Chapter 7: Priorities and Promises

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When the first cry broke out behind us, Henry froze. It was like the previous night in the apartment; he went from excruciatingly present to gone in an instant, leaving just a shell behind.

The human reaction would have been to whip around and stare at the source of chaos, but something about his stillness was magnetic. I couldn't look away, even as the cries escalated, voices joining together in horror. The sidewalk quivered under my feet, and I grabbed at the nearest thing to stabilize myself. Which happened to be Henry. Which was even weirder - to feel the warmth of his skin, the flex and resistance of him - and yet for him to be so completely unresponsive, so absent. It was enough to keep me from realizing, for a moment, just how wrong the situation had become.

Voices. Multiple screams tearing through the golden light of a quiet late afternoon on the coast. That wasn't possible... The nightmares don't attack crowds; it's always a single victim. It's personal, not mass attacks like terrorism or something. I'd never heard of...

I risked a glance over my shoulder as the sidewalk shook and cracked underfoot, keeping hold of Henry's unmoving arm for balance. I had to blink a few times to work out what was going on. It was like staring through a heat wave or thick, uneven glass; the shapes were dark blurs, barely recognizable as human. A mirage across the desert; silhouettes through a cloudy curtain. If it hadn't been for the tree at the centre of the chaos, tilted at an impossible angle now as the ground beneath it crumbled, I could have pretended I didn't know what was going on.

But the attack was right out in front of the office, the neat, slightly mossy grass crumbling to earth and broken pipe, the carefully groomed bushes tilted with gnarled roots in the air while cracks spiderwebbed through the stuccoed facade. The tree sinking down as I watched, only moments ago Henry had been leaning against it, surrounded by curious admirers. And now their voices carved up the skies as the blurred attack took on a red tinge.

Nightmare. Even as I stared, the near-invisible disturbances took on shape, the hint of a fang here, the suggestion of rough scales there, too-wide eyes blinking and staring and murderous on every side. I shuddered to think what it must be like at the heart of the attack; did they each only see their own worst fear stalking them? Or a horde of nightmares all at once? Or maybe a hideous amalgamation of shared horror stitched and blended together in a Frankenstein's monster of deadly intent?

It helped to consider the unheard of rarity of the attack, to ponder it academically. It kept me from trying to match the screams to familiar voices. It kept the cold sweat beading on my skin at a distance, the memory of my own all-too-recent terror at bay. It was icy, grim insulation from the horror that I was, now that I thought about it, really too close too. I braced myself against Henry's unresponsive arm and pushed away, staggering across the cracked concrete. He thawed to life as my hand left his skin.

I paused, a few steps away, to watch. His eyes were wide and liquid with pain, his hands clenched into fists, his body rigid as he turned away to stare at the attack. And turned back to stare at me. His lips were bloodless, pressed so hard that I felt like I could hear his teeth creak behind them.

"Just go," I said, bracing my feet and gripping my elbows. I felt cold and trembly. Must've been the ground shaking. Yeah. That was it.

If anything, the anguish on his face deepened when I spoke. Then it vanished, wiped away by a mask so smooth, I almost thought he was gone again. But this time he wasn't frozen. He lunged forward, his face set, grabbed my arm and dragged me down the sidewalk so fast I felt like a balloon caught in a gale, just the toes of my shoes bumping along the ground to bounce me airborne again. At the corner he hesitated, lost or disoriented, maybe. I seized the moment of distraction to rip my arm out of his grasp, stumbling backward and sitting down in a heap on the grass.

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