"Captain Levi!" Eren yelled over the rushing of the wind, no longer attempting to cover the panicked hoarseness of his voice with false confidence, "what now?"
"We'll try and outrun them." Levi replied levelly, coolly, and with a slight air of annoyance. He pursed his lips tightly together and narrowed his eyes, giving a forced sounding sigh as he weighed up their situation in his head, "we should make it back to base if we keep up this pace. Do not engage in battle; you cannot afford another injury." Eren's heart thumped heavily in his chest as the two of them raced through the forest on horseback, titans advancing quickly behind them. He then looked away from the back of Levi's head and instead turned to look behind him once again, almost choking on his own tongue when his horse jolted beneath him. "Focus, Eren! Don't look back!" Levi snapped sharply, causing Eren to startle and turn back around, leaning further forwards into the leather saddle in an attempt to increase his speed.
Three titans were barrelling towards them, a seven-metre class and two four-metres, their gait was uneven and uncoordinated as they stumbled over their own gangling limbs in a craze to get to their prey. They were quickly gaining on them, and Eren couldn't help the mixture of adrenaline and fear pumping through his veins, making his whole body tremble in uncontrollable waves, making his hands clammy and slip over the beaten reins, making a slick sheen of sweat cover his body and cause his clothes and hair to stick to him uncomfortably.
Gnarly trees with twisting branches and broad trunks surrounded them and Eren couldn't help but entertain the brief thought that they were perfect for 3DMG; it would be incredibly easy to take them down this way, Levi could probably do it without his help, but orders were orders and he had every intention of sticking to them—well aware of the consequences of going against them. As he had no intention of doing anything other than what Levi said, Eren forced his mind to focus on the task in hand, on escaping and getting back to base safely.
This was complicated even further by a deep, explosive sound reverberating behind him, sending vibrations through the earth beneath him and causing his sensitive ears to ring painfully and his horse to stumble in fear. Eren breathed heavily through his mouth, ignoring the scratchy dryness of his throat, and checked that Levi wasn't looking before glancing backwards, knowing that whatever caused that noise couldn't possibly be anything good.
Eren wished he hadn't bothered looking at all.
A titan rivalling the height of his own in his transformed state was looming amongst the trees, standing in a plume of steam with its head tucked low to its chest and its slim body loose and languid. It stood stationary for just a few moments more, then began to twitch, as though its muscles were bunching and spasming beneath the skin, its head flicking to the side a couple times before it whipped around so quickly that had Eren blinked he'd of missed it. The titan's eyes were lethal; crimson and wide, with tiny black slits for pupils and an unruly mane of black hair hanging in thick tangles from its humanoid head—it was different, somehow, from any of the other titans Eren could remember seeing. This one gave out an aura of pure killing intent, focused and intense and wholly intending to take them, the targets, down.
"Captain Levi!" Eren yelled, forcing his voice to carry over the sounds of earthshattering footfalls behind them as the titan suddenly propelled itself forwards into a sprint, beginning the hunt. "Captain Levi, there's another titan! It's approaching quickly, what should we do? Continue our escape or engage it?"
Levi remained silent for a few moments before turning and seeing for himself what exactly was going on. His eyes widened minutely but other than that his face remained unreadable and Eren couldn't quite decide whether that made him feel better or worse. "Keep moving forwards. We'll wait and see if it tries anything. We don't know for sure whether this is an Abnormal or not and we need to get back to ba-" he was cut off by an ungodly screeching roar that burst from the mouth of the tallest titan; it was animalistic and entirely bloodthirsty and Eren couldn't help the goose-bumps that prickled up on his skin, making his hair stand on end and his slightly damp clothes feel gratingly rough against his skin.
Nevertheless, it appeared that the horrid sound was not directed at them but at the other three titans also part of the pursuit. The tallest, Eren gave it an approximate of twenty-metres, lunged towards the others and wasted no time in stomping one of the four metres to death, not giving it any time to regenerate before its head and nape were effectively reduced to mulch. It then raced to the remaining two, swinging its arm back to gain enough momentum to smash them both viciously against the wide girth of a tree trunk, the wood splintering beneath them at the brutal force.
Nausea rose from the pit of Eren's stomach as the twenty-metre grabbed at the limp mangled corpse of the now steaming seven-metre and lifted it high above its head, then lowering it down and tearing its bottom half away, swallowing it down as though it was nothing. It ripped the arms away next, and then the head, each time making a horrible cacophony of crunching and squelching noises, much louder and different and prolonged than the sounds of a human being devoured. Eren had seen a lot of things, a lot of terrible, terrible things, but he felt somewhat lightheaded at this. If this was how vicious the titan was towards its own kind, then God help them.
"Make the most of this distraction, Eren, move faster and get away from the bastard!" Levi called, and Eren could see him trying to coax his horse into moving faster despite it moving at maximum speed already. To make up for this, Levi yelled a curt "stay close!" over his shoulder before taking a sharp left into the main body of trees, off the dirt path that was carved down the middle, and into the unknown. It seemed that Levi had every intention of attempting to evade the titan, to at least get out of its line of vision and attempt to lose it in the trees, a place that would also give them the edge both with its suitability to 3DMG and with its closely-knit greenery, which would hopefully restrict the titan's movement enough to allow for them to escape.
However, this isn't at all what happened.
They had gained no more than ten foot of distance before the titan thrusted its way through the trees on all-fours, outstretching its hand into a fan and swiping its arm at them so unexpectedly fast that neither Eren nor Levi had the chance to even think about getting out of the way before the displaced wind forcefully threw them from their horses and had them hurtling towards the trees at breakneck speed with absolutely no time to use their 3DMG. Eren reflexively squeezed his eyes shut and prepared for impact. For death. But neither of those things came. Before that, the titan reached out and grabbed him like an overexcited child grabbing a doll, and then took Levi too. When he opened his eyes, he was met with thin, red lips curled upwards into a chilling smile and two rows of dagger-like teeth bared dangerously.
The air was threateningly silent then, it was frighteningly empty and filled only with harsh breathing, even the leaves in the trees seemed to have ceased their rustling in respect for what could only be the end for the two of humanities' saviours. It was then that a low groan of pain had Eren's eyes snapping over to where Levi was also enclosed in a blood-splattered fist.
Levi had a twisted expression of pain on his face, his head tilted back and his eyebrows pinched, his teeth gritted together as he breathed raggedly, harshly, but kept his glare focussed only on the beast before him. From the angle he was at, Eren could clearly see the fresh crimson tracking down the side of his head—it glistened evilly in the dimming sunlight and Eren could hardly breathe through the seriousness of the situation weighing down on him. Or that could just be the tightening of the strong fingers around his ribs. Eren spluttered as he tried to get more air to his lungs, his gut churned as he spat up blood; his throat was raw and burning.
The titan then growled in such a way that could easily be mistaken for laughter as it joyously brought Eren and Levi even closer to its face, so both of them were before one of its huge eyes. That was when it really, truly, hit Eren that he were helplessly dangling in mid-air, encircled in a titan's clawed fist, choking on its pungent stench as it opened its giant mouth, saliva glistening grotesquely where it hung in strings from jaw to jaw.
It was then when the both of them had realised, this was the end. There really wasn't any way that they could get out of this in the conditions they were in before they were devoured.
Despite the risks that every mission outside the walls carried, despite the knowledge that death was likely, despite the countless numbers of comrades that had died this way, it had seemed like something that would never happen to him. Eren couldn't believe that, after all the danger he'd put himself in since joining the Survey Corps, he was to meet his end on a rudimentary mission intended for securing the area and ensuring that the base outside the walls was under no immediate threat. Eren and Levi had gone out on this particular mission countless times before, and so although they were, as always, on high alert, they hadn't expected there to be any major problems.
Now they were realising the true cost of their overconfidence—Eren didn't think he had ever felt more foolish than he did at that moment. Now he was paying for it, in the most ultimate of ways. It felt so unlikely that Eren couldn't stop his mind from racing as he tried to think of something, anything, which would help him and Levi out, something that would rekindle their rapidly dwindling chances of survival.
He just didn't want to leave Armin and Mikasa, he didn't want to leave his family. He'd always fancied himself as someone with no qualms regarding dying an untimely death for a noble cause to aid humanity, but that did not ease his mounting guilt.
Eren was harshly pulled from his thoughts by a coarse scream that he did not recognise as his own until he saw Levi's clenched jaw tightly closed, he could see it working through his temple, as though he were holding back more pained sounds of his own. He, Eren, felt detached from his body. He found that he could barely even feel the pain. He was numb and unaware, and, he distantly realised, likely in shock.
Which was when a burnished glint within the titan's mouth caught his attention and shocked his wandering mind back into reality; it took a moment to register that the strange object was becoming larger and more pronounced, that he was seconds away from fully entering the titan's mouth through no movement of his own—he couldn't help but wonder why it was taking so long, titan were generally messy with their catch, uncaring and uncouth as they shoved as much of the human bodies into their gaping mouths as possible. So why was this one different? Why did it feel like the titan knew something that they did not? Why did it feel as though it had any degree of intelligence to start with?
There really wasn't time to ponder over this much longer though as Levi was brought close enough to him that they were in comfortable speaking distance; Levi's eyes looked glazed over as though he'd died already.
"Eren," he heaved out in-between short, sharp gasps for air, he swallowed before continuing, "your arm. Can you move your arm?" Levi asked, not making eye contact with him, as though he already knew the answer. Eren made a keening sound deep in his throat, frustration welling up at the futility of it all. His right arm, the only one outside of the titan's crushing grip, was definitely broken; there was no physical way for him to move it without passing out from the pain.
"My- My arm is broken, Sir, I'm sorry Captain! I'm sorry," Eren shook his head, squeezing his burning eyes closed and steeling himself before trying to force his broken arm up despite the odds. The pain was sudden and intense and consumed his being. It was so sharp and sickening that his head spun as a shriek of agony ripped through his rattling lungs and out of his mouth but he didn't stop there. He tried once more to no avail, and then he tried again, but it hurt, oh God did it hurt, Eren couldn't focus on anything but the blinding, white-hot pain, and he was sure he fainted for a few moments because when he came too it was to Levi shouting his name, thinly concealed desperation in his voice.
"Stop it!" He ordered, "Eren! We- We made a wrong decision and therefore we must face the consequences so stop it! Die with pride!" Eren panted as he looked over to Levi with helpless, wide eyes, his lips quivering as he ceased struggling and was harshly thrust into the titan's mouth, shortly followed by Levi who grunted in pain as he body was roughly thrown into the grungy slime of the monstrous tongue as the titan tipped its head backwards to encourage them to fall down its throat.
Eren's response was immediate, he reached out one of his bloody hands and caught hold of one of the serrated teeth, crying out loudly as it sliced the soft flesh of his palm, causing more blood to ribbon out.
"Eren!" Levi yelped sharply as he desperately attempted to get a grip on something that would save him from an unbearable end, he was wide-eyed and terrified and, for once, Eren felt like he was seeing Levi as a human man that didn't want to die. He'd been taken down from the pedestal Eren often put him on and they were, in that moment, equals.
Therefore, against the unbearable sting of his palm, he swung his body to gain momentum and brought his broken arm within Levi's grasp, "grab my hand!" He yelled in a panic, his voice coarse and high. Levi wasted no time in doing so, and Eren could see in his face the guilt at weighing down his visibly disfigured arm as he cried out in utter torture. The additional weight also roughly yanked Eren's hand further down the tooth, the sharp edge digging far enough into the palm that he was beginning to lose feeling in it, which would have been a blessing, to at least temporarily rid himself of at least some of his pain so that he could think more clearly, had it not been for the loss of strength that accompanied it.
Looking down, over his shoulder, Eren made sure that Levi was still there, as though the searing of his mangled arm was not enough to confirm that, before returning his attention back to the tooth. Or, more accurately, what he'd noticed was around the tooth. It was the ring. A silver band of smooth edges that glinted like hope, encrusted with blue crystals and gems; it looked fit for royalty and absolutely out of place in the titan's mouth, but there was not time to think about that now.
Levi yelled out as Eren's body jolted downwards, "what are you doing?! Eren, do not let go!" Eren grunted and gasped at the pain as he slid further down, intending to get a hold on the notches in the silver band, knowing that it would be much less painful to hold, which would hopefully buy them more time to formulate a plan.
Concentrating too much to give an intelligible answer, Eren continued the process of relaxing and tightening his grip, their bodies jerking harshly with the movement, blood streaming even thicker from the gaping wound and tracking through the dirt on his arm as it ran beneath his tattered jacket sleeve. He was almost there. Just a few more inches. Eren strained and tensed his muscles in discomfort as he finally slipped down to reach the ring with a dry sob he could no longer think to contain.
Immediately everything began to swim. The walls of the titan's mouth suddenly seemed to crawl with movement, wavering forwards and backwards, in and out, until all the dull colours began to twine together into a twisting vortex of smeared white. Eren couldn't help but wonder if his maximum pain threshold had finally been reached and he were delirious with hallucinations. But when he heard the sound of Levi's voice, distressed, confused, and strangely as though Eren were underwater, he realised that he must be seeing this—whatever it was—too.
If it weren't for his hardy 3DMG training, Eren was sure he'd of vomited from the feeling of movement that accompanied this phenomenon, as though he were being pulled towards a place he could not see; blindly travelling the unknown. The thought of it all made fear bubble in the pit of Eren's stomach, his heart lurching up into his throat, his ears ringing, when a mixture of colours suddenly blended together to form a blurry image of browns, golds, blues, and blacks.
Before he even knew what was happening, before he could so much as brace for impact, the ground had rushed up to meet him, his skull cracking against the floor and his body following suit. Air rushed out of Eren's lungs, winded, and he could vaguely hear himself wheezing harshly, breathlessly and completely and utterly futilely, around his cracked ribs.
Forcing his heavy-lidded eyes open, he tried to focus on his surroundings though all he ultimately managed was to scrounge an indistinct view of many, many blurred figured seated at what looked to be tables, their heads turned towards him.
Any movement Eren did see seemed to be slow and out-of-sync with the distant noise he could faintly hear, it sounded panicked and chaotic before it was drowned out by the loud ringing in his ears and the thick fuzziness of his head, which felt as though it were stuffed with cotton, black dots blotting out his vision and his heart pounding heavily at every pulse point.
Eren didn't even realise that he'd blacked out until he was blearily opening his eyes again. The many cloaked figures he'd seen before were gone now and instead there only appeared to be a select few watching them accusingly. His vision was still a little blurry and he blinked repeatedly to clear it, his mouth open and squashed against the floor; Eren couldn't tell if he'd drooled or if there was just that much blood against his sodden cheek.
"—I will repeat myself again; how did you get in here?" A voice asked sharply, jolting Eren back into reality all at once. He lifted his face from the floor and attempted to move his arms to push himself up but as he did, pain shocked his system and he was greeted with the realisation that his arm was still broken, he could barely move it, but he knew that the regeneration process was in effect because he could breathe a little easier than before, meaning his cracked ribs were knitting themselves back together. He just needed to wait to be able to move properly—though he didn't know how long that would take nor how much he could manage with his body's depleted energy.
"Don't know." Came another voice, croaky and painful. Levi. Eren looked over to his left and saw Levi laying on his back, his body arched slightly upwards and his teeth gritted and bared as he breathed sharply, in uneven, choppy breaths that rattled in his lungs. Eren could see the pain in his usually cold face, grime and crusted copper smeared across his features, his eyes squeezing shut when a particularly bad wave of pain must have washed over him.
"No-one can get in here, you had to have known what you were doing!" The strange voice came again, and Eren then took note of the elderly man, with a long beard, and flowing robes, holding a stick, of all things, towards Levi. The man must have felt Eren's gaze on him as he then quickly turned to face him, "who are you affiliated with?" He asked, and Eren's hazed mind couldn't work out what he was asking.
Eren coughed, effectively clearing his throat ". . . What," he breathed, barely even able to hear his own voice.
"Are you spies?" The man questioned, still directly looking at Eren, who was beginning to succumb to pain-filled exhaustion again.
"No," Eren shook his head as best he could, he groaned and lay his head back on the floor for a moment before raising it back up, "where. . . is this?" The man looked surprised, then, and murmurs broke out amongst the other people in the room. Eren was more confused than he'd ever been in his life. He was confused and scared, as much as he hated to admit it, even more so when he tried to get another glimpse at Levi and saw that he must have passed out—likely from blood-loss—and Eren wasn't far behind. "Who're you?" Eren slurred, suddenly finding it even harder than before to get his words out.
"I am Albus Dumbledore," he said shortly, looking as though there was much more he wanted to say. His expression softened by the smallest amount, enough to mean something; perhaps these people weren't hostile.
"M-my Captain is injured," Eren told Dumbledore shakily, "he needs medi—" he broke off with a strained cough that irritated his throat and he breathed heavily for a moment before attempting further communication.
Dumbledore looked over the Levi with pursed lips, "your friend is in dire need of medical attention, I understand, and so are you,"
Eren nodded, laying his forehead back down onto the ground, wincing as he felt liquid warmth soak his skin, alerting him that he was still bleeding out from somewhere he wasn't entirely sure of. If he was admitting honesty to himself, he wasn't sure if he could trust this man, these people, but if he wanted Levi to live he was going to have to. He was sure that he'd be able to heal himself, given the time, but he didn't want to be risking his Captain's life, that was out of the question.
Rolling his head so that it was at an angle, Eren saw that Dumbledore's mouth was still moving but he could no longer work out the words that were being spoken. His hearing was fuzzy and it felt like the room was tilting around him, he clenched the fingers he could move into a fist as though to make a grab at the floor to top it spinning but found that did nothing to help. All he could hear was his own rattling breathing, all he could feel was floating, nauseating movement, all his could smell and taste was harsh metal, and all he could see was darkness.
And this was how Harry's fifth year at Hogwarts began, all at once and with a definite bang. He'd already known that something was off when Hagrid was missing from the staff table, and Dolores Umbridge, a toad-like woman who seemed to dress only in horrific shades of pink, and was seen at Harry's hearing for the Dementor attack, was now part of the teaching body. He'd already had a lot on his mind at that point, so when the ceiling suddenly began to morph above Umbridge's head during her impromptu speech, and two bodies had dropped, bleeding and wounded, onto the solid floor of the Hall, he really hadn't known what to think.
Dumbledore had leapt from his chair at the staff table and withdrew his wand, pulling Umbridge back and out of the way as the two figures dropped onto the hard floor before the House tables. "Get back!" Dumbledore had ordered, as he glanced quickly up at some of the students inching forwards, towards the strangely dressed people, before back down at the intruders themselves.
"What the bloody 'ell is goin' on?!" Ron had exclaimed, he'd looked between Harry and Hermione, as they'd stood within the hoard of other students all craning their necks to get a better look at what was going on.
"There's two people on the floor down there, it—it was a portkey, it must have been!" Hermione had then replied with furrowed eyebrows and her face a little pale, "but that shouldn't be possible! Hogwarts is protected! No one but Dumbledore can do that!"
Squinting through his glasses, Harry has shifted from side to side as he'd tried to get a better view over people's shoulders and around their heads. "Do you think they're with—"
"You-Know-Who?" Ron cut Harry off before he could speak his name, as though the mere mention of it would make it true. Harry had made to glare at Ron for interrupting when he picked up movement out of the corner of his eye and snapped his gaze right back to the Hall floor.
It'd been hard to see the two men, he'd presumed, who'd been on the ground, as nervous teachers tried to hustle them all away and back to their Dorms, but Harry caught sight of a steady slick of blood growing beneath them. He'd seen that one of the men, perhaps boys, had had his right arm bent at an awkward angle as he'd lay on his stomach, bloody gashes and tears ripped through his strange clothing, a green cloak tangled around his body and legs. Harry had then noticed his eyes had been open just a slight, but he'd barely been able see any movement of his back that signalled breathing.
The other had been audibly wheezing for breath with his body slightly arched off the floor and his eyes open wide in fright. His clothing had been filthy and soaked in crimson that'd dripped to the floor alarmingly quickly. He'd had one trembling arm wrapped tightly around his ribs, the other fumbling with a large silver box strapped to his hip, blood smeared handles for something Harry hadn't been able to work out sticking out from the long slots in it.
Professor McGonagall had blocked Harry's vision after that as she took charge and made sure to shepherd them all outside, her face a stern mask. Harry couldn't erase the vision he'd seen, those people wouldn't leave his head, he didn't think he'd ever seen two people be so badly wounded. Lost in thought and mildly shocked, he'd allowed himself to be whisked away, back to the Gryffindor Common Room, where he found himself now. Lost in thought and sitting in bed with a swirling anxiety in his gut that told him there was still so much more to come.