The figures that prowled the swirling, golden mist were indistinct, yet terrifying. Their forms were hunched and misshapen, no two alike. Some red, some black, some scaled, others spiked or hairy. All were equally horrible. The way they moved was worst of all. They never stayed in one spot for more than an instant. They flickered in and out of visibility, appearing and disappearing at random. They were unpredictable, everywhere. Leo wanted nothing more than to wrap his arms around his head and hide, but he dared not look away from the monsters. If he did, they would kill him.
A demonic face loomed in front of him. Its skin was red, intricately patterned with gold swirls. A cruel, thin-lipped mouth was stretched into a manic smile that revealed pointed teeth. Curling horns adorned its hairless head and an absurdly long nose protruded from its face.
It reached for him, and he remembered. Tia. His sister. He needed to protect her. His fear increased, turning the air to tar in his lungs. There was nothing he could do, not against these beasts. He wanted to scream for help, but the noise would attract more of them. He wanted to run, but the demon before him would strike if he turned his back. Now that he thought about it, he couldn’t even remember the last time he had seen Tia. She wasn’t anywhere to be seen, maybe the already had her. Horrified, he raised trembling arms, his only pathetic defence against the demons.
Leo was blessedly quiet as Tia gently prodded him along. Sometimes, when he was having the visions, Leo would shout, or run, or try to attack her. Each step was a reluctant shuffle, and Tia wished he could be coaxed to move faster. But there was no dealing with someone in the Nightmare. Even the sight of Tia, or the sound of her voice, would make things worse. Right now in Leo’s head, she was part of the Nightmare.
They needed to find shelter soon. It was already dark and Tia was cold, wet, and hungry. She had begged Leo not to use the Power, even as the men had advanced on them with knives, intending to rob them of the little food they had. But he hadn’t listened. Instead he had Changed, fingers sharpening to claws, skin hardening into a thousand bony spikes, her brother into a demon. The Nightmare always came after. The Punishment, they called it, or the Justice – those who brought terror to others must be terrified in turn.
They were in one of the nice neighbourhoods tonight. Tia had figured the men would be less likely to find them here, where the constabulary patrolled, but it was also proving to have less suitable hideouts than the shadier areas of the city.
She moved to urge Leo forward when his whole body tensed. He was clearly terrified, eyes darting around, seeing things she did not. He wouldn’t budge, and desperate, Tia moved in front of him, thinking to pull him forward. At the sight of her he let out a piercing scream.
Tia cursed, glancing around, if someone heard them and called the constabulary, they’d be done for. Legally, people like Leo were meant to be kept in special “hospitals” for observation where they couldn’t harm anyone. It would be a killing offense for them to be found in a neighbourhood like this.
A large hand clamped down on Tia’s shoulder and she nearly screamed herself. She spun around to see a well-dressed older man. He motioned for her to remain quiet.
“Come on,” he said, “I have a safe place you can stay.”
She glanced around, Leo was still wailing and there was nowhere else for them to go. Tia followed.
Together they managed to guide the distraught Leo down the street to the stranger’s house. Leo fought them every step, sobbing and trying to wrench free of their grips.
As soon as the door opened a woman spoke.
“What were you doing out there?” she asked. “I heard screams, I was worri—” she stopped when she saw Tia and Leo.
“Who are these people? Why have you brought them here? He’s one of them isn’t he? You have to make them leave now. I won’t have you risking everything to have them here. You can’t keep adopting strays.” She said all of this very quickly.
“Don’t worry dear,” the man replied, ignoring her concerns, “they can stay downstairs tonight, and in the morning they’ll be on their way. We can’t be leaving kids out on the street to freeze.”
“I’m sorry I did this to you. It isn’t fair.”
The kids had gone downstairs to sleep and he was alone with Grace.
“It’s okay,” she sighed, “I understand. I’m sure everything will be fine.”
There was a loud knock on the door. Tony grunted and rose to get it.
“What is it?”
“Constable Marc here, neighbours phoned in a disturbance. Said they thought you might have been involved.”
Tony looked back at his wife and gave a reassuring smile.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The constable grunted; he didn’t buy it. “Your neighbour said it looked like you were helping a Changer. You know we can’t have that.”
“Well they saw wrong.”
“All the same, I’d rather if we could have a look inside. Just to be safe. I’m sure you won’t mind.”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
“I’m going to have to insist,” replied the constable, angered.
“You have no right.”
The constable lifted his gun.
“Please Tony, just let the man in,” his wife, begged, terrified.
Tony started to Change.