"They are going to die," the World Serpent repeated. With that endless smile looking even wider than usual, Eren could tell just how much it enjoyed watching him squirm. The fact that he felt used to it already was a little off-putting.
"What are you talking about?" Eren put on his best scowl and crossed his arms, hoping to hide all emotion from the god before him.
"Gehehe," the Serpent chuckled, circling around Eren as if ready to take a bite out of him when he wasn't looking. "Perhaps I can see the future?"
"I doubt that."
"Oh?" The Serpent's eyes widened with further amusement.
"If you could see the future," Eren smirked, "then why'd you let yourself get stomped by another god?"
The Serpent laugh-hissed even louder, so much so that Eren couldn't even tell whether it was happy or angry at the notion. His tough pose and expression thrown off, Eren turned away from the creature to suppress his mounting terror. When it stopped laughing, the Serpent breathed deeply through its nostrils. Eren turned around.
"They are going to die," it repeated with its mocking tone. "They are going to die because you cannot protect them. You cannot protect anyone."
"Shut up!" Eren roared, whirling back around with serpentine eyes of his own. He roared with such ferocity that the fear died, yelled his heart out with so much strength that the Serpent even lost its smile. "You don't know me, and you sure as hell don't know what I can do!"
"I know that you are indecisive," came the snide retort, "and you are eager to follow those who you believe are stronger. You've always followed those weaker than you, those squirming maggots within 'Midgard.' Even now, as you step into the realm of gods, your heart is still weak!" The Serpent gnashed its teeth and slid closer to him, but Eren wasn't afraid anymore.
"Yeah, you're right." Eren slowed his breathing. He closed his eyes, pouring cold water over his anger. "But you're wrong, too."
The Serpent hissed again, this one sounding like a scoff. "And how am I wrong, fledgling?"
Eren looked up again and stared right into the creature's eyes, snake-to-snake. "My heart might be weak, but I'm still strong. I'm stronger than you think."
"Your bravado means nothing." The Serpent brought its great body to lie on the surface of the midnight ocean, it's wretched mouth only an arm's length away from him. It was as close as they were going to get to being eye-to-eye. "Have you already forgotten where I am? Have you forgotten what I smell and taste and see? You are weak," it hissed, "and it is your weakness that offends me."
"Yeah? And why's that?" Eren took an angry step forward, fist raised as if he were ready to punch the immortal thing right in its nose.
"To be so weak when strength is so close," the Serpent replied, "is a great offense to those that would offer you such strength."
"Swear to the Covenant!" It suddenly roared, rising up again like a cobra. "Bind yourself to me and do as I bid!"
"What the hell for?!" Eren responded with as much volume as he could, though it was clear the conversation had exhausted him. "What is so important that I need to drop everything and suck on your snake-dick for strength?"
"Such insolence!" The Serpent bore down on him with maw agape, stopping in place right before its monstrous teeth could skewer the boy. A hint of pride entered its heart when he didn't move away.
"Why are they really going to die?" Eren shook his head. "Did you bring me back to this craphole part of my mind just to laugh at me again?"
The Serpent closed its mouth and pulled away, eyes narrowed. "They will die because you do not have the power to protect them. They are stronger than vermin, but are clearly vermin to everything else that awaits them. These so-called 'Order members' clearly surpass them in strength, and to face them in battle is to invite death. Even those Order scum," it noted with a much darker tone, "are paltry in comparison to what truly lurks beyond the veil."
"They're fine though," Eren said with exasperation. "Bert, Annie, and Reiner. They're stronger than me, remember?"
The Serpent hissed with irritation, once again lying flat on the slime. "As always, it seems that simple logic has failed to reach your equally simple mind. Is it wise to deny yourself the power to become stronger than they are?"
Eren fell on his backside, no longer strong enough for words.
"Is it wise to turn your back on the source of your power, to refuse that very power when you feel so much undeserved pride over it? Have you forgotten already that it was I who allowed you to make it this far?"
The Serpent let out another hiss, this one a sound of frustration. Its eyes closed and the great god began to slide away from Eren, back into the void where it made its home. "You are a pathetic lump of flesh, and a poor vessel to be trapped within."
Eren rose to his feet and turned his back on the source of his power. "Let me out. I'm tired."
No response was heard, but slowly the warm embrace of sleep captured him and pulled him away from the Serpent's slimy den.
"Eren. My son, are you awake?"
Eren groaned, unwilling to rise just yet. Perhaps the man would interpret this as sleep talk and leave him be.
"Come now, Eren. Another long day is waiting."
Another long day could go and shove off, as far as Eren was concerned. Even so, there was no way to drift off to sleep again with the burning light and the eager words. In the end, his only choice was to relent.
Eren forced his eyes open and met those of his father. Grisha smiled kindly and offered his hand.
"Come now." Grisha said again. "You promised us a story today!"
"'Us?' What do you mean, 'Us?"
Eren took his father's hand and did not resist as Grisha pulled him into a sitting position.
"Dr. Moto," Grisha continued, "is also quite interested in your tale. Having mentioned it to him, how could I deny my friend his satiation?"
Eren groaned again and rubbed his aching eyelids. "Maybe I should follow through on that joke I said before. Doctors sure can speak with big words, huh?"
"Oh, not at all!" Grisha chuckled and moved to pat Eren's ruffled hair. "All that I've learned is now available to you, so feel free to help us comb through that ancient library Dr. Moto has cared for."
"I'll just fall asleep every time I try." Eren shook his head and finally matched his father's smile, rising from the bed with renewed dedication. "Even so, I guess I'll have to pull my own weight and do my best to keep up."
"That's the spirit!" Grisha ruffled Eren's hair again and turned to face the door. "Come now, it's time for breakfast. Remember to stay behind as the others leave; we've so much to discuss and little time to discuss it. The three of us—Dr. Moto, Andrei Leonhardt, and myself—have our hands more than full with the protection of Valhalla and the organization of its daily activities. Your story must be clear and concise."
"I'm all for it." Eren said, his eyes now cold and focused. "But you will tell me where my friends are going and why I can't go with them."
Grisha shook his head with saddened eyes and a frozen frown. "I'm sorry, Eren. A Warrior's mission must always remain confidential, and this also applies to Warriors elect."
"That's bullshit!" Eren clenched his fist and ground his teeth together, doing his best to stop the Serpent's rage from taking over. "They're my friends! Why do you have to hide things from me after I've come this far?!"
Grisha stepped forward and gripped his son's shoulders. "Eren, you must understand. Try to see it from our perspective. Here stands a boy of 15 years, heading straight from Midgard into Valhalla with unknown intentions and an unknown history."
"So nobody trusts me?"
"I didn't say that." Grisha sighed, tightening his grip on Eren's shoulders.
"It's Annie's dad, then?"
Grisha did not respond.
"I knew it," Eren breathed, "I knew it was him. I can tell he's hated my guts ever since he saw me."
"The fault lies with me." Grisha released his hold on the boy's shoulders. "There is bad blood between Andrei and myself, and there is nothing you can do to fix that. It lies with me," Grisha repeated, "and I promise I will do all I can do to support your induction into Valhalla."
"It's just too much." Eren sighed.
"A full stomach will surely ease your nerves." Grisha released Eren from their embrace and smiled. "A full meal has always helped me get through the toughest of days."
"I hope so," Eren grumbled, "or else I'll get my head chopped off by Annie's dad for not finishing my plate."
Something clicked in Grisha's mind, and he narrowed his eyes. "You seem quite concerned with how Andrei feels about you."
"I just don't like the idea of being kicked out," came Eren's hurried response. "I didn't come this far just to get the boot, y'know?"
Though not entirely convinced, Grisha nodded and moved towards the door. "I understand how you feel, but you've only just awoken. We can continue this discussion after a hearty breakfast in a room filled with warmth and laughter!"
"I'd really like that," came Eren's honest response, a genuine smile finally revealing itself. "Let's go!"
Just as before, the food was beyond measure and belief. Though cutting it close, the sheer volume and taste of that food was just good enough to mask his growing loneliness.
He needed them by his side. He needed Reiner's teasing, Bert's support, and Annie.
Those frigid eyes and that frigid expression. He could hear her even now, could almost smell her. He acknowledged the weirdness, but didn't necessarily worry about it. After all, it was just his memories acting up. It was just nostalgia, wasn't it? He couldn't really smell her.
Within his mind, the Serpent snickered.
"Here's to another feast filled with flavor, and another day of passion and strength!" Moto slammed his mug on the desk before him, soon joined by everyone else. Not keen on being left out, Eren immediately mimicked their actions.
"May you welcome yet another bright morning," Moto continued, "and may your missions be safe and fruitful!"
"Faith and furious winds to you all!" One Warrior shouted.
"May the mountains bow before your strength!" Another yelled.
No, not again. Not this time. Eren shook his head frantically and banished the doubt from his mind. He wouldn't be left behind again!
"May your blades be sharp," he cried with all his might, "and may your hearts be strong!"
They turned to him, every single one of them. Suddenly very aware of himself, Eren's face went red as his heart threatened to burst from his chest. Surely, they would laugh at him.
"Sharp blades," someone yelled, "and strong hearts!"
"Sharp blades," everyone screamed, "and strong hearts!"
And they cheered. They banged their mugs. As they turned back around to face their leader, every single person in the hall accepted his echoing declaration with further shouts and jovial words.
Far away from him and resting with one hand on his chin, Dr. Moto took up the cry. "Sharp blades and strong hearts to you all!"
They cheered again. Eren was caught in the light. He froze, consumed by disbelief as his new family took up the call in his honor. The cheers lasted longer than anticipated, with some of the Warriors even sliding further down the long table to join him. Before he knew it, Eren's lonely meal had become a heated whirlwind of laughter and conversation. Oh, how they pelted him with their questions!
"How many Titans have you killed?"
"How tall do you get when you Shift?"
"You've been to Midgard, right? What's it like?"
"Hey, you wanna duel each other after breakfast? I wanna see how you fight!"
"Now, now, give the boy some room to speak!" This voice belonged to a beautiful older woman sitting at his left, her golden locks loosely tied in a sidetail. If he had to guess, she'd be about the age his mother was five years ago. "So you're Dr. Jaeger's son, then! How old are you?"
"I'm fifteen," Eren said nervously, loading his fork up with a shaky hand.
"Fifteen! My little Astrid is fifteen, too. Hold a moment, let me bring her over."
"O-okay." Eren did his best to maintain a smile, his anxiety mounting. The vacancy she left behind didn't last long, as it was immediately filled by a man with arms as big as his head and a fiery plaited beard.
Eren jumped in fright and practically soiled himself—and judging by how much the others were now laughing, clearly they'd expected such a response from him. How could one man speak with such volume?
"Good morning?" Eren chuckled. Ahhh, why? Why was he so nervous? They were only making it worse!
The man burst into thunderous laughter and slapped Eren on the back. "'Good morning?' Good morning, he says! Bahahaha!"
The others continued to laugh with him. It wasn't long before the tone of Eren's ears matched that of the man's hair.
"Come now, say it from your gut! Give me a good shout, boy! Mornin'!"
"M-MORNIN'!" Eren yelled, accidentally tapping into his serpentine side. The result was a light burst of air that caused the man to visibly slide along the table.
A deathly silence followed. The man's head was lowered, his body motionless. Then…
Eren bounced in fright again. The other Warriors around him starting laughing again as well, some with visible tears coming out of their eyes. The giant man slapped Eren on his back again.
"That...what on Frigg's glorious green earth was that?! I knew there was something I liked about you, kid! I am called Gunnar, may you remember it always!"
Eren laughed again, though with genuine mirth this time around. The scene was just too silly, and little by little his anxiety began to ebb away. He extended his hand, fully expecting Gunnar to break it apart. Instead, the not-so-gentle giant wrapped his arm around Eren's shoulders, pulling him into a vicious noogie.
"Oww oww owwww!" Eren winced. Even so, his smile didn't fade. Would he ever frown again? He was certainly beginning to doubt.
"Gunnar! Will you not spare the boy a breath or bite? His food will surely go cold!"
It was the woman from earlier, this time with her daughter in tow. Eren's heart nearly leapt into his throat when their eyes met.
Astrid had clearly inherited her mother's beauty, without question. Her eyes were a shining sea of green to rival his own and her hair was fire given form, a stunning red pulled back in a simple ponytail. Eren turned his attention back to Gunnar. If her hair was red, then that meant—
"By Odin's beard, Hilde, you know I mean no harm! Just let men be men, aye?"
"Oh, husband…" Hilde shook her head before giving Gunnar's bald one a good slap, eliciting more laughter from everyone at the table. Even Astrid giggled, a sweet melody that tickled Eren's ears.
"Slide your big behind down the table and make room, will you?" Hilde smiled lovingly as the giant Warrior complied, and she motioned for Astrid to sit down right next to Eren. Hilde sat between her husband and daughter, with her attention focused entirely on the former as she clung to his arm.
"A sharp blade and strong heart to you, Eren Jaeger." Astrid reached over with her fork and speared one of his sausages. As she moved to pull her hand back, Eren drove his own fork into the other half of the meat, matching her cheeky smile.
"And you as well, Astrid."
The rest of his breakfast had been no dull affair. Already he felt he was making friends, namely with Hilde's daughter, Astrid. The two of them were quite similar, after all; she seemed to hate the Titans just as much as he, and reveled in the hatred as he did. Just as he had lost his mother, she had lost her older sister, and was every bit as committed to their destruction as he was. Unlike him, however, she had become a true Warrior. Unlike him, she was stepping into the world beyond and making it a safer place for all. Unlike him, she was progressing.
Though he did well to hide it, Eren could feel the frustration eating at him as they spoke.
Before long, the food was gone and with it the Warriors' merriment. With the last of his fellow villagers exiting the hall, Eren turned to face the three men at the opposite end. Though initially filled with doubt as Andrei Leonhardt scowled at him, Eren seized upon his serpentine blood and forced himself to move forward, to approach them with furious confidence. He felt the burning inside, the thundering of his heart as it reached up to his throat.
When at last he stood before the leaders of Valhalla, Eren bowed his head in a show of respect; partly to give a good impression, partly to avoid Andrei's gaze. When he lifted his head, he found his heart becalmed by the warm smiles of Dr. Moto and his father.
"Grisha has mentioned several times now that you have quite the story to tell." Dr. Moto scratched his chin and leaned forward slightly, filled with sudden enthusiasm. "I would very much like to know what life was like for you within Midgard."
Dr. Moto then gestured to a nearby chair, still smiling. Finally at ease, Eren dragged the chair away from the long table and firmly planted it before the platform. He settled into the chair and closed his eyes, gathering the scattered memories and pulling them to the front of his mind.
"I guess it all started with...my mom's death."
The doctors lost their smiles.
"She was killed by a Titan. As a result, I started hating them," Eren growled. "All of them. When I escaped from Shiganshina, I swore I would destroy every single one."
The anger took hold of him once again, his eyes revealing their true nature as he brought them to bear upon the men before him. Even the Guardian shifted in his seat, as the boy's rage was palpable.
That wasn't all.
They felt another presence in the hall, a shadow that hung in the air. It choked the life from the candles, nearly plunging the great hall into darkness. A sinister light emanated from Eren's eyes, yellow and filled with hunger. The Jarl's expression shifted into one of pure fascination, his glasses shining gold as they reflected the boy's hatred.
"And with all of this hate," Andrei growled, "what did you do?"
"I entered the military," Eren replied, "and carried it with me. I pushed myself as hard as I could to become a member of the Survey Corps."
"Survey Corps?" Dr. Moto inquired.
"One of three potential branches for trainees to join," Grisha elaborated. "Of the three, it is by far the most dangerous. The Survey Corps exists to push back against the artificial Titans and establish footholds in the world beyond the Walls."
"I wanted to take the fight to them." Filled with newfound confidence, Eren leaned forward in his chair with clenched fists. "I didn't want to live in fear of them like everyone else. That's where I met my friends," he continued, eyes once again filled with green as a surge of happiness welled up within. The room seemed to brighten again. "Bert, Reiner, and Annie."
"And when you met them, what did you do?" Andrei's voice remained firm, yet the edge was gone. He was listening intently.
Eren smiled. "I trained with them and got my ass handed to me by Annie more times than I can count. She taught me a few techniques in the process, though. I learned a lot from each of them."
The Guardian leaned back in his chair, looking satisfied. The doctors beside him matched the boy's smile, blatantly amused.
"It wasn't long before I finished my training," Eren said, his expression darkening once again. "And that's when it happened..."
"You're referring to..."
"Yeah," Eren interrupted. "That's when Bert appeared, 5 years after his last attack. He kicked a hole in Wall Rose and let the Titans in. He played his part well and killed countless innocent people."
"It's alright," Eren shook his head. "I've accepted what happened and I've made my choice. I'll stay here…"
Andrei narrowed his eyes, teeth clenched as Eren matched his gaze with new ferocity.
"...and I'll become a Warrior."
"You arrogant boy!" Andrei slammed his fist upon the table. "Again with your nonsense—!"
Eren did not falter. The Serpent within would not allow it.
"Andrei!" Grisha whirled upon the man, furious.
"Guardian." Dr. Moto turned to face the man with an authoritative gaze. "That is quite enough."
"He is an outsider!"
"I won't let you keep me away!" Eren thought. He grit his teeth and embraced the obsidian flowing within. His mind raced, his lungs burned, his heart thrashed.
"Not from here...not from them…"
"Show me, fledgling."
"Not from...not from—!"
Eren briefly turned inward, face-to-face once again with the god imprisoned within him.
"Show me your strength," it hissed, encircling the boy as it often did. "Show me that you are worthy of my blood!"
Without a word he turned away, returning once again to the waking world. To the leaders of Valhalla, the men who would decide his fate. And he smiled again. He felt it, if only a little—a fleeting thing, something the prisoner within would certainly deny.
The pride in its voice.
"I won't let you."
The bickering men trailed off, and they each turned to face the boy.
Andrei blinked. Grisha swelled with pride. Dr. Moto flashed a gentle smile.
"I won't let you keep me away. I'm staying."
Eren rose to his feet, fists clenched and eyes blazing with determination.
"I'm staying in Valhalla, and I'll prove it to you!"
Andrei's eyes widened, the anger fading away as a sense of nostalgia took its place.
"I will prove that I can be a Warrior."
The Guardian fell silent, and remained so. When it was clear he would no longer interrupt, Dr. Moto motioned for Eren to continue. Eren nodded and took a breath, once again gathering his memories.
"During the attack, I Shifted into a Titan form for the first time…"
The cold was coming, slowly but surely. Annie could feel it biting with every breeze, and she cursed the treetops for obscuring the brilliant sun above. Seated at the base of one of those many tall trees, she held out her hand and accepted her rations with a less than enthusiastic expression. Bert shrugged apologetically, moving to sit by Reiner again as the latter sipped from his canteen.
Some of the water went down the wrong hole, and he coughed. This resulted in him accidentally shaking out some of the precious liquid.
"Hey," Annie barked, "don't get water on the map, idiot."
"Sha-hack!" Reiner coughed again. "Shaddup!" His mood now fouled, Reiner cursed and handed the parchment to Bert instead. "I can't believe we still need this stupid thing to find our way around."
"We did spend a really long time at Midgard," Bert replied. "We don't know Valhalla as well as we should, yet."
"It'll come with time," Annie said, gesturing with a lazy hand. "Time that we now have plenty of, considering Eren's finally here and we never have to see those shitty Walls ever again."
"Unless we get a mission." Bert added.
"Yeah, unless we get a mission." Reiner parroted.
Annie sighed, opening her own canteen and reaching for the meat in her satchel. She didn't hate the deer jerky, per se, but there were better things to eat and it was certainly difficult to choke down at times. Her thoughts drifted back to Valhalla, and to the wondrous feast that they were surely missing out on. A feast he could be enjoying to the fullest.
"I wonder if Eren has gotten used to it yet?" Annie thought. She took another bite, tugging against the firm meat. "The food, the atmosphere. My dad, too."
Annie grimaced. It was no secret that Andrei Leonhardt felt only disdain towards visitors of any kind. An outsider seeking to remain in Valhalla wasn't a common occurrence, so one could only imagine how he'd been treating Eren since their arrival. Not that it mattered in the long run, of course. Eren wasn't going to back down so easily. A bolt of pride surged through her at the thought of him staring her father down, flashing those furious green eyes and making his declaration.
"That's enough of a break for now." Reiner suddenly grunted. "The faster we move, the faster we can head back home and go back to eating real food."
"Yeah. We can finish scouting and make it back in time for lunch tomorrow, easy." Bert tossed the rest of his jerky into his mouth and rose to his feet, then turned his attention over to Annie. "You ready to go?"
"I guess." Annie took her last bite and one last chug from her canteen, lazily shoving the latter into her satchel and throwing it over her back. "Let's get this over with."
"Come on," Reiner grinned, "it's not that bad. Aren't you just happy to be home again? I know I am, crappy mission or no."
Happy wasn't the word she'd have chosen. Relieved, perhaps?
"What's the rush, anyway?" Bert said with a raise eyebrow. "Did you leave something behind?"
"Not something," she thought. "Someone. And I'm tired of leaving him behind."
Bert and Reiner remained silent. They didn't have to speak a word, anyway. She already knew they felt the same way.
Would her father allow Eren to become a Warrior, despite him coming from beyond the Walls? Or would Andrei do the unthinkable and convince Dr. Moto to banish him, instead? Everyone knew how convincing her father could be.
Annie shook her head, her eyes shining fiercely. "It doesn't matter. If he goes, then I go too."
Back in Valhalla, Eren Jaeger sniffed the air. "There it is again," he thought.
For the second time that day, the Serpent snickered.
"You are learning."