Chapter 1: In Which the Good Doctor Learns to be Careful What He Wishes for
In Which the Good Doctor Learns to be Careful What He Wishes for
The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.
It moves. They are all alive.
Even the moon bulges in its orange irons
to push children, like a god, from its eye.
The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die:
into that rushing beast of the night,
sucked up by that great dragon, to split
from my life with no flag,
A good place to start our story would be the town of Wall. One might think this town should be named after the Cöln River that slithered through the center, or the Reiss family who first settled the area, or after the abundant greenery and livestock, but the name given is important, mind you. We will get to that soon enough.
Wall had everything a half-decent village should: a grocery, a tailor, an inn, and a pub or two. The Carriage was a popular hub owned by the Kirstein family for generations. Mister Norbert Kirstein, the current owner of the tavern, married the shop keeper's daughter, Miss Lydie Zackly, in the summer of the pervious year. The following spring the two discovered they were going to have a child.
Alberich and Magdalena Bodt, tailors by trade, were newer people to Wall and extremely naïve to its customs. The purpose and doings around the namesake of the town especially.
Directly to the east of the town is a wall. It is built of smooth granite, stacked tall enough so that no matter of man or beast or other sort of creature can hope to scale it. A single dirt path leads to the single opening. The breadth is wide enough for a wagon but not for a carriage. Beyond the wall is a meadow with a carpet of bluebells and a dark fortitude of trees. Sometimes one can see strange shadows and glittering flashes moving below the branches. Few enter. Few, for they never come back once they pass the wall.
The few allowed to enter know they belong beyond the wall. Other curious or ignorant folk are promptly stopped by the townspeople assigned by eight-hour shifts to guard the opening. Children are shooed off by the sight of the wooden sticks of the guards and adult authority. Older and more sensible people (travelers, usually) are dissuaded by tales of man-eating wild animals or a grumpy bull. Physical force is always a last resort.
The only time commoners can venture upon the wall is every ninth May Day, when the fair comes to the meadow beyond the wall.
Our tale begins the spring Lydie Kirstein learned of her pregnancy and two years after the Bodt's found settlement. The world was not yet half-way into the 19th century: many a great historical figures were still young and many were still being read about postmortem. Grisha Jaeger was a well-practiced physician at this time. He had already saved the town from a plague a decade before. Still fairly youthful, middle-age seemed slow to creep upon him although it was around the corner.
The good doctor lived in a humble home near the center of Wall. Carla Jaeger, his wife for many long years, and infant daughter shared this abode. The couple tried for many moons to conceive a child, only to be met with countless miscarriages and broken hearts. The half-hearted attempts were almost given up upon. It was not until the end of the war that a battle was won. The man who prayed for a son every night until he fell asleep kneeling was given a daughter. They named her Mikasa.
Many visitors came to stay in Wall in the weeks before May Day. The Wagners had a full inn and the Kirsteins constant business. All the rooms in the inn soon filled up and the guests turned to the locals for rentable lodgings. Anything from spare rooms to barns to patches of land to pitch tents were rented out. The regulars at The Carriage discussed more and more of the fair as the appointed day fast approached.
"Why is it only every nine years?"
"I am sure the Reiss's know."
"I heard it used to be every year at midsummer."
Grisha was especially busy at these times treating ailments native to the region but strange to foreigners and aiding traveling women who ended their final trimester too soon. It was not until the day before the fair that he was assigned the duty to guard the wall's gateway. He, along with Darius Zackly, leaned on their wooden staffs until the sun began to set and others took their place. In between that time stranglers would come up to the opening, only to be ushered back.
"Wait until tomorrow. We cannot let anyone in today."
The hopeful persons would sigh and look over into the meadow in yearning. Neither of the parties could make decent conversation, so the wanderers left as soon as they came.
With the guard properly changed, Grisha made his way to The Carriage for some well deserved refreshments and cookery.
"Here you are, sir!" Lydie chirped politely as she handed the doctor his pint of spiced ale.
She wove though the buzzing crowd with practiced expertise, dishing out orders with speed and precision. Dr. Jaeger thoroughly enjoyed the drink, examining the crowd from behind the glass. He never stared long enough for people to notice he watched him, that is, until his tablemate took notice of him. Grisha was admiring his stovepipe hat when the man quirked a smile his way.
"Do you like sponge cake?" The stranger asked suddenly, scooting over a bowl. "I do not think I can finish this portion myself."
The golden syrup steamed invitingly.
Grisha found it hard to refuse. "Yes, I do. Thank you."
The bronze eyes of the man flashed happily, his grey mustache folding into a smile. "Help yourself."
The men finished the delicious morsel in no time.
"Now then…" the man in the top hat said after a moment. "It appears all the rooms around these parts have been taken."
"I am not surprised." Grisha admitted.
The man laughed a great booming laugh, the tone friendly like a grandfather. "Well then!" he said merrily. "Since you seem better acquainted with these parts and people, I was wondering if you know of a room I could rent?"
Grisha cleaned his glasses in thought. "I suppose they are all gone by now. I remember when I was younger I had to sleep on a blanket by the fire mantle while my parents rented out my room to an exotic woman. She gave me a dayereh as a present before she departed. I played with it until the frame snapped from the dry heat."
"Where do you live now?" The man questioned.
"Near the center of town, in the flat above my practice. I have a spare room and a bed, for when my daughter grows older." He did not know why he felt the need to mention it.
"Hum… Will you take me to it?"
For some reason he could not refuse.
Grisha walked with the stranger down the streets of Wall and to his home. The night was cold enough at that time for dew and the moon was waning to near extinction in the shadow of the earth. Grisha allowed the stranger entrance to his home with the turn of a key and motion to the stairs.
Carla Jaeger was in the rocking chair, lulling her daughter to sleep. She smiled as she heard the door creak open, the candlelight illuminating her eyes and teeth.
"Welcome back, dear."
She blinked, surprised to see her husband with another.
The gentleman tipped his hat to revel a bald head, the wrinkles in his face jolly as he smiled.
"Good evening, my lady." he introduced himself formally. "I do not mean to intrude, but I was hoping to acquire lodging here. That is, if it is to your liking."
Carla laughed softly to not wake her daughter. "I suppose we would have the last free space… I will move Mikasa's cradle to our room."
Mikasa shifted as her mother stood, burrowing into her neck. The man hung up his top hat and long coat as the women left the room.
"Yes…" he began after getting a view of the room as a whole, "I do think, Grisha Jaeger, that I would like to rent out your room for the next three days."
Grisha finished placing his coat on a peg. "What will you give me for it?"
The man produced a coin bag. "A golden sovereign, a silver sixpence, a copper penny, and a new farthing."
Even at such a generous price (in those days), Grisha hesitated.
"If you are here for the fair…" Grisha spoke slowly, "Then you need to trade more than material coins."
The gentleman understood, nodding. "I suppose you want miracles and wonders, hum?" The doctor confirmed with a nod.
The stranger grinned. He looked around the room once more, seeing the sitting room with two chairs and a fireplace, the kitchen a room away. Raindrops began to hit the roof above.
"Oh, alright, you win," the man said sharply in defeat, "A miracle, a wonder, just for you. Tomorrow you will get your Heart's Desire. Now here is your money."
Grisha caught the bag as the stranger strutted off to his paid-for room. The doctor first checked for faerie gold by putting the coins against an iron nail. Satisfied, he returned the money to the bag. Strangely, a stitching was threaded into the cotton. Squinting under the candlelight, Grisha could make out the one word: Pixis.
Grisha woke with a start. Not unusual for him, after becoming a father half a year ago. His sensitivity to noises had risen. Although, this time Mikasa slept soundly despite the storm outside. The rain jingled on the rooftop and the room brightened with every lightning flash and the thunder crashed distantly. Mikasa was unaffected. Loud noises never seemed to frighten her.
The weather did not wake the good doctor either. No… A sort of rustling and scrapping did. Listening carefully, Grisha could hear the movements of someone downstairs. This was confirmed as the visitor clashed with metal and made a sound. Groggily, he decided he should better see who- or what- was fumbling around. The doctor took precautions to not wake the other inhabitants of the home as he lit a candle and made his way to the ground floor.
An overturned copper bowl greeted him. He fixed it to its proper position, placing it on top of the cart where it belonged.
"Excuse me…" A timid voice spoke out.
Grisha aimed the candle towards the sound. "What's that? Who's there?"
A misplaced shadow on one of the patient cots moved, a pair of golden beads staring in the dim light.
"Only me," the voice provided. "Sorry to be sneaking in here and the like, but the storm destroyed the hollow log I was sleeping in, you see. I am here for the market and my baggage needs to be kept dry or otherwise the journey I made will be for naught. So… I was wondering if I might stay here for just a night. I am not very big and won't disturb you or nothing."
Grisha blinked sleepily. "… Try to be quiet."
"Will do, Governor."
A bolt of light enlightened the room. Grisha saw the floppy hat and full blond beard of the strange creature before darkness fell again.
"I don't want to disturb you." The voice said through the beard.
Grisha never thought he would be this tired in his entire life. "… I just want to sleep. Please just let me sleep."
The golden beads bobbed in a nod, the figure turning to find a comfortable placement on the cot.
Grisha blew out the candle and returned to his bed.
The hairy man (or other sort of humanoid creature) was gone by morning. Carla had promised Lydie that she would help with the sausage cart, as so, Mikasa was to be left with another for the day. Magdalena volunteered to watch the village children, having a new baby she needed to tend herself. Mikasa, as clingy as ever, screamed when the unknown woman touched her. Carla finally shushed and calmed her daughter, her favorite red blanket the comfort.
"We will be back. I promise."
That was enough to assure her.
The Jaegers dressed up in their best clothing: Grisha in a sharp jacket and trousers, Carla in a lovely pearl dress with roses. They could see the tents and stalls being erected beyond the wall. Chattering folk clustered around the gateway, eager and waiting until midday when they could pass through the wall and find their treasures.
Even the Reiss's were there. Roderick Reiss, the current mayor and overseer of Wall, waved at the populace, wearing a political smile. His wife huddled by his side, long corn-silk hair skirting the wind. It is said that Roderick found his wife in a far land on one of his travels. The man and his carriage returned one day, woman in tow. Her name was Sonja.
Grisha, nearly forgetting about the promise of the gentleman the night before, wondered what he would be buying at the faerie market.
"Anything is fine, dear," was the reply Carla gave when asked what she desired.
Soon, the clock struck noon. The Reiss's entered first, as is custom, before a stream of people flushed through the gap as the guard parted to make room. Grisha and Carla walked together into the market. A chill graced them both, the act of going into the meadow seeming to break a natural law or unspoken rule.
The couple dismissed each other with a kiss, Carla going to her assigned work station. The Kirsteins made food readily available to the masses. Eating faerie food or drinking faerie drink was complete taboo, the act making you never crave human nourishment again and, it is said, driving you to madness.
Grisha thought he was walking towards the fair alone, that is, until he noticed his houseguest beside him.
"Ahoy, good sir! How are you today?" He asked with a twitch of his moustache.
"Very well," said Grisha. "And you?"
"Never been better!" the man enthused. "Come, let us walk together."
The meadow was covered quickly.
"I am sure you have been here before…" The man with the top hat stated.
"My last time was nine years ago." Grisha confirmed.
The stranger laughed heartily. "I see! Remember you are a guest in this realm, young one. Take no gifts and be respectful. But now… I shall give you the last part of my gift, for I gave you my word. And my gifts last a long time. You and your children and your children's children shall all be blessed… My gifts last as long as I live."
"What gift, sir?"
"Your Heart's Desire!" He remarked. "Remember? Your Heart's Desire…"
Grisha tipped his hat and they walked on.
"Eyes! New eyes for old!" a woman shouted, holding up a jar containing eyes of every color.
"Living puppets from the east!"
"Enchanted instruments! Play themselves!"
"Flowers that never wilt!"
"Cloth woven from the sky! Night, day, sunset, sunrise! Dresses, cloaks, vests!
"Answer a riddle and win a crystal button!"
"Medicine and herbs for every ailment! Gout, headache, sore throat, deafness!"
Grisha stopped at a stall selling rattles. He figured Mikasa might appreciate a toy at the end of the day. He picked one up and tested it by shaking the body firmly. A banshee howl of ripping winds assaulted his ears immediately. He put the object down and walked on.
The market bustled with people from near and far and from places some could never go. For every nine years, for a day and a night, the people of Faerie allow outsiders to come and enjoy the Fairy Market. The worlds of magic and not can mingle.
Grisha wondered who would want the rage of a storm captured in a child's toy. He touched the coin bag in his pocket to refresh his spirit. The doctor wanted to find a gift, something nice and simple, for his wife to admire.
A chiming began, the shrillness above the hum of the fair.
Interest seized, Grisha followed the chinkling. He was not very distracted by the dancing performers or shouting vendors.
The sound grew louder.
Grisha was astrayed to an abandoned stall. Every sort of flower you could imagine decorated the stand: star-shooter lilies, pink roses, soft lavender, blood-red poppies, blooming orchids, and a plethora of others the doctor could not name. Each flower from the stalks to the edges of the petals was crafted of a delicate glass crystal. The perfection of the pieces almost seemed to mock him. The artifacts chimed gently, like sleigh bells in a chilled breeze.
"Hello?" Grisha called, not unkindly.
"Hello." A smooth voice answered from the caravan behind the stall. "A good day to you on this Market Day."
A woman descended from within. Grisha could tell she was from Beyond the Wall, her nature wholly magical and whimsical. Her eyes were perfectly up-pointed, the color an incredible topaz. The hair squared at her collarbone reminded him of the purest Earl Grey or of the heated honey glaze on treacle pudding. Her lips were shaped like a bow, naturally a plump pink. Her skin was cream free of impurities. Her ears were pointed: fine auburn fur along the edge. Rings flourished in her ears. As she approached, Grisha noticed the weight of childbearing rounding her abdomen. The girth expanded the flow of her silken gown.
Grisha grazed a violet with his finger. "These are all very lovely," he told her as the flower sang like vibrated glass at his touch. "How much are they?"
The woman hummed, shrugging.
"I never tell that to a customer right away," her musical voice admitted. "If the cost is too much for you, you will leave, and what will we gain from that? Lets be more general." Her lips quirked. "Tell me… What do you want the most?"
"A son." Grisha said.
The woman closed her eyes, processing the thought. "Hum…"
The man with the top hat passed by. "There, now my debt is settled. My rent is paid in full."
Neither seemed to hear him.
The woman popped her luscious honey eyes open, her asking forgotten.
"Where do the flowers come from?" Grisha asked while feeling the petal of a lily.
"On the lee side of Mount Calamon, the grove of glass flowers grows. It is a perilous journey, and the journey back more so."
"And what are they used for?"
"For decoration, for pleasure, that is all. They can be given to loved ones you admire, they chime in the most delightful way. And look how they catch the light!" The sunlight cast through the marigold appeared dim near the gemstone eyes of the woman.
"They can also be used in spells and cantrips. Are you of the magic sort, sir?"
Grisha shook his head negatively. It is then he noticed the thin silver chain connecting the woman's wrist to her ankle and then trailing back to the cart.
"They are lovely, nevertheless."
Grisha inquired about the eyelets.
The woman raised her ensnared wrist. "Oh, this? It is what binds me to the witch who captured me. She caught me many months ago, along the edge of my father's kingdom while I paid my respects to the tomb of my fallen ancestors. Now I am no more than a slave to do her biding. It is made of cat's breath and fish-scales and moonlight mixed with silver. Nearly unbreakable."
"Are you bound to her forever?"
"Not forever, young master," she assured him. "I will be free when the one who truly owns my heart says my name."
"What is your name?"
A sad smile flashed her teeth. Grisha could see her lengthened canines. "I would tell you if I could, good sir. Alas, you see, names are a source of power and that power was taken from me. All those who knew me as I once was know they are missing a daughter, a sister, a friend, but they lack the name to my face. The longer I am gone the less they will remember until I am only a faceless void in their heart, lost forever." The woman sighed, the sensitivity of the topic getting to her. She gently stroked her fingers against her stomach. "But tell me… What is your name?"
The doctor cleared his throat. "Grisha."
"Grisha…" she tested out the taste on her tongue. "Quite a lovely title."
Grisha felt he had spent enough time at the stall. He fetched the coin pouch from his jacket and spilled the coins out, choosing a glass snowdrop. "Here, take enough for this."
The woman shook her head and pushed the coins back. "We do not take money at this stall."
"Well, what do you take?" Grisha was quickly losing his patience.
The woman tapped her chin. "The color of your hair, or all your knowledge of bottle making, or the memories of your great-grandmother. All fair trades."
Grisha shook his head.
"Or a kiss will do. One on the cheek."
That seemed like the least troublesome.
Grisha, hesitant, leaned over the chiming flowers and pecked her available cheek. Her scent was of a new-washed tabby sunning itself.
"Thank you, Grisha Jaeger," she whispered, overshadowing his hand with her own. "Thank you."
Grisha could not ask how she knew his surname, for she was gone before he could blink. He stared, stupidly, at the flower in his palm, then to the empty stall. The snowdrop chimed.
Carla thought the snowdrop was the most darling thing, wearing it perched in her bonnet for all to see. Grisha felt he had his fair share of the wonders of the fair. He remained in proximity to the food tents, striking up conversations with the other village residents while they dined. Those who also admired the ordinate glass flowers were not greeted by the pregnant woman with golden eyes, but rather an exuberant witch in spectacles and with a pile of fluffy brunette hair atop her head.
"It is all very simple, you see?" the witch would exclaim, waving about a rose. "These are crystallized by a freezing enchantment…" Her explanations never lost their luster and made all in earshot weary. An orange ferret with a metal chain seemed unbothered.
The criers came out as the sun set. Their headlines ranged from missing nobility to the Lord of Phoenixwing falling ill to all sorts of magical events in magical places happening. Carla Jaeger was quite exhausted as twilight fell, her shift ending then.
"Lets get Mikasa and go home." she suggested, cleaning her hands of grease.
Grisha soon nearly forgot about the woman at the stall. The day-to-day activities of being a doctor distracted him, along with the milestones of his daughter. In the following weeks after the fair, she began to attempt to speak and walk. Her eyes darkened to bistre, hair the color of night. Mikasa named her father "Papa" and mother "Mama", those being her first words.
Norbert Kirstein and Vester Wagner were the guards assigned the night of midsummer. The day was humid and the night wet. Both men were drowsy from the day's heat and looking with longing towards home. Neither noticed the basket pushed from the other side of the wall. That is, until the infantile wailing began.
Norbert and Vester found a newborn inside the basket, swaddled in a shawl, and crying in spite of its abandonment. A note was pinned to the breast of the blanket.
Two cursive words were written: Eren Jaeger.
Chapter 2: In Which the Boy Born in Faerie Gains His Birthright
In Which the Boy Born in Faerie Gains His Birthright
Carla became very sick.
She would cough sticky blood into her hand and collapse from weakness, becoming bedridden for days. Grisha would try every bronchial and lung treatment he could conjure up. The medicines helped little. The couple knew the fatality rate for such an illness. Eren and Mikasa were too young to understand their mother was dying.
On especially trying days, the siblings would climb through the attic to the roof, lying atop the slate shingles to watch the stars and moon cross the cold sky.
"Eren…" Mikasa would say, joining their hands. "I want a star. I want a star because they are beautiful forever."
Eren would cock his head, sunglow eyes winking with light. "But if you have a star for so long, won't you grow tired of it?"
Her eyes would crinkle with the edges of a smile. "You never grow tired of the things you love."
Eren could not understand. He loved the taste of Black Forest cake, but became sick of it after consuming numerous slices. He did not comprehend the love his sister meant until many years later.
Multiple children were born after the faerie fair. The Kirsteins had a son named Jean, the Wagners a son named Thomas, the Carolinas a daughter named Mina, the Linke-Jacksons a son named Samuel, and even the Reiss family had a daughter named Historia. A new family immigrated to Wall when Eren was five and Mikasa nearly six. The father and daughter with strange, unmatching names came from a land of perpetual cold and nights that lasted as long as days. Týr Sigmundson and Ymir Týrdotter began a chicken meat farm along the Cöln River.
The next May Day Market was a source of hubbub for the town, especially in the Jaeger household.
A sense of familiarity drew Eren to the threshold. As a toddler, he would point towards the stone wall and say, "Mama, I want to go into the meadow."
This caused Carla to giggle and ruffle his dark hair. "You know you cannot go into the meadow, silly goose." She chided mildly.
Eren puckered up his face unhappily at the order.
He never saw the empathetic gaze his mother cast him as he forced himself to turn away.
His father had little to say about the matter. Eren heard him say little on any subject.
Being forbidden from the faerie market was a source of high agitation for Eren. He did as most children his age did when confronted with an unwanted circumstance and threw a tantrum. He shouted and growled and stomped his feet. The decision unchanged, he ran out of the house in his fury. Mikasa, a protective big sister, took it upon herself to follow.
She found him sniveling by the riverbank and hugging his knees.
He did not answer.
Mikasa gathered up her skirts and fanned them out as she sat. She waited, watching the water.
"Mikasa, I… I-I have to go." Eren choked out after many minutes.
"No, you don't." She responded knowingly.
Mikasa, like countless others, knew where Eren came from. That Eren would not come back once he ventured beyond the wall.
The boy spat at his sister's feet. "You are just like the rest!" he accused angrily. "You-"
"Eren." she interrupted. "Do not say something you will regret."
Eren rumbled like an irritated tomcat.
Mikasa examined her brother. His chin was propped onto his knees and crossed arms, eyes stormy with hot tears. His black hair was glazed purple in the sunlight, like a raven's wing, ears pointed and wolfish. Mikasa leaned against him.
"Eren… It is for the best."
Eren brushed the wetness from his eyes. "I just… Being forced to stay here, encaged, it makes me feel like… like… like livestock."
"Not everything is as it seems, Eren."
"… I will go passed the wall. Someday."
Mikasa gave his arm a squeeze.
Sonja did not return from the fair.
Externally, Roderick Reiss appeared woeful, in mourning of his lost wife, but internally, he was relieved. Living a human lifestyle had begun to drive her insane. She shrieked at every touch her husband gave her, cried until she became hoarse, and starved herself. Roderick regretted binding her to him. He cut their ties and Sonja never looked back.
Not even for her own daughter.
Eren was irritable many weeks after the fair. Mikasa returned from the market with a sash that glided and sparkled like the clearest night sky, while Eren returned from a day with distant family friends short in temper.
A fight was a welcome release.
Eren decided he hated Jean Kirstein the moment he met him. Jean was cocky and brash and painfully honest about his opinions. He declared to Marco Bodt that he was going to marry Mikasa, idealistic and determined while still in his first year of schooling. He became flustered and rosy in the cheeks at her presence. Mikasa never seemed to notice.
Jean also became quickly frustrated, much like an equally hot-headed Eren. Eren's temper flared when Jean boasted about how Mikasa would eventually swoon over him and utterly beg for his affections once he grew to a man and she a woman. Eren knew Mikasa was not like that. He knew it and had to defend her.
Their encounters never ended with either party winning.
One would finish with a swollen cheek and another a nose blooming with blood.
Marco secured Jean with a lambsteak over the tender flesh while Mikasa cleaned away the crimson with a handkerchief.
Eren would jerk her hand off, rabid. "I don't need you to mother me, Mikasa!"
She would sigh through her nose and shake her head, continuing the nursing until she was satisfied.
She made sure to dry his tears.
Carla knew the day she was going to die.
The small coughs and splatters of blood escalated into violent upchuckings of acid and mush and ichor.
When the mother thought no others could hear her, she sobbed.
She sobbed for the burning of iron and copper at the back of her throat.
She sobbed for the curdling blood in the pan.
She sobbed for the sunshine and the spring grass she could not see or feel.
She sobbed for the ball gown she could not wear to the town dance.
She sobbed for her husband.
She sobbed for Mikasa.
She sobbed for Eren.
She only regretted sobbing for herself.
When the hour came, when Carla knew in the deepest part of her marrow that her heartbeat would soon cease, that only death waited upon her, she called her children to her bedside. She held each one's hand, skimming her thumb across their knuckles.
"Eren… Mikasa…" She began, her voice strained. "I want you to take care of each other…"
Eren pressed his forehead to his mother's thin hand. "I-I want you to take care of us!" Eren said with venom, poison born from sorrow and raised in despair.
"Eren." Mikasa warned him softly. Her eyes were glassed over, steeled from tears. She felt no more tears could fall after the years of crying over this unavoidable moment. With a choke, she almost believed this to be wrong.
Carla blew a rattling breath. "I know… I know. And I'm sorry, Eren. I am sorry I have to leave you."
They remained like that for a long while.
Eren and Mikasa could sense their mother ebbing away. Her breathing became shallow, her movements less. Her thumb ended its ministrations.
In a horrendous, ultimate display, Carla coughed and geysered dark blood from her lips, her chin staining black. "Please…" she whispered, begging, talking through the blood and tears in her throat. "Please, don't go… Please…"
Her chest relaxed stiffly.
And she went still forever.
Eren was an inconsolable, maddened, and inhuman wreck.
He wailed and smashed all the wooden furniture in his room, banging and clawing the walls until he ripped out his nails and his fists were skinless. His blood decorated the floor and walls like roseate paint smeared about by an artist with a diseased brain.
Yet none of this mattered for the boy was numb.
Nothing Eren did to himself hurt, nothing hurt him nearly as much as how his mother did.
The aching in his chest and head and body was sure to kill him, sure enough that he went out of his home to die.
Eren sat under a tree and waited for death.
When the hours passed by undisturbed, the torture of the pain became too much.
Eren began to scream in anguish. He screamed and screamed and screamed, crying until he made himself sick. The burn in his overworked and acidic throat reduced him to chokes and sobs. Eren curled in on himself and allowed the excruciating suffering to come.
Eren did not notice his sister.
Mikasa fell over her brother, tears spattering across his clothing.
"Oh Eren, oh Eren." She wept over his grief, his misery, and none of her own.
Mikasa cried herself to sleep beside Eren.
The siblings awoke the next morning, agony not their death bringer.
They awoke and they knew.
They knew death is selfish, selfish, selfish.
The years marched on.
Eren healed enough from his mother's death to trek on, to visit her gravesite and not cry. He and Mikasa presented flowers to the grave plot as often as they felt they needed to. Grisha had nothing to say about his own mourning.
Eren finished his period of schooling, learning how to divide numbers and that the sun never set on the British empire. He acquired employment at the shop of Darius Zackly. And, unfortunately, became coworkers with his rival Jean. Mikasa worked for the Reiss's as a washerwoman.
Many believed Historia Reiss to be the prettiest girl in all recorded history. She was petite, with hair the color of buttercups, and eyes as clear as ice. Her hair was long and silky like her mother's, eyes wide almonds like her father. All who met her thought she was sweet and charming and as regal as a queen. She befriended all and treated them with care.
"I have heard Virgil Zackly wishes for your hand in marriage." Mina Carolina told the Reiss, sitting in her family apple orchard while the trees were in bloom.
Historia turned towards the girl, blinking. "Jean's old uncle?" she inquired, a wind twisting petals through her hair and across her skirts.
Mina nodded with a giggle. "Yes, Jean's uncle. He is also a widower."
Historia stared at the petal resting in her palm. "Oh…"
In a very unladylike display, Ymir spat, hardly missing her skirts. An unattractive and sloppy cross-stitch ran up the side of her dress, the cause a wagon corner snagging the fabric.
"Virgil is as rude as his nephew," Ymir snapped. "And he is nearly fifty! He also of the lazy sort and a complete coward. He does not work. He sits on his backside and lets his father give him his money. He does not deserve you, Historia. He does not deserve you at all."
Historia released a tiny gasp, flushing in surprise. "Oh…" she squeaked. "T-Thank you, Ymir."
Mikasa lowered her knitting momentarily. "It sounds like you are almost jealous of Virgil, Ymir."
The freckled girl threw a stick at the accuser.
Nearly a man, Eren craved adventure. He wished to see Heidelberg Castle, the Parisian streets at night, the Latin bullfighting rings, and, most of all, more than anything, the land beyond the wall. Strange winds would travel from the forest behind the wall, the smell of bluebells and pine giving Eren bizarre, delusional fantasies. He saw unusual colors in fire and dreamed of dragons and pixies and firebirds and griffins. On especially curious nights, he would slip outside to the roof, stargazing even if his sister slept peacefully. The stars remained just as beautiful.
Eren was as good as a clerk could be running a shop. He recorded stock and collected goods lists from the local villagers, making a master list for Mister Darius Zackly to take when he went to the nearest trading town. He would return after many days with a brimmed carriage.
Eren and Jean smoothed over many of their differences. The pair could work in relative harmony, one only salty with the other on occasion. The single sore on their matured relationship was Mikasa.
On a day in fall when the wind blew cold and wet, Mikasa entered the Zackly shop. A maroon scarf enclosed most of her face, blocking the cold. Eren saw his sister and nodded to her.
"Father has a list for you." she said to him, slipping the scarf from her lips.
Eren only glanced at the loopy handwriting, quick to put the list with the others.
Jean then appeared from the back of the shop. The china in his arms jingled in warning as he nearly tripped, Mikasa catching his eye. He sat down his stack and advanced forward.
"Mikasa!" Jean announced, careful not to stutter. A blush and sideways smile graced his cheeks. Eren felt his protective hackles raise.
Mikasa nodded her head once in acknowledgement. "It is nice to see you, Jean." She said pleasantly. She did not acknowledge his red flush.
Jean ran a hand through his hair, seeming lost. He could not find anything to say.
An Eastern wind battered against the town, making the animals bellow and the fires tipped in silver. The air tainted by pine gave the boy confidence.
"You know… I get off in a few minutes. Would you… Like to walk home with me?"
Mikasa cocked her head. She gave Jean a quizzical look, one of someone who did not speak the language of the other. She was confused as to why he would ask that.
Eren did not approve of this at all. He moved to stand by his sister, puffed up in anger.
"Mikasa, I will walk home with you." He said bitterly.
Mikasa put the scarf back over her nose, Jean not in her thoughts. "Okay."
Jean frowned at Eren, highly upset that he crushed his chance. He rumbled in his chest unhappily, turning back to his work. The porcelain was scooped up again.
Eren hastily finished stocking the cans. He told Mister Zackly that he was going home. The man merely nodded and continued flicking discs on his abacus.
Mikasa checked that her brother buttoned up his coat. The night was dreadfully brisk. She did not wish for him to become sick, knowing he sometimes forgot to close his jacket while he rushed.
The twilight tasted of fallen leaves and dark mist. Eren walked with Mikasa through the streets as the townspeople lit their hearths and candles and lamps to stave away the icy night.
"You do not need to be so harsh to Jean, you know," Mikasa informed her brother, voice as glacial as the autumn night.
Eren made an unimpressed huff.
They reached an elevation in their path. The hill raised its viewer towards the sliver moon and vast sky, the stars afire with their cold and distant light. The pair paused to watch the display.
The town of Wall rested below with its familiar yellow warmth. The village, however, did not appeal to the siblings entranced by the gleaming and uncountable fires burning holes in the shadowed veil of the dusk sky.
"Eren!" Mikasa gasped suddenly, pointing upwards. A tiny star, one so small it was overlooked by the boy, flashed momentarily. It glittered weakly as if struggling before it began to fall. It graced down in a trail of embers, traveling far away towards the eastern horizon. They did not see it land.
"A falling star…" Mikasa breathed. "A falling star."
It might have been the enchanted wind influencing Eren, or maybe the universe decided to give him a shove, or perhaps the old man from the fair many years before was true in his promise, but he, abruptly, felt the need to ask his sister a question.
"Mikasa, what do you desire?"
Startled, the girl looked to her brother with wide eyes. She stared briefly, blinking once. She eventually shut her eyes and exhaled.
"I want many things, Eren."
That did not satisfy Eren. He seized Mikasa's hand, amber eyes glowing in determination.
"No, what do you desire? If you could have anything, anything in the world, what would it be?"
Mikasa was silent. Her dark eyes searched the sky, reflected it, mirrored it, and all she gazed upon. Her attention expanded across the cosmos. She rested her view passed the wall, passed the meadow, passed the blockade of trees.
She wanted the star.
She wanted the star because it was beautiful forever.
And Eren knew he had to get it for her.
Eren believed he had his course planned. He would slip out, soundlessly, not waking his family, and get through the opening of the wall by any means necessary. This is not what happened.
Eren had packed his bag with a bustle of apples, a loaf of wheat bread, sunflower seeds, a waxed cheese wheel, and other assortments he felt he might need. He was checking over his provisions again when his father appeared. The old doctor carried a candle, highlighting the grey in his coarse hair. He cleared his throat and caused Eren to jump.
They stared at each other for a long while.
"You cannot stop me," Eren spoke up, correcting his posture. "I must find the star."
"I know." Grisha said.
Eren, puzzled, watched his father place the candleholder down and clean his glasses. He waited many moments.
"And how do you think you are going to get through the wall?" Grisha asked.
"… Some way. I will, even if I have to fight the guards."
"You will do no such thing." Grisha said with finality. "What if the guards were you or I on duty? They do not deserve such treatment." As Eren's face furrowed in hatred, the doctor moved to the door, opening it. "Come, let us go."
The boy swallowed his rage and, bag in hand, walked into the village with his father.
Eren did not know what his father planned to do, nor could he expect the outcome. The village was nearly silent under the moon.
Thomas Wagner and Samuel Linke-Jackson were the nighttime guards. Both were fine gentlemen, boys Eren had attended school with. Thomas smelled of the wine in his father's inn and Samuel bore stubborn calluses from his father's farm. They watched as the Jaegers approached.
"Good evening Thomas, good evening Samuel." Grisha said with a tip of his hat.
"Evening, Mister Jaeger." Samuel said.
Thomas nodded the same. "I trust you are well."
Eren grew impatient as the trio talked of raising sheep and inn keeping and of the shortage of fall berries. He grew red in frustration, features pinched. His breaths hissed.
Belatedly, Grisha said, "Thomas, Samuel, I am sure you know my son, Eren."
Eren raised his face for viewing.
"Yes." Thomas confirmed.
"We went through school with him."
It is then Grisha began a topic Eren did not understand.
"I am sure you have heard about where he came from." said his father.
Thomas leaned onto his staff. "I have heard stories, but I never minded it."
"Well, it is true. And it is time for him to go back."
"I need the star." Eren felt proud he could contribute to the conversation. He was slain as his father motioned him quiet.
Thomas rubbed the back of his head. "… Very well."
He talked with Samuel in a hushed voice, the range too low for Eren to hear.
Grisha pressed something cold and smooth into his hand.
"Go, Eren, find your star. Find all the things that have been kept from you. If I could ask one thing of you, after all these years, please, try to come back. Try. For Mikasa's sake."
Eren did not know what his father meant.
The two guards parted from the entrance.
Eren walked on.
The initial excitement of crossing the threshold was clouded by anxiety. He turned in the meadow and looked at the three men with curiosity as to why they let him into the gate. Shifting his bag, he continued on.
As he approached the pines, a warmth settled over him that dispersed the cold. He looked up and saw a heavy golden moon, unlike the crescent he was sure had set earlier. A humming distracted him.
A singing snowdrop glittered in the moonlight, the glass deep and green.
The wind of the east caressed him.
He smelled all the scents of Faerie and realized he was fearful. He was chasing a fallen star to an unknown, magical land, a place he knew nothing about, a place none of his schooling could prepare him for. He pressed the snowdrop to his chest, slipping it into a buttonhole for safe keeping. Behind him, the lights of Wall wavered, homely and known. As usual, the lights did not invite him.
So he did the only logical thing he could do.
He ventured on.
And into Faerie.
Chapter 3: She is the Sun and He is the Moon
She is the Sun and He is the Moon
A castle is carved into the face of Mount Maria. It is rather old, though not nearly as old as the stone itself, nor the race of birds who live at its peak. The phoenixes are said to be the first beings to pull themselves from the volcanic oceans rampant when the world was still young. They do not bear eggs, instead dying in spark and flame to be reborn in the ash of their death. It is said every Lord of Phoenixwing becomes a bird of fire after his mortal life.
The Phoenixwing castle is made entirely of igneous rock. The rooms stamp deep into the heart of the mountain. One room in particular, the room placed closest to the peak of the mountain, with smooth walls and floors, housed the Lord of Phoenixwing, dying in his bedchamber.
His children, dead and alive, stood around his bed waiting. His dead sons made no sound. Even noiseless, the living could feel the weight of their presence. No one more than Lord Shadis himself.
The Lord knew his children were better than himself. They had watched their brothers fall in battle, killed before them, and could not do the same to the living. Unlike what happened to the uncles and their father before them, they could not kill the ones they loved.
Having three heirs complicated things.
"Erwin, Mike, Levi…" The Lord of Phoenixwing said, voice misgiving of his sickness. "My sons, my son-in-law… Come closer." The companion phoenix of the Lord winked as the sons stepped closer. Whether it was the Lord's father or grandfather or a phoenix from the first age was unknown. He too was old, nearly blind and ready to die. He looked passed the living and strained to see the dead behind them. Erd and Gunther were stiff, regal, both with angry slashes across their neck from being beheaded. Auruo gazed downwards, mouth and chest bloody from coughing up liquids before being crushed by a warhorse. Nile held where his heart was gorged out, a hole in his chest, blood seeped down his body. They waited patiently.
"Father," Erwin said in his deep voice that echoed upon the walls. "We are here. What do you want with us?"
The Lord of Phoenixwing sighed a chilled, shuttering breath. His eyes bore frightening, dark circles around them. His phoenix ruffled his feathers.
"I am dying. Soon my time will be done and you must take my bodily remains to the burial hall of our ancestors less you all be cursed and the kingdom fall."
A shiver greeted the living sons.
"Now, the matter of succession… One of you shall be the Lord of Phoenixwing."
Mike and Erwin looked towards Levi in surprise. Even the dead brothers began to whisper amongst themselves although none could hear them. The man appeared unaffected, poise the same, eyes remaining vigilant.
Mike leaned towards his father and spoke lowly. "Father, are you sure that is what you want?"
"Yes." Lord Shadis said. "I do. Levi has proven to be worthy, long before he married your sister. He is a solider, loyal to Phoenixwing, slayer of the necromancer army, and deserving to be accepted as my son. He shall have a fair chance."
Levi nodded his head in gratitude.
The phoenix brushed his beak against the Lord, as if saying something without words. The Lord of Phoenixwing grunted in agreement.
"Erwin, go to the window."
Obediently, the son went to the gape in the rock. He peered out momentarily.
"What do you see?"
"Nothing except the sky above us and clouds below us, Father."
The old man nodded and motioned Erwin away. "Mike, go to the window. What do you see?"
The man sniffed at the air outside the window. "The grey clouds, the navy sky… It seems the cooks are baking bread. Rye."
The phoenix appeared to smile.
"Levi, go to the window."
The man joined the others, scanning the sky and clouds, seeing for himself.
"And you? What do you see?"
The cold wind snapped at his face, whipping his dark hair around. A light in the heavens flashed at him.
"I see a star. I see many stars."
"Hum…" the Lord hummed richly. "Take me to the window."
The three sons hoisted him to the opening. He stood nearly on his own, leaning slightly on one of his sons. The dead gathered around. The phoenix perched on the windowsill.
Suddenly, the old man ripped the royal topaz from his neck. The phoenix gazed at the symbol of power. He knew that whoever possessed the blood of Phoenixwing and the stone would rule with the blessing of the birds of fire and rule long and well, such as the gift from the phoenixes to the mountain kings. The dead wondered who would get the stone to live as a phoenix after death. The phoenix already knew.
The Lord advanced to the window then, moving away from his sons to stand alone. His arms crossed the small of his back as he stood proudly. He was the lord who protected his people from necromancers, a general who led his troops expertly, a father with four dead children, a man not near his death.
The living sons waited anxiously.
The man said four ancient and singing words to the topaz.
And he threw it.
A collective gasp consumed the room. The stone flew through the air, rising and rising to impossible heights, never faltering, until it was out of sight.
"To him who retrieves the stone shall be the Lord of Phoenixwing and all its lands. I give the finder my blessing."
The brothers dead and alive stared in curiosity out the window.
"And are we to have the phoenixes take us to the heavens?" Erwin questioned hotly.
The Lord said nothing.
Behind him, a single star fell. It trailed sparks and fire as it tumbled to earth.
Mike sniffed uncomfortably.
"There," the Lord of Phoenixwing said. His phoenix sat upon his shoulder as he walked back to his bed. With a squawk, the Lord and phoenix fell together, one in a burst of flames and another without breath.
Even the living were silent.
A distant melody began, one of shrill notes and deep humming that traveled from the mountain peak.
It was a sad song, a phoenix song, a song of death and rebirth.
The pile of ashes atop the bedcovers shifted quietly.
Two phoenix chicks gazed at the living and dead.
A cottage resided in Faerie. Where it was one could not tell you, as it changed daily, such as the nature of Faerie. One day it might be next to a grove of fir trees, another day near a group of mulberries, and sometimes in another place entirely. Such as the way of Faerie, a very large place made of a many number of domains that overlap.
The cottage had pealing paint and a thatched wood roof. That day it rested in thick woods with brambles as the underbrush. The cottage had one room with rafters that hung dried produce and meats. A fire burned, making the three beds smell like smoke and the windows foggy. Everything was rather dusty and uncared for.
A bright mirror consumed one wall. People of every age and origin and shape you could think of were reflected in the mirror, some sitting, and some walking. None looked happy with the black void the mirror provided them.
Three people shared the house. All were rather youthful in appearance. The first was a vertically gifted man with olive skin and drooping hazel eyes, and he was a nervous sort of person. His called himself Bertholdt. The second was a man with thick muscle and a brotherly nature. He called himself Reiner. The third was an apathetic woman with glacial blue eyes and light blond hair. Her nose was prominent on her face. She called herself Annie. All were necromancers. And it showed.
Death magic is an evil art. The souls of the dead are captured, taken, and their life force used to craft spells. The users are nearly immortal, the only weakness is to behead the necromancer. Age does not touch them even as their skin sheds to reveal their muscles. They begin to look like corpses.
The trio once ruled a kingdom together, long ago, in a place now covered by ocean. They took as they pleased when they pleased and were in ill favor of their subjects. A shadow lady, an empress of death, took them from power, forced them into hiding. She was a fearsome necromancer, cooperating with the dead instead of stealing from them. She laughed with skeletons like they were old friends. They were terrified of her even after so many years, after most of their brethren were disposed of by the warriors of Phoenixwing. They who were once known as the Diviners- spirits of the night, royalty of death- remained hidden.
"Bertholdt, Reiner," the lady necromancer said, buckskin bag in her hand, "come hither and lets cast lots."
The tallest of the trio descended from stretching upwards, garlic knotted to a string in his grasp. The skin along his hairline was cracked and flaking, showing a rich red underneath. He dropped the globes and hurried over.
"To decided who is to find it?" He whispered weakly.
The other man joined them. The lower area of his jaw was without skin. His bright yellow eyes narrowed on the bag.
The woman produced two dice of red clay. "Bertholdt, you go first."
The man jittery with sweat took the dice and tossed them on the ground. "Seven."
He threw the dice as well. "Five."
The woman fumbled the cubes around in her fist, releasing them to roll. "Nine."
One man sighed and one man scowled as she smiled.
"How will you travel?" Reiner asked.
"With the old chariot and whatever I find to pull it."
"You will need to heal."
She scratched at her pealing neck. "Yes, that would be nice."
Bertholdt returned with an iron box. Three ribbons enclosed the chest, and each person undid there own.
A golden light flushed Bertholdt's tan face.
The woman inspected the bottom of the box. "There is not much left."
"Then it is good we found another." Reiner huffed with crossed arms.
Annie was not fazed by him. She scooped an object from the box, the thing trying in desperation to fight the movement. She gripped it well and pressed it to her chest.
A deep sigh relaxed the house as the heart welcomed the glowing object with vigor.
A wind brushed the cottage as a shift shuddered the world.
Annie rubbed the fresh, new skin at her throat. "Not bad."
The men gazed enviously as she burrowed through a chest, discovering a crystal blue dress and green cloak. She wrapped them around herself.
"There shall be healing for us all when I return with his heart," Annie said, addressing the hungry stares. She slipped a silver ring in the image of a snake with its tail between its jaws on her finger.
"Indeed," the she-witch said. "The first in two centuries. And I shall get it for us." She raised the hood over her head.
"A fallen star."
Whether an animal from Faerie you see is truly that being or a person who had an unfortunate run-in with magic one cannot say. People disappeared for such reason all the time. Most cannot speak human tongue.
The glade with some such animals was dark. An owl who at one point might have been a noblewoman swooped downwards, hunting, eyes bright and searching. Frogs croaked in the brook, mice ran about, a fox crept through the underbrush. The owl landed and hooted to the night.
Leaves whispered, water riled, and an illumination filed the glade, growing in intensity, grand and bright as the sun. The animals watched the exploding light in horrified awe, some scampering off to another part of the forest in fear.
The light that had become an earthen sun flared larger than ever before, trees and animals alike shaking with its incredible power. Squeals and shrieks echoed in the glade.
And, as soon as it had come, the light died.
A clear, painful snap sang into the air and darkness fell again.
A soft glow continued from the underbrush.
"Fuck," a voice said, no louder than the crickets who had gone silent. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."
The owner of the voice threw an arm over his eyes, covering the tears building.
He said nothing more.
And silence ghosted the glade.
Chapter 4: In Which Eren Learns Whether or Not to Trust a Drunkard
In Which Eren Learns Whether or Not to Trust a Drunkard
Leaving behind the fall cool for warmer weather made Eren comfortable and drowsy. The path he followed was lined with a procession of hawthorn trees and berry bushes. The full moon and limitless stars glistened yellow and proud in the unclouded sky.
Eren made camp under a tree, using his jacket as a pallet and bag as a headrest. He watched the stars for a time, illuminating the darkness and dancing through the fallen night. He smiled, ever so slightly, as he wondered Since I watch stars, do stars watch me? Eren slept with the same smile on his face.
He dreamed of him and his sister playing ankle-deep in the Cöln River, splashing each other wet in the sunlight; he dreamed of his mother baking her cherry tarts and calling him down for dinner; he dreamed of playing schoolyard games with Historia and Marco and Mikasa; he dreamed of the fire lit nights and his father teaching him how to read. The thoughts were so joyous and wonderful that Eren could not comprehend he was dreaming or that they were the past and not the present. He smiled at the fresh pastry in front of him, his mother patting his hair…
"Excuse me…" whispered a bearded voice into his ear. "I would appreciate if you dreamed a bit quieter. They are nice and all, but they overlap mine and dreaming about food isn't good for my sleeping."
"Hum?" Eren asked.
"Keep it down, please," said the voice. "I need to sleep too."
"Sorry," Eren said, turning over. No dreams came to him after that.
"Breakfast!" the voice announced. "Get some while it's hot!"
Eren startled awake, shooting up against the tree and smacking his head. He swore and rubbed the sore area. A growl surfaced.
"Sorry about that, gent." the voice apologized. "I figured you would want some mushrooms and garlic before it's cold. It isn't fancy, but it's food."
Eren scrubbed at his eyes. He blinked, seeing the freshly cooked bowl of mushrooms. He took one between his fingers, eyeing it before taking a bite. The spicy juices washed his mouth and tongue. Eren thought it to be the most delicious thing he had every tasted. He popped the rest in his mouth and chewed slowly.
"That was very good," Eren said.
"Ah, thank you, lad," the figure on the other side of the fire said. "That is very kind of you. But we both know it is just a fried wild mushroom and that there are finer things in the world."
Eren looked towards the others steaming in the pan. "May I have some more?"
"What manners!" the little figure said, running fingers through his thick blonde beard. "Sure, if it is to your liking. They are mushrooms, not truffles, and yet you ask for more. Lovely manners."
"Thank you," Eren said quickly, taking the rest for himself.
Eren savored the mushrooms while his chef waited for him to finish. The stranger wore a hat with a large brim and a scruffy overcoat. He leaned against his traveling pack, sipping on a dented flask. Eren glanced at him and thought it very unlikely he was a man like himself, rather a dwarf or some other small and hairy creature.
"Nothing like a bit of gin to start of the morning!" the little man said as Eren returned the bowl. "It makes my day that much better." He tipped the container towards Eren. "Would you like some?"
The boy wrinkled his nose at the smell. "No, thank you."
The creature shrugged. "Suit yourself." He swallowed the last mouthful.
Eren put his bag onto his lap. "My name is Eren Jaeger." he supplied.
"Goodness, boy!" the bearded man exclaimed. "Hasn't anyone every told you not to give out your full name? Names are a source of power, and whoever has your name can take that power from you! Goodness, goodness, goodness…"
Eren stared at him in puzzlement.
The little man sighed.
"You see, lad," he began. "If someone asks who you are, you can say any number of things. You can say you are brunette, or you are male, or that you love fried mushrooms. And if they need a name to a face, Eren will do just fine."
He pointed to himself. "When people ask for me, they ask for ol' Hannes. Got that?"
Eren nodded with gradual comprehension.
That settled, Hannes packed up all of his belongings and snuffled out the fire. He loaded the pack larger than he was onto his back and set off at an extraordinary pace, dust flying in his wake.
"Wait!" Eren shouted, running with bag in hand. "Hannes, wait!"
The man stopped and hurried back. "Something wrong?"
"You are too fast…" Eren heaved, gasping for air.
Hannes tipped his hat. "Many apologies. I guess I am used to setting my own pace."
He went slower then, enough that Eren could walk beside him without working up a sweat. The little hairy man would point out some colorful flowers and birds, telling nonsense stories about them. Eren listened intently regardless.
They ate much of Eren's cheese and bread and apples and seeds for lunch. Hannes foraged and found some mint for tea. He built a small fire and boiled water in a kettle.
"Suppose you can tell me why you're around these parts?" the little man asked, blowing on his hot tea.
Eren took a steady sip, thinking. "I come from the village of Wall, where I live with my family. One night, my sister and I saw a falling star, and… She has always wanted one so I decided to get it for her."
Hannes raised an eyebrow. "Did she ask you to get it?"
Hannes began hooting with laughter. "You are getting it for her and she didn't even ask you to! That is not fair to the people who have asked for something impossible and not gotten it."
Eren frowned. "What does it matter whether she asked for it or not? She has always wanted a star because they are beautiful forever."
Hannes slapped his knee. "You are killing me, boy!" He simmered down momentarily, taking in a mouthful of tea.
"You know what I would do, lad?" he asked, leaning forward. "I would go right back to Wall. Only the stupid come into Faerie because the smart know only madmen await them."
Eren furrowed his brows, baring his teeth with a snarl. "Are you calling me stupid?"
"No, no, boy," Hannes soothed. "Just not much good will come to you here." He sighed and shook his head. "But it looks like you have your heart set. I am going to give you some advice, so listen well so you don't get yourself killed. First, never give anyone your full name. Second, do not mention anything about your little star to anyone. Keep it under wraps, for there is a jeopardous interest in such a thing. Finally, do not lie. You can get around that easily enough. Such as if someone asks where you came from say 'Behind me' and if they ask where you're going say 'in front of me'."
"I see…" Eren said in scorn, still slightly offended.
The duo cleaned up and set out on the road again. Hannes felt it opportune to guzzle down a large ale bottle, whistling all the while. Eren sneezed the reeking scent of alcohol from his nose.
"Do you think it will be far?" Eren questioned after some time. He noticed the path thinning, the breeze chilling, and the trees becoming grey. He shivered uneasily.
"How many miles to Babylon?" Hannes said, speech fuzzy. He looked about him without really looking at anything. "These woods weren't here last time I went this way…"
"How Many Miles to Babylon?" Eren repeated as the grey trees thickened. "The poem?"
"Three score miles and ten.
Can I get there by candlelight?
Yes, and back again.
Yes, if your feet are nimble and light,
You can get there by candlelight."
"That's it," Hannes said, voice clearer. He swung his head about and looked with more focus. He worried at his lip.
"It is only a nursery rhyme." Eren said.
"Only a nursery rhyme?" Hannes said chafely. "Maybe on your side of the Wall. Some over here would give most anything for the cantrip of that song. And back over there they sing such nonsense to babes… Eren, are you cold at all?"
"The wind has made me cold, yes."
"Can you see the path?" the little man inquired frantically.
Eren looked around him. He saw the great trees, masking all the light and sense of direction. The path he was sure they were on was gone, flickering false like a dying candle. The phantom trees consumed everything, quietly, without emotion or remorse.
"We're in for it now," Hannes squeaked in a small voice.
"What… Where are we?"
"In the serewood," Hannes admitted weakly. "The trees, we walked right into their trap."
Something fell from the upper branches of a tree, pure white like a fallen angel. A skeleton of a bird rested in the cool grass.
"We… We have to get out of here." Eren felt his chest seize up as he took a step back. The trees were crowding him, suffocating him, feeding off his fear.
"There isn't much point in running." Hannes said dejectedly. "We will be in their trap even if we run. It is my fault for not noticing. If I had just eased off the bottle a wee bit… Now you will never get your star, and I will never get my merchandise, and some poor chap will have to find our bare bones."
Eren slapped at a burning on his left hand. A leave fluttered downwards, scarlet on the edge with the boy's blood. The cut ran red. Eren was sure he could hear the woods laughing at him.
"Is there anything we can do?" Eren asked, sporting a strange confidence. The trees seemed to shuffle back as he stood taller.
"Only way is to find the true path. Even a serewood can't destroy the true path. It can only hide it, lead you astray." He sighed and began to sniffle.
Suddenly, Eren pointed with certainty. "There," he said. "The path is there. I know it is."
"Eren, if you are trying to get me to run-"
"Hannes," Eren spoke angrily. "If you win, you live. If you lose, you die. If you don't fight, you can't win! In order to win, you have to run."
Eren took Hannes' hand and jetted off down the path. The forest howled in anguish, ripping and tearing at the pair's clothes, raining razor blade leaves upon them. Eren's lungs were afire with fear, heart running at a quicker pace than he.
"To the left, to the left!" Eren screamed breathlessly. The serewood tried to squeeze around them, disorient the path, leaves and branches slicing from every angle. Eren swatted away the nuisances, knowing in his heart this was the path, this was the way out.
Hannes wailed, covering his eyes, tugging against the fleeing direction. "Come on, we are nearly there." Eren encouraged and tugged him along. He pulled him forward and into the sunlight.
The path spread out before them, straight and true, stretching out into the green beyond.
"We are safe…" Hannes breathed. "We are safe as long as we are on the true path."
He threw aside his pack and tumbled on his back in relief, looking up at the white light dripping through the leaves. Eren could hear the serewood shaking in fury.
"Do you have a bottle of sherry?"
"Hannes!" Eren yelled at the little man. "Did all of that teach you nothing?"
The hairy man chuckled, rolling to his side. "I am just kidding you, lad." He sat up and rummaged in his pack, producing a vase of amber liquid. "Honey-fire tea. Cost me two diamonds, a king's sword, a diviner's eye, and a dragon's scale. Best in the world."
Both had a cup of the luscious liquid. It warmed Eren to the core like a sweet, homely fire, pepping up his spirit tenfold. It seemed like a crime to ask for more.
Eren hummed in pleasure.
"Too good for the likes of you and me, unfortunately. But this seemed like a valid occasion." Hannes popped the stopper back onto the container. "Which way now?"
Eren pointed to the correct path. "That way."
Hannes nodded and gathered his things to continue. The grey trees began to thin after several hours and give way to greenery and vibrant flowers. When they looked back the serewood had vanished completely as if it had never been at all.
"Stop here," Hannes ordered. "There are some things we need to talk about."
Eren sat down and rubbed his feet. Hannes perched atop his travel pack.
"There is something I don't really get… Now tell me, where are you from?"
"I've told you I'm from Wall." Eren replied testily.
"Who are your parents?"
"My father is Grisha Jaeger. My mother is Carla Jaeger."
"Ah, Grisha…" Hannes stroked his beard. "I met him once, long ago. Gave me some shelter from the rain. Not a bad fellow if I do say so myself. Although his bedding opinions were not very pleasant." He scratched at his scalp. "… There isn't anything unusual in your family, is there?"
"My sister Mikasa can win fights against full-grown men."
Hannes laughed from his belly. "No, no, nothing like that. I mean a grandmother who was a famous enchantress or a warlock uncle or some faerie in the family tree."
Eren shook his head. "None that I know of."
The little man developed a plan. "Where is Wall?" Eren pointed immediately. "Where is the Temple of the Three Sisters?" Eren pointed again with assurance. "Where is Mount Maria?" Eren pointed once more. He did not know these places had existed before that moment or what they were, but he certainly knew where they were.
"Hum… Do you know where Her Highness the Pixie Queen is?"
Eren could not say.
"Do you know where Her Highness the Pixie Queen's Castle Utgard is?"
Eren knew when he pointed.
"What about Paris, France? The one you know?"
Eren had to think on that one. "Well… If Wall is that way I suppose it is around that direction."
"I see…" Hannes said while sorting through his thoughts. "You can find places in Faerie, but not your world, except for the boundary of Wall. You cannot find people… But can you find your star?"
Eren knew the location in a heartbeat. "There."
"That proves something but we still know nothing." Hannes grumbled. "Are you hungry?"
"Very." Eren confessed. "And I am torn up as well." The serewood had done a number at shredding his clothes. Even his leather boots were tattered.
"What have you got in your bag?"
Eren peered inside. "The rest of the food from lunch, a pen, a knife… My change of underwear, woolen socks… I should have brought more clothes." He said with distaste.
"Keep the rest of the sunflower seeds." Hannes tossed him the bag as he divided the remaining foodstuff.
"You saved my life." Hannes said over the bread and cheese in his mouth. "And I don't forget something like that. First we'll get you new clothes, and then you can go after your star. Good?"
"That is very kind of you." Eren said in surprise.
"Don't mention it." said Hannes. "Here, take my blanket…"
Mike should have known better.
He was a prince, an heir to Phoenixwing, an expert solider. He should have known that when him and Erwin and Levi stopped for the night that their lacquered oak wood coach and six pure-bred black stallions and robes of black silk and royal jewels would attract attention. Some good, for one of the beermaidens invited him for a drink later that night; some bad, specifically the thieves who slit his throat.
The brothers, dead and alive, laid their father's body to rest and announced his death before going on their journey for the star. It took an entire day for the carriage to descend from the mountains. The trio spent the night at an inn that served fish stew and bread for dinner.
Little was said to one another.
When it was dark and Erwin and Levi had retired to their rooms, Mike returned to the dinning hall, alone, to meet the lady who invited him. She smiled at his presence, brushing the short blonde hair from her eyes.
"Come, try the whiskey," she invited while breaking the seal.
Mike tested the air with a whiff, smelling the sugary lavender soap of the woman and the strong alcohol she held. He sat down across from her.
"What is your name?" he asked while she poured his glass.
"Nanaba," she answered. "And you?"
Mike and Nanaba had a festive night trying the range of wines and beers the inn provided. They laughed and drank and said nothing of real value. It was near sunrise when the pair slumped over the table.
Erwin and Levi awoke to find their companion dead. His throat was slashed, blue blood sprayed across the tabletop where it mixed with the red of the beermaiden's. His clothing and valuables were taken. He remained bent over, killed in his sleep, before he could even raise arms. Nanaba was the same way.
Erwin was put into a very bad mood. He ordered a manhunt for the criminals, for a search of his brother's belongings to commence. Levi saw the bodies off on their journey, back to Mount Maria to be buried in a proper grave. His face gave away nothing, blank and detached as always. Only his emotions were in turmoil.
The pair decided to part ways after that. Levi rode off on a single black stallion while Erwin continued with the carriage.
Neither wanted the other to know they were weak.
"Franz!" a voice shouted, a woman leaning out the window of her cottage. "Have you got the kid tethered?"
The man showed his wife the roped goat, the animal bleating in response. She giggled at the young goat, freckles highlighting her cheeks.
"Alright, I'll get the turnips!"
She shut the window and exited the house with a full basket. She clucked as her husband tried to take the load from her.
"Ah, ah, ah, tend to your own rat." she chided.
Franz examined the goat with a weed in its mouth. "I'm pretty sure it's a goat, Hannah." he said with a smirk.
She elbowed his ribs. It was the only place she could reach. "You know what I mean."
The couple walked together, going out of the woods and to the market. Strangely, when they reached the first crossroads, they saw a woman. She was sitting in the back of a small cart, tapping a ringed finger against the woodwork. She had her golden hair knotted up and a beautiful sky blue dress covering her body. A green cape spread behind her, hood down. Her sharp eyes found the others.
"What are your names?" Her tone was dry as bone.
"… I'm Hannah." Hannah spoke up first, voice wavering.
"And I'm Franz."
"Interesting…" she mused, rising to stand. She scanned the two, quirking her mouth as she saw the uninterested goat.
"Would you like to sell me your goat, Franz?"
Franz paused and looked at the kid. "We were taking it to market to sell for a florin…"
The woman reached into her sleeves. She pulled out a golden coin, presenting it in her palm. "I will give you a golden guinea. That is more money for you, isn't it? Do we have a deal?"
Franz looked down at Hannah hesitantly. The woman nodded, slowly, confusion crossing her eyes. Why would someone pay so much for a goat?
"… We have a deal."
Franz passed the woman the rope. The goat bleated, stomping in discomfort. The woman touched its head and it stilled, head drooping. Franz held out his hand for the payment.
The woman stared at the open hand blankly. She flicked her eyes over the rest of him and smiled. "I think a matching pair will do much better."
The woman stretched, touching between his eyes and snapping. Whatever he was saying was lost as he crippled to the ground.
A soul in the mirror of the woman's cottage vanished.
Franz could hear Hannah begin to scream and see her drop her turnips, but for some reason he didn't care. He objected the noise with a single bleat. Even so close to the earth he was standing, balancing on four hooves.
"Franz…" Hannah choked, dropping to her knees. The goat who had once been her husband looked at her. It was a stupid, cross-eyed look of a goat, unintelligent, nothing like her Franz.
"Franz!" She clung to his neck, tears dampening her face. The goat bleated unhappily, teeth tugging at her shirt collar.
"Come along." The woman said, snapping her fingers again. The goat who was once Franz ripped away, going to stand with the other goat before the cart. The woman hummed as she fastened them to the vehicle.
Standing in the cart, the woman cracked an elegant whip. The goats reared up and began running, following the path into the forest.
Hannah was left alone at the heart of the crossroads, blind with tears.
Eren waited for the hairy man to reappear. He had taken Eren's clothing scraps, going to the nearest town to find him some better apparel. He promised to return as soon as he could. Eren huffed, the blanket of his smelling like unclean hair
Lights flashed about him.
What Eren believed to be fireflies were actually tiny people, glowing and fluttering and giggling about him. The bravest of them were cheeky enough to pull his pointed ears, causing him to shout and swat them away. Their laughs were like tiny bells.
One began to sing:
Boy in a dirty blanket, he's
Off on a wild goose-chase to
Find a star!
Travels through Faerie
Take off the blanket!
See who you are!"
Whose knowledge of Faerie is meager
With 'hunter' as his cregger
Who lacks walking swagger
It is more of a stagger!
Mother caught by a begger.
Eren threw his hat at them, face hot and red and angry. "Be off with you!" He screamed as the beings taunted him and made off with his new bowler hat.
Hannes found Eren still fuming.
"They said horrible things about my mother. How dare they." He spat.
"The little folks dare anything," advised Hannes. "And a lot of it's nonsense, but a lot of it is worth listening to. The trouble is finding out which is which."
"They said my mother was caught by a beggar."
"Oh, did they?" The little man laid out the new clothes across the grass. Eren could see the green earthy tones and sandy brown.
"These are your clothes now." Hannes announced. "Traded them. They do not fall apart like your others. And now you will not look so much like a stranger."
The little man assisted Eren in fastening the belt around his green tunic, pulling up the tall boots over his brown trousers. He was surprised how well they fit and how good they made him feel.
"There you are, lad." Hannes said. "A fine gent you are."
They ate the food Hannes brought back, consisting mostly of fish and beer. Eren passed on the beer, opting for tea instead. Hannes shrugged and enjoyed his alcohol.
"Now, lad," Hannes said, placing his bottle aside. "This will be my last gift for saving my life."
"You have done more than enough-"
Hannes raised a hand. "Hold on! You and your father have both done a mighty lot for me so I have to repay you. Tell me: since you know where the star is, can you tell me how far the star is?"
Eren pointed to the horizon and blurted out, "A man would have to walk for six months, only stopping to sleep, over mountains and deserts to reach where the star has landed." He pressed his lips shut in surprise.
Hannes nodded knowingly. "As I thought." He patted his pockets. "And you are not the only one looking for it. Remember what I told you?"
"Do not mention anything about the star to anyone?"
"Do not tell anyone my true name? Do not lie?"
"No, no, boy!"
"How Many Miles to Babylon?" the man revealed, exasperated.
"Oh… The poem."
"Can I get there by candlelight?" Hannes repeated. "There and back again. Most candles won't do. You need yourself a special candle-wax. And it took a lot to finding." He fished out a candle-stub, nearly dead, and gave it to Eren.
Eren frowned at the rather ordinary candle. "What do I do with it?"
"What you do with all candles!" Hannes said. "Light it! But in a moment. Take this too."
He exhibited a chain, silver as moonlight. The sight of it set off warnings in Eren's mind. For what reason he did not know.
"It is made of cat's breath and fish scales and moonlight on water." Hannes informed. "The usual. You will need it to bring back your star."
"I will?" Eren asked, perplexed.
"Yes, yes, lad."
Eren allowed the chain to pile on his palm. It slithered to rest like the cool belly of a snake. "Do I keep it in my bag? I have no pockets…"
"Put it around your wrist for now. But you do have a pocket, on the underside of your tunic."
Indeed he did. It also had a buttonhole, perfect for his snowdrop. He pinned the flower there. It chimed at his touch.
"Now!" Hannes clapped his hands. "Lets get you going. Take the candle in your right hand, bag in your left. Yes, like that. I will light it for you. Afterwards, walk to your star and use the chain to bring it back here. You got to be quick since there isn't much wick left. No playing around, you hear? Feet nimble and light, alright?"
Eren gulped nervously. The little man lit the candle with a snap, the bright flame unwavering in the wind. Eren held the candle outwards and began to walk.
His next step saw him by a lake, candlelight reflecting off the water.
The next step he was in cold, high mountains, with animals bearing reflecting eyes.
He was then in the soft, creamy clouds, wholly solid and supporting his weight.
And then he was deep underground, utterly alone, moving through a cave.
The strangest was when he saw a woman in a great green cape in a cart pulled by two goats. A whip was raised over her head.
Finally, he entered a glade. The leaves whispered and the water splashed against the bank.
Eren continued, yet remained in the glen, surrounded by the ferns and branches and moonlight. He turned with his candle and looked for the star around him, seeing nothing in the darkness. However, he heard something over the talkative brook. It was a muted, dejected sobbing, sorrowing to hear.
"Hello? Is someone there?" Eren called out.
The noise stopped. Eren had approximated where the sound originated, seeing a faint light near the location. He crept towards the underbrush.
He cleared his throat. "Excuse me, but I'm looking for a star."
In response, a clump of grass and dirt flew from the bushes. It nailed Eren in the mouth, particles wedging in his teeth.
"What the hell?" Eren shouted, spitting out soil. His temper flared and he crashed through the bushes, enraged. Another clod greeted his chest, but he ignored it, ready to give the person a pummeling.
"Go away!" the voice said in panic. "Go away and leave me alone!"
Eren found a boy backed against a tree, chest heaving, cheeks wet. He tried to look menacing and frightening, glaring at Eren.
The boy held up more dirt, prepared to throw it if needed.
His storm-grey eyes were orange and sore from crying. His hair was long and slightly frazzled, so silky and fair in was nearly transparent. His tunic was of blue silk, pants grey. The air around him shimmered like diamonds.
He looked so weak and helpless that Eren knew he could not harm him without guilt.
"… Please do not throw any more dirt at me." Eren asked, trying his best to be kind. "I didn't mean to upset you, but there is a star around here I need to find before my candle goes out."
"Well, I broke my leg." the boy said smartly.
"I'm sorry…?" Eren did not know what else to say. "But, the star…"
"I broke my leg." he repeated harshly. "When I fell. Now, go away!"
He threw the dirt pile and it landed at Eren's feet. Golden dust glittered from his outstretched arm.
"Just… Go away." he pleaded, covering his face as he sobbed.
"You are the star." Eren said, dumbly, in awe.
"No shit." he said sourly. "And you are a jackass."
"… I cannot argue with that."
Eren slipped the other end of the chain from his wrist, working it over the hand of the boy. Both braces tightened at the contact.
The star blinked at the chain, aghast. "What do you think you're doing?" He screamed in unadulterated hatred. He yanked at the chain, sobbing at his futile attempt.
"Taking you home with me." Eren said, a little embarrassed. "To my sister."
And then, in an unfortunate turn of events, the candle began to die. The wick burned for an ending second before the flame drowned in the wax.
Both parties stared at the pile of wax.
Eren glanced at the star, then at the dead candle, then at the unbreakable chain.
A roar was released into the night. The distraught and pained and infuriated noise rang clear for many miles.
"Can I get there by candlelight?" Eren screamed into the heavens. "There, and back again. Wall is six months hard travel from here!"
The star waited until Eren calmed enough to sit down, growling and cursing to himself.
"I want you to know," he said icily. "That no matter who you are or what you plan to do with me, I shall help you in no way shape or form and shall do everything and anything in my power to ruin your plans and devices."
"… Okay." Eren said. It didn't make the situation much worse. "Can you walk?"
"Are you deaf?" he snapped. "My leg is broken. I think you are not deaf, but stupid."
"Do you sleep?"
"Of course, dimwit! But not at night. I shine at night."
"Well…" Eren said, propping himself against his baggage. "Since I have nothing better to do, I am going to sleep. We've got a long way to go, so I suggest you at least try to rest."
The star mumbled to himself as Eren tried to usher on sleep. He wondered what Hannes would think when he did not come back. He wondered what Mikasa was doing on the other side of the Wall. He wondered what he would eat on the way back.
What do stars eat? he wondered before sleep overtook him.
"Stupid, ignorant, boy with wolf-ears and wolf-brain…"
The star sighed, looking up at the sky becoming light with sunrise. He propped up his broken leg which pulsed with pain. He leaned back, trying to get comfortable.
And then he, too, was asleep.
Chapter 5: The Dark Mistress's Daughter
The Dark Mistress's Daughter
Eren awoke with a pebble in his spine, bleary eyed, early sunlight burning his cheek. He took a rumbling breath before sitting up and massaging his eyelids. He noticed a harsh clacking sound, looking sidelong to find the origin. The star had the threadbare silver chain across a rock. He was hacking away with another stone, attempting to crack the links. Chips of the rock broke off with every smack. The chain remained intact.
The star held up his wrist, viewing the snare with woeful eyes. "Who would of thought my grandfather would be the one to trap me?" He whispered.
"Hum?" Eren questioned.
The star looked over his shoulder with a snarl, giving Eren an evil look.
Eren huffed and upturned his chin. He then noticed the boy's outstretched leg. The swollen flesh was puffed and straining against the fabric of his pants. Eren felt empathetic to his suffering, having broken his arm once before.
"Here, let me see your leg…" He said as gently as he could, scooting towards the boy.
He said nothing, looking away with crossed arms, uninterested.
Eren took that as a sign to go on. He worked the cloth upwards, earning grimaces and pained whines from the star. The wound was hot to the touch.
"Let me make you a splint." Eren offered. "My father is a doctor and he taught me how to set a bone. Then I can make a crutch and we can be on our way."
"I am not going anywhere with you." The star told him flatly.
"You have to move sometime." Eren replied matter-of-factly.
Eren make the splint with spare splits of wood and strips of his socks. The star tried to remain unimpressed and vacant, but whimpered when his caregiver knotted the final strip of cloth. The star shimmered faintly in the sunlight shadows, unlike how he gleamed at night. He rubbed the ends of his blond hair with his fingers and caused microorganisms of glitter to spray the air. They vanished in the light.
"I'm sorry if you hate me." Eren confessed as he crafted the crutch from a fallen branch. "It is nothing personal. My sister asked for a star and I must give it to her."
"She sounds horrible." The star said. "She sent you into the heart of Faerie to torment me."
"She is not horrible." Eren warned. "She is a person who has lost everything. If I get her the thing she most desires I can maybe, just maybe, bring some of her happiness back." He sighed. "I thought a fallen star would be a rock or jewel… Not a boy."
"Stupid." He muttered.
"Here, try this." Eren said, offering him the crutch.
He made no move to take it.
Eren stood and offered his hand. "You cannot sit around forever."
The star took a look around the grove. "This world is very dreary and dull, especially by day."
Reluctantly, the star rose, leaning on Eren. His lips curled in distaste at his very touch and he jerked away in favor of the crutch. His breath hitched and he nearly fell, if not for Eren catching him soundly. The star's skin felt tingly like bubbles in ale when Eren brushed his forearm.
"My leg… It can't stand on it, it must really be broken." The star gasped, sweating and pale as a china dish.
"Come on, try again." Eren encouraged, linking their arms.
The boy erected straight with a held breath. "If I must."
The star relied heavily on Eren as they walked. He flinched with every step and advanced slowly through the forest.
Bravely, Eren decided to pass the time with conversation.
"We must get you to a proper doctor." He began. "I am only a physician's son."
"Oh really?" The star inquired. "Absolutely astonishing."
The continued along the game path through the woods after breaking. The star retained a pinched expression, trying to hide his pain.
"How long have you been a star?" Eren asked.
"Longer than you have been alive, Faerie-boy." He snarked.
"I will have you know I am human." Eren replied stiffly.
The star barked with a dry laugh. "Pointed ears and eyes of fire and hair the color of blackberry juices are not usually human traits, elfin prince. In all of my years of observation I have never seen a pure-blood human so naturally Faerie."
"So, the stars do watch us?"
The star shrugged. "Maybe. What does it matter?"
"I always thought stars were flaming spheres of gas millions of miles in diameter. Like the sun, only further away."
"We are." the star informed him. "You must know, ignorant boy, that there is a difference between what we are and what we are. Oh, wait: I forgot you are a 'human'. Humans are blind to many things."
Eren shook his head unhappily. "At least if we trip we do not fall out of the sky and break our legs."
"I did not trip." The star informed him briskly. "I was shot down. By this."
He produced a golden gemstone from his tunic. The silver chain around it was snapped and swayed limply.
"I am bruised where it hit me. Now I must carry it around with me. And look, it matches your eyes, how lovely."
"Why?" Eren said, ignoring the final mocking statement.
The star was going to answer, but paused, shaking his head and tucking the stone away. "Figure it out."
The star pressed his lips closed and said nothing.
Eren seethed silently. Eren's stomach rumbled ferociously, demanding food. The pair cutoff for lunch beside a clear stream. Eren split the rest of the bread and cheese crumbs, bidding the star to eat.
"You'll starve." Eren warned.
He only snubbed away the offering, turning his back to Eren without words.
The going through the wooded area was slow and trying. The path was choked with twigs and loose rocks and fallen trees, troubling the star and his aid immensely. The trail worked its way uphill.
"Isn't there another path?" the star demanded, embittered. "A clearing, a level road?"
The provocation of the question caused Eren to know of such a thing. "There is a level road a half a mile east and a clearing over the next hillcrest."
"You knew that the whole time and did not think to walk upon it?"
"No, no," Eren defended himself. "I only knew once you asked me…"
"Well, now that you know, lets make for the clearing."
The incline was steep and both persons weary from walking. It took some time to ascend the slanted ground. The star began to pant and breath heavily, relying on his escort more than ever.
The clearing they reached was nearly bare and ever so flat. The area appeared articulately clear, with a distinct yet unknown purpose. A golden crown rested in the center.
Interested, Eren was about to inspect the red and blue jewels upon its surface. The star held him fast with a tight grip.
"Wait… Do you hear drums?"
Straining his hearing, Eren realized he did, the deep sound enclosing around them, echoing from near and far. A crashing and pained shriek frightened the two. The star pressed himself to Eren.
A horse stained pink with blood charged into the glen, eyes wild, nostrils flared. It spun around and pointed the horn on its head towards its enemy. A lion crept from the woods, roaring and snarling and shaking its great mane. Gooseflesh rose on Eren's neck.
The lion much larger and more powerful than a typical circus lion paused and eyed the ivory horn. The horse nickered in caution, advising the lion to step away. The lion roared in response, causing its prey to rise up on its hindquarters and kick the lion in the shoulder with a sharp hoof. The lion screamed like a cat knocked forward by a broom, jumping backwards and crouching. The unicorn and lion walked a circle around each other, the lion never looking away from the horn pointed towards it.
"We have to stop them." the star whispered. "They are going to kill each other." He hobbled onwards, pain ignored, closing in on the fighting animals.
"Stop!" he shouted, fearless. "Stop this right now!"
The lion roared at the boy, splitting red foam. The star stumbled back, falling into the arms reaching for him to return. Eren pulled him behind a bolder.
"That was stupid," Eren hissed.
"You have stop them." the star said, still determined. "Please… The lion will kill her."
The lion leapt towards the unicorn, claws unsheathed. It tore onto the unicorn's back, claws and fangs digging into its flesh. The unicorn screamed in agony, blood sprouting from its back and raining onto the grass. The unicorn cried and bucked with all its might, trying to save itself, to rid itself of its tormentor. It rolled onto its spine and attempted to smother the great cat.
"Please." the star pleaded.
Eren did not know how he could do any better than the star or unicorn. The lion listened to no demands, and Eren was sure he would be shredded and eaten if he engaged in the fight. He looked towards the star to tell him these things, but paused, seeing his dove-grey eyes begging, pleading with him from the deepest part of his heart. Eren's excuses dissolved away.
Before he knew what he was doing, he stood up, going around the boulder to the middle of the clearing, close enough to the animals to be splattered with the flinging blood of the unicorn. He saw the fear in its green eyes.
The Lion and the Unicorn were fighting for the crown, Eren thought, remembering the nursery rhyme. The Lion beat the Unicorn all about the town.
He beat him once.
He beat him twice.
With all his might and main
He beat him three times over
His power to maintain
Eren picked up the crown, heavy, soft with pure gold, and held it out to the warring animals, speaking gently. "Here, boy, easy now… easy… Here is your crown… good boy…"
The lion released its teeth from the unicorn's flanks, giving Eren a quizzical look.
"Hello," Eren greeted. He inched towards the beast dirty and ruffled from the fight. "Here, you won. Let the unicorn go." The lion sprang gracefully in a short leap towards Eren, leaving the unicorn behind like a toy it had grown bored of. Eren held fast in front of the lion. He shakily placed the crown upon its head.
The lion licked its lips in delight, holding its head high, marching around the clearing like a king. It stopped to clean its wounds with a scarlet tongue, purring proudly. It finished after several minutes. It then slinked away into the underbrush, tail flicking.
The star limped over to the fallen unicorn. He saw himself down, careful of his injured limb.
"Poor girl," he said, stroking the unicorn's head.
It opened its vibrant green eyes, nickering at the star, shifting its head to the star's lap. The unicorn closed its eyes with a dry snort.
Eren dined on the last half of the bread and cheese. The star would not leave the unicorn's side, stroking and petting it lovingly. Eren did not have the heart to make him abandon the creature.
Darkness came and along with it the twinkling stars, the boy star shimmering and glittering just the same. The unicorn glowed like moonlight on snow, pure and soft. Eren lied by the unicorn to snuggle into its warmth. The star was on the other side of the beast, humming sweet and warm music. It lulled Eren with its calming nature.
Eren turned over. He blinked at the cold silver chain on his wrist shining to near white in the moonlight. He soon slept.
The bonfires' of witches have a certain magical sunfire glow, unlike the natural hues of other folk. Annie notice one such witch-fire as she rode her chariot along a forest path. She halted her goats before a caravan wagon, the cooking fire of the witch roasting a quail. The juices dripped and steamed in the flames.
The witch was young, at least in appearance, with intelligent and keen brown eyes. Spectacles rested on the bridge of her nose, glass lenses thin. Her brunette hair was wild, the fluffiness trapped in a chignon high on her head. She watched the fat drippings with a queer and narrow-eyed interest. The ferret atop a perch beside her chattered at the visitor.
The witch turned her gaze upwards. A smile tugged at her teeth.
"Ah, a guest!" she cheered. "And for a poor botanist like me."
Annie descended from her cart, but was stopped with a finger.
"But first," said the witch. "I need to know you will not harm me. You might wish to rob me, or worse! I need your word."
The lady necromancer stared at the woman steadily. "I will not harm you." she promised. "I swear upon the laws of the sisterhood to which we both belong, by my privilege to do magic, and by my every bodily limb that I mean you no harm and shall treat you as my own guest."
"That's it!" the witch said, tossing up a hand. "That's good enough for me! Now, come sit down, dinner is nearly ready."
Annie tethered her goats to a tree and sat upon a stool by the fire, her dress and cloak spreading out a great breadth. The youngest goat bleated at the caravan mules.
"Lovely goats," the witch said, poking the logs of the fire around with a stick. A wave of scented wood smoke blew upwards.
"Thank you." Annie said. She twirled the snake ring around her finger.
The witch inspected the animals from afar, shifting her spectacles. "Interesting… I think one of those goats started out on two legs, not four, am I right?"
The necromancer tipped her head. "Yes. Such as your golden ferret."
The animal flashed its red eyes. The young witch laughed.
"Indeed! She was once a fine woman. But she gave away one of my prized flowers to a silly old fool many years ago. Oh, the trouble it caused me! The trouble she caused me! Had to bear herself a son and find a home to take him. Now she stays a ferret until I find use for her, working and running the flower-stall and the like. She would stay a ferret forever if I could find myself a better servant."
The jill growled with a high-pitched sound.
"Anyway, enough of that, you can call me Hanji!" the witch proclaimed. "I had another title, long ago, but that is what I have others call me now."
They called you Lady Zoë when you were a noblewoman Annie thought sourly, saying none of this aloud. She instead told the witch to call her Annie.
"Annie? As in the prophetess?"
Introductions finished, Hanji retrieved the bowls and cutlery and herb pot, the spices a fine green dust.
"Nothing but the best!" Hanji sang. "The very best for the very best guest! Lets split the figure down the middle, shall we?"
She carved up the bird with equal precision, dishing out the meat from the bones evenly. She invited her guest to take from the herb pot.
"We ran out of salt a couple days ago, but here we have coriander and rosemary and basil…"
The lady necromancer took a pinch and flavored her meat. She ate after cooling every bite, while the witch chewed and swallowed her food so quickly she could hardly taste it.
Hanji licked the bottom of her bowl. "Was it good?"
"Perfectly pleasing to the pallet." Annie professed.
"Good, good!" Hanji gushed. "Are the herbs to your liking? I did not wish for any tonight…"
"The spice medley is good." Annie said. "With the basil and rosemary… And something else. Some uncommon taste, something nutty."
"Ah…" Hanji smirked. "That is my special ingredient. It is good with all roasted meats. It grows near the peak of Mount Calamon in the autumn. It also has a bizarre effect, causing one who eats it to tell nothing but the truth for many hours."
Annie sat the empty bowl on her lap. "Mitras grass." she spat her spitfire. "You dare feed me such a thing."
"Indeed!" Hanji laughed in a conniving tone. "I do dare. Now, Annie, if that is your name, you are going to tell me of all the matters I want to know. Where are you off to in your goat-powered chariot? And why do you remind me of someone from long ago? I never forget a face."
"I search for a fallen star." Annie said automatically. "A star that fell in the woods on the other side of Rosewater Lake. I shall capture him and cut out his heart while it still beats, for the heart of a living star is the only combatant against the price of necromancy. My housemates wait for my return."
"A star!" Hanji exclaimed, clapping. "A star, a star! I have always wanted to see one up close! If I were to capture it… I could, I could…. Oh, what fun I could have! I could test to see if stars are really immortal! See what they eat, how they sleep… What fun!"
"You will not capture the star." Annie stated with conviction.
"You cannot stop me, dear Annie." The witch cooed. "You are bound to your promise. There is nothing you can do to harm me."
"There are many things I can do, Lady Zoë." Annie spoke low with thunder that caused the trees to quiver. "Mitras grass causes the one who ingests it to speak truths for several hours. You, witch-woman, will pay for the knowledge you stole and did not earn. Although you know of the star, you will be unable to see him, hear him, smell him, taste him, or touch him. You will not be able to perceive him in any way, even if he stands before you. My words are the truth and the truth are my words. And know this: If I were not held by my promise, I would turn you into a roach and crush you myself."
"… Who are you?"
"I am Annie, as I told you. I was also a queen once, ruling with my brethren in Sina before my throne was lost."
"Ah, Sina…" Hanji reminisced. "The kingdom of the necromancers. Or it was, before Lady Eleonora did away with it."
The fire leapt in a great pillar of vivid oxblood flame. The lady necromancer's deadly eyes flashed with fury.
"Do not say her name." She hissed in an evil tone.
Hanji was not afraid. She grinned tauntingly.
"I see you still fear her." She said. "After all these years… You know, it is rumored she has a daughter."
"It is nonsense." Annie growled. "We would feel such a power if it lived."
"I have heard of stranger things. I did not know you were alive until now."
"They say the Diviners are dead so children can sleep easy."
She stood, pulling the cloak's hood over her head. The flames hushed away from her form, wiser than the young witch beside them. Annie held out her bowl with one hand.
"When I leave, you shall forget I was ever here and that you ever saw me. You shall forget of my curse. You shall know you forgot something, but the knowledge will never come and it will irritate you to no end. This I swear."
The bowl scattered sparks where it was thrown. Hanji screamed in anguish. She hit the bowl out of the fire frantically, beating out the flames.
"My bowl, my bowl! The paint!"
The golden ferret watched lazily from her perch. She who saw everything and forgot nothing perked, hearing the sound of distance hoof beats. A sad squeak rumbled in her throat. The necromancer wanted the poor, innocent star: his heart, his life. She would kill or vex whoever got in her way, no matter the person. Even her son… If she could protect her child, she would have. If ferrets could cry, she would have. Her paw clutched the silver chain.
Annie cracked her whip against the crisp night air.
The skin around her shoulders crumbled and fell.
And the mirror in the cottage lacked two faces.
Eren swung the star onto the waiting back of the unicorn. The beast nuzzled at the boy happily, nickering for his attention. The star was nibble and gentle enough not to break the delicate scabs of the unicorn, which Eren thought ideal. The creature had trotted behind them for the majority of the morning. She snorted evilly at Eren the entire time, hovering around the star. It was not until the star had the unicorn snuffle in his ear that he suggested riding her.
The star smiled, stroking the velvet nose of the mare. "Thank you, old friend." He whispered.
"'Old Friend'? You know this unicorn?"
The star tilted his head as if that were an answer. He wove his fingers into the creature's mane, steadying himself as she stood. His splinted leg laid parallel to the ground.
"Come along, faerie-boy." The star chided, the unicorn walking with a spring in her gait.
"I told you I am a human." Eren snapped. He struggled to keep pace with the unicorn, the slack on the silver chain lessening. "And you better tell your 'old friend' to slow down less you be yanked from their back."
"Or you better speed up." The star said, words stinging like a smart whip.
The unicorn restrained herself to Eren's pace at his suggestion. Eren carried his bag on the end of the star's crutch, the article angled over his shoulder. His stomach pinched painfully. He also felt sick, sick with hunger, suffering with his need for food.
Eren suddenly tripped and his face collided with the ground.
"Fuck!" He shouted in sever temper. "Fuck, my nose!"
The star slowed the unicorn to a pause. He sighed, shaking his head.
"What marvelous language." he commented. "Must be the universal word for when you fall and break something." He sighed again, scooting forward a tad. "You better come up here before you kill yourself. I would prefer not to have to drag along a dead body. Come on, get up here, we will find you some food in the next town."
Nose gurgling blood, Eren used a fungus-infested stump to heave himself onto the unicorn, bag and all. He made to hold his dripping nose again, only to find it strangely dry and unhurt.
"As I told you," the star said. "You are faerie."
"But… This never happened while I was across the wall, in my village."
"Things work different here. You should know that."
Eren checked all the cuts from the serewood. No injury, scar or scab, greeted him. He saw only smooth skin.
"Lets get along before you starve." the star said, patting the unicorn's neck.
Eren encased an arm around the star's waist as the unicorn jerked forward, balancing himself. The unicorn rode like an untamed animal: all sharp jogs and uncomfortable bounces. The star, however, appeared content and unaffected. Eren held him tighter for safety. He could feel the topaz stone under his thin tunic.
"There is a village just north of here." Eren said, leaning over to the star's ear.
"And how do you know that?" The star questioned, unconvinced.
"I… Just do. Like how I knew where the clearing was. I don't know how or why, but I just do."
"I should trust you to know where things are because you 'just do'?"
"Yes," Eren replied bitterly. "Do you happen to know any towns around these parts by yourself?"
The star did not respond. He instead mumbled something to the unicorn, the beast getting a sly look. She shrieked a wild cry, her hooves tumbling forward in a run. Eren held the star close as he was whipped back. He held the animal's sides with his legs, afraid he would fly off with the star in tow. The trees whirled beside them, a green and nauseous blur, making Eren sicker than before. He shut his eyes and tried to quell his stomach.
The sky was pink and orange when the unicorn halted outside of the town, stamping and refusing to go further. Eren tilted off of the creature's back, landing in a heap of leaves from the tree above. His back was aching and stiff, causing him to grumble.
He stood, a little shakily, and brushed off his green tunic. "What would you like to eat?" Eren asked the star. When the boy said nothing, he flared. "Look, I will not have you starving yourself! I do not know what stars eat, but…"
"We do not eat you food." the star answered, words clipped. "We eat darkness, and drink light. So, no, I am not starving, nor will I starve myself." He covered his eyes as he began to cry, silver tears smearing down his face. "I am homesick, trapped, and absolutely miserable, but not hungry. Not hungry at all."
"There is no reason to cry…" Eren tried to sooth. He helped the star off the unicorn's back as she curled up to rest, head on her leg. "You can stay here while I go, alright? The unicorn can keep you company."
"How?" the star demanded through his weeping. "You bonded us with that forsaken chain!"
"… Right." Eren agreed. "Let me see your hand."
He picked and pried at both eyelets of the chain. No amount of force broke the chain, causing Eren much irritation.
"Perhaps there is a magic word." the star suggested.
"I do not know any magic words." Eren said. "No matter how much you think I am magical."
"Well… Have you tried saying please? You should know that one."
With no better option, Eren held up the chain, the line shimmering in the light. "… Please?"
The loop around his wrist slackened enough for him to slip it off. He blinked in dumbfoundment, not knowing how a simple word could be the correct one.
"I told you." the star said, nodding curtly. The mocking motion looked strange with red and raw eyes.
Eren scowled at the boy. He then wrapped the chain around his arm, setting the one end beside the other.
"I will try to be quick." Eren said. "Oh, and if the little folk bother you, do not throw your crutch at them; they will only take it from you."
"What kind of idiot would do that?"
Eren's upper lip twitched. "… Just a word of advice."
He held his travel bag tightly, ready to set off to find food to nourish his famished body.
"I suppose I will have to trust your honor as a star not to run away."
The star looked at his broken leg, an odd humor crossing his face. "'Run'… Hilarious."
Eren accepted that as a promise.
After the boy had walked down and entered the town, leaving his traveling companions behind, the unicorn lifted her head, green eyes shining. The star showed a mischievous smirk.
"Lets leave this place." the star whispered as if to keep the trees from hearing.
The unicorn assisted the star onto her back with her sturdy muzzle, nosing him onto her shoulders. Her tail whisked friskily.
The star gripped the unicorn's mane and the animal kicked off with her back legs. The pair dashed forth, disappearing into the growing night.
Eren returned to find the empty meadow.
He dropped his purchased goods, the carrots for the unicorn rolling up to the roots of the old oak.
"… That little shit tricked me."
Eren could feel the star moving far away from him, oh so far away, at a pace he could not catch or match. A bubble of anger popped within him, soon spreading to a full-body boil. A growl of rage echoed in the glade.
The boy scooped up his tossed foodstuffs, shoving them in his bag. He took off after the star, the fury making him blind. The heat consumed his entire being, numbing him, driving him forward. He knew he should have never freed the star, he should have taken him into town, chained him to the tree, never have him loose by the unicorn. Eren thought these things and yet knew he would have unrestrained the star eventually. The star was pitiful and suffering and manipulative. He would have run then as well.
Eren did not know he had slammed into a tree until he was on the ground, forehead and chest in pain. The hatred in him dissipated, replaced by foolish sorrow. The boy gripped his hair, fighting the tears of shame towards himself.
"I am so stupid."
He leaned against the tree and sniveled while he slept and dreamed.
The lady necromancer stopped her chariot. Her eyes found the sky, the dark stars of evermore cold and distant as ever. A smile curved her lips.
She began to laugh, a blissfully horrid sound, comical relief coming over her. The serenity of the laugh caused the wind in the mountain pass to hush, killing its own noise to hear the singing sound of the necromancer.
"He is coming to me."
Erwin finished his stew with a final slip. He cleansed the wooden article and tucked it away for tomorrow's dinner. The fire warmed his face, the cloak about him dismissing the chill behind him. He recover a pouch from the inner folds, toying with it in his hands. The stones inside clicked.
He threw the stones suddenly, scattering the objects across the ground. His brows furrowed at the runes he saw. He nudged around the pebbles, checking and double-checking what he saw.
"… It is moving into the mountains."
He collected the stones and hid them in his cloak again. He then buried his fire, hiding his trail from those who would wish follow him and kill him. Erwin gathered up the stallions and fixed them to his carriage, mounting the driver's seat.
The team set off with a whip crack.
Levi watched the stars swirl above him. They danced in silence, blinking with their language, thousands of conversations crossing the sky at once. He put his hands behind his head, otherwise unmoving on his pallet. The horse at his side snorted in its sleep.
The fiery moon hung low, as if drooping with sadness. The stars around it encouraged the sphere, flaring up in sympathy to its pain. The moon said nothing.
Levi shut his eyes, sighing in the nighttime.
"It appears a star carries the stone."
The star and unicorn trailed sparks through the dark forest. No moonlight reached them as they journeyed. The star pressed himself against the beast's neck.
The animals along the path watched the tiny, earthly star twinkle.
Chapter 6: Pixis Told Us to Help You
Pixis Told Us to Help You
Eren dreamed about the moon.
He knew it was the moon because he could feel himself advancing upon the heavenly orb, soaring into its realm, meeting its stony and cratered face in the sky.
"Please." the moon begged. "Protect my grandchild. He is in danger, many mean him harm. I can do no more."
Eren felt lightheaded and confused as he looked at and conversed with the moon, forgetting its image and glow every moment only to be reintroduced to the cold face again and again. He then tilted backwards, dropping to the earth, crashing and waking with a fitful gasp.
The color of the sky and trees around him was vibrant, the day warm. A bird sang happily.
"You were dreaming." a stern voice informed him from above. The words held a strange briskness.
Eren looked upwards, alarmed. Three people peered back at him: two men and one woman. The man to his right looked worried for the boy, green eyes communicating so. He had a full beard, curiously pointed, vines of thorns crowing his head. The man to his left seemed to be calculating him, eyes narrow. He was rather tan with lengthy goldenrod hair. Leaves and sharp spines protruded from the strands. The woman immediately above him had icy grey eyes and long lashes, her eyebrows short and heavy-set. Copper leaves bloomed from her pale hair. It was only then Eren noticed his head was in her lap.
Eren reacted accordingly, jolting away. He clutched his bag, backing up to a panorama of the trio.
"W-Who are you?" he stuttered, swallowing the sleep in his throat.
"You mean you do not recognize me?" the woman asked dryly. "I watched over you all night and this is my thanks? Why, the nerve…"
The woman sighed, her leaves rustling as she shook her head. "You did not think the copper beech you slept under was a dead one, did you?"
Eren stared blankly at the three people. The blond man hung his head in disapproval, the other man releasing a breath.
"Nymphs only die when their affinitive plant dies." the one on the left said. "I thought that was common knowledge."
"We are certainly not flesh like you."
Eren scanned the people and knew it to be true. The woman with the beech leaves blended perfectly into the tree behind her, as if they were one, neither different from the other. The man haloed by thorn vines matched the blackberry bramble, the next mirroring the gooseberry thicket.
"…Well, thank you." Eren finally said to the beech nymph, coughing politely. The woman twitched a smile.
"A pleasure." she said. "Pixis told us to."
Eren, vaguely, remembered such a name, his father speaking the name to his mother before. Who it was he could not say.
"Who is Pixis?" Eren asked.
"Pixis is the one who owns this forest." the blackberry man said. "But he does not own it in the way of buying and selling as you might think, he owns it in the way he owns everything. He owns it by knowing that it is his and by being willing to let it go. He, ah, also likes to flirt with the rose bushes…"
"He visited us in our dreams and told us to help you." the other man continued. "Even if we are not flower bushes… He showed us you and a boy being led by a chain. He was a sad boy, very sad."
"And here you came to us." the woman said. "You came and fell asleep on my roots."
Eren rubbed his flushed cheek and mumbled an apology.
"What kind of aid did he tell you to give me?" The boy asked after the nymphs concluded.
"We do not know." the woman admitted. "We need to find that out ourselves."
"Tell us your story so far." the gooseberry nymph suggested. "And we can figure it out based on that."
Eren was becoming frustrated. The star and unicorn were galloping further and further away. He wanted to snap at the trio and say he did not have time for their silliness, but then realized that they were only trying to help him. He remembered his mother advising him to take the help offered to him, especially if he needed it. He had only gotten this far because he had done so.
Eren, hesitantly, began his tale with Mikasa, about her seeing the falling star and wanting it, about crossing the wall, about the serewood and Hannes, about the candle leading him to the star, about the scarred unicorn the star had run away with when he freed him.
The nymphs were quiet afterwards, processing his words. A wind caressed the three, swinging their leaves to and fro.
"I will tell you this." the she-nymph said, tone low and warning. "If you had kept him chained, and then he had escaped his binding, no power on earth could make me help you, not even Pixis."
"But you freed him." the man with the crown of thorns said. "For that, we will help you."
"Thank you." Eren whispered, dipping his head in relief.
"We shall give you three gifts." the gooseberry man said. "Two is knowledge given now, the other is something you must use later. You will decide when you need it most."
"First," the other man established. "You must know the star is in great danger. The wind talks to the wood, and the wood talks to the wind, and for that we know there are many people and creatures wishing him harm, and worse so. You must find him and protect him."
"Second," the blond nymph progressed. "There is a path through the forest and a man with a carriage traveling upon it. If you hurry, you will catch him."
"Lastly, hold out your hands." the woman said.
Eren did so. The woman plucked one of her orange leaves, placing the article in Eren's outstretched palms.
"Keep it safe." she said. "And when you need it most, listen to it. Now, go! Catch the carriage!"
"Wait!" Eren demanded as the three stood to return to their homes. "I never got your names…"
"I am called Mitabi."
They then took a step back and disappeared, leaving the area empty and void.
Eren took off at a dead sprint, bag flaring behind him like a banner. The trees and underbrush appeared to part for him, clearing his way. He could hear the horses and wooden carriage as he closed in on the path. His stomach dropped as he concluded that he could not catch it in time. He ran faster, desperately, body aflame and throat burning.
"Wait!" he shout, bursting out of the woods. "Wait, wait for me!"
The coach progressed along the path in front of him.
Eren fell to his knees, swallowing breath, wheezing. He tried to cry out as the horses passed him, only creating shallow gasps. The carriage did not slow.
He stood again, undeterred as ever. He thought of the star, cold and alone, afraid in a world not of his own. Eren began to walk as quickly as he could, breath still labored. It was not long until he found the black carriage. A large branch had fallen in its way. The hooded coachman was analyzing his predicament, hand on his chin as he viewed the oak branch.
"It is the strangest thing," he said as Eren stood beside him. "No wind or storm; it just fell. Gave the horses quite a scare."
The two made work unclipping the horses from the carriage and fastening them to the log. They began to pull with an order from their coachman, dragging the branch off of the road. Eren silently thanked the oak who lost a branch and the nymphs and Pixis as he untethered the horses.
"Can you give me a ride through the forest?" Eren questioned courtly.
The man gave the boy a once-over, distrusting. He thought momentarily, scratching his chin. Eren feared he would say no.
The man ultimately fetched a bag from the insides of his cloak, spilling stones into his hand.
"Pick one." He said.
Eren did so. The symbol on it was queer, runic, a strange thing he felt he should understand but did not.
"And another." the man encouraged. "And one more."
He critiqued the chosen stones. A nod bobbed his head, the stones placed in the bag to be hidden again.
"You may come with me." the man said. "The stones see to that. I warn you that it will be dangerous. But perhaps you can help me if more branches fall and keep me company on the driver's seat."
Eren thanked him, hasty to pull himself into the driver's seat. He spared a glance into the empty carriage, seeing nothing, but receiving a chill like someone had crossed his grave. Eren looked forward.
The man put down his hood when he sat down, reveling his cropped blond hair. He set the horse's off with a flick of the reins. The wooden coach cumbered along the path.
"Is there something I can call you?" Eren asked his companion respectfully.
"Erwin." He replied shortly. "And you?"
The coachman gave him a surprised look at that. His lips pinched as if he were trying to think or remember something but could not. A blockage twisted his thoughts, loosening ends and ripping connections. He shook his head.
"I felt like I have heard that name before… Have we met before, Eren?"
"Not that I know of." Eren said.
Erwin paused, catching a stray idea. "No… Your eyes, they remind me of someone I knew…"
"Oh really? Who?"
The thought whisped away, fading into the forgetting darkness.
"I cannot say."
He only remembered young laughs and a forehead pressing lovingly into his hand. The person was big and small, youthful and grown at the same time, no difference in time present. The person said something to him, repeating it over and over like an echo.
"… Big brother."
"Hum?" Eren questioned.
Erwin perked up, blinking. "What was that?"
"… You said 'big brother'."
"I did?" Erwin inquired quizzically, scratching his head. "How strange…"
Annie knew the land as it once was.
When the Kingdom of Sina had reined, it was mostly fields and foothills and flatlands. The foothills had grown taller since then, forming into mountains with names such as Hermiha and Stohess and Yalkell. Annie waited at the southernmost pass of Mount Stohess.
She let her goats graze as she sharpened her knives. They were wicked things, long and made of a bluish metal. No one knew what the metal was or where it came from, only that it sliced so fast one could not feel their death. One was a thick and heavy cleaver for bursting open the ribcage, the other precise and nimble for removing the heart. Annie tucked away the weapons and whetstone when she finished.
She first approached her chariot. Annie moved her hands and spoke her command, willing the wood to rise and expand. Many people flashed from the mirror in the cottage. An inn stood before the woman. It was quaint and cozy with a chariot pictograph painted on the door.
Annie touched her stomach as the skin turned to dust.
"Inanimate things are so hard to change. They are old and stupid and stuck in their ways."
She then advanced on the goats. She touched both between the eyes, speaking a single word. The beasts grew into men at her order. The one who was once Franz was now a woman, her eyes dead and tired, hair falling over her face. The goat was now an ash-haired man. Both said nothing.
"You," Annie said to the man, a strip of her neck losing skin. "Are my husband Boris and the innkeeper here, and this is our daughter." She looked skyward as thunder rumbled. "It will rain soon. Go, make the fire ready. The star must come through this pass and I must assure he pays us a visit."
Thunder crashed across the mountain range.
Eren hoped the star would not get into too much trouble without him. He could feel him moving along at a steady pace, the coach slowly gaining ground on him.
Erwin kept on the star's path. Even at crossroads when Eren feared Erwin would travel the opposite way and he would have to go on foot, Erwin would throw his stones and scrutinize them, continuing along the correct road.
"What are you looking for, exactly?" Eren asked the man when he clambered back into his seat, setting the horses off with a flick.
"The power of Phoenixwing." He said. "And my right to rule. You?"
"I hurt someone's feelings and I wish to make it up to them." He said, knowing his words to be true.
Erwin smiled slightly in humor.
He then looked up to the shadowed and clouded mountains before them. He motioned out his hand to gain Eren's attention.
"Someday, you must visit my castle on Mount Maria. It is much, much higher, dwarfing these into mere knolls."
"That is very kind of you." Eren said. "But honestly, I wish to spend the remainder of my life as a shop broker. I have had enough adventures, what with the nymphs and the boy and the unicorn…"
"You saw a unicorn?" Erwin asked with interest.
Checking himself, Eren said, "Yes. In a field. A noble creature."
"Indeed," Erwin agreed. "They are the moon's creature's and do his earthly bidding. I hope to see one, at least before I die." Erwin whipped the reins to will the horses to trod faster. "We shall reach the pass of Mount Stohess by tomorrow's sunset. Tonight, if you wish, you may sleep in the carriage. I shall sleep by the firelight."
Eren felt the chill in his voice, remembering his own when he looked inside the coach. He would much prefer to stay out of it.
Fate did not see to that. A cold rain began at sundown, causing the traveling companions to pack themselves within the carriage. The horses huddled under a rock crag, shivering at the temperature. The coach was not as ghoulish as Eren thought when he entered. The presence inside appeared to vanish when he opened the door, leaving the area light and welcoming. Neither he not Erwin knew that the dead brothers had given up their seats for Eren and only him.
The storm paused at daybreak only to continue again, worse than before. The oiled cloaks of the pair did nothing to blockade against the wetness.
"I could not be wetter if I jumped into a river," Eren said over the roar of the clouds and rain, teeth chattering.
"You could go inside," Erwin offered. "No point in both of us getting drenched."
Eren shook his head, droplets dangling off the tips of his dark hair. "Thank you, but I'll stay here. You might need another pair of hands and eyes."
Erwin laughed, the deep sound echoing between the rocks.
"You are a fool, but a kind one." He said jovially.
"You are not the first to say I am a fool." Eren muttered into the collar of his cloak.
They rode through the increasing rain for a while longer. The horses stumbled as they walked, sliding on the paths that had become streams. The wind gushed water into the clothing of the drivers, dampening them bone deep.
"There is a man," Erwin called over the crying storm. "Who searches for the same thing I do. He, strangely, reminds me a bit of you, with glossy dark hair and arched eyebrows. His name is Levi, and is a very dangerous man to cross. He was the husband of my sister before she was lost to the inner lands of Faerie and that gives him the right to search for the blood of Phoenixwing."
"Does he wish to kill you?"
"Doubtfully." Erwin said. "He was born into poverty and only rose to power through the military. He is our head general, I am skeptical whether he wishes to be a king."
"Then why does he search for the same thing as you?"
"Who knows? Perhaps he does want to be king, perhaps he is in it purely for the hunt. Perhaps he feels it would please his lost wife and child. My sister was pregnant when she left us."
The man straightened up suddenly, his light eyes flashing as he searched to and fro.
"Do you think there is something unnatural about this storm?"
"Unnatural?" Eren questioned.
"Yes, something supernatural."
"… I could not tell you." Eren admitted.
"Ah," Erwin said. "Must just be me, all weather-worn. If only the horses had a warm stable, and us a warm bed and fire… We could do with an inn."
Eren nodded eagerly. Craving these things, Eren searched for an inn with his mind. He found none, putting him in a sour mood. He only got wetter as he sat.
He eventually thought about the star and unicorn, how cold they must be, and how irritated the star's broken leg surely was. He hoped riding the unicorn did not jostle the bone out of place. He believed all the suffering of the star to be all his fault. He let the boy free into danger, after all. Eren kicked the footrest with his heel.
"I am the most terrible person to have ever been born." Eren told his companion.
"At your age, every boy is." Erwin said with a knowing smirk.
Eren hugged himself to bundle in his woe. The rain stung his eyes and the unceasing nature of it angered him so. He was unhappy as the darkness descended, his gaze on the mountain landscape.
"Is that a light?" Eren asked, shooting up abruptly. He squinted. "… It is! A light!"
"Your eyes are better than mine…" Erwin said, trying to see what the boy was pointing at. "… It is a light. Let us hope they are friendly, for these are wild mountains."
A flicker of lightning revealed the mountain outlines and square shape around the fire.
"An inn!" Eren shouted, holding up a victorious fist. "An inn!"
Chapter 7: Cobalt and Scarlet
Cobalt and Scarlet
The star felt terrible as the unicorn whinnied sadly, shuffling along the stony path and through the rain.
"I am sorry, girl…" the star said into the unicorn's neck. "I know you are not meant to carry passengers…"
The star decided he hated the world he fell into. It had seemed so warm and interesting from above, but the boy now knew that was not the case. The world was cold and rocky and rainy and most unfriendly. It was a world where naïve boys who wanted to take you to their sisters chained you with moonlight only to let you free. The only good thing the star could find in the world was the unicorn, the unicorn who had to carry him and his broken leg for a day and a night without food.
The star nearly cried with joy when he saw the lights of an inn. The unicorn advanced upon the structure, stopping on the path towards the door and refusing to move closer. The star hushed the unicorn sweetly, stroking her mane in encouragement. His fingers shivered in the cold.
The inn door opened, illuminating the pair with firelight. The unicorn stilled, white as the sunlight reflected from the moon.
"Oh, dear, you must be freezing!" the woman at the door said. Her voice was motherly and concerned, honeyed. "Will you come in? We have food aplenty and fire to warm you. I can prepare you a bath if that is what you wish."
"I…" the star said shakily. "I need help, my leg is broken…"
"Poor child." the woman said. "I can get my husband Boris to help you in. There is hay and water in the stables for your companion."
The woman pulled the hood of a green cloak over her head, stepping into the pelting rain. The unicorn stomped in warning as she walked towards them.
"I do not wish to touch you, noble beast." she assured her. "I do not want to scare you off. It has been many years since I have seen a unicorn… We do not get many visitors on Mount Stohess."
The unicorn pattered behind the woman to the stables. The beast went to the furthest stall in the building, lying down carefully in the straw. The star descended ungracefully, tumbling into the grass like a wet kitten.
Boris was a stern man who said nothing to the star when he picked him up. Yet he was gentle as he carried the star indoors, placing him before the blazing fire.
"Poor child." the woman said again. "Soaked and chilled to the bone with your lovely clothes drenched too. We will get them dry straight away." The woman put up a screen in front of the fire and metal washtub. She stood on the opposite side of the screen as her husband assisted the star undressing. He hung the tunic and pants near the fire to dry.
"How warm do you like your bathes?" The woman questioned.
"I don't know." The star said from the deep and empty basin. He was bare save for the topaz stone and chain. "I have never had a bath before."
"Never had a bath?" the woman gasped. "My goodness! Well, I will not make it terribly hot then…"
Boris carried a great pot from the kitchen and poured the steaming water into the bath. The star thought it was much too hot at first, but soon became tempered to it and relaxed in its warmth.
"Call if you need another pot." The woman invited. "Take as long as you like. And when you are done, I will get you some ale and roasted mushrooms.
The husband and wife left before the star could object that he did not eat such things. He then sighed, shifting deeper into the water. His broken leg rested on a stool outside the washtub.
"Are you feeling any better?" The woman asked when she returned.
"Yes, much better, thank you very much so." The star said.
"How about your heart? Does it feel better too?"
"My heart?" The star inquired. He looked over the lip of the tub, seeing the shadowed outline of the woman through the screen. Her azure dress bundled up at her feet.
"… My heart does feel happier." The star continued. "Warmer, safer."
"Good," the woman said as she nodded. "Lets get it burning bright inside of you."
"I am sure with your care it will burn like the sun."
The woman laughed merrily. "What manners! Thank you, dear. Thank you."
She then tossed a fluffy robe over the screen. "Your clothes will be wet for a while now, so this is for you to wear when you wish to leave. No hurry, just call when you need me." She exited the room, pleased as she said, "A good, strong heart…"
The star decided there were other good things in this world, such as bathes and hearth fires. The outside might be dreadful and cold, but the bath was warm and loving.
Boris helped him out of the tub when he asked, bundling up the star in the warm robe. The gemstone was again hidden beneath clothing. The man aided the star over to the dinner table and sat him upon a wooden bench. Two blue-metal knives rested beside a plate of meat.
"Make yourself comfortable, dinner will be ready shortly." The innkeeper woman gladdened. She took a knife in each hand, running them against each other as if preparing to carve the meats. She put the smaller knife down.
"Service!" a great voice shouted from outside the inn. "Food! Ale! Fire! Where is the stable boy?"
A wind pushed against the inn, the fire flickering with it.
The innkeeper and the daughter looked to the woman, waiting. An expression pinched her blue eyes in distaste.
"It can wait for a little while." She said as she put down the cleaver. "You are not going anywhere with that broken limb, right, child?"
"Unfortunately not." the star said. He showed a cheery smile. "You are such a wonderful caregiver… I do not know how I could repay you."
"There is no need for that now." The woman replied, fiddling with the handle of one of the knives irritably. "There will be plenty of time to discuss it when these people are attended to."
The star continued to smile. His false grin dropped when the family turned away, his eyes gaining a critical and suspicious edge. He saw the eagerness in which the woman assisted him, how she hungrily watched, how close she put the knife to him. The details in his head swirled, waiting to be pieced together.
Annie did not know she was a terrible liar.
Eren brushed the chill from the horses. The inn appeared to have no stable-hand, leaving the job of tending to the horses to him. Erwin promised to send out a warm mug of tea to him.
The inn was the most wonderful thing Eren had seen since his entrance into the land of Faerie. Although, through his joy, he felt a wrongness. His sense of knowing where things were and how far they were did not register the inn, as if it never was or never could be. Yet he was aware of the star, not far away, his presence glowing and known.
Eren did not know what he would say to the star. One part of him wanted to snap at the boy for scurrying off, another part wanted to express how relieved he was that the star was safe. The horse at the end of the row of stalls bumped into the wall.
Eren was cleaning off the horse brush when his tea came, carried by a maiden with long and knarled hair. He did not see her face or hear her voice before she put down the mug and left to rejoin the others at the inn.
The horse at the end snorted suddenly. It began to bang a hoof against the door, scraping at the wood.
"Easy, boy," Eren said. The horse appeared to whinny hotly at that. "Easy… I will see if the innkeeper has some warm oats and bran."
The stall door shattered, a long ivory horn swooping forward. Eren instantly recognized it as the star's unicorn, still cut along its flanks and healing. The boy dove out the beast's way as she charged. The unicorn slid to a halt before the tea mug. Her horn lowered, skimming the surface of the liquid. The tea began to bubble sickly green bubbles, hissing evilly. The scene reminded Eren of some folklore or fairytale that he had heard, one that said a unicorn's horn detected contagion.
"Poison?" Eren asked, jumping to stand. The unicorn removed her horn, raising her head to stare into the boy's eyes truthfully. A flutter of dreadful panic seized his heart.
"The star…" He gaped, the wind hushing his volume to a whisper.
Eren bolted towards the door. A shred of sense crossed his fearful mind, causing him to pause. He took action upon his thought and ruffled into his pockets. He found the copper leaf stuck to the remaining candle wax. He freed the leaf from the wax, raising it to his ear. He listened as the beech leaf whispered and knew exactly what to do.
"Would you like a cup of wine?" The innkeeper woman asked as Erwin hung up his cloak, elevating the bottle for viewing.
The man gave the woman a polite smile and tip of the head. "If you do not mind warming it by the fire I shall take a glass, thank you. My traveling companion in the stables wishes for a mug of warm tea as well."
The daughter bowed, making off to the kitchen to fill his request.
"I will have your best room." Erwin told his host and hostess as he warmed himself by the fire. "How are your beds? Is the straw freshly changed? Are there hearths in the bedrooms? I see there is a washtub here. I will have a bath later if there is a pot of steaming water ready."
The star saw the woman hunch slightly, her anger rising. She spoke smoothly. "A pot of water can be arranged. The beds are good and straw fresh. I can build up a fire in our best room for you and your companion."
"Good," Erwin said, checking that his cloak was secure on the hook beside the fire. A tunic and pants dripped beside it.
Erwin looked towards the table, seeing the blond boy huddled in a robe much too large for him.
"Another inn mate? It does not surprise me with this weather."
A crash came from the stable, along with the sound of disturbed horses.
"The thunder must be bothering your steeds." The woman said. Erwin nodded.
The man then went to sit beside the boy at the table. He was silent for several moments. He then turned to the boy, meeting his eyes.
"You…" he began. "You, you are the one with my father's topaz. You carry the Power of Phoenixwing."
The star's iron-grey eyes flashed. Then, lowly, "I cannot give it to you unless you ask for it."
The innkeeper woman came between the two parties. "Now, now, I will not have you bothering other guests." She scolded, standing behind the bench. Erwin could see the fleshy red birthmark on her neck when she leaned so close. He could also see the thick knife in her hand.
He recognized the object, the blue metal, from the scrolls in the vaults of Mount Maria. They were ancient things, otherworldly things, things only designed to kill.
The front door flew open, wind howling.
"Erwin!" Eren shouted, dashing in. "They tried to poison me!"
Erwin reacted by grabbing for the sword on his belt. He was not quick enough, however, as a stinging pain ripped across his throat.
Eren saw the blue blood spray like a fountain and stain the star with its dark cobalt color.
The star yelped and dropped to the floor.
"Get the other!" The woman screamed to her husband and daughter.
The pair reacted immediately, running towards Eren. Eren threw himself out of harm's way, hearing the clopping of the unicorn as she entered the inn.
The beast kicked the daughter in the head as she reared up, spearing the husband with her sharp horn.
"Stupid," the woman muttered. She closed in on the unicorn tossing the bodies aside, knife in hand, dark blood crusting her dress in patches. "Stupid, stupid, stupid…"
Eren crawled towards the fireplace. He molded the remaining wax of Hannes' candle into a stout tube shape. He encased the cylinder in a strip of cloth.
"This better work, Rico," he hissed softly, reaching the fire. The star scooted beside him.
"What is happening?" he whispered, voice strained. Blue ichor streamed down his face, changing the yellow of his hair to deep blue. He hardly seemed to notice.
Before Eren could answer, the unicorn shrieked in agony, scarlet blood flailing from her face and neck. The knife was flicked of its blood as the unicorn fell, crashing to the floor. The weight of the beast jostled Erwin, causing him to gulp a final, wet breath. He saw the noblest of beasts fall as his vision faded.
"There," the woman said simply, turning upon the pair beside the fire. "I will have to gamble that things will go much smoother now. The burning heart of a star at peace is so much better than the flickering heart of a frightened star. Still… Better than no heart at all."
Her smile was terrifying as she advanced upon them, knife raised for the attack. Before Eren knew what he was doing or how he was going to do it, he collected the other knife from the table, shoving it into the shoulder of the woman. Eren saw the utter shock frozen on her face. He pounced back as the woman screamed, swinging her knife. The other perched in her shoulder. The wound began to steam.
"Bastard!" She wailed. The smeared blood on her face highlighted the fury in her eyes.
"Stand." Eren told the star, voice oddly level.
"Stand or we die now!"
Eren lifted the star with his arm and the boy clung to his side, balancing on his feet. Eren thrush the candle into the fire, the flames engulfing his hand. The necromancer watched in horror.
The burning was unbearable. Eren whipped out his roasted hand as the nib of wick caught, tears rolling down his face.
"Walk, and don't let go of me."
And suddenly the inn was gone.
The anguish cries of the woman echoed in their ears as they stumbled along, the star awkward with his steps.
They passed the salty and slick walls of underground caves, and then they were traveling across white sand dunes, and finally they reached the crests of the clouds, silver with the moonlight.
The last useable fiber of the cloth strip burned away.
The bubbling wax on Eren's raw hand was excruciating, causing him to drop to his knees, and the star along with him. The last of the wax dripped through the clouds.
Chapter 8: Goddess of Thunder and Lightning
Goddess of Thunder and Lightning
The pass of Mount Stohess was misty and cold from the rain of the days passed. Levi led a rugged and stout pony along the gravelled path. Both moved slowly, carefully. Levi looked ahead.
A wooden cart rested beside the trail, old and cracked, overturned. The paint that once embellished its sides was now faded and chipped. A dead goat sprawled next to it, flies nipping at the body. A deep hole through its heart oozed dry blood. A man with tanned skin lied a few meters away. His skull was crushed in, fluids leaking down to his stiff face. The pelvis and legs were separate from his torso. They were not cut apart cleanly as if with a sharp instrument, but rather jagged and unneeded, as if a racing carriage had half-heartedly ripped him in half. Levi moved on.
With a little more investigating Levi found another body. The person was face-down in a ditch, dusted with rumble. Levi heaved and flipped the man on his back.
He saw the slashed neck first, the indigo blood crusting the area, the wound a smooth curve. His face was pale and drained, eyes staring endlessly. A harsh and pinched expression overtook Levi's face.
"Erwin," he spoke coldly. "You were supposed to be the next Lord of Phoenixwing. Not I." Even though Levi spat the words, there was a tenderness to them, a caring sorrow.
"Now it will be you." Erwin said grimly, a shadow among his fallen brothers.
"Once he retrieves the topaz stone." Nile added snootily.
A wind hushed across the pass. Levi's cloak spread against the wind like a curtain, the man standing and hugging the garment to his chilled body.
"I will give you a proper burial." Levi told the corpse. "In the lowlands, under a rowan-berry tree. You who took what I was and made what I am deserve that."
"And you must take revenge upon the murder." Mike said.
"I will do that as well." Levi replied, eyes sharp as glass looking towards the ring of fallen brothers.
Startled, the brothers blinked as they met his eyes.
"You can hear us?" Auruo questioned unhappily, feeling betrayed.
"Of course I can." Levi said. "Anyone can. It is few who choose to listen to what is said."
Levi led the tawny pony forward, pausing by the ghosts.
"I will kill the bitch who slit your throat."
And he left it at that, loading Erwin's corpse onto the pony and continuing down the mountain path with a flat expression.
Eren discovered that clouds were strange things.
They were solid and spongy, unwhole and vaporous all at once. Eren found out he could push himself into the cloud if he so chose and possibly fall through to the earth, but did not test out the theory questioning whether clouds have a bottom.
His angry and burned hand had healed quickly into small and drying blisters. The star's leg, however, remained broken. He sat a distance away from Eren with his leg propped on a tufted knoll. His hair and face and robe remained bloody and blue.
"Well, we have made quite a mess of everything." Eren told the star matter-of-factly, sitting down beside him.
"Did you really have to stab her?" The star asked hotly, eyes terrible and stormy.
"Yes!" Eren barked. "She meant to kill us! She is an animal, a beast, and needs to be put down. Sometimes animals are disguised as people."
The star was silent for a moment. He drew up his good knee, resting his head.
"… You saved my life." He added, softly.
"… I suppose I did, yes."
The star hid his face. "I hate you." He said.
"You hate me?" Eren questioned testily. "I save your life and you hate me?"
"Now I am bound to you forever!" The star cried, whipping his head upwards. "My freedom is gone. Now that you have saved my life, by the law of my people, you are now responsible for me and I for you. Where you go, I go. I would rather be chained to a goblin or a dwarf or a dirty lizard…"
The star gulped as he tried not to cry, lip quivering. Then it happened all at once. He burst forth, gripping and burrowing into Eren's sleeve, tears raking streams through the blood on his face.
"Oh my god!" He wailed. "Oh god, I am sorry, I… Oh Great Grandfather, that was the first time I ever thought I was going to die!"
The boy felt sorry for the star. He had been there before, in agony and fear, crying despite it helping nothing. Old as he was, he was not invulnerable.
"I am sorry…" Eren said gently, trying to be supporting. He cupped the back of the star's head reassuringly, stoking lightly. His hair was thick and dry as if with clay.
The star backed away when he had cried himself content, face nearly clean.
"I am sorry I was so nasty to you," the star said, tone still wavering. "You who has only meant me goodwill thus far."
"I am sorry I chained you to me." Eren responded, catching the star by surprise.
"… Can we start over?" The star asked finally, timidly.
"Of course." Eren agreed, a smile catching his lips. He held out his hand to shake. "I am Eren Jaeger. Pleased to meet you." Eren told the star his full name and knew he had earned it.
The star became pink. He took the offered hand and shook once in haste.
"My siblings called me Armin."
"Armin." He said with bite. "You see… My siblings were not always very kind to me. Armin means 'whole' or 'universal', and I am a tiny star… Nothing like Betelgeuse, or Aldebaran…" The star said, trailing off in embarrassment.
"I think it is a wonderful name." Eren interjected. Armin smiled.
In all the merriment Eren had forgotten their predicament. He reached for his bag, only to realize he had left it at the inn, in the stables.
"Half a mile above the world and all we have is the clothes on our backs. We also do not know where the cloud is headed, you are injured, and we have no food or water. And we have no way of getting down. It appears we are doomed."
"Most likely." The star said with pointed and false optimism. "But I am sure the fall when the cloud dissipates will kill us both."
A fierceness crossed Eren. He stood, refusing that fate. "I am not going to let that happen."
He left the star and went off across the cloud.
Annie traveled high into the crags, whipping along a team of black stallions leading a black carriage. Her throat was completely exposed, skinless, the disease creeping towards her face to eat at the skin there. Her dress was ripped and rusted red at the shoulder, the bare muscle there an even deeper crimson. The green cape hid the remaining splatters of blue and red blood.
The lady necromancer halted the horses beside an outcropping of rock. The animals were sweating and overworked, nearly dead from the effort. Annie did not appear to care.
Annie dropped from the coachman seat, moving to open the carriage door. The body of the unicorn flopped out as she did so. The cut on its throat stained the brilliant white of its breast, eyes still agape and glassy.
Annie removed the cleaving knife from the inside of her cloak. She began to mutilate the body of the unicorn, causing the remains of its liquid blood to flow down the rocks to a shallow depression. She removed the neck from the head, clipping open the side it had lied on to free the blood that had pouched there. She soon had a pool of dark fuchsia blood.
She sat beside the small sea of ichor, twirling the ring on her finger.
"Bertholdt, Reiner," She addressed when the faces shimmered from the pool.
"Where is the star?" Reiner asked crossly. "Where has he gone?"
"Oh, Annie!" Bertholdt said with worry. "Your skin, the mirror… You have almost used up all of the heart we saved…"
"I chopped that one from the breast of the star nearly four-hundred years ago, although she screamed and cried ever so." Reiner said.
Annie's lips curled in disgust. "The star…" she began. "The star is not alone. He had a unicorn, which I slaughtered, and I shall bring the horn back with me to use in our cantrips and potions."
"It would have been wise to capture the soul as well." Reiner said. "You are depleting our reserve every day. But never mind that, what about the star?"
"He is with a boy." Annie said. "A boy with pointed ears, an elfin boy, and he protects him as well. He has taken the star somewhere I cannot feel his presence, as if he left Faerie altogether."
"… No." Bertholdt said hesitantly. "The star is still in Faerie, on his way to the Market of Wall. You must catch him before he crosses the threshold and is lost to us."
Annie bowed her head. "I understand. I shall go to Shiganshina Gate, for all on their way to Wall must pass there."
Annie stood herself up, the reflection in the pool empty save for the sky. She took the disembodied head of the unicorn and sat it beside her in the driver's seat. She whipped the reins and the exhausted horses lurched forth, trotting down the mountain trail.
Being so high in the clouds and far above the problems of the world made Eren thankful.
Even though he was starving and in great peril while he remained in the shifting clouds, he was thankful to be alive, feeling more in the now and part of the world than ever before. Even as he imagined what lay in store for him, his troubles seemed trivial and not worth worrying about. Armin and him would carry on, somehow, and he knew it to be true.
"Hello!" he called across the sky. "Anyone? Hello!" He shouted until he was satisfied, journeying back to sit by the star.
"What are you yelling about?" Armin inquired at his return.
"I am yelling to let people know we are here," Eren said, feeling very smart.
"… I think we are the only ones up here." Armin sighed. "But I suppose it is better to yell at no one than to not yell at anyone."
Eren relaxed on his back. He watched the higher and thinner clouds cruse by, the cirruses uncaring of him or his companion.
"You know…" He said after a moment. "After this is all over, after I have given you to Mikasa, maybe I can give you what you desire."
"I desire to return to the heavens." He replied. "To shine again. But when stars fall, they never go back again."
"You could be the first," Eren encouraged with a cocky grin. "In order to get what you desire, you have to believe you can."
The star sighed again. "I could desire the grass to be blue and the sky to be green, yet no matter how much I believe, it will never happen. And desires change, as hearts and people do. Such as I suppose my true desire is to not have to desire anything, as I did while dancing the sky."
Eren looked towards the boy. "What is the point of living if you have nothing to live for?"
"Ahoy!" a voice rang down from above before the star could answer. "Hello? Those in need of assistance?"
"Yes!" Eren shouted, jumping up. "Yes, over here!"
The bow of a wooden ship appeared from within the topmost cumulus clouds. It was a small vessel with one mast and few sails, riding the currents of the air. A man with a shaven head was leaning over the side, catching eye of the couple upon the clouds.
"Was that you yelling into the clouds just now?" He asked.
"It was," Eren confirmed. "We are in need of assistance."
"I will send down the ladder, then," The man said with a wink and grin.
Eren looked upon Armin, his broken leg still unusable.
"My companion has a broken leg." He told the man. "I am afraid he cannot climb a ladder."
"No worries, we can just put you up!" He said, throwing a rope ladder from the side of the ship. Eren held the rung level with his head. He then helped the star to stand upon the final rung, looping his other arm around him to hold him secure. He locked his boot heels and free elbow to the ladder.
"We're all set!" Eren called to the crew.
The ship began to rise, leaving the pair dangling unrestrained from the rope ladder. Armin did not seem nearly as nervous as Eren at having no substance below them.
"Heave!" the crew ordered in unison, the ladder being jerked upwards. "Heave! Heave! Heave!"
Someone held out a hand when they reached the side, aiding the star in stumbling over the railing. Eren pulled himself over and landed awkwardly on the deck.
"Welcome aboard!" The man with the shaven head greeted, extending a hand gingerly. "First mate Connie Springer, at your service!"
Eren shook his hand civilly. Up close he could see the man had strangely purple eyes and a soft grey tint to his skin.
"Welcome to the Dauper Ragako!" A loud, musical voice announced. Eren and the star looked towards the voice, alarmed. They saw a woman open her great ivory wings, fluttering gracefully to the lower deck.
"Welcome to my ship!" She invited again, taking a deep bow. Her brunette braid dipped over her head. She stood straight and smiled, brown eyes glowing. She had a pretty yellow gloss color to her lips that complimented them. Her snow-white wings rested folded on her back.
"Captain Sasha Braus, lighting-expeditioner extraordinaire!" She provided, shaking Eren's hand as well.
She dismissed him before he could reply to her, engrossing herself with the star.
"Oh, poor child…" She cooed, kneeling beside Armin. "Broken bones are always nasty things. And look at you! Covered in mess."
"… Ah, yes." The star agreed, blinking softly.
"Connie!" Sasha shouted, the man standing to attention. "Get the salve! Get the bath ready!"
The salve was a herby green paste. It soothed all pain from Armin's leg, diminishing the swollen and bruised areas. It was the greatest relief the star had felt in days.
"My own family recipe," The captain boasted. "Should heal you right up. Now! A bath! Then dinner!" She declared with vigor, looking between the guests. "We eat within the hour. You may sit with me at my table."
Sasha was happy to show the pair the way to the gallery. They went below deck for this, passing a duo of stalls housing fierce beats. The creatures were large and had sharp, dangerous beaks, the eyes and faces like that of eagles. Their brown feathers were plentiful on their chests and shoulders and wings. Legs like a birds supported their frontal half, feet brandished with talons. The other half of them, however, had hair and hooves. Their backsides were like horses, with thick muscles and long wry tails. They looked up as Sasha approached.
"And these are my babies!" The captain informed them. She began to rub at their necks, causing the beasts to make contented cat noises. "Honeybee and Cocoa, my hippogriffs. They are the ones who collect the lightning for us!"
"How?" Armin asked, generally interested.
"Oh! Well, you see…"
The conversation about the doings about and of lightning-hunting continued well into dinner. Armin had cleaned the blue blood from his hair and looked more pleased and refreshed than before. He borrowed an old shirt and pants from one of the male crew members, the articles only slightly too large.
The stew was hardy and perfectly filling, the water provided clean and cold and delicious. Eren made pleasant conversation with the other five members of the crew. Connie had a wonderful sense of humor and made the crew laugh with his jokes and silliness, raising Eren and the star's spirits immensely.
The crew asked no questions about why Eren and Armin were found upon a cloud and neither said anything about it. They only ate and made merry, although no one more than the captain herself.
The time Eren and Armin spent upon the Dauper Ragako was an amazing and delightful time. The star could rest his wounded leg as much as he pleased, often spending his days conversing with the hippogriffs in a way Eren did not understand. Armin once told the boy that the hippogriffs had flown around the moon although Eren did not understand how or why. He questioned it and the star only smiled. Not knowing irked him.
Eren often helped with the day-to-day sailing and navigation. He learned the way of tracking lightning storms and catching the bolts. The ship would sail first into a storm cloud, the rain drenching the ship and people aboard. Honeybee and Cocoa would be released into the storm to hunt their prey. They flew fast, incredibly fast, faster than the lightning they chased. They caught the crackling bolts in their beaks, returning to the ship to hoard them in copper chests. Sasha would laugh with the thrill of it. The rain slipped from her oiled wings as she watched the flight of the hippogriffs from the side of the ship.
Armin enjoyed sitting on the boat's figurehead during calmer days. He watched the ground pass below, fearless of heights, feeling like he was with the other stars in the heavens once again.
"Your friend's leg is healing nicely." Sasha said to Eren one afternoon. She joined him leaning against the railing, watching the slow clouds ease by.
"That is good." Eren said. "All due to your care, I am sure."
Sasha laughed at that. "What flattery! That salve does do wonders. My father showed me how to make it many years ago. Your friend should be able to put his weight on it within the week."
A wind blew, rustling the feathers upon the woman's wings.
"When we port at the end of the week we will let you off there. You shall be closer to Wall, although it shall still be a journey of many weeks on foot."
Eren was startled. He looked at the woman, wary.
"How do you know we are going to Wall?" He demanded. "I never said anything about it. When you asked where we came from I said 'Behind us' and when you asked where we were going I said 'Ahead of us'.
A grin held her lips.
"It was not only fortune that led us to you." The captain told Eren. "Well, I suppose it was fortune for you. I, and a few others, were keeping an eye out for you and your companion."
"Do you know of a little bearded man with a pack much too big for him?"
"… Hannes?" Eren said, finally.
She nodded once. "Yes, he told us about you. I, and others, are part of this, how you say, fellowship that has an interest in your return to Wall. But this is nothing to speak aloud, mind you."
Eren said nothing.
"That'a boy!" Sasha said, an accent coming out with her enthusiasm. "Oh, and also: if your little star wants to pass for something other than he is he might try eating every so often."
Eren told this to the star and the star agreed. His splint was ready to come of by the end of the week according to Sasha. She removed the wraps and wooden splits, Armin taking to walking carefully and shakily about the deck. Eren watched as he held onto the rails for support. He could soon walk alone, limping only slightly. It made the boy with pointed ears smile.
The ship harvested lightning once more before taking port. The boat docked beside dozens of other such vessels in an impossibly large tree. It was so large it not only held ships but a town with buildings on its branches and along its trunk. Armin and Eren said their goodbyes to the crew of the Dauper Ragako and it was a sorrowful event, causing Connie to shed a tear. He gifted the star a new outfit, consisting of a white shirt with a blue overcoat and ruddy trousers. Sasha gave him a jar of her salve, directing him to varnish his leg with it whenever it ailed him. Eren received a satchel full of foodstuffs and a knife and other useful paraphernalia.
"We cannot have you starving along the way." The captain clucked when Eren tried to return the benefactions.
The only way down from the tree was looping around the stairs carved into its trunk. The boy and the star walked upon them cautiously, the descent painstakingly particular. Eren felt relief when he touched the earth again, but also loss, as if something he could never do again had just ended. His heart hurt.
It took many days for the tree to vanish behind the horizon. They traveled the road towards Wall, going by Eren direction. They slept under trees and ate wild plants when they could find them, otherwise picking at the provisions given to them. It was only later Eren noticed the copper tube in the bottom of the bag. It was engraved with a strange seal.
"That is a canister for individual lightning bolts." Armin said, sure of it. "I wonder why Sasha would give that to you?"
Eren did not know either.
Sometimes the pair slept outside, sometimes in barns of farmers in exchange for work, sometimes in inns when they had the money. Trouble also seemed to follow them wherever they went. Thieves like to pick at them, along with wild beasts such as chimeras and trolls and goblins. Armin saved them many times with his quick wit and judgment, and Eren just as many times with his disregard for using violence and his frightening anger. They survived with only bruises and cuts.
Eren's hair became long and wild, his skin tan, while the star never changed. His limp remained, his hair never grew beyond his shoulders, and his skin was always pale.
Eren also heard the star sing for the first time. It was a hypnotizing and magnificent sound, the sound of the infinity before time and the forever after. It filled Eren with its unworldly charm, putting him in utter peace and contentment.
"I have not heard you sing since you comforted the unicorn." Eren said when he finished.
"I was only humming then." Armin said. "I suppose this was the first time I have felt like singing."
"It was very beautiful." Eren said.
The star smiled, cheeks blushing modestly. "Thank you. Some nights my siblings and I sing together, about our Grandfather and dancing and shining and what will be before and after time."
"It sounds lonely."
"I suppose it is…" Armin said, sighing. "But it is the life of a star. It is our job to show to beauty of being lonely despite not being alone."
"I am sorry." Eren said.
The star laughed, lightly. "Don't be, it is not your fault. Because of you I am still alive. I am lucky to have fallen in Faerie, and lucky to have met you. Because of you I have the hope that I might be the first star to return to the sky."
A hot, aching desire filled Eren's heart. Its presence made him angry, and miserable at the same time, a neediness engulfing him.
"Thank you." Eren said, tightly.
"You are welcome…" Armin said, smiling in a blissful smile that made Eren's whole being hurt.
Eren was in love and he knew it.
Eren found a ferret while looking for breakfast.
He had a small sack of mushrooms and berries that he found while scavenging. He was ready to go back to the star when he saw the animal in the undergrowth. It interested him because he had never seen a ferret with peach fur, the only colors he remembered being white and grey and black. The ferret cocked its head, red eyes winking.
Eren approached the creature. It was not startled, only looking up to him when he was before it. The ferret made a point to draw attention to its leg. A silver chain like the one he had trapped the star with linked its leg, the length of the chain tangled around a root.
"Need help?" Eren asked, the ferret chirping a confirmation.
Eren unwrapped the chain from the root delicately. He patted the creature on the head when he finished.
"There you go, all better." Eren said, but the animal only chittered, knocking a head against his palm.
"Go home." Eren directed irritably. "I know someone is probably waiting for you." He picked up the ferret like a swathed baby.
A darkness crept through his blood then, freezing and frightening him. The ferret made an angry noise, perking up.
"Thief!" A voice howled from afar. "Thief! That is my ferret! I shall feed you to the trolls, I shall turn you into a mayfly, I shall roast your heart on a spit! Thief!"
A woman came crashing through the underbrush, her eyes afire. Her spectacles had become crooked with her haste.
"I am not a thief!" Eren said furiously, more angry with than fearful of the woman. "You ferret was caught on a root and I freed it, nothing more!"
"Lies." The woman said darkly, viewing the ferret in his hold. As if to make a point, the ferret scurried down, going to sit on the woman's shoulder. The animal chattered into her ear and she listened carefully, skeptical.
"… I suppose not everything you said was a lie." The woman said.
"Nothing I said was a lie!" Eren shouted after the two. He grumbled as they left, taking the mushrooms and berries to Armin.
He was rubbing the salve on his leg when Eren returned, albeit in bad spirits. He told him about the state of his morning, the rage within him diluting. The star cocked his head afterwards, inquisitive.
"Well, that is odd…" Armin said. "A golden ferret…"
They both thought that to be the end of it. They knew they were wrong, however, when in the afternoon they were passed by a mule-carried caravan while walking. The witch with the glasses was the driver. She pulled her reins to a stop, leaning from the driver's seat to motion at Eren.
"Come hither." She said.
Eren walked closer, uneasy.
"I own you an apology." She said, smiling a kind smile. "You were telling the truth, I just jumped to a conclusion too quickly. You were holding my most valuable property, you know."
Eren nodded to accept her grievances.
The witch then hopped to the ground. Her smile grew, eyes shinning. "Here, let me have a look at you!" She cheered, uncaring of Eren's permission. She circled him many times, feeling his face enough for Eren to grow agitated.
"Hum…" She said, staring into his eyes. "You seem honest enough, and handsome too. Your eyes remind me of someone I know, yes, with eyes like burning embers." She stood erect then. "Call me Hanji!" She introduced. "How would you like to work for me? You see, I am on my way to the Market of Wall and need a boy to work for me. Not hard work, oh no, just selling flowers, glass flowers, the prettiest things. You would be a fine market-boy… Well, what do you say? Do we have a deal?"
Eren knew better than to answer right away. "One moment, please," he excused himself. He went back to Armin and discussed the matter with him. They came to a conclusion and returned to the witch together.
"Good day," Armin said. "We have decided that your offer is-"
"Well?" Hanji interrupted, heed completely upon Eren. "Do not just stare! Speak, boy, speak!"
"I do not wish to work at the market." Eren responded after a moment. "I have business of my own to attend to. However, my companion and I are willing to pay for a ride to the market."
The witch shook her head, enthusiasm dying. "No can do. You would just be more weight for the mules. I do not take passengers."
"But, we would pay you!" Eren said, unsatisfied.
Hanji laughed at his childish desperation. "There is nothing you can give me to convince me! Now, if you were to work for me, I would give you journey to Wall. Otherwise, be off with you."
Eren reached into the pocket of his shirt, finding the smooth and perfect glass of the snowdrop he had guarded throughout his travels. He presented it to the witch, holding it with care.
"You sell glass flowers, right? How about this one?"
Hanji's brown eyes widened. Her jaw grew slack, hungry. She let out a cry, lunging forward. "Where did you get that?! Give it to me! Give it to me right now!"
Eren protected the flower with both hands, enclosing it against his chest. He turned away, shunning the woman.
"It appears I have realized how much I like this flower." Eren said. "It was a gift from my father and carries a lot of sentimental value. It has brought me luck and fortune throughout my journey and I wish to keep it. We can always walk to Wall."
The witch nearly imploded. She desperately wanted the snowdrop, the desire clear with her composure and expression. She took a deep breath and feigned self-control.
"No need to be like that! I am sure we can reach a deal."
"I doubt it." Eren said, nose upturned. "It would have to be worth my loss. It would have to be a very fine deal, with guarantees of safe-conduct and safeguards to assure your behavior and actions towards me and my companion will always be benevolent and free of malice."
"… Let me see the snowdrop again."
Eren faced the witch again and peeked the flower from his hands. The golden ferret crawled from the caravan, perching on the roof to watch the situation below. Armin looked at the poor creature and sighed.
"Why do you keep her chained up so? You should let her free."
Hanji did not answer or acknowledge the star. She only peered at the glass flower, thinking.
"I promise to transport you to Wall, and I swear upon my magic and true name that I will not harm you along the journey."
"Or by action, or indirect action, allow harm to come to me or my companion."
"Very well, as you say."
Eren eyed the woman, distrustful.
"And," he added. "You must swear that we will arrive in Wall in the same state and condition we are now, and you will give us board and lodging upon the way."
Hanji nodded violently. "Yes, yes! We have a deal!"
She jutted out her hand. Eren, carefully, took her hand, shaking. "We have a deal."
"Now give me the flower!" She said greedily. It was such a great greed that Eren regretted not making a better deal, but passed her the fragile object anyway. She grasped the flower close when it became hers.
"I do believe this is better than the one that servant-girl gave away all those years ago!" She said with relish. "Now, child… Do you know what this is?"
"A glass flower." He said simply.
"Not only that!" She said, giggling madly. "It is a thing of power, a frozen charm! It can perform wonders, miracles… Here, watch!" She tapped the snowdrop against Eren's forehead.
Eren suddenly noticed he was very small. He blinked, staring at the woman's feet with his vision dazed. He made a sound of warning, a chirping grunt.
"Eren!" Armin gasped, kneeling by the dark ferret. The animal stared upwards, stupid.
The golden ferret atop the caravan made a displeased sound, crawling downwards to the ground. She chattered softly to the star and black ferret, comforting. With that Armin knew it would be alright.
"No hard feelings…" Hanji said, picking up the boy ferret, oblivious of the star. "It is not a very big caravan, you know. And I will still keep my end of the bargain, no worries."
"And what do you plan to do to me?" Armin asked as she climbed into the caravan, exasperated. He was hardly fazed when she did not answer him. He followed the witch into the one-room wagon, complete with a bed and an oaken shelf packed with glass flowers resting upon grass.
Hanji put the snowdrop in one of the shelf holes. She found a cage under her low bed. She put Eren, still blinking in confusion, inside the cage, hanging it upon a hook by the door. She rummaged for some dry meat strips and tossed them into the cage.
"There, board and lodging."
Armin watched with concern from his seat on the witch's bed.
"Excuse me," he said to the witch. "But from what I see at hand and the evidence collected before, evidence such as you acknowledging none of me, can I take it that you neither see or hear me?"
Hanji said nothing at all. She only shut the door and mounted the driver's seat, flipping the reins. The golden ferret sat on her shoulder.
You have not kept your word, the jill said with unrefined hatred.
"I have kept my word to the letter," The witch replied shrewdly. "He shall be transformed back when we reach Wall. And after that you will be made human, for you must run the flower-stall. If only I could find a better servant…" She sighed, bumping along with the caravan. "But I do believe that snowdrop is better than the one you gave away years ago. Oh, happy day!"
If you say so, the golden ferret said.
Armin played a strange tango with the witch who could not see him. He slept while she was awake, and was awake while she slept. He rested upon the roof of the caravan and watched the stars, speaking with the ferret in the strange way he did with all animals. It was the only time she could since she ignored the star while the witch was about.
Eren is too confused to speak, to think, the ferret told the star when he asked why Eren would not converse with him. He was made utterly into an animal and does not know how to be relieved from it.
"How do you know his name is Eren?" The star asked.
The golden ferret got a wolfish look. You said his name when he was changed, remember?
The star blushed, guilty.
Also, I know because I named him.
The ferret and the star learned of each other's past as the weeks came and went. Armin learned of the ferret's life as a princess of Phoenixwing, of her curse, of the event of Eren's birth. The ferret learned of the stars, the moon, and the doings in the heavens. They bonded over their loneliness.
Eren looks like his father, the ferret said one night under the stars. With his dark hair and authority.
"Who is Eren's father?" The star asked politely.
His name is Levi, the ferret said. He is the head general of Phoenixwing. I fell in love with him during the Necromancer Wars, as a solider in his elite squadron. Many of my brothers died in the wars and he comforted me. After the conflict ended we married and soon we were expecting a child… Eren. You know you must not tell him any of this.
Perhaps he needs to find out for himself. And even if you tell him, what will it do? He has a family in Wall. I sacrificed the right to be his mother so he could be happy, free, living away from my torment and the burden of being a prince of Phoenixwing. As long as he is ignorant this cannot be. As long as he is ignorant he can be happy, carrier of the Power of Phoenixwing. Let him be as he already is and not what could have been.
"What about Eren's father? Levi?"
I unfortunately had to make a decision for him.
Armin thought about this for a long while. He watched the stars spin slowly in the sky, time slow as well. The ferret curled into his side to sleep.
"… When do you know you are in love?" The star whispered, knowing the golden ferret to be sleeping and not expecting an answer.
The ferret, however, sighed, replying.
You know you are in love when you know another person owns your heart.
Armin cared for the ferret while the witch was away. He gave him more food and took him out of the cage to caress and sing to him, hoping that somehow he understood him. Eren spent most of his days sleeping, instinctively trying to communicate when the other ferret wrapped around the top of his cage. She was there to comfort him, or more herself, protective of her child.
The star's leg pained him no longer. He was now grateful for the times he was permitted to walk, the limp still present. He knew he would always have it since Eren was no doctor, but accepted the reality, living with his scar.
Armin was afraid speaking to others would unveil his existence to the witch. He found this not to be true when a traveler he was speaking to inquired about him to Hanji and the witch ignored him, unable to perceive in any way the presence of the star.
"Eren…" the star said softly, rubbing the velvety area of his chin. "Eren, if you can understand me, look at me now." The black ferret opened his red, beady eyes, smiling with sharp teeth. Whether he smiled in love of the treatment or in love of the star Armin did not care.
"Eren, I think I love you." Armin said, pain threading his voice. "I miss you, Eren, I really do. I miss your smile, and I even miss when you get angry or violent, because I know that is a part of you… For centuries I have watched this world tear itself apart with wars and lies and hate and pain. But the love I saw… That made it bearable, that made me unable to turn away. To see love is to see the most beautiful thing the universe has to offer. I know love is unconditional and unpredictable and unexpected and uncontrollable and unbearable, but it is also so beautiful. And, well, Eren… I think I love you. My heart, it is filled with all those things, and I no longer feel like it is mine. It is yours now. Whether I get back into the sky does not matter to me now. I told you desires changed and now my desire has. I want nothing more than for you to love me. Nothing more. Your heart… For mine."
The ferret bumped his head against the star's wrist and he began to sob.
Chapter 9: In Which We Learn of Lady Eleonora and Lady Petra
In Which We Learn of Lady Eleonora and Lady Petra
Ymir awoke in the middle of the night.
It was a strange thing, for she craved sleep no longer. She nictitated slowly, staring at the dark ceiling.
"Ymir…" a voice called to her, softly.
The girl lifted herself up. She looked towards the end of her bed, seeing the woman standing there. The woman smiled at her. The dark fringe of her hair rested upon her eyelashes, the curly tresses falling far down her back. She had brown skin and black, narrow eyes. She did not look unkind or threatening in any way.
"Ymir," she said again. "Ymir, it is time for you to return to the place you have never been."
Ymir leaned her head to the side, eyes slitting skeptically. She knew this woman was dead, in the way she knew all the spirits she spoke with were. But this woman was odd. Ymir could not figure out how or why she died or who she was or how she had lived, almost as if she had never lived or died at all. She existed without and end or beginning and that was alarming.
"… Who are you?" Ymir asked harshly.
The woman smiled again. She moved to the side of the bed, hovering over the girl. Ymir gave her an evil glare, teeth bared.
"Silly girl!" she scolded with humor. "I am Eleonora, I am your mother!"
"… My mother?"
The woman bobbed her head. "Yes, yes! I have come to tell you that you must go into Faerie. The Diviner's of Sina are trying to capture the life of some one who lives forever and I cannot allow that."
"Then why don't you stop them yourself?" Ymir hissed. She felt used. Her mother had ignored her for almost two decades and only came now, when she needed something. It made Ymir feel unwanted, unimportant.
Eleonora reached down, cupping her daughter's cheek. Ymir jumped at the contact, actually feeling a full hand instead of a kiss of wind.
"Silly girl…" She repeated. "You must know I gave up my immortality and art for you to have yours, for that is what I do: share life, not take or give it away. I would go after them if I could, but yet, I cannot. I would rather you live with your father in this world as you are instead of venturing into Faerie as something you could have been. I am sorry, Ymir. I truly am."
Ymir hated the sensitivity she showed with her tears. She held the weeping to burn at the back of her throat, only single droplets falling down her cheeks. She touched the hand on her face with her eyes pinched shut.
"Oh dear baby…" Eleonora soothed. "It will not be difficult, I promise. You must only know their names and that you are my daughter."
Lady Eleonora whispered into her ear, telling Ymir of all the matters she needed to know.
Ymir walked the dark streets alone. She traveled eastward to her destination: the wall. The moon and stars cast black, full shadows of utter darkness, the shades outlining the clear road. Ymir moved silently in the loneliness of night.
"Ymir…?" The voice was so hushed the girl nearly missed it. She halted, waiting.
"Ymir, where are you going?"
It is then she noticed the girl sitting on the ledge of her window, one foot dangling outside. Her skin was smooth and pale in the moonlight.
Ymir looked upwards to the second-story window. "Historia? Historia, what are you doing up?"
The girl leaned into the light of the moon, hair tumbling over one shoulder. She blinked, fully registering the matter of the person below her.
"I, ah, can't sleep…"
"Go back to bed." Ymir said with finality, turning away. She continued walking.
"No, Ymir, wait!" Historia cried, hushing her desperation immensely. "Ymir, if you are leaving, I want to go with you."
Ymir paused at that. She faced back towards the window.
"I am going where you cannot follow me. I am going over the wall."
"I want to go with you."
The girl sighed, shaking her head. "Why? You are a Reiss, you have a great and rich life here. Why would you want to come with me?"
"Because," Historia said, the fierceness pretty upon her pretty face. "I am always on your side, Ymir. Wherever you go, I follow. Being a Reiss or a rich does not make me happy. You are the one who makes me happy. And I must follow the one who owns my heart."
Historia wore her riding habit, hat and all, jacket tight and skirt long and thin. Ymir carried both of their bags out of kindness. She became strangely uncomfortable after Historia joined her, staring at the sky and countless stars.
"Ymir…" Historia asked after the road had ended and they began to climb the hill towards the wall. "How are we going to get passed the guards?"
"… I don't know."
Ymir knew her father was assigned that night. He, along with Alberich Bodt, waited at the opening. Týr's sharp eyes caught the forms of the pair as they journeyed towards him, Alberich asleep against the wall.
"Father," Ymir addressed when she was before him. Alberich snorted quietly, Historia swallowing audibly.
"Ymir," He said, nodding his head. The freckles on his bearded cheeks were hidden by the shadow of his hat.
"Mother said I must go over the wall." She said, deciding to be straight-forward.
"Eleonora?" Týr said with surprise. He spoke the word with a loving fondness.
"Yes, Eleonora." Ymir confirmed. "I must do as she did before when she was a necromancer."
Týr stared at his daughter for a long while. His eyes drifted to Historia, regal beside Ymir.
"Must she also follow in her mother's footsteps?"
"My mother ran away," Historia said with a coldness Ymir did not know she had. "I have nothing to run away from, only something to run towards. Wherever Ymir goes, I follow."
The man rumbled in his chest. He rubbed his prickly chin, thinking. He looked between the woman before him.
"… Very well." He said. "If Eleonora said you must go, then you must go."
He parted to make way. Ymir looked at Historia and Historia looked at her. They joined hands, squeezing.
"Thank you, Father."
"It is the least I can do."
The pair crossed the threshold together, leaving the world we know and voyaging into Faerie. It was Historia who broke the silence when they were far into the woods and surrounded by the unknown.
"You know… While I am here, I want to be someone different, someone who is not Historia Reiss. I want a name that defines who I am and not who I was."
"A name? What kind of name?"
"Well… I have always liked the name Christa."
Levi trotted along on a young workhorse. When he had reached the bottom of Mount Stohess he had traded the pony to the first farm who would take it. He also did as he promised and buried Erwin beneath a rowan tree. The process was quick as allowed, the goodbyes already said. The dead son's of Phoenixwing followed him now, waiting for the time when he finally recovered the stone. Their souls would no longer be earthbound then.
Levi heard the stars speak of their fallen brethren venturing to Wall. Besides learning that this star carried the topaz he sought by listening to the stars, Levi learned that the star's name was Armin and that he traveled with a boy. He knew they had spent many weeks aboard a flying ship as well. Levi knew when they landed and the way they were going because he listened. The only magical ability he had was to observe when one speaks, and it was not really a magically ability at all, more like a choice. Nothing like the location or self-healing prowess of the blood of Phoenixwing.
The man moved along the path to the Market of Wall at the pace of his horse. He slept and ate when he could, but his hunt never tired, his determination dead-set. He knew his obligation.
It was when he was nearing Shiganshina Gate that he came upon the painted caravan of Hanji. He made to pass the lumbering wagon but was stopped, the witch shrieking his name.
"Levi! Is that you?"
The man looked over his shoulder, viewing the woman. She lifted up her arm in a wave, beckoning him over.
"Levi, it is you!"
Levi pulled his horse back, leveling its pace with that of the caravan.
"Ah, Shitty-Glasses," he greeted her in a crude way. "I haven't seen you since you were ruled unfit to be a noblewoman and banished to the outer provinces."
She pouted at that. "It is not my fault they thought capturing necromancers and running tests on them was wrong. All in the name of victory! Yes, yes, it has been a while."
Levi eyed the caravan coolly. "I see you have put your arts to other uses."
"Indeed! Why, just the other day…"
Hanji chatted with her old friend incessantly, the man tuned out to her babble. The golden ferret climbed onto the caravan roof, ears perking. She looked upon the man atop the horse.
Her red eyes flashed. Her heartbeat sped up, excitement and joy clashing within her. Her cry came with an ungodly shrillness.
Levi, Levi!, she screeched, scrambling down to the driver's seat to catch his attention. The man took notice when his name was said, eyes flicking to the ferret.
Levi, say my name!, she pleaded oh so frantically. Levi, you must say my name! Levi, Levi please! Say my name!
"… Say your name?"
"Oh, you foolish ferret," Hanji chided mildly. "No need to scream so loudly."
The witch snapped her fingers and the ferret could say no more, slumping to sleep. She rested upon the coachman seat without another word.
"Animals." Hanji sighed, shaking her head. "They do the weirdest things. I do not know why she came out to shriek at you."
Levi looked forward again. He watched a cloud gliding upon the wind.
"She told me to say her name." He said.
Hanji laughed at that. "You are funny, Levi! You know animals cannot talk."
He said nothing to that. He glanced towards the golden ferret sleeping peacefully, her fur amber in the sun.
"Did you have that ferret before?" Levi asked. "Something seems familiar about her…"
"I did!" The witch said immediately. "Don't you remember? Well, it has been a while. Do you remember when…"
And her speech continued. They walked together through the afternoon. The star and ferret slept all the while, one inside and one outside.
The two reached Shiganshina Gate before the evening. It is not a gate, not really, only a pair of stones marking the side of the road. They lie beside the only flat path through heavily hilled country and everyone on their way to Wall must journey upon it.
Annie waited beside the eastern stone. She used the stolen coach as a temporary home, something to keep the elements away, the horses finally resting. She questioned every traveler that passed her, dismissing them when she was satisfied that they did not possess the star she searched for.
"Small world!" Hanji said when she stopped her caravan beside the road.
"I would be careful not to insult me, Lady Zoë," Annie warned coldly, lifting herself to stand.
Levi inspected her carefully. Even though the hood of the green cloak shadowed her face, Levi could see the skin around her eyes and neck was missing. He knew a necromancer when he saw one and knew she was one, a weakened one, nearly free of all her skin. The hairs on his neck rose.
"She is the one who cut my throat," Erwin said to Levi. He made sure to whisper this into his ear and disappear quickly, knowing the lady necromancer could not only hear him like Levi, but see him as well. Levi nodded once.
"Who travels with you to Wall?" Annie asked the witch.
"What's it to you?" Hanji said stand-offishly.
"No need for the attitude." Annie said. "Or would you rather be a worm left for the birds?"
A shiver graced the witch. She gulped, answering truthfully. "There is me, there is the mules, and there are two ferrets. That is all, I swear upon my art and my true name."
"And you?" Annie said to Levi.
"There is me and my horse." He said with a briskness, looking down upon the woman. She narrowed her eyes.
"… Very well, go along. I suppose I shall see you in Wall."
The caravan began to move again. The star continued to sleep upon the witch's bed and the ferret upon the witch's coach seat, both oblivious to the dangerous situation they had avoided.
Hanji and Levi departed when they reached the market. The sun was setting in the west, blotting the man to blackness as he left to disappear within the bustle of the rising tents and people. He said he had matters to attend to and nothing more. Hanji waved a tulip after him, just a small charm, one that would not make him hanker to come around the caravan again. Only an extra precaution.
Armin frightened awake when the witch opened the caravan door, the wood creaking terribly. The witch took the cage from the hook, waking the black ferret as well.
"You will be a little disoriented for a while, so be careful." She said, putting the open cage onto the grass. The ferret chattered, toeing himself out of his confinement.
Hanji used the tulip once again, bopping the animal atop the head. In a whirl the ferret was suddenly Eren. The boy blinked, stumbling. He went for his knife only to fall onto his side. He gasped, limbs twitching ferociously.
"Eren!" The star said, tripping from the caravan. He hurried to the boy's side to aid him.
"A-Armin?" He mumbled something barely considered speech. "Y-You…?"
"I am alright." The star assured him. "She did not harm me at all. I do not believed she even saw me or knew I was there… Why, I do not know."
Eren contented himself with that, shutting his eyes with relief.
"I warned you," the witch hummed. "Just wait a few hours and it will pass."
"H-Haggard." Eren spat.
"Now, now," Hanji said, waving a finger. "I lived up to my promise. None of that now."
She then turned her intent to the golden ferret. With a snap the creature was up. She stood on her haunches instantly, looking to and fro. Her expression darkened when she did not see the one she wanted, a sad squeak opening her throat.
"None of that either." Hanji reprimanded. She waved the glass flower, murmuring words as well. The golden ferret was soon replaced on the coachman's seat by a woman with honey-colored hair and eyes, pointed ears brushed with fur and earrings. She looked towards the star with pity and sorrow, her expression wholly pained. Her lips quivered.
"So that is your true form…" Armin said and she nodded, dropping from the caravan seat, the chain still about her foot and wrist.
"Take him to rest under a tree," she said quietly. "And get him some food and drink. He will feel better after he sleeps."
After that she ignored them entirely, diligence upon the witch squawking at her to take the mules to the stream. She did so without a word and without opposition.
The star dragged Eren as gently as he could to the patch of grass under a mulberry tree. The only substance he could find for an agreeable price was warm wine and soft bread. He fed the bread to Eren piece by piece, and wine sip by sip, the alcohol putting him into a soft and silent sleep. Armin fixed the sun-faded, green tunic sleeves down to the boy's wrists, the night coming cold. Eren was not bothered.
The star sat beside Eren with his back against the tree. He presided over him protectively, possessively, looking at the stars through the billowing branches. It seemed unreal that they were already in Wall, their adventure already over, the star feeling like he had fallen only yesterday. He glanced down to the sleeping, wolf-eared boy beside him. He did not know when the love had began, only when the hate and distrust had stopped. Or maybe he had loved him ever since they had met and mistaken it as loathing as is often done. Whenever, or however, he knew that he loved him now.
A sound came from behind the tree. Armin startled, looking with panic, heart racing.
"Only me," a voice provided tenderly. The golden ferret who was now a woman walked from behind the tree. The star settled.
"Poor child…" She whispered with care, kneeling beside the boy upon the ground. She smoothed back his long hair and picked at him in other ways, motherly. Eren only sighed in his sleep.
"He has such a good heart…" She admired. "Not always good intentions or good actions, but a good heart. It makes me… proud."
The star smiled at her joyful tears. She was quiet for many moments, simply basking in the happiness of her son's existence. She finally, hesitantly, wiped her eyes.
"But I did not come only to praise," she said. "I have come to warn you. You must not go beyond the wall or you will die. You will become what you are and nothing more: stardust."
Chills overtook the star. He balled his fists firmly atop his knees. "I see."
"I want you to stay who you are, not what you are."
They remained together and did not speak again. Armin watched the cycle of the moon and stars, time infinite and unmoving. He did not notice when the woman left, caught up in the rotation of himself in relation to the heavens.
It was near sunrise when Armin jolted from his doze. He sat erect against the wooden trunk, blinking. The tree appeared to be shaking, but stopped when the star woke, bemusing Armin. Eren dreamed on, unaffected, snoring lightly with a leaf on his face. The star's heart brightened.
"Good morning," an abyssal voice greeted, the star instinctively putting himself closer to Eren at the salutation. He puffed up, brows knitted, teeth bared, giving his best effort at appearing menacing.
"No need for that," the man said casually, unmoved. He sat before them, cross-legged, sword and sheath across his lap. He looked fairly aged with a weathered face, his apparent height more of someone in childish youth. His eyes were thin and sharp at the edges. They also looked incredibly unfriendly, the color cold silver. His eyebrows were slender and arched, his hair trimmed short beneath the parted and utterly perfect silkiness of the longer top-half. The shade was black, midnight black, black as void. The only relief from its pureness was the glare of purple in the rising sunlight.
"… Who are you?" Armin asked, swallowing his nervous awe. He ached like he already knew the answer to the question he asked, ached in wonderment and disbelief.
"My name is Levi," he said like it was the most normal thing in the world. "And I have come for the Power of Phoenixwing, the topaz." And he held out his hand like the star had no problem giving it to him, like he knew he would. "That is all I want, little star."
Armin inched backwards. His arm brushed Eren's and the boy did not stir, only snorting louder. The star looked down at the outstretched palm, then to the man's face, then to his hand. His thoughts were mixed, scared, questioning how to react. His body shivered.
And then he acted on impulse. Intuition took over, fitting information and ideas together, giving the star something to work off of. He spoke, immediately.
"If you want the topaz, you must say her name."
Levi raised his eyebrows with curiosity.
"Say her name? Whose name?"
"Yes, your wife's."
"I… Don't know my wife's name." And his hand fell to the grass pathetically. He pressed his forehead with the other. A screaming headache was drowning him, tearing apart his thoughts. He knew he had a wife but did not who she was or who she had been. She was absent, nonexistent, missing for years. Every memory of her shuttered away as soon as it came, jumbling any mental picture he had of her. He knew she was a princess, a princess of Phoenixwing, a solider like her brothers, alive. She was pregnant once, whether with a boy or girl he could not remember. The man gritted his teeth against the pain.
"Yes, you do." Armin said with conviction. "You know her. You know her by her golden hair-" Levi held his face with both hands now, sweat pooling. "-and you know her by her golden eyes-" A grumble escaped his throat. "-and you know her by how much she loves you. So say it, Levi. Say her name."
"I, her name-"
"Levi." Armin thrust forward abruptly, pulling the man's hands away from his face. His storm-grey eyes forced the other to look at him directly. They both waited.
"Levi, who is the one who owns your heart?"
And then it came, softly.
"… Petra. Petra is the one who owns my heart."
And then everything shattered.
Hanji scowled, looking at the display of flowers before her.
"We need to find more of these." She said with a nod. "When we finish here, we will climb to Mount Calamon and retrieve more."
"No." The servant-girl said from behind the stall. "You can do it alone."
The witch gasped, horrified. The woman held up her chain, unlinked, free from her wrist and ankle. Hanji screamed with anguish and fumbled for the loose article. The woman tossed it to her idly.
"What have you done?!" She howled with rage.
"I have done nothing." She said with simple mockery. "You said I was bound until the day the one who truly owns my heart says my name. And that day as come. My terms of service are fulfilled."
The witch began to weep. She gripped the useless chain to her chest in woe.
"I would silence yourself before I give you a reason to cry," She said with absolute certainly, quelling the witch to only tears.
"And now that my service is over," she continued. "You must call me by the name you stole from me, for it is mine now: Petra, only daughter of the former Lord of Phoenixwing, Lady Petra. You must also treat me with respect, Hanji Zoë. My husband is a fearsome man and he always, always catches his prey."
Lady Petra at last held out her hand, equal fearsomeness in her fiery orbs.
"And now you owe my payment. These matters have rules as all matters have rules."
The witch gave her the payment without insolence, without even a thought of disobeying. Done with the woman, forever, Petra set off into the growing day.
"Petra." Levi said again, stupefied. Armin smiled, knowing deep in his glowing heart that to be her name.
"She will be free when the one who truly owns her heart says her name." Armin said. "And now she is; she is free. You should go to her, I am sure she is looking for you among the market folk."
Levi stood then, wrapping the sword about his waist. He steeled his face expertly.
"Thank you." He said, taking off at a brisk walk. Armin only nodded.
The star shifted and felt the topaz under his clothing. It was only then he noticed that Levi had forgotten it in his haste. Armin sighed with comfort, knowing the man had more pressing matters. He fanned himself along the ground, putting his hand atop Eren's, blissful.
"Levi!" Petra shouted over the noise of the crowd. "Levi! Levi!"
A disadvantage of his short stature was is inability to see over others. Petra, however, could see him, herself on a stump. He stopped, hearing her call above the crowd. He woven through the throng of people, finding his way to her by her voice alone.
Her heart shivered when she saw him. He was just as she remembered and more, for time wears all things, even the memories of those cherished. But she knew it was him. And loved him just the same as she had before and after the years spent with him.
The man paused before her. He looked up, eyes narrow against the bright rays of the new sun, hair floating with the breeze.
"Levi…" she said, hushed.
She fell into his embrace then. Levi was fierce with his hold, sentimental. The woman he loved was against his chest and beating heart once again, at last, after a time of eternity. Petra burrowed into him, all of him, body and soul and lips and scent alike. She never wanted to let him go and knew she did not have to. She was finally allowed to keep someone who meant the world to her.
She was finally allowed to love again.
Chapter 10: The World is Cruel, But Also Very Beautiful
The World is Cruel, But Also Very Beautiful
Eren awoke late in the morning.
He groaned at the harsh sunlight, coughing, his throat dry. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes fitfully.
"Here…" a voice said caringly. "Eren, here."
When Eren opened his eyes he saw Armin, cup of water and slice of dark bread in hand. He took both eagerly with a thankful nod. He downed the water immediately, stuffing the bread in his mouth soon after.
"Thank you." He told the star. Armin smiled, mostly at his kindness, but also at the crumbs on the boy's face. He brushed them off with a flick of his thumb.
Eren felt the electric bubbling of the star's skin. Eren's heart began to hammer and blood whirl, the infatuation thick within him. He held his breath as his face flared heat. Armin finished his preening, ignorant of the boy's torment.
Mindful, Eren was aware of the weariness of the star's poise and appearance. He moved lethargically, eyelids blue and bruised. His head fell against the tree trunk lamely.
"Armin, were you awake all night and all morning?" Eren asked in all seriousness. "You look terrible."
"Stars are supposed to be up all night." The star replied matter-of-factly. "I am fine, I assure you."
Eren saw through the weak lie. His brows furrowed and he took the star's hand, making Armin repress a gasp. His cheeks only reddened.
"You need to sleep." Eren stated the oblivious. "Even if you are a star you need to rest. Staying awake for over half a day is hard for anyone."
Armin turned his head away. He seemed to think about Eren's words, lips pursed, cheekbones still rosy. He swallowed nervously.
"Okay…" He said finally. "But what about you, what about your sister? What about-"
"I will bring Mikasa later." Eren assured him. "It is Market Day, May Day. She can come through the gap in the wall at high noon."
Armin took that as comfort. He nestled down against the roots of the tree and was asleep almost instantly, breaths light and soft. Eren admired his form for a moment. His waft locks were slightly mussed, eyelashes flush on his skin, pale as starlight. His lips were parted and he breathed tiny, precious puffs of air. It was only when he was in the process of doing it that Eren realized he was leaning in to kiss those lips, but stopped himself, backing away and shaking his head. He stood with his hand against the mulberry.
"You will watch him, won't you?" Eren asked the tree, and the tree waved its stagnant leaves, promising. He left the star under its protection.
The market was a bustle of activity. People rushed about making final preparations, goods for selling were set out and organized, the noise growing with excitement. Eren was not concerned with such things. He navigated through the chocked meadow, finding his way to the wall of stones. He found the parapet when he left the business of the crowd. It stood as straight and still as when he left it.
Eren saw the two guards on the other side. Their backs were to him, attention elsewhere, their job to keep people from going in, not coming out. Eren could begin to see Wall as he closed in on the gap. He could also smell the scent of the town on the wind: the water on the Cöln River, the cookery at The Carriage, the freshly tilled earth of farms. He sped his pace towards the threshold of Wall. Eren only recognized the tenants of the guard post when he was much closer.
"Father!" Eren cried, causing Grisha to jump out of his skin. He was not angry, however, and looked behind him in disbelief.
"Eren?" He questioned, the last syllable cracking. "Eren… You came back."
Darius Zackly puffed away on his pipe as the father and son embraced, a smile quirking his lips. Eren asked how Mikasa was fairing and Grisha replied that she was as well as she could have been with her favorite person gone into the world of Faerie. They talked about the matters that had happened while Eren was away, which was not much, for little changes in Wall. When Grisha asked whether he may walk Eren home Darius nodded, agreeing to cover for him in his absence.
Darius breathed out a lung-full of smoke as they left. "Never would I have thought to see the same boy cross over from the Other Side of the wall twice…" He shook his head, grinning.
"I suppose you must have seen many strange things during your travels." Grisha said to Eren when they were away from the wall.
"… I suppose I have, yes."
"It does my heart good to see you made it back safe."
That filled Eren with a warmness. He had forgotten how caring his father could be, the man shielding his heart and becoming cold after the death of his wife. Eren had felt unloved and unneeded for the longest time, but now he saw that it was not so, that Grisha's love for him remained.
"Father…" Eren said, raising a question about the subject Darius had spoke of. "What did Mister Zackly mean by what he said?"
Grisha's face became very grim. It was then his age showed, his graying hair bright and patches of wrinkles deep. He was quiet for some moments.
"I suppose it is high-time you knew…" Was how he began the story, telling Eren of the matters of his birth. He did not know everything, of course, knowing only the boy's mother, not his father, with her golden hair and catty charm. Eren did not feel betrayed as he was told the truth, only wonderment, the star who pointed out all his Faerie traits correct with his observations. As he always was.
Eren felt pleasant nostalgia as they reached the home of his childhood. Everything was the same, storefront and stairs and second floor and all. Grisha said Mikasa would be inside, so he knocked, politely.
"Hello?" Her fluty voice asked from behind the door some distance away.
"Mikasa…" Eren trailed off as he spoke, suddenly very nervous, awkward. The world was tranquil for many moments.
"… Eren?" Mikasa said. Her presence was nearer the door, tone stiff to keep from crying. "Eren, is that you?"
Eren creaked the door open ever so slightly. He saw her standing there, eyes wet, stance queenly as ever. Her lips trembled.
"Yes." Eren said, swinging the door to its full breadth. "Yes, Mikasa. I have finally come home."
They came together then, fiercely. Mikasa sobbed softly and dryly with tiny, sparse tears, her face burrowed into her brother's shoulder. Even though she wept she looked up at him with a brilliant smile. She lifted her fingers, fussing with his wild hair, short laughs bubbling from within her.
"Eren, you are in bad need of a barber."
Armin did not fall asleep promptly. He took some time getting to sleep, took some time to wind down. He was aware that Eren lingered for a while, and that as he stood he asked something of someone. The star lifted an eyelid as the boy left, watching him go. It put him at ease to know he took his satchel with him.
The star slept eventually. He was not exhausted, but could use rest. He slept lightly and pleasantly in the background of the market. The tree above him moved with the breezes.
Armin was roused by the tree. He awoke fearful, the tree trembling in the trunk. Not trembling as if with the wind, but as if with the tremors of an earthquake. The star sat up in panic.
Two woman stood before him. The woman closest to him had her arms thrown wide, blocking the other. Leaves and twigs and small white-yellow berries protruded from her dark hair. She was shivering, much like the tree, terror clear with her composure. The woman before the other had a hood of thick green material over her face, her long gown crumpled around her. Armin's heart seized as he recognized the crystal-blue dress.
A hand reached from inside the cloak, the fingers and palm red and white from lack of skin.
"It would be wise to move, little Morus tree nymph." she said coolly.
The shivering woman stiffened up. She shook her head, arms faithfully outstretched to halt the necromancer.
"I made a promise to protect him!" the nymph said, her voice high with distress. "So protect him I will. I, Isle, must stay true to my word!"
The lady necromancer sighed with dismay. "Very well."
A column of light shot from the extended hand and hit the tree nymph. Her mouth opened to shriek, but no sound came, her body bursting into dust. The tree suddenly lost all its leaves, falling dry and dead. The bark popped and split from the trunk, the insides grey and lifeless. The tree stood dead as it had stood alive.
The star thought it would be smart to run away. He made to stand, only to find his legs heavy as stone. He opened his mouth to scream but he could not, vocal cords stilled silent. His arms remained limp at his sides.
"We cannot have you making a ruckus, now can we?" Annie mused, walking towards the star unhindered. If anyone at the market saw what happened they did nothing, going about their business. Armin had a dreadful feeling none did in all their activity.
The lady necromancer knelt in front of the star, looking into his eyes wide with horror. Armin saw her face was nearly completely skinless, the only area left covered below her eyes, and even that was beginning to crack and flake away.
"You are a silly boy, thinking giving your heart away can keep me from taking it." She said, lifting the star onto her shoulder like a sack of grain. "At least now the boy cannot break it. They always do."
She carried the star on her shoulder to the outskirts of the market. Her carriage awaited her, the horses restless and unhappy at her arrival. The door creaked opened and she placed Armin onto one of the seats, his arm tucked under his left side uncomfortably.
"Your heart will be put to good use now, little star!" She said, laughing a strange and evil laugh. The carriage door slammed shut and the star was alone. He felt the coach lurch as Annie whipped the reigns, the horses moving at a gallop. A tear dribbled down his cheek, splashing onto the seat unseen.
Even though Petra and Levi had just reunited, they both knew they had a responsibility. They knew they must finish the affair of killing the lady necromancer, that they must avenge Erwin's death. Levi explained all of this matter quickly to Petra.
Petra also explained issues concerning her, paraphrasing. Most importantly, and most briefly, she explained what happened to their son. She became emotional as she told the story, tears clogging her throat. Levi became very quiet afterwards, thinking. He finally said that if it was the decision she regretted the least, then it was the right decision, that she could not have known the consequences until after she made her choice.
They began their hunt for the necromancer separately. They asked around and kept alert, inquiring about a woman in a blue dress and green cloak. Petra finally got a lead when she asked a man in a silk top hat. He told of how he saw such a woman carrying a boy along a short time ago, his mustache twitching and bronze eyes keen. When he told of her path and direction, Petra thanked him and took off, leaving him to watch her go. She did not see the smile upon his lips.
Petra practically ran, fearing that the woman was leaving the market. She passed the area where the flower stall was only to see it was gone, caravan and all. She paid little mind to it.
When she reached the outer edge of the market she saw a black coach of oak wood. Black stallions with mistreated feathers stood before it. She recalled it immediately as one of the coach's of Phoenixwing, the dark horses like that of her brother's. She could not perceive it closer, however, a woman from another section of the market appearing and walking up to it.
Petra made work putting herself behind the nearest tree. The horses became agitated as the woman in the green cloak approached. To Petra's horror, she noticed that the lady necromancer had the star with her, a look of frozen petrification lucid on his face. She opened the door and packed Armin inside, sneering and gloating.
"Your heart will be put to good use now, little star!" She said, laughing a triumphant and cold laugh. She shut the door and mounted the carriage, bidding the horses to move at a gallop. Petra watched all of this with revulsion, her stomach clenching with the horror. She covered her mouth and held onto the tree for support.
She began to sprint. Levi was the one person she could find in her mind's-eye, his heart and being like a dark, timeless fire. Petra dodged all the market folk, tripping over no one, the place where she needed to be clear.
She found him beneath the mulberry tree. It was with sick humor that he was there inspecting the leaves. The tree was dead now, the leaves dry and fallen. He had heard the wind speak of the tree and nymph's demise and went to investigate. Petra saw him crouched over, eyeing the leaves critically.
"Levi!" She said, speaking labored. The man stood then to meet her.
"Have you found her?" He asked, Petra gripping his shoulders to steady herself.
Petra bobbed her head violently. She looked up into his eyes and he saw they were full of sorrow and terrible, terrible panic. She spoke much the same way.
"Yes! She, she has the star! The necromancer has the star!"
Eren spent most of his time at home telling of his adventures. He told Mikasa of his heroic work in the serewood and at the wicked woman's inn, of his days upon the airship, and most of all, of the star. Eren knew Mikasa would love Armin because he did, although, hopefully, not in the same way. Mikasa was mainly happy about getting her brother back, not about getting her star.
They set off for the market around noon. The people they met along the way hardly recognized Eren, blaming it on his long absence and long hair. Their father stood by Mister Zackly beside the gap in the wall. Roderick Reiss waited alone, his daughter not with him to open the market.
"Historia has been missing for a few days now," Mikasa whispered, leaning towards her brother. "And Ymir has as well. Most think they ran off to get married. It has put Historia's father and Virgil Zackly in quite fowl moods."
The clock rang noon. Eren took Mikasa's hand and hurried her along right behind Rod Reiss, crossing the threshold without a second thought.
"You are going to love him, Mikasa!" Eren said for perhaps the third time that day. "He is wonderful, I promise!" Mikasa nodded once. She did not believe or disbelieve that the star was a boy and not a jewel sky-fallen. If the star made her brother so joyful she wanted him to be alive, not only something for herself.
When Mikasa and Eren reached the tree where Armin was left he was not there. Instead there was a dead mulberry with dead leaves and two people, one holding onto the other. The one who was a woman looked up to the other, in apparent distress. When she spoke she told terrible news.
"Yes! She, she has the star! The necromancer has the star!"
Eren felt his heart fall, landing on the ground like a dying bird. He tried to cover his wound with his hands, squeezing at his bleeding chest. Mikasa grabbed him as his legs began to buckle, saying his name urgently, although he paid her no mind. He stared intently at the two people.
"Eren's star?" The man asked in palpable surprise.
"Yes, Eren's star." The woman said with less heaving and a more even tone. "We must go after him! She means to cut his heart out! I cannot locate him or the necromancer, so I thought maybe, if you listened, we could find him before… Oh, Levi, we have to, his heart is no longer his own!"
Eren suddenly became very angry. His weakness vanished to be replaced by burning determination. He was angry at the audacity of the people to talk about Armin like they cared about him as much as he did, angry at the one who wanted to cut his heart out, and most of all angry at himself for not protecting the star like he should have.
"Eren!" Mikasa called after him as he shook free of her, rushing towards the pair below the tree. They had spaced apart and were talking in low tones, forming some sort of plan. Eren paid no attention to this. He grabbed the woman by the front of her shirt and lifted her from the ground, causing her to gasp with the abruptness.
"What do you mean the necromancer has taken Armin?" He demanded much louder than he should have. He was not answered before a swift and painful blunt object smacked him in the face. He dropped the woman as he was knocked back, Mikasa there to catch him as he fell.
"Eren! Are you alright?"
Eren heard both exclamations in unison. He tasted iron as his nose bled profusely, his head dizzy with the impact. Mikasa held him on his feet. She shot the short man who had kicked her beloved brother in the face a venomous glare. He cared not for her, paying attention to his furious wife, the woman's copper eyes burning with fire.
"Levi, that is Eren!" She said with complete unhappiness. The man was taken aback, looking at the boy he had injured with his swinging kick. Eren had come back from the hard impact, standing on his own. His nose had healed quickly and now only the blood remained. He wiped it away, eyes afire with hatred.
"Where is Armin? Tell me where he is!" He commanded, bitter and blind with his haste and anger.
"Eren, calm down." Mikasa advised sternly. "You will not find him by grappling people and ordering things of them."
Petra felt only remorse for him. She saw as he tried so hard to quell his desperation, his inability to. She could sympathize with him, relate to his pain, feeling it many times. She took a step forward.
"Eren…" She said softly. "The star- Armin- was taken by a necromancer. She plans to cut out his heart for herself. We must find the star quickly, we must-"
"I know where he is." Eren said frankly.
Petra blinked at the unexpected. "You do?"
"Yes," Eren said, pointing. "He is heading that way. He is going northeast."
"Eren… You can feel his heart."
"If that tells me where he is, then yes."
"Take my horse, then," Levi said. "You will be able to find him much faster than us, and time is of the essence." He began to walk without checking that Eren followed. "Come, this way."
Eren dashed to meet his pace. He was quick to notice that Mikasa followed and the woman did as well, his sister brisk in pace.
"I am coming with you." She said curtly.
"No you are not." Eren said with authority. "It is dangerous."
"If it is dangerous, you should not be able to go either." She stated, her dominance as an older sister coming out.
"But the star-"
"Since you got the star for me, he is my responsibly as well."
Eren knew he could not win. Mikasa made her own rules, her own way, and he had no power over her. She also mounted the horse first, giving Eren the choice of riding with her or forcing her off. He did not have the will or strength to do the latter. He sat before her and she held onto him, her grip sound. Eren urged the steed and the horse jetted forward along the trail of the star and necromancer, dust in his wake. Levi and Petra watched them go.
"They sell horses at the market, correct?"
"They do. Guaranteed to be the quickest you've ever seen."
Armin could feel the light of his heart sinking inwards, forming into a cold, dead pearl of something that once was. A certain fear did this to him, not unlike the fear he had experienced falling from the sky or at the mountain inn or upon the clouds, not unlike a certain fear the woman had given him before with her intent to kill. He was afraid he was going to die: a fear he never thought he would have.
The star was not only overcome by this terrible reality, but also the gravity that the situation was coming. The anxiety of having his heart ripped out as his death bringer was an even greater fear, the fear of knowing how and when he was going to die, and that it would be painful beyond belief. These emotions welled and he could not even scream or cry.
The carriage wheels squealed to a stop. A fresh flurry of panic was born as the doorway eased open, Annie sticking her head inside to inspect the star.
"Easy now," she said with sugar, lifting Armin over her shoulder once again. "We do not want you broken just yet."
Armin saw they were surrounded by woodland. In a forest in the middle of Faerie he was going to die, alone, without anyone hearing him scream or finding his body. Even Eren would be left clueless, finding the tree abandoned and dead, never to know what became of him. He probably thought he had run away, broken his oath. Eren probably thought he hated him.
The cottage he was carried into was dark and smoky. His throat burned with the inability to cough, eyes irritated the same. Two people shadowed over him.
"It is a very small star…" One said, voice shaky. "A pitiful thing…"
"Do not feel sorry for it, Bertholdt." The other said firmly. "Otherwise we will not be able to remove its heart."
'It'. 'Thing'. Armin realized he was not even a person to these people. He was an object for them to use to their fancy and only that. Whether it was out of cruelty or necessity he did not care. He became angry. His fear dissipated.
He was then thrown onto a stone table and strapped down in leather. Armin could see the necromancer's now, the woman in much shabbier condition than her companions. Her right cheek was totally bare, leaving only the left side to waste away.
"Annie," the tallest one said urgently. "You must end your spell before your muscles begin to go as well. Please."
"You know you will lose movement when that happens."
She raised her hand and flicked her wrist. Armin gasped when he was free of his chains, jolting against the leather straps. He squirmed within their hold.
"Ready the knives," Annie said, producing the articles from her cloak. "We shall have a new heart tonight."
"Wait!" Armin begged, unacknowledged as the male necromancer's moved to collect the whetstones. They ran them along the blades unaffected.
Only the lady necromancer stood before him. He stared at her, meeting her eyes briefly before she flicked them away, ignoring him utterly. That was enough.
"If you do this…" The star began lowly. "If you go ahead and do this, if you cut out my heart, you will be a bad person. You will be a bad person to me… Annie."
She looked back at that. Her blue iris's were steady upon his, cool and placid. She then closed her eyes, shaking her head.
"Oh, little star," she said. "Of course I will be a bad person to you. I cannot be a good person to everyone. If I am a good person to you, then I am a bad person to Bertholdt and Reiner who need your heart to continue living as they are. We take, for that is what necromancer's do. Your goodness is only measured by the value you hold to a single person."
The star made to reply, "But-"
"Annie," another voice brushed him off. "They're ready."
"No, Annie!" Armin cried as the panic flooded back to him. "W-We can still reason with each other! Talk to me, Annie!"
"It is too late for that for that now." She said. The cleaver was raised over her head. "I am sorry I could not be a good person to you, but… I have made my decision and I am not going to change it."
The horse moved swiftly even though he carried two passengers. Eren felt the star was close when Armin stopped moving, nearby a cottage-house and forest. Eren could also feel the fear within the star making his glowing spirit fade. This only drove the boy on.
Mikasa was silent throughout the ride. She rode sideways and held her brother stiffly, protectively. Her breathing was hushed.
Eren jumped off the horse when they reached the cottage. He would have run inside if Mikasa had not stopped him, her hold on his arm deadly.
"Eren" she hissed. "You cannot just barge in there. We need a plan."
"Mikasa, they are going to kill him." He said with effort put into lowering his voice.
"Let's go to the window and see what we can."
The siblings crept soundlessly towards the cottage. The glass of the windows was foggy with age and the room blurred with smoke, making Eren strain to see. He found a small clear patch in the glass and watched the proceedings inside.
The star was pinned to a stone altar. The woman from the inn stood over him, two other people farther away and doing something with glittering objects. He gave them no mind. His spine prickled when he saw Armin. The woman appeared to be speaking with him, her now skinless lips moving to form words he could not hear.
"Do we have any weapons?" Mikasa asked in a whisper.
"Only this…" Eren said while retrieving the knife from his satchel.
Mikasa shook her head. "Eren, anything can be used as a weapon."
She made her point by uprooting the metal bird perch beside the doorway. Eren looked back into the window and, to his absolute horror, saw a knife raised, ready to hack down onto his star. Armin began to scream and he could hear it through the walls of the building and into his very being. Without thinking, without asking his sister, he reacted by flinging the front door open, exposing the insides to sunlight and air. The occupants froze.
"Stop!" Eren ordered savagely, shouting to reinforce his words. His knife was drawn as a fierce challenge. "Get away from him! Get away from Armin right now!"
"Eren!" The star cried. He then hiccupped, trying to raise himself to see. His eyes grew wet. "Eren… Eren, you came for me…"
"Oh, it is you, the little pest." Annie said while she lowered her knife. "Fateful as ever, I see. And you brought a friend along as well."
Fearless, Mikasa stood beside her brother, the pointed tip of her pole ready to spear the next unfortunate soul who crossed her. Her dark eyes were bright with hatred, her entire face communicating the dark desire to cause bodily harm. She did not flinch.
Annie raised a finger. "Kill them."
The girl dove, narrowly missing the bolt of energy sent to kill her. She rolled and hit the wall, stunned, but able to stand out of instinct. The souls in the mirror inched closer to the outside world as one of their own disappeared. They watched as Reiner growled at his poor aim, the skin on his hands crumbling.
Eren found shelter behind an oak cabinet. Mikasa, however, had very little furnishings where she landed, leaving her exposed. She had only the pole to defend herself.
"Mikasa, get down!"
She dropped to her stomach as another bout of magic flew into the wall, frying the area.
"Oh, would you shut up!"
Eren pressed against the shelves as he was targeted. The attack struck the cabinet and damaged it immensely, splintering the wood and collapsing the other side. Eren heaved a shallow sigh of relief.
The distraction gave Mikasa time to close in. She skirted along the wall, finding a chest to protect herself. Her breaths were labored, heart rate doubled, limbs trembling and waiting for the next action. She peeked over the trunk.
She saw a great glass urn floating towards her, led by more articulate hands. She reacted accordingly and rushed out of its path. The object did not crash into the wall and instead followed her across the room, back towards the door, picking up speed. It caught her in the corner.
The star was the one to say her name.
And the vase crashed and shattered.
Mikasa flopped along the floor, one of her arm's cut along the side and a nick on her cheek, the bird perch falling from her hands. Although shaken, she was mostly uninjured, able to lift herself up. She looked at the pile of glass shards and covered her mouth at the display.
Where she should have been Levi was. Thick, evil swords from the vase burrowed deep into his side, seeping vermillion blood. He moved with a creaking slowness. He collapsed from the attempted movement, unable to hold even his torso up with his arms. He sighed a hoarse breath.
"Levi! Levi, no!"
Petra was quicker than the eye could catch spiriting through the room to her fallen husband. She dropped to her kneels and, gentle as she could, shifted him onto his back, holding his face.
"Don't stay here." He warned with a sharp, yet strained voice. His eyes were cold and harsh. "Go, you are leaving yourself open. Petra, go."
Petra shrieked as something struck her shoulder. Fangs clung to her muscles, burning inside of her, shooting hot poison into her heart. She scrambled backwards, still shrieking, the snake hard with its bite. She gasped as it finally detached. It slithered loyally back to its master, wrapping around Annie's finger to become a ring once again.
"Do not worry, my dear." She said smoothly. "The venom will kill you in a minute or two."
Petra began to huff as her body seized up. Her eyes stared at nothing, wide and glossy. All of her veins ached as her body shut down. Levi reached out his hand, barely touching her leg.
For once Eren felt utterly hopeless. His sister was crouching in the doorway like the coward she was not, the man who had lent his horse had deep wounds and was possibly bleeding with internal lacerations, and the woman had a snakebite: a death sentence. Only he was unharmed, he who had hid like a helpless child while everyone else risked themselves to protect the star. His star. The one he loved. Armin. Armin, who was going to die like Petra with the death in her blood, hurting Levi just the same. Eren made a choice, a mistake, and he regretted it. He regretted it in his very soul.
"Eren…" the soft voice pushed away his woe and anger. "Eren, use the salve. Eren, use the knife. Eren… Use anything, use the will of fire I know you have. You only lose when you stop fighting. Eren, Eren, please."
And a new priority came over him.
The priority that no one was going to die, that no one was going to leave him like his mother. The priority that no one had to feel the way he had. The priority to not allow death to be selfish.
"Mikasa!" He shouted to her. He tossed her the jar of salve from behind the battered cabinet, Mikasa catching it with ease. "Put this over the snakebite and over his wounds! Now!"
The girl nodded once and was off across the room.
Eren hurled himself from behind the wooden chifferobe, putting himself before the wrath of the necromancers. He bared his teeth, held his stance, and flourished his knife for all to see. The yellow of his eyes shone like twin suns.
Annie held up her arms to control her fellow Diviners.
"Wait… I want this one for myself."
And she began to advance on Eren.
The smaller of the blue-metal knives was in her hand. She paused before the boy, matching his tense posture.
"Come on, Faerie prince! Don't you want your star back?"
And the hatred became too much.
Eren released a violent scream, charging towards the woman.
"I'll kill you! I swear to god I'll kill you!"
The lady necromancer was swifter. With an expert twirl she knocked the boy's legs down with her foot. His face hit the floor when he fell.
"Oops… Looks like you tripped."
The horrific sound of a wounded animal echoed around the cottage when she stabbed Eren in the spine.
"Oh, no need for that."
She purred as she did it again.
"Eren!" Was a collection of what the boy heard as he crawled away, slick blood running down his back. He bit away the pain, tried to ignore his injured back, and stood, his knife shaking but dangerous all the same.
And his legs collapsed beneath him.
"Eren, Eren, stand up!" Mikasa shouted as Annie moved towards him. The jar of green paste dropped from her hands, muscles tense to pounce. The salve had evened out Petra's breathing and slowed Levi's bleeding, but they were still hurt, still in need of care. Mikasa had to make a choice.
Armin struggled under his bonds. He thrashed enough to make himself chafe, his undersides throbbing as he smacked around on the table. The necromancers watched him, sorrowless.
"No worries, I am done with my fun…" Annie said sweetly. She grabbed Eren by his hair, yanking his face upwards. Their eyes met immediately. "It will be quick, I promise."
The knife was raised high for the plunge.
"No, Annie Leonhardt, no."
And the knife fell, lamely, to the earth.
The lady necromancer began to shake. A fearful, pitiful, cowardly quivering, moving even her very core. She turned as a shadow filled the doorway, clouding the sunlight. The wind ruffled her hair.
"Lady Eleonora." Annie whispered a small, pitched whisper. "You have returned."
"No, I am Ymir." The figure said with a huff, moving deeper into the cottage. Not in the sunlight at to her utter surprise Mikasa could see it was Ymir, with her tan skin and freckles and long spiral-curls. She stood with her feet apart in a very masculine array.
"Eleonora is my mother," Ymir said with confidence. "And she told me to tell you- Annie Leonhardt, Bertholdt Hoover, Reiner Braun- that you are not allowed to take the heart of one who lives forever. It is not yours."
Annie backed away. She was afraid, she was a cornered animal, she was powerless. The woman knew her true name and had used it against her, used it to strike the weapon from her hand. She could control her. Ymir was a dangerous threat of power, just like her mother.
"Annie!" Bertholdt said, scurrying over to her. He held her arm and backed her further away, shielding her with his size. She said nothing.
Ymir looked towards Reiner. His expression was dark and angry, golden eyes flashing. Ymir did not fear him.
"Free him." She ordered.
"Free the star, Reiner."
And he could not oppose her.
One by one he undid the leather straps. The star waited apprehensively, unsure until the final strap was unfastened. Armin wasted no time scrambling away from the table, hurrying towards Eren.
"Eren!" He said, kneeling beside the boy crumpled in on himself. Eren raised his head.
"Armin…" He said quietly. "Armin, you are alright."
The star shook his head at the unimportant fact. "Yes, I am alright. But you! You were the one who was stabbed. Twice."
"I'll make it. I think the wounds are healing."
Sure enough they were, the punctures nearly closed. The star wanted to cry with relief, but restrained himself, remaining strong. His lip trembled only minimally, his eyes fairly dry. He exhaled.
"Eren…" He said softly, finding the boy's hand. He squeezed even softer. "Please… Don't ever leave me again."
"I won't. I promise."
"I should have made it earlier, eh?" Was all Ymir had to say to Mikasa playing nurse.
Historia waited patiently with the horses. She gasped when she saw the wounded, insisting upon examining them herself. Levi, alert ever since Ymir had commanded the necromancers to heal him (and also to smash the mirror of souls), rejected the offer. He was the one to ride with Petra back to Wall, the woman sleeping with her ailment. She would live, but remain dormant while her body healed. Her shoulder was still puffed purple and tender. She was held onto the horse by her husband.
Eren trotted along with the star's arms wrapped around his waist. He was careful of the knife-holes, hold light, face pressed even lighter into Eren's back. Both said nothing and shifted positions little. Everyone was uptight and unsure.
The afternoon was still young when they reached the market. Historia and Ymir tended to the horses by the stream while the other's ventured inside, craving food and rest. They found both under an apple tree housing a flat bread cart.
"Mikasa, you should not be eating that, it is Faerie-food." Eren warned as she took a bite of the bread, chewing and swallowing thoroughly. She looked at her brother out of the corner of her eye.
"I don't think it matters much anymore."
Armin sat in the sunlight as the siblings bickered, Levi beside him. Petra's head was on his lap and he ran his fingers through her hair, his food already consumed. A breeze rolled by and he shut his eyes.
"He loves you, you know." Levi said. "Eren, I mean."
"I told him that I loved him once." The star said. "While he was a ferret. He could not understand it then, so I does not matter that I did. He wants to take me over the wall, where I cannot go. I will turn into stardust if I touch human soil."
"Do you think he will not stay here for you?"
"I do not know. I am not the only one with his heart. His sister has it to, for hearts are shared, not taken, I know that now. If I give up my share, if I give that to Mikasa, then he can be happy living on the other side of the wall while I remain. That is all I want for him."
Levi gave him a quizzical look. He tilted his head, eyes narrow.
"You cannot decide what makes him happy for him."
So the star decided to ask
He led Eren a little ways away, behind a thicket of blueberries. The fruits were small, fresh, not ready for picking. Armin looked down at these little berries.
"You once asked me what I desired…" the star said. "And then I told you. I told you desires change as hearts do. You said desires make life worth living, but never told me what yours was. So, tell me, Eren, what is it that you desire?"
"… What I desire?" He questioned. He gazed at the star, Armin still examining the blueberry bush, stoic and unspeaking. Eren thought upon the question. "What I desire. Well…"
And he could not say.
His desire to give Mikasa the star was still there, but it was very weak, like it no longer mattered as much as it had. His desire to go over the Wall was fulfilled as well. Eren was left drawing up only one thing he desired, but he did not want to admit it, did not want to hurt the chance of making it come true.
"I want many things, Armin…" Was his short, improvised answer. The star was not satisfied with this, shaking his head.
"No, what do you desire? What do you want most in the world?"
The clear, grey eyes of the star turned upon Eren and he knew he could not lie. He could not give half-answers, or mistruths, or anything false or silly. He knew he must give the raw truth, whatever it may be, whatever the cost. Armin waited.
"… I want you, Armin. I want you to be happy."
The star did not move.
"I cannot go over the wall. I will die, I will turn to stardust."
"I don't care. I will stay here if I have to."
"She will understand."
The star bore a sad expression. His eyes began to tear up and his throat jump as he swallowed the taste of the tears.
"Your heart is not only your own, Eren Jaeger." Armin said. "You give it to the ones who love you."
"I know." Eren said. He walked to the star, Armin's head bowed low. Eren cupped his chin and lifted up his face. "No matter the distance or time between, those who have my love will still have my heart. That is what love is: having something and being willing to let it go. Nothing worth having can be hoarded."
Armin allowed Eren to kiss his cheeks and wipe away his tears. He pressed his cheek into Eren's palm, soothing himself with his touch.
"A star, and a mortal man…"
"A Faerie-man, actually." Eren said with a smile. "Turns out you were right all along."
"I always am."
Eren began to laugh, only to be stopped when the star attached their lips. He had to lean up and through a mess of hair to do so, but he did not care in the slightest. Eren could feel the frazzling bubbles under Armin's skin fizzle and pop, per usual, and could not think of a finer sensation to have. He could see the sparkles surrounding the star, even in the daylight. They were brighter, more numerous than ever. The star's heart was burning in his chest and Eren could feel it in his own.
They could see no parting.
Armin and Eren returned hand in hand. Mikasa saw this and a joy grew in her, the joy of seeing her brother in love. She had known so when he first told her of the star, how lovingly he talked of him. And here they were to make each other happy in an amazing way they had never known before.
She stood to meet them. Levi continued to sit, only watching idly, the matters not concerning him. His lips quirked.
"Mikasa…" Eren said. He left his star to go to her, eyes soulful. It was then she realized how tall he had gotten.
"I… Am going to stay here with Armin." He said and took her hand. "So… This is goodbye. Tell Dad-"
"Eren." She cut him short, then smiled, dazzling her whole face. "Eren, you never let me finish. That night, under the stars, when we saw him fall, you never let me finish. I did not know what my desire was then, perhaps it was the star, but it was not until you left, not until I thought I would never see you again that I truly desired something. My desire is to stay with you, Eren. To see you be happy. To see you be in love. The star- Armin- he was never mine to begin with. Love is the only thing beautiful forever."
Mikasa embraced him then, his ribs crackling with the pressure.
"Please… Let me have what I desire. Let me stay here with you, with Armin."
"… Okay. Okay, Mikasa."
Armin put a hand over his glowing heart and smiled.
Levi nodded, relishing in what he had assisted happening.
"You did not kill the lady necromancer," Erwin said, coming up behind him.
"All in due time."
Of Ashes and Stardust
And so Mikasa stayed in the Place Over the Wall.
Petra awoke around sunset with stiff joins that were swollen and painful. Ymir and Historia- who now preferred to be called Christa- had said their goodbyes and returned the horses hours before. They decided they quite liked it on this side of the wall and concluded to stay, at least for a little while longer. Christa hoped to find her mother and see her again after so many years, to see if she had changed. Ymir said that she must keep those who played with life and death in check as her mother had before her. They left before their father's could notice their presence.
And so, there was but one matter left to attend to.
Armin unlatched the topaz from around his waist, holding it up by the broken chain. The jewel looked the color of blood in the evening light.
"You once asked me for the Power of Phoenixwing," the star said to Levi. "And here it is. It is yours now."
Levi shook his head, shunning the gift. "I cannot accept your offer, little star, for I was not the first of the Blood of Phoenixwing to find the topaz."
"But the other-"
"Not her either."
Petra choked on her water at that. She gave Levi a questioning, yet icy look, bidding him to think before he spoke any more. He met her gaze, telling her that he already had. She bowed her head.
"If he is to remain in Faerie," Levi said lowly. "He should know. He should have a choice. And if it does not suit him, he may leave. No chain binds him to the throne."
"… You do not know the consequences until after you make you decision, Levi."
The couple set their sights on Eren and Armin knew. It was he who first discovered the topaz, all of those months ago when he met the star in the grove. Armin had shown him the golden stone, and even though he did not know what it was or what it did, he found it first. It was his.
Eren was having a cheerful conversation with his sister about the music at the fair. He prickled, looking swiftly when he felt all the eyes on him. He raised an eyebrow curiously.
"Eren…" Armin said slowly, reaching the swinging stone towards him. "Here."
"Well…" Erwin said, seeing the jewel being passed from one person to the next. "It appears time for us to move on."
The ghost turned, vanishing from that place. Levi felt light as they, finally, left the world of the living.
And it was soon that Eren learned of his heritage.
It was oddly liberating, the knowing of his mother and father by blood. It did not make Carla and Grisha any less of his parents, for they were the ones who raised him, who were entrusted with his care. Petra and Levi could not fake that they held the position of Eren's adopted parents, nor did they try to. Petra's choice had given him a wonderful life and they did not want to change that.
"Mother, Father…" Eren said after Mikasa had fastened the silver chain about his throat. "I do not wish to be a Lord, a ruler of anything. My desire…"
Petra held up a finger. "Do not conjure up another one too quickly, Eren." She chided without any malice. "Wait and it will come. I think it will do you three good to have an occupation and home if you are choosing to remain in Faerie. If it does not suit you, you may leave. Nothing holds you to the throne." She then sighed, the rings in her ears singing as she flicked them. "I swear, you are just as bad as your father…" But she said it with complete adoration and playfulness. Levi brushed a finger across her cheek.
She looked up at her husband and smiled a great, catty smile. "We should get a carriage for our return to Phoenixwing." she said giddily. "And a parade of horses. Maybe even an elephant. Nothing makes a statement quite like and elephant. Oh, how I have missed Mount Maria…"
"How do you expect to pay for an elephant?" he asked. "We spent most of the money on the horses at the market."
It was then she produced a flower from the insides of her clothing. The star recognized it as one of the witch's flowers: a Tiger-Lily crafted delicately of spun glass. The stalk shown blue with the dimming light.
"With this I shall trade and barter…"
Armin was pulled over by Eren. He became part of a hushed, secret negotiation. His input was crucial to the decision made by Eren and Mikasa. They parted and Eren fixed his posture, clearing his throat.
"If you want to travel that way, that is fine," he said. "But we would like to make our own way. There is still much we want to see. We would like to travel at our own speed, if that is alright."
Petra narrowed her eyes. She mulled it over, asked her husband a few things, ultimately coming to her own decision.
"If that is what you wish…"
The trio did not appear in Phoenixwing for another five years.
Petra and Levi arrived at Mount Maria with not one elephant, but three. The people of the kingdom rejoiced to levels until then unknown, believing that their Lady Petra was gone forevermore. The celebration only increased when Lady Petra announced that her son would be the new king of Phoenixwing and that he already wore the Power about his neck.
However, she could not tell her people when he would come to claim his throne. Eren had only said, "Expect us when you see us," before taking off, leaving his mother and father to their own devices.
Levi and Petra ruled in his absence. Petra did most of the ruling since Levi had no desire to, preferring to be with his army instead of the officials. Petra conducted orders of state perfectly fine without him.
When Eren, Armin, and Mikasa did come to Mount Maria, they were so travel-worn and dirty that they were mistaken for beggars. Only the topaz about the king's neck said any differently and they were quickly escorted to the castle. The festivities afterwards continued for weeks.
Eren was a better king than any could hope for. He made wise, incentive decisions, his hot temper and brash attitude a straightforward decision-maker. He eventually flushed The Diviners out of hiding and sent them to the gallows, although that was more of Levi's doing than his. He made peace with the other kingdoms and protected his people, victorious in anything he did. Such as the blessing of the phoenixes.
Armin proved to be just as dangerous as his husband. He was intelligent, incredibly so after watching millennia of the doings of people. He was a brilliant strategist, diplomat, and negotiator. He was never wrong and could fool almost anyone. Even Eren, who knew him the best.
They were happy as long as they could be. Of course, not forever, for it is rare that anything lasts forever.
Mikasa, being human, was the first to die.
She went with the bliss of old age. She smiled when it happened, holding Eren and Armin's hands in each of hers. She spoke clearly to them before her death, saying this:
"Love is not the only thing beautiful forever. Death is as well. And I have my death."
Eren's pain was not any less.
Mikasa was buried with the royalty of Phoenixwing. Levi was as well, and Petra, leaving only Eren and Armin to preside of the kingdom. Even with loss they could be happy, together they could, for a time.
Eren had to die as well.
The entire phoenix flock came to his deathbed, companion phoenix included. The bird sat over his headboard silently.
The star was filled with overwhelming sadness. It was he who had to appoint the next king, for since he and Eren could not bear children, a son from one of the noble houses was chosen. He was a cautious man named Moblit, related to Eren through their great-great aunt. He waited in the king's chamber with the topaz already resting atop his throat.
"Armin…" Eren said in his creaky, grey voice. The star gulped and pressed his forehead to his lover's wrinkled, boney hand. Even though Eren aged, he remained unchanged, hair as fair and yellow as ever and skin smooth. He choked back a sob.
"Yes, my love?" He asked, hoarse from crying. "What is it that you need?"
"I have… a gift…" And he produced a silver box wrapped with a bow. "The lightning from so long ago… I traded it for this."
The star recognized it as a candle like the one Eren had used to save him in the inn of the lady necromancer years and years ago. Fresh tears rolled from his eyes as he looked up, locking gazes with Eren.
"I want you to go back into the sky."
It was then the phoenix above Eren leaned down and said something into his ear. The old king nodded slowly with comprehension.
The phoenix screamed and burst into flames. Eren's chest stilled, dormant forever.
"Eren! Eren, no!"
The ashes fell along the king's silent face.
Then, the strangest thing occurred. All the phoenixes combusted, sending showers of ash throughout the room. A full, gusting wind swept through the chamber, carrying the remains through the bright window. The entirety of the night was bright, as if the sun had risen early. Armin and Moblit hurried towards the window after the ashes.
The moon was pulsating. The stars twinkled along with it, excitement brimming the night sky. The wind transporting the ashes trailed upwards. The remains flew high into the heaves, out of view, colliding with the yoking light of the moon. Everything became quiet.
New, fiery lights appeared in the sky. There were many, their position purposeful. A clear, glowing outline of a great bird glittered in the sky. A single star crowned the center. It beat, softly, like a heart. Armin sucked in a breath.
Before Moblit knew it the star had lit the candle he was given. A smile of pure happiness and joy framed his cheeks, the light of the fire flickering upon his face.
"Eren…" He said again.
And he took a step and was gone. The new Lord of Phoenixwing realized the stone about his neck was suddenly very heavy. When he inspected it he saw it was nothing more than a black rock. It was dull, like the burnt wood after a fire. He looked into the sky again.
Where there was one central star he now saw two. They blinked, as if with delight, the other stars and the moon doing the same. He inspected them for a while before moving to descend the stairs of the castle to announce the death of the king. Two stars watched him from above, smiling.
It is not often that we return to what we are forever: to ashes.
I went out at night alone;
The young blood flowing beyond the sea
Seemed to have drenched my spirit's wings—
I bore my sorrow heavily.
But when I lifted up my head
From shadows shaken on the snow,
I saw Orion in the east
Burn steadily as long ago.
From windows in my father's house,
Dreaming my dreams on winter nights,
I watched Orion as a girl
Above another city's lights.
Years go, dreams go, and youth goes too,
The world's heart breaks beneath its wars,
All things are changed, save in the east
The faithful beauty of the stars.
Thanks to everyone for reading! This was my first big project, so... I had lots of fun! Anyway, if you want to follow me on Tumblr my username is the same: thejapanesemapletree.