The old Reiss chapel stood silent in the middle of the countryside, appearing from the outside to still be abandoned and empty, just as it had been for several years.
Deep below the chapel in the underground crystal catacombs, however, there were many signs of human activity, as the site was not as abandoned as it appeared.
Kenny looked over his surroundings with a sly grin. The last time he'd been here he'd been in charge of the anti-personnel squad taking orders from Rod Reiss. Now he was in charge of a brand new squad taking orders from Zeke. Of course, it wasn't like either man had held any kind of real authority or power over him, he just followed their orders because he found their plans interesting, and he was curious to see where things would go.
And things had certainly gotten interesting. While Varis had successfully nabbed Eren like he was supposed to, and his squad had wiped out most of the Scouts and the Garrison that had been protecting Eren, the incompetent morons had gotten themselves killed by the Scouts' two resident Ackermans, Mikasa and Levi.
It was a setback, and potentially a serious problem, as it opened up the possibility that the Scouts might be able to track them down. But Kenny found that he didn't mind. An unexpected challenge like this was just the sort of thing he enjoyed, and he looked forward to clashing with his two fellow clan members once more.
In any case, while the squad members he'd brought to Shiganshina had all been wiped out, there were still many others left who were preparing for battle within the crystal caverns, and more would be joining them as soon as the second squad returned with Historia in tow. And if the Scouts somehow managed to find them and arrived with large numbers of reinforcements, Zeke had a special surprise prepared for them, as every member of Kenny's squad had unknowingly ingested some of Zeke's spinal fluid, and could be turned into a pack of powerful abnormal Titans at a moments notice.
Kenny's grin widened. He was going to enjoy this.
Varis had deposited Eren near the back of the crystal cavern, where the Reiss family had spent generations transferring the Founding Titan from one family member to another. Eren's body had been pumped full of sedatives to ensure that he would not wake up before they arrived at the chapel, and at the moment he was still unconscious.
His work done, Varis had left the room, his posture stiff and his face full of guilt.
Yelena had picked things up from there, chaining Eren down and putting a large metal gag in his mouth to prevent him from biting his tongue. Zeke watched her work silently, a twinge of regret on his face as he looked at his unconscious younger brother.
Yelena stepped back. "Everything's in place. Now we just need to wait for the other team to arrive with Historia."
Zeke shifted his gaze to her. "Yes. Thank you Yelena. It's thanks to all your hard work and planning that it's all come together."
A small blush crept onto her face. "Thank you."
Zeke stepped forward, his gaze returning to Eren. "If you don't mind, I'd like to be alone with my brother for a little while."
Yelena bowed. "As you wish."
She slowly left the room, leaving the two Yeager brothers alone together.
Zeke stared into Eren's sleeping face, his mind slowly going over the next steps in his plan as soon as Historia was confirmed to have been captured.
From what he'd learned through Levi and the other Scouts, Zeke knew that as long as a person with royal blood was physically touching the Founding Titan they would be able to use its power. And as long as the holder of the Founding Titan was unconscious, they would be unable to change or reverse anything that the person with royal blood chose to do with the Founding Titan's power. With this in mind, his plan was fairly straightforward.
He would keep Eren restrained, and when he was ready to use the Founding Titan's power he would once again pump Eren full of sedatives so that he would remain unconscious for at least six hours. He would then take control of the Founding Titan's power, and fulfill his euthanasia plan, taking away from all Eldians their ability to reproduce.
Once this was done, he would then take the steps necessary to ensure that his euthanasia plan couldn't be reversed. First, he would release the Wall Titans that were hidden near the coastal districts and use them to destroy all the major military installments around the world, preventing Marley or any other nation from interfering with Paradis for the foreseeable future and taking the Founding Titan for themselves. And second, he would alter the memories of everyone on Paradis in a way that would benefit him and prevent them from figuring out what he had done until it was too late. Of course, Mikasa, Levi, Dina, and Historia would not be affected by this memory alteration, and so would need to be killed.
Once his plans were completed and most of the loose ends had been tied up, all that would be left would be to make sure that everything worked out. To that end, Zeke would monitor Paradis for a full year after his euthanasia plan was put into motion, to make absolutely sure that no more Eldian children were being born. And if this was found to be the case, then Zeke would tie up the final loose end, and kill Eren. With Eren's death the Founding Titan power would be lost, and with no more Eldian children being born it would never again manifest itself in the world, making it impossible to stop the gradual extinction of the Eldian people.
Naturally Eren would never go along with any of this, and could pose a significant threat to his plans if he were allowed to live for a year after the euthanasia plan was put into effect. But Zeke had a means of dealing with this problem. After he'd used the Founding Titan power to do everything else he wanted, he would use it one last time to erase all of Eren's memories, and replace them with ones that would ensure Eren's submission and obedience.
If Zeke was honest with himself, he did feel a little bad about what he was going to do. He knew killing Levi, a man who considered him a friend, Mikasa, his sister in law, Historia, a young woman who had done nothing wrong, and even his own mother Dina would be extremely evil acts, especially since he had broken the trust they'd placed in him. And destroying Eren's identity and eventually killing him for his own ends made him rather uneasy, as it uncomfortably reminded him of how Grisha had treated himself.
But while it plagued his conscience somewhat, in the end it was all for the greater good, and so he had no choice but to see it through.
Zeke was roused from his thoughts as the chains binding Eren rattled slightly.
Eren shifted, his body suspended by the chains. His eyes slowly opened, his mind still clearly foggy from the sleep and the drugs.
He blinked a few times, then abruptly his eyes snapped wide open, and he began to tug on the chains holding him in place. He tried to speak but the gag prevented him from making any coherent sounds.
"Ah, you're awake. You're probably wondering what's going on."
Zeke began to pace back and forth in front of him. "Well, you see Eren, many years ago I came up with a plan, a plan that would free the Eldian people from their suffering and free the world from the terror of the Titans."
Eren had, for the moment, calmed down slightly to listen to what his older brother had to say, though he was still understandably alarmed from having woken up in chains.
"In order to make this plan a reality, I knew I would need to retrieve the power of the Founding Titan. I spent years working toward this goal, until eventually I found you."
Zeke paused and glanced down at Eren. "At first I thought that perhaps you and I could work together to make my plan happen."
He shook his head and resumed his pacing. "But alas, it's clear that while overall you are a good person, you've sadly been subjected to rigorous brainwashing by our father. He may have been more subtle about it with you then he was with me, but he nonetheless instilled his nationalistic ideology into you, making you place the good of Eldia over the good of humanity as a whole."
Eren was quiet, his mind racing as he remembered the words Zeke had said to him during his first life during their brief encounter at Shiganshina.
Believe me Eren, I get it. I know how you feel. Both of us are just victims of your father. I'm sorry, but he's brainwashed you.
"Consequently you would never willingly go along with my plans. If we had time perhaps I could have eventually undone your brainwashing, but regrettably time is something that neither you nor I have much of left. And so I have been forced to resort to this."
Zeke looked at him apologetically. "I am truly sorry. If there was another way, I would have taken it, but…"
Eren's eyes widened, and he began to strain against his chains again, seeming to realize that Zeke intended to kill him.
Zeke ignored his outburst. "It might reassure you to know that Mikasa is still alive. From what I was told she's safe and unharmed, so you don't need to worry about her well-being."
Eren calmed down slightly, but was still looking at his brother warily.
Zeke turned around to see Varis jogging toward him.
He frowned. "What is it?"
Varis glanced at Eren, his face apprehensive, before returning his gaze to Zeke.
"We just got word from a member of the second squad. They failed to capture Historia. Apparently...Annie betrayed them and killed them all."
Zeke's mouth fell open in shock.
"What?! Why the hell would she do that?!"
"I-I don't know."
Zeke gripped the side of his head.
Damn it, first we lose the primary squad in Shiganshina district, and now we lose the secondary squad in Yeager district. And Annie...Annie betrayed us...but why? She never gave any sign or indication that her loyalties were to anyone other than Marley. I know she and Armin were in a relationship during her time within the walls, but I assumed she was just manipulating him. Maybe she really did have feelings for him. But in that case...don't tell me she betrayed Marley because of a boy she had a crush on?!
Seeing that Zeke was thoroughly distracted at the moment, Eren seized his chance.
It's now or never.
Clenching his teeth, Eren forced his hand through the chains, breaking several bones and tearing through several muscles in his now badly mangled hand.
Forcing himself to ignore the pain through sheer willpower, Eren stretched out and just barely managed to brush against Zeke's leg with the tips of his fingers.
Instantly a spark of electricity ignited, and Eren felt the power of the Founding Titan flowing through him once more.
Initially he was going to transform into a Titan, but after seeing Zeke's frightened face, he found that he just couldn't.
Instead, he used the power to do two things.
The first was he sent a message across the paths to the one person he cared about the most.
Many miles away, Mikasa's head snapped up in shock.
The next second, the room was flooded with light, forcing Zeke and Varis to cover their eyes.
Once the light had faded, Zeke could see that Eren had completely encased himself within a crystalline cocoon, its color matching that of the crystals lining the floor and walls.
Shock filled Zeke's face, which was quickly replaced with horror.
Varis was thrown off his feet as Zeke abruptly transformed into the Beast Titan, and after hardening his fists he tried to break open the crystal by smashing it as hard as he could.
His attempt yielded no results, and Eren simply watched him with a calm, slightly cold expression.
The sound of ODM gear filled the air as Kenny lazily swooped into the room.
"Is there a problem?"
The Beast Titan gestured at Eren in frustration. "Eren's encased himself in this...cocoon. We need to get him out immediately! Go get some of the explosives!"
Varis saluted. "Y-yes sir!"
Kenny sighed. "Alright alright, keep your hair on."
As Varis left to get the explosives and Zeke continued to futilely pound against Eren's crystal, Kenny felt himself grinning once again.
Heh, this is getting really interesting.
The brief but brutal battle in Yeager District had ended hours ago, but the city was still reeling from the aftermath, and many soldiers of the Garrison were on patrol throughout the streets to ensure that the civilians didn't panic or rile themselves up.
Several buildings had been damaged by Ymir and Annie's transformations, and teams of construction workers were already working on repairing the damage. At the same time, the corpses of the enemy squad were being covered and taken away, while the Garrison questioned those who had witnessed the battle.
Ymir, Historia, and a reserve squad of the Scouts had headed south for Port Dina in order to warn Erwin and Pixis about Zeke's plans, as well as to reinforce the city for the incoming invasion from Marley. Meanwhile, Jean, Marco, Marlowe, and two squads of the Garrison had gone north to warn the others, and if necessary take part in an operation to rescue Eren.
Near the eastern end of the city stood a small but efficiently built jail, one that had rarely seen use. But after the days' earlier excitement it was now occupied by two new prisoners, each one being carefully watched by members of the Garrison.
The first was Boris, who sat alone in his cell, silently lamenting his cowardice, and hoping that the damage his actions had caused could still be repaired.
The second was Annie, who had one guest sitting just outside of her cell. The Garrison had given the two of them some privacy for the moment, though Annie knew they would be back before long.
Armin stared at her uncertainly, while her gaze was fixed on the floor in front of her. Neither spoke for several minutes.
"So...why did you do it?" Armin asked gently. "I mean...I can guess, but...won't...won't your father get in trouble?"
Annie didn't say anything for a moment. Armin remained silent while she gathered her thoughts.
"When I was born, I was abandoned by both of my parents, because I was Eldian. I ended up being taken in by a man who was originally from another nation but was placed in one of Marley's internment zones after a blood test revealed he was also an Eldian. After Marley revealed their warrior program he began rigorously training me, because if I became one of Marley's warriors then we would get to become honorary Marleyans and his standard of living would improve."
Annie's eyes darkened. "While he never explicitly said it, it was clear that he just saw me as a means to an end. One day I got fed up and knocked him down and kicked him repeatedly in the leg. I ended up permanently damaging the leg, but he was pleased, because it meant that I had become strong. Eventually I was able to become one of Marley's warriors just as he had wanted."
Annie's eyes drifted toward the small window that gave her cell a small view of the outside world.
"At the time nothing really mattered to me. Not the lives of others, not even my own life. Everything seemed so meaningless and empty. All I knew was that I didn't want to die, nor did I want to be stressed or uncomfortable, so I just went with the flow and did what was expected of me."
Her eyes softened. "But then, right before we left for the operation on Paradis, the man who raised me got down on his knees in front of me. He said that everything he'd taught me was wrong, that he was sorry, and that he didn't care what I did or even if I completed the mission, just as long as I came back to him."
She swallowed, and Armin could see that she was holding back tears.
"In that moment, he finally began to be a father to me, and I could see how much I meant to him. And so I promised him that I would come back no matter what. That promise is what sustained me during those five difficult years when we infiltrated the walls. I didn't give a shit about Marley or the Founding Titan, all I cared about was surviving and getting back to my father."
She finally made eye contact with him, and Armin felt his heart begin to beat slightly faster.
"But then I met you, and things got...more complicated. For a long time life had seemed pointless to me. After the promise I'd made to my father that slowly started to change, as I now had a purpose. And after meeting you I began to see new meaning in life. I also...began to feel things I'd never felt before."
A slight blush lit up Annie's cheeks, and Armin felt his own face warming as he remembered many of the nights they'd spent alone together.
Especially that final night. Before…
Annie's eyes darted back to the floor. "Of course, I knew it couldn't last. I needed to keep my promise to my father, and it was only a matter of time before you found out who I really was."
She closed her eyes, and a look of shame came onto her features.
"It...it must have been awful."
Armin was silent as he remembered the moment when Annie had revealed herself as the Female Titan, and his world had been turned on its head.
"...yeah. It was." He said quietly.
An uncomfortable silence filled the room before Annie resumed speaking.
"Eventually I made it back home to my father. It was...good, really good, to see him again. But... I was never quite able to forget about the time I spent on the island. I always remembered it with a mixture of great fondness and deep shame, especially when it came to the bond I made and then broke with you."
Armin looked at her sadly.
Annie let out a shaky breath.
"My father...he told me to do what would make me happy. And I realized that this secret mission, one that involves destroying one blameless nation for the selfish gains of another, would not make me happy. Being forced to kill you, or let you be killed, would not make me happy. And so I said to hell with the mission."
Annie made eye contact with Armin once more, and as he stared into her eyes he was struck with how much he must have meant to her for her to go to such lengths to protect him, and the sacrifices she was willing to make. He never imagined someone would ever care about him that much, and while it didn't fix the pain and the heartache he'd felt from her initial betrayal, it did a lot to help him start the healing process.
Armin leaned forward and grasped the bars that separated them.
"Annie...I can't even begin to tell you how much what you did means to me. But...you do realize they might execute you, right? Given what...you've done in the past…"
Annie let out a soft smile, touched by Armin's concern. "I'm well aware of that. But...I still don't regret it. I only have a few years left anyway."
Armin blinked back a few tears. "Annie... I promise you I will do everything I can to protect you, and allow you to live out your remaining years in peace."
Annie reached through the bars and cupped his cheek. "Thank you Armin."
Tears then did begin to fall from his face, while Annie just smiled, her heart feeling lighter then it had ever felt before.
Erwin frowned. "So we don't know where Zeke is."
Hange shook her head grimly. "No. The last time anyone saw him was last night, when he and Mike's squad went to investigate something in the port nearby. It's possible they might have spent the night there, but even so they should have come back by now."
"And there's been no sign of Mike's squad either?"
"No. It's as though Zeke, Mike, and the others have just...vanished."
Erwin crossed his arms behind his back as he stared out of his office's window. "I don't like this."
Erwin and Hange were suddenly startled as the door was flung open. Nanaba stood in the doorway and was breathing heavily as if she had run there.
"Commander! Historia and Ymir have just arrived, and they have urgent news. Zeke's betrayed us."
Hange's face fell in shock. "What?"
Erwin's expression became grim. "I wish I could say I was surprised, but…"
He gestured at her. "Go on."
Nanaba nodded. "This morning, when Historia and her escort squad were preparing to leave, they were ambushed by an enemy squad of ODM gear users, whose goal was to kidnap Historia. They would have succeeded, except one of them, the Female Titan Annie Leonhart, betrayed them and killed them."
This time Erwin's face fell in shock. "What?"
"Annie then surrendered, and explained that Zeke's loyalties were still to Marley, and that his plan was to wait until Marley invaded again, and then steal away the Founding Titan in order to leave Paradis vulnerable. At the same time that Historia's attempted kidnapping occurred, there was also an attempt to kidnap Eren. We don't yet know if this attempt was successful, but from what Annie said it seems likely. Historia sent her squad and several Garrison squads up north to try to help Eren, while she and Ymir came here to help with the invasion."
Erwin frowned, suddenly looking worried. "I see. If Zeke's forces did manage to capture Eren, then tactically speaking they would have timed it so that they captured him at around the same time as Marley's invasion. This can only mean that the invasion will happen anytime now to take advantage of our trump card being taken away."
"Should we send more reinforcements to help Eren?" Hange asked.
Erwin shook his head. "No. Without the Founding Titan at our disposal, we'll need every soldier we have right here. Even if Zeke's plan worked and Eren was captured, I'm confident that Levi and Mikasa would have both survived the attack, and they will do whatever it takes to get him back. We'll just have to trust in them and in the reinforcements that Historia sent to find and recover Eren. If they aren't able to do it, well, by the time any forces we tried to send got there, it would already be too late."
He returned his gaze to Nanaba. "Alert Commander Pixis about these latest developments."
Nanaba saluted and swiftly left the room.
Erwin turned toward his section commander. "Hange, get everyone mobilized for battle. We don't know if the enemy will be here in a matter of hours or days, but either way we need to be ready. And send Historia and Ymir to see me as soon as you can. With Eren gone, they'll be our two most important assets in this battle."
Hange saluted. "Understood."
She then left the room, leaving the Scout Commander alone once more.
Erwin stared out the window with a dark expression.
So it begins again. We knew this day would come. The only question is how it will end.
Mikasa tried in vain to break free from Levi's grip.
"We have to go!"
"No." Levi said in an infuriatingly calm voice.
"I know where Eren is! He sent me a message through the paths, showing me exactly where Zeke is holding him! We need to go now!"
Levi didn't move. "Mikasa, calm down. You also said that Eren encased himself in a solid crystalline cocoon, right? The only Titans that could easily crack something like that are the Jaws Titan and maybe the Warhammer Titan, neither of which are at Zeke's disposal, right?"
Mikasa hesitated. "Yes, but…"
"Look, I get that you're worried about him. But from what you said he'll be fine for the immediate future. We can't just blindly charge after him. Getting ourselves killed won't do him any good."
Mikasa stopped struggling, and tried to reign in her emotions.
She knew Levi was right. They'd sent two Garrison messengers south to warn the others about what had happened and to request backup. It would take time for their reinforcements to arrive, and in the meantime all they could do was wait, which despite all reasoning was the most agonizing thing Mikasa had ever had to do.
Seeing that she had calmed down, Levi slowly let go of her arm.
"I know it's tough, but we need to be patient."
Mikasa nodded stiffly.
Satisfied that she wouldn't try to run off, Levi returned his gaze to the southern gate.
Mikasa followed his gaze, and felt her stomach drop at the sight before them.
The bodies of the Garrison soldiers and Scouts that had been killed still lay strewn across the ground, though most had been covered by sheets.
Levi's gaze lingered on the two bodies he knew were Eld and Petra. Mere hours ago both had been so lively and happy. Now they were two more losses he would have to bear. He dreaded to think how Eld's pregnant wife would react, and it filled him with a great sadness as he thought about if or when Petra would have settled down. Despite being soldiers both should have been able to live full, normal lives. And they would have, if it hadn't been for Zeke.
Levi gritted his teeth as his chest tightened in anger and sorrow, and he was overcome with the overwhelming question of why. Why did he do it? What could possibly justify this? And beyond that, once fond memories he had of Zeke were now tainted, and he wondered if any of what the bearded bastard had said was real, or if it all had been a facade.
Meanwhile, Mikasa's gaze had landed on Hannes's body. Without warning, she was reminded of that day, when everything changed, when Hannes had saved her and Eren. And now…
She felt involuntary tears trailing down her face, and she tugged her scarf over her mouth.
She shuddered. "Do you...ever get used to this?"
Without warning, a group of horse riders passed through the gate and entered Shiganshina. At the head of the group were Jean, Marco, and Marlowe.
Jean's eyes widened in horror at the sight of the bodies. "Shit!"
Marco and Marlowe also expressed their surprise, though in less vulgar ways.
Mikasa looked at them in shock. "Jean, Marco, what are you guys doing here?"
Marco looked at them anxiously. "Has Eren been kidnapped?"
Mikasa and Levi were both stunned into silence.
"Y-yes." Mikasa stammered. "How did you know?"
Marlowe scowled. "There was an attempt to kidnap Historia this morning. It thankfully failed, and we learned about Zeke's treachery and his plans to take away the Founding Titan."
Mikasa's eyes widened. "Is Historia okay?"
"Yeah, she's fine." Marco reassured her.
"How did it fail?" Levi asked.
"Well…" Jean hesitated. "Annie was one of the members of the enemy squad, but she ended up betraying her teammates and helping us."
The two Ackerman were once again stunned into silence.
"What?" Levi exclaimed.
"Annie?" Mikasa said in bewilderment. "But...why?"
Marco shrugged halfheartedly. "I think...I think it was because Armin happened to be with us. She also said that she felt bad about how Paradis was being framed and set up, and couldn't bring herself to fight for Marley anymore."
Jean fiddled with his reigns. "Anyways, we're here to help rescue Eren. Do you have any idea of where they might have taken him?"
Mikasa nodded. "Yes. Let's go."
Mikasa and Levi were both given a spare horse and within minutes the whole group of Scouts, Garrison, and MP soldiers had left Shiganshina behind and were riding north as fast and hard as they could.
Levi frowned thoughtfully.
So, Zeke betrayed us, and then Annie betrayed him. Seems fitting I suppose. I'll have to thank her, assuming we all survive this.
Mikasa's thoughts were more single minded.
Hang on Eren, we're coming for you.
Hange knocked on the half opened door to announce her presence.
"Everything's ready Erwin. Pixis is waiting for you on the wall."
Erwin grabbed a few papers off his desk before suiting up in ODM gear. A moment later he and Hange were walking through the now empty military headquarters of Dina district.
Many hours had passed since they'd received the news about Zeke and Eren, and it was now early evening. Most of the military was on or near the district's walls, preparing for the invasion. The handful of civilians who hadn't already been evacuated up north had retreated to an underground bunker beneath the city, where they would hopefully be safe from any bombs or Titans the battle would rain down upon the city.
As Erwin and Hange neared the front entrance, they passed by one of the meeting rooms whose door was still ajar. Hange paused when she realized that someone was in the room.
She turned back and peered through the door. Erwin followed her and was surprised at what he saw.
"Miss Dina. Why haven't you gone down yet?"
Dina jumped, and hastily stood up from the chair she'd been sitting in. Based on her position it was clear she'd been staring off into space for quite some time now.
"Oh." She forced a chuckle. "Right. I'm sorry. I just…"
Her feeble smile died as involuntary tears ran down her face.
"My son...my precious son...I thought...I thought…"
"You thought you knew him." Erwin said gently.
"Y-yes." Dina rubbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. "I know...I was a terrible mother to him back in Marley. I've come to terms with that, and I did my best to make up for it. And...h-he seemed to forgive me...and he seemed...to understand...what was best for Eldia now…"
She let out a sob. "But this…"
Erwin sighed. "Propaganda is a powerful thing. Even in the walls I've seen how dogmatic beliefs and ideologies can warp a person's thinking if it's continually forced and reinforced upon their minds. And from what you and the others have said, the propaganda that Marley puts out is even more potent and pervasive, as most of the Eldians in Marley fully buy into it."
He gently placed his hand on her shoulder. "For as smart as Zeke is, it appears even he wasn't immune to its influence. And that is not your fault. You may have made mistakes, but you can't hold yourself accountable for Zeke's decisions. That responsibility lies with him and him alone."
Dina gave a shaky nod. "I know...I know. It's just...it's hard."
Erwin nodded sympathetically, and silently gestured for her to come with him. She followed him as he and Hange escorted her to the underground bunker.
As she walked, Dina's mind was occupied by another disturbing revelation. Previously, after the reconstruction of the island had been completed, Erwin had asked her to be the one to inherit the Beast Titan. She knew it was important for the island to keep at least one Titan with royal blood around, and so she had accepted his request, even if she was uncomfortable with some of the implications. For one, she knew that the government wanted her to settle down and start having more children as soon as possible, and that if she took too long deciding on a new husband they would decide for her.
But a more immediate concern was that in order to inherit the Beast Titan she would have to kill and eat Zeke, the thought of which had greatly disturbed her, and still did. It was an inevitable part of any Titan shifter's life, and they would die regardless due to the curse of Ymir, but that didn't make it any more appealing. Still, Dina had reconciled herself with the idea because she had thought that it wouldn't happen until Zeke's term was up, and there would be a chance for an emotional goodbye before the deed was done.
But Zeke's betrayal had changed everything. If his plans succeeded then they would all be killed or enslaved by Marley. But if his plans failed, the government would never allow Zeke to live, and the power of the Beast Titan would have to be taken from him. And so she would have to kill her own son two years earlier then she had expected, and not after an emotional goodbye but after a devastating betrayal.
More tears fell down her face, though Erwin and Hange pretended not to notice.
Why can't this all just stop?
Before long Erwin and Hange arrived on the wall, where all the Scout soldiers were stationed, along with a few Garrison soldiers. Things were surprisingly silent, though the tension in the air was thick, and everyone's eyes were on the horizon. The sun was close to setting, and the last rays it cast across the sky might have been beautiful under normal circumstances, but now just seemed foreboding.
Most of the soldiers didn't yet know about Zeke's betrayal, given the effect that would have on morale, and had only been told about Eren's capture, and the grim fact that they would need to defend the city without the aid of the Founding Titan.
A few soldiers were stationed in the port just outside of the walled city, keeping themselves hidden so that the enemy would think that the port was abandoned, and ready to strike if they tried to seize the port.
Ymir was among them, though her job was slightly different. As her Titan was very small and agile and had a set of powerful Jaws, her task was to target the enemy ships. Once they were relatively close to the shore she would transform and dive underwater, and bite through the hulls of the ships from underwater.
Historia meanwhile was on the wall, and her job was to defend the city against the enemy Titan shifters that might drop in from the airships. At the moment she was situated near Sasha and Connie's squad. The jovial pair from the 104th were uncharacteristically quiet, but Historia didn't need to ask why.
Sasha's face paled. "They're here."
Over the horizon a line of ships was now just visible in the distance. All along the water were several dozen ships, while in the air far above them there were around twelve airships.
On one of the ships Ms. Tybur stood near the helm, glaring across the water at the devils she believed had killed her brother.
On one of the airships a mixture of Eldian and Marley soldiers were assembled, and among them were Magath, Bertolt, and Pieck.
As he stared down at the island spread out below them, Bertolt was filled with a mixture of anticipation and dread.
I hope Annie is okay.
Magath picked up a nearby radio. "All troops prepare for battle. Remember, avoid doing too much damage to the wall itself. Focus your fire on the human enemies. If any of the enemy shifters appear, make their capture a priority. For the moment they don't have access to the Founding Titan, but we don't know for certain if that will last, so do everything you can to capture the city as quickly as possible."
He put down the radio and glanced at his two warriors.
"Bertolt, you'll be going in first. They appear to have spread themselves around a fair amount, so we won't be able to wipe them all out in one go, but you'll still be able to do some damage and you'll provide a nice big target for the enemy to focus on. While their attention is focused on you we can parachute in more of our forces. Pieck, your main job will be to protect Bertolt, as we don't know how long this battle will last."
Pieck nodded. "Right."
Magath looked out the window. "The future of Marley and Eldia is riding on this. We can't afford any more failures."
"Understood." Bertolt said quietly.
The ships slowly came closer and closer to the shore, while the airships were not far behind, the evening air eerily silent as the walled city awaited the oncoming storm.
Many miles to the north, the soldiers currently under Levi's command had arrived near the Reiss chapel.
Jean looked at the chapel skeptically. "And you're sure this is the place?"
Mikasa glanced at him irritably. "Yes, I told you, Eren sent me a message through the paths."
Levi raised his voice. "All right, everyone gather up."
Mikasa, Jean, Marco, Marlowe, and the other Garrison soldiers obeyed, and they went over their plan of attack. They weren't fully prepared for what could be lying in wait for them, but Levi knew that time was not on their side, and they needed to act quickly, so they had no choice.
Their presence had not gone unnoticed, and the man who had seen them was thrilled.
Kenny poked his head through the door. "Yo Varis, tell Zeke it looks like we've got company. A lot of company."
Varis nodded, his face pale, before retreating downstairs to warn the rest of Kenny's squad and Zeke about the intruders.
As he neared the chamber where Eren's crystal was located, he heard a horrible screeching sound that forced him to cover his ears. As he got closer, he could see that the awful sound was being produced by Zeke dragging his hardened nails across the crystal.
The explosives had had no effect at all on the crystal, and so Zeke had been relentlessly using his Titan abilities in every way he could think of to break the crystal. Smashing it, crushing it, throwing things at it, throwing the crystal itself, even biting it. None of his efforts had accomplished anything, though they had produced a large amount of amused laughter from Kenny, which had only further angered Zeke and eventually caused him to roar at Kenny to leave.
Zeke paused in his latest attempt to break Eren's crystal when he noticed Varis enter the room.
"Um, sir, we have some bad news."
Zeke sighed. "What is it?"
"We...we've got company. It looks like a squad or two of the Scouts, or maybe the Garrison."
Zeke smashed his fist against the nearby wall, startling Varis.
"Damn it! I didn't think they'd arrive so quickly. Okay, tell Kenny and the others to fire an acoustic round if they get down here."
Varis nodded. "Y-yes sir."
As Varis left, he prayed that this nightmare would soon be over. He didn't want to do any of this. He didn't want to obey Zeke and betray his comrades like this, but what choice did he have? After foolishly accepting that gift of wine so many months ago he'd been stuck, forced to obey Zeke or else be turned into a Titan, moreover a Titan that would then obey all of Zeke's commands. He didn't want to end up as a mindless slave, much less a monster, and so had chosen the only option that would allow him to retain at least some of his humanity.
Varis closed his eyes. Eren...please forgive me. I hope I can make up for this...
Eren watched Varis leave the room before returning his gaze to his brother, whose face was wearing an irritated frown as he tried to think of some way to crack open the crystal.
For his part, Eren felt relatively calm, as he knew that Zeke would never be able to break the crystal before help came for him.
All I have to do is wait for the others to arrive, and then I'll release myself. I probably should have done more with the Founding Titan's power after touching Zeke, but...I just couldn't bring myself to fight my brother.
Eren recalled what Zeke had said while he was chained up, and the look of regret he'd held while discussing his plans and alluding to the fate he had planned for his younger brother.
I think...I think he has good intentions. But...why couldn't he have just told me? I kind of get why he thought I was brainwashed by dad, but to do all this...without even trying to find out if I might be okay with whatever his plan is...why?
What should I do?
And suddenly, the crystalline cave was gone.
In its place was a vast ocean of sand stretching out in all directions all the way to the horizon. The sky was now visible, and was a dark blue filled with stars and crisscrossing lines that were dotted all throughout the great canopy above him.
Eren froze. The crystal that had been surrounding him was gone, but he hardly noticed that.
This place...I've been here before…
And from behind him, sounding like it hadn't been used for centuries, a voice spoke.
"Hello Eren. It's been a long time."
Author's Note: Yes, I know that's a very evil cliffhanger, but Isayama loves doing them, so I figured why not.
So I recently went back and reread through the whole story, and I alternated between going "This is actually pretty good" and "Oh god that was awful what the hell was I thinking". If I was to restart the story from scratch I would definitely do some things differently. There's no way in hell that Eren would have let Historia inherit the Armored Titan so easily, at least not until all other options had been exhausted, which they clearly hadn't been. And the plan to trap Annie and Bertolt was really stupid and clearly just a plot device, though in fairness the Scouts plan to catch the Female Titan in canon was also very flawed, as pointed out in Power to Strive. But it's too late to make any major changes, as everything that's happened is dependent on what came before, and I don't want to risk ruining what people like about the story, so for the most part I'll just leave things as they are. However, I did make one slight change to chapter 20 to fix one plot hole that I really should have caught the first time but didn't.
Overall I do still like this story, and I'm touched that so many people seem to be enjoying it. I'm still floored that more then a thousand people have favorited and followed it. But it's definitely not the work I'm most proud of. I actually like Darkest Before Dawn a bit better, since it's more grounded and more focused, and my favorite story that I've written is by far my FMA story Another Journey. After I watched the two FMA shows for the first time I was briefly obsessed with them, and I spent a lot of time analyzing exactly what I did and didn't like about both shows. I ended up making cards and spreadsheets detailing every last character moment and plot thread I enjoyed from both shows and tried to find a way to reconcile them all together until I'd come up with an incredibly elaborate and comprehensive outline for what my version of FMA would look like. And after I made the outline, I then figured I might as well just go all the way, and Another Journey was the end result, which while not flawless followed a very definitive and clear plan from beginning to end.
In contrast, A Second Chance has been played much more by ear. It's not like I had no idea where the story was going, but there was no comprehensive outline, and the general direction of the story has been more vague, and subject to change based on new information from the manga. And I know I'm not the best when it comes to the technical side of things. So for those of you who don't like this story, I get why, it definitely has some flaws. Though if you don't like this story I have no idea how or why you would even be reading this sentence right now.
Anyways, the reason I reread the entire story was so that I could refresh my memory on everything that happened, and take that into account when it comes to the ending. And I do know now how the story will end...most likely. You see, this will be the last chapter I upload before the manga ends. Yes, I know that must be frustrating, but I want to know how the manga ends before I finish this story. I'm 95% certain that my plans for how to end this story will be compatible with what has been established in the canon, but there's always the chance that Isayama will throw an unexpected curveball at us, and I want to be able to take that into account before wrapping things up.
I won't give away the ending, but let's just say that it will most likely subvert your expectations (hopefully in a good way) and while it will be dark, it will definitely be less dark then the canon ending will be.
In the meantime, until the manga ends I will be planning on doing monthly updates of Darkest Before the Dawn. And if you're caught up in the manga and are interested in MMVs of the latest chapters, I'd really appreciate it if you would take a look at some videos I made. It's on youtube, I know the link is probably incomplete:
Be sure to leave a review and let me know what you thought of this chapter. I hope you're doing well, I'm mostly okay, just kind of glad that this year is almost over.
Also, I know it might seem slightly out of character for Eren to be reluctant to attack Zeke, but keep in mind that this Eren is much lighter then canon Eren ended up being. Plus he doesn't know Zeke's full intentions. If he did, he probably would have transformed and attacked right away, but he doesn't.
Okay, this note has gone on long enough, I'm ending it there.