The expedition was stopped for the night in one of the Titan Forests south of the wall. Hilde Baumgard was crouched on a limb of a tree, the wind feathering her boyish short hair out around her face. Dusk was approaching, and with it an ebb to titan activity. Or so they hoped.
A large yawn overtook her then, her jaw popping with the strain. On another limb, her scout partner, Mike Zacharius, rolled his neck and shoulders.
“Come on, sun, set already,” she grumbled. “I would like to get some sleep sometime.”
Mike chuckled, a low and throaty sound. He was mocking her.
Hilde flashed a rude hand gesture in his direction. “Laugh now, buster. When we get back, you may not think it so funny.”
“Is that a promise?” he teased. Then he turned serious. “Have you put any thought into what we’ve talked about?”
“Not now, please,” she pleaded.
“I’m not going to let this go,” he said.
“After we’re back,” Hilde promised.
They were quiet for several minutes before Mike snapped to attention. “Heads up, we’ve got incoming,” he growled, sniffing the air.
Hilde stood, squinting into the sun. “I don’t see it…” she started. “Wait, it’s coming up over the hill. Eleven… no a twelve meter.”
“We wait to see if it turns this way. If so, you take the kill,” Mike said, palming his ODM controls.
At first, it appeared as if the titan were going to move away. But then it stopped, its head swiveling in their direction, seeming to look right at them.
And then it charged.
“Shit, an abnormal!” Hilde cried.
They waited until the titan was almost directly beneath them, and then they leaped down. Mike went first, going at it from the front. Darting out of its reach, he slashed for its eyes. Hilde was a moment behind, legs tucked and blades outstretched as she went for the nape.
Then, it seemed as if time had frozen as one giant hand came up and slapped Hilde out of the air.
Pain was the first sensation to register as her bones broke. First from the titan’s blow, and then from striking a tree as she fell. She had no lifeline, and the ground was quickly rising up to meet her.
She was going into shock, and could only lay there and watch as Mike went after the abnormal solo. It had begun to head deeper into the forest, and he was hard on its heels.
She wanted to call out to him, to beg him not to leave her, but the titan took precedence. Every ragged breath tore at her broken body, and soon she blacked out.
She came around a short time later, still alone. Or so she thought. Feeling as if she were being watched, Hilde turned her head.
Crouching just feet away was a three meter titan. It panted as it stared at her with hungry eyes. The monster crept closer, confident that she was not going to escape from it.
Hilde whimpered, tears beginning to run from the corners of her eyes. Not like this… she thought. Not alone.
With both hands, it reached for her, seizing her about the waist. Hilde screamed in agony as it lifted her. All she could see was its gaping maw growing ever closer, saliva stringing out between its jaws.
“No!” she screamed, sobbing as it was about to devour her, head first.
Moist heat met her skin as the darkness closed in around her. Teeth larger than her hand beginning to clamp down.
And then there was the brightest light she had ever seen as she was pulled free. “Hilde,” a voice demanded. “Damn it, Hilde, stay with me!”
Inside Wall Maria, year 842
“It really is a miracle that she survived,” a soft voice said. “She has severe bruising to her ribs, numerous fractured ribs and severe bruising to her hips. Her maneuvering equipment took the brunt of it. And then there is her face…”
The bandages were carefully unrolled and pulled free, letting in the light. The older man let out a sympathetic hiss at his first glance of her.
Hilde knew what they saw. Her face had been shredded by the titan’s teeth as she had been pulled free. And then the lacerations had festered on the way back to the wall because of the titan saliva. The swelling was painful, and they oozed constantly.
“Hello, Hilde,” the man said.
Hilde nodded her head in acknowledgment. Speech pulled at the stitches in her face too much.
“I’ll just leave the two of you alone,” the doctor said, closing the door behind him.
“I am Ellis Crouse,” he said softly, “Commander of the Asset Recovery Corps. I was wondering if I could speak with you.”
Hilde blinked, then made and held eye contact.
“I have a career opportunity that I think you may be interested in…”
Hilde studied the man. He was old enough to have been retired from the military for several years, yet there he sat in his Garrison uniform.
“I know that you must be curious as to why an old man from the Garrison should be visiting you in the middle of the night,” he said quietly, leaning back in his chair, a smirk on his face.
“Things are not what they appear, Ms. Baumgard. You see, I command a special branch of the military, called Asset Recovery.” He leaned forward then, eagerly watching her reactions. “We go beyond the wall and bring back those who have fallen in the battle with the titans.”
Hilde’s eyes went wide with disbelief. “How?” she croaked.
“Have you heard of the Black Cloaks?” He grinned at her expression of consternation. “So our reputation proceeds us, good.”
He leaned back in his chair once more, crossing one leg over the other. His fingers were interlaced together as they held onto his knee.
“It’s easier to pose as mercenaries who retrieve bodies in trade for reward. Naturally, the public ridicule can be disheartening at times, but in the end it is all worth it.”
Pleased that he still had her attention, he continued.
“I would like to recruit you, Hilde. I feel that your abilities would be a wonderful addition to our forces.”
“But I almost died,” Hilde protested.
“True, but death comes for us all one day,” he said with a shrug. “You are a skilled soldier, and your intuition is second to none.”
His hand came up to interrupt her when she made to speak.
“Three sequential expeditions serving in the Front Line spotters, and an impressive kill count besides. We need people like you,” he said. “So what do you think?”