Chapter Seven: Contact
I honestly hope you guys like this. It's been too long. Plus I wrestled with this guy too much; so much so that I spilled coffee all over my laptop and had to write this on my mum's computer, main reason why this took longer than usual. I'll take this opportunity too to apologize in advance if a certain line of dialogue offends anyone... mainly Christians. It was in absolute no offense, I respect your beliefs, I just thought it would be something the character would say, considering the setting and her own beliefs.
Also, have you noticed how epic May's going to be for SnK? New manga chapter, an English dub and season 2 for the Tumblr audioplay Attack on Space?
Oh and it's also my birthday somewhere in between. Lovely.
Anyways, happy reading! Loving all the support from everyone!
Two weeks after the army's discovery, it left the forest, leading itself by the main road towards Sina.
Stohess was the first victim.
The Garrison didn't even have time to sound the alarm. Fire balls rained from the quiet night sky, destroying the city's walls and burning its houses, taverns and shops, any unfortunate souls nearby were crushed under debris or burnt alive.
After the walls had been breached, warriors and riders rushed inside, their battle cries filling the air. The soldiers helplessly tried to repel the bloodthirsty men, but were made easy prey under such numeric disadvantage.
Gashes, crushed bones and arrows decorated flesh. The warriors ran through the chaotic streets in hollering laughter, stomping over severed limbs, their boots splashing over the dense pools of blood, or carelessly stepping over the dead. Horses trampled men and women in their riders' lust for violence. Civilians feebly tried to hide inside their barricaded houses, only for the men to be slaughtered and the women to be raped and enslaved, their children slaves, too - the only mercy the Free People offered.
Hanji Zoe watched from the window of her quarters the orange and yellow hues, only able to imagine the destruction and slaughter.
She was standing fairly still, hand loosely in front of her pursed lips, her elbow resting on her other arm, set across her abdomen. She was only wearing a light brown, long shirt that reached the middle of her thighs. Her hair was loose, seeming as messy as it usually does in her pony tail.
The door opens without a polite knock. Hanji doesn't mind.
"Squad Leader…" Keiji, a tall brunette with salient cheekbones called once he had partially opened the door and peered inside. He seems slightly out of breath, maybe from running all the distance towards her room, skipping stairs and sprinting through hallways.
"… Stohess has fallen." He says, unnecessarily.
She drags her voice in a whisper, "I know."
Keiji waits for her to elaborate. She knows she should speak, detail her orders at her subordinate and lead. Initiate the mission she had been entrusted with. But all she can do for a long minute is simply space out, wasting precious time with mindless, worthless indulgence.
It's not every day she gets to lead a group this big, after all. It's not every day she's entrusted with such a suicidal mission. One she's not even entirely sure how to complete. How the hell is she going to destroy the catapults?
Or kill whatever's inside that tent?
Does Erwin even want her to kill it? Is there even anything to kill in there?
And how is she going to ensure the safety of all the kids?
"Squad Leader. Your orders."
It takes Keiji's words for Hanji to realize her unprofessionalism.
"Is the rest of the squad awake?"
"Nifa is. On watch, close to the Lord-Baron."
"Shadis has certainly seen this and is probably ordering the trainees to wake." She says, then turns to him "Wake the rest of the squad. Ready our horses. Help the trainees with anything they need."
He nods "Yes, milady." And then takes his leave.
Hanji's eyes linger on the city again for a brief moment. She sighs, dropping her hands to her hips, cussing tiredly, before padding along the dark room towards her gear.
The trainees were rudely awoken with adamant shouts from their superiors, ordered to head to the barracks, gear up and then ready a horse.
Aside from the obvious stress, nervousness and fear were other emotions swimming through the trainees' minds, crippling their lines of thought, plaguing it with worse case scenarios and horrific imagery of blood and gore from battle.
Mikasa was a different case altogether, keeping her cool even in a situation that was so new to her. Only two things were currently worrying her, even though it wasn't very apparent.
She was striding past her peers, uncaring to their nervous monologues, despaired cries or uncontrolled vomiting in some corner. Her grey eyes were fixed ahead, her dark hair and tattered cloak swayed with every certain thud of her leather boots. Her old, maroon scarf was tight against her neck. The leather armor, with studded shoulder guards and vest, much like all the other armor sets the castle provided, fit her well, offering agility when it lacked in protection. Her katanas were strapped to her belt.
She reached the courtyard, her eyes scanning the area, searching for Eren and Armin.
She saw Thomas sitting cross-legged against a wall, Mina crouching in front of him, holding his hand, whispering softly.
She saw Sasha ranting quickly and pessimistically with wide eyes, failing to keep her arrows in her hands, often clumsily letting them fall. Connie was with her, mocking her light-heartedly, despite the nervousness in his eyes.
And then she heard a loud thud of a body being pushed against a wall. She turned her head in that direction and found Eren, frowning and muttering angrily with his hands gripping Jean's hood, the taller boy snarling and scowling too.
She approached them.
"Shut up," Eren growled "Just shut up. You have more important things to worry about than that."
"Get off of me."
"I will, once I see that my words have sunk in."
"Don't school me, you asshole!"
Droplets of spit flew past Jean's teeth, colliding with Eren's cheeks. He ignored them, pulling the fabric tighter and intensifying his gaze.
"Then stop acting like an idiot! I don't care if you wanted to join the Police and sit on your ass all day, like the miserable shit you are. This is what you trained for! You should have known something like this was bound to happen when you entered, no matter your motives, so stop acting like a fucking coward and man up!"
"Eren, let go of him!"
Mikasa saw Marco dashing towards them, appearing from the darkness of a hallway. The eastern girl couldn't figure why she hadn't tried to intervene yet, too. Perhaps for curiosity at the outcome of this situation.
"Listen Jean," Eren growled, not distracted by Marco's distressed call "You will pull yourself together. This is bigger than your selfish wish to join the Police; this is war. The city's in danger, it needs all the help it can get – yours included. We'll finish this shit, and then you can join your fucking Police."
For a silent second, they merely stared, both boy's arrogance and frowns unfading.
Jean's snarling and glowering progressively diminished.
Marco, unbeknownst to the mutual, silent agreement, didn't lower his running speed, tackling Eren with his shoulder with controlled strength.
Mikasa widened her eyes, shocked for witnessing, for the first time, Eren and Jean make amends, as well as for witnessing Marco's aggression. She immediately approached her brother's side, who had huffed and stepped back due to the tackle.
Marco pulled Jean by the arm, eying the brunette warily "I-I'm sorry… I saw no other way…"
Eren shook his head, seeming nonchalant "You're fine. Just make sure to keep him in check."
Jean only stared at the tanned boy, a shadow of a frown on his face.
"Will do. We have to go now, to ready our horses. You should too!" he said quickly, tugging Jean "See you guys later!"
"Yeah." He nodded, watching as he darted off, towards the same hallway he had come from, carrying an annoyed, complaining Jean. He turned to the eastern girl beside him "You heard him, let's go."
She heard the words but did not register them, her collected and focused demeanor lifting, being replaced by the over-protective sister.
"Eren," she called, voice a raspy mix of gentleness, worry and command "Out there, stay close to me."
A low, disbelieving vowel was emitted from his throat. He frowned.
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"It'll be dangerous out there; I'll protect you."
He groaned tiredly, bringing a hand to his face "Mikasa… not you too…"
"I mean it Eren. It will be very dangerous. People are going to die or get hurt and I'm not about to let anything happen-"
He shut her up by roughly grabbing her shoulders, fingers digging into the cloak and armor, his eyes like green and turquoise fire. On instinct, she protectively brought her arms to her chest, falling immediately silent and still, like a frail doll in his control.
"Mikasa, we don't have time for this!"
She only managed to blink rapidly at his shout, looking at him with careful, wide eyes, taking in the large and angered jade orbs, under such a trance of his stare that she didn't even feel his rough touch.
She saw his face come so, so much closer.
She could count the stripes in his irises, or name all the tones of green. She could feel his breath, warm with frustration, against her nose and cheekbones.
"Pull your shit together. You're the best one here - you shouldn't worry about me; you should worry about everyone."
She swallowed, fighting to keep his gaze and not feel affected by their current closeness, so foreign to her.
He only spared her cloudy eyes a few more seconds, making sure her over-protectiveness was under control before pulling away and looking around him, sighing, "Since when did I turn into the voice of reason…?"
Mikasa was still feeling a tingling, fiery sensation across her face before a rush of realization befell on her, making her blink in slim bewilderment, wondering why she was only thinking of this now.
Eren was just a few hours away from facing Savages.
She looked back up at him, seeing him worriedly scanning the courtyard. She unconsciously brought her fingers to her scarf, bringing it up to her nose as she closed her eyes, feeling horrid memories ricochet inside her head.
Blood pooling the ground, painting the walls and furniture, drenching clothes. Plate fragments and food remains littered the floor, wine spilled from the cracked jar. Barbaric cackling filled the heavy air. Young, squeezed hearts thundered from fear, pain and rage.
Mikasa whimpered, her fat tears mixing in with the blood pouring from the cut on her cheek.
Eren felt his blood on fire, consuming him, cursing him, his eyes were wide, bloodshot with hatred and tears.
With a voice tone unknown to him, the fourteen year old boy roared.
"Huh, Mikasa…? Are you coming…"
Eren, twenty years old, tall, broad, tanned and relaxed, asked her curiously "… or not…?"
She blinked, lowering the scarf before replying a rapid "Yeah, of course."
He didn't ask her why did she space out all of a sudden, or why was there so much worry suddenly, glimmering in her eyes. She didn't mention her memories, or ask to where exactly was she going.
She was just thinking of that night. Thinking of Eren.
Eren had experienced the darkest emotions in his heart that night.
Heartbreak, sorrow, rage, self-loathing… wrenching feelings we keep locked inside a box, but keep the key in our guilty hands.
Eren opened the box that night, assaulted by his mother's screams and gasps and pleads, his father's broken promises as he struggled to keep consciousness, even with that axe digging into his spine.
And so Eren, a small, sobbing, crying and screaming, reckless orphan, blindly lunged at his parents' killers, armed only with his bony fists and his rage. Mikasa had tried to help, if only just to protect her brother, or to die by his side. She doesn't remember which one was it.
The Garrison arrived before the Savages could kill the children.
This time, Mikasa knew no such miracle would happen if Eren lost it again to his rage.
Aside from her, at least.
So, she would protect him. No matter what he says or wants or does. She won't lose her family a third time. She already has enough nightmares.
Hanji eyed the sword in her hand both analytically and neutrally.
She tested the grip, twirling the weapon in her fingers. She analyzed it from various angles. She, then, gave a few trial swings. Without changing her expression, she gave it back to Keith, in front of her, dressing casual clothes and a cloak, who grabbed it and gave it back to one of the soldiers accompanying him. The soldier sheathed the blade.
"Well?" Keith inquired.
Hanji rested her hands on her hips and looked back at the baron "They're great. For peeling potatoes."
The instructor snorted. The soldier's pride hurt.
"I'm serious. They're total shit. You can tell they aren't used much. Their armors are shit, too."
"A scout could go to battle with a shirt and a fork and he'd be well equipped for his task." He murmured darkly.
"I know, I know… in scouting missions you are supposed to avoid battle. But it doesn't hurt to be prepared." She said, then added in an audible whisper "Especially in this case…"
He hummed. They fell silent, hugging their cloaks.
The rest of the trainees pooled outside of the castle, some riding their horses, testing the beasts, others leading it by the reins.
"They're scared." She noted dryly.
"You're scared, too."
She turned quickly to look up at him, her brown ponytail wiping the air "Yeah, for them."
"Is it your first time leading such a big group?"
"Yes." Her eyes trailed back to her small army "You don't want to come and help me? I could use the advice…"
He snorted; a simple, guttural, almost mocking, note of laughter "No… I have my own big group to lead."
"Your castle will be fine." She promised, deducing correctly that that was what he had referred to "The army is focused on Sina."
"I'm not sure of that."
She nods "I understand. I would have done the same."
He snorts again, turning to her "No you wouldn't have."
"Or rather you would; if by defending a castle you could be in the vanguard. You're too impulsive, Hanji."
She laughs "I have no idea of what you're talking about, milord…"
"Sure you do." He said, tilting his head, furrowing his eyebrows as a small smirk adorned his thin, chapped lips "Hanji Zoe, daughter of a baron, could have had a simple, wealthy and safe life, but opted for the military instead. Isn't that impulsive, milady?"
She blinks once, forming an 'o' with her mouth, mimicking his tilt, looking like a curious puppy. She then, quite suddenly, scoffs before entering a fit of laughter. Keith's miniscule smirk vanishes, morphing into a very confused and annoyed frown; the instructor still had to grow accustomed to the woman's mood swings.
Hanji's laughs die down to giggles and then to a happy sigh.
"The hell was that?" he barks.
She smiles up at him "You're the first person to smear the truth in my face like that."
She brings a hand to her chin, raising an eyebrow, "Second, actually."
"Is that so?"
She nods "The first was Levi. You know… the clean-freak? Sort of a prick? About - this - height?"
"Yeah, yeah. I know him." He waved her off "I also know he's quite poorly humored."
By the simplicity and honesty of her answer, Keith figured she was acquainted with the man.
They heard trotting of a horse coming in their direction. Atop the animal, Moblit, a young brunette, bowed his head when he halted his horse.
"Milord, milady." He announced hastily "The trainees are ready."
Hanji howled, stretching her arms to the sky with clenched fists "Fi-na-lly!"
Keith brought a hand to his face "Please, Hanji, take this seriously. You have a bunch of kids in your hands."
"Milady…" Moblit pleaded.
"Oh, cheer up you two. Everything is going to be fine; we're just going out on a walk… with swords…! Now, c'mon Moblit! Put a smile on that face! And you," she turned to the baron with a pointed finger "go get laid or something. Have your 17th son. I'll be back soon – with all the kids."
She climbed on top of Moblit's horse, wrapping her arms around his waist. Keith was having mixed feelings between correcting her about the number of his offspring and hoping for the best of her mission. He couldn't help but wonder if she were even worried about the large numbers under her command, the poor quality of the equipment, the inexperience…
He grunted, ignoring his worries, hugging his cloak tighter around himself. He felt something inside the pocket of his vest. His face lit up, he almost forgot.
"Hanji!" he desperately shouted "Hey, Hanji!"
Moblit tugged on the reins, halting the horse, turning the beast towards the man, marching their way. On one of his hands, he held a thick scroll.
"Keep this." He ordered, handing the woman the wrinkled parchment "It may prove useful."
The brunette curiously accepted the scroll, fingers prodding the old material, "What's this?"
"A list. Of the trainees. It may help you organize yourself." He explained. His eyes shifted to the distance, a glimmer of uncertainty skimming past his dark, intimidating eyes. He hid it by lowering his head, sighing, before looking back up at the Squad Leader with the usual steel glare,
They rode for thirty minutes in Stohess's direction, stopping ten minutes away from the smoking city, hiding the 104th in a valley, under the cover of hills and trees.
Night still prevailed, the clouds, thin grey sheets, dimming the light of the moon and stars, speckling the sky. The wind whispered against leaves, bushes and grass, its whistle making the flames from Stohess dance occasionally. Crickets and howls sang a soft tune.
Hanji paid no mind to Nature though, preferring to organize her camp after tethering her horse.
"You guys, can I trust you with ensuring a perimeter?" she asked at a group of sensibly twenty trainees. Sasha was included. The youngsters eyed her silently, feeling like they really had no say in the matter.
"Climb on the trees. You're on watch duty."
Some of them stuttered replies, others didn't answer. Sasha merely widened her eyes.
"Look, it's not particularly hard. You just have to find a sturdy branch that can offer cover and safety, keep your hoods on, stay quiet and shoot anything that looks like a lunatic." She instructed calmly.
"Y-yes, milady!" one answered, very tempted to answer 'Like you?' instead.
"Good. Scatter yourselves on an arc, surrounding the camp."
They hurried off. Hanji looked analytically to the remaining trainees, hand on her chin, stepping slowly. Suddenly, she pointed to a young red-head.
"You. And you… and you. And you and you." She selected "Come with me."
"Hm… milady, what for?" a girl asked.
Hanji was already walking off, setting her hood on her head "To scout. Keiji, you're in charge. I'll be right back."
The five trainees eyed each other awkwardly, before Hanji's squad member barked a command, making them hurry off after the tall woman. Those in earshot, including the five members of Hanji's squad, figured the woman had preferred bringing five trainees, instead of her squad, to offer them some firsthand scouting experience.
The remaining trainees found themselves with spare time, but no exact clue on how to spend it, aside from spacing off.
They were just five minutes away from Stohess. It was a mess, littered with charred wood and debris. Fires were still lit on a few buildings, their windows broken and dirty with ash, blood and dirt, holes on their subdued walls, if they hadn't crumbled entirely.
"Climb up here," Hanji commanded, pointing to a fallen, easily climbable watchtower belonging to a barely standing segment of the cities' walls.
The kids climbed, one boy ahead, the others mimicking where he stepped and grabbed. Hanji stayed behind, watchful, gripping her bow with an arrow ready, three others on her bow hand. After they had all reached the top floor, she quickly scanned the area one last time, before scaling the dusty bricks herself.
She joined the trainees, sprawled on the ground, looking through the tower's battlements.
Warriors could be seen asleep against some wall or lying in the ground, empty mugs or bottles close to their feet. Others were awake, in the company of their comrades, feasting on Stohess food, beer and women. Others patrolled the streets or walked along the remnants of walls and watchtowers. No warrior could be seen close to Hanji's tower, except for the group of five, directly beneath them, talking and drinking.
Trolls and goblins, small and old looking creatures, dressed in rags, with dark green skin, yellow eyes and pointy ears, were also present in the city, the impish hooligans causing mischief in their wake, the beefy beasts accompanying them drowsily, if they weren't asleep and snoring.
The Squad Leader had to contain her awed and excited expressions, biting back fits of giggles or rants, whereas the trainees demonstrated emotions she had seen so, so many times before.
Tears they hid or couldn't hide, breaths they imprisoned in their stunned lungs, limbs shaking, teeth clattering, blood racing and heart drumming against their bones and flesh… weakness - pure and raw, caused by fear, enhanced by disbelief.
Again, precious minutes were wasted as the trainees asked pointless questions about the monsters, but Hanji had already undergone far too many situations, similar to this one; her rhetorical skills had gone dull with overuse. Now, she let people overcome their own shocks.
And when they did, she was quick to command "Now, would you all kindly scout…?" she said, halting their thoughts, forcing them to focus.
Squinting their eyes tighter, they spotted rows of tents farther in the distance, a much bigger one closer to the city. Pyres and large fires lit the camp of the resting army, uncaring of the smoke columns rising towards the sky or the dazzling flames easily exposing their army to nearby civilization.
"There are the catapults, milady!" the boy next to Hanji was quick to announce in a whisper, pointing towards thirty siege weapons, parked in a plain terrain, illuminated by pyres but without patrolling warriors. They were stationed clumsily, various wagons, ones with boulders, others with unlabeled barrels, in the center of the area.
"Yes, yes… I see them…" she barely did, though, the siege engines were a sketchy, blurry visage for her tired sight "… any ideas on how to destroy them?"
"Huh… we-hmm… burn them?"
She smiled, "I like your way of thinking! What's your name, boy?"
"Alright, F-Franz, hear me out. I think I've got a plan…"
The boy, softening his gaze and growing anxious under the woman's ludicrous excited stare, ignored her joke and waited for her to explain.
"You see those?" she asked, pointing towards the barrels "I bet those are filled with oil."
He furrowed nervously "How can you be so sure, milady?"
Hanji looked back at the boy incredulously.
"Huh? What else could it be? I mean, have you seen all of these flames?!" she said dramatically "I don't think the Savages rained torches on Stohess, no, they coated the boulders with oil and set them aflame – a simple siege strategy, I'm sure you've heard of it."
Franz bit back a roll of his eyes.
She smirks mischievously "We could use that oil to destroy the catapults… no!" glee filled her features as she excitedly murmured "We could destroy the entire army! Steal enough oil barrels, paint the land black… and then… with archers on the back… shooting ignited arrows... we'd set everything on fire! We'd save Sina from a Siege! We could save many, many lives!"
She paused for them to assess her reasoning, which they hardly could, none of her words seemed to make any sense on the startled trainees, making them only able to stare agape. She used the opportunity to ponder on her strategy more thoroughly, furrowing her thin eyebrows in concentration.
"But 370 trainees are too many people for me to maneuver in a confined space such as that one." She added matter-of-factly "We'll have to split up. Into groups of fifty, maybe… each group will be led by one of my squad members… one will eventually be led by me…"
The trainees merely stared.
For the next ten minutes, Hanji made one of her spontaneous, curious actions she was so notorious for, speaking only to herself, refusing to grant her trainees the attention they craved. From a parchment she snatched from her pocket, and using a segment of one of her arrows she cut and sharpened with her knife, she drew a map using ash. Of course the material wasn't the best, but it was what she could manage.
When she finished, she sighed happily and in contentment, "There!"
The trainees' attention was back on her.
"Okay, here's how it's going to go…" she placed the map in a position visible to all.
It consisted of a large square, Stohess, an equally large hexagon sensibly in front of the square, the big tent, three long rows of circles - the warrior tents - and, in the middle, thirty rectangles - the catapults. The map was also divided into six different areas: two in the catapult region, three in the tents and the last being the large tent. They were numbered. There were folded parchments, numbered as well, atop their respective areas.
Parchments Hanji had cut off, with her knife, from the trainee list, a scroll she drew from her pockets, mumbling something like "Who knew this would've come in handy…?"
Fifty names in every group, except for one, containing the remaining seventy.
There were also names written in the areas. Known to them, they could read 'Me', probably Hanji, 'Moblit', 'Keiji' and, to their utmost surprise, 'Mikasa Ackerman'.
Before they could ask her about this, the Squad Leader started explaining.
"First, three groups will infiltrate the catapult areas to steal the oil barrels, at least five per group. Two groups belong in that area, the third group has the objective of delivering the barrels to the three groups assigned to the tent areas." She explained, speaking evenly this time, though still with a special glint in her eyes.
"This third group has two options, either scurry back and ride outside of the camp, away from warriors, and then meet up with the tree groups waiting here," she dragged her finger along the three segments of map dedicated to the tent areas "all the time carrying the barrels."
She studied their attentive expressions for two seconds.
"Or, they can travel this oblique path, infiltrating deeper into the camp and meeting up with the waiting groups in the tent area." This time, her finger crossed the distance in the map from the catapult areas to their oblique opposite "Quicker, but more dangerous."
They stared in silence.
"But do not worry, you will not be alone in this. The tent groups will have the objective of silently clear the area, so to facilitate the barrel smuggling. Then, after Group Three arrives, it will evenly split up and mix in with the tent groups and help with spreading the oil. The catapult groups will already be doing this by then, of course."
"Meanwhile, I'll lead the larger group towards the tent."
"Milady," Hannah, a pretty girl next to Franz, asked "What is inside that tent that interests you so much…?"
Hanji didn't mind the question regarding her command. She remained neutral, turning her eyes to the large tent of bone, wood, furs and cloth.
"I have reasons to believe there's a beast inside it. I have orders to learn what's exactly inside that tent and, if there's life in it, kill it."
Hannah nodded slowly, obviously still growing accustomed to the veracity of myths.
"Any more questions?"
"Yes," said another trainee "Why is Mikasa mentioned in your plan?" he asked dubiously, pointing with his chin at the parchment on the floor.
Hanji shrugged "Why do you think? There are seven groups and only six experienced soldiers… She was the best candidate for leadership."
Well… that certainly aggravated Mikasa's position… and her promise to her brother. But they refused commenting about it, knowing that Hanji's thinking was true, Mikasa was evidently the best trainee in the 104th. She was skilled, trusted and respected – qualities of a good leader.
But then there was Eren.
They remember seeing her make multiple sacrifices just for his sake. The boy was all that concerned the girl and she didn't even try to hide it. Of course, there was also Armin, but ultimately, Eren was all Mikasa saw, what she breathed, what moved her, what motivated her.
But now she was about to be plunged in a situation where she had to pick between her brother and her duty.
Would she be able to make the right choice then?
No sappy words were traded when the mission commenced. The impromptu leaders shut aside their doubts on their leadership skills, the trainees swallowed their fears, letting them segregate from their pores as sweat instead.
The battalion properly divided, rode off in the direction of their respective areas, keeping a safe distance from the city and camp. One group, Hanji's, avoided Stohess through the left, taking the shorter route, closing in on the large tent. The other three, as instructed, rode off to the right, with the orders of tethering their horses a safe distance from their areas and clear the area for Group Three – it had been unanimously accepted the quickest, nimblest option in Hanji's plan.
The last three groups rode towards the catapults, avoiding the fairly lit, fairly crowded city, stopping still a good distance away from their targets and leaving their horses there.
They ran, hooded, hunched, trying to seem as concealed as they could, in between two enemy settlements, followed by 153 men.
The darkness caved them in, every sound thundering their ears, every form, a monster or predator, lurking in the shadow, waiting for the right moment to bite on their pulsing necks. Their cloaks, armors and weapons rustled too much. They often stomped the ground carelessly. They forgot how to breathe, how to blink, their heart, too, seemed to have forgotten its limits, pumping blood and adrenaline like a senseless machine.
But they refused to stop.
They only did when they reached the catapults, crouching down to catch their breaths, or, if they were in the front lines, resting against the siege engines, peeking in through the gaps in the structure to scan the area.
They were alone. Looking around, the squad leaders made quick headcounts, seeing if everyone had followed.
The wagons were not far away.
It was easy. Fifteen, from each group, could bring enough barrels back.
But there was light from the pyres.
And there was a city full of moaning trolls and ugly goblins and bloodthirsty warriors, right behind them.
And the trainees are new to all this, green, nervous and sweaty, scared of the dark and just far, far too many. 150 twenty-year olds in this cramped space, 150 lives placed on the experts' hands, dragged unfairly into a pyromaniac's mission.
Honestly, fuck Hanji Zoe and her impromptu plans. Or Erwin Smith and his suicidal plans. Or their dumb luck.
They had orders to follow.
Connie slipped and fell, muttering through gritted teeth "Fuck!" as he hastily raised himself, no time to brush the dirt off, only enough to rush, crouching, towards his Squad Leader and companions.
"Shit." he mumbled "I'm falling behind."
People had already reached the wagon, carefully picking the barrels up and lying them down on the ground, rolling them back towards their team. One Squad Leader was handling the trainees here, while the other directed the youngsters through a safe and shadowed route.
"C'mon, c'mon!" the Squad Leader, crouched by a catapult, ushered, facing him and pointing in the right direction.
Connie followed the instruction, reaching the wagon promptly.
His forehead was slick with sweat. He wondered if he was breathing too loudly. He probably was. He was also probably shaking, his muscles failing him as he tried to lift the barrel in front of him. He blamed his gloves the first time, second time too, but by the third useless gesture, he just couldn't.
"Connie…?" his heart leaped in his thorax despite the softness of the call. Normally he would've recognize that voice, but he was sweaty, panting, aching, jumpy and quite uneasy at this point, his rationality was long gone, replaced by instinct and adrenaline.
"C-Connie is that you?" he quickly turned his head towards the sound.
"Shit, man, you're as pale a ghost."
"J-Jean!" he breathed "Jean and Marco...!" he whispered gleefully. Never had he been so happy for seeing familiar faces. He didn't even interiorize Jean's joke, or consider reciprocating in equal, as was expected of him. He just stared tiredly, sighing, feeling at rest and peace, honestly considering hugging and kissing them.
"… am I glad to see you guys."
"We're glad to see you too." Marco said with a bright smile "I knew you belonged in the other group, but I didn't know you had been assigned for collecting barrels."
For the first time, Maco noticed Connie's trouble with his task.
"Let me help you with that. Jean, go grab another."
The tall boy huffed with a smirk, tapping the hazel-eyed boy twice on the arm, before complying with Marco's command, easily picking up a barrel.
Connie was appalled by their calm in such a situation, but answered none the less "Uhh- yeah. I was just on my way to grab one."
"Here you go, then." He said, placing the barrel by Connie's feet, turning back to pick one for himself.
"Hey…" Jean murmured, ready to head off back to his group "… I'm glad to see you and all… but keep it together, will you?"
By the sudden serious words and stare, Connie only blinked and asked quizzically "Huh?"
"Calm down and focus, shorty. You're trembling like a leaf." He specified.
Connie, unnecessarily, hesitantly raised his hand, his fingers previously gripping the ends of the barrel, and looked down somberly at it. Indeed it was trembling horribly, like a tremor, rupturing his dermis.
"Guys, this isn't the time or place for that." Marco said sternly, uncharacteristically "Let's head back. C'mon, Connie."
The boy closed his hand, as if the sight burned him "Y-yeah."
They made a safe, silent trip, despite the nightly sounds or the rolling barrels over dirt. Marco, at some point, commented on how the sky was clearing, and on how they should be cautious of moonlight.
Before they separated, Jean reached for the shorter boy's arm, whispering quickly, making Connie's ears struggle to decipher the breathy words,
"When you're done, come find us."
Connie furrowed, speaking matter-of-factly "We're in different groups."
"Yeah, that's what I told Marco. But he doesn't want you to be on your own."
Connie instinctively looked around in search of the freckled brunette. He was nowhere to be seen, probably returned to his group to deliver his barrel, but not before making this unnecessarily plead to Jean. Why Jean, though, he wondered?
"What do you mean?! That I-"
"Exactly what I said." he interrupted, furrowing too, tightening his grip "Look, I think it's risky too, but Marco's worried and you know how he is when worried. And frankly, you need the friendly support, you're scared shitless!"
"Ah, thanks, Jean. Really supportive. You know, I think-"
Jean abruptly released his arm to grab a handful of his hood, pushing harshly, furrowing hard, flaring his nostrils as he growled.
"Look, you half-wit, skinny dwarf; If things go south and you're out there on your own, you die. Look at you – you're a bundle of nerves, piss and fear. Not even Armin was like that when we headed out. So you're going to deliver your fucking barrels, and when it's time to spread that shit, you're going to find us, got that, peanut-head? Because I want to end this shit with a clear conscious; not with Marco all over my ass, bugging me of how we could have saved your cunt, but didn't because you wanted to act tough!"
Connie didn't know what to think or say.
Eren's words, coming out of Jean's mouth.
He didn't even consider the exorbitant amount of insults he had received. His pride stung at how much of a coward he was currently being, not keeping his cool in the battlefield even though he had specifically trained for this and couldn't even lift a freaking barrel.
Suddenly, it shone on him how much of a miracle this encounter with Jean and Marco had actually been - for his mission and for his psyche.
He also realized why the angry, egocentric Jean had been the one to make this request and not Marco.
No way would Marco's nice words struck him half as much as Jean's insults.
While Connie indulged, Jean had let go of his hood, still frowning, and had headed off without another word. That made the short boy realize he owed him an answer, but then corrected his thinking, realizing Jean hadn't granted him that privilege.
So he instead headed back.
Meanwhile, the Squad Leader said to regroup.
"There's enough oil." he stated "Both here and in the other group." He paused to catch his breath, craning his neck behind him, "Group Three has left already. Hopefully, the Tent Groups aren't having trouble. Or Squad Leader Hanji."
He turned back to the trainees "Let's do our part, too."
Connie swallowed dryly.
Two warriors, standing outside of their tents, chatting idly, unsuspicious of the troops, lurking in the darkness of their camp.
There were three trainees, nervously gripping their swords and shields, crouched, one of them peeking through the corner of a tent.
It was easy – all they needed, was to jump and surprise them with swords on their throats. Like the others were doing, scanning the area carefully, wary of the moonlight, torchlight and patrollers, avoiding the slumbering trolls or ecstatic goblins.
Their orders were to kill only if it would benefit the mission.
The two warriors were in the path traced for the transport of the barrels, they needed to die.
Far easier was it to think than to actually swing the blade.
They hear a faint whistle, a cut in the atmosphere. Next, they hear flesh being ruptured, blood exploding and bodies falling. The leaning trainee widens his eyes, letting his jaw fall, witnessing the warrior pair limply on the floor, crimson pooling on the ground, an arrow jutting out of each their throats.
Looking behind, they see Mikasa close to where they left their horses and archers, a long bow in her hands.
The eastern girl doesn't bat an eyelash at her kills, readying another arrow in a mechanized movement, calmly focusing her sight on a patrolling warrior, a torch in his hand. She's aware there's another group of three tagging that warrior, but, like the other group, they too froze up when the chance to take the kill was in hand.
The string bobs momentarily when released, the arrow soaring towards the man's temple.
A gush of blood and a thud on the ground and then the man was dead.
'Please, remember to extinguish that torch…' she pleads, lowering the bow, pausing for oxygen.
She watches with relief as her comrades rush out of their hiding place towards the body, hiding it in some secluded, shadowed place, stomping the lit torch until only hazy, black smoke is left dancing.
Without looking, she hands the bow to its owner, who was inert, amazed at the girl's skill and apathy.
"Sasha." Mikasa invokes a reaction back on her with her monotonous voice.
"O-oh… forgive me…"
She doesn't reply, used to the brunette's unnecessary politeness, "Shoot to kill, Sasha, not to hurt. Like you hunt – don't hesitate. Or it could cost you."
The girl tightens her hands around the oak bow, fighting her shaking legs "R-right."
"I'm going in. Let's keep to the plan." She offers Sasha one last, greyed glance before walking towards her area, the one farthest to the North, closest to the tent.
'To Eren' she reasons 'And Armin.'
Just her luck.
Not only was she separated from them, ordered to lead a group of fifty people she didn't particularly care about… aside from Sasha; Eren and Armin were also belonging to Hanji's group, the ones who would probably face some beast she's not sure how to feel about.
Things were going too fast for her.
She used to only care about two people.
Now she's a leader, a premature soldier, killing people, joining suicide missions and fighting monsters from Armin's books.
Her leading skills were nothing to marvel at; she'd only safely lead her group towards her area and followed Hanji's instructions, leaving the horses and archers a safe distance away, while trying to clear the barrel reception area, just on the outskirts of the tent zones, a few minutes away from actual tents. For that, she commanded they'd form trios, easily able to protect each other and maneuver quietly.
She stopped her thinking, finding three warriors on the lookout, a troll beside them. Her eyes lingered on the drowsy, dark green beast.
It was awake, groaning and moaning lowly, scratching its large belly with one hand while the other held the most massive club she's ever seen. The three warriors, one with a torch, the other with drinks, were chatting and laughing casually.
But they were in the route – they could difficult Group Three's task.
Especially the beast.
So far they've resulted into avoiding the monsters. The trolls were easy, so big and lazy and inattentive, Mikasa sincerely considered the level of their wit. Most were in Stohess, the ones here, were either sleeping or accompanying goblins. Those they really needed to avoid.
Goblins, Mikasa gathered while observing, were slick and mischievous, preferring trinkets, stealth and attacking in groups – but only if victory was assured. Cowards, in Mikasa's eyes.
Probably why they tagged along with trolls, they'd grant them protection. In the other hand, the troll would have clear eyes to guide him in his patrols, as well as a few intelligent fellows to guide it in battle.
Suddenly, Mikasa's face lit up, her heart quickening in realization.
This troll was awake.
'Where are the goblins?!'
She feels four small pairs of bony hands with sharp nails climb up her back, tearing her cloak, before reaching for her face and neck, high pitched, maniacal laughter ringing in her ears.
Infiltrating the tent was too easy for Hanji, she merely cut the cloth with her knife and sneaked inside, ordering her group to do the same.
It was absurdly dark and quiet, menacingly pitch black with a faint ringing sound of silence. The air felt heavy, smelling of copper, metal and heat. Looking up, she couldn't even see the fabric of the materials covering the structure, or the wooden columns that formed its skeleton.
"Draw your weapons." She said, holding her bow with crushing pressure, reaching for three arrows as silently as she could.
The Squad Leader's pupils adjusted to the darkness, searching for hostiles. As she did so, she took a slow step forward, moving her head in every direction, teeth molding together, sweat prickling her neck and temples.
She felt something under her boot, making multiple, quiet metallic sounds.
She froze, ordering her followers to do the same.
Hesitantly crouching, she palmed the ground, feeling various round shapes with her fingers, progressively growing in number the farther she touched. She grabbed one of the objects, bringing it closer to her eyes, trying to feel its volume, size or any prominence under her gloved digits.
It was a coin.
Slowly moving her sight around the floor, this close to it, she found it littered with it, culminating into a mountain of gold, in the middle of the tent. There were sacks of various sizes, uneven piles of gold, artistic artifacts, chests, jewelry boxes, expensive looking clothes or weapons…
"There's no creature…" Thomas muttered, slowly opening a chest lying on the ground "…this is just the Savage's treasury…"
"Don't try to take any." Mina quietly scolded when she saw the greedy look in his eyes as his hungry hand reached for the gold.
"Why? Just a few coins… they have so much, they won't even notice."
"Hush, boy." Hanji commanded sternly "Split up, thirty five to the left, the rest with me, to the right."
"W-what if we find someone?!" one asked.
Hanji turned towards the voice, shrugged and said simply "Kill him…? Or her…?"
They silently accepted the command, appalled at the simplicity and impassivity of her words. Hanji made a quick separation, traded a few words of advice, begged for their caution and then ordered them to go.
Eren, Armin, Thomas and Mina were in her group, making sure to stay together, close to the Squad Leader.
"Hey, Armin…" Eren whispered after a few minutes of walking with all the caution his brutish feet could muster "… all this money and darkness… does any beast come to mind?"
The blonde, visibly nervous and wide eyed, swallowed and answered, not looking at the boy "Yeah… but I seriously hope I'm wrong."
Eren blinked at his cryptic answer "S-so? What's your hunch?"
Eavesdropping on their conversation, Hanji allowed a smile to adorn her lips, as she turned to face the blonde behind her, "Oh…! So you're knowledgeable of mythological creatures… Ar…min…? Is that it?"
The blonde almost jumped upon being addressed directly, blinked consecutively, blabbering and stuttering "Huh, ah- y-yeah…"
"Good to know! Always nice to meet people with beliefs other than a rotted God." she offered a generous smile "Maybe we're of the same opinion… regarding our current predicament."
Armin didn't reply. Eren watched the exchange curiously and completely at loss, anxious for answers. Mina and Thomas were too preoccupied with watching where they stepped to actually pay attention to the conversation.
The group kept walking and searching, always carefully tiptoeing with their lungs tightened and their hearts by their throats. They found no guards, no food or supplies or furniture. The only thing occupying this tent was money and objects of value.
After circling their side of the tent, they met with the other group, safe and sound, only slightly edgy, as was expected.
Despite the thorough, albeit in the dark, search, Hanji didn't feel satisfied. Glancing at the slim, blue eyed boy, nervously gripping his bow, the arrow trembling in his fingers, she noticed in his wary eyes the same doubt she felt.
But most of her team was of an opposite opinion.
"It seems like there's nothing here, Squad Leader…" Thomas commented, approaching the pile of gold in the middle of the room, holding his sword loosely.
"What's all the money for, though…?" one asked.
"They pillaged and robbed us, just to keep it here? I don't buy it." Eren defended suddenly. Beside the tall brunette, Armin lowered his head. Not noticing him, Eren turned to the leading woman "Milady, we must get to the bottom of this! There must be a reason!"
"There's no reason, Jaeger. Everyone likes money; and if you have a lot, you can do whatever you want. Like buying weapons and armor… or materials, or supplies… at least that's what I'm thinking they want all of this money for…"
"The Savages don't buy their stuff… they make it!"
"No matter the usage of their money," one said, approaching Thomas, "It doesn't change the fact that there is nothing here."
"Milady, your orders were to scout the tent. We scouted it, to find the Savage's stash of gold. Our mission is complete, by now the rest of the groups must have depleted enough oil to set all of this ablaze… let's retreat…"
Hanji pondered the words, fixing her eyes on the trainee, making him go slightly uncomfortable under her gaze. She had to agree with his thinking, it was rational and, well, the truth. There was no certainty that there would be a beast inside the tent… her and Levi just thought so, based on past torments.
But she couldn't stop thinking about all that knowledge she collected from forbidden books.
And according to said books, only one creature craves riches this greedily.
And she sees no way to kill it under these circumstances.
A minute of silence she wasted thinking about this. Another, for finally nodding in agreement to the trainee's advice, or truth, or whatever.
They didn't walk for a full minute before they heard a swift, whispery noise of shifting, sliding piles of golden coins.
Hanji turned immediately. Some trainees ignored it, in favor of promises of a return to safety, others didn't hear it. But some did. Namely Thomas, who grew immediately tense, feeling a gelid pang of panic inside his chest.
"Something wrong… Thomas?" Mina asked worriedly.
"Didn't you hear that?"
She blinked, tilting her head, "Hear what?"
"T-the gold… I heard something… I-"
The same sound. Louder. Clearer. Like a ghastly chant, snaking inside their ears.
"Y-you didn't hear that?!"
"I heard it." Eren said, frowning "Did you hear it, Armin?"
Eren frowned deeper when he saw the state his friend was in. Armin was a mess of shaking limbs, sweat beads and clattering teeth, his wide eyes glistening as tears of panic peeked at the corners of his eyes.
He was in the same state he had found him, a few hours ago, before departure. Back then he had just enough time to calm him down; right now he feared he had none, though.
"Y-yeah…" still, the boy managed to stutter a reply.
Armin knew what was inside this tent. And it was a creature so terrifying, it managed to make the boy completely succumb to fear.
And Eren just couldn't ask what it was, because he knew the boy simply couldn't.
So, slaying it was all he could do.
The brunette felt his bones snapping under his gloves as he tightened his grip around his sword and shield, turning around, facing the pile of coins with flared nostrils and angered eyes, allowing his rage and adrenaline to swallow his fear and anxiety, ignoring the frenetic drumming of his heart as he crossed the distance towards the golden mountain.
"B-boy! Wait!" Hanji called from afar, mind racing, hastily reaching for arrows from her quiver "Stay away!"
"Eren, wait!" Thomas, steeling himself, followed the brave boy, raising his sword and shield.
The brunette didn't stop, but the blonde eventually caught up to him.
"E-Ere-" Armin couldn't even speak. Stupid, weak, coward… never had he felt like such a useless, pathetic burden.
Hearts and lungs marked time and space. A heartbeat, a millisecond, a step closer, two seconds. A hasty inhale, a minute.
Eren glanced to his left at the nervous Thomas, watching him nod once, before slowly lifting his blade towards the gold, intending to dig and poke.
Not a millimeter was it from a single golden piece, when the coins moved again, right in front of the pointy, silver, cold blade. They fell in rivers, sliding down the mountain until they gathered around their frozen feet.
A gigantic, tender piece of flesh moved upwards, making no sound in its wake.
A moist, colorless membrane was summoned by the action, before allowing the sight of an enormous eyeball.
Feline-like, dilated pupils, its blackness coloring most of the eye, were focused on both paralyzed boys. Miniscule stripes from the iris were visible. A fiery pallet of oranges, yellows and reds, burning the sight of the beholders.
It blinked and the trainees did nothing but stare.
They stared too, when it slowly, lazily raised its equally monstrously big head, the sound of falling coins muted to the agape boys. As it raised himself, they could determine through the darkness its long, powerful neck, its chest and legs and, finally, its massive pair of bat-like wings. There were no front paws.
They also realized the creature had been there all along, just next to them, this whole time.
Sleeping, unmoving in the dark, its dark color not facilitating its recognition.
It was all scales and scars, and horns and claws and teeth, and flared, smoky nostrils, piercing, red eyes as it emitted a guttural, soul-shattering growl.
Behind both boys, they could hear stuttering, sobbing and gasping, as well as hesitant tip toeing. They watched, completely terrified and naked of hope or courage, the beast bring its head back, rising in its feet, eyes and millions of teeth fixed on both boys beneath its stare.
Hanji didn't have time to shoot her arrows.
Armin didn't have time to scream or sob.
But the dragon had time to roar and dive its open jaws downwards.