eyes, the frown on his lips, and Suzanne there, behind his back. In his shadow. Whispering into his ear. Had tried the same with her, but she knew her mother hadn't been—would never be as vile—and her decision to join the Garrison had been her conscious choice to show that. That Suzanne was wrong, and there was goodness within the Walls contrary to what she claimed and if not, Rita herself would strive to be that and prove her wrong.
She wasn't doing this out of the feelings in her heart, but the fist over it. It was her duty to protect the people, to see that everyone was safe and order was restored to Quinta. And it was where her thoughts of Mathias, too, ended, and those revolving around the District began.
For the past several days the soldier that had been guarding her while she recovered, also updated her on the state of affairs within the District and if, of any, news from outside—which, of course, was still none—and through him she learned that Amanda was still rounding up those involved with the incident, complaining about all the reports she was required to file, Ducio was growing increasingly more distraught since his last visit, despite his best attempts to keep together, which further disheartened others who had once looked up to her for guidance—mainly the trainees, though a few citizens also left and decided to throw in their lot with the rioters and the looters who were using it as a rallying call against her—and, as she'd previously hoped, the three sides, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd class citizens that had formed in the beginning, were rapidly disbanding into two groups after becoming aware of her, and by extension, the military's, recent action.
Yes, her failure to control the situation was the first time they'd used lethal force. The first time they'd killed someone over the riots, transforming the circumstances. Now solely a matter of who backed the military taking over in the name of the King or who favored an independent government free from a single ruler, things would be easier to control. Not that this was how she imagined it would happen, everyone banding together, but it was a small victory nonetheless.
And it taught her an important lesson.
Rita wasn't Amanda. Rita wasn't Suzanne. Rita wasn't Mathias. Rita was Rita. Rita Iglehaut. She would do this her way. Everyone else be damned.
While she wasn't as strong as Amanda nor brave as Suzanne or outspoken as Mathias, this bandage wrapped around her head was the first thing she felt she'd done right by herself, and herself alone. No Henning to hide behind. No shadows to scare her. No ghosts to haunt her. Nobody to stop her.
And it felt... tremendous.
Looking down at her hand, she opened and closed it, making a fist. Her strength was returning. Swinging her legs from her bed, she took care not to wake Doris and eased herself upright, a bit lightheaded but otherwise functional. She was well enough to walk, and ready to take her seat back in the mayor's chair. Leave the streets to Amanda, and continue what she'd been doing, what she was best at, and then some.
Using the wall for support, she opened her bedroom door and told the soldier to help her to the District hall.
It was time for her to get to work again because though they may be cattle, trapped in by these monsters at their gate, that didn't mean this had to be their cage—and nobody was going to tell her otherwise.
Chapter 17: Toil
“My name, is Krista. My name, is Krista. My name, is Krista. My name, is Krista…”
Historia frowned in the mirror. Her voice—it didn’t sound convincing enough. Too gruff. Too strangled. She needed to more… happy. Cheerful. She coughed, clearing her throat, and swallowed the fork on her tongue as she tried again.
Feeling it scrape the sides on the way down, those sharp jabs of a girl deluded by the deceit of the world would have to give way for the girl who once upon a time dreamed of peerless heroes in shining armor and hapless damsels in need of rescue in the books she oh so loved to read during those innocent years before the dark, lonely nights when her father was away and mother finally asleep.
In order for that to happen, she needed to skewer that girl and drag her out of the dark and into the light again kicking and crying because otherwise she couldn't convince herself that she could pull this off. Otherwise she'd be stuck on this farm—comforting though it was—and be forced herself to live peacefully, ever after. Willingly ignorant. A fool, like her mother, the one person she didn't want to become because with the things she'd seen, the deeds she'd done, all these questions in her head, to be gentle now would mean this was all for nothing and then she might as well just have had her throat slit alongside her mother's already.
“My name, is Krista. My name, is Krista. My name, is Krista..."
—But she wanted it to be perfect.
To slay the beast meant exactly that, and if that entailed tearing out the entrails of who she used to be and live inside the remains to be what she wanted, then that was what she must do.
Historia pounded lightly on her chest, spit into the sink, massaged her vocal cords, and tried again.
“My name is Krista. Krista Lenz. It’s a pleasure to meet you!”
Her frown lessened. It was an improvement. Though, still not perfect. But, a start in the right direction, and, looking at her reflection in the mirror, the ugliness of a girl with little left to lose than a father's squandered legacy, she'd have to do something about that, too.
Sharle's family had been notable enough to buy their eldest son's way into the Military Police Academy in Mitras, passage atop the Walls anytime they wished, and whatever material luxuries they so desired. So, naturally, she had access to the best products and accommodations available at the time, resulting in a fair-haired beauty, with soft white skin and gentle green eyes. All Historia had, on the other hand, was a bar of soap and a bucket of water.
Their circumstances weren't the only thing that differed, but, turning back to the mirror and fixing her hair, tying it behind her head and out the way, as Krista, besides the sunshine in her voice, by the time the next two years rolled around, that wouldn't be a problem. Her appearance, how she carried herself and the burden upon her shoulders, would be completely changed. Transformed. A pauper turned princess, as her eyes went down to the scar on her palm, and she finally let crack a genuine smile.
Chapter 18: Nightmare
Ymir held her breath, gripping her spear tight concealed in the underbrush. Beside her, observing, was the leader of Ada's group, Kelly. The deer they'd been tracking for the entire day was before her at last, drinking at a basin. It was her first day out on the hunt alone after numerous forays with Ada teaching her the various ways she and her people survived out here with the Titans, and if she could prove herself to them, that she was capable on her own, to Kelly, then she could stay with them. No room for dead weight out here, Ada had said.
It'd been some time without hearing that voice in her head, seeing the woman in her dreams and the boy hobbling alongside her monster inside. Many cycles of soundless sleep. No screams. No smoke. No blood. No other hallucinations or splitting headaches. It was a short-lived respite, she knew, until she was forced to move on. Until her past caught up with her and she had to keep moving. Because the only way to stop the nightmares once and for all was to uncover everything about her past, why she was forced into such a life of punishment as one of those monsters, and who or, what, was responsible. The signifigance of her name. Only then could she rest. Only then could she finally be free. But until that time came, she would do everything, anything, to have just one more night without scarlet red.
Upon seeing her opportunity to strike, keeping herself still as humanly possible, Ymir readied her spear, basically a sharpened stick courtesy of Ada, and raised it over her shoulder slowly. But before she could hurl it, Kelly thrust out her, holding up a finger to her lips. Lowering the hand, she then pointed beyond the basin, deeper into the forest. Look at the water, she mouthed.
At first, Ymir didn't see it until a large leaf fell from overhead, revealing the faint ripples across the water's surface more clearly. A Titan—and it was close enough for them to be worried. A danger if it caught wind of their scent and followed them back to the others, which gave them one choice: find and kill it.
The Titan was covered in algae, likely having found its way down river toward them in search of its only source of food. Food that it couldn't even digest, which made Ymir wonder how they didn't starve, thinking how maddening it'd been for her on her own scavenging the abandoned villages for anything to eat herself, and what it must be like for these things. How she roamed all those years without, nothing of what remained of her mind but the hunger. Neverending, ceaseless. A curse. By whom? For what? All the more reason for her to leave, uncover those truths, and then? That was for her decide—and her alone.
Face buried in the riverbank, bubbles fizzing around its mouth as it breathed in the earth, its sense of smell of muddied, though its eyes rolled, looking into the trees for any sign of sustenance, fueled by that unending want to devour human flesh.
It must've traveled a long way.
It hadn't noticed them yet.
Kelly put a hand on her shoulder. "I'll distract it. You get up in the trees, the tallest branch you find, and hit the nape." She motioned for the spear. "Hold it like this, at an angle. All the way down."
Ymir nodded, having witnessed Ada successfully penetrate a Titan's nape with one before. But Ada was used to dealing with these monsters, knew how much force was required and where on the nape the flesh was the softest. She, on the other hand, only knew the fear of facing them. The loneliness and the pain, and the realization that these things were more than they seemed. That they were once like them, now forced into an existence of neverending nightmare, and the thought of that, of killing not an animal but a person—or what had been—plagued her. Weighed on her heart. Though she also knew that they weren't people anymore. So killing them should put her mind at ease, because then they could finally rest. Except it wouldn't, because just as the boy who remained unnamed or the countless dead on that battlefield so long ago, so too would they drag her down due to her knowledge that these monsters and she were one and the same. That she had lived, while so many others were stuck, forever, cursed to wander.
In order to do this, she needed to lift that weight. Unburden her heart, her regret and shame, and do that which she never wanted to do again—kill another human being.
Chapter 19: Encounters
After that, they came across Titans a total of four more times.
The first a couple of seven-meters distant enough for them to go undiscovered.
The second, Mathias broke out into a cold sweat when they'd just entered another area of the forest off the road. A single five-meter class had appeared from behind one of the tall trees. It raced alongside them, reaching out, but ended up stuck between two other trees, its massive fingertips brushing the branches above their heads. Not a pretty sight, that one, Bernhardt had remarked, slapping him on the back at how grotesque that particular Titan was, not worried in the slightest they could've all died if it'd been bigger—Longer limbs, Jarratt had said. Though, Bernhardt forced them to abandon the wagon in favor of cover under the giant trees on horseback because of it, which marginally improved their chances.
The third was also a single Titan. Luckily this one they only glimpsed beyond a ridge, floating face-down in the river, at first they'd not even recognized it as a Titan—it'd been covered in so much green muck from the river, having washed up from someplace else. It appeared to have died, a broken log or stick, debris from the river's bottom, piercing its nape, but none of them dared go in for a closer look despite Bernhardt's optimistic reassurance that it was, in fact, dead, and that soon its flesh and organs would melt away so only the skeleton would remain in time. For a former Military Police soldier to know this was just another testament to what Mathias surmised as the old man being far more dangerous than his demeanor suggested and what that spelled for him when he eventually parted ways.
For the fourth encounter they'd crested the top of a hill once free of that forest to come across several Titans directly below them. Noticing them at the same time, the Titans began to chase them, clambering over each other, pushing and shoving almost as if they were racing one another. Which left the Titans tangled together, giving them time to lash their horses and escape.
Now, they were in yet another forest, letting the horses rest. The sun was low in the sky, many-layered foliage, the highest level of which seemed to extend into the stars themselves further dimming the sun's already waning light so its reddish glow hardly reached the ground.
"Couple days from here to Quinta?" Jarratt asked Bernhardt. They had both gotten from their horses and stood side by side, stretching.
Bernhardt turned to admire one of the horses. "Beautiful, isn't he? We should be there a little quicker than that, without the wagons."
"Not long, then."
"This is really tasty, you know." Seated underneath one of the towering trees and paying no heed to their exchange, Nikki was wolfing down mouthful after mouthful of the smoked meat they'd snatched from the village, after holding onto it as if her life depended on it even as the Titans were on their heels.
Mathias pursed his lips. The two of them had shared the same horse and on more than one occassion she'd favored pushing him off to save that smoked meat, leaving him sore and bruised and having to catch up before they could move on. Not only had her smoked meat delayed them, but his whole body hurt. He wanted nothing more to do than take it from her and throw it somewhere in the forest—but then they'd just waste more time trying to find her once she chased after it. Either way he was in a foul mood.
"There's something wrong with all of you," he grumbled.
How could they still be so composed? Like everything was normal? A soldier had died, slain by Bernhardt with a blade, of which he still carried along with the soldier's Vertical Maneuvering Gear. The man hadn't done anything wrong, and yet...
His eyes went down to his shoes, searching for an answer he couldn't find. An explanation as to why, even though the soldier was killed, murdered in cold blood, that he wasn't as upset as he should've been. One that Klaus, who was also against a tree, tending to his gun, did for him.
"Get used to it."
Bernhardt came over, stepping over fallen leaves and undergrowth. With one massive hand he pat him on the shoulder with a dark understanding behind his otherwise bright eyes. "Have no regrets, my lad. They hadn't done anything wrong, they were simply unlucky."
"Problem was that he were there," Jarratt elaborated, putting a hand to his waist and twisting to one side.
He protested. "But there was no need for it."
"Hm, do you think so, lad?" Bernhardt queried, adjusting the positioning of the very piece of equipment he'd appropriated from the dead soldier, pacing back and forth stroking his mustache. "How can you be so certain?" he said, raising a hand in question. "Did you have another idea in mind? Could you, in the heat of the moment, have offered me a better alternative? I would love for you to tell me what. Or rather, I would have loved for you to tell me. Had you done so, I might have gotten through all that without murdering anyone. Yes...?"
Mathias followed him with his eyes, knowing full well he couldn't and knowing full well Bernhardt knew the same. Still. His blood began to boil, putting fire in his words. "I might not, but it didn't need to be right then. If you'd just waited a little longer, we might have gotten away without anyone dying."
Bernhardt wagged a single finger high as he continued to pace. "Might have."
"Yeah, if we could spend days thinking," Nikki said, sucking on a bone from the smoked meat.
Bernhardt gave a dramatic nod, both hands behind his back now. "She speaks the truth. Who is to say whether we would have had another chance? By acting immediately, I guaranteed us a means of getting away. That was why I made the decision." He stopped in front of him, facing away, gazing into what little of the tree-tops could be seen. "Sacrificing that soldier was simply part of that decision." He half-turned. They locked eyes. "You disapprove," he continued, arching his eyebrows. "But suppose I left him alone..."
"That's reckless," Jarratt chimed in. "We couldn't have taken the wagons, and he would have called for backup. What could be worse?"
"Letting the fat one get away," Klaus said.
"He was slow. Easy for the Titan to catch. Enough distraction for us to make more distance from the main force," Bernhardt said back.
"Juicy," Nikki quipped. Though whether she was talking about Leon or her smoked meat Mathias couldn't tell.
"Suppose I knocked both of them unconscious—which by the way requires a more advanced technique and is much harder than swinging a sword, even for me. Anyhow, supposing I left them sprawled unconscious on the ground..."
"Chomp chomp, munch munch, same thing," Nikki completed. Her incredible appetite seemed to know no bounds; she had all but finished her hunk of smoked meat, originally the size of a pig's leg.
Bernhardt made another deep nod of his head. "Excellently put, my dear. Whichever the case, the soldier would have ended up as Titan feed. Better to be dead, then, than to be eaten alive. It was a consideration, as well as a form of taking responsibility. He wasn't just eaten, he were eaten because of me. Call it a ritual to make sure I was fully aware of my culpability. Well... and Titans do best with fresh sport..."
"Hypocrite!" Klaus spat, his eyes still down on his firearm. "We're a shameless bunch. I don't remember us ever hiding that. You know well enough the type of people we were when you finally asked for our help."
"... But I never thought you were so—"
"You only saw what you wanted to."
"We are beyond the Wall here," Bernhardt pointed out with a hint of sadness. "The rules of the Interior no longer apply."
"Maybe you just lack the nerve." Klaus looked up at him, his eyes cold and sharp.
"The nerve?" To survive beyond the Wall, to turn his back on the Royal Government, to forgo all dependence on his father, his trust in Suzanne, and to rely instead on his own wit and grit to help Rita, when, really, he was relying on them... Perhaps it was true that he lacked the nerve. Perhaps he'd been naive, but, regardless...
The matter-of-fact way Bernhardt killed the soldier, then fired the anchor at the Titan. The look on his face, detached somehow from the events taking place. Was that it? Was that the look of someone who had the nerve? Was that how Mathias had to be? Was that how he was starting to become?
"Anyway, we needn't be so serious," Bernhardt said, trying to lift the mood. "We should get going again. I believe this should help us all get past the Wall." He slapped the Vertical Maneuvering Gear on his back. "I'm all for staging a glorious entrance, but I'll wager it'll be safer to sneak in."
"Plus, we have no idea what it's like inside," Jarratt agreed.
"Precisely. Once we're in, we can head straight for the treasure."
"You know what it'll mean if you've been lying?" Klaus clutched his gun's grip and wrapped a finger around the trigger.
Mathias' own hand wandered down to his shotgun across his hip, though unlike Klaus, his fingers were trembling. "Of course."
"Our arrangement expires the moment we confirm that the horde exists. After that, you're free to go after your sweetheart or to commit suicide, lad—what pleases you or is popular with the kids these days. We assume no responsibility for your means of escape, either."
"Meaning it's up to you to find your way back out through the Wall."
Mathias responded with a resolute nod to Jarratt's clarification of Bernhardt's terms.
He wanted nothing more than to part ways with these people as soon as possible.
Art by Halimun Ali on ArtStation
Nikki - member of the outlaws
Chapter 20: Black Ink
"I am Rita Iglehaut, acting commander of the Quinta Garrison. This is your last warning, come out!"
Rita stood outside a warehouse with a blowhorn, addressing those barricaded inside. They were associates of the man killed by Ducio on that unfortunate day, and the last of the radical members associated with the side outspoken against the military taking full control of the District and what remained of its citizens, which, since she resumed her duties as acting commander, were growing increasing more desperate. Though they'd made a previous agreement for no more bloodshed, two of her soldiers' were beaten savagely near death recently—and only near death, thanks to others' intervention—some days prior in retaliation for one of their own. Two trainees transferring a cache of equipment that was now stolen and in these peoples' possession.
Before Amanda stormed in, she was here today because she believed that they weren't completely unreasonable. She hoped to persuade them to surrender, and, perhaps, in time, under watchful eyes, regret the choices they've made. See that violence wasn't the only answer, that together, united, they might come to a compromise once order was fully restored to the District as a whole. Though, so far, it seemed that Amanda was going to get her way.
"Told you they wouldn't listen," Amanda said behind her, arms crossed. "Go back to your papers." Putting a hand on her shoulder, she pushed past her to the forefront and unsheathed one of her blades in one, fluid motion. "Just let me deal with it."
But, regardless of how it was done, there was only one rule: no killing.
Rita made sure to remind her of that. As Amanda went to unsheathe her second blade blade, Rita grabbed her arm and squeezed. "No excessive force. That's an order."
"Yeah, I got it." Amanda shrugged her off and pulled it free. "Commander."
Rita glared at her, waiting until she got the message, then touched the scar across her temple, hidden by her hair as Amanda went up to the warehouse doors.
Careful not to upset the stitches, it wasn't completely healed and still raw. She moved her hand away and rubbed her fingertips together, stained black. Black like how her heart was turning, the more those papers piled up. Harrowing reports of people committing suicide the faster their supplies dwindled and the longer they went without support from the outside. Her letters made out to their family members, and of the others missing and dead.
After she resumed her duties after the injury, she hoped things would be better, but they've only gotten worse, and the worse things were, the greater disillusionment among the citizens originally on her side in this new two-way conflict the longer her recently conceived plans for the future took and her previous belief waned. The only way to show these people the reality of their circumstances, was to remind that they were indeed cattle in a cage, and what she—the military—would do to change that, exhausted though they may be from being stretched so thin, despite their renewed progress toward what was best for all of them because it was their duty she wasn't about to allow anyone undermine. Amanda may have been proven right this time, but it was the exception, not the rule, and her rule was absolute.
When she looked back up, the mountain steps had reappeared. The mist and fog had cleared a little, but the pack on her shoulders felt heavier, filled with rocks. In her mind's eye she continued on, bearing the burden as she should without complaint. Gone was her shortsightedness, her hesitation, and the guilt of the bloodstains on her boots. The only thing left was her devotion to duty, because that was all that mattered, in the end.
Chapter 21: Characters (Part II)
Point of View Characters
Achi Almen (original character) - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Annie Leonhart - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Friedrich "Fritz" Brandt (original character) - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Historia Reiss / Krista Lenz - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Ines Brandt (original character) - member of the Scouting Legion, Captain of the Special Investigations Squad
Mathias Kramer - leader of Bernhardt's outlaws
Rita Iglehaut - member of the Military Police Brigade, First Interior Squad
Ymir - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Gabriel - member of the First Interior Squad
Mina Carolina - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Sasha Blouse - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Mikasa Ackerman - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Eren Yeager - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Armin Arlert - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Bertolt Hoover - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Reiner Braun - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Connie Springer - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Dazz - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Levi Ackerman - member of the Scouting Legion, Captain of the Special Operations Squad
Erwin Smith - commander of the Scouting Legion
Hange Zoe - member of the Scouting Legion, Section Leader
Moblit - member of the Scouting Legion, Hange's assistant
Larrens (original character) - member of the Scouting Legion, Ines's assistant
Mike - member of the Scouting Legion, Squad Leader
Ada (original character) - survivor outside the Walls
Taki - leader of the survivors outside the Walls
Amanda - member of the Scouting Legion, Special Investigations Squad
Klaus - member of the outlaws
Nikki - member of the outlaws
Riecka Lenz (original character) - member of Scouting Legion, Special Investigations Squad
Zena Bartosz (original character) - member of Scouting Legion, Special Investigations Squad
Alger Gerhardt (original character) - member of Scouting Legion, Special Investigations Squad
Suzanne - servant of the Kramer family; Mathias's tutor
Jörg Kramer - Mathias's father
Isolde Lenz (original character) - farmer, Riecka's mother
"Baggy-pants" Leon - member of the outlaws
Traute Caven - member of the Military Police Brigade, First Interior Squad
Kenny Ackerman - member of the Military Police Brigade, Captain of the First Interior Squad
Doris Iglehaut - Rita's adoptive mother
Henning Iglehaut - Rita's adoptive father
Ducio - member of the Garrison Regiment, West Division (Quinta); Rita's assistant
Wilco - member of the Garrison Regiment, West Division (Quinta)
Bernhardt - leader of the outlaws
Jarratt - member of the outlaws
Chapter 22: Captain Ines
Chapter 19 illustration by Tatong on DeviantArt
No longer than two years had passed since the Fall of Wall Maria, life as they'd known ceasing to exist for the over ten thousand people living within the territory by a Titan "so enormous as to block out the sky", with the remaining populace holding together as best they could and the military and Royal Government both still a scrambling mess as they attempted to continue to coordinate, coral, and contain the vast number of refugees yet left, having poured in deeper and deeper toward Wall Sheena and Mitras itself because of overcrowding and shortages despite the "success" of the Reclamation the previous year which saw overall food consumption cut nearly in half, at least where the refugees were concerned. Ines put the blame squarely on the overindulgence of the nobility, who sought to fill their stomachs even in this time of crisis, rather than the overabundance of the remaining refugees, who were forced to sow the fields in order to survive.
In light of all this, even though they'd been ordered to halt all ongoing activities after barely scraping by in the eyes of the King with the gamble he'd pulled the before the Fall, three years prior, Erwin—Commander, Erwin, now—was still making preparations for their next expedition outside the Walls.
The two of them were standing in his office at Scouting Legion headquarters, looking out the window to the courtyard below at Mike and the other squad leaders and their respective squads saddling their horses as they were getting ready to help organize and provide guard for the lines of supplies throughout the territories between Walls Rose and Sheena, from Trost to Ehrmich in the south, around both east, Karanes to Stohess, and west, Krolva to Yarckel, from Utopia to Orvud in the north, for the next several weeks, as they'd been doing—all they've been doing—since Maria's fall.
Though, this time, for the first time, it was Levi and not Mike, who was in charge.
It hadn't even been that long since he joined the Scouting Legion, and Erwin was trusting him—the man who'd tried to kill him—and his squad with taking over an operation usually reserved for only those with five or more years of experience within the ranks. Even now, Ines could tell the Commander's eyes were squarely focused on Levi in particular, and her expression drew darker still.
Erwin's eyes flickered over, passing over her broken arm in its makeshift splint before going back down to the courtyard again. His voice was level when he spoke, but she felt the triumphant rumble beneath; those hints of his plan as it continued toward its fruition slipping through the cracks along the edge of his mouth. "Shortly before you arrived, I received this," he reached in his uniform jacket and pulled out a folded letter from the inside pocket. He held it toward her.
He'd already opened it, and judging by its still wet, freshly broken seal, it'd been written and delivered not more than a half an hour before.
It was the seal of the King himself.
"He wants me to come to the Royal Capital along with the other Commanders to discuss current and future countermeasures against the Titans. I would like you and your squad to accompany me."
Ines stared into the deep blue eyes of the man opposite. Eyes that searched, prodded, and guessed her answer since before she'd even rapped on his office door not ten minutes ago. Her jaw tightened. Again, his eyes went briefly down to her broken arm. There was no proper equipment for a real one, since they, too, were limited in supplies—and they again stood beside each other in silence for some time more before he opened his mouth to speak again, no words wasted as he rested his hands behind his back, catching her unchecked dawnation of a harrowing rumor that'd been floating throughout the Districts since the onset at Quinta. Since 846.
"Yes, it seems they've decided the next best option after preventing us from continuing our duties to alleviate the burden in filling their coffers is to send the majority of those refugees out to reclaim what was lost once again. Another operation to retake Wall Maria. The drastic influx of refugees from the Fall have finally run their patience thin if not their coffers frighteningly close to empty quite yet."
And to keep the Scouting Legion on a tighter leash, lest they try to bite back at the Titans themselves.
The two of them lapsed back into silence, she now holding the King's letter, Erwin deep in thought. Eventually, she asked what he'd have her do.
Taking the letter back in his hands, he tore it down the middle and crumbled the two halves, then presented the wadded up remains to her. "Though we have even less freedom than before, that does not mean they can prevent us from taking other courses of action within our jurisdiction."
She waited a moment before responding. "Sir?"
"Would you be willing to the leader of a new Special Squad?" he asked plainly.
A flush of emotion rushed to her heart. A heat spread throughout her body and the scar on her bottom lip throbbed. Her hands twitched, and she curled her fingers inward, burning up. She knew immediately what this meant for the both of them, and cursed the bastard as a small and barely noticeably smirk crept onto his lips as he heard the answer he'd anticipated correctly without a second thought. "... I'd be honored, Commander."
"Then, Captain, you and your squad's former duties working with Section Leader Hange will be given to the Special Operations Squad under Captain Levi. From here on, you and those you choose will henceforth be the 'Special Investigations Squad'." He saluted, fist over heart. "You may return to your quarters now. Tomorrow, we'll leave for the Royal Capital. I'll be sending the Special Investigations Squad's first duty shortly."
She followed suit, smothering her growing fury and giving the salute and the door halfway opened when he called out to her again.
"And Captain? I'll be looking forward to your report."
Making her way to the dining hall, good hand gliding along the concrete wall as she felt every groove and nick in the hundred-year stone, Ines eventually came to its doors, bits of chipped and splintered wood poking out around the handles, giant metal bars of iron, and she was careful not to get pricked as she helped herself inside.
Peering around, the dining hall was smaller than one might expect, with only two rows of three tables both, no windows, and just candles on each table for light. She would have to find members for her new squad quickly. Erwin will want to be ready to travel at first.
In the dim, at the foot of the very last table in the first row, were three people. She noticed Hange right away, the Section Leader flailing her arms about and running her mouth about what Ines could surmise as another rant about the Titans. Moblit put a hand on the eccentric woman's shoulder, distracting her for a moment and allowing the unfortunate youth she'd somehow managed to snare the chance to slip away.
Passing them by without a word, Ines could already feel a headache coming on simply hearing the googles bouncing around Hange's neck the moment she sat down next to Larrens, her own assistant much as Moblit was to Hange and Ines herself to Erwin until just a few minutes prior, hidden behind them, smartly keeping out of the way drinking a bottle of ale.
And, she might've asked what hapless Garrison soldier he'd swiped it from if it were any other time, but she was almost inclined to take a swig herself to celebrate not having to deal with Hange anymore instead.
"So, what Erwin want?"
He took a sip of his bottle, expression dull but telling her all she needed to know about what he thought of that response. Of course who wouldn't be questioning of such an answer?
... It wasn't because she didn't want to or couldn't tell him, but, that, if she did, then Hange might overhear. Regardless, Hange being, well, Hange, she wedged her way between them and into their conversation—or, rather, lack thereof—anyway.
"Nothing, huh? She pursed her lips. Though, instead of what Ines thought she'd do, Hange pat her on the shoulder. "Well, good luck with that. Now, would you like to hear about my most recent foray into my research? Oh! I've made a great discovery and it's all thanks to you!"
Standing close behind, Moblit sighed, but luckily for all of them, right then the dining hall doors burst open, with the most unpleasant looking bastard and his equally as obnoxious haircut striding through whilst complaining about their reations and how much they tasted like wet stones and where the quartermaster on duty could shove them. ven in only the candlelight Ines could see just how unfortunate this young man's face was, which was a night and day difference with the young woman following behind him, chiding him about not watching what he said in the vicinity of their seniors.
She knew them as the two latest members of that man's squad, after Eld and Gunther, though she couldn't place their names. Only that they were rookies, fresh out of training.
... To think that man had the gall to pick them for his squad over much more capable and able-bodied members of the Scouting Legion—was he trying to get them killed?
As Hange sprang up to greet them, they hadn't even placed in the top ten of their graduating class, and, as much as the woman annoyed her, in addition to themselves, now her friend's life was at greater risk because of it.
"Damn you, Erwin..." she growled under her breath.
She recalled the day she'd first laid eyes on him, walking amidst the aftermath of that battlefield where they'd rested on the dismembered remains of his two companions. Still alive despite the odds, that squint-eyed runt of a man with a blade at Erwin's throat, a criminal, was the person her former Squad Leader now looked at the most.
The previously smothered fire returned, smoldering as she watched the man himself, Levi, come inside with Eld and Gunther not far behind.
They must have finished their preparations early.
Gaze fixed on the man as he, Eld, and Gunther joined those two rookiees along with Hange at a seperate table, the rage which had clouded his vision and hid the sorrow in his heart, as he'd looked down at Erwin, those blank documents lying at his feet—the fakes of the real ones she'd given to Supreme Commander Zackly days before which Lovoff had tried to obtain through he and his companions, his goal being to erase the evidence of the nobility's embezzlement of the Scouting Legion's expeditionary funding—soaked in rainwater, was long gone, but, the pain of their deaths was still recognizable, pulling him apart though he concealed it well and it no longer clouded his vision after hearing the Commander's words back then, after having decided to throw in his lot with the rest of them in the Scouting Legion to save humanity from the Titans and because of the promise of something more.
... Erwin's hope had been to secure two positive outcomes for the Scouting Legion via one gamble, and it appeared both were coming to pass: Lovoff, and those bastards like him since, the largest reason why their expeditions were no doubt being suspended, and that man joining their side aftering lowering his blade, choosing submission over defiance. With the nobles who saw their expeditions outside the walls as fruitless endeavors imprisoned, and Levi included into their ranks, along with the first successful implementation of his own masterfully devised "Long Distance Scouting Formation", Erwin was one step closer to whatever long term plan had been brewing in his head for quite some time.
The difference between being free or being caged, being devoured or going home, or so Erwin had everyone keep believing as his reasons now that Shadis officially stepped down to give him the position he'd meant to shortly before the Fall and, now, had her unable to ignore the opportunity to explore the underbelly of Mitras in-depth, Ines remembered staring at what remained of Levi's two companions, thinking that one person was just what Erwin had calculated as the right amount needed, with the rest being acceptable losses. Expendable casualties. Despite being well-versed in handling the Vertical Maneuvering Gear, that teamwork hadn't been a major problem, and, maybe, in time, could've proven themselves more than just sewer rats—but no, they'd suffered the fate of being washed away as pawns, just like all of them were to him in the end, and she hated him for it.
And she couldn't help but wonder, now, if Levi was either really doing this for humanity's sake, or his own. So his eyes wouldn't wander to the two that'd been at her feet. Lying there in the mud, drowned with blood.
Beside her, Larrens asked what was wrong. "It's nothing," she said not peeling her eyes away. "Get me the names of everyone starting from the Fall and back currently within the Scouting Legion. I want a full list before tonight. Go now."
Larrens jumped to his feet immediately, giving a salute. "Ma'am."
Then, he was off.
Moblit, who'd opted to stay with them instead of following the Section Leader, shook his head. "It's never just 'nothing' with you, Ines." He smiled forlornly. "Or the Commander, for that matter. 'Nothing important'? It's the opposite, right?"
She grimaced. He could always figure her out. Always knew how to press her buttons, didn't he? Although, unlike before, unlike with Hange, there was no harm in telling him the details,
And, after she finished, Moblit rubbed his chin in thought. "Hm. Considering, you have four people to choose. That's why you sent Dierck away so soon... Not many of us left... But, well, I think I have someone in mind..."
She glanced over.
By "us", he meant those from before the Fall. Many had died trying to evacuate Wall Maria. And, judging by his tone, she wasn't going to like it one bit.
That night, the moon barely out yet, Ines stalked through the shadowy halls of Legion Headquarters, thinking of the report the Commander personally handed to her not hours ago.
Somehow, as only expected of him, he'd gotten permission for she and her entire squad to travel freely within the Royal Capital, not just the Interior, for several months.
And, if that wasn't impressive enough, their official mission was to visit every District's prison between Rose and Sheena and recruit any prisoners willing to bolster their ranks if they so chose, even securing sanction for those within Mitras itself, Lovoff and the bastards like him, but also those scheduled to be executed, the worst of the worst and then some, traitors to the Walls and the King himself.
Crossing through the courtyard now to reach the barracks, although it surprised her that the Royal Government allowed such a bold request, it was the motive behind that she was more surprised by and wanted to know more of, of how deep Erwin's thoughts actually delved, as she stopped at the door to one of the dorms and made her presence known. The one she'd came for was there, slacking off from their duties as usual.
"What is it?" Riecka asked without taking her eyes from her blade, too busy sharpening it with a whetstone.
"I need to speak with you."
Watching Riecka go up and down the blade at an angle, flipping between the stone's two sides, if there was anything to honestly be surprised about, it was the fact that after so many expeditions and slaying of Titans that Riecka still had the same blade from when she first volunteered to join the Legion.
Though iron bamboo daggers were made of the toughest material available, even harder than ultrahard steel, from the forests surrounding the Industrial City itself, they weren't indestructible.
Waiting for the other woman to finish, Ines wondered how much blood had stained it over the years, but, whatever the amount, she also knew there there was plenty more yet to spill.
When she did, Riecka wore a playful grin. "Gonna hook me up with a hot date, Squad Leader?"
"Something like that."
"The Commander has given me leadership of a new Special Squad, and I've decided to pick you as one of its members. The first, in fact."
Riecka chuckled. "How flatterin'. And here I thought you'd go for that goody-two-shoes as your first. So, what're we doing? More yeast drops?"
She knew the woman was mocking those reddish-black clumps Hange and some scientists from the Interior had painstakingly created to help alleviate the decay of humanity's food shortages, but, just as this new task given to her, what the logistics units did was very important to the overall success of their struggle against the Titans. To have her poking fun at that was something that would've gotten her reprimanded any other day, except today there were larger things at stake—not that Ines wasn't still irritated by it. Furthermore, Moblit was nothing but dependable, unlike her at the moment.
"No, something more appropriate to the current situation." She offered her the report.
Riecka skimmed it briefly, then handed it back. "So, 'the Special Investigations Squad, huh?" she said, now picking something from her teeth with the dagger.
"Tomorrow. First light. Central Courtyard. The other members will be chosen by then."
"And Lenz? It's Captain now. Be sure to remember that."
"Oh, like a demotion, eh?" Riecka quipped.
Ines sharply ignored her and left.
While it was true Riecka was an excellent soldier where combat was concerned, she was arrogant and lazy. Ines couldn't believe she'd let Moblit talk her into having the woman as a member of her squad, but as always he'd put forth a convincing arguement that a certain balance was needed—especially where they were going. And, though the one thing she'd praise Riecka for was her ability to kill Titans, she couldn't deny that she often let her guard down around her because there was an unspoken synergy between them. Something a graduate straight out of the Trainee Corps wouldn't truly have earned right away: trust.
Only, as a result, she had to pick three others who weren't going to be as much a nuisance, cause any unnecessary headaches, as she double-checked the list Larrens had prepared for her.
The first one to catch her eye was Zena Bartosz. She remembered the woman being somewhat fidgety, anxious about seemingly every little thing, but, other than that trait, her intelligence was one of the highest on and off the field. She was also young, only nineteen, though she'd been a part of more operations than others twice her age and miraculously came back alive at every turn. Someone of equal footing despite her age.
Second, Alger Gerhardt. Not the brightest soldier in the Scouting Legion, his only problem was his knack for being the first to charge in, with a bravery unmatched by his peers. Certainly, during their trainee days, she'd known him to be a brilliant inspiration to those around him where he lacked otherwise that more than made up for that blemish upon his person. Something they would need if they didn't want to return empty-handed.
Lastly, she couldn't decide. Not that because there were so many choices—she'd already narrowed down the list to those she wanted—but that, when the Commander had delivered the report personally, he suggested waiting until she got to the prisons to decide upon the last member.
... Did it mean he wanted another cutthroat in their ranks?
Wasn't the one they had enough?
No, that wasn't like him.
Levi, despite his background, wasn't a cold-blooded murdered.
No, with Erwin there was always something more written between the lines, and—though she was loathe to admit it—the incident with Lovoff had secured them valuable assets, so, again, she wondered what his true thoughts were, what his eyes truly saw when he'd looked down at Levi in the courtyard early this morning, and what it meant for the rest of them.
It wasn't that she didn't trust him. On the contrary, she would give her life for him when it came down to it, but, she also couldn't blindly follow behind any longer. Even with how smoothly things have been progressing given the circumstances. There was always the possibility that something, that someone might come back to slit their throats during the night when they're sound asleep.
... Not that she had honestly slept well in years.
At that, Ines thought of her youngest brother, the one who was still alive. Friedrich was almost old enough to be a part of the military already, wasn't he?
She gripped her splint tightly, bearing the pain which followed. Her head lowered, and then she held it high again a moment later.
On her watch, there wouldn't have to be anymore deaths over insignificant scraps of paper.
She was going to make sure of that from now on. Even if that meant going against the flow so nobody else had to lie covered in their own blood.
Art by Hatsuraikun on DeviantArt
Ines Brandt - soldier in the Scouting Legion & Captain of the Special Investigations Squad
Chapter 23: The 104th Trainee Corps
Annie, listen to me. I want you to treat this whole world as your enemy.
The military. Humanity's second and last line of defense against the Titans. She'd been accepted, and glanced down at her uniform: a light brown jacket that stopped midway to her waist with one pouch on either side. It opened up down the middle, held together by a dark brown sash over white pants and knee-high leather boots, and was distinctly, even suspiciously, reminiscent of those back home. Though, the one difference was stitched into the jacket's shoulder, as well as the left-breast pouch: the patch of the 104th Training Corps, a shield crossed over by two swords. Their class designated emblem. No star-crossed red armband to speak of.
Eyes now shifting back on the bald, peeling scalp of their Chief Instructor as he got in the other trainees' faces, asking for their name and place of origin, Annie recalled one of the days before she arrived here. The laughter of those kids playing tag, running around without a care in the world. One of them, the monster, the Titan, and the rest, the fleeing villagers, the citizens of Shiganshina, not wanting to be devoured. She tensed.
A cold sweat run down her back.
The large boy who'd voluntarily played the part of that monster, just horsing around, as if the horror of what they'd done never occurred to him. Never even registered in his brain, bellowing out his guilt with laughter. The genuine answer he gave the Chief Instructor when asked his reason for being here: that he would save the world. Save Humanity. Despite doing what he did, what he believed was right. Except it was very wrong, and made her sick.
Something rose from her stomach then.
Something acidic, vile, and putrid.
Coming up her throat, it was trying to escape, but, swallowing it back down, she knew what they did couldn't be dismissed with laughter, only screams.
Her stomach ached.
Even if the whole world curses and resents you, I want you to know...
Yet, regardless of how terrible she felt, it was far from over. She wasn't dead yet. Therefore, she couldn't just abandon it now. Her struggle wasn't finished, and thus, neither was her role as a warrior. She'd made a promise. Something that could only end in screams, and now panning over all the other trainees around her, lined up in single rows awaiting their turn to be hazed by the Chief Instructor, his dome a spotlight giving away his location at all times the way it reflected the sun overhead, she wondered which one of them it might be this time as she watched him move up and down the ranks having passed her by with not a word moments before, until he stopped at his next chosen victim: the boy she'd met at the recruitment center. He had a wide grin on his face, and it was one of the stupidest, ignorant expressions she'd ever seen.
"You with the idiotic face! Who are you and where are you from!?"
"Sir!" The boy saluted with a fist twisted over his heart; the military's universal salute , signifying its loyalty to the people, to the King within the Walls, and duty to protect everyone they lived for. How it carried each and every one of their hopes and dreams with them to victory against the Titan threat. "Friedrich Brandt! Trost District!"
What she, this boy, and all the others present were soon to represent: the next batch of lambs to the slaughter.
"Brandt, you say?!" the Chief Instructor repeated, looming over him.
The Chief Instructor sucked air deep into his lungs, puffing out his chest like an owl. "Well, Brandt, let's hope you're not a disappointment to the two who came before you! Why are you here?!" he shouted louder than before.
"To see my older sister sir!"
"Excellent! Then you can act as bait for her because that's all you're good for compared to her worth! Row Eight, about face!"
The Chief Instructor grabbed the top of the boy's head and forcibly spun him around. The others in his row followed suit. This was the sign that he didn't like what he heard, and with the majority of the rows also turned in the opposite direction from their original positions, the man didn't seem to like much. But, though he might've seemed imposing at first glance, to her, from his scraggly beard with little strokes of grey here and there, to the wrinkles and stress marks mapping his face, and the dark, deep circles beneath his hollow, haunted eyes, betrayed him for what he really was. This man was just a thin-skinned coward too old and tired to still be parading as a soldier and—especially—a warrior.
He went on to the next trainee, and then the next.
A few of them he passed like herself, and, from the corner of her eye, she looked back at the boy, Brandt, and saw that his eyes were bright and hopeful—a stark contrast of the ones the Chief Instructor was leaving alone. The tragedy and grief that was hidden behind them. Those looks which told him they'd already seen what needed to be seen. How cruel the world truly was.
… If only he knew.
Remember that I will always be on your side.
Yet, beneath this boy's… she saw something the Chief Instructor didn't. Something that she herself knew all too well: a promise.
So, promise me, Annie.
… No. They weren't the same. She couldn't think about this boy any longer, he was unimportant. He'd just been there to help her fill out her form and get admitted in the training corps. Whatever goal he had of his own, whether it be a promise to fulfill or not, didn't matter.
Promise me that you'll come back.
She went back to the Chief Instructor just as he picked up a short boy with a shaved head by the sides of his face, then abruptly dropped him to gawk at a girl a few rows down who was casually stuffing her face with a potato in full view as if the action would somehow go unnoticed. Flabbergasted, he came before her and asked her where she'd acquired it, the reply being that she "procured" it from the messhall earlier. He then asked her why she took it in the first place, and why a potato. The girl, Sasha, explained that she was hungry and, perhaps in an attempt to get away unpunished, offered him what she considered to be half of it. To Annie, and likely everyone else watching, it was obvious her offering wasn't even close to half. On top of that, she'd given him the smaller of the two pieces.
And, with that, the opening ceremony was cut short so he could show them an example of what disobeying the rules—theft of provisions, in this instance—got them.
Later that same day, watching the girl—henceforth nicknamed "the Potato Girl" by the rest of the trainees—run as was her punishment, Annie bawked at her form. Like a fish straight out of water, flopping her arms about carelessly and gasping for breathe, the least she could do was tuck her arms in and save herself further embarrassment.
"... How long do you think he's going to make her run?"
She glanced over, somewhat surprised, but, more irritated. Mainly at herself, for allowing someone to approach her without taking notice. She'd lowered her guard. The boy, Brandt, was standing next to the stairs of her dorm, that stupid grin still on his face. It appeared to be plastered on. She didn't answer, and she couldn't let her true emotions show, couldn't let her guard down again, and scowled.
He came beside her, shaking his head at the spectacle. "Harsh, don't you think so?" She didn't respond, again. And, much to her growing irritation, he put a hand under his chin, leaned over the railing, and sighed. "I guess that's the way the world truly works, huh?"
She continued to ignore him, trying her damnedest to block him out so hopefully he left, lest he kept running his mouth. It was even worse listening to him talk than watching that girl sloppily run.
"Say, I think I deserve a thank you for helping you fill out those papers," he said after a moment, effectively breaking her silence. "Without me you wouldn't even made it in."
… Was he trying to blackmail her? She quickly dismissed the thought. No, of course not. An idiot like this. Though, she could never be too cautious. Actually, right now, of all things, she wanted to punch him. "You told me to fill out 'big nose' for my name and 'the center of my face, you can't miss it' for my residence."
He must've noticed her fist curl and backed up a step. "Hey! You don't have to get so upset about it," he said, laughing nervously. "Your nose isn't even that big! It's the perfect size, I really like the shape!" He looked to the side and scratched his cheek. "Honest… I was only joking…"
Her hand uncurled. He wasn't worth her time. Tomorrow, she would need to start gathering more information about where the King resided, map out what they called the 'Royal Capital', and any other place that might be of strategic value to the mission. She didn't have time to waste on petty annoyances or hapless buffoons.
She sighed. Dammit. "Ah, I get it... I won't bother you anymore, then, alright?" the boy said, shuffling his feet as he began to backtrack down the stairs.
"Wait." She relaxed her fist. Even if this boy was nothing to her, even if she took her father's words to heart, it also wasn't the time to be making potential enemies. "T-thank you…" She didn't remember his first name, and felt her face grow hot when he smiled afterward.
"Fritz. Call me Fritz."
"Fritz." Averting her eyes, she cursed under her breath. Why had she done that? Was it because…? Marcel's face passed through her mind then, but, this boy...
"So, erm…"—he sniffed and wiped his nose with a finger—"Does this mean we're on even terms now?"
Annie had her back to him. He looked nothing like Marcel, so then why did she…? He grinned again, she'd seen it from the corner of her eye, and scoffed. "Only if you knock that off first… and don't stand so close to me. Ever again."
He took a few more steps backward. "Sorry…"
"As long as we're clear."
"Count on it."
Yes, he was nothing like Marcel, but, regardless, he was going to be a nuisance all the same. She'd known it the moment he'd asked for her bread back then. Now, he was searching the clouds for something, and the way his eyes moved back and forth… No, she had to ignore him. Her promise, she—he said something about wanting to find her again. His sister. His promise.
Yes, she had to make as little contact as she was still able with this boy.
"These are the potatoes that girl stole?!"
It was now well into the evening and dinner was being served in the messhall. But, even with how hungry she was, Annie couldn't bring herself to eat her food and was forced to set her drink of water down, waves rippling across its surface from how ravishingly the boy across from her was eating. She glared at him already sinking his teeth into his second helping. The sound of him vigorously chewing, swallowing, and swishing it down was the last thing she wanted to hear while trying to eat. Not to mention, these potatoes… They were undercooked and bland, their color a sort of mucky, spotted yellow without the skin and, here he was, gorging them down like he hadn't eaten in a matter of days. All she could do was block him out the best she was capable of, again. Thus, she forced her attention away, looking over at the serving line. The menu also included soup and bread, but, having seen either she'd honestly rather take the potato. Picking up her drink again, she just finished the rest when the boy wiped his face free of potato and slapped his hand on the table in a fiery passion.
"You're not going to eat?" he said, halfway out his seat and bending forward towards her. "You have to eat if you want to keep your strength up, even if the food is bad!"
She raised an eyebrow despite herself. "We're officially starting training tomorrow. I don't want to throw up during it." The only reason she'd accepted his company after this morning was to lead him astray and keep him from poking his nose in her business anymore than he already was, but, it was having the opposite effect. He only poked her harder.
"Then…" His hand was already hovering over her tray.
"Take it." She pushed it toward him with enough force to slide off and splatter, but he just caught the end and started chomping down right then and there. He didn't even seem to chew this time.
Disgusted by his lack of tact, Annie turned away—partially to spot Reiner and Bertolt to see what they were up to, who they were sitting next to, if anyone at all, and partially to not be subject to flying bits of food.
She found them and the majority of the other trainees huddled around one table in particular. She could hear them talking about the Titans, and in the center sat a boy with a cocky expression on his face, proclaiming how he'd send them all to the void starting with the Colossus Titan—the one responsible for breaking down the outer gate of Wall Maria. She hadn't yet discussed what their plans were tomorrow, but, with this idiot on the other side of her, a thorn the whole day, she wasn't about to run the risk of him discovering something—even accidentally. She cursed her own shortcoming. Though, she had to accept her misjudgement, and, so, eyes traveling to the other tables where more, smaller groups were seated, she kept observing the other trainees until coming upon a table where three girls were seated. The first was tall and dark skinned, dwarfing the two sitting across from her. The one directly across had auburn, almost scarlet-colored hair, and was stone-faced as she blankly stared at her wooden spoon submerged in a bowl of soup. Next to her, the third one, with the light, blonde hair and soft, pleasant features, appeared to speaking to her while holding a half loaf of bread, though she didn't seem to be getting through. They were in complete opposite of one another.
Annie didn't know them, but, what caught her eye about them was she distinctly remembered seeing the tall one with the dark skin at the opening cerem—her eyes widened for a split-second. Had she imagined it? No, there it was again. The dark skinned girl… was glancing in her direction. As if she knew she was being watched. Just then, her attention snapped back to the table with the crowd from how loud it'd gotten, as now another boy—equally as cocky—mocked the former's vow to kill every last Titan and what was ultimately his decision for wanting to join the Scouting Legion, saying that he was more likely to become fodder for the Titans than their sole executioner. The other boy said something in retort, then both of them got to their feet and looked about ready to come to blows when the bell chimed.
Dinner was over.
All trainees were to immediately head back to their dorms, sleep, and then be up first thing the next morning for prep.
Thus, without waiting for her new "friend", Annie slunk away from the table and exited the messhall, not stopping when she heard him run up to the doors and shout "good luck tomorrow" after her, no doubt grinning like the idiot he was.
… She should've just knocked him out when she had the chance.
More important, thinking of that dark skinned girl on her way back to her dorm, she'd have to watch those around her and how she reacted more carefully from now on; be even more cautious. The same went for that idiot, unfortunately. She knew that if she let her emotions get the best of her, it would interfere with the mission. That would also mean breaking her promise.
Find the Coordinate. Don't let anyone survive if they have it. It's extremely important that you destroy it. No, you don't need to know the details as to why, just that it's something dangerous and mustn't be allowed to exist. Can you do this for me, Annie?
And settling into her bunk for the night, what might be her only decent amount of sleep since their landing, Annie stared at the bed above her own. Her bunkmate was still out and about. She read and repeated their nameplate to refresh it in her mind: Mina Carolina.
Annie met her shortly after the opening ceremony when they were being assigned their dorms. The first thing she'd asked after introducing herself was if they could be friends. It'd taken her aback at the time, someone so eager to drop their guard entirely. So genuinely... naive.
Sitting up, Annie pulled her knees to her chest and gazed forlornly at the silver-banded ring on her left index finger.
People like Mina were the types she disliked the most. It'd only taken that one encounter for her to solidify her disdain. She was even worse than that idiot in that she was truly happy behind her eyes, and, remembering those bloody first hours after the Wall fell, the reason why she could never be like that was forever burned into her brain.
How they ran from the swarm. Like insects. Helpless, insignificant specks cowering amidst that town reduced to rubble and ruin as she'd looked on from the safety of their perch, watching them get eaten alive. Seeing, in full view, what her actions caused and those affected by them up close and personal, raw, visceral, real.
It wasn't the same as the training. Wasn't like they described.
She was a murderer, and her world felt cramped, lonely, and painful just like her insides as they tied themselves into knots by simply revisiting it. And, murderers, those with that distinct, hollow dark behind their eyes, didn't have the right to be happy. Because the horrors they committed? Yes, they could only be silenced with screams.
The next day, suspended in mid-air, Annie swayed in her harness and balanced herself just as the Chief Instructor had explained, dangling above the ground as still as humanly possible. The less quivering, the better.
Looking up at the device that held her in place, a simple three prong stand, she watched the ropes that were tethered to the top tighten further then relax after she was lifted down again, whereupon she unhooked the other end of the ropes secured to her belt, swatting them away as they now hung lazily, loose and ready for the next occupant, and eyed the crowd.
In front of her were the rest of the trainees—all five hundred or so of them—clumped together in a mass, each waiting for their own turn, the ones who've already completed the exercise having to wait on the sidelines. Glaring at them, she noticed a couple glared back, most notably that tall girl with the dark skin, and anyone who didn't glare back was either too busy worrying about the exercise, too afraid to meet her eyes, or... smiled back.
Ignoring him, she moved to the sidelines and stood beside a girl with a black scarf tight around her neck. The girl said something under her breath, but she didn't catch what it was before a familiar voice called out to her.
Reiner, who insisted on playing soldier instead of carrying out his true purpose as a warrior, towered over her now. His height had suddenly sprouted, like an pesky weed, over the past two years, dwarfing her and most of the others here save for a select few. Despite the disadvantage, she had half a mind to flatten him to the ground simply because, other than his growth spurt, his personality was almost entirely changed from the past two years, as well. Barely any trace of his old self remained, and it irritated her to no end. What was he trying to prove, acting like he was after how cowardly he'd once been? Why did it not affect him, like her or Bertolt? Why was he the only one out of the three of them to come out of that day unscathed? No, not unscathed... it wasn't Reiner himself, but, his attitude towards the situation.
What they'd done back then. How it didn't haunt him in the slightest. Almost as if it he didn't remember any of it. And the way he talked… wasn't at all like the frightened boy from that day. Not. One. Bit.
"Hey. Annie." This time it was Bertolt, standing behind him. He seemed to notice Reiner's drastic shift, too, but didn't seem as bothered by it. Perhaps it was nothing, then, or perhaps he wasn't as perceptive as she'd once thought.
Whatever the case, she moved away from underneath their shadows and took a step towards the girl with the black scarf. It was folly to rely on either of them, anyway, she surmised. As always, it was best to work alone.
She'd start first dark and be back by first light.
Ignoring them, too, she inadvertentely made eye contact with that idiot.
He grinned, with an additional "thumbs-up".
And she ignored him. Again.
Art by Eaden R. (rehdah) on ArtStation
Chapter 24: Count On It
Fritz drew his blanket closer in an attempt to keep warm. He hadn't expected the nights to be colder than back home, and slapped himself. Reddened his cheeks, because this was nothing—he could handle a few chills. Wiping his nose and holding back another sneeze, he bundled tighter still. Yeah, he could deal with this. No problem.
"What's the matter Friedrich? Bit of cold too much for you?" he criticized aloud. "Well, tough luck!" Springing from his bed, his little try at self motivation backfired when he bounced off and landed on his back with a crash. Wincing, he rubbed it.
"What the hell are you doing?" someone groaned, and Fritz looked upside down at the boy lying in the bunk across from his own. "I'm trying to sleep you dumbass."
It was Jean and he was glowering at him.
"This,"—Jean proceeded to prop himself up on one arm—"Isn't the time to be moving around. Do you even realize what time it is? See that...?" He pointed to one of the windows and waited for him to look at it. "It's dark outside. You know what that means? It means: 'shut up and go to sleep'. If Shadis finds out you're up, then you'll get all of us in trouble."
"Hey, Jean," Marco, who was in the bunk above him, poking his head out overhead, said. "He's not doing any harm. It's not like he's going to personally tell the Chief Instructor that he's awake. Right, Fritz?"
Raising himself up as he went on rubbing his back, Fritz nodded. Painfully. "I'm not so stupid that I'd get caught." He had to admit that often being called 'the droopiest flower in the garden' by his mother sometimes proved true, but, he also knew for a fact that he wasn't so stupid as to do something like that. The very accusation irritated him, and he sucked in air through his teeth, discreetly heading to their dorm's door. "I'm just going out for some fresh air."
"See Jean? Told you!"
"Whatever." Jean rolled over and pulled his blanket over his head. "Just don't wake me up again."
"Count on it."
"And quit saying that, it's annoying."
Opening it gently and easing himself outside, he went to the wooden railing, thoughts traveling back to the day he decided to leave his mother and little sister behind.
He hoped they weren't too upset with him.
Against her wishes—as a Brandt was ought to do—he'd run away to join the military of his own accord, following in Lex and Ines's footsteps, after seeing the many countless lives ruined by the Fall by those menacing giants that'd taken down Shiganshina, including his family's.
He feared for his big sister. He couldn't bear seeing his mother try her hardest to keep together after his father and Lex, the thought of receiving another letter. He didn't want to see her cry anymore, dreading the day she outlived all of her children, and that was why he had to find Ines, no matter what.
Tasked with exploring the vast territory outside the Walls and gathering information about what they discovered, what the Titans were doing—their movements, their tactics, their origins—as a member of the Scouting Legion, his big sister was at a greater risk than most because of it.
He didn't want to lose her, too.
He'd went so far as memorizing the last letter she'd sent them by heart, right down to the ink stains and moldy smell of the parchment.
We have just finished the first training expedition incorporating Squad Leader Erwin's new formation, only suffering relatively minor casualties. Commander Shadis has strongly hinted at wanting him to be the next Commander because of this new formation, given success rate. Though that rate is small in comparison to previous expeditions, the fact that a difference is there is most important. I believe that if Squad Leader Erwin is put in command of Scouting Legion, it can only mean good things for the future of humanity...
That was four years ago, before the Titans breached Wall Maria.
Before everything changed.
There hadn't been a letter since.
To him, it was proof that she was still alive out there, somewhere, and he desperately wanted to be the one to bring her home. He just had to.
But, wanting to keep his mind away from the unpleasant memories, the day he'd ran away to sign up and finally seeing it become a reality was also when he'd first met her, just standing there at the end of a massive crowd in Trost's town square during the start of ration distribution as mandated by the Royal Government.
In single file, refugees from Maria lined up in front of booths where members of the Garrison were handing out one loaf of bread per person and she'd been watching her two grown men over a measly piece of bread, appearing disgusted as they bloodied themselves over something so trivial, at first glance. Sickened, by their behavior. Like she'd been observing a pair of rats, or even less, insects.
Though, he'd seen different.
The way she clutched at her chest, gasping for breath.
The pain in her eyes that she couldn't hide, no matter how well she tried, holding a half-eaten loaf herself.
Disgusted, about something only she knew the truth of.
Sickened, by whatever it was.
That was around the time when he asked if he could finish the rest of her bread because if she didn't someone else surely would—forcibly. That food was scarce as is, and, to the refugees, even scarcer still. Because he couldn't stand to see someone, see her, like that.
And now, here he was, arms folded over the railing outside his dorm, looking out into the gloom, wanting to see her again already: Annie Leonhart. Except, ever since that first day, she'd been avoiding him.
It made sense, given he was acting like an absolute idiot. Well, an even bigger one. He honestly did like her nose, and the way she carried herself… drew his curiosity, but, ah, what was he trying to say?! His face turned redder. He felt hot below the waist and pressed his legs together out of sheer embarrassment though nobody was around to see it. That was when he chanced upon a peculiar sight, hunched over as he was: a silhouette in the shadows between the other dorms.
As he was attempting to make whoever or whatever it was more clearly, still trying to hide it, Fritz yelped in surprise and sudden anguish, when someone slapped him hard on the back.
"What you starin' at?" Connie asked.
Fritz greeted him with a pained smile, not turning around. "N… Nothing in particular."
Connie followed his stare. He put a hand on his shoulder. "You alright, man?" It was only their third week, but, the two of them—in addition to being bunkmates—had became friends fairly quick.
"… Yeah…" he said, disappointed. The silhouette was gone.
"Whatever you say, man." Connie bumped his arm with a fist. "Anyway, see you tomorrow, I'm going back inside!"
"Yeah… you too…"
Waiting until the door shut to… re-position... himself, the moment thankfully passed and he breathed relief, but, it was strange, Fritz thought, for someone to sneaking around this late at night. But, then, again, who was he to judge?
The morning after was scorching.
Wishing it were cold again, Fritz tried his best to stand at attention in his assigned line on the training field, waiting for Chief Instructor Shadis to pair them up into groups of two to start their next exercise toward eventually becoming true soldiers: martial arts.
While learning the basics of balance with the Vertical Maneuvering Gear was important, if they were utilize all they'll learn in order to fight the Titans then a certain level of strength and conditioning was also required by the time their next two years were finished and unlike the harnesses before—which were to test their aptitudes and weed out dispassionate hopefuls early—this exercise was to see where each trainee stood at the beginning for initial consideration for placement into the top ten. With a placement came the chance to join the Military Police Brigade, the branch of the military responsible for protecting and keeping the peace of the Interior, the seat of the Royal Government, nobility, and the King.
The same top ten his big sister had placed into years ago.
Between this and the Chief Instructor Shadis's ear shattering voice, while his goal wasn't to get into the top ten as the Scouting Legion accepted even those trainees with the lowest scores, for Ines to have gotten in and still chosen the Scouting Legion was something to take pride in as her little brother.
Something to strive for, being just as selfless.
"You! Quit smiling like that and face front!" Shadis yelled at the top of his lungs, spit flying from his mouth֫—the Chief Instructor had came straight for him with murderous intent.
"Yes sir!" Fritz yelled back, fist to heart in proper salute.
"Very good! Just like that! That is how you should stand, Friedrich Brandt! Your partner for today's training will be Mina Carolina! Maybe you can knock some sense it into her!"
He wiped the smile from his face, eyes following the Chief Instructor as he went up and down the lines continuing to point and shout, watching him lean over and scream at one unfortunate trainee—a girl with dark, braided hair over her shoulders, who turned white as a sheet and looked just about ready to pee herself before he moved on.
He didn't need this to get where he was going, but he wasn't about to mess it up now. He still had to pass graduation.
So, eventually, after everyone had been assigned their partners and their first short water break was over, Fritz was still diligently, somewhat desperately, looking around for his among the dispersing crowd when he spotted a girl with dark hair and black scarf standing off by herself and tapped her shoulder. His fingertips brushed the scarf and when she turned to look at him, the first thing she did was fix it back to its original position around her neck, then, she pointed over her shoulder.
"I think you have me mistaken for someone else," she stated bluntly, voice muffled.
... She wasn't uncomfortable wearing that in the heat? Fritz almost went to ask, but thought it best to leave it and leaned to get a better look behind her. He had to stay focused.
Standing a ways back was a fairly tall boy with a friendly face, who waved.
"Ah. So you're not,"—Fritz crooked a finger, now feeling incredibly embarrassed for not seeing the other, taller boy sooner—"... Mina?"
"No." She adjusted her scarf further away from her mouth. "Mikasa."
"If you're not… Then where—" Someone tapped on his own shoulder and he spun around, face to face with a homely gray-eyed girl sporting braided black hair; the same one who'd almost peed her pants earlier.
She cleared her throat and held up a hand in greeting. "I'm Mina. It's a pleasure to meet you, Fritz." She smiled warmly at him then casually waved over his head. "And hey Mikasa! Bertolt!" she exclaimed. Mikasa acknowledged her presence with a nod and Bertolt another wave. "I'll take him off your hands! Come on, you!"
Pulling him by the wrist, she led him in the other direction and once they were situated in an area of their own, started pumping her fists like an Underground street fighter.
"I'm excited! How about you?!"
Fritz couldn't do anything more than nod dumbly. He was already doing exactly what he didn't: mess up. He stared up at a clear blue sky. He closed his hand into a fist at his side. He had to stay focused. He—
"... You OK?" Even though they'd just met, concern tinged her voice. She'd stopping warming up and looked up at the sky with him. "What's the matter?"
"Yeah," he said. "I..." His voice trailed off.
Mina's voice transitioned from concern to understanding. "Ah, so... you, too?"
"You're worried about someone, right? Yeah, it seems like everyone here is. Why, just the other day, Annie was worried about something, too. Not that you can really tell with her, but…"
That brought him back down quickly. "... Annie?"
"Do you know her?"
He caught himself, frowned, scratching his cheek as he looked away. "Kind of… Not really…"
"Hmm." Mina slyly up a finger to her chin. "Hey, over there." She pointed, waiting for his eyes to catch up. "See that broken fence? And that small tree next to it? I wager she's there."
"... How do you figure that?"
Mina crossed her arms, smug. "I would know. I'm her bunkmate, after all! She wasn't in bed yesterday. Again." She leaned closer, lifting another finger. "So, naturally, I got worried, you know? So, last night… I followed her. That was where I found her. For awhile." Looking over to where she believed Annie to be, a faint scowl upon her lips that reminded him of his mother. "I wish she'd open up more, instead of choosing to be a loner…" And, when she finally looked back at him, her previous cheerful disposition returned and she gave a wink. "Think that you can talk to her? You might have better luck than me."
"But, the exercise… We can't just abandon it."
She shrugged. "We'll just say we're switching locations. They won't care as long as we aren't slacking off, like Annie. So, let's go!"
Thus Mina grabbed his wrist again and pulled him along for a second time.
They walked across the training field to the place, the ground beneath their boots barren, grass and flowers scarcely seen, the season dry and any sign of rain to be yet months away. The hottest in years, rumor to be another result of The Fall, that it was punishment because of what the Royal Government did last year, that things would only continue to get worse, and that the worst was still to come.
Fritz looked at the broken fence worn by time and weather, the small tree about ready to fall over and die, wondering just how anything could survive in these conditions. When they got even closer, he saw someone on the other side.
"There she is," Mina whispered. "Doesn't she look lonely? Well, good luck!" Without warning, she pushed him forward and retreated to the broken fence. "I'll stay here and watch out for Shadis!" she said, waving him on.
Grimacing as he gave her a shaky thumbs-up because his back was still sore, Fritz went up to the tree. Mina was right. Blonde hair tied back in a bun that dipped out in three directions, Annie appeared to be deep in thought, looking out at the scenery, and, clearing his throat, he was just about to break the silence when Annie did it herself.
"What do you want?" Her tone was cold and detached. She turned her head, bright blue eyes studying him like a new species of insect that she was detested to even know the existence of.
"I came to ask if you wanted to join in the exercises with Mina and me?" He indicated back at Mina, who smiled encouragingly. "I just thought—"
"So, if I beat you, will you shut up and leave me alone?" She'd brushed herself off and already gone past him.
"... Huh?" He did a complete turn to see her stretching out in the sun.
Mina called over from the broken fence. "Hey! What's going on?! Did something happen, Fritz?!"
He gave her a confused shrug. He didn't know himself.
Annie scowled. "Are we going to start or what?" she said, assuming a lower posture.
"A-ah! Yeah, just let me…!" He joined her out on the field and before he knew he has was on his backside. Pain shot up up his spine when he sat up, as his mind tried to catch up with his body, but, Annie had already circled him and next he found his arms were being pinned behind his back.
She released him with a shove.
Mina came rushing over. "Fritz! Are you—?!"
Lying on his back again, he was still trying to piece together what just transpired when Mina came beside him and helped him sit up. Only then did he realize Annie had swept his legs from under him and, without taking his eyes off her as she stalked off to who could guess where, the image of that trainee sneaking around in the dark last night resurfaced to occupy his thoughts. He winced when he went to stand. It was going to be like this all day, wasn't it?
Mina went from him to Annie, but, Annie was already gone, and she snapped her fingers. "Darn! I didn't think she'd do that! I'm going to go after her!" She stooped and gently touched his shoulder. He was hunching over from the pain. "But, first we have to get you to the infirmary."
He managed to hold up a hand. "I'll be okay," he said.
Mina shook her head. "No, come on." She took him underneath the armpit. "We'll sort things out with Annie later. "
He grinned through clenched teeth. "... Yeah. Count on it."
Art by Hatsuraikun on DeviantArt
Friedrich "Fritz" Brandt - member of the member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Chapter 25: Ymir
Lying down after a sore weeks' worth of intense training exercises, Ymir almost missed her year on the streets.
Hand resting on her cheek, watching the Potato Girl getting her hair brushed by Mina, a particularly bookish, yet surprisingly world-welcoming and enthusiastic girl who never knew when to stop poking her nose in other people's business, she yawned. Half-listening to the girl recounting a book she read about the Titans, something about a woman, hair red as scarlet, giving some gullible moron a trinket wrapped in fine cloth, many things were on her mind.
"... And the leader accepted the gift," Mina continued. "He gave the child to the woman, as her mother cried out in protest and everyone else bowed their heads…"
The only reason she was listening to her prattle on were because two reasons. First, she knew Mina shared a dorm with the girl who'd been glaring at her the night after the opening ceremony. Second, one portion of the story caught her attention: the trinket itself.
—It could be the necklace she'd seen in her dreams.
Vivid in her mind, mocking her ever since she left Taki's group to strike out on her own, to dig up more of her past, Ymir had spent the entire next year as a little more than a street urchin, using the moonlight as her guide, just like Ada taught her, looking for answers high and low. Slipping into alleys, moving between the shadows, running from wealthy shopkeepers in the cities throughout the Interior, swiping any goods and wares which even remotely resembled that necklace. Hearing them give up but still proclaim proudly that they could get a new shipment of whatever items were stolen faster than she could steal them. Of that one fatass who hadn't stopped hunting her, even sending those goons after her, all because of that necklace. A necklace she'd risked her life time and again to get.
Because then maybe that dream would finally go away.
The same damned dream she kept having every night, ever since that nightmare ended. Ever since she told herself that she would live for nobody, except, herself.
But all the ones she took were just pieces of junk, the worthless ones shattering into a million pieces and scattering in just as many directions, the more valuable the ticket to her day's meal.
"… Giving up this child was the only way they could survive for further generations, they all knew this…"
And if she waited—stayed awake long enough for Mina to finish her dumb story—then she could get down to the real questions.
"Ow, that hurt...!" Not listening to the story at all, the Potato Girl whined when Mina's brush snagged a tangled end of her hair.
Achi told her to shut up.
Krista politely asked that Achi not be so mean, and that Sasha had a right to complain.
Achi told her to shut up, too.
Mina apologized and went on with the story.
But, Krista wasn't one to let sleeping dogs lie. She sprang up, rife with anger. Standing over Achi, the glower on her face was almost beastial looking, if it truly weren't so pitiful. "She's been getting nothing but picked on since—!"
"So, what?" Achi retorted, cutting her short. "Ain't my problem."
Krista jabbed a finger in Achi's face. "Well, you're only making it worse! Not to mention, what"—the stupid girl cast a nasty look back—"somone said at dinner."
Ymir rolled her eyes. "I already told you: that one wasn't me," she corrected.
"Still, you didn't have to laugh with them! You're both only making it worse by—!"
"Will you shut the fuck up?" Achi growled, turning back to their late night storyteller. She gave a nod for her to continue.
Like the Potato Girl, Mina's head was down, not wanting to get caught into their latest spat. Though, unlike Sasha and it only showed in the way her eyebrows scrunched together, but the girl was attentive, listening closely to everything being said and already her mind fast at work dissecting what her ears heard, but whatever was on her mind was thrust to the side as she hurriedly remembered where she'd left off after the interruption.
"... But, for the mother, she had to watch with a crooked smile as the woman took her only daughter in her arms. The woman handed her to a young girl at her side. The young girl's expression was blank, like she'd never seen a baby before. Noticing how distraught the mother was, the woman reassured her: 'You're doing a very brave thing, my dear. Your child, this girl, she will be something great. She will be loved and cared for. You have my word on that,' she told her..."
Ymir noticed Krista, who'd since sat back down, stiffen.
"The woman then turned to the young girl and told her to hold the child tight, before she gave one last smile to the mother, the leader, and their kin as she and the young girl disappeared as quickly and quietly as they had come. Immediately after her departure, the leader sent a messenger to the Walls to ask for admission to live within. When the messenger finally came back from his days' journey with news of their acceptance, he found the village to be empty. As he walked through it, finding some of the makeshift huts crushed underfoot, he heard a buzzing in his ear, and just as he made it to the leader's tend with the message, collapsed. Despite this, he still tried to see if anyone was inside, announcing his return, duty bound until the end. Only silenced greeted him. He lied there, in despair that the entire village was gone, when a garbled voice that sounded vaguely like the leader's answered and he craned his neck to see what it was. There wasn't a scream in surprise when he was taken in the shaky hand of an unspeakable monster, his last thoughts that it closely resembled the leader, as he was able to make sense of its garbled speech..."
Mina got really close to Potato Girl then, grabbing her shoulders tight, and whispered ominously into her ear.
"... Have we been accepted?"
"T-that's scary," Sasha said.
"I know, right?!" Mina exclaimed. "Gave me goosebumps since I was little!"
"Well, that was boring," Ymir disagreed. She glanced over at Krista, attempting to elicit a reaction from her, but, instead, Krista just stared straight ahead at something only she could see with a distinct lack of the usual "I thought it was good story!" response. She shared a look with Achi, who just huffed.
"Alright, all done!" Mina said, ringing a few last brunette strands from Sasha's hair. The brush in her hand was covered in them, and she excused herself to wash it off, full of dirt, grime, and other gunk from the past weeks. Only a month since the opening ceremony and they were already been whipped to death in this heat.
Rolling over on her back, Ymir looked at the ceiling. It was a familiarity she wasn't fond of. At all.
Sasha burped, cheeks red. "E-excuse me."
During dinner, their real first one since the opening ceremony where the food wasn't total shit and without Sasha screwing something up for once—of her own accord, anyway—Ymir'd also eaten her fill, and knew she would be regretting it tomorrow because they still had another two weeks of this left before they started doing bookwork. The kind of memorization-means-everything bullshit people like Mina adored, and she looked over at the door, thinking now was the perfect opportunity to ask about that girl, A... erm... Anna..?
No, that wasn't...
Wait, that wasn't it either...
She got up, grumbling to herself.
Whatever that pointy-nosed bitch's name was.
Ymir found Mina at a nearby well, using fresh water from the bucket at her side to clean what still remained on her brush, when she approached.
She stood there awkwardly for a moment, waiting for the other girl to finish up.
Mina was too engrossed to notice her and if she were a murderer, a serial killer in infancy, then she might've chosen the girl for her first victim, being so easy to sneak up on as she was. Her defenses were always lowered.
—It honestly irritated her to no end.
Moving up beside Mina's bucket, she slowly raised a foot to—
"Oh, hey, Ymir!" the homely, oblivious, and exasperatingly cheery girl exclaimed, catching her off guard. She smiled, looking up from the her squating position as she waved the brush back and forth to dry it. "Need something?"
Ymir lowered her foot. She rubbed the nape of her neck, averting her eyes. "... Yeah, I do."
"One moment!" Mina put her brush down, balancing it on the rim of the bucket, wiped her hands on her pajamas, and stood up. "Okay, what is it?" Even as dark as it was, Mina was giving her complete attention.
Ymir clicked her tongue. "So," she began, recalling that pointy-nosed bitch's face clearly enough, but, still not her name. "That shortie with the permanent grump face." Despite herself, she felt her cheeks growing redder. "You know who I'm talking about."
Mina's brow furrowed. "You mean... Annie?"
So, her name was Annie.
Anna... Angie... Annie—close enough.
"Whatever." Regaining her composure, Ymir put a hand on her hip, waving it off and looking back. "Does she always glare?"
Mina took a few moments to mull the question over, a finger tapping her chin as she peered up to the night sky. The stars were out in full tonight. "Hmm…"
Oh, just get on with it already!
"... I don't think she hates you. More like… she's… just being cautious…?"
Ymir raised an eyebrow. "Hah? About what? Me?"
Abruptly, Mina lifted the finger as if to say ah, ha! "I did overheard her say something about the Military Police once before!" she revealed eagerly, a grin playing itself across her face. "So, maybe she's nervous that you'll get in the top ten over her… I think…!"
Based on her… sudden rush of excitement… By overhear, didn't she actually mean eavesdrop? "The top ten? And why the hell would I care about that?"
Mina shrugged. "You could always ask her yourself, though she hasn't been very friendly lately. Which might be my fault." She said that last part with a slight whisper and lowered her eyes, moping. Like a toddler caught in the act. "Fritz and I have been trying to, um,"—she coughed—"Get her to talk more, but, she's stubborn." Meeting her eyes again, Mina composed herself and gave another one of those signature smiles of hers. "Though, Fritz's had more luck than me, so really, I'd ask him instead of me."
Ymir scowled. The way she smiled actually irritated her more than her selfless personality. Especially considering they both knew she was playing the hapless fool for appearance's sake, and playing it expertly well. Ymir herself wouldn't have caught it—or believed her own suspicions—if not for tonight. Why? No idea, but the one thing Ymir knew was how genuinely caring it seemed, underneath the façade. It was so… weird. Also—who the fuck is Fritz?
Scratching her head, Ymir raked her memory for anyone with that name and one boy—average, nothing remarkable about him whatsoever except his stupidity which rivaled Connie's—came up. Oh, that guy. Unlike Mina here, he was actually a moron. Although, she'd seen him sitting next to Annie that first day, so, maybe… Wait. Why did she care about any of this, either?
Her scowl worsened. "Ah, forget it! Just tell her to knock it off." She pointed back toward the dorm where Sasha, Achi, and Krista still were. "I've got enough trouble to deal with."
Mina gave a thumbs-up. "Count on me. I'll see what I can do!"
"Yeah…" She huffed and left the girl to finish cleaning her brush, heading back to her dorm where those troubles waited.
Several days later, dragging her feet over to a large rock after another tiring hike with gear the weight of a damn horse strapped to their backs, Ymir plopped down, stretched her shoulders, and pulled out her knife. It'd been the longest, most grueling one yet, and complaining to herself about this and that and what she'd like to do to Shadis—the asshole, telling her she couldn't have anything to drink until the exercise was over—she began scraping and prying rocks from the bottom of her boot.
Yeah, okay, she had switched her canteen with the Potato Girl's without her knowing, and, yes, she had stashed more than one on her person just in case she emptied that, too, but, dammit—"It's hot out you bald prick!" she bemoaned, sweat dripping from her forehead, striped out of her uniform, the jacket lying across her thigh. Regulation could go fuck itself.
Right then, she felt someone staring at her, and looked up. If it was that bitch again, she swore, she'd pu—no, it was that guy.
She motioned him over as she went back to stabbing her boot. "It's not polite to stare, dipshit," she spat as he came beside her. "There something you wanted, Fritz, or are you just a stupid bastard with nothing better to do than oogle girls?"
He replied with a nod at her boot. "Step in something?"
"No, I just like dulling knives for fun. Yeah, I stepped in something."
Unhooking his canteen, he offered it to her. "Here."
She looked at him, eyes searching his face, saw no ill will or mischief, and accepted it. Shaking the canteen, it was half full. She took a sip. It was cool, yet, refreshing. With half the mind to just keep it for herself, she tossed it back instead.
He caught it and looped it back to his belt. "So…" he said, watching her go back to it. "Mina told me that y—"
"So," Ymir mocked. "She didn't do what I asked, hah?" Sinking her knife into the ground at her feet, she shook her head. "You can count on me, my ass'," she mumbled.
"Look,"—Ymir moved her hair from her eyes, it was getting too long again—"I don't know what she told you, but, I give more of a damn about these rocks still stuck in my boot than your little friend. I just want her to stop glaring at me. That's it."
"Annie does that to everyone."
She sniffed. "Well, make her stop doing it to me."
"Ah… I can't do that, bu—"
"And why not?"
"But, I'll mention it to her… Count on it!" He put a fist to his heart, dedicating himself to his new pledge with a grin.
Her knife was back in her hand. "Yeah, you go do that…"
Savoring the first drop of water on her tongue in at least an hour or more, he wasn't such a bad guy. The perfect kind of person to use and exploit, like his equally dumb friend Connie, or… she stopped what she was doing mid-plunge. Like the Potato Girl, Achi, and Krista. No, on second thought, he wasn't like those three, but, she could still use him to her advantage, and after watching him walk away, continued working on her boot. She twirled it effortlessly, bringing it down, and—"Shit."
She'd accidentally run her knife through it.
At the requisition office, the instructor on duty reached back and pulled out a pair of new boots from the pile behind him. "Try these on," he said, a clipboard on his counter, ready to mark down whatever he was supposed to.
Wiggling her toes inside them, Ymir thanked him and put her old ones on the counter, having to wait until he signed off on the replacements before she could leave.
The only equipment they'd gotten since the opening ceremony that hadn't been used by someone else were those same ones from that day save for undergarments which were always ordered fresh. It was up to them to keep and maintain those. Otherwise, glancing down at her "new" boots, they were forced to take whatever they could get and after so many pairs of used, smelly boots—and some shirts, mostly socks—later she'd come to the solidified realization that the military, or, actually, their main backers, the nobility, didn't give a damn about them. Just like Taki said.
... Just like back then.
—At least these ones fit properly enough.
He finished. "Alright, you're free to go. Don't ruin them, this time. Here, put your signature on this line." He rotated the clipboard toward her.
"Yeah, yeah," she said, swiping the pencil from him. Looking at the page, she completely froze.
The instructor sighed. "If you can't spell your name, put an X."
Heading out into the blistering sun once again, Ymir cursed herself. After all this time, she still didn't know the majority of what was written in this place.
Reminded of her time in the church, when she read those words on the plaque, thinking the rest would come back to her in due time, she knew now that it wasn't so simple. That it wasn't something to be remembered, but, learned.
Recalling the recruitment center, the first time it'd happened, she was embarrassed just thinking about it, and looked over at a group of trainees having a laugh.
Other than the things she couldn't remember, there were also those things she didn't want to remember, and never wish she had in the first place—like that necklace she saw in her dreams, and... also that woman, Helos.
A prominent figure, with a face both caring and cruel, that haunted her.
Kept her awake at night, having replaced the boy in her hallucinations almost entirely. Who was far worse than he'd ever been.
And no matter how hard she tried to ignore her, bury her, kept resurfacing. Even now, she could see them. See her, with that happy, forced smile on her face which contradicted the dark horrors hidden in her heart, and halted in her tracks.
"... Ymir, do you want to join us?" Krista asked from within that group of trainees. The small girl left a gap open in their circle, and invited her to step in. "We were talking abo... Ymir?"
Well, she wanted no part of it.
Instead, she went looking for Achi, eventually finding her puffy-eyed and alone, sitting in the shadow of a building away from the rest of the 104th.
She'd been crying again.
A girl who always seemed aloof, was actually bottling up those tears she was trying to wipe away from her cheeks right now, saving them for these quiet moments alone, and, though she hadn't told her exactly what happened, it was apparent without Ymir needing to know the full details: here was a young girl who lost everything, and, now, missed it dearly.
Yet, instead of casting it away, instead of hiding it from the world—even if in private—at least she wasn't letting the circumstances life had thrown her way stop her from being herself. Unlike a certain someone they both knew, and, to a lesser extent, one more.
"Say, kid," Ymir said after a time, having been silently leaning beside the younger girl. "You know anything about writing?"
Achi wiped her eyes and looked up at her with a grimace, back to her usual I-don't-give-a-damn-about-you-and-yours self. "Like what?"
"You can't spell your own... name?"
"S-shut up!" Ymir slammed her fist on the table, snapping her pencil in half with such strength the two halves flew in opposite directions. One landed on Achi's side of table, and the other across the messhall, hitting a certain shaved-headed idiot upside the head.
"What the hell?! Who threw that?!" Connie swiped his head around as the others at his table—Sasha, Fritz, Reiner, Bertolt, and one other she couldn't make out because Reiner's big head was in the way—all glanced around.
Ymir lowered her head. "Shit."
Achi raised an eyebrow. Her lip quivered, holding back another laugh, but, she couldn't, and it came out in stifled bursts.
Now laying her head on the table, Ymir squinted. "Oh, screw off," she grumbled. Then, she, too, started laughing. "It's not… funny… dammit…!"
Frowning at the one half she had left, the pencils were given to them in preparation for the lectures that were coming up within the week and just like with their equipment, each of them only got one. She'd just wasted hers. Not that it bothered her all that much and after they'd both reined it in, she asked if Achi was going to help her or not.
In response, Achi rolled it across the table. "Yeah, of course I will, you dumbass…"
Ymir snatched it. She grinned. "Thanks, you little shit."
Chapter 26: Assessment
To: Commander Erwin Smith
From: Special Investigations Squad Captain Ines Brandt
We have finished assessing the new recruits from the prisons within both Wall Rose and Wall Sheena, excluding those with life or death sentences held within the Royal Capital due to the Royal Council's affairs that weren't disclosed, of which both Military Police Brigade Commander Nile and Supreme Commander Zackly have finally granted permission to pull from.
Out of the thirty candidates, only ten were deemed fit for active duties with the military, and only three went voluntarily.
These ten have been sent off with a Military Police escort, along with one of our own, Zena Bartosz. They should arrive at Trost by the time this letter reaches Scouting Legion Headquarters. Of those inmates yet to be evaluated within the Royal Capital, given the turnout from those within the regular prisons, a rational fear of the Titans and security in the sanctity of the innermost territory of Wall Sheena, I suspect none will volunteer.
In this event, Supreme Commander Zackly has also granted us direct authority to conscript by force. No further letters will be sent until we have completed this latest, and, likely, last assessment.
Writing utensil in hand, still poised over her latest report, Ines thought of adding more about the conditions of those ten men and women successfully cleared to join the ranks of the Scouting, but knowing the Commander it wasn't necessary that she do so, and stopped to review it. Correcting what needed to be, she then folded and sealed the contents and handed it off to courier waiting at her side, taking note that Riecka was still loitering inside the office against the wall.
"You're supposed to be with Alger outside," Ines chided.
"I got bored waitin'."
Turning to see her at the windowsill with her legs propped up, twirling her iron bamboo dagger, Ines sighed. When they got back, she was going to a word with Moblit. "They've given us free clearance of the Royal Capital and the Underground for our extended stay, and you're telling me you're bored?" Since first arriving, the woman had done nothing other than run around in the Underground like a child at a District festival—being bored that was the least issue Ines would've thought her having. "You?"
A shrug. "Caged fights lose their charm."
Caged fights. The name given to those brutal, barbaric, and underhandedly paid competition brawls in the Underground, where no explicit rules were given except one: the killing of your opponent was forbidden. Whether Riecka, who was still relaxing so non-nonchalantly in front of her, had actually spent money to see one, or used her Gear to her advantage—the use of which inside the confines of the Royal Capital was strictly prohibited—Ines didn't want to know. The last, and only, time she'd been there was that day then Squad Leader Erwin made that idiotic gamble: the apprehension and conscription of an infamous trio of troublemakers.
—How could she forget it?
Because not long after two of them were dead, leaving the sole survivor, Special Operations Squad Captain Levi, to join their ranks.
Back then, if it'd been her holding his head in that puddle of watery filth instead of Mike, she'd have held him under until he drowned.
But, she'd chased after the loud-mouthed brat and dragged her kicking and screaming to the Squad Leader instead. The loud-mouthed brat whose head had been the only thing left of that arrogant and clingy personality of hers.
Yet, despite her nature, Ines felt the girl would've become a much better asset than the one she clung to, if only she hadn't been severed from it forever. The other man, as well. While he was just as distrusting as his leader, at least he had the sense to know when to give in.
… Not that any of that mattered anymore.
Even still, she was vividly reminded of Erwin as he strode over atop his horse, bleeding, having stopped Levi's blade bare-handed, his palm slipped open, showing himself to be unafraid of idle threats as he started wrapping it tight right then and there. That, even if Levi's murderous intent was genuine, he wouldn't die no matter what. Not until his goals were secure and he could be certain that, even after he'd meet his end, they'd be carried out in his absence.
That was what mattered.
It was all that mattered, to him.
And, she knew, that if he ordered her to fight alongside these inmates in the near future, she'd have one blade aimed at the nape of their necks along with the Titans'. Along with Levi's. And soon, she became lost in the memory of it all, her hands flaring up, the one holding her quill curling into a fist on her desk.
… Ines, we're regrouping with Commander Shadis and the main detachment. Secure any non water-ridden supplies that you can carry!
With one final look at those two at her feet before moving on to find something worth salvaging from the carnage, her search lead her to the Squad Leader assigned to watch over them and Levi; his headless, half-eaten corpse near the Titan that killed him—one of five that Levi had managed to dispatch by himself.
Flagon had always been somewhat of a fool, barking in situations when he should've sat down like the dog he was and stayed quiet. His second, as well, Sairam, making outbursts without regard for those he shouted at. Both of them more a nuisance than anything else. Though, if there was one thing she and Flagon had agreed upon, it was being against Erwin's gamble to allow three thugs into their ranks and, if there was one thing she'd been grateful for, it'd been those still usable signal flares he was extra paranoid to always keep doubly wrapped inside his uniform. At the least, he'd known how to prepare for potential technicalities that may arise on any given expedition outside the Walls; expeditions that could now be resumed, thanks to Erwin.
When she finished gathering all she was able, there being no sign of either of their horses, or those of Levi's two companions, the only explanation being all of them had run away and were aimlessly wandering around in the fog, she'd reported back to Erwin. Erwin… so sure in his belief of the man's obedience that he didn't bother tying Levi's hands on the journey back, keeping him wedged between Mike and herself.
And, nails digging into the palm of her gloved hand, squeezing the quill so strongly it splintered, she'd rode behind the man with every intention of running him down if he so much as slowed to contemplate.
Having watched him, head dipping toward his hands, hands loosely holding the reins of his horse, horse keeping losing pace with the Squad Leader, she'd almost done it, almost taken her blade to his throat before he could do the same to Erwin, until his head raised back up as he looked back at the remains of the battlefield where his two companions lay. Where the fool and his subordinate rested. Where their long since decomposed corpses still remained. But, as she was about to unsheathe her sword, Levi simply turned his head back to the front and sped up, again keeping pace. Right after, a black signal flare soared, telling the formation of an approaching Abnormal, the most unpredictable type. The sound of it deadened by a downpour of rain, his first words to her on that dreary, bloody day came back to her ears…
Their footprints in the soil. That was how I knew…
There won't always be footprints.
Which is why when I hear so much as one retarded grunt from any direction and it isn't human, I'll kill it.
Except I'd have to go with you, and in this fog, we may lose sight of Squad Leader Erwin and Mike. I can't allow that to happen.
I figured that you wouldn't... Sometimes, it'll happen whether you want it to or not, huh?
At the time, it seemed as if he were speaking to her, but, she knew now it was only to reassure himself of something. Of some notion on his part.
The outcome is never clear, whichever path you take. Neither decision is ever the right choice…
She'd let him continue, getting out all that he wanted to say before offering another response.
The reason people die is a result of their own actions and those around them. If their actions are sound, and those around them secure, then their chance of survival is all the more heightened. If their actions are foolhardy, and those around them foolish, then their death is all the more an inevitability.
So the decision matters, in the end. Is that really... all there is to it...?
Gazing into that fog all around them, she'd wondered why she'd even replied in the first place. Perhaps it was because she felt a bit of sympathy, for regardless of how she felt about him, he'd still lost the two most closest to him. Or, perhaps, she wanted to see what he would do. Whatever the case, that one time would be the first and last she'd ever willingly interact with the man. As, again, while he may be what the Squad Leader gambled on, she wasn't going to take in the earnings with welcoming arms. Because, if hope were actually something she believed in she'd have wanted to believe it, too. At least not unt—
"... Captain!" Riecka roared.
Ines was torn away from her inner thoughts, and she looked up at the woman, scowling.
"Uh... Your hand..." Riecka pointed a crooked finger at it.
Blood was dripping onto the desk. Blood had seeped from the glove and trickled down her wrist. Bits of quill were stuck inside her palm.
There was no time anymore, for sentimental regrets.
"Damn, Captain! Didn't know you could get that worked up from just writin' a report!" Riecka exclaimed as they came to the first row of cells beneath the Royal Capital.
Ines ignored the comment. Her left hand bandaged, peering into each cell for any potential volunteers, from infamous cutthroats and serial murderers, child killers and rapists, individuals too dangerous to ever be redeemable, to those outspoken, opposed, and ostracized against the King and his rule, individuals too loudmouthed and loose lipped to let freely roam the streets, they were all locked in single cells where the only light were the sconces outside them. Many cowered in the darkest corners of their cells, no doubt having seen the insignia on her uniform as they passed. The Wings of Freedom, signature symbol of the Scouting Legion, and what meant an eventual death at the hands of the Titans.
She'd been correct. Even those with death and life sentences were reluctant to face the greatest threat to humanity. To give their lives for a brighter future. They would rather live their final days in fear. Without having faced the fear all of them did, and the further she went, the more it appeared none would so much as risk turning their way.
Coming upon the end of the row, Ines came before a cell where no light reached. Only the dark, to keep them company. Only the sins of their fathers and mothers, theirs ancestors, of themselves, to show them compassion. Those men and women more evil than the rest and the absolute traitors to the King and saboteurs of humanity. Even those who had no business being here, except for the fact that they made something, said something, did something, that went against the King. Even something so harmless as daring to hope.
"Captain, it might be better this way," Alger spoke up, as they stopped before one cell in particular where a hobbling, disheveled, and bearded older man with wild eyes glared back at them.
Despite his appearance, he wasn't cowering like the rest, but, when she approached further, tried to lunge for her, snarling absolute gibberish. His hands couldn't quite reach her throat.
"Hey, maybe he likes it in there," Riecka remarked, chuckling a bit.
Staring the man down until he muttered something, his hands moving back behind the bars, lingering there for a moment more before he stalked off deeper into the darkness of his cell like the rest, Ines felt something well inside her chest that she hadn't in a long time, meeting Riecka's playfulness with cold, hard truth.
"If you keep it up, maybe I'll have them throw you in there with him," she said.
Riecka took the threat in stride. "At least the food would be better."
Alger placed himself between them when they moved on again. "What could be worse than these guys...?" he asked, glancing into the cells she didn't bother to look into anymore.
Telling him to light a torch, she finally came to the cell number Niles told her and staring back at them from the other side of the bars was a man with unkempt dark brown hair well reaching past his shoulders, his squinted, harsh, bright green eyes judging them silently. Once, he might have been well-fed, well-dressed, and well-groomed, but, now—lanky, grime-covered, and unshaven though his beard hadn't even grown past his chin and perhaps never would—he was clearly more haggard than the sketch Erwin had sent her. She produced it from her uniform pocket.
Mathias Kramer, formerly of Krolva District, a survivor of the Fall of Wall Maria in the Quinta District...
One of a handful who managed to survive the journey from Quinta back to Krolva with the Titans on their heels, and, who, for those six months of being trapped within Quinta by the Titans, left abandoned as the rest of humanity retreated behind Wall Rose, was an accomplice by association of Rita Iglehaut. Officially, none of the residents of Quinta were said to be alive, though, obviously, the fact that this man was here meant that report had been false.
Or, more accurately, falsified.
Was this man the one Erwin mentioned, to choose as the last member of her squad...? Certainly not, but it was Erwin, after all.
"Mathias Kramer, I am Captain Ines of the Scouting Legion. I have come to ask if you would join us in the fight against the Titans."
He didn't respond.
Ordering Alger to take out the mandate approved by Supreme Commander Zackly, she tried again.
"I don't want to use this," she began, having Alger hold it up for him to see. "But, I will, if you so choose. The decision, in the end, is yours. Come willingly, or not. There isn't any alternative."
Still, there was no response. Not even a hint of acknowledgement.
"He doesn't look too happy," Riecka said.
"Neither does your friend," a new voice quipped.
They all turned to the cell opposite. Within it, sitting with one hand resting on her knee against the wall was a woman with short, straight black hair, and tapered, cat-like eyes. They glinted grey in the torchlight. She stood up, dusting herself off and coming to the bars of her cell.
"Name's Amanda. Garrison, Quinta. Used to be, anyway. Now I'm in here, stuck with chicken-shits like him all day."
Ines shuffled through her papers.
… Rita's former second-in-command. In the sketch, her hair was longer.
Could she be the one?
Ines went over to her cell, but, before she got the chance to talk the other woman did first.
The words Ines stopped in her tracks. Her eyes narrowed.
"If it gets me away from him, this place, and everything about either, then lead the way," she explained, almost dispassionately.
Was she another, like Levi, that the Commander had gambled on? For her strength? Or... something else...?
She turned to Alger. "Find Nile. Get the key to unlock her cell."
Ines sat with Commander Nile in his office at Military Police Brigade Headquarters, waiting for him to write off on Amanda's release. He hesitated, then ran a hand through his cropped, dark hair, rapping his fingers on his desk.
"I don't know what's going on in his head even after all these years," he said, handing her a copy of the release form. "And I suspect that you truly don't, either, Ines, but… are you sure about this?"
"No, I'm not."
She got up to take her leave, when Nile called out to her.
"If only you'd joined the Military Police, maybe then..." His voice trailed off, and he went quiet.
She looked back questioningly. Their eyes met, and though she saw something in his she dare not repeat aloud, hinted nothing, and gave a salute. He gave one back, smiling regretfully, and had the soldier guarding the door open it for her.
Outside, walking down the open hallway yard, Nile had been highly invested in seeing her within the ranks of the Military Police, even offering her a promotion straight after graduation, which was a rarity though she surmised was because of her father's former reputation, but to have him still harp on about it this many years later, was unlike him. Strange. And his eyes... afraid. Terrified. So unlike the man she'd known. The man Erwin respected. There was something else going on behind the scenes, and if it was enough to scare Nile, she needed to round up the members of her squad, write her last report, and meet with Erwin immediately.
Which was exactly what that man must've anticipated, and pausing to glance at the fountain in the center of the courtyard and the flower garden neatly trimmed and professionally maintained around it, she thought of those dying gardens at Scouting Legion Headquarters.
Neglect was something that came whether one wanted it to or not.
Before Shadis was given the position, nobody bothered to keep the aesthetics of that once decrepit castle alive, Commander Erwin only having prioritized the maintaining of its walls and rooms and towers and pathways.
When she became Commander, that would change, and she was about to continue on, the more pressing matters at hand, when she came face to face with a very tall, grizzled man in a long, black trenchcoat. Though brief, the two of them parting ways shortly after, his features largely shadowed by the hat he wore in spite of how clear and sunny the sky was today, she could feel something sinister lurking underneath that suave, yet crude, smirk behind the greying thin stubble of his beard as he passed her by.
While many questionable and shady individuals had came and went in she and her squad's stay here, none of them were quite as... malevolent... as that.
She made an extra note that he was heading in the direction of Commander Nile's office.
The same feeling welled in her chest again, the memory of a dark deed carried out on a quiet night with no witnesses, her father lying in a pool of his own blood, having been driven to despair and ended his life with no body to be found. Or so it was said. But, no… she'd seen the truth, what really happened… and… yet…
She shook her head. "That man died a long time ago," she reassured herself.
Smothering the feeling, burying it deep in her heart as before, it couldn't have been.
Thus, Ines went to find Riecka, Alger, and soon reunite with Zena to officially greet the final member of the Special Investigations Squad.
Amanda - member of the Scouting Legion, Special Investigations Squad
Chapter 27: Krista
"Achi, can you hand me that blanket?"
Pointing over to it lying by a snoring Sasha's feet, Krista thanked Achi when she did and, taking caution not to wake her as she started wiping drool from Sasha's face with a cloth, smiling after it was done, covered her up. Then, tidying up the area, she asked Achi to help sweep. Achi complained, but, took up a broom and went to work anyway.
Standing over by the doorway, Ymir spat outside the dorm. "Still wasting your time with that?"
Krista ignored her. Their conversation died then and there, and hearing Achi call for her, needing another pair of hands to clean up whatever Sasha just threw up, went back to it.
Rolling up her sleeves, thoughts drifting back to her farewell to Isolde and the village of Thorpe, trekking through the dark wilderness alone had been a harrowing experience though she'd managed to make steady progress, only having to stop when she needed to relieve and rehydrate herself every so often in the creek basin Isolde would often them to fetch buckets of water from. Using it as a guide, not only a primary source of water for the village and means to cool off during those warm summer months, it'd also connected to a larger river which ran through the center of Yarckel District, which had the journey much easier. She'd also been lucky that the wildlife left her alone, the wolves especially, just the occasional curious rabbit making its presence known, and, wiping some last bits of partially digested muck from Sasha's mouth, this girl was like a starved wolf herself, having scarfed down nearly an entire squad's worth of food tonight alone once again. Today's exercises had been brutal, and thrifting through her hair, Krista pulled out a small twig tangled within.
Staring at it in her palm, she frowned. She remembered the broken flask. The carriage driver's slashed throat. The blood. Thinking, that, their lives were about as significant as this twig, easily plucked and then tossed away to be replaced with a new one just the same.
She snapped it in half and looked over at Achi.
She puffed her cheeks in a childish fashion, now recalling that last leg of her journey from the village with feet red and raw, sore with each step took, cutting through those grasslands after surviving the forest.
Unbeknownst to her, Achi had followed her the entire way.
Isolde's doing, she surmised. No doubt in her mind.
Whether to bring her back or for someone to keep her company, she never asked, Achi never said, and in the end it didn't matter because the moment they'd seen those cannons gleaming under that waning sun atop Wall Rose, fifty meters in height, imposing, giant, gargantuan—to imagine there was something in the world even taller—there was no time for second thoughts.
They'd snuck into Yarckel via a caravan that she memorized the route of, and glanced in Ymir's direction, then.
That day had also been the one she'd first met her, as well.
But, she'd succeeded.
She was finally on her way to becoming a soldier.
The evening after sneaking into the District, Achi having gone on ahead to the find the recruitment center and get their handouts, she'd lost her way in the crowd trying to catch up.
Walking through those streets alone, gripping at the sleeves of her jacket, afraid somebody would notice who she was, what she was, in her anxiousness, she tripped. Lying there, she'd expected to be recognized, but, they simple moved around her, avoided her, refused to acknowledge her existence as some even made a point to walk over her, trample her, and, nose bloodied and knees scraped, it'd truly dawned on her then that if someone was really after her life that they would've taken it a long time ago; that her father would have. In that moment, she knew what her life was truly worth and knew it to be absolute...
Her time with Isolde only helped her to deny the reality. Further solidified her belief that the military, that becoming a soldier, joining the Scouting Legion, using them to muscle her way into the Royal Capital because the bastards in the Military Police couldn't be trusted, knowing the Legion's issues with Royal Government in their enstrangled history, would be easier to convince them to turn to illegal actions, was her best chance to change that. To become something better that what everyone wrote her off as. To not be nothing. And then, as she lay there, hands over her head and knees to her chest to protect her body, appeared a girl, imposingly tall.
This girl hoisted her to her feet again, and proceeded to carry her the rest of the way to the recruitment center on her back while starting a conversation.
Dumbfounded at the time, the only thing she could do, staring down into this tall girl's freckled face through the pain, was nod and turn red as the hue of the sun shining above their heads. Though, whether it was noticed, the other girl just moved on with her one-way conversation—well, not so much a conversation as a grumbling rant condemning the Interior and people within it, that all of them were no good, the true scum of the Walls, and whatever muck happened to find its way up from the Underground were the result of their disease—and the timing couldn't have been more perfect, when a group of scary looking men broke free from the crowd to prove her point, heading straight for them. Whereupon, they abruptly changed direction and dove into an alleyway with nowhere to run.
Cornered, Krista remembered one of them, a hunched man with crooked nose and teeth and brandishing a knife, calling her a tiny mouse, and Ymir an ugly shrew, the three others with him laughing. That was around the time Ymir flung a rock at his face, plowing into him in the following confusion with her close behind, slipping down a side street and losing them and a small smile came to her lips as the memory faded, then vanished altogether as she again wonder why.
Why had Ymir helped her? What was her motive, for wanting to join the military that day, too? Krista still couldn't figure it out. All Ymir did was berate others, put them down like she constantly did Sasha, and now Fritz, and wasn't afraid to speak her mind to anyone, even Shadis. She wasn't hiding behind a moniker, like herself. She didn't need to. Krista's hand tightened into a fist. If she was to become a soldier, if she was going to change, if she was going to be more than nothing, she had to act more like Ymir. More selfish, but, no, soldiers were selfless. Those kind of thoughts wouldn't do.
—Krista could never be as cruel as Ymir.
Later, walking back to her own dorm alone, Krista thought about Achi.
Achi used to be so distant and forlorn. So dead inside. A feeling she herself knew so much it hurt, and, looking down at her boots, gave her irresistible urge to want to help her. Though, Achi hadn't wanted her help. In spite of all her efforts back at Thorpe in trying to get her to open up and even more-so now, Achi was inclined to listen to Ymir, and her influence was starting to show with each growing day.
Not that it was a real problem, or should be, but, she would've at least hoped to have some noticeable effect on her. That, maybe, if she helped Achi, then she herself could heal, too.
Instead, it hadn't done a damn thing.
The same applied to Sasha and everyone else she'd been going out of her way to help.
Which brought her back to the belief that she only truly had one person to care about: herself.
And now dragging her feet along in the gloom, it only served to—her attention was suddenly broken away as she caught glimpse of something moving quickly ahead of her.
Little more than a silhouette against one of the dorms, she was only vaguely able to make it out. Or, rather, who it was.
She gave chase, spotting them round a corner of one of the larger buildings within the camp and peered up at the wooden sign attached to it, where their lectures were going to be held soon. Whoever it was, was entering an area they weren't allowed to be in yet, especially during after hours. They were up to something, but, when she turned the same corner, nothing was on the other side.
Something cold clasped itself over her mouth the moment she took a step forward and pulled further into the darkness on the other side of the wall, she couldn't struggle against the sudden attack because her arms were subsequently pinned, probably by the attacker's other hand.
Her mother, the knife, the blood, all bursting forth to her mind in that instant, whatever their reason for ambushing her, she wasn't that helpless girl she used to be.
So, she twisted her body and tried to escape their grip, only to be slammed against the wall, her arms pinned even tighter.
Now flinging her head back, she hoped to hit them square in the jaw and stun them like she'd practiced in their exercises, but, they leaned back before it made contact, and slammed her into the wall for the second time. Grimacing, she could feel the person's breath on her neck.
"Why are you tailing me?" Annie hissed.
"... Mhm! Mafffm! Mmmh!"
The pressure loosened, and Annie's hands moved away. Krista huffed, seeing the other girl standing there cautiously, fists clenched, ready to brawl. Krista knew she couldn't win and slide down the wall in exhaustion and defeat and pain. That one struggle had taken all she had.
Panting, she took a moment to catch her breath. "I… could say the same to… you! If you're thinking of cheating, you can't!"
At her outburst, Annie approached. Krista felt her gut drop, thinking the other girl was going to pummel her into the dirt, but Annie just lowered her fists and stared at her blankly before forcibly picking her up by the collar of her tunic.
"You thought I was going to cheat?" Her tone was unreadable, though Krista caught a faint hint of utter disgust in her next word. "Cheating? That's why you followed me?" Annie abruptly dropped her like a sack of manure. "I have no intention of doing that."
Rubbing her behind, Krista glared up at her, puzzled. "Then… why…?"
"I should be the one asking the questions." Annie bent down, getting in her face. "What are you doing out here?"
Startled by the accusation and ferocity now plain in the other girl's voice, she lowered her gaze. "I… happened to see you… So, I just…"
She heard Annie sigh. "What a waste of my time. I'm going back to my dorm. This never happened. Understand?"
Krista called after her, except the other girl was already gone. So, sitting there alone, she cursed the cold night air and looked up to the stars, seeing the first one twinkling in the twilight above.
... Everyone had their secrets, she supposed.
And so, she wondered about it again. The twig. Something so insignificant, yet, when thrown into a fire it could help keep it burning for hours longer. Similarly, the soldiers of the military were humanity's fire, burning brightly in the night, blinking out when the daybreak came as they sacrificed themselves to keep the light of humanity going. Saviors of the present. Martyrs for the future.
And she was going to be the brightest of them all.
A week passed.
Their last of straight exercises and drills, motions upon motions stacked upon motions, routine to routine, repeat, go again, another strike, another parry—another back-breaking hands-on lesson in what it meant to be a soldier, and Krista was relieved, like many of her other fellow trainees, that they were finally given a break with their first day of lectures. Though it only lasted an hour, the respite was welcome, and in its final minutes, she'd been copying down everything the instructor in charge of their lessons—a slim, studious looking older man with wiry, white tufts of hair and small, rounded glasses—told them. Writing down the basic information of what they really needed to know immediately, first and foremost, about the threat they faced, of the Titans, as she listened to him tell about their origins; the monsters that'd nearly brought humanity to its extinction.
"For one hundred and seven years the Titans have existed, according to the oldest record we have of their existence. As many of you already know, the entire human race was devoured by them, save for us. The Walls—Maria, Rose, and Sheena respectively—were constructed after that, to keep us safe. As many of you also know, exactly two year ago, when tragedy struck again in the form of the Colossus and Armored Titans..."
He went on about the breaching of Wall Maria, referred to as "The Fall", and its aftermath where the government's harsh solution of reducing their dwindling supplies was a third of the Wall's population being sent out to reclaim it the next year, where none returned just as Isolde predicted. Drowning out the instructor's voice for a moment, Krista recalled finding and reading an old, weathered and partially burned book about the Titans left forgotten in her study.
A book whose words were unfamiliar, foreign, perhaps even older than the book itself, and ruined, unreadable, only discernible by the pieces of loose notes, deciphered by a deft and dedicated hand, jutting out between its pages and quick, brief anecdotes within margins, squished between the words, even the words themselves being crossed out and their translation being written above and below, anywhere they might fit. Like the medical book she'd discovered previously. Like her father's ramblings. But even older.
And it was through these translations that she were able to read the book.
It was a book about all those tales that weren't true like the one Mina knew by heart, of mischievous tricksters, luring unsuspecting children into their lairs beneath the earth. Of the deepest dark, where no light reached. Of the malevolent monsters who then devoured them, tearing the skin from their bones, sucking out their insides and innards whole. Gruesome, visceral stories that no sane person would ever enjoy, reserved for those with wicked minds and horrible hearts. Black blood coursing through their veins, diseased and corrupted and all manners of vile debauchery.
One of these stories in particular had stuck with her since.
As the story went, once upon a time, in a distant time in a distant land far from home, a kind girl who always thought of others and was loved by everybody, got lost while out in the wilderness alone after traveling a great distance to gather some precious fruit for her village which only grew in that area and in her attempt to find her way, encountered something unspeakable. A creature so hideous in its monstrosity that none dared approach it before she happened to stumble upon it. That, even though it was unspeakable, spoke the same tongue. In her kindness, because of her selflessness, the girl gave the creature some of this precious fruit she'd been carrying with her, hoping to befriend it unlike all the others before her. But, in exchange, it ate her.
When she'd asked Isolde about the story later, the old woman's response was only that kindness could only get a person so far before it came back to bite them on the behind. Or, swallowed whole.
"... The sole interest of the Titans is the eating of human beings," the instructor continued. "They have absolutely zero interest in anything else and if we consider that they've existed without eating humans for more than a hundred years since the Walls have been built, we can assume that they don't need to eat." He flipped a page. "And from the information we've gathered thus far, they are able to regenerate injuries, even regrow their head if it's been blow off."
Someone raised their hand. "Does that mean they're unkillable?!"
"No, it does not." The instructor drew the head, neck, and shoulders of a human, then proceeded to circle the space between where the neck connected to the shoulders—the nape. "Major injury to this area of the body has been confirmed to effectively kill a Titan. For that purpose, you trainees are going through these lessons, which the primary goal of are to study, learn, and execute strategies on how best to kill them. Once a lesson is over, you will practice whatever was discussed through your training in correspondence with whatever you did here on that specific day. For today, you will become familiar with the military's main device to combat the Titans: Vertical Maneuvering Gear."
One of the devices was disassembled and laid out on a table in front. Krista's focus went to the blade which served as their primary weapon against them, as the instructor started explaining each part of the device.
With her own hands on one of these Titan-killing blades, she gripped the handle tightly. It shook.
Most of the other trainees were eager to get back out, under the sun, to start doing exercises with them, and she knew, to truly learn, to become a soldier, to have what it took, one also needed more than just book knowledge. She glanced over in Annie's direction. Holding it near her neck, she was vividly reminded of her mother's final moments, and wondered if they could be used to harm a person, too. She hoped that answer was no. Though, deep down, remembering stabbing the carriage driver over and over and over in her dreams, imagining her father standing before her in his nonsensual righteousness, Historia secretly wanted it to be yes.
Chapter 28: Friends
Annie frowned at the bowl of soup on her tray.
She pushed it away, untouched.
This was the second month of their exercises to familiarize themselves with the Vertical Maneuvering Gear and, looking up from her soup, Annie's eyes passed over the messhall making note of all the trainees she'd interacted with since that first day.
It wasn't many.
Out of them, other than Fritz and Mina still being constant thorns in her side, poking, prickling, and prodding her just when she thought they'd given up, there was also that tall, dark-skinned girl, Ymir, and, now, Krista. She had to be cautious. Her actions were increasingly being noticed, and it would be wise to lay low for a while, as pointed out unwittingly by Fritz, who'd approached her on Ymir's behalf some time ago about staring too much.
If one person was asking questions, then it was only a matter of time before others followed suit and they started scratching past the surface as a single voice. Before those thorns turned into needles, piercing her skin and exposing the raw truth hidden beneath, she had to halt her activities. Put the mission on hold because one of the last things she needed right now was to bleed, and, glancing in his direction, at the moment, he was conversing with Connie, even more the cheerful and grinning fool than usual—if that was even possible—whatever they were chatting about she unable to hear, but, recalling their exercise today, knew that if they didn't start doing something productive like everyone else, the Chief Instructor would make their next few days a living nightmare.
The exercises thus far have been basic motions with the blades, balance and poise, strikes and slashes, cuts and swings, to get them used to their weight and feel before they moved on to more strenuous activities after having spent most of the year hardening their bodies in preparation, but, the two of them, Fritz, was goofing off. Contrary to his stupidity, she expected more from him. The boy who, even after getting his ribs cracked, various bruises and bloody noses, sore limbs and aching backs by her after the first time should've disillusioned him from the idea of approaching her ever again, with that undeniable passion in his eyes whenever he spoke of her, his promise—no, where was she going with this? What was she thinking, seeing his confident smile clearly in her mind's eye? She shouldn't concerned with fools like him. Thus, she turned her attention to the others seated around and one caught it; the girl with the black scarf. Annie now knew her name as Mikasa Ackerman.
Her features were… unlike any she'd ever seen.
Not like the vast majority of the others here. Yet, there was something familiar about them. She couldn't recall for certain what it really was. The triangular structure of her face? The slight slant of her eyes? And shifting her focus to what the girl in question was looking at, beside her was the cocky boy, Eren Yeager. Other than that incident their first day in the messhall with the other boy whose name she couldn't quite remember but whose face reminded her of a horse's, after seeing him hanging upside down in his harness the day after, dangling helpless despite all that big talk, she realized he was full of nothing but hot air. And next to him, not notable whatsoever, was Armin Arlert.
The three of them always seemed to be together.
Going to another trio, making certain not to draw attention to herself—and now that she thought about it—that tall girl's features looked familiar, too. Even more so than Mikasa's. Ymir was her first name, courtesy of Fritz. No last name. The one with the blank expression, who now just seemed generally upset all the time, was Achi Almen. And, of course, who discovered her and cancelled any forseeable future plans for more reconnaissance around camp, Krista. Krista Lenz.
Just three more to keep an eye on in the future.
Mina waved to her, having just come out the serving line.
Annie decided to take a sip of her soup and almost belched, blanching instead. It tasted horrible, but, struggling to swallow it kept her occupied enough so she didn't have to listen to Mina immediately launch into something trivial, now seated across the table from her. And she was about to risk another sip when Mina's next words froze the spoon halfway to her mouth.
"... us as friends, I think..."
Friends? "What do you mean 'as friends'? " she asked, confused and irritated at the same time. "We aren't anything of the sort."
"Think so?" Mina replied, bending forward. "Well, I like talking to you, and I believe that underneath that quiet, grumpy exterior is a great person waiting to burst out!" Her smile was almost blindingly happy. "In fact, I want us to become best friends, Annie!"
Her mind went back to the day after the final candidate had been chosen. When he'd come sprinting into the yard, out of breath and panting with his tongue out like a dog. At the time, she'd been preoccupied with an insect on the ground, and hadn't paid attention when it was told to them that the attack would commence soon. That out of the seven chosen candidates, six would have the chance to become full fledged warriors loyal to the cause. To the subsequent scuffle afterward, only catching the tail end of what that dog was whining about…
... He's right. I'm the bottom of the group.
Really? I think loyalty is important. Right? Don't you agree, Annie?
She remembered staring at that insect smeared across her shoe, looking up into both of their faces, and wondering why she was here. What purpose her life was for. Why they, who'd never spoken to her before, though they'd spent all that time with each other, grueling in the mud, ridiculed and shit upon by their superiors, treated like trash and banding together to make the experience a little more bearable, were now including her into their conversation, like she'd always been apart of the group. Their group, one of them, a comrade, a sister, a friend.
... That same dog was currently laughing with a group of other trainees, no longer the scared pup he used to be, and she took that second sip of her soup.
Friends? She didn't need any friends. Let alone, a best friend.
Listening to their instructor refresh their memories about the origins of the military's signature weapon against the Titans, the Vertical Maneuvering Gear, and, more specifically, their blades, Annie inspected the one in her hand.
The blades were made with flexibility in mind. Forged to be as sturdy as possible from a material only known to her as "ultra-hard steel", it was a type of metal that could only be produced in factory towns and outposts within close proximity to and within Wall Sheena. The largest manufacturer being the Industrial City located within the Royal Capital itself, it was one of the few materials capable of cutting through a Titan's flesh. Made in abundance, unlike their predecessors, most notably a harder, more diamond-like material known as Iron Bamboo, the blades were safely disposable. No chance of them ever running out. Though, as a consequence, they dulled easily to the point where sharpening them with a stone or other object was a waste of time. Thus, they were forged in such a way that they could "snap-off" by breaking away a section of the blade as the wielder saw fit.
Taking note of where these sections were, Annie also inadvertently learned of the Wall's history and found that it all linked back to this Industrial City. She went back to the straw dummy setup for them to practice this "snap-off" feature of the blade, giving a glance over in Reiner's direction, seeing him encouraging his partner, Eren. Her jaw clenched.
Watching the angry boy repeatedly go at his own straw dummy, breaking section after section until he was only left with a stub before long, she had to admit that underneath all that hot air was a strong sense of focus. A stubborn, foolish and, even, childish dedication, to violence. If Eren turned out to be the one they were looking for, a person like him was bound to be troublesome if he kept improving himself through sheer tenacity, and that big oaf was only making it worse. Only, no, the likelihood of it being Eren—or any trainee within the 104th, for that matter—was slim at best. It was most definitely within the hands of someone within the Royal Capital. If not the King, then someone close to him. A relative, perhaps. Even so, even here, she couldn't let her guard down. Not again. Not anymore. And, turning to her own partner since yesterday, at the blade he wielded broken down to the hilt and her own which she'd yet to start with, it'd be worth it to investigate further into this Industrial City. That was to say, the second reason they were here: intelligence gathering.
Considering its importance in humanity's technological advancements within the Walls, a place like the Industrial City was bound to hold secrets of not only the resources used for humanity's fight against the Titans which the instructor had pointed out as "highly classified" when someone asked, but, maybe... the Coordinate, too. If she really wanted to, she could possibly find out its exact location tonight, but, then, there was no guarantee that she wouldn't accidentally run into someone again or for Mina, Fritz, or someone else to notice her absence. Worse yet, having them report it to Shadis. That she couldn't allow. So far—
"Springer! Brandt!" the Chief Instructor's shrill voice blasted across the training field. "Why are you two idiots doing?!"
Annie didn't bother to look over like everyone else, only shaking her head.
… So far, nobody had come by asking for her whereabouts on certain nights, meaning Krista hadn't said a word about that night. She was safe for now, but, once again, it was best to stay where she was. No more nightly escapades for the time being. Those two could do it themselves for once, if they felt so inclined. Though, it's not likely they would. If Marcel was here... But, he wasn't, so there was no use dwelling on it. What happened before…
Reiner... where are you...?! Annie, hey, come on! Annie! We have to go! Marcel's gone! Annie...!
"... Leonhart! Are you all there in the head?!"
She was shatterly brought back to the present by the Chief Instructor, who stood over her, shouting. Had been for some time, judging by the looks on the faces around her, and she looked up, meeting his eyes.
"Well, it doesn't look like it!" he spat back. "Are you bored, Leonhart?!"
"I don't believe you! If you're so bored doing these exercises, then you can join the idiot duo over there! Blouse,"—he whistled, and out the corner of her eye Annie saw someone quickly dive behind their straw dummy—"You, too!"
Then, he rounded the four of them up and sent them on their way to the detention center, where they were to spend the remainder of the day together.
Annie stood in the corner of the room, arms crossed. The light, a tan-orange overhead peeking in through the single window placed high above any of their heads, grew dimmer each passing moment. Night was swiftly approaching. Meaning, messhall was just about over, and, so, too, would their sentences.
Since being herded into the detention center, the four of them were told that once their allotted time was up—after messhall was over—they were free to head back to their dorms. In the meantime, they were to think about their actions and reflect. Though, as the longer time went by where Sasha didn't get any food, the more it looked as if she were ready to keel over while the other two were now busy arguing over something stupid, again, and she'd rather kick all three unconscious for a bit of quiet, none of them cared; their time in the detention center only served to give the Chief Instructor less daily headaches. That, if they weren't taking things seriously, it was better to let them wallow in their own troubles and either have phase out of training on their own, or for the Titans do it after they managed to graduate.
Not that the military wanted to lose any of them, of course, as every able-bodied soldier was a valuable asset in their fight against the Titans, even if warm bodies and little more, but, it made them look bad to the common people otherwise if they saw their soldiers were so inept. If the soldiers didn't give a damn about humanity's future, then what hope was there? Only, all around her, she'd already seen it that first day—that hope and the extreme lack of it. Many of the trainees here were in it for themselves. Aiming to get as far away from the Titans as they possibly could, that was the whole reason they signed up. Not to fight, but to run and hide. If that's what it meant to be a soldier, she'd rather not become one. She'd rather stay a warrior. Yes, a warrior is what she was...
That's good, Annie! Strike it again! Good! Again!
Annie Leonhart! You pass! Report to Commander Magath!
And so, the plan to retake the Founder will be carried out by...
Promise me you'll come back.
"... Hey, Annie, what do you think?"
They were huddled in a circle on the floor. The three of them were looking at her, waiting for her to say something. Up until now they'd been discussing… something... and whatever it was weighed heavily on their consciences from just their faces alone. She was eerily reminded of that same look on the candidates for the Warrior Program, those youths so eager to be chosen and yet dreading it all the same.
After a moment, Connie waved her off and fell on his back, arms behind his head as he stared at the ceiling. "She doesn't care! Told you, man!"
Fritz went back to him, scowling. "I think even Annie would care! Everyone else here does!"
"Y-yeah, he's right!" Sasha exclaimed. "What do you think, Annie?! Tell us!"
Fritz stood up. "The Military Police! Will you be joining, too?!"
The Military Police Brigade. The branch of the military reserved for the top ten graduates of the Training Corps. They didn't fight the Titans on the frontlines like the Scouting Legion as humanity's sword or act as humanity's shield like the Garrison Regiment, but were instead their protectors within the Interior as an internal policing force tasked with maintaining order and keeping the peace of the Royal Capital. It was the branch many within the 104th were striving for and their sole reason for becoming soldiers: to run and hide. If the Coordinate was close to the King of the Walls like she guessed, then it would only be natural to join the Military Police to continue their—her—mission. To… run and hide…
Annie?! What are you waiting for?!
The wall is right there! If we don't do it now, then...!
"... Annie? Is everything okay?" Fritz came beside her, putting a hand on her shoulder. "You're shaking."
She held out her hand, staring at the silver-banded ring on her index finger. It trembled. Forming a fist, she stopped it and regained her composure. "I'm fine..." she said, shrugging him off. "Didn't I tell you not to stand so close to me? And don't touch me, either."
"Ah!" Fritz backed up. "Sorry!" He averted his eyes to the side and laughed it off. "I forgot."
She noticed him blush, and feeling her own face grow hot, cursed herself. They didn't say anything after that, and neither they nor Connie or Sasha went to break the sudden, awkward air between them. Thus, like she wanted from the start, the four of them spent the remaining time in the detention center in silence, even when Shadis opened the door.
"So... did you maggots learn your lesson?!" he began before the heavy atmosphere gave him pause. Not that the man would ever let such a hesitation linger. "That's good! You're soldiers, act like it! Now get back to your dorms!"
They shuffled out, Connie first, then Sasha, Fritz, and lastly, her. Watching them walk away in front of her, she was once again reminded of that time. A similar scene of them preparing to enter the ship which would ferry them across the sea, came to her. Of those three, only one looked back. Just the same, only one looked back, and she glared at him.
"What is it?" she said.
Fritz smiled reassuringly. "If there's... anything you want to talk about, Annie, Mina and I—"
"No,"—she cut him off right then and there—"There isn't."
She broke from them and went to her dorm, reaching it shortly thereafter.
Once inside, she fell on her bunk, listening to the soft sound of Mina's breathing as she began to drift asleep…
Left, right, left, right, left, right. Swing. Going through the motions, that was all she could do. The training was difficult. It hurt. Her arms, they were heavy. She was tired. Her legs, they were numb. Everything hurt. Left, right, left, right. Swing. Kick. Pummel. Take-down. Again. Again. Again. So tired. So very tired. But, she dared not stop because her father was watching. She had to keep going. She had to keep swinging. Had to keep doing the lefts and rights, as her father was silently watching. Like a statue, he was still. Like a statue, he was unmoving. A thing chiseled from stone that was cold and unfeeling and every time she would take a swing, his brow cracked He didn't like her swings. They were weak, they were pathetic. They were useless, they were no good. She wasn't trying hard enough. She was a disgrace. Tears started to fill her eyes—she couldn't take it anymore. The hurt was too much. Left, right, falter, slow, left, right, falter, slow, left, right, falter, slow, stumble, left, right, falter, slow, stumble, fall. Stop. She couldn't go on anymore. Panting from exhaustion, sweating profusely, she couldn't continue swinging. Her father's blank face crumbled with fury and confusion. Why was she stopping? Why didn't she continue? She should keep going until she passes out. She should keep going until she dies.
What're you doing, Annie...?! There's no time for breaks!
Jerked awake from the memory, Annie sat up in the quiet, panting. Steadying. Thinking.
The day after, frustrated, that insect she flattened without a second thought, she'd imagined it to be her father, and, just the same, when they'd decimated that nation to the south, those too, had been like insects to her, but... now... having to live with her sins up close... Marcel's body between that Titan's jaws... Mina and Fritz's faces flashed through her mind then.
I'm so sorry, Annie! Promise me you'll come back.
Does that mean we're on even terms now?
In fact, I want us to become best friends, Annie!
No. A killer—a murderer—like her didn't deserve friends, and she waited until the screams carried her off to sleep again, putting those thoughts of what could never be far in the back of her mind where the light wouldn't reach.
And, as a warrior, this is what she'd continue to be.
Because it was the only way for her to get back home.
Chapter 29: Annie
When inspecting and cleaning your Gear, always make sure to double and triple check you have everything in its correct place.
That's what Chief Instructor Shadis first told them when they went to work disassembling their Gear, though over the days since they began using them in conjunction with the blades they'd been given previously, Fritz needed to actually be capable of removing the pieces; he was still struggling to unattach his gas canister—the very first step in the process. Also supposedly the easiest, the canister's cylindrical shape designed in such a way to make it a fast, clean removal and resupply. Only his seemed to be caught on something inside the rectangular fitting it was housed in. If he didn't figure out what the problem was, he was going to lose points for being twice as slow as everyone else. For being incompetent. Then he'd be kicked out, shuffled off to the fields or back home or given a position where Vertical Maneuvering Gear was used sparingly in humiliation. He didn't want that to happen. Couldn't allow that to happen.
"Stupid thing!" he huffed in frustration, tugging on the fitting before heaving a sigh and setting it down. His anger was getting the better of him, and he stopped lest he do something impulsive, like his father. Something that might cost him everything, and, he put his head down, counting in his head to clear his mind, calm his nerves, and, eventually, with focus, start again.
It still wouldn't budge.
"Damaged," he concluded. Just like Eren's on the second day, and several of the other trainees'.
Ymir, who was his new partner after he and Connie screwed around too much, snorted, breaking him away from his musings. "Yeah, well, that doesn't surprise me in the least," she said, rubbing her neck. "Everything about this place is shit, so of course it's shit, too." Swiping his Gear from him, she banged it against the table until it broke apart and tossed the pieces about without a care or proper respect for the equipment, then gathered them up and pushed them all back toward him. "Don't thank me for this. Really."
Going back to it, having Ymir as a partner was harsh, but, there was truth to her words. He couldn't keep acting like a fool, otherwise he wouldn't be able to graduate with the rest of them, and it'd be that much harder to find his sister and, now at dinner, busy going over the motions of cleaning and setting up his Gear in his head, a sharp whistle from Connie snapped him out of it.
"Hey, you in there?" Connie waved a hand in front of his face.
Connie rested his head on his arm, and inhaled through his nose. He pointed at his plate of food. "Are you going to eat that, that's what."
Fritz shook his head. "No. Not right n—"
Whistling again, loudly across the room, Connie sprang back up, alive again. "Hey Sasha! He says he doesn't want it!"
Fritz followed his friend's eyes to a table in the corner of the room where three people he'd seen time and again were huddled. They were one of four infamous trios that everyone in the 104th Trainee Corps knew of by now.
Eren and Armin had their backs to him, but Mikasa was looking straight back at he and Connie. All the trainees were saying how talented she was and, his eyes drawn to the well-worn and ragged black scarf she always had looped around her neck, turning red himself as he remembered that second day when he mistook her for Mina, gulping the embarrassment down, he was one of the only ones besides her, Armin, Eren, Reiner, Krista, Connie, and a handful of others who were open about their decisions to join the Scouting Legion.
A handful was better than nothing, but, it wasn't enough.
The Titans were a threat, and they wouldn't be defeated by staying in the Interior collecting taxes and playing cards, or so his father used to say during his time there. If more people with talent like Mikasa were inclined to join, then maybe with their combined support there'd be an increase in those willing to bring the fight to the Titans. More incentive for the Royal Government to provide better funding for them, so that Ines and the rest of the Scouting Legion would come back alive, rather than die out in the field due to even poorer equipment than what they had to work with. Ymir was right, but, she didn't know that half of it. The Scouting Legion has always been the smallest branch of the military, despite being humanity's spear, its weapon to keep the Titans at bay now that the Walls have failed, and, unlike the other two, larger branches, was much more in need of sharper blades and sturdier shafts. Otherwise their only reliable weapon would shatter, splinter into pieces, and then nothing would stand between them and the Titans. Though, for some, such a commitment, to give their life, wasn't an option, he also knew.
... Annie was avoiding him even more-so than usual ever since the day he'd asked her about joining.
All he could remember was that pale look on her face, her hand shaking and eyes revealing something that wasn't meant to be seen. Something horrible that she kept bottled inside, just like the first day they met.
Mina hadn't seen her much either—saying that she was often missing from their dorm and only came back when curfew required it and when he asked around it were almost as if by the very mention of her name she simply vanished, because the only time anyone else ever saw her was during their exercises and messhall duties.
Even for someone like her, it was worrisome.
He just wished she would talk about it, whatever was weighing her down.
However, forcing the issue wasn't going to get him anywhere, so in the meantime he was concentrating on his exercises, but, he also hadn't heard her answer: which branch of the military was she looking to join?
And, the next he knew, someone's hands were sneakily reaching for his plate from right behind his back, and he jumped up, knocking heads with whomever it was. He cursed and looked down, seeing Sasha crouched on the floor clutching her forehead.
"Ow..." she whined.
"Ah... Sorry, Sasha!" He bent down, offering a hand and helping her to her feet. Well, at least now he knew where she was. "Are you alright? If you wanted my food, you could've just asked."
"Yeah, I think so. Thanks. And… s-sorry… I—"
He gave her a thumbs-up, a habit he'd unintentionally given to Mina, too. "It's alright! I understand!" Without hesitation she sprang up, clasping his hands in hers. "Oh! You do? You really do?!" she cried, eccentric. "Then, may I…?" Her eyes wandered down to his plate. Her hands—they were trembling.
Annie's face flashed through his mind. "O-of course. Help yourself."
Staring at the back of Sasha's head as she took his plate, her brown hair, her ponytail, though he hadn't asked yet to confirm it, she must've come from a village scarce with supplies and having limited contact with the larger Districts. Her actions during the opening ceremony and incidents like now were beginning to make sense, the more he thought of her actions from that perspective. Though, looking over at Mikasa, he'd no guess to where she was from, like Ymir, and, thinking of it, nor did he know where Annie came from, either.
—Where had she grown up to learn to fight like that?
How many of the other trainees would he meet in his full three years here?
How many of them would even get through their first?
Fritz wondered if Lex and Ines had shared similar experiences to his own, and, well, sitting next to Sasha, who'd since began devouring his food, whatever these three years would throw at him to prepare him for what was to come in the future, he vowed that he'd join the Scouting Legion and find out for himself when he meet up with her one day. No matter if he had to face Titans or something worse—if there even was such a thing—he was ready and resolved to see it through to the end.
Count on it.
Further into the week, in the midst of one of their endurance exercises, training with their Vertical Maneuvering Gear in one of the many giant forests dotting the territory surrounding the training camp, Fritz stretched his aching limbs as he looked around for any sign of Ymir, but his head hurt, having slammed his head against a branch trying to keep up with her. He touched his forehead and winced. There was a bump.
Having Ymir as a partner was not just harsh, but, a nightmare.
She was so fast. Equally as talented as the likes of Mikasa, there was no doubt that she'd make it into the top ten, and he couldn't believe the rumors about her person that she was a lazy, good-for-nothing as he sat down a branch. While he dreaded what would happen if he stopped, he was dead tired, and had to lie down, or else he might faint mid-flight, wondering where Annie was right now, still remembering her frightened face so unlike the girl he knew—or thought he did.
But, there wasn't any use fretting over it, so, gazing up into the tall trees of the forest, trying to see the sky beyond them, catching patches of grey here and there, droplets fell on him.
Having heavily rained earlier, it'd since calmed down to a drizzle, and he welcomed any of it he could get.
After those insufferable days of heat the first few months, having the chance to cool off was much appreciated.
And, when he opened his eyes again it was dark. He could barely see anything. Still suffering from his headache, he slowly, painfully, arched up. With a grimace, he rose to his feet and weakly and wearily looked around. Holding himself steady, he balanced out, and rubbed his eyes. Starting forward, he bumped his knee on something, and cursed.
"... I wouldn't move so soon, your body is still recovering."
"Huh? What? Who's…" he hoarsely called out, peering in the direction of the voice. He saw someone leaning nearby, and tilted his head.
... It couldn't... be...
"You were out for a long time," she continued. "When they figured out you were missing, they sent out search parties. You're lucky they realized it when they did."
Trying to see her in the dark, he asked where they were, why she was here.
"... I volunteered to take you back. Turns out, you're heavier than I thought. So, I'm taking a break before we continue on. But, don't misunderstand—we aren't friends and never will be."
He came up beside her—or as close as he could manage with their height difference, whereas he having grown taller, she was more or less the same height since the opening ceremony—his eyes finally adjusting to the lack of light. "... Why, then?"
Her stance stiffened. "Because I wanted to talk with you." She crossed her arms, looking away. "I wanted to know if you'd like to… to be..." She closed her eyes, struggling to get the words out. "... To be... my partner. I discussed it with the Chief Instructor, and he agreed to it."
"Huh?" Fritz pointed at himself. "Me? Why me? And why that?" He sorely remembered all the other times. "You'll just beat me up without even trying again."
"I have my reasons," she replied, glancing back.
Breaking eye contact, Annie tossed him his Gear, told him to follow her unless he wanted to get lost again, then disappeared into the night.
Putting on his Gear and making sure it was secure, he didn't know how he was going to feel in the morning, but, smiled as the sun started to peek through the treetops, glad that Annie seemed alright.
Chapter 30: The Face That Haunts
Besides these mandatory lectures and training exercises they had to participate in to earn points toward their overall scoring for their Vertical Maneuvering Gear training, in-between each core lesson was a "winding down" period. That was to say, other than going straight back to "simpler" exercises like seeing how long it took someone to croak by running insane distances in the sweltering heat—that bald bastard hadn't taken another canteen away from her, yet—or being reminded how bad of a shot you were in firearms training or archery—except Bertolt, for whatever reason, and, Sasha, because apparently it's all she's good at besides making an entire plate of food disappear—if someone were really determined to earn them, they could volunteer for the opportunity to gain extra consideration by doing menial tasks around the camp, or, yawning, standing by the well closest to her dorm and tapping her foot as she waited for Achi to finish up with the task she'd chosen for the day and get together with her and Krista already, with crossed arms, as Ada would refer to it: kissing ass.
—Just a way to get them to do the stuff nobody bothered with unless they were forced to. Mostly the nasty ones like cleaning out the latrines or shoveling horse shit though there were less disgusting ones like helping in the messhall in either preparing or serving food, or cleaning up afterwards, and those with a bit more weight behind them—the ones Achi normally chose, few and far between—such as staying close to the wagons and carriages which brought supplies to and from the camp to prevent the loss of resources by wild animals, bandits, random bumps in the road, and even—thanks to idiots like Sasha—the members of the military.
Speaking of idiots, looking down at Krista crouched next to her boots, Ymir thought for sure the girl was going to take part in such an unmissable opportunity too, but, here she was, soaking up the sun with that hollow look on her face that nobody else seemed to notice nor she herself was aware she made when she thought nobody was watching her.
"She's late," Krista said, after a time. That hollow look was gone, replaced by a haughty frown of concern."I'm worried. You don't think something ha—"
"Achi can handle herself," Ymir spat, averting her eyes just enough to not see the entirety of Krista's face. Otherwise she'd punch it.
Krista's hair fell into her eyes as she leaned forward. "T… That's true, but…" When she looked up at her, they were lit in forced anger. "The least you could do is show a little concern! She's our friend, isn't she?!"
Ymir clicked her tongue. There she went off, again. "In case you haven't figured it out yet, Achi isn't you. She's not helpless like you are."
Rubbing her nape, digging into her skin, it was so… so… irritating, thinking of it again.
Krista sprang to her feet. "I'm not helpless! I—!"
Only to get flicked in the forehead.
"Ow! What was that for, Ymir?!"
"Even Sasha here is better than you," she replied, pointing at the Potato Girl—wow, she really hadn't called her that in a while—who was coming over with a bucket.
"Huh? What? What's going on?" Sasha said. She froze in front of them, looking like a frightened rabbit about to bolt any second. She threw the bucket over her head. "W-Why are you s-staring at me like that?!"
Both Sasha and this girl had the same problem: not being who they really are. Afraid to show the world who they really were, they each hid behind something or other. That was what frustrated Ymir the most—cowards who didn't let their true selves show. It really ticked her off, she didn't need it in her company while she was dealing with these nightmares, that woman.
Ymir plopped down on the floor, propping herself against the wall. Just what had she been thinking, getting involved with that stupid girl? She slammed a fist into the wall, remembering being chased by that fatass's goons again. How they'd cornered her the first time, and how she'd managed to escape by breaking the leader's nose. How he shrieked at the others for them to kill her as he bled, doubled over, the cartilage of his nose twisted at an unnatural angle as he tried moving it back into place, only to sneeze out more blood. Her slipping underneath them, running into a crowded street, searching for any viable hiding place, anything at all, until chancing upon another church not unlike from before then, bolting through its doors and diving under one of the windows. Waiting.
And, as she had, looked around its interior, bigger and more extravagant than the previous one, the only thing she remembered about it was that lone statue of one of those monsters: a Titan. Ominous in appearance, with a disproportionate body, black eyes, and large, sharp teeth. A mockery of human anatomy. Taller than the tallest man. A church with a Titan as the centerpiece.
She felt herself about to gag.
That Titan… it looked… just like… No, she wasn't that. She wasn't like that anymore. Whatever it'd been, wasn't her. Swallowing her vomit down, the idea was complete and utter bullshit.
"Bunch of lunatics," she said to herself, recalling the event that followed. The event that ultimately sealed her decision to join the military while condemning those ugly paintings on the ceiling. When the doors to the church creaked open and she huddled behind the podium, partially out of instinct and habit. In her mad dash to shake off those goons, she'd dropped her guard and forgotten the possibility of others coming in and, hearing footsteps, held her breath.
"But, she's been born out of the wedlock! She can't possibly be the heiress because of that! A bastard child!" a man huffed, his voice tight and hushed, the matter he was discussing no doubt a secret affair. "The family isn't going to accept her as—!"
"There's nothing we can do about it. We can only hope that this is somehow overlooked," another man retorted, easily the calmer of the two.
"But, it can't be unless she were killed! Maybe they should have killed her as soon as she was born so this whole fiasco didn't evolve in the first place!"
"No, that would've been too rash. She is a blood relative, after all. Simply killing her isn't the way to go about it. Driving her out worked in our favor and... for her sake as well..." The calmer man sighed and started to walk back to the entrance. "Come, we'll discuss this further in my chambers and away from any prying eyes that may overhear us in public."
Politics and family feuds—neither of which she wanted to be a part of, but, despite that, something compelled her to see what the fuss was all about. If nothing else, to see the outcome, thinking that she could use it to her advantage.
… Or had she?
Wanting to change, wanting to be different from the monster she'd been —Ymir doubted for a second if she couldn't in fact shake off that side of herself, then freed her mind of the thought and looked down at her hands. No, she wouldn't go back to the way she'd been. She'd just be a different Ymir altogether, one who would live only for herself and nobody else. That was what she told herself back then, what she told herself until now, and what she would continue to tell herself, forever. And, thinking of that stupid girl, she was going to make her see that logic, too. Even if she had to beat it into her. No, on second thought, why should she care what happened to her? To any of them…
Protect it. Keep it safe. Never let it falter from your gaze.
The streets were packed, and everyone wore bright colors. Expensive apparel and jewelry. It made her sick. They were the same people as back then, there was no difference between the times except the number of people. They were still afraid. Afraid to birth more children, afraid to train them into soldiers, afraid to watch them die. No, it was even more shallow than that. Why should they be the ones churning out food to the lion's den instead of the lower classes? Why should they be the ones to sacrifice themselves? It wasn't their problem, what went on outside. There was still one defense keeping the Titans at bay so their comfortable lives never became uncomfortable, so why bother? That whole way of thinking pissed her off something fierce as she'd dragged her feet the whole time, trying to survive…
There was a flash of red and she looked up, but, nothing was there.
Keep it safe.
She was seeing things and went back to her musings.
Never let it falter from your gaze.
Another flash. She sat up. Her hands were shaking. Suddenly, without warning, she was on her hands and knees and gagging onto the wooden floor.
More flashes of red. Intensive, excruciating, flashes of pain.
Vomiting, she fell on her side and felt something wet. Blood. The flashes of red.
Pain. A memory.
"Hey there, kid."
She was lying on a bed with bandages wrapped around her head and chest. There was a light coming from somewhere beside her. Her vision was blurry. Dark green eyes—a girl looking down at her with a furrowed brow, and as she tried to rise, pushing her back down again.
"Don't try and move. You took a beating again." The girl flashed her teeth, like needles of a saw blade. "You've got a fire inside of you." Taking a wet cloth, the girl put it on her forehead. "Besides the fever." A smile. Caring and friendly, like that of a mother's love. "I've only seen it a few times before. The first was a boy at the time, around the same age as you are now. He was always crying. An annoying little brat, but, he never backed down." She looked away to wherever the light was coming from with a devilish grin, bloodthirsty and cruel. "The little bastard."
She coughed, spat up blood, and squirmed as the girl held her down. Her skin felt as if it were boiling and she wanted to cry out from the pain.
"Don't move, I said." The girl leaned down to touch her face. "It'll be over sooner than you think, just bear with the pain." A necklace swayed from her neck.
She focused on it, how plain it looked, eyes watery.
The girl's voice was becoming distant and she couldn't hear her anymore, only focused on coping with the burning sensations, focusing only on the necklace, and, eventually, she drifted back to sleep, the girl talking as soothingly as she could the whole time.
Ymir bolted upright. She felt around her face.
She waved her hand.
No flashes of red. No blood.
"What was that?" Her hands... They were no longer shaking, and she looked over at the blood that was now slowly evaporating on floor. She laid her head back and stared at the ceiling. "How long was I...?" She shook her head again and cursed. "Whatever, I'm still here..." She wasn't dead. Even so, she looked at her hands once again…
Getting back to her feet, she wasn't going to die anytime soon, either, and stepped out into the sun to wait for Achi's return. They still had more to go over regarding her shit writing.
Art by crow on instagram (@crowkidart)
Chapter 31: Achi Almen
When she was younger, Achi had loved her village nestled by a small mountain range on the edges of Wall Maria. From its thatch roofed houses, two stories high and made of timber harvested from the nearby forest that offered protection from the harsh cold in the wintertime, to the wooden walls that surrounded and enclosed them in a circle and kept them safe, the people, the plants, the animals, everything, it had taken many generations to build and wasn't too empty nor too crowded and everyone had a duty to see that it stayed that way. For her family, this had been watching over and tending to the livestock, and it'd been her duty not to let them wander outside their pens for after nightfall, where they were at risk from being attacked by those wild creatures that prowled the forest and neighboring countryside. Wolves, her father had said they were called—large, fierce, sharp-toothed, and sharp-clawed animals that would show no mercy to those not paying attention to their duty, were especially a threat. Countless livestock had went missing because of them, and it took a sharp eye and deft hand to make sure that anymore of them weren't taken.
It had been difficult work, and, as she grew older, hated.
Though, now, many miles away from home, walking alongside a carriage bringing fresh supplies to camp, she couldn't have been more grateful and, as the carriage came into camp, she split away from it now that it was safe, to be greeted by Ymir—the person she was most grateful toward now.
"Hey, kid," Ymir said, hands on her hips. "Took you long enough."
Achi shrugged. "I miss anything?"
Ymir scratched a cheek. "Nothing much…"
She glanced around. "Where's Krista?"
The taller girl scoffed. "Dunno." She changed subjects. "You coming or what? Or you just gonna stand there all day?"
"Shut up," she replied, following after her.
Time passed as they went.
Ymir spoke again when they were coming upon their dorm. "I need you to help me with..."—she coughed—"You know what..."
"So, what did you fail this time?"
Ymir scowled. "Nothing."
"Nothing? Last time, I remember you could barely read the first question... Are you telling me you couldn't read any of them this time?"
"Hah... Very funny..." Ymir said. "Ah. Just forget it."
Achi shrugged. "Whatever you say."
"Hang on!" the woman shouted.
They shot up the wall, flying at a speed so fast Achi didn't have time to think until she was already turning back around. Hands over the edge of Wall Sheena, she gazed out to the black smoke in the far distance. Crying, she reached out, and stumbled, nearly falling to her death, only to be caught by a heavy hand.
It went swiftly across her cheek, stringing red. "Do you want to die?!" Her vision blurred by the blow, hearing deadened as the woman shouted at her, Achi felt herself losing consciousness.
"Hey!" the woman shouted again, shaking her. "Hey! Stay awake! Hey!"
The last thing Achi saw as she fell was the necklace around the woman's neck as her hazy form waved about frantically to somewhere else, and, as she hit the ground, the last thing heard was the sound of the gate being hoisted by mechanisms too complex for her mind to comprehend.
That night, taking the necklace from its hiding place, Achi stared at the image of whatever animal was depicted on it, still unable to figure out what it was, and fell back on her pillow.
Hearing Ymir tossing and turning in the bunk above her, Achi recalled the first day she'd met her. Cradling Krista in her arms like she were a sack of potatoes, and dropping her in similar fashion when the two reached the recruitment center where she'd already filled out her sheet after arguing with the recruiter there that, yes, she was in fact old enough to join—which was, in fact, a lie. Ymir had seen right through her from the beginning. The horror behind her eyes that she tried so hard to hide, and let run down her cheeks when she thought nobody was looking. Ever since, she'd never spoke a word of it, but, stayed by her side, watching over her until it stopped.
Hands folded on her chest, grasping her necklace for comfort, Achi didn't know why Ymir was doing it, but, whatever the reason behind it, she had to repay her someday. Holding up her necklace, the soldier who'd given her this, too. Her mother and father, also. The old man. Isolde. So many people, except one. The one who kept trying to cheer her up. Who always kept that smile on her face regardless of the situation or circumstance. Who made her uneasy; sick to her stomach, that such an unnaturally happy person could exist. Even Mina wasn't like that all the time, believe it or not, and, the next day, listening to Ymir talk about how much Sasha annoyed her as they ate, right now, that someone was the only thing on her mind. She wanted to concentrate on eating, but, could only muster up enough to take one measly bite of her biscuit before giving up.
"Achi? What's wrong?" Krista asked.
"Nothing." She got up from the table. "I'm getting some fresh air." On her way out, she heard one of them get up from the table, as well. Glancing back, of course it was Krista. "Alone."
Outside now, she stared into the fire of the sconces on one of the buildings and sat down. She just couldn't keep it away. Gritting her teeth as her nostrils flared and she swallowed, fighting hard not to throw up, the image of it—her mother's body, splattered across their kitchen table, her insides hanging over the side of it like tangled red rope against the backdrop of that humongous hole in their kitchen wall, smashed through by some monster's giant fist —was always there. And, those houses and walls she'd loved so much, that she once felt so safe inside, in ruins, as those monsters attacked the village.
She started to cry again, clenching her teeth as she tried to bite back her tears.
She noticed Ymir out the corner of her watery eyes. "Hey, Krista's asking about you. I told her to buzz off for now," the taller girl said. Then, she went back inside.
After spending the previous night going over what Ymir didn't understand on the latest material in their lectures and so many other nights spent together doing the same thing, Achi was glad to call her a friend. Having a friend was what her mother told her was one of the most precious things a person could have in the whole world, and, she was the only thing that kept the memory of that morning at bay as she slowly edged out of her hiding place in her family's kitchen closet, remembering it again—the morning hell had come knocking on their door. She could still see the one that snatched and hoisted her mother into the air, playing with her and jostling her around like one of the dolls in her room. Only her mother hadn't been a doll, and when she'd struggled to grab hold of something so she wasn't thrashed around like one, the strain pulled her apart. She could still the hear the snapping and the tearing, as her mother screamed in agony, and the thud, as it dropped her, like a uninterested child.
That was when her father told her to hide as he got the monster's attention and led it away. To make a dash for the far edge of the village as soon as he had. He trusted her to do it, and trust was one of the most valuable things in the whole world.
Their family's golden rule.
Her mother would have told her the exact same thing.
Hot, stinging tears running down her face, Achi didn't want to see any of it anymore. She didn't want to see all those people getting eaten like her mother. Didn't want to see their anguished faces or hear their tormented cries. She wanted to wake up from the nightmare. It was all just a horrible dream and everything would be alright when she opened them again, but, before she realized, Achi was staring at the body of her mother again. The only thing she saw was the blood and spit coming from her mother's mouth—gurgling up from her throat, pooling behind her head, and spilling all over the floor and she shut her eyes.
When she opened them, she couldn't take anymore. All the pain, all the sadness, all the hurt — it was eating away at her no matter how much she tried to deny or bury it. But, she wasn't going to cry again, she wasn't going to—Sucking snot back up her nose and rubbing her eyes, she wasn't going to cry anymore!
Wiping her nose with her elbow, she heard Krista come up behind her.
Ever since Isolde had encouraged her to go after the girl, that the two of them could help one another in their struggles, all she could remember was the day before, when the other girl just up and vanished without even so much as a goodbye. Without trust in the people who took her in, to keep her safe...
Glancing back, like a doll to be thrashed around and eaten by the horrors of the world, helpless to stop it, Krista just stood there with that expression on her face. It was unsettling, how blank it was. Then, as if remembering where she was, it lit up, becoming more animated. That smile.
That fake smile like a mask stretched across her face similar to a Titan's—only disturbingly pathetic and twice as infuriating. That always reminded her that the world was cruel.
And in that moment, Achi hated her.
Standing up, without a word, she shouldered past her and went back inside. Sitting down at the table again, and looking at her biscuit, she knew what to feel to keep those images away as she reached for one. It rose from the depths of her battered and beaten heart as she took another bite.
She remembered that monster. That Titan. The one who'd eaten her mother and, shoving the rest in her mouth, chewing vigorously and swallowing hard, washing it down with a large gulp water, she knew what it was…
"Hey, you shouldn't…"
"Leave her be."
It was anger.
Anger, at herself, for not being strong enough. Anger, at the blonde-haired girl seated directly across from her, for always reminding her of it. Anger, at the Titans. Those monsters who took everything from her, and, she vowed, never would again.
A short time after, days, still in between lessons, they were out in approach to one of the giant forests dotted throughout the territory within Wall Rose commonly used for their practice with the Vertical Maneuvering Gear for a new exercise. Splitting into two groups and coming from opposite directions, they were supposed to be making a round trip to a destination chosen by the Chief Instructor while recording their progress along the way, set within a given period of time. Once at the destination, they were to exchange information and return via the other group's assigned route.
Officially, it was to evaluate the trainees' ability to keep themselves occupied and alert when there was nothing exciting going on. Unofficially, to Achi, it was all a load of crap. Whichever group made it the fastest there and back would be rewarded with a point in their favor toward their individual scoring for the top ten—and why it pissed her off so much. All that work she'd been doing for months meant nothing if everyone was going to get a pat on the back anyway. Which was why when her group had pushed themselves so hard to get there—having already exhausted themselves not even a third of the way—she was thankful that Eren was such a suicidal bastard. He'd rushed on ahead, forcing the rest to catch up, and they were now camped for the night indefinitely.
Under torchlight, while Marco and Armin, the group leader and record keeper respectively, were going over their next course of action, Achi took it upon herself to shorten Sasha's food rations because she was obviously too well overstocked. Hefting a bag of uncooked vegetables, she went to the small firepit they built, skewered one of them on a stick, and started roasting it.
Krista, who'd gazing up at the stars until that point, called her out. "Achi, that's stealing, you know."
The other girl came closer, watching her rotate her chosen vegetable, which was surprisingly not a potato, and attempted to scold her further. "That's Sasha's, not yours."
"And how would you know that?"
"I…" She went quiet all of a sudden.
Somewhere else, Achi heard someone complaining about the lack of food—probably Jean—and another person tell them off—most definitely Eren—and held her stick to the moonlight. "So?"
"I… I helped her pack it..." Krista said softly, barely audible.
"So… then… that makes it yours too, right?"
"Take it." She handed it to her, took out another one, and started roasting it, too.
When it was done, she blew on it and let it cool, then took a bite. Looking over at Krista, she was eerily reminded of her mother in that Titan's hand.
"I get what you're saying, but, that still doesn't make it right to just—"
"And what about you? Why did you help her pack it in the first place if you weren't going to take any of it for yourself,"—well, knowing that bottomless pit of a girl, maybe she thought she wouldn't get the chance, but—"Were you trying to do something generous for her again?"
Achi loathed that side of her. "Why? What has the Potato Girl ever done for you?"
She didn't respond, eyes focused on the ground.
The side that she hid from the world.
"Ymir was right. You really are helpless."
With that said, Achi continued eating her vegetable.
Even back during their time together with Isolde, Krista had always given her the impression of someone greater than she humbled herself as. Like a goddess fallen to earth, forced to wallow in the shit and piss of poorer people, but, keeping her real thoughts tight-lipped while she tried to be something that she wasn't, to the people around her.
Something, someone, that she couldn't be.
When the sun came up and they were starting on their journey again, Achi paid Krista no attention even when they reached the outskirts of the forest, pulling her horse ahead and leaving the other girl in the dust, not looking back. With a face like hers, she couldn't trust anything Krista said, and to Achi now more than ever, trust was one of the most valuable things in the world.
And the next day, after having endured through another one of Jean and Eren's bickering like a married couple about having no food which devolved into just their tired, old argument of who was the better trainee, Achi groggily sat up in her sleeping bag and rubbed an eye.
It was still early and everyone was asleep. She was thirsty.
Peering into the fog that had gently settled around them overnight, she knew there was a basin not far from where they had setup camp. So, heading for it with canteen in tow, bumping against her hip was careful not to stumble and fall because she'd rather not have a broken ankle, she heard the sound of hooves in the distance.
The groups must be close by now.
Achi yawned. "Took long enough," she grumbled.
Going down to the basin, she went to re-fill her canteen when she spotted Krista and her horse. Not wanting to talk to her or even see her face, Achi scooped some water from the basin into her canteen after dumping the old and gulped a mouthful.
After a time, an awkward silence began to creep between them. It was Krista who tried to keep it at bay.
"Hey… Achi… About last night…"
She frowned. "Don't want to hear it. Save it for someone who cares."
The silence crept back, but, before it could embed itself, Krista tried to speak again. Though, whatever she was going to whine about this time was interrupted by the trees rustling behind them, and the sound of a shotgun being cocked.
"Don't move, and we won't have to hurt either of you."
Staring down the barrel of the shotgun pointed at her head, arms tied behind her back, Achi cursed; what she thought had been the other trainee group, ended up just being a bunch of bandits. Her eyes darting from the man who held it there to the second one who was busy tying Krista, remembering the turmoil immediately following Maria's fall, having witnessed what people were capable of when they had nothing to lose, she didn't want to know what their intentions for either of them were. She had to come up with something fast, and glanced over at Krista, expecting her to be balling her eyes out, but, the other girl was surprisingly—eerily—aloof.
"Now, if both of you would come quietly…"
A third man came forward then, holding two sacks like the ones the men pointing the guns at them were wearing. He himself wasn't wearing one, dressed in a hat and suit that looked very out of place in the middle of a forest, and his right eye… it was made from glass, the pupil crimson red, like scarlet…
She quickly went from him to the other two again.
Those shotguns, too, they weren't something the average bandit would have lying around. Or how bandits, average or not, were way out here in the first place.
"... we can negotiate a ransom without…"
But, now wasn't the time to be worrying about any of that.
"... having to resort to violence."
Whatever was in store for her and Krista when those sacks were placed over their heads, she wasn't going to be taken by these bastards. Not back then, not today, not ever and, in a sudden burst of action, Achi kicked the shin of the man behind her hard enough to shatter his knee-cap. As he fell away, she tried to snatch his shotgun, only to eat dirt instead.
"Feisty," the man with the glass-eye—who was clearly the one in charge—said as the her captor held her down, pinned. He moved two fingers up and she was brought to her knees. He crouched down to get level with her. "Hrmm..." He rubbed his chin, his real eye going down her body. "You look capable enough, girl. What do you say to joining me?"
Achi bared teeth like a wild animal, attention drawn to his sleeve. It had dried, crusty bloodstains. This man was definitely no ordinary bandit. He was a bounty hunter.
Seemingly dejected when she didn't take him up on his offer, the man frowned and ordered them to be tossed into the back of a wagon not far from their group's camp. They must have been there the whole time. Waiting.
And when she tried to wiggle free of her restraints, the bounty hunter shook a finger. "Ah, none of that, hear?" He smiled at her. "Now, girl, this is your last chance to get out of this. What do you say?"
She smiled back mockingly. "I'm not a killer."
He glanced back over at Krista for brief second, then went back to her. "Ah, well, since you won't accept my offer… and there's no guarantee you'll keep your mouth shut…" He stepped forward into the wagon, and pulled something from inside his suit: a knife.
Just then, Krista got between them, defiant.
Was she trying to get herself killed?!
"Girl, you'd best not get involved. Your friend is a liability," the bounty hunter said, pushing her aside and holding the knife up further. Achi could only stare hopelessly at it as he prepared to plunge it into her chest.
That was when Krista rammed into him from behind. They fell to the floor, and as he tried to get up, using the opportunity, Achi's knee connected with his jaw. His head snapping back from the blow, he stumbled backward, tripped, and landed out the wagon with a thud, the knife dropped near Krista's face. Achi scooted after him, yelling for her to start running as soon as they hit the ground. This was their chance to escape!
Tumbling out of the wagon, Achi gave the man another kick for good measure, then sprinted until she broke through the treeline just as a bullet whizzed by her head. Another nearly hit her in the side, scraping her ribcage and she touched the spot. Blood came away and she winced.
She ran until she was sure they weren't going to find her and slumped down behind a tree, holding her side and looking around for Krista. Gritting her teeth from the pain, the other girl was nowhere to be found.
Art by Hatsuraikun on DeviantArt
Achi Almen - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Chapter 32: A Day When You Won't Be
Knife pressed to her throat, as she was pulled to her feet and marched to the wagon, Krista was going to die just like her mother. Achi had abandoned her. Her punishment for not being honest, that she couldn't tell the truth, no words coming to her lips. Instead she wanted to scream because all she could do was wait for the knife to cut deep across and end it all, those words echoing in her head: if only you hadn't been born.
The man with the glass-eye opened the back curtain and pushed her in.
She staggered, fell, tried to get up, but, her legs, they were numb. She couldn't feel them. And her lungs. It hurt to breath. Her arms. They was lifeless. Dead-weight. What could she do? Achi and Ymir were right: she really was helpless.
“Hey! Run, stupid!” Achi appeared out of nowhere, barreling into the man and yelling for her to get away while the opening was there, until she was smacked in the face by the butt of a gun and she fell to the ground in heap, unconscious.
The man with the glass-eye shook his head with a tsk, tsk. "Now you've done it."
She bit her lip. Someone like her was… Why had Achi come back for something like her?!
He pulled a cloth from his suit pocket and pressed it into the wound at her side. "Can't have her bleeding out." He looked up. "Though it seems we're out of time and I don't want to babysit two brats. Finding you was trouble enough,” he said.
Krista followed his gaze skyward: daybreak was fast approaching, sunlight shining through the trees high above their heads.
He put a finger to his mouth, tipping his hat. "It's been… fun, my little lady." Then he, his men, and the wagon departed thereafter, leaving them to the mercy of the wilderness.
Watching the wagon until it disappeared, grunting as the rope dug into her wrists, Krista wiggled her way over to Achi and moving her shirt with her teeth, expecting the worst. She heaved a sigh of relief. It wasn't anything serious. Achi was okay.
Staring at Achi's oddly peaceful face, Krista cried even harder. She didn't know why the other girl came back after wanting nothing to do with her, but, in that moment, she couldn't have been more grateful.
Several weeks went by.
Achi was still recovering from her injuries. That blow to the head had given her a concussion, they had said, and it would be some time before she regained consciousness again.
"And this is the full report, Lenz?"
She snapped to. "Yes, sir!"
"And you have no idea why these men attacked you and Almen specifically?"
"Hm. Very well," the Chief Instructor stamped it, then put it on top of a stack of others from that day before motioning at the soldier behind her to open the door. "You’re free to go."
Once outside, again thinking of those men and who must’ve hired them, she touched her wrists where the rope left red marks. It’d taken Eren and the rest of their group several minutes to cut through them. The rope was similar what they used to pull their buckets of water from their deepest wells and tether their livestock together back in Thorpe; study and coarse and made to last and highly expensive. She recalled Isolde mentioning that it’d taken a whole years’ worth of Thorpe’s combined income to buy just one of them, and the only one person she knew who could afford rope like that in abundance was someone within the Royal Capital. There was nobody else who would know her true identity that was still alive, after all.
What was their reason for checking in on her now? And using intimidation? Scaring her into doing what…? Were they afraid that she would go and take back her real name? Even if she did rebel, what would she accomplish? Getting killed outright? Her life would really be worthless then. At least in the military, by becoming a soldier, she had the chance to do something.
Spooked from her inner musings, Krista's heart leapt in her throat. She caught herself, and tried to smile at Annie, who suddenly stood in front of her, blocking her way. From escaping. "H-Hi, Annie."
"You haven't told anyone, have you?" Her tone was low and threatening.
"Ah… I-I…" She choked on her words, eyes down, a sinking feeling in her gut that if her answer wasn't some variation of 'no', Annie was going to snap her neck right then and right there. Though, just like back with Ymir, what right did Annie have to threaten her like that? Then again, Annie was significantly more frightening than Ymir, too. "No, I… I..."
No, she hadn't joined the military to be walked on. She didn't have to take this kind of treatment. Not again. Never again. She was going to be a soldier, right?! Just like when she’d stood between Achi and that knife, if she was going to be a soldier, then it was time she started acting like one!
"Why do you want to know, anyway?" she retorted. "Why is it so important to you that I don't tell anyone?"
Seemingly unimpressed, Annie looked down at her like a wolf to a lamb.
"Because,"—she loomed over her, prepared to devour her—"It just is."
"Well, I haven't!"
Krista felt her legs buckle. But, she wasn't about to back down now! Meeting Annie's feral stare with a fiery one of her own, they became locked in a brief struggle.
Annie was the one to break it.
An exhausted sigh escaping her lips, she fixed a stray strand of loose hair with a finger. "Ah, whatever..." she mumbled. "Just don't tell anyone, alright?"
"I wasn't! What makes you think I was?!"
"I had my reasons. A good person like you, I thought, was bound to say something eventually." She started twisting the ring on her finger. "But, I was wrong… Your eyes..."
"They're the eyes of a warrior."
"A warrior? What do you mea—"
"Anyway,"—Annie cut her off—"tell nobody."
The blade sliced deep into the dummy Titan's nape. Krista heard Chief Instructor Shadis praise its depth as she caught herself on one of the surrounding trees, planting her feet and looking back at her handiwork. It was deep, but, not deep enough. Letting her well-used blade fall to the forest floor, she was about to move onto the next target when she saw Dazz struggling to catch up, several dummy Titans away.
The first, real day of their Vertical Maneuvering Gear training he’d underperformed then, too, and she looked ahead to the other groups.
Even for all her efforts the last few months, she was still at the bottom of the list, and couldn't help but think that it was his fault. He was even slower than she was. By having to wait for him nearly every exercise, her own score was further suffering as a result and at the rate they were going her goal of getting into the top ten was lessening day by day.
When he finally caught up, about to ready to collapse, she also knew that from chatting with him in-between lectures and exercises, being a soldier was everything to him, too.
So, she let it go. "Dazz, are you okay?"
"J-just fine!" he replied. Wiping his brow, he smiled back, red in the face.
Afterward, the current top twenty pair rankings posted on the official bulletin in front of the messhall, she saw that Annie and Marco were still at the top, directly below Mikasa and Sasha. Eren and Reiner, Bertolt and Connie. Ymir and Fritz, too, though much further down, but not them. Staring wistfully at those twenty names, all of them excelled at the Vertical Maneuvering Gear training, and if she wanted get better at it herself—have her blade slice deep enough—it wouldn't hurt to maybe ask one of them for advice, would it?
Sitting cross-legged on the floor of her dormitory, stripped down to her undergarments from an earlier workout, Mikasa began disassembling her Gear.
"... Then, we start properly clean the equipment."
Following her movements, Krista couldn't keep up with her speed, having only just gotten through unlatching the gas canisters when Mikasa started guiding her cloth along her chosen piece from those neatly arranged on her side of the floor, moving onto the next in one fluid motion immediately after. By the time the rest of her Gear was taken apart, Mikasa was already reassembling hers, and it was clear to see why everyone regarded Mikasa as the best among the 104th.
Making sure it was secure, Mikasa presented it to her. "And that's how it's done."
Krista fumbled in her subsequent attempt to quickly finish her own, and winced, slicing open her finger on the fan attached to the black box that held the whole thing together. Applying pressure to the wound, she excused herself and made for the nearest latrine.
Rinsing it, she scrubbed the area around and used the end of her shirt to lessen the bleeding. She held it there for a few moments. It still bled. Watching it run down her hand and into the sink, when the other girl readily accepted to help her with training she’d been surprised.
Mikasa was beside her then, offering a bandage.
"Thank you." Krista took it, and wrapped it around her finger tight.
Signature black scarf around her neck, now in shirt and pants instead of half-nude, Mikasa splashed water on her face. "I think we should take a break for now," she said after.
Even through her shirt, Krista could see how well-toned she was, and frowned at her own thin frame despite all her work on the farm. She wondered if she could ever become that muscular, too.
And, some time after, listening intently to their instructor go over all that they've learned thus far in preparation for the next exam that was coming up, Krista glanced over, watching her calmly writing notes next to Eren—who was engaged in a silent deathmatch with Jean —and Armin—who had several stacks of notes piled beside him. After today's lecture, it was back to the Vertical Maneuvering Gear training. During that time, she would be sure to ask her for more advice. If she wanted to become a soldier, the brightest of them all, then it wasn't just her mind she needed to train, either.
Chapter 33: Silver Ring
Annie poked along the edges of the small fire following their latest rendezvous. She was alone again, and grateful for it, too. She wouldn’t have to listen to Reiner about some stupid story involving Eren and Jean. Another pointless messhall brawl. Embers and a lick of grey smoke were all that left. It crackled, and she wondered how long it'd been since she'd last seen her father. Three years. Three years already with nothing to show for it.
They still weren't any closer to finding the Coordinate.
The only information worth mentioning to them were within the past several weeks when she caught two men from the Inner Walls—the Interior as it was known to those here—loitering around the camp late into the night. Nosing around, searching like they were trying to find something・ or someone.
Krista's and Achi's attempted kidnapping months prior… This something or someone those two men were after revolved around Krista. The only question was why. For what purpose was she being watched? Could she… possibly be… the Coordinate? No, she concluded. The girl was important, but, she wasn't like them. No, that possibility fell onto Eren, ever since the day she they’d first gone over the fundamentals of the Vertical Maneuvering Gear and its uses. But, whatever the reason, the camp had been on high alert ever since. It was putting a hampering on her activities. Not to mention, she wasn't certain when or how long it'd been going on, but, Mina was more aware of her comings and goings than she led her to believe. And what she hadn’t told those two, regarding the man who’d nearly caught her when she finally managed to sneak into the Industrial City after what she'd discovered. A dangerous man, not like the others. A killer. All told, it was getting more and more risky to operate, and she had to think of something to keep herself busy until things died down. Otherwise, the likelihood of her being caught again—even accidentally—would quickly render their mission a failure.
And if she didn't complete her mission, then her promise would never be realized.
Thus, after a day of training, Annie kept herself busy peeling the skins from potatoes behind the kitchen. Dinner was fast approaching, and slicing what that idiot loved so much and what she so despised with the small knife in her hand, all she could think about was that day of their first real usage of those flexible anti-Titan blades in that rainy forest, pretending that these large targets made of wood were the Titans, and the sacks of floor atop them, the napes of their necks.
Her own itched. Her hand trembled. She steadied the knife and continued.
Marco had been her partner. There wasn’t much to say about, except his mind for strategy and group cooperation was on par with Marcel's. More-so than that idiot's, who earlier in the week bet all his dinner on her during she and Mikasa's fight where nobody had won and everyone who placed one had it taken away by Shadis. Her anger got the better of her, beating him into the ground enough times to break a few bones after he’d mouthed off something equally as stupid as what Fritz might say even though she was doing so well lately in avoiding him.
Learn to speak to girls properly, she had said. It was something she told Fritz—and the brothers—countless times, but, surprisingly, the boy everyone nicknamed 'the suicidal bastard' was the only one so far who heeded her advice. Though, breaking his bones was probably been a factor in that.
She recalled the day she suspected him.
The Vertical Maneuvering Gear. Great physical strength was required to be able to use them, especially in the lower half of the body, where the majority of the equipment was situated, which consisted of a harness that went around the shoulders, chest, abdominals, down to feet, and met at the waist, where the wire propelled grappling hooks perfect for latching onto various surfaces resided inside a box above the gas canisters that fueled them.
The device itself was taxing to operate, and thus, that morning they had been out here to further condition themselves for its more complexities with a simple, and very intensive, method physical training: rock climbing.
Sweat dripping down her forehead, her brow, her cheeks—everywhere—especially humid, the rocks jagged and loose the higher one climbed and Eren, the fool, in an attempt outpace Jean, pierced a hand on one of them leaving pained, blood smeared footholds. Then, it happened. Missing one of firmer footholds, the moment his bloody hand grasped the next rock, it crumbled and he slide, miraculously managing to catch himself, but, in the moment, instead of letting him fall, she'd grasped his forearm, using what strength she dared to muster to pull him up just a bit further. That was when she saw it: the wound to his hand had already healed itself.
Thinking about it now, there had been no exhaustion of steam from either the wound or his blood, so how? Or maybe she’d just been suffering from the heat. Maybe he didn't hold the power at all.
And it was around her seventh or eighth potato that someone came into the messhall kitchen. The door opened abruptly, yet silent. Hearing them clearly above the chatting of trainees, chirping of birds, and buzzing of insects outside, whoever it was made supple, feline movements toward her. Like a cat preparing to pounce on an unsuspecting mouse. She was no mouse. Putting her latest peeled potato in the basket at her side, Annie turned with knife in hand.
Mikasa stood there, observing her. "What are you doing?" she asked.
"Peeling potatoes," she replied. Slightly confused, Annie went through the week's messhall assigned kitchen roster in her head: Connie Springer, Franz Kefka, Ruth Kline, Thomas Wagner, Jean Kirstein, Hannah Diamant, and herself. Mikasa's name hadn't been on the list. No mistake. Unless… she volunteered and the Chief Instructor hadn't informed her? "I'm on cooking duty tonight."
No, Mikasa wasn't the type to do that without Eren or Armin doing it first. The scarf that seemed fused about her neck blew gently in the breeze that came in from the window, as she glanced at the knife. Almost as if she were sizing up an opponent.
Annie lowered the knife to ease the tension that had settled between them. "What do you want?"
Instead of answering, Mikasa went over to the window and closed it. The sound of the outside world faded away, that cool breeze cut off, and the afternoon sunlight shining in dimmed. Shadows obscuring her, Mikasa didn't seem to mind, appearing to not be bothered by the half-darkness now surrounding them.
"I found this,"—she took out something from her uniform's pouch pocket and raised to eye level—"Lying on the training field earlier."
It was a ring. Annie felt her eyes wander down to her finger. Then, she remembered: when she'd told Krista of Achi being awake this morning, the other girl had been staring at the ring because of that habit of hers, and to prevent anyone else from doing the same—and because the habit was becoming annoyingly persistent—she’d put it in her own uniform's breast pouch. Though, the button was missing, and her ring, gone.
"I think you dropped it during our fight," Mikasa said, completing her thought.
"Yes, I must have." Extending her hand, Annie waited for the other girl to give it back.
Instead of that, either, Mikasa flicked it. There was a click, and the tiny blade she'd kept hidden until now popped out. "What's this?" she asked.
"For self-defense," Annie replied.
"Self-defense," Mikasa repeated after a moment. She looked at the blade briefly, then went back to her. "I don't see why you would need this. Especially after today."
What was she getting at? "There are situations that I can't handle with martial arts alone," she answered.
"I don't see how this would be useful in that regard." She cast a glance to the knife in her hand again.
Annie sighed. No semblance of expression or hint of emotion. This girl was hard to read. Different from Ymir, who was equally as difficult, and a far-cry from Mina or Fritz, who were like open books. It was only straight to the point. "Why are you trying to say?"
Mikasa shook her head slowly. Her black hair swayed like silk. "I'm not trying to say anything. Only…"
Mikasa's fingers curled around the ring. "I don't want you to be wearing such a dangerous thing when you're around Eren. He might get hurt."
"You can rest assured then." She relaxed, putting the knife down on the table. Of course. Of course it was about Eren. Even so, she ran a clammy palm against her pant leg, wiping away the sweat in time to catch the ring when Mikasa tossed it her way. "It only comes out when it's intentional, like you did just now. That was the way my parents designed it. They're awfully worrisome," she lied. Mikasa didn't reply, and just stared at her, as if trying to find some fault in her words. Tease out some kind discrepancy. "You get it, don't you? Because they were sending their only daughter to an unfamiliar place, they wanted me to have something that would keep me safe. Even if it was useless. For the most part," she added cautiously. She watched the girl, remembering her to be from Shiganshina.
"I wouldn't know," Mikasa said, as if reading from one of their materials in the lecturehall aloud to the instructor. "I have none."
The screams of that day echoed in Annie's head, fading horribly, bloodily, quietly, when she finally spoke again. "Were they killed by the Titans?"
"Not by the Titans."
Annie waited for her to say more, but Mikasa went silent again. It was an eloquent silence that declared she had no interest continuing with the subject. From that alone, it was obvious something dark had happened in the other girl's past. Something other than—perhaps worse than—the Titans, and, in that moment, the late afternoon sun spilling through the window until then turning blacker still, casting both of them in the dark, something told her that Mikasa also wouldn't mind being completely enveloped in it, either.
Then, as if she had overstayed her welcome, Mikasa proceeded to head for the door and opened it. She didn't leave, however. "Hey, Annie," she began to say, turning to look at her. "Why are you here?"
Annie saw that look in her eyes. What lay behind them. Searching for some slight suspicion in the back of her mind. A suspicion that was well-placed, and just as unwelcome. Her own narrowed a little. "I already told you. I'm on cooking duty."
"No. I'm asking why you're here. What's your reason, for joining the trainee corps?" Mikasa's eyes focused on her, like they were peering through her, at the other side of her heart. That black, lonely side that nobody was allowed to see, and that was when Annie realized it: whatever befallen Mikasa in her past, she’d killed before.
She didn't let that awareness show, but her nape twitched reflexively. "I'm here for the same reason as everyone else. I just want to live well in a nice, safe, and pleasant place by eventually joining the Military Police."
Mikasa's deep, clear grey eyes were like a tide, all cheerfulness having been swept away by the current long ago. The eyes that belonged to someone who had ended a human life with her own hands, eerily reminiscent of that man’s back in Industrial City. Eyes that the Chief Instructor had looked into on that first day and deemed those with them as “already prepared”. There were several among the 104th with those same eyes. Herself, included.
"I get why you'd want to join the Military Police," the other girl said. "But, I feel like it's not because you want to live in a 'nice, safe, and pleasant place'."
The screams came back. "And why not?"
"The others, Jean and the rest, want to get away because they're afraid of the Titans. Or they crave luxury."
She remembered Marco's vow. He had went on enough about it back then. "There was also someone who wanted to serve the King, body and soul."
"You aren't like any of them, I don't think," Mikasa continued. "I think it's because you have to." Then, as quietly as she'd came, she was gone, leaving her to wallow in the dark alone.
Mikasa Ackerman. A girl who performed all training exercises with a nonchalant and calm air, and was constantly breaking the highest results set by the Chief Instructor. However, she didn't have a sense of purpose like Eren in wanting to kill all the Titans, nor did she covet being posted to the Military Police for selfish reasons like Jean or selfless reasons like Marco. It also didn't seem like she had a mission, or even a promise.
No, she had a purpose entirely separate from luxury and a peaceful existence. A purpose that had been born in the dark, and was shrouded by the black scarf she wore. Mikasa was an astoundingly brilliant, yet thoroughly devoted girl. Especially where Eren was concerned. Precisely the kind of person who was the most troublesome to deal with if she ever became an enemy.
She would have to be more cautious around her, too, from here on.
And, for some time after Mikasa left, Annie found herself gazing at the closed door. A pool of light creeping in from the moon outside between her and it, she could no longer hear the trainees' voices or the birds' calls, only the insects' clicking.
A wire shot out from someplace unseen, catching the monster that was about to devour the young girl by the shoulder. Swinging around it, attached to the other end was a person, and a second later, they passed by the monster's neck. Then, the monster fell in a heap. Dead. Then, the person, a soldier, quickly snatched the girl and flew away again, just as more of his kind rushed out to meet the rest of the monsters.
Managing to see one of them up close, she caught sight glimpse of the symbol upon their backs: two thorned red roses over a white shield.
Annie took a breath, putting the ring back on her finger. In the end, taking it off had been a bad idea. She re-opened the window. Feeling the same gentle breeze from before as it brushed against her cheek, she hoped it was a wind blowing from outside the Walls.
Glancing over at the basket of potatoes that still needed to final preparations for dinner, her stomach hurt. She really wasn't looking forward to Fritz's whining about not having anything to eat tonight and rested her hands, tired from all the potato peeling, on the table. They shook. She was cold, and winter was right around the corner.
Chapter 34: Krolva District
The rain was icy and unforgiving as it poured down on Fritz and the rest of the trainee's heads scaling the mountain path for the day's exercise. He was at the rear, trudging his way through the slippery slosh and ankle-deep mud, dirty and sopping wet. Each step forward was a struggle the higher they went. One of his boots got caught. He cursed, and just when he thought things couldn't get any worse as he pried it out, someone came tumbling toward him. They barreled into his shoulder and both of slide further down the path, only stopped in their descent by Annie who was behind him down-a-ways.
Staring up into her face as more dark clouds gathered in the sky behind her, she'd grabbed him by the hood of his raincoat. He thanked her, then strained his neck to see who had taken the first fall. He couldn't tell for certain and going to check on the trainee who collided with him, her face pressed into the mud, was about to offer a helping hand only for it to get slapped away as she sat up, grumbled, wiped her eyes, hefted her pack, and continued up the path without so much as a thank you. He huffed. He’d only caught a quick look, but, it must've been Achi.
His chest tightened. Ever since that incident with the bandits, every time he happened to see her, he was reminded of Sofie. That it could've been Sofie who might have been kidnapped—or worse. Luckily she was safe at home, or so mother said in her letters. The youngest Brandt hadn't yet inherited the bad trait of the other three, though her stubbornness was budding nicely. No news from Ines. Of his mother, she was also still upset about him running away, but, that was a story for another time.
"You okay, Fritz?" Mina put a hand on his back.
"I'm fine," he said, attempting to wipe the mud off his uniform without success. “Dammit.”
"Hey, what are you guys doing?! This isn't the time to be taking a break! We're only halfway to the top, what the hell are you stopping for?!" Eren called down, waving at them, farther ahead than anybody else except Reiner and Mikasa who were right on his heels. "We have to get going!"
"Better get moving, I guess," Mina said.
"Come on! Double the pace!"
“Annie, are you ready? We're going!"
Lowering her hood further to keep the rain away, Annie looked out to the landscape around them. "Let's just get this over with," she said indifferently. "This rain is getting worse."
As they fell back in line, Fritz adjusted his pack.
Earlier in the day, Chief Instructor Shadis strapped a cumbersome pack of equipment onto their backs and ordered them to trek to the top of a small mountain located far from the training camp. More endurance training. Though, he wasn't sure if some of those here were ready for it, thinking again of Achi. And, by extension, little Sofie.
They were now at the top of the mountain. Waiting there was the Chief Instructor and a few of the other instructors. Behind them, out in the distance, stood Wall Rose, and Shadis shouted that they would take a short break before proceeding onward. Once the break was over, they were to descend down the mountain towards Wall Rose. He further explained that the Krolva District was in the direction they were going and that was their true destination for the evening.
Fritz sighed in relief. Finally, a chance to relax.
As the rest of the trainees split into their respective groups and mingled, instead of joining Connie or Mina and with Annie nowhere in sight, he looked around for Achi, spotting her off by herself. The mud that'd caked her face had since been washed away by the rain, and he could now clearly tell why she looked so out of place: her age. When he approached, asking what was wrong, she spat.
"Is something wrong with you?" she fired back in a voice as cold as the rain that peppered their raincoats.
His raised an eyebrow. She and Sofie looked so alike, it was frightening, but, that way of talking, on the other hand… "I was thinking about the look on your face. I'm sorry..." he replied, shrugging. "It's just when I look at you it reminds me of my little sister."
Suddenly shooting her arm forward, Achi grabbed him by the top of his uniform and pulled him down to eye level. "So what if I do?" she growled. She let him go. Roughly. "'I hope she doesn't end up like that when she's older'. That's what you're thinking, isn't it?" She looked away from him, at the horizon. "Well, then fuck you." Her voice became distant. "I don't need anyone's damned pity. Especially from someone like you.
She spun back around, infuriated. "What?"
"Ah… no, nevermind..."
"Yeah, that's what I figured."
He pursed his lip. "Hey, you don't have to be so rude abo—"
She moved her head to the side to shake the rain off her hood. "What, you gonna cry? Go bother someone else with your bullshit."
And with that said, she stomped off and left him to stand by himself in the rain.
Inside the Krolva District, Fritz sat down where the rain couldn't reach after spending a decent amount of time scouring the vendors for free samples with Sasha. Most had closed up shop due to the weather, but, that hadn't stopped that girl from doing her damnedest to get her hands on whatever morsels were available. Rubbing his aching stomach, he felt sick. The Chief Instructor had given them free roam of the District as long as they didn't damage any property or disturb the local populace, but, with the way Sasha was still tearing through the streets, she might get herself confined to her own special corner again, and him, too.
Speaking of, Sasha came blundering toward him, a wide grin plastered on her face. Gathered in her arms was a bunch of food and she was already chopping down when she plopped down next to him. She offered some, but, he shook his head. Thinking about Achi and her words as Sasha chewed, how old was she? Younger than most of the other trainees here, for sure. Younger than even Ines when she'd first signed up. Though, the look on her face dispelled any indication that she still held the innocence of a child like Sofie beneath those big, bright eyes. Her eyes were haunted and dark, painted from a past from a torment and horror, the same look he'd seen Ines with the day their father died.
He smiled forlornly, caressing the same spot were his mother had slapped his cheek years ago. At the time, he'd wanted nothing more than to hit her back. To hit Lex because he pulled him away, promising that he would go after her. That he wouldn't let Ines face the Titans alone. How childish. Sasha tugged on his arm. She'd noticed. He thanked her, but, again, declined. That was when he saw Annie. But… where was she going?
Wandering around the now deserted streets of the District, leaving Sasha to eat her food in peace, Mina mentioned her behavior was getting more and more sporadic, hearing Annie talking to herself when she thought nobody was around, saying something about “treating the whole world as her enemy” and “a promise”. How she was always twisting that ring on her finger without realizing, or how her hands shook despite denying it. About her late night walks. So, here he was, trying to track her down. But, she was nowhere to be found.
Knowing her, he figured she would be prefer to be someplace where the solitude was absolute. Where she could sit and stare out at nothing in particular uninterrupted. He looked to the Wall then, having previously thought that she couldn't have gotten her way up there, but... Could she really have gone up there? Yet, glancing around, aiming as high as he dared, he pulled down on his triggers and shot forward, feeling the cold air of the night blowing through his hair as he let the wires carry him just short of halfway to the top. Planting his boots firm on the Wall, he aimed again—this time for the very top. Hearing someone above, he waited until they passed and shot forward again, retracting his hooks as soon as he flew over the wall. He rolled to break his fall. Taking a moment to gaze out at the vast space in front of him, far out to the lands now ruled by the Titans within Wall Maria, he wondered again where Annie must have been from. It must have been somewhere near Shiganshina, it was the only explanation that made sense to him. Though, clearing his mind of the thought, now wasn't the time to be worrying over such things, and he glanced to his left, then his right in the dark, barely able to see anything as it was so late now. Taking another guess, he put his foot toward the left and started along the Wall. Careful not to trip over barricades and ramps, easing past cannon emplacements, and waiting for the occasional guard to make his round, he hoped to find her soon.
And after a time he heard someone shout behind him and he spun, bracing himself for a guard to tackle him, only to bonk heads with Sasha instead.
"Sasha…? Did you find him?"
"Y… yeah… Ow."
"Ah. There you are!" Mina said in a huff as she rushed to meet them, black braids swaying. She paused to catch her breath, then helped Sasha to her feet and gave her a pat on the shoulder, making sure she was okay. ""Great, Sasha!" She looked back to him. "And we're glad you're safe!"
"Wha… Why?" What were they doing here?!
Sasha spoke up, wincing. She was holding her forehead. "You were acting kind of… strange earlier."
"We heard from Shadis that you and Annie were missing. We've been looking all over for you!" Mina said. "It's thanks to Sasha here that we did!"
"I couldn't find Annie," Sasha continued. "I'm sorry…" She fell back on her behind, and her stomach grumbled. "Ah, what I could do for a snack right about now…"
So that was it. He grinned. "It's alright." Seating himself on the Wall's edge, Fritz lowered his head. So, not only had he lost Annie, but, now the two of them had been declared missing and worried everyone. Just his luck.
"Hey," Mina said, sitting down beside him. "Cheer up. They'll find her." She gently touched his hand, and grasped it. "And, if not, she'll turn up eventually."
"Y-yeah, Mina's right! You can't give up now!" Sasha added, going to the other side of him and playfully punching his arm.
Mina got up, the hand on his shoulder now. "We should head back, don't you think?"
He nodded. They were right. It was Annie. There was nothing to worry about.
The day after, after spending time filing a report and being reprimanded for missing curfew, Fritz sat with Connie in the warehouse-converted-to-makeshift-messhall for the trainees' extended stay in Krolva, only half listening to his shaved headed friend talk about how he got some curious stares from the local girls. Of one in particular, with a sizable chest.
There was still no word of Annie.
Connie threw a spoon at him. "Hey, you listenin'?"
"Huh? Sorry, go on…"
"So, this girl, she just came up, asking me all sorts of questions, like that! And I—"
"They were probably wondering why you were such a midget!" Ymir called over from her table, interrupting the story.
"Shut up!" Connie yelled back. "At least I have people who're interested in me!"
"Hah?" Ymir's laughter caught in her throat. "What's that supposed to mean?!"
"You heard me!"
"You wanna die, Connie?!"
Whatever Connie was going to retort was drowned out by the sound of Eren and Jean across the room. They were arguing again. Everyone, even these two, stopped what they were doing to watch. Eren slammed his fist onto his table and knocked over his plate.
"You piece of shit!" he shouted.
"Shut up! This is reality!" Jean shouted back, grabbing Eren by the shirt.
"You still think taking the easy way out, doing as you please, is reality? And you call yourself a soldier?!"
Armin told both of them to stop, aiming to break up the fight before it got any worse, but it took Mikasa smacking them both upside the head to truly end it—though not before Eren got a last few choice words in.
The warehouse doors creaked open.
"What is it this time?!" Chief Instructor Shadis hollered as everyone scrambled for their seats. "I can't even leave your maggots alone, even in a place like this, for a second, can I?!"
Mikasa raised her hand. "It was Sasha. She farted. Again."
Fritz heard Sasha gasp in surprise, her mouth agape as she sat dumbfounded from hearing such a lie. And for the second time.
"Again? Blouse! Just… take it easy on the beans… next time…" Then, he left.
Sasha ran over to Mikasa in protest. Whatever she babbled to the other girl, Mikasa just shoved bread in her face to keep her quiet. Which, just looked… wrong, though he didn't bother lingering on the scene and looked over at Ymir's table as she and Connie resumed their insulting match, getting in each other's faces while Krista looked on and Achi ignored it.
Krista Lenz, the other victim of the attempted kidnapping incident… He hadn't really spoken to her at all despite her hanging around Ymir so often. Two years in and he knew next to nothing about the "Goddess", as she was called by the other boys. For some reason, he was content to leave it at that. She met his eyes and waved. Blushing regardless, he quickly tried to hid it lest Connie give him trouble and create another scene. Or, worse, if it was Ymir instead.
He stood up, seeing himself out.
Out the corner of his eye, he saw Mina get up too, but, before she could follow he hurried down the street.
Thoughts back on Annie as he kept walking to… somewhere… Fritz eventually stopped and sat down. Nobody seemed to care that Annie was still missing, he could scarcely believe it. Or, on second thought, no, maybe he could.
She wasn't the kind of person who mingled well with others.
The only ones besides he and Mina that she interacted with often were Reiner and Bertolt, and even then they weren't conversations but a word here and there. Though, right now, while she might be fine with being by herself, deep down, he knew she must really be—
"Are you going to sit there all night?"
He jumped, startled. He knew that voice! His face lit up. "Annie! Where have you been all this time?!"
"Does it matter?" she replied quietly, standing behind him.
Catching her twisting that ring around her finger just like Mina said, he continued. "Of course it matters…"
She ignored his concern. "I want to know something," she said. She was silent for a moment, then stared him straight in the eye. Like she were trying to pierce into him, vying for answers that she herself couldn't find alone. She stepped closer. "I wanted to know where you stand."
"Right here?" He waved a hand at his feet.
She groaned. "No, idiot, I..." She sighed, crossing her arms. She looked to the side. "What I mean is..."
Seeing her hesitation, her... fear... He made a new vow on the spot: to understand her. Even if that meant taking his first step into hell. Even if that meant learning the real Annie. He wanted to know, even if she didn't want him to. He wouldn't abandon his friends, those people he held dear, no matter what.
"I want to k—"
"I accept! Whatever it is, I'll do it! I want to know more about you, Annie, and if that means treating the whole world as my enemy, so be it!"
Her eyes widened slightly. "W-What? What're you—!"
What was truly going on in that head of hers? What secrets was she hiding? Where was the true Annie, underneath it all?
"Treating the whole world… as your..." she stammered, turning red as he came face to face with her, practically brushing up against her. "Too close." She clenched a fist.
"S-sorry!" He fell back, even redder. "I didn't mean to get that close!"
She pulled back herself, relaxing her fist, slowly. Flipping her bang back to the side, she scowled. "That close?"
"Ah!" He put his hands over his mouth. "Forget I said that!" He clamped it.
Annie crossed her arms. "Uh-huh…" She flipped her hair again. "Well, come on, it's freezing out. We'll get sick if we stay out here much longer." Without waiting for him, she started walking.
Fritz stared dumbly at the small bun behind her head that dipped out in three directions with more questions coming to occupy his thoughts.
What had she meant by “wanting to know something”?
What, if anything, was the significance of her ring?
Well, running after her, for now, the answers to those questions could wait. He trusted her, after all.
Chapter 35: Red Snow
Ymir pulled her scarf closer around her mouth, sniffed the air, and wrinkled her nose in disgust. Knee-deep in white slush, their asshole of an instructor was making them trek through snow on such a dark night and, trudging along, while the rain was something she had no trouble dealing with, snow was one of the last things she wanted to experience more of. Glancing back at the two silhouettes only visible against the backdrop of the forest because of the lanterns attached to their packs, she scoffed. Leaning against a tree, its branches snapping clean off when her back brushed them, she waited for them to catch up.
When they arrived, her eyes went down to Dazz, who shivered where he stood. He was obviously freezing, but only bundled his blanket tighter around his body, like doing so would keep his fingers from turning blue. She sighed and crossed her arms. It was futile in this weather.
"You know, the longer we spend sitting here, the shorter it'll take us to freeze.” She went from Dazz's hopeless self to the blonde haired midget who’d been insistent on them resting every few miles to try and preserve warmth and also the whole reason the other squads probably long since passed them up—all because this girl wanted to stretch her legs. Or, no, that wasn't it. Was it? “Hey, you hear me?"
"I heard you," Krista said, too busy rubbing Dazz's hands together to look up. Too busy being concerned with the guy they should’ve just abandoned hours ago.
"Dazz, do you think you can make it the rest of the way?"
"Y-Y-Yes!" Dazz proclaimed through chattering teeth, nodding his oddly-shaped head that reminded her of a ripe, upside down depressed pear. The lines around his cheeks stretched as he tried to give a smile through cracked lips. "D-don't worry about m-m-me!" I'll… I-I'll be… just fine!"
Ymir rolled her eyes. "What is it with men and not admitting they're in over their heads?" She bent forward, scowling at him. "If you were smart, you'd tell us to carry you. Dumbass."
"N-no, s-s-she's right!" Dazz held up the hands Krista was trying to keep circulated. "I c-can't move them a-anymore," he said with a tiny, pinched laugh.
"Well, she's wrong! You can make it the rest of the way!" Krista touched his knee gently. It was probably ice-cold. "But, if you don't feel well later on, don't be afraid to tell me!" She smiled. "OK?" When he nodded back, turning red despite his current condition, Krista glared back at her. "Are you ready, Ymir?"
She shrugged, watching her unhook Dazz's pack. "Yeah, whatever."
Krista pushed it toward her. "Then take this. It'll be easier for him."
"Yeah, yeah." Ymir hoisted it behind her back by its strings and roped them around her own, tying them down. "It won't be a problem," she said, starting forward without them again and glancing back. "But he will be."
She felt Krista's eyes boring into the back of her head as she continued on, but Dazz was irritating her too much to be quiet about it. If the idiot couldn't hack it out here, then why did he come in the first place? Before the sun peeked over the horizon, they had to reach a lodge further down the mountain and with Dazz in their company she wasn't entirely sure they would make it there alive, let alone at all. At least, without having to resort to that, wanting to say something since they were assigned their groups back at base camp; that they should’ve screwed the rules and went with Connie even though she wasn't overly fond of the guy after Achi hustled off with Mikasa and Reiner—just as simple-minded, but at least he was less susceptible to the harsher elements compared to this human icicle. Though, being the paragon that she was, Krista agreed to partner up with this waste of a uniform because he had nobody to rely on. He needed someone to be there for him, to help him slick by on all his courses and that was what really pissed her off. Forget not being able to take the cold. If he couldn't fend even a little bit for himself, then why the hell was he still trying to survive in a world like this?
Ymir spit her disgust into the snow.
Continuing on, the forest surrounding them was dead silent. Shadows weaved themselves between the trees, creeping ominously.
She was reminded of her time spent in that church and she bit back on the pain that those images brought with them as they came flashing back. She wasn't going to worry about them right now. There was little time to care about the ghosts of her past with the temperature dropping rapidly as it was with each boot-step she sunk into the snow. Looking up at one of the mountains barely visible through the treetops in the distance, she cursed under her breath when she turned to yell at Krista and Dazz to hurry it up only to discover they were nowhere in sight and started back.
Not far from where they last rested, Krista was trying desperately to lift an unconscious Dazz.
"Y-Ymir! Dazz is—!"
"I told you he'd be a—"
"Get out the sleeping bag from his pack!" Krista yelled, reaching a hand out as she finished a makeshift stretcher thrown together from their tent and some branches. "Faster!"
Ymir shrugged. "Whatever you say." She took it off her shoulders and threw it down at the girl's feet.
Krista quickly opened it and pulled out the sleeping bag, then tried putting Dazz into it, but he was too heavy for her. Even so, she kept at it until he was in as best as she could manage. Picking up the ends, she started forward. "OK! Let's go!"
Watching her drag the stretcher behind herself, Ymir looked down at the sunken line Krista was making in the snow with her efforts and then looked back at her own footsteps. Everytime the girl took a breath, having hauled Dazz this far despite betraying her own worsening condition, she got angrier. She was reminded of that face again—that damned necklace.
Eventually, it became too much to bear.
"Krista… give it up already. A guy like him, who couldn't even comprehend his own physical limits, is now at death's door. He shouldn't have signed up to begin with, but he wanted praise and recognition and took this harsh training anyway." She pulled her scarf down. "With a stupid approach like that, this is as far as he gets. Leave him."
She was met with silence.
"If we keep at this snail's pace, he'll die for sure anyway, and, if we keep hauling his sorry ass, then we won't last much longer either. So, there're two choices: leave Dazz and survive, or all three of us die."
"... the third option," Krista huffed. "... Because the ones you offer are… wrong… Ymir…!" The girl looked her straight in the eye. "I'm going to reach the lodge and save Dazz…!"
She rolled her eyes. "It's your funeral."
"We'll make it there… I promise. S… so you can just go ahead, OK?"
Ymir grit her teeth. One of her hands curled into a fist. She saw it again. That face, warm and inviting and kind. The necklace, swaying back and forth. Beautiful and bloodstained. That same face, pitiful and loathsome and pathetic. She could see it clearly.
"Why are you still here?" Krista wheezed. "Go ahead or it'll be dangerous. So...!"
The pain subsiding, her senses clearing, Ymir gripped her lantern so tight the skin around her knuckles began to turn whiter than the snow covering their boots. Staring at the one hanging from the pole secured on Krista's pack, she didn't want to see it anymore. Not again.
"Why aren't you asking me for help? It should be glaringly obvious that between you with your childlike build and mine that it'd be a whole hell of a lot faster if I hauled him instead, right?" Ymir leaned further in to get a better look at her face under the hood. It was finally time. She'd had enough. "You said yourself that it's gonna be dangerous, didn't you? Which means you're well aware that at this rate you're gonna die too, aren't you? And dying here is precisely what you want to accomplish here, right?"
"Right? You wanna make it so that I was left to spread the legend of the self-sacrificial goddess, Krista. No, wait, that won't do, will it? Because Krista is a good girl, isn't she? So, you're probably honestly asking yourself what you can do to save this guy—without asking for my help. You really want people to think that you're a good person who'd literally die for the sake of others 'cause if people get involved with you and end up dying... that would make you a bad, bad girl, wouldn't it?"
Krista stiffened. "I ne—"
"Then it's you, isn't it? The illegitimate child of a mistress driven out of the house. A bastard's bitch."
Krista averted her eyes.
"Oh? The bull's eye, huh? It really is you."
And clenched her teeth. "How do you k—"
"Yeah, well, I happened to overhear a certain conversation, at a certain church in the innermost land when I was borrowing money to keep on living. The dangerous kind of talk that no outsider was supposed to hear. You were the heiress to a certain very important house. A direct descendant by blood, but born out of the wedlock and therefore, unacceptable."
"They thought everything would be so much easier if you just got killed somehow, or simply, disappeared. Renounce your name and live like an ordinary person and then they would overlook your pathetic existence. And the girl they were talking about did just that. Changing her name and joining the training corps after having been driven out of the house like a mangy dog."
"I…" Krista looked up and her bright blue eyes were wide. "If you know all of this... and you joined the 104th Trainee Regiment instead of telling anyone... for what? Me? Is that it? Why would you go to such lengths...?"
She shrugged. "I wonder…"
"Have you experienced something similar in your life? And because of that you became a soldier to make sure I wouldn't make the same mistakes?"
And looked away. "Mistakes…" Her scowl grew heavier. This little shit. Kidnapping a girl like her... what kind of dumbass plan was that anyway? Even those asshole back then had come to same conclusion, because they hadn't taken her either! Using the girl as leverage, it—
"Did you... want to be friends with me?"
There it was. A face that, again, reminded her of the things she didn't want to remember.
"No, that's not it... I didn't—! For one, you and me are different!" Yeah, that was it… she had the same face as... "When I got a second chance in life, I made a fresh start! But I never stooped so fucking low as to renounce my real name! If I, Ymir, reject the person I was born as, it's as good as losing in life! I keep living under my own name and this is my revenge on life! My showing them all, that my fate wasn't fucking sealed the moment I was born! And what the fuck did you do?! You completely surrendered! Do you want those bastards who treated you as a nuisance to be happy that badly, hah?! Why'd you want to kill yourself instead of them?! If you really want to, it's possible to change even your fate!"
"N-no…" Krista reeled back from her sudden intensity. "No, it's not... even now... that's not—! There's no way for the three of us to get out of this situation safely, is there?!"
"There is," Ymir answered, walking away. She reached the slope of the cliff overlooking the valley below and looked down, one hand on a tree. "See that light? The lodge is right there. We'll drop Dazz off here. If he's lucky, he'll land safely and people might discover him and help him just in time to save his shit-stain of a life. There's no other hope left for him otherwise. Exposed to the elements like this for much longer and he'll become a bagworm."
"But if we drop him off the cliff, he'll only die from—!"
"Shut up." She slammed her fist into Krista's gut. "I'll do it and you can go ahead alone!" she snapped, pulling Dazz behind her as the girl doubled over, gagging.
She couldn't believe she was going to use it, but if she wanted answers, then…
"Y… Ymir! W… w-wait!"
Jumping off the cliff with Dazz, Ymir transformed into the monster she never wanted to be again, grasped Dazz tightly between her claws and, bracing for the impact as they hit the bottom fifty feet below, made a crash loud enough to alert someone at the lodging. Then, she hastily threw him down and raced off to revert back. To go back to the girl she was.
The girl she wanted to stay.
Stretching her arms as Krista finally came up to the lodging, Ymir snorted, studying the girl's worn out features with one eye shut. "Took you long enough. I made it here awhile ago." Pretending to scratch an itch, she clutched the side of her head from the resuscitating pain that still lingered and... more memories… "I really... did a stupid thing... didn't I?" she mumbled.
"What about Dazz?!"
Ymir sighed, got up, and motioned for her to follow. She opened a door to one of the lodge buildings and inside on a bed, safe and sound, was Dazz. A medical team was monitoring his condition.
"He survived a fall, from the cliff? B-but you had no rope! With a cliff that high it would be useless anyway, but still, how did you manage to get Dazz down safely...?!"
Ymir turned with a glint in her eye. "Well... I guess... I could tell you… But first, you have to promise me something. When I reveal this secret of mine, you claim back your real name and live back under it. Understand?"
Krista nodded. "I… I got it."
Ymir ran a hand through her hair. "You better." She didn't want to have to bring up this conversation again. "Come on," she said, closing the door. "Achi's waiting for us."
Relishing their reunion, she needed something to keep her mind off everything for once.
Protect it. Keep it safe. Never let it falter from your gaze.
The snow outside had mixed in with a bout of rain that had blown through suddenly. Ymir tossed and turned, unable to sleep, woken from her sleep by the sound of dripping water that reminded her of that drainage sewer, thinking of a time before. She huddled her knees closer to her chest, trying to keep warm. The nights here were colder than she'd expected—far colder than underneath that podium.
Having stowed away in the back of a married couple's carriage, concealed inside a box barely able to house her lanky frame, she'd waited until the sun had went down to jump off, her free ride landing her in what the locals had called Yarckel where the rich thrived, living lavishly in their cobblestone homes, cozy and content with their high standards. In that alleyway, away from those lavish lifestyles, she had stared at the grate that barred entry to that drainage sewer, hearing the sounds of whole other world beneath: the Underground. Each drop of water pounded on her ears, like the cannonfire in her memories. Overbearing loud, threatening to tear her mind in two if she didn't block it out. The red flashes of pain. They still came and went. In the end, remembering her name hadn't caused them to lessen, only gradually get worse. She coughed, and blood came away on her hand. She let it run down her fingers and then wiped it on her cot. Stretching out, she gazed out the window, recalling those words.
Protect it. Keep it safe. Never let it falter from your gaze.
"Protect... it...?" she repeated in a whisper. Her eyes went down to her bloodied hand. "Protect... what...?"
Making a fist, she grimaced. Looking over, there was something there. She twitched. The angel from back then. It sat there, staring at her.
The power in a name. Names have power.
She shook her head and blinked again. The angel was gone, replaced by Krista who was sitting on a chair bundled inside her blanket.
Her grimace turned to a glower. "That gloomy feeling you're giving off is coming my way," she grumbled, laying back down and turning away. "Could you at least get back in your bed and count the nicks in the ceiling if you can't sleep?"
"Sorry..." She heard Krista as she got up and did as she was told. "I—"
Ymir caught a glimpse of her blonde hair, then quickly turned back around. "You two look alike..." she said after a moment. "You look like... her..."
"No, that isn't it..."
"I wasn't talking to you."
“Ymir, what’s w—?”
"Just forget about it."
"I said to just forget about it! Go to sleep already!" she whispered as loud as she dared to not wake the others in the room, especially Achi—who was always in a terrible mood whenever she woke up ever since receiving that concussion the previous year—and to shut the other girl up. She pulled her blanket closer to her body and went back to staring out the window at the rain as it distorted everything outside.
She didn't want to remember anymore. Yet…
"Enough," the woman said in a harsh and hurt voice. Flexing and moving her shoulders in a circular motion, she looked over at another woman with red hair the color of scarlet that’d been out in the sunlight too long. "She can't go any further."
Despite how much larger the woman was compared to her, the scarlet-haired woman's voice was booming. "I shall decide when enough is enough." A tilt of the head and accompanying nod. "Continue."
Reluctantly, the woman obeyed. Her eyes went back to staring straight at her.
A flash of movement.
The flashes of red.
Ymir clawed at the sheets of her bed. Yet, still she… Her eyes shifted to Krista sleeping in her bed. That face, caring and kind; bloodthirsty and cruel. The necklace... The woman… Who... was she... really?
Art by voz gris on instagram (@voz.gris)
Chapter 36: Characters (Part III)
Point of View Characters
Achi Almen (original character) - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Annie Leonhart - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Friedrich "Fritz" Brandt (original character) - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Historia Reiss / Krista Lenz - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Ines Brandt (original character) - member of the Scouting Legion, Captain of the Special Investigations Squad
Mathias Kramer - leader of Bernhardt's outlaws
Rita Iglehaut - member of the Military Police Brigade, First Interior Squad
Ymir - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Mikasa Ackerman - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Gabriel - member of the First Interior Squad
Mina Carolina - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Sasha Blouse - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Eren Yeager - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Armin Arlert - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Bertolt Hoover - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Reiner Braun - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Connie Springer - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Dazz - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Jayce (original character) - member of the 104th Trainee Corps, South Division
Levi Ackerman - member of the Scouting Legion, Captain of the Special Operations Squad
Erwin Smith - commander of the Scouting Legion
Hange Zoe - member of the Scouting Legion, Section Leader
Moblit - member of the Scouting Legion, Hange's assistant
Larrens (original character) - member of the Scouting Legion, Ines's assistant
Mike - member of the Scouting Legion, Squad Leader
Ada (original character) - survivor outside the Walls
Taki - leader of the survivors outside the Walls
Amanda - member of the Scouting Legion, Special Investigations Squad
Klaus - member of the outlaws
Nikki - member of the outlaws
Riecka Lenz (original character) - member of Scouting Legion, Special Investigations Squad
Zena Bartosz (original character) - member of Scouting Legion, Special Investigations Squad
Alger Gerhardt (original character) - member of Scouting Legion, Special Investigations Squad
Jörg Kramer - Mathias's father
Isolde Lenz (original character) - farmer, Riecka's mother
"Baggy-pants" Leon - member of the outlaws
Traute Caven - member of the Military Police Brigade, First Interior Squad
Kenny Ackerman - member of the Military Police Brigade, Captain of the First Interior Squad
Kalia Bendlin (original character) - member of the Garrison Regiment, South Division (Trost)
Eugen Ramberg (original character) - member of the Garrison Regiment, South Division (Trost)
Doris Iglehaut - Rita's adoptive mother
Henning Iglehaut - Rita's adoptive father
Ducio - member of the Garrison Regiment, West Division (Quinta); Rita's assistant
Wilco - member of the Garrison Regiment, West Division (Quinta)
Bernhardt - leader of the outlaws
Jarratt - member of the outlaws
Suzanne (original character) - servant of the Kramer family; Mathias's tutor
Chapter 37: Sources
Attack on Titan written and illustrated by Isayama Hajime.
Attack on Titan: No Regrets written by Gun Snark and illustrated by Suruga Hikaru.
Attack on Titan: Before the Fall written by Suzukaze Ryō and illustrated by Shibamoto Thores.
Attack on Titan: Harsh Mistress of the City written by Kawakami Ryō and illustrated by Murata Range.
Attack on Titan: Lost Girls written by Seko Hiroshi and illustrated by Fuji Ryosuke.
Attack on Titan: Wings of Freedom (video game) based on the manga written and illustrated by Isayama Hajime.
Attack on Titan Guidebook: INSIDE & OUTSIDE based on the manga written and illustrated by Isayama Hajime.
Attack on Titan Choose Your Path Adventure: Last Stand At Wall Rose written by Fujinami Tomoyuki and illustrated by Fuji Ryosuke and Yoshii Tetsu based on the manga written and illustrated by Isayama Hajime.
Attack on Titan: End of the World written by Asakura Touji based on the manga written and illustrated by Isayama Hajime.
A Distant Fragrance written and illustrated by Tokawa.
MESSENGER written and illustrated by Tomo.
Story of the Goddess Who Sought Death written and illustrated by Kuzumochi Shio.
Night at the Hut in the Mountain (and other shorts) written and illustrated by tbtbii.
Song of Prayer Dedicated to You written and illustrated by Poncho.
Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger
The Silver Key by H. P. Lovecraft
Rating based upon the source material(s). Subject to change. Story originally started in December of 2012 under title of "Titanic Gateway". Restarted February of 2016 as "Caged No More". Re-published April of 2017. Being re-written and continued as of January 2018. No copyright claims. Etc. etc.