Ayla could see the fear on the grown-ups’ faces. She didn’t understand why the people who were never afraid suddenly were. That made her afraid. She huddled close to Eren as the adults scurried around, piling chairs and tables against the door of the strange, round room they’d found in the empty house. Daddy. The guards. The servants. Everyone except Mama, who walked delicately around carrying her pretty black staff and making gleaming, whorled lines on the floor.

Her stomach twitched, making her tug on her sister’s sleeve. “Eren? I’m hungry.”

“We don’t have any food. We lost it by the river.”

“Oh.” Why did we camp there? It hasn’t been any fun. Nothing of the past days made any sense to her. “Where are we? Where’s Grandma?”

“Hush. Mama’s trying to focus.”

“Oh ….” Ayla looked back to Mama who now stood very still. Her eyes were closed. “What’s focus?”

Eren pinched her arm. “Be quiet!” 

She was always so mean! 

Mama slowly lifted her staff and … ZZAK!

Ayla jumped. A rope of light flashed from Mama’s stick and shot across the chamber only to disappear into a tiny point of pure black at the center of the room. The light continued to course from the tip of the staff, swallowed by the growing hole of darkness. A sharp hot sort of smell filled the air.

As beautiful as the light was, the hole of darkness unsettled her. Why’s it getting bigger? Mama frowned, scrunching her eyes closed, her face sweating, like when she’d had the baby a few days ago. Her soft, pretty features looked unfamiliar with the strain.

The light suddenly bent and doubled back on itself. At the same moment it disconnected itself from Mama’s staff. The two thrashing ends snapped onto each other, swirling into a burning ring. Slowly it constricted. As the loop of light grew smaller, the black spot grew bigger, and bigger and bigger still. Now the size of a ball, now big as a shield.

Is it going to swallow me too? She suddenly had to pee. “I want to go.” She pulled on Eren’s arm. “I have to go potty.”

“Quiet. Not now.”

“I want Daddy! I have to go potty!”

BANG! Crack. Snap.

“They’re coming through!” someone shouted. Near the door, the grown-ups stood in a clump. Some of them lifted their long rifles and she clamped her hands over her ears. BOOM! Their shots pounded out, filling the air with smoke and her ears with ringing. Tears sprang to her eyes. A wail burst from her lips.

“Reload!” Daddy shouted. “Hold them. Just a little longer.”

Mama whirled toward the door. “Keleb! The girls!”

The door splintered, cracked and dissolved into writhing shadows that clawed and grasped at the grown-ups. Shields blazed as the shadows touched them. Swords rose and fell. A man was dragged screaming into the shadows. She couldn’t look away, couldn’t be the big, brave girl Mama had told her to be. She ran. Eren grabbed her arm, jerking her to a stop, and she fell screaming to the floor.

Daddy burst out of the smoke running so fast, the baby cradled in one arm. Hardly slowing, he scooped up her and Eren using just his free arm.

“Hold onto me! Hold tight!” He shouted, hurting her ears. She screamed louder as his powerful arm crushed her to his chest. His armor rasped her cheek. The room bounced as he ran. Eren’s pointy elbow dug into her side. Ayla drew her knees up and desperately pushed away. Daddy shifted his grip and she felt Eren slip, then fall. Daddy stumbled.

“Raghhh!” he roared and flung her from him. She soared, too frightened to scream. The black hole in the air spun into view and suddenly the world went flat and dark.

She woke, cold and crying. Her pants were wet. Mama would be so disappointed in her. Then she noticed the sky and her crying stopped.

She’d never seen anything like it, fading from gold to light blue and deep gray, streaked with orange and pink. The colors were so vibrant, so bright they stabbed her eyes. Beneath the strange sky jagged shadows crowded the horizon, covered in a carpet of burning lights, each a prick of pain in her eyes.


He hunched nearby, still as a stone, just staring off towards the shadows. She crawled over to him feeling too heavy and cold and stiff to stand. The baby was tucked against his chest.

“Daddy?” she asked again, tapping his shoulder. He stirred like a golem waking.

“I’m here.”

“I'm wet.”

He grunted. “It’s alright. It was an accident.”

“Where are we?” she said. The baby in his arms squeaked and she reached out to stroke the velvety little head.

“I don’t know. Your mother knew.” 

“Where is Mama?”

“I fear she is gone, little sprout. She and all the others. Your sister ….” His voice cracked and she realized he was crying. Not just tears but deep shuddering sobs that told her nothing would be alright ever again. This was worse than the fear she’d seen in Daddy’s face before. This was more terrifying. Tears welled in her eyes, all hot and stinging. Ayla tried desperately to hold them back, but they spilled from her eyes splashing down onto the brown grass beneath her feet. “Where’s Mama?” The words came as a wail. “I want Mama!”

“She ….” Daddy drew a ragged breath, and brushed the tears from his eyes. “They’d have come by now if they could. They are gone.”

“I want Mama!” she collapsed against him, driving her face against his armored chest, not caring about the hard scraping beads. He engulfed her in a hug, squeezing her so hard she could hardly breathe, but just then she didn’t mind, not even a little.

“I want her too. And Eren. And everyone.”

“Even Grandma?”

A faint smile touched his lips. “Even Grandma.”

They clung to each other for a long while. When Daddy finally pulled away, he lay his big hand on her shoulder. A cold breeze hissed through the tall grass around them. The sky had darkened so that only the distant beacons of light stung her eyes.

“Why’d Mama and Eren have to go?”

“To save you and me and your baby sister. They died for us. We must never forget.”

“They died?” 

“I fear so.”

A deep black weight settled on her heart with Daddy’s words. She swallowed her tears even as others rose up but this time she pressed them down. She had done a terrible thing. She didn’t know what, but she knew the consequences.

Mama died because of me.