Weight of Life

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chapter one

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artifice

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His back against one of the stone buildings lining the open market, Levi checked his gauntlet, pushing up the left sleeve of his dark grey jacket so he could examine the fine silver metal exoskeleton wrapped around his left wrist and forearm. Everything looked all right, felt to be fine, and flexing his wrist prepped a dart for rappelling walls. Satisfied that that his gear was working, he relaxed his wrist and pulled the sleeve back down, giving it a tug so that it matched the right and brushed off a fleck of dust from his right glove. All around him, people bustled about with their asinine lives, babbling gibberish about prices and bargains while they drifted around various tables topped with useless crap.

Speaking of babbling….

“- and Erwin said that Pixis will let us join in if he finds the tunnels, he swears that he’s getting closer to locating them. I know of several historical cities in the past that are supposed to have undergrounds, so it just-“

He tuned out Hange and her familiar jabbering; years of partnering together made it a skill he could turn on and off at will. He continued with his uniform check and moved onto the long blades sheathed at his hips, bored out of his mind and needing something to stay focused, as Erwin had put the two of them on duty far away from anywhere important. Shitty bastard must still be holding a grudge over the whole Maria affair….

“Oh, looks like someone hates the MPs as much as we do.”

In the process of wiping off the bit of mud that was defiling his black boots, Levi looked up to see what it was that his mentally unbalanced partner was cooing about *now*. The egotistical bastards in their MP uniforms were easy to spot, thanks to their black jackets with the green and white horned horses emblazoned upon the back. Really, who wanted a mutated freak as a symbol when they had enough of a problem with Malforms, but that was the MP for you. Right now, two of the shitstains’ finest were hassling some poor kid, which was nothing new. What was surprising was that the brat had the balls to stand up to them. Balls, but not brains.

The brat’s back was to Levi, but from the little he could tell, there wasn’t anything special about him; he didn’t look like he could take on the two MP by himself, he wasn’t dressed in any fancy clothes, just brown pants and a matching laced up jerkin. If anything, he was dressed rather light for the cooler temps inside of the Trost dome – his companions were wearing jackets and one of them even a red scarf. The girl, with shoulder length black hair and her face obscured by the scarf, had enough sense to pull him away from the MP while the other boy, with blond hair in a similar cut, made appeasing motions in what was an obvious attempt to apologize for his friend. Whatever he was doing, it must have worked as the MPs let the three of them go. As they hurried away, Levi caught a glance of the troublemaker’s face.

Despite the fact that everyone was locked up under a dome, the brat’s skin was tan, lacking the normal pallor he was used to seeing. It only made the brat’s eyes appear all that more unusual, that much more brighter, an arresting golden color that drew Levi in the few seconds that the boy looked in his direction. Then the girl pulled the brown-haired brat into the crowd in what was probably an attempt to lose the MPs and Levi no longer saw him, despite the fact that he was skilled in tracking people.

He pushed away from the wall he was leaning against in an attempt to follow the unusual threesome a little longer, but dammit, somehow they really had vanished. There was no sign of the troublemaker, no sign of that bright blond hair, no red scarf. Who the hell were those kids?

“Levi?”

“What?” He turned to find Hange staring at him in shock, her mouth opened wide and an odd gleam in her dark brown eyes behind the lenses of her glasses. He felt a sinking feeling in his stomach as she soon squealed in glee.

“Aw, what is it? Did you find something interesting? Was it one of those kids? I *told* you Trost would be good for us!” She dared to lunge forward and hug him, her gauntlet thumping hard into his back. “It’s always fun in a main dome!”

“Hange, I swear that if you don’t let me go, I will *gut* you and leave you for Malforms to feast upon,” he gritted out between clenched teeth, well aware that people were staring at them.

Of course the insane idiot ignored him. “I’m willing to risk it,” she answered in a blithe manner as she dragged him away from the wall and into the crowd. “Now, we have to meet up with Erwin, but you can tell me what had you so distracted along the way. Was it the girl? One of the boys? Both of the boys? Levi, you kinky bastard, I bet it was both of the boys!” she squealed in delight, uncaring about who overheard.

He was seriously going to string her up and leave her out as Malform bait.

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One of the few good things about a scheming bastard like Erwin Smith was that he took one look at the swollen lip on Hange’s (idiotically) grinning face, glanced at Levi, and then decided to ignore the whole situation. Bastard definitely knew when to pick his battles, and after deciding to pair Levi with such an insane partner, he’d been doing a hell of a lot of ignoring ever since. Oh all right, the shitty glasses was decent in a fight when she wasn’t screaming at Levi to leave her some sort of sample she could haul back to their base, and she put up with him. Wasn’t much to say about that last bit. Still, she should know better about which lines could be crossed by now, except Hange apparently lived in a line-free world. At least she didn’t give a shit when he beat her down for his own fucked-up issues.

Erwin motioned for them to sit down and then did that annoying throat-clearing shit of his. Just when Levi took to glaring, he began to speak. “Run across any Malforms today?”

Levi spoke up before his partner could start ranting. “No. It’s been annoyingly quiet.” Not that he looked forward to risking his own life and those of his squad, but he was going to go crazy if he continued to hold up walls for much longer.

Of course Hange had to go all scientific, bouncing in her seat all the while and even tugging on her ponytail for added emphasis with her left hand. “It’s not normal, things being this calm. You have over a hundred thousand people beneath the Trost dome, one of the biggest and most elite out there, and it can’t open for another nine months. There’s usually at least a hundred Malforms in a population this size, despite our best efforts to keep them out, and considering that the dome has been closed for a month, we should have seen at least ten by now if we consider the law of averages. Something is going on here.”

Erwin folded his hands beneath his chin and nodded, his blond, slicked back hair shining in the dim light of the small, sparse office and in contrast to the grey of his jacket. “Yes, I agree with you, and the fact that we’ve only come across one of them so far is very worrisome. I’m not so much troubled that we’ve been given a contract to protect Trost and seem to have done little to support our pay as am wondering why we’ve done so little work. For the past several centuries, their actions have been… almost dependable. I don’t like the idea that they’re changing.”

For a moment Levi was lost in memories of comrades screaming in pain, the scent of blood and sweat, of inhuman shrieks. His fists clenched at the anger that washed through him at the thought of so much senseless loss and suffering. “Those fuckers aren’t changing, all that matters to them then and now is tearing us apart and feeding,” he spat out. “Don’t even try to tell me that they’ve developed some sort of brain.”

Erwin stared at him as if startled while Hange leaned forward, her hands now clasped in front of her. “They do seem to be some sort of mutated human life form, perhaps they maintain-“

“They’re reanimated *corpses*, thanks to a shitload of fucking radiation. You, the expert on this shit, are telling me a corpse can have a fucking working brain-cell to rub together?” Levi turned his glare her way, in no mood for one of her fucked up theories.

Hange appeared tired all of a sudden, her usual vigor vanished as she sunk back into the torture racks that Erwin kept as chairs in the shitty closet that he called an office. “… no. Nothing I’ve found to verify that, at least. But I’ve had a very limited sample pool thanks to the fact that they tend to liquefy if you sever their heads.” It was her turn to glare. “Which a certain someone has a nasty habit of doing.”

“For which I’m grateful,” Erwin muttered as he reached into a drawer of his desk for something. After a few seconds, he pulled out a bottle of whisky and three glasses. “I have Mike out sniffing around to see what he can find out. I’d appreciate it if the two of you can keep your eyes open as well.” He poured each of them a rather generous glass of liquor and handed them out, his blue eyes free of guile; Levi didn’t trust the act one bit as Erwin was one hell of an actor, but he trusted *Erwin* when it came down to it.

“What brought this on,” he asked as he held the glass to his lips, as his commander wasn’t usually so free with the good stuff.

Erwin scowled at his desk for a few seconds before shaking his head. “Nile Dok was questioning our contract since he feels we’ve done so little in the past month, but Pixis stepped in to defend us. Not as if there’s much he can do while the dome is sealed.” He shook his head again as if to clear it of bad thoughts and smiled. “To the Wings of Freedom,” he said while holding up his glass.

For the first time in what felt to be forever, Levi smiled as he echoed the toast, his sight going to the emblem on Erwin’s right sleeve, the same that was emblazoned on his own grey jacket; the white and black wings. The Freedom Corp was the best of the best, the toughest, the craziest and the most suicidal; they kept the domes free of Malforms. You had to be crazy when being sealed inside life-supporting terra-domes while solar flares raged on meant that you were basically limited to medieval-level warfare techniques.

He tossed back the whisky, and the liquor was a pleasant burn down his throat. Erwin held up the bottle for another shot; Levi shrugged and offered up his glass while Hange prattled on about radiation, mutations and why the entire squad was a bunch of pussies for not wanting to bring back an adequate sample base for her to fuck around with and get her jollies off on instead of finding a decent vibrator or something.

As disturbing as that thought was, it was better than him thinking about a pair of eyes the exact color of light striking through priceless, pure honey as it poured down. He’d stolen some of that rare treat once when he’d been young, and as he sat there with his friends, he could still recall the taste of something that usually only the most elite could enjoy. What did it mean to come across someone with eyes that shone so bright in this dull, bland world?

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“-having Moblit go through and compile the data from all of our records on Malform kills in the past five years. I know the general theory is that they only hunt at night, which is utter bullshit; I don’t know why people are so stupid, you’d think the first time they get killed in what passes as daylight inside a dome that they would know better, but it’s like an ingrained herd mentality-“

Levi rubbed his temples and wished there was a way to gag Hange that wouldn’t involve so much effort; once she got off on a scientific tangent, you were doomed to blathering nonsense until she was distracted by something or ran out of energy. He’d tried running away in the past, but thanks to the shitty fact that her legs were longer than his, *fucking hell he wasn’t bitter about that, fuck it all no damn it*, she just chased after him spouting the damn verbal diarrhea the entire time at the top of her lungs. Which were impressive as fuck after years of combat and rappelling training. If there was a god, that fact alone was proof it hated Levi. There were days he seriously considered taking out his own ear drums for some peace and quiet, but that bastard Erwin would probably just pay for the cyber implants and give him enhanced hearing as punishment. *Bastard.* Even more proof this so-called god hated Levi’s guts.

As a last resort, he looked up to her and frowned. “So you think you can predict when they might attack?”

The unexpected question actually caused Hange to pause in her long-winded explanation for at least a minute, and then she smiled as if she had been given control of an entire dome. “Yes! At least, I think we can establish enough of a pattern to anticipate when they might, and base our patrol rotations on the data.” She looked as if she was about to rattle off some more scientific nonsense, but they had reached their destination.

While Trost was one of the older, more established domes and had the privileged sections to prove it, along with a renowned university, there were still plenty of shops and markets that catered to the less fortunate segments that supported the upper class. Hange had made certain to work into their rotation several of the consignment shops that might offer up the possibility of any books, a rare item in these days of digital content.

Upon coming across the Zeramuski Family Pawn Shop, Hange burst through the door, swinging it open with such force that it smacked into the wall behind it. “Hi Milius! I’ve money for you!”

The young man with blond hair sitting behind the dark wooden counter looked up from the ledger he was marking and made a gulping sound, his face appearing flushed. Levi closed the door behind him and leaned against the counter, the fingers of his right hand stroking along the smooth, cool metal of his gauntlet.

“Ah, Ms. Hange, uhm….” The kid appeared all the more flustered the longer he stared at Hange, who looked at him expectantly. Levi noticed that the shelf above his head that had contained several rare books that Hange had been interested in was now empty.

“Oi, Shitty Glasses, I don’t think he has the books for you anymore,” he told his partner, hoping to hurry things along so he could get back to work.

The crest-fallen look on her face was almost comical, if it didn’t mean he wouldn’t be hearing about this for the next several days. “What? What do you mean ‘no more books’?” She turned from him to look at the kid, whose face was a bright red. “What happened to my books?” she wailed as she thumped her gloved hands against the counter.

The kid flinched and wrung his own hands together, his bright red skin in contrast to his blond hair and blue shirt. “Well… uhm… see… Dad was working with me the other day, and… uhm, these kids came in and… ah, paid for the books.” He flinched as Hange wailed even louder. “I’m… I’m sorry, but they had the money then!”

Considering how much Hange had been saving up for the stupid books, Levi was a bit curious now; he shouldered his partner aside and leaned over the counter to glare at the flustered kid. “Who bought them?” How many book obsessed idiots could there be in this dome?

Hange bumped into him and nodded frantically. “Yes! Maybe I can buy them back!”

The kid gulped again as he took a nervous step backwards. “Ah, well, there were three of them. The one wanting the books had blond hair and blue eyes… I think his name was Ar… Arwin or something?” His brow furrowed as if he was trying to remember. “There was a dark-haired girl who wore a scarf who was with him, she was really pretty but scary. And a guy who had these big eyes….”

Levi’s left wrist flexed and unflexed at the mention of the honey-eyed brat; what were the chances that he’d run across the kid again, even in passing like this? Why would three teenagers like that want a bunch of rare books? How the hell could they afford them when Hange had saved up several weeks of pay?

Something must have showed on his face as the kid made a choking sound and shuffled back even farther from the counter. Hange finally stopped with the sobbing to thank him for the information and then grabbed hold of Levi’s left arm so she could pull him out of the shop.

“What the fuck is up with those damn kids? First they fuck with the MPs and then they buy your books?” Levi wanted to track them down so he could smack some sense into them. It had nothing to do whatsoever so he could find out what was going on in a certain brat’s head – which he suspected of being next to nothing.

Hange made an odd humming sound for several seconds. “They are acting rather odd for teenagers, though the data is pretty limited for only two encounters. I want to know why they bought those books – if they were looking for something to show off, they could have found cheaper volumes elsewhere. Those were of value because of their genre. You don’t often come across pre-dome scientific era science.”

Levi agreed with her. “Most kids would just go online if they have an interest in science.” So were they looking for something that had been lost or not scanned into the world’s database yet? And if so, why? Again, it left him with questions, and he hated that feeling. He fought monsters for a living, that was enough of an unknown equation for him to be faced with it when dealing with the humans in his life.

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If Hange could see Levi right now, she would probably be cheering on with some nonsense about him achieving personal growth or some even more asinine shit about ‘taking one for the team’, which she used now and then. What the hell did that last even mean? It sounded appalling like bending over and begging to be buggered by every fucking pervert in a ten block vicinity.

So what if he was out after hours by himself on patrol when he could be curled up in his room with a pot of tea and a good novel? There still hasn’t been a Malform attack in over three weeks, Hange and Moblit were still crunching data to figure out a pattern they could use to track down the mutated fucks and Mike’s famous nose hadn’t found shit. Levi just wanted to kill something before he died of boredom, it was as simple as that. He’d even go so far as give Erwin some unwarranted over-time.

Along with finding a depressing lack of blood-thirsty monsters, he also hadn’t seen any sign of that suspicious brat and his friends, despite keeping an eye out for him this past week. If he didn’t know better, he’d say the brat was avoiding him, which was ridiculous – the dome was huge. Yet as Levi had run across traces of him twice in a span of a couple of days so he kept waiting to see him again. He didn’t know what annoyed him more – that he hadn’t see him or that he kept having the expectation.

As most people obeyed the dome’s curfew at this point at the night, the streets were empty. The few stragglers who were out fled at the sight of Levi’s white and grey uniform, unwilling to chance that he wouldn’t turn them in even if he was only a member of the Freedom Corp; the MP had a deeply-instilled fear over people after being the main law enforcement for centuries.

All around him loomed the tall buildings that stretched up to the top of the dome, the stone structures that housed the people lucky enough to find sanctuary inside the artificial environment that protected them from the radiation outside. One shot from his gauntlet and he could almost reach the panels that provided the light during the day and sealed out the dangerous rays, the filters that kept the oxygen levels adequate for everyone to breathe properly. Almost fourteen hundred years since the earth became entirely fucked up and they still lived inside these artificial cages, venturing outside two months of the year. Almost fourteen hundred years and they were still fighting the same monsters.

At least they kept the place clean, Levi thought as he wandered the deserted streets. Perhaps they couldn’t use projectile or energy weapons for fear of damaging the dome, but there was no need for sanitation to suffer. Mutated dead feasting on the living? Power-hungry law enforcement overstepping their bounds? The haves taking more from the have-nots every year? Oh yeah, but it was all done in a clean, litter-free environment. Too bad he was the only one to appreciate that last bit. Then again, not all domes were so well-kept as Trost.

He had just paused to let one of the maintenance bots sweep past him when he heard what sounded to be a muffled snarl come from one of the smaller alleys. Spinning on his heel, he darted toward the direction of the sound, his right hand falling to the hilt of his blade while his left arm was held close to his body, ready to release a rappelling dart if he needed to take to the air.

As with every other dome he’d been in, Trost dimmed the lights come ‘night-time’ to achieve an approximation of the circadian rhythm found in nature as well as to conserve energy. Other than a very faint glow overhead and muted lights along the street, it was dark as fuck out, especially in the narrow alleys between buildings. All of that meant it was the perfect hunting territory for Malforms, which was part of the reason for the curfew. It sounded like some unlucky asshole who’d decided to break it had become dinner for one of the undead freaks.

Levi expected to turn the corner and find some poor fool lying in a pool of blood, their throat torn out by a pallid, bug-eyed monster with a mouthful of razor-sharp fangs. He’d cut off the dead fucker’s head and, depending on how badly the said fool had bled out, either stop the bleeding or put them out of their misery with a quick down-stroke before they could turn. He’d done it over a thousand times by now, the scent of blood causing him to instinctively reach for his blades.

What he didn’t expect to see was a huddled, struggling bundle of bodies not on the ground of the alley but well over a dozen feet up to his left, clinging to the wall. That left him confused for a precious few seconds, because while Malforms could fight and flee by jumping great heights and climbing almost anything, they fed where they caught their prey, which was on the ground.

As he lifted his left arm and readied his rappelling dart to take the fight to the Malform, the motion seemed to catch the monster’s attention. The feeding stopped – and that’s when Levi realized that it wasn’t a Malform feasting on a human, but a *Malform* that struggled weakly, its throat torn out and its blood splattering down to the ground. Holding it trapped with one arm, the other braced against the wall with fingers splayed, was the brat from the market.

“The hell…” Levi mumbled in shock, unable to look away from the golden eyes that glowed in the darkness, gleaming so brightly as if lit from behind. Blood smeared the tan face, causing strands of brown hair to cling to it.

“Scheiße.“ The brat grunted something, lips pulling back from a mouth too big, filled with too many teeth – too many *sharp* teeth – and shook his head, sending his chin-length hair flying about. The Malform dropped to the ground with a sickening *thud* and as Levi stood there in stunned amazement, the brat pushed away from the wall and landed gracefully on his feet as if a cat.

Seeing the brat standing a few feet away startled some sense into Levi - he didn’t know what the hell the brat was, but he figured that would be Hange’s problem after he beat him unconscious and dragged him back to headquarters.

He didn’t have the chance to do more than reach for his left blade as he prepared to launch himself at his target; one moment the brat was standing there, looking at him with those odd eyes with his head tilted to the side, appearing perfectly innocent even with his face all smeared with blood, and the next moment there was a blur and a bright flash of pain that exploded inside the right side of Levi’s head.

His last thought as the ground came smashing up to meet him was that fuck Hange and her need for samples, he was going to kill her first if he woke up craving blood.
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