Arc One: Escape to Jotunheim
"Well, damn it all Nielsen, looks like you win again! I made sure to watch you that time, there's no way you were able to palm a card and me not see it!"
Freud Nielsen smiled as he laid his cards upon the crate that he and his four fellows were using as a table, another winning hand. He scraped his winnings, meager though they were, towards him.
"I guess I'm just lucky, you know."
His smile subsided as he heard a noise from across the chamber, that sounded like shattering glass, but it stopped before he could focus on it. He got up to go investigate, but Lars protested.
"If you get up we won't deal you in on the next hand! I plan on earning back all the money you stole!"
"I didn't cheat you nitwit, didn't you hear what Nicol said," Freud chided, trying to listen again, "And I know I heard something!"
But they shook their heads, and laughed at him.
"The Ice queen has been in there for months, it's just as likely that she's dead and gonna stay in her little crystal prison-"
A gurgled cry cut the speaker off as the only source of light in the chamber, a small lamp, was extinguished. He reached out for one of his blades, but was stunned into stopping as he caught sight of the headless corpses of two men he had known for years.
"What the hell..."
Lars was silenced a moment later, but Freud was up and had his blades drawn.
He caught a glint from something and brought his right hand up, parrying a wickedly sharp blade that had snaked towards him out of the darkness.
Freud missed the second blade that came in under the first, and felt a searing pain as it opened him from hip to shoulder.
He fell to his knees, his Maneuver gear and blades clanking to the ground, and he looked up into the cold, merciless blue eyes of a monster. His eyes closed, and then a final swing of the blade ended the night.
But not before he regretted being unable to warn the outside world that Annie Leonhardt was free.
"Damn it all, Ragnar, you need to start acting more like a Prince!"
Ragnar Mosher, the Seventh Prince of the Kingdom of Jotunheim, snickered as he finished driving the tent stake into the hard ground.
"Luigi, you know I'm barely a prince," He said, looking at the small scowling figure trying in vain to look intimidating. "My father gave me command of the South to keep me busy and away from the capital and the family affairs. He might as well have disowned me, there are times when I visit when I think he wishes that it was I who had decided to rebel and not Suttungr."
"Nonetheless, you are a prince, and the commander of this expedition," Luigi went on, crossing his arms, "There are a dozen men here whose task it is to set up and maintain the tents on our travels. Let them do their jobs, and you do yours!"
He finally acquiesced and laid the hammer down, then looked up as another pair of men approached,
"Prince Ragnar," The larger of the two started, his long brown beard quivering about in the slight wind, " wish to report that the second wall looks to be inhabited. We sighted no titans anywhere within a dozen miles of us, though I'll double the normal guard just in case we have any," He paused for a moment, "We sighted dozens of men on the top of the wall though. And we've been hearing periodic firing of cannons from inside the town
"Excellent work, Nick. I'd like to see the wall for myself if we may," He elbowed Luigi in the ribs, "As long as my leash will allow me."
They all shared a laugh at Luigi's expense, but his protector nodded approval, and they mounted horses with an additional pair of men. It took them several minutes to wind their way through the maze of giant trees that they were sheltering in, but finally they reached the edge of the forest and Ragnar was able to look up into the coming twilight.
As they traveled, in a dispersed formation with Ragnar and Luigi at its center, they listened intently for the tell-tale footsteps of a titan, but they did not hear any, thankfully. The wild titans generally went inactive at night, or so his father's pet researchers said. The wild ones also avoided large groups of Jotunn, for reasons totally unknown. If they caught you without a large group, they'd do what they always did and try to swallow you.
It took them nearly four hours to pick their way across the fields of grass, seeing only by the grace of the moon, but Ragnar finally looked upon the white walls that all of Mankind, supposedly, sheltered behind. He'd read all of the information he could about them before they'd left upon this journey, but it had held little information.
"It is quite amazing that our ancestors were able to convince that many Colossi to from the wall," He mused aloud, knowing full well that no one could force a Titan fifty meters in height to do anything they did not wish to do, "I'm glad Jotunheim doesn't have them, I'd feel trapped."
His guards shared consenting opinions, and they continued their approach, now totally silent, as they were reaching a distance from which their voices may carry to the guards up atop the wall.
Ragnar was studying the wall, the guns that were atop it, and with the help of his spyglass, the men who walked upon its rim. They were clad in strange clothing, wholly different from Ragnar's simple ensemble. They wore a harness that held a pair of boxes outboard from their legs.
So intent were his observations that his horse nearly ran into the back on Luigi's, as Nick called the formation to a halt with a raised fist. His hands moved quickly, and Ragnar was able to catch most of what he meant.
There were nearly two dozen wild titans ahead of them, clustering at one point in the wall. He looked and saw that they writhed and clawed at the wall, their fingers scraping themselves to the bone trying to get through it. Deviants.
Luigi signaled that they must fall back, but Ragnar countermanded him, as he watched one of the walls guns fire. It fired not outwards at the crowding wild titans, but inwards, at some unperceived threat. His spy glass centered on one of the cannons, and he watched with some interest as it's crew ran it through its loading cycle.
Nick circled back, close enough to Ragnar and Luigi that they could hear his tensely whispered words.
"Sir, it may be prudent to fall back," He said, another blast punctuating his words, with a spattering of small-arms fire adding its own noise to the mix, "We aren't privy to the going on's of the humans within the wall, and we were expressly told not to make contact."
Ragnar nodded, remembering the tense dinner between himself, his father and his head councilor Georg Sanderson. He turned his horse back towards the giant forest.
"Alright, let's fall back to-"
He was cut off by a gut curdling scream from within the wall, his head snapping around. His eyes searched, for a moment, looking all about the Walls.
That was the scream of a Jotunn! Ragnar thought to himself, as his eyes settled upon a...
A female figure raised itself above the edge of the Wall, silhouetting itself against the now risen moon.
Her flight had been a long one, her body was growing sluggish from the effort of fleeing from the Scouting Legion and military police through the Walls Sina and Rose, but freedom was just ahead. It was unfortunate that she had been pushed to run the wrong direction from where she wanted to.
Being skilled at covert movements, she had easily been able to escape from the cavern after killing her guards, but someone must have noticed her, for she had only been able to get a few blocks before she heard the hissing of 3D Maneuver gear growing nearer.
It had been a hard fought battle to get here, but as she saw the seemingly endless fields of the Wall Maria ahead of her, she had hope. As she climbed down, she was stunned to find a large number of titans stationed below her, waiting with hungry looks upon their malformed faces.
She hesitated for a moment, and then sprang from the wall, attempting to give herself some distance from the massive group below her.
Rolling as she landed, she immediately slammed herself into motion, knowing that every massive step she took
Settling into a steady pace, she kept just ahead of the ravening jaws of her pursuers, as she passed a series of small hills, she noted several bright flashes, and swerved. The bastards on the wall must be shooting at her!
How did they get the guns turned around so fucking fast?
She noted a pair of titans charging towards her, and tried to change direction to avoid them.
Her swerve cost her, however, and she felt a hand close on her ankle. She jerked her leg away, luckily breaking the small titans grip.
She accelerated once again, holding the distance open for several minutes, but then she began to tire. Her many hours of fleeing were catching up, and she stumbled as she looked up to find another group of titans exit the forest in front of her.
Then she was on the ground, a massive root tripping her. And the flood of titans was upon her, tearing at her flesh. She slashed outwards, making contact with the face of a 15 m class, but it didn't even flinch.
Her titan form shuddered and convulsed, as she extricated herself from the orgy of death and blood that had unfolded before her. The shuddering stopped as the last connection was severed. But still the other Titan's tore at her Titan forms flesh. Turning towards a lone giant tree, she trigged her maneuver gear, hoping to make a quick escape. Bu titan caught sight of her and lunged, its jaws closing on her right leg, amputating it well above the knee.
She screamed, her hooks missing the giant tree by a massive margin. The ground smacked her in the face as she fell. Rolling over, she looked into the empty eyes of the titan that would soon kill her. Annie closed her eyes.
I've failed once again, She thought. Tears streamed down her face as a wave of emotions hit her. Why, why must it all end like this?
The ground reached up once again smacked her in the head, and dirt and dust rained down upon her, and her eyes jumped wide at the sight before her.
A massive titan, at least 20 m, stood over her. Her mind flashed with alarm, but, catching sight of the comparatively tiny titan that had been attempting to devour her held within the massive grasp of one of it's four arms...
She watched it harden the edges of it's hands, and strike the titan within it's arms at it's weak point. Then it burst into action, it's arms weaving a deadly pattern. A fifteen meter met it's fate as a hand scythed through it's neck, another meeting it's fate at nearly the same time as the twenty meter grabbed it and crushed its upper body. It spun and gyrated, lashing out like some long forgotten god of war.
Her eyes studied it, even as she felt herself slipping away. It was heavily muscled, and she was vaguely reminded of Reiner's Titan form... the arms and lack of armor were all that she could see as different. But the face was totally different from the angle she could view it at.
What kind of monster has come to my rescue...
Several other titans, all at least 12 m charged in, taking out several other titans. One, a fifteen meter with short dark hair was particularly formidable, squaring off against no less than five titans. After a few moments, there were no titans left.
As she looked upwards, into the face of the 20 m titan, she noticed that the eyes were the color of burnished bronze.
This must be a nightmare.
She finally gave in to the spectre of pain and drifted into unconsciousness.
"What could possess you to do something so foolish?"
Luigi was beside him, their horse's mere feet apart as they charged through the night, making a break for the forest. The young lady was seated behind him, slumping forward, her leg bleeding profusely.
Ragnar's heart was beating furiously, not from any kind of strain, but from the sheer excitement that was battle. He looked towards Luigi and his passenger, her blonde hair flowing.
"I couldn't very well let her be eaten," He yelled, "As a prince it is my duty to protect people, isn't it! So I protected! So what if I broke my father's rule to not bring back people of the wall! She's a Jotunn! Last we knew, those within the wall couldn't transform!"
"The King's rule is law," Luigi shouted, "He appointed me as your Guardian and teacher, but it seems I haven't taught you that simple fact! You've put us in quite a predicament, the men on the wall had to of seen the flashes from our transformations, so they're likely to be rather curious! So curious that they'd send out a rather large number of horsemen!"
By the time his men had finished with the wild titans, a number of soldiers had made their way to the other side of the wall. Ragnar hadn't seen a gate anywhere near this part of the wall, so they must have come over by some form of elevator, like the ones used throughout certain parts of Jotunheim.
They'd closed to within a half mile of Ragnar's little group. And their swift horses had allowed them to close the distance even more.
"Luigi, stop up here," He said, looking over and noting how pale the girl was, his guardian immediately protested, but by then Ragnar had already reined in his horse and dismounted, "She isn't healing properly, we need to staunch the bleeding. Or else that blood trail will allow them to follow us, and she may die."
Having turned back, Luigi hopped off his horse, and handed the girl to Ragnar. Tenderly setting her down, he knelt and place his ear to her chest.
"She's still breathing pretty steadily," He muttered, then removed his cloak and tore a large strip, sending Luigi into guffaws, since that same cloak could have bought enough food to feed a family for several weeks. He wrapped the wound, then grabbed a spare piece of rope and used it as a makeshift tourniquet. "Luigi, I think it will be best if she rides with me. Your horse is faster than mine, and I need you to ride ahead to the camp and tell them to pack up and head for… that huge field of flowers we came through."
As Ragnar knew he would, Luigi immediately and vociferously protested, but Ragnar silenced him with a raised hand and slightly raised voice.
"I order you to carry out my will, as a Prince of the House of Mosher. Nick, Philipson and Tyr will escort me. The rest of the caravan will need your guidance to reach the meeting point two days from now. I shall lead our pursuers away. Now go!"
Very rarely did he use his title to badger people into doing things, since he disdained it so, but Luigi dropped his stubborn eyes, bowed and then mounted his horse and rode towards the forest of giant trees.
Nick and the other escorts, who had been far behind keeping watch on their pursuers, finally caught up, and reined in their horses. They seemed to note Luigi's absence, and the set of Ragnar's eyes. Nick, as the second in command of his bodyguard, was the one to make their report.
"My Prince, forty pursuers about a tenth of a mile back, I suggest you remount your horse and allow me to carry the young lady-"
"That won't be necessary," Ragnar said, easily lifting the little waif onto the horse, then joining her in the saddle and securing herself to him with a length of rope, "I was the one who chose to rescue her, therefore she is my responsibility. Now, we need to leave them a trail to follow…"
He unsheathed one of his two short swords, and with a quick stroke, sliced off his right hand.
"My responsibility, Nick! Now let us ride, we have to make it to the field of flowers in two days taking the long way around!"
With nary a shutter, he reared his horse and charged into the darkness, his stunned men a few horse lengths behind. A thin trail of blood flowing onto the grass below them.
"Team Leader Sturgenson, our scouts have lost sight of the unknown horsemen!"
Michael Sturgenson, of the Scouting Legion, swore under his breath as he and the hundred other soldiers charged on. They were a ragtag bunch, since a large portion were Military Police wussies who'd never even seen a titan, or Stationary guard soldiers who'd only shot at them with cannon. Michael was far from that, having a dozen solo kills and several assists.
"Have they sighted any Titans?"
Louis Ryder, his right hand man, was tucked in close behind him as they traveled, holding a lamp to light the way. He was also in charge of firing and reading the numerous barely visible flares that were being fired, forcing him to put down the lamp at times, which if the situation wasn't so serious, would be comical.
"None so far. This may be the farthest anyone has ventured from the wall in quite a while. Why are there no Titans? We saw only a few dozen, and we should have seen many, many more by now… Hmm… Oh, let me see…"
He fired a quick series of flares, in a pattern, and received a number of replies. Michael had a hard enough time seeing the replies, but Louis deftly communicated with the spread out men of the Legion.
"No titans, and no sightings of the mystery horsemen," He then pointed down to the grass below them, at the rapidly dissipating blood trail that they had been following. "And it looks like those shifters are healing, because we're losing our best clue to their direction."
Louis swore, loudly and eloquently as he usually did.
"Signal mission terminated, we can't be bumbling about out here or else we'll end up as titan food."
And with that, they turned about, and with a yellow flare handing high over their head, they streamed back towards the wall. The Military Police in the lead, of course.
Ragnar, his newly regrown hand holding the reins of his horse, led the way into the immense field of flowers. It had taken him nearly three days to reach the meeting point, as they'd had to skirt around a rather large group of wild titans a day into the journey.
The field was almost a perfect circle, and at least a mile in diameter. It had made a fine campground for them, having a rather large stream flowing through the middle of it. And sitting next to the stream were the unpacked tents and wagons of the expeditionary caravan.
He heard a yell go up from one of the pickets, and suddenly he felt the sudden need to itch himself as a hundred eyes turned towards him. He immediately spotted a pair of mounted horses speeding towards him.
"Ragnar, I'm pleased to see you alive and well."
Eleanora Styr, commonly known as Eleanor or El to those she was close to, the leader of the caravan that had followed Ragnar and also the third in command of his Guard behind Luigi and Nick, was a women of large dimensions, standing taller than Ragnar himself, and simply dwarfing Luigi, who rode beside her. Her long black hair hung past her shoulder, although it was tamed together into a bun at the moment.
"Thank you, El," He said, his voice wavering slightly from exhaustion. Turning to Luigi, he said, "I'm sorry it took us an extra day, but we encountered a few snags."
It was then that they noticed the girl sitting behind Ragnar, still unconscious. Noting their gazes, he untied the rope holding her to him, and dismounted.
"El, she's a Jotunn. She hasn't woken up since we parted ways, but we've been able to get her to take water and a little of that porridge we had along. Could you please see her situated?"
Eleanor hesitated, knowing of the Kings decree declaring contact with the people of the wall illegal, but her eyes softened as she watched Ragnar gingerly take the girl off the horse.
"I'll get her taken care of, My Prince."
Taking the girl, Eleanor mounted her horse and trotted off towards the camp, as Luigi dismounted and approached. He watched Ragnar with disapproving eyes, the eyes of a teacher whose student had disobeyed.
Ragnar swayed before Luigi could reach him, and fell to his knees.
"Ragnar, you're pushing yourself too hard! Come now, let's get you to your bed."
Shaking his head, Ragnar stood, his body shaking with the effort. He was able to hold it for only a moment before slumping onto Luigi, who lowered him to the ground.
Turning his eye to Nick, who looked just as haggard as the Prince, he shook his head.
"Did he sleep at all during the journey?"
Nick shook his head.
"We tried to get him to take a break, but he wouldn't have any of that. Anytime we stopped to get water, he was worrying over the little lass. It seems she was having pretty bad night terrors, because she kept calling out in her sleep. And saying she was sorry for some reason."
Luigi looked down at the young man who he was to protect and teach, he smiled a tight little smile.
"It appears our little Ragnar is quite enamored with that young lady," Luigi turned to motion to two other riders who had arrived from the camp, "Get the prince to bed."
Tyr, the giant of a man whose braided beard had a tendency to get caught in his shirts buttons, spoke up from where he was guzzling down a canteen of water.
"So, the Prince is in love? I've never seen him take any interest in lasses, not even Gersemi who was promised to him, that's a good thing, right?"
"I can only hope so."
Remounting his horse, they rode towards the camp.