written by Sylvia Leung
© copyright 1999

For Dr. McGuire, who gave me confidence to continue.

The chalk tapped on the board rapidly as the instructor scrawled upon the black surface with a flourish.

"Has anyone ever participated in any of those foreign exchange programs we have here without taking a course in the language of that country?" She looked eagerly around her crowded class that shifted uncomfortably in their too-small desk chairs.

The professor smiled as someone in the front nodded vigorously. The professor quirked an eyebrow and asked intellectually, "How long did it take you to learn the language? A few weeks? A few months?"

The student looked sheepish underneath his baseball cap and remained silent. A matronly woman with a face full of crowís feet spoke up from the rear of the classroom without raising her hand.

"My granddaughter started talking by the age of two," she beamed proudly, her face suddenly awash with smile ridges and patterns. "She was making sounds that almost sounded like words before, though."

The teacher nodded, liking the answer, as it was a segue into the topic of her lecture. "More than likely, she had been listening to the adults that had been talking around her. Remember my last lecture?" she prompted to the class without expecting a response. There was a shifting of chairs as people settled into the lecture mode.

"At that stage in physiological development, the babyís ears are still developing. They can detect higher pitched sounds rather that lower pitched sounds. This explains why adults talk to little kids with Ďbaby wordsí where they throw their voice to a higher register in order to get a response. Until the baby responds, that baby is absorbing every word that is spoken to and around him or her. It forms a basis for speech. In fact, every child around the world, when they are in their stage of development for speech, speak in the same simple phonics of consonants and vowels."

The professor moved onto the next example with an adjustment to her eyeglasses. The heated scribbling of notes from pen to paper could be heard in the intermission. "What about those stories on the local news of little kids being brought up in a house with a foreign baby-sitter or cleaning maid? The toddler soon talks in that tongue and confuses the hell out of their parents."

The room twittered in polyphonic surround sound under the glare of fluorescent ceiling lights.

"Well, this is what weíd like to call fast mapping." She drew a line under what she had initially written with her stick of chalk and tapped the end of the mark for emphasis. "A typical childís vocabulary can double between eighteen and twenty-one months of age. It doubles again within the proceeding three months. This continues so that by the age of six, the number of vocabulary words is over ten thousand. Their cognitive learning skills are limitless as they absorb words by relating them in sentences to words they already know. Just like when you read a new book really fast and skip over words you donít necessarily know the definitions of. You get the gist of what it means by the sentence that itís in."

Matthiasí neighbor mouthed an open "wow" at that numbers as Matthias bent his head and recorded the fact. He imagined, as he often did, what it would be like to have Langley beside him and taking classes with him. Would she be as bored as he was? Would she nudge him from time to time and smile suggestively at a particular lesson? He imagined that she would doodle in the margins of her notebook, her left hand supporting her chin as she concentrated. He always loved to watch her draw.

Most of his classes bored him to distraction. The lectures were rehashes of what he had read perhaps a week before hand. Everything that he read was immediately assimilated into his brain. He had been another high IQ, low fervency type of child, always excelling in new things at first, then slowly losing interest. School bored him and he never did any of the homework, only aced the tests to pass the class. His parents were at their witsí end, at turns berating and coaxing him to succeed in school. Inside of him was the potential to be the valedictorian, but he was comfortable in the middle of the crowd of averages.

Such behavior had not rectified itself in college, only continued. He had enrolled into classes he was interested first, before taking the general requirements. His highest final grade was a B, class participation a little above average lethargy. His professors - despite the horror stories of college - identified his potential, but admonished his passivity. Still, they intended to push him to brilliance before their time was up.

The majority of them failed since all of them preached academia. Matthias needed to get his hands dirty with applied knowledge, not sit on his ass and push a pencil.

Technically, at that moment, he was pondering Langleyís assets.

"Mr. Carmichael, what do you think?"

He snapped back to reality. "Pardon? What was the question again?" He was both embarrassed and annoyed that he had been caught woolgathering.

"I was asking Mrs. Pennerson for the explanation of code-switching." She continued with a cool smile, "Since you seem to know enough not to pay attention, would you share with the class your understanding of the term?"

No matter how many teachers wanted to play, he always won. Matt merely had to recall the page in his mind. "Code-switching is when a person adapts their linguistic skills to the social situation," he replied calmly, his voice without inflection. "Like when a childís family has a Spanish speaking maid and they talk to each other, but when his parents come home, he speaks English."

A few people in the middle of the class frowned at their paper, wishing to glare at him instead for knowing off his head what they had to study. It seemed unfair to them that they had to work hard for their grades while he merely daydreamed. In either case, Matthias ignored them, only talking when he was directly addressed a question.

Professor Ruvone arched an eyebrow and inclined her head in a silent acknowledgment of defeat. "Correct yet again, Mr. Carmichael."

He nodded back to the teacher only in assent, wishing he had the brim of just one of his many baseball caps to hide his eyes so he could nod off to sleep. He never respected the teachers who wanted to play the game with him, this unspoken prodding of his knowledge. After they called the game, he would refuse to cooperate more than necessary. Who he did respect were those who would talk to him as if they were on equal level, but he knew - as every other student knew - that they liked the power too much or was too uninspired to challenge the cookie-cut education system. Their idea of a novel change was to go on a field trip.

The teacher droned on with her lecture for that evening, making Matthias aware of the tiredness of his body. A full day of work had gnawed away his energy and his stomach complained about its emptiness. He was tempted to pull out the latest science-fiction novel he had from his backpack and read it behind the person in front of him. He pondered just leaving in the middle of the class.

But Langley would have his hide if she found out. He could never keep a secret from her, especially when she looked at him with a pout and a frown. Her concern over his education clearly over-distanced his own interest and it satisfied him at a level to have someone watch over him when his family was so many miles away.

So he sat with his buttocks pressed against the uncomfortable, hard plastic chair with his long arms arranged awkwardly on the attached desk that was too small to even support his notebook. He chewed on his lower lip to substitute food and watched the bland clock over the chalkboard tick away. He listened with half an ear, occasionally scribbling a word here and there on the blank sheets of notebook paper.

His mind wandered yet again, wondering when heíd have a chance to introduce Langley to his parents. Coming from a completely Catholic background, he knew his parents would be a bit put off by his very eclectic girlfriend. Her words were usually abrupt and to the point concerning any thought about religion and he was half-uneasy, half looking forward to her lecturing his parents about the positive aspects of oriental religions. He wondered what he would do if they kicked the two of them out of their house.

At break time, he got to his feet and stretched, making his way to the hall and releasing a full, minute long yawn. He shook himself bodily, waking up his nerves and brain cells for another hour of lectures. A fellow classmate looked at him and blinked. She hesitated a moment and walked towards him as he took little notice of her.

"Excuse me, butÖ"

He turned to the short young woman and blinked away the moisture from his eyes. "Yes?" he nudged politely.

The girl glanced askance nervously and tugged at a short curly strand of hair behind her ear. "How do you do it?"

Matthias looked at the stranger nonplussed. "Do what?" He felt like he had finished watching a different movie that everyone else had.

"Know everything without paying attention," she clarified with a hint of annoyance.

He shrugged and started back to class. "I guess Iím just gifted."

He pondered his vampiric choice of words for the rest of the class.

"Admit it, you were scared!"

"I wasnít, Brett. Stop toking," Matthias said in his most calm manner, trying to dispel the shakiness of the sudden adrenaline rush. He walked around his friend with a faint glare of reproach and towards their shared office

Brett followed him, chuckling under his breath. He raised his hands and pulled off the rubber mask of a grotesque movie monster from his face. A wig of matted hair brushed over his head and fell limply under the mask. It had covered his whole head and half his chest. A different piece of the costume gloved his arms and hands. With the complete ensemble, he was a very believable ogre.

"Ah, whatís the matter with you, Matt?" his friend asked in good humor, lightly hitting him on his shoulder with the back of his hand. "Itís Halloween! The holiday for a good scare!"

"I only count the days I have off as holidays," he muttered grumpily, settling his bookbag near his swivel chair and turning to face the merry individual. "Halloween is just an excuse to be something youíre not."

Brett made a scornful sound with his tongue and wrinkled his nose as if something smelled bad. "Are you practicing to be the Christmas Scrooge this year? If you are, itís a really mean thing to do. It isnít fair to make everyone else as grumpy as you are."

Matthias grumbled to himself about people seeing through his fronts recently. After a few moments of muttering, he took a deep cleansing breath and just frowned defeated at his friend. "I just forgot what the freakiní day was, dude." To take the stigma off his weakness, he added with macho gruffness, "I hate surprises."

Brett softened and goaded wickedly. "Bet you like surprises from Langley."

At the mention of his love, Matt grinned. "Well, sheís the usual exception. To everything."

Brett shook his head and rolled his green-grey eyes heavenward. "You are so whipped, itís pathetic."

Matthias fell from his ruminations to glare at his oddball friend. "Who are you calling whipped?"

"You, obviously." Brett grinned and hooked a deformed hand on the waist of his tattered costume. "You canít go a full day without mentioning her a few thousand times."

Matt couldnít argue with that, so he countered, "Ah, youíre just jealous because I have someone and you donít."

Brett scoffed. "Who needs women like Langley. Donít get me wrong and all," he added hastily when Matthiasí fists quickly loomed before him. "Sheís a nice girl and all, but I donít need a relationship where you have to care for the woman. I just need someone to warm up my bed, is all."

Matthias was caught between laughing and pitying his friend. He opted to just shrug and settle into his padded swivel chair. "Well, if thatís what you really want to do with your lifeÖ"

Brett nodded emphatically, raised the mask up to his face, and adjusted the fit. "Youíre damned right," he said, his voice muffled yet again. "That way, I donít have to worry so much and just enjoy being myself. Damn women always wanting to change youÖ" he muttered as he strode off to the lobby, looking to scare more people that morning.

Matthias sighed and looked around his desk at the early morning memos that had been passed around already. Very few were urgent, most of them alerting the employees of the studio about structural changes in the administration. Unlike many of his fellow employees, Matthias was slipshod in keeping up with the studio gossip. He didnít care for anyone or any event outside of his circle of friends and his paycheck.

He hadnít always been so jaded, though. When he had first entered the business that fed into the music industry, he was as star struck as any young man with his first job in college. Everyone had been nice to him as opposed to the apathy of a campus. There had been catered food on Fridays and enough of a mix of people to engage in stimulating conversation. They taught him the ropes of the industry while he educated most of them on the quirks of hardware and wires.

Then it all changed with the tightening of the higher ups. The employees began leaving as they were being treated with the amount callousness as if they were cattle. Soon, the only people left were those that needed the money they were paid. No one was loyal to a company that could lay off people on a whim.

The smiles and conversations died in patches. The invitations to lunches were rare and given within cliques of friends. The atmosphere collapsed from an enjoyable, unique place to be in life to just another pessimistic, bland job. Matthias grew a tough skin and buried his disillusionment fast. Individuals like Brett, though, kept the place bearable with their wit and measured flow of cheer.

The other plus of the job was the constantly changing talent that hired the studio. Some of them were as difficult and cynical as the industry, but a few refused to let the pressure kill their spirit. Matthias always kept an eye out for the genuine bands that cared for the creation of music itself and not for the hype of fame and silently wished them luck as they left.

Matthias stayed for the simple motive of the money. Because he distanced himself from all the gossip and politics in the studio, he was not as involved with certain perks being taken away. As soon as he became hostile, he would look for another job, hopefully quitting and getting a recommendation before he got fired.

Matthias adjusted the vertical blinds to filter out only a bit of the rising sun. After two months of adjusting, he the burning itch of his skin in daylight had subsided and his eyesight dimmed bright light automatically. He had found a refuge from somewhat frequent cravings for blood with cans of tomato soup.

He had asked Langley not to wear red around him, though.

He peered up from the tack-board walls of his cubicle and looked at all the masked faces around him. He knew Langley wouldíve made some sort of psychological remark about masks. He remembered a time when he once dressed up for the occasion and wondered what happened to his sense of childhood. It most likely had something to do with high school thinking it was not "in" to play dress up with rubber and plastic.

He had been a damn good eight-year-old GI Joe.

A peal of laughter sounded from the elevator and a woman stumbled out with a smile on her face, followed by three banshees. Matthias smiled. Apparently, some adults like him didnít think it was too late or they were too old to keep up the old childhood tradition.

Matthias shook his head from his reminiscing and looked down at the memos scattered on his desktop. He shuffled a few around, then blinked at fairly heavy manila envelope. He picked it up and felt a chill run up his spine as he noticed the only thing written on the front was his name in scrawling, neo-Gothic script. He reached over to get his plastic letter opener and slit the envelope on the folded side.

He shook out the contents of it onto his desk and felt his heart stop at black and white pictures of him and Langley. The first picture that fell was of Langley at her front door, just turning away from the small overhang above her door. It had been taken, it seemed, from the rooftopÖ so the cameraman couldnít be spotted.

The second picture was of Matthias himself, sitting at my desk on my computer, staring intently at the screen. It looked like it was taken from the cubicle next to his, just above the top partition. Though it was common knowledge that Matthias could be oblivious when concentrating, but the snap of a camera had always been a sound of humiliation throughout his childhood. At a click he would spin around and try and snatch the camera. Whoever had taken this had been either using a damn quiet camera or was too fast for me to register, he thought.

He palmed the other photographs around my desk and found shots of them together, talking in a café or browsing in a bookstore. There was even one of them in an alleyway, coming out of the abandoned building where Victoria had been killed. The shot was from a rooftop again and Matthias felt a chill run down his spine. He had an ugly thought that this could be used as blackmail. Given to the cops, they could have been suspects to her murder.

The last picture almost sent Matthias jumping into one of his cubicle walls. Though the image was dark, there was a weak light that helped discern Langley in his arms. They were both in his bed, sleeping away the night. The red display of his alarm clock shone an eerie 3:13 a.m., the only splash of color on the dark blue picture.

Matthias received the message loud and clear. Someone was watching them closely enough to know everything about them. They were bugs in a bell jar and could only wait to see if they would be eliminated. As he fisted the thick envelope in his hand, he was damned sure the person who controlled them now was Damien.

It was happening again.

She was running with Matthias down the darkened streets. This time, there were not crowds to dodge, the streets free and clean of life. The silence was deafening, only relieved by their panting breaths and the faint humming of streetlights. The lights in the stores were bright and welcoming, but the doors were closed and locked.

Nothing seemed to be chasing them, yet she knew it was there. It was a pervasive cold that seeped into her bones, chilling her heart to run faster, to get away. She knew there was no escape, but it didnít stop her from trying.

She grabbed onto Matthiasí hand and turned a corner into a hallway that led to shops in the interior of deep buildings. No businesses lined this grotto, though, there was only molding off-white paper stuck to huge display windows. Light shined in the empty caverns and shapes flickered onto the paper, nebulous dancing shadows that promised forbidden secrets and open closets.

She screamed as the first window to the pavement shattered with a resounding crash behind them. A dark anomalous shadow hit the ground with a vibration she could feel under her feet and began a feral pursuit. Soon, consecutive windows smashed open and deep-throated snarling echoed down the seemingly endless hall. Bits of glass tapped delicately on the ground to be crunched underfoot by the formless creatures. Their steps shook the ground, miniature earthquakes from molten beasts.

Langley couldnít run fast enough. Every two steps equated to one and the creatures were coming closer. The lights were cold and the heat from their rancid breaths whispered at her legs. She whimpered as something wet and warm touched the back of her neck. The air bit under her shirt at her back and the sweat chilled into a streak of cold, damp skin. Obscene giggles and yips erupted from gurgling throats behind her, echoing to surround her.

Matthias started dragging behind her and she pulled him with all her might to keep up with her. She could not hear a sound from him, his warm hand in hers her only reassurance that he was with her on this phantom escapade. She turned her torso to grab more of Matthiasí arm to push him in front of her, but suddenly his hand faded from her hands.

She risked a glance backward, trying not to slow down her speed. There was no hint that Matthias was behind her, but that concern was swept from her mind as she locked sight on the nightmare creatures. It baffled her for a moment to see such a free-floating form having so much power. They did not cast any shadows, as they were shadows themselves, but they were solid enough to break the walls and claws sharp enough to rip open the back of her shirt. Their behavior reminded her of wild dogs; the evil, the one-minded sense of killing and enjoying it.

Her eyes collided into the glowing red ones of the lead beast. The eyes did not look like eyes, instead shaped themselves as liquid as the body. There was no iris, but the socket glowed an angry red, the shades changing from bright red to a seeping crimson with hypnotizing smoothness. Within the anger, though, there was a soul of complete, terrorizing corruption. There was no spark of hesitation in its purpose.

"Matt!" she screamed, running for the other end of the corridor, but finding herself deeper in the maze of opaque glass. Her voice echoed, bringing to her own ears that rasp of desperation. She sensed he was gone, non-existent and the loneliness smothered her hope for an escape.

Her shoe caught on something and she faltered, careening into the side of a doll makerís shop. Porcelain figures fell behind her and her own body drew a single breath before it was pushed through the thick glass. The cold was upon her now, the claws sinking through her clothing and into her flesh. Red sparks of pain exploded before her eyes as she stared at the darkened ceiling, feeling the hot breath of her death, the crunching of her own bones.

Her mind started to drift, the noise of the hysterical beasts fading. Slowly, her eyes rolled to see the eyes of her master again, to see who had conquered her body. In a tranquil sweep of her eyes, she saw Damien Frette hovering over her breast with glazed green eyes, her blood flowing down his chin as a piece of skin with part of the Promise Mark slapped against his grinning lips. In the distance, an echo of a dead womanís laughter fed on her ears until she was deaf to sound. Her neck lost its strength and her vision tilted to the side with her head. Matthiasí face appeared before her, smiling gently with affection as he dived for her throat.

Langleyís eyes flew open as the scream in her throat was choked into a silent gust of breath. Light poured through the vertical blinds above her headboard and her ceiling flung its white gleaming into her eyes. The car pulling in noisily with the radio turned up had activated the lights from the neighboring parking lot outside her window. She watched the different sources of light collide and merge as she tried to collect her breath and heartbeat at the same time.

I took some time for her to realize she was shaking and was clammy cold from the damp bed sheets. Her window had been open earlier for a surprisingly hot day in October and the nightís chill wind had set up camp in her bedroom. She shivered and burrowed ever deeper into her covers, heedless of their moisture and too limp to close the window.

She repeated the dream over and over in her head although she didnít want to. It haunted her since the first time it visited her mind a week before. Though the events and the settings were not the same, certain factors were: the shapeless shadows, Damien, Matthias, and the ghost of Victoria. Somehow, she felt as if she had betrayed Victoria, even if the reality of all situations made Victoria the villain. Her sudden death still rode on Langleyís conscience though, and she explained her dreams with her fears for herself and Matthias.

She shivered at how her imagination had made Matthias and Damien. In the deepest parts of her mind, she was afraid of what the both of them were and what they represented. Damien was the embodiment of all that Langley thought attractive, but not good for her. Matthias was what she had and was grateful for having. She felt guilty that she wanted more, she wanted to change him into some dark, macho, brooding hero from one of her romance novels. She felt even guiltier at wanting some sort of experience with Damien.

As for what they were, no amount of documentation she unearthed lent her confidence in knowing what would happen. For all she knew, Matthias was being eroded from the inside, the "beast" that so many information sources had alluded to slowly making its throne in Mattís soul.

Were they the malicious shadows?

She jumped a good foot in the air when the phone rang. She waited until her heart stopped threatening to explode to pick up the phone.

"Hey babe."

Inexplicably, she became angry, her fears evaporating into a litany of shortcomings in her relationship. Inconsideration being at the top of her list, along with his need to have her attention solely centered on him all of the time. "Do you know what time it is?" she bit out on a snarl.

Matthias hesitated. "Itís around midnight, but I always call you around nowÖ Whatís the matter?"

"You calling me up at this hour," she said, her voice softly controlled so that her neighbors wouldnít hear through the thin walls. Her voice dripped with a malice that stemmed from self-righteousness. "I need my sleep because, unlike you, I carry a full load of classes. I actually need my sleep."

"Whoa, whoa there Langley." He had been in ugly situations like this before, where her "monthly friend" turned her from the woman he loved into a snarling bitch. He opted not to tell her about his morning surprise. "Calm down. If you want me to hang up, I will. We can talk about this laterÖ or not talk about it at all if you donít want to."

She breathed, hating him when he pegged her moods so exact. Like a whip, her mind changed again and her lungs congested. She let out a serrated sob and closed her eyes against the stinging. Her nose began to grow warm and she buried her head against the pillow. "Oh God, Matt, Iím so scaredÖ"

"Why are you scared, babe?" The worry evident in his voice made her need his protective arms around her. "Tell me, please," he added when she cried some more.

"Youíre going to think Iím silly," she stalled, needing to control her voice. She started hiccuping and her words jerked.

"Iíd never think that, you know I love you. Tell me whatís wrong."

"I had a nightmareÖ It was bad." She rolled to her other side to avoid the wet spot on the pillow. "You were in it andÖ you hurt meÖ"

"Oh God, Langley." There was a shifting fabric sound and the phone hit something soft. His voice came back from a short distance with an annoyed, yet worried tone. "You know Iíd never hurt you. I can control this thing, I have it controlled. Thereís no chance that Iíd do anything to anyone."

"You tell that to my intellect, you swear that to my heart, but letís see you try to convince that squealing, panicked monkey in me, Matt!" She raised a hand and impatiently wiped off the tears from her cheeks. "I read too much."

He was tempted to roll his eyes at her conclusion. He took a deep breath and let it out in a scot-free gust. "I can only say what Iíve said, baby. I donít know how else I can help you."

She chewed the dried skin on her lips, wetting them from their dried stupor as well. She got almost mad at how he took the wind from her sail with his truth. She always felt like a manipulative female with him, wanting attention yet never demanding of it. She wondered if her time of the month was approaching. She shook her head on the pillow to clear it, her hair knotting around her. "I guess you canít. Iíll call you tomorrow whether it gets better or worse."

"Damn you look beat, Langley."

She looked up to see her acquaintance/friend looking at her from across the counter. "Oh hi, Willie," she answered after a moment of trying to grasp a name with the face. It was an unusual nickname for Wilhelmina, but the woman preferred Willie to the ungainly name. "Yeah, I havenít been getting much sleep lately," she said casually in the conversation as she dug into her pocket for the right change.

"And whyís that?" She bundled up her purchases from the comic book store into a small, thin plastic bag with short, strong fingers.

She shrugged while shaking her head, trying to smile it off. "Iíve just been having nightmares, is all. No biggie."

Willie made an amused agreeing sound in her throat as she handed Langley her bag. "It must be Halloween, babe. Some people go out in costumes that are just wrong for them. This woman came in today in a slinky black vinyl Catwoman costume that practically bulged at the seams, she could barely walk. That would scare me into nightmares any day."

Langley laughed for the first time that day. "Well, I donít think Iíll be dressed in anything so risqué this year." She pocketed the receipt she handed her over the counter, both of them waiting for the rental voucher to print out for her to sign. She yawned widely, the sounds around her seemed to lower in volume, and suddenly felt the floor tip to the side. Quickly, she grasped the counterís edge and steadied herself as Willie reached over to grab her shoulders. Only one other employee worked at that time and he was in the back of the store bagging comic books. Langley was grateful only one other person saw her unguarded.

"Iím okay, Iím okay," she reassured quickly, annoyed and uneasy at being vulnerable in front of a pseudo-stranger. It brought memories of a woman with dark red hair smiling with false friendship. Her headache brought the remembered scent of ink fumes and the sound of crackling paper from the photocopy shop, a time at ease with the psychotic woman.

She opened her eyes, straightened, and smiled tightly with a muscle in her cheek. "Maybe I should start taking those vitamins people keep talking about."

Willie frowned at her levity. "Langley, itís really weird for you to be this bad off. Youíre usually energetic enough to rip Nickís head off for not holding a tape for you. How many hours of sleep do you get?" Her eyes narrowed disturbingly. "What kind of dreams do you have?"

She wished he would bring out the voucher already, but rushed with the minimal explanations required while needlessly fixing her baggy shirt. "Iíve been getting three, maybe four hours a night. I get nightmares, they scare me awake no matter what I do."

Willie had let her go by then, but the rental voucher was furthest from her mind. Langley was beginning to be annoyed by benevolence. "Itís probably just school, okay? Nothing serious."

Willie just looked at her for a moment, then sighed. "Well, if you wonít tell me more, Iíll just go with what I have. If youíre not getting enough sleep, I know of a place thatíll probably help you." She looked around the cluttered counter, moved aside candy and fast food wrappers, and got a little yellow post-it pad. She grabbed a pen from the cash register and started writing something down. "Thereís a place on Riverdell Drive, south of the big strip mall. Itís called Cairo, a new age shop."

She finished writing and pulled the paper off, looking Langley in the eye. "Now, I know a lot of people just laugh and call it new age mumbo-jumbo, but in my experience with that kind of stuff, it works and it works damn well. Iíve read a lot and done a lot, so Iíd like to think that makes me a bit experienced in this sort of thing. I wrote you down the exact address and what book I think would most likely help you."

Then she grinned, broke eye contact, and held the piece of paper out to Langley along with the long awaited video voucher. The pen came a second later. "You donít have to do it, but I hope my little speech gave you some curiosity. I donít peg you for much of a skeptic since youíre part Goth and you like spooky shit. I think youíll give this a shot."

Langley looked up at the solid block-styled sign with chagrin. She couldnít believe that it took nightmares for her to explore this shop.

The incense inside the shop wafted to the sidewalk, setting up the experience of entering another world. The windows were so clean they threw back the street like a mirror. Langley squinted past the brightly reflected cars and saw wind chimes with crystals dangling. There were shelves upon shelves in the back full of books and in the entryway, there were baubles to catch the impulsive eye.

She stepped in, keeping in mind the meager amount of money in her wallet and looked around. There was a display case behind the big window and it boasted all kinds of incense. She picked up a package of odd cone-shaped objects and discovered an exotic scent. Incense holders were stacked on a low shelf, wooden and gold-plated alike. A hanging incense holder made of thin metal and shaped like something out of the Middle East beckoned to her and she swung her eyes around to resist.

There was a rotating glass display case near the bookshelf, winking stars into her eyes. She stepped closer and found crystal sculptures along with chunks of amethyst and quartz. She logically assumed that it was used for some sort of spiritual guidance and left it at that.

"Hi, may I help you?"

The voice startled Langley and she swiveled to see a pierced and dyed woman behind the counter, leaning over the deskís display of symbolic jewelry. She smiled in a friendly manner and Langley relaxed. "Yeah, Iím looking for this bookÖ"

She produced the yellow scrap of paper out of her small purse and handed it to the clerk. She took it and tapped a gilded fingernail on her lip. "Hm, I think this should beÖ" Her voice drifted off as she rounded the desk and stepped onto floor level. Langley followed her into the forest of bookshelves and found the quick woman on her tiptoes looking at a shelf.

"Yeah, it should be right here, but I donít see it." The clerk frowned and sighed, extending the piece of paper between two fingers to Langley. "Since youíre taller than me, I think I can leave you to look, is that all right?"

Langley nodded silently and thanked her in a hushed voice. Assertive strangers in a foreign environment made her nervous and she was relieved when the anarchistic looking clerk left the aisle. She looked up at the shelf that the clerk had indicated and tilted her head to read the titles. They were odd and creative, to be sure, some even cleverly played on words. She glanced at Willieís writing again, then located her sought-after text.

The pulled the book down and settled in cross-legged on the carpeted floor. She liked to cram herself into corners, liked to play at the stealth game. She told herself that to convince herself she was a shy little mouse. She took a breath and flipped open the hardbound volume simply called Dreams of Reality.

She flipped through the table of contents and found what she had predicted. An explanation of what the book thought dreams were - an extension of the subconscious - and what basic dreams meant. She skimmed the chapter about controlling what you dreamt. Langley thought that if a person manipulated their dreams, how could they figure out what they were trying to tell them. What she was interested in was what her dream meant, why it had needed to change everything she felt secure in into a nightmare.

Certain things could have been easily explained, though. Her fear of what Matthias had become had changed him into a monster to her subconscious. She had run with him at first because she thought that she could save him from what she had read could happen. She still thought that. But as she was close to him, she feared that she would be his first victim.

She ran from the shadows because she feared that they would swallow her too. She had been the one to find vampirism so attractive, the mystery, the darkness. She had always wanted to be the darkness, to have that power over light, but now that she knew the facts, she was afraid. Fear meant running.

Damien was a threat to their well being, knowing about the Catalyst was threatening. He was her definition of darkness, seeming to hunt them yet never wanting to pull the trap. The waiting was as scary as the ignorance of what would happen next.

The ghost of Victoria haunted her. She had been the one to press the reality of their situation to Langley. Some of these vampires werenít that harmless gardener out in the middle of the Great Plains. Some of them acted and seemed to be the stuff horror novels were made of. The dreamís setting of Old Town proved to be where her reality met with her fantasy.

Langley felt helpless. She neither wanted to stop her dreams nor did she want to be controlled by them. Now that she thought about it - as she held the book on her lap breathing in the rich aroma of incense as they burned and mixed - she didnít know what she had wanted. She only knew that she needed for it all to end.

She believed she was prepared. Knowing that belief wasnít good enough, she convinced herself she was ready.

Stubbornly, she worked the new, unbending leather strip around the lamp clamped to her headboard. It was a necklace from which the most basic and truthful of Wiccan talismans hung. It was the five-pointed star, though its structure had been forged like an endless ribbon. The points connected to a simple silver circle and the whole design made Langley feel better just by looking at it.

Sometime between exiting Cairo and talking to Willie again about the book she hadnít bought, she had decided to find a way to not by mauled at the end of the dream. There were other sides to reality that should have applied to the dream. She wanted to love Matthias, yet she had been dangerously attracted to Damien when she had first seen him. If this dream followed a regular pattern - which it didnít - why didnít she just end up in a big love affair with the both of them? Why hadnít there been a bright reflection to balance the evil?

Something else was at work. The shadows shouldnít have been so malicious, so insistent. She had decided to consult Willie again. The second time she had visited Cairo again, it had been with Willie. Together, they both chose the simple talisman that seemed to fit with what Langley wanted to attempt.

Langley sighed, wondering how in the hell she was to fall asleep tonight. A sleeping pill would probably effect the dream, so would alcohol. She stared at the bed for a moment, then crawled beneath the thick winter covers. She turned off the light and stared at the silver star dangling above her eyes, traced the smooth lines and felt her eyelids grow heavy.

This time, Matthias was holding her hand and running through the grotto of shadows. She stared at his broad back, absorbed in the way his muscles seemed to make the large picture of a dragon shift and contort. The red reflected pink onto the darkened corridors and made Langley think of flesh without blood. Though his pace seemed fast, they werenít going anywhere and the shadows behind the papered glass were louder, more animalistic.

As the walls of glass shattered, Langley and Matthias were caught in the middle of it. A shard cut across Langleyís cheeks, leaving behind a trail of stinging fire. Another shard bit into Matthiasí forearm, a small explosion of blood made their hands slippery and warm.

This canít be! She denied the events even as more glass cut through her jeans and the pain made her fall. The breathing was behind her again, threatening thuds directly behind her heels. There was a hiss of wind and Langley felt the cold air on her back, her shirt shredded. The pentacleís supposed to protect me!

The shadows laughed, deep and gritty. Their whispers and jibes sounded in her head as well as around her. She felt more than saw them coming over her like a wave about to tuck its head in. Dripping fangs fell before her and all she knew was black and ice.

It is your disbelief that makes you weak. You believe in nothing.

Whether she screamed or cried, she couldnít tell. The dark, freezing blanket enveloped her mind, invading all senses and any coherent thought. She wondered why she didnít die. Her bones felt frozen and she couldnít even feel her flesh anymore. She knew it was a dream. She believed it was a nightmare. And the darkness, that nightmare, had swallowed up her sense of self.

She fought with what she had of her will, struggled to break through the suffocating, but the creature only taunted her with a blur of warm light. It threw faces and memories at her through the black space, of Matthias loving her, of Damien seducing her, and Victoria laughing at her. Some of the events had never happened, Langley knew, but it didnít make her believe them less. Matthias was scratching and biting holes into her. Damien was making love to her and she liked it. Victoriaís arms were behind her, Langley felt her sneer a second before her neck was broken in her powerful arms.

This is what you wanted, isnít it?

The fear and the longing engulfed her as the images flowed through her mind. The shadows kept pumping that sterile air into her lungs and Langley couldnít breathe. She prayed to wake up, to die, to disappear into nothingÖ anything would be welcome to the cold.

Then she remembered. She took as much of a breath as she could and pictured light. She imagined this light to be glinting off a silver stream that flashed and threw off rainbows. She followed the line of light and traced it around as a circle, then delved into a straight line. Meticulously, she formed the symbol in her mind, building up her focus, making the light hers.

She hadnít known she had closed her eyes until she opened them to the murky darkness. The creature was whimpering and screeching. She shivered and forced the cold away with a push of her mind. The oppressing ice retreated slowly, thawing all along her perceived arms and legs. She felt the trickles and imagined them evaporating from the heat of her flesh. From meager light, she saw the ghosts of steam.

Staring at the steam, she imagined daylight melting through glass, the glass walls of the corridor. Slowly, the luminescence built. She felt resistance and bared her teeth. She told herself she could see all the aspects of light and commanded her dreamscape to glow. Suddenly, she was in the darkened corridor again, shattered glass littering the tiled ground. The darkness surrendered like a wave going out from the beach and swept passed the doorways, through the main archway, flew into the night sky. Pale yellow sunlight fell from blue skies and reflected back at a satisfied Langley.

This is my dreamÖ my realityÖ my worldÖ

She looked around at the skeleton window frames with darkness behind their mouths. The shadow creature hissed and growled threateningly, but Langley only narrowed her eyes, feeling sunlight in her fingertips at her command. She inhaled slowly and sent rays of the sun to reflect into the shadows. They writhed for a moment, but eventually faded to greys revealing trinkets and baubles on shelves and countertops. She did not stop the flood until those trinkets were brought back to life.

She looked down at the shards underfoot. They quivered in reflected sunlight, then rose up and around her like minuscule fairies. She smiled and they magnetized into the window frames and glass teeth. She breathed in relief as they assembled without much fuss and the cracks slowly melted away.

She gasped as the voice sounded, still strong in her mind. It yelled emotions at her, of rage and of domineering power.

What do you want? she requested in a firm boom.

Whatever you want.

I want you to leave me the hell alone!

That is not what you want.

She blinked for a moment, standing in the light, the heat from the sun caressing inside her mental shield. Then what do I want?

What everyone else wants, I expect. An entity shimmered before her in the bright hallway, a cloud of black with opaque edges. It flirted its shape to suggest various flesh forms, but shifted easily to avoid identification.

She pondered destroying it, but resisted. Who are you?

Iím your keeper.

I donít need one. I donít need something as evil as you are.

I am not evil. I am only your guide.

Guide to what? She hissed and a beam of yellow shot near the storm cloud. Its light seemed too disappear as it passed, like a black hole. Into hell?

It laughed softly, making for itself eyes, a mouth, and a likeness. It gave her the joyful smile of Matthias and merged it with the danger-glinting eyes of Damien. I am the guide to what you want.

To hell with you! She gathered heat within her heart, letting it consume flesh and make her a shining cloud after the rainstorm. Leave my dreams! Leave my mind!

Damienís face remained as the rest of his body whirled into form. His arms withdrew from his black suit and opened in a welcoming gesture. Arenít I what you want, Langley? Your danger, your excitement, you zeal for life? He snapped his fingers and Matthiasí body appeared, bloody and broken. This boy canít give you what you really want. I can. Your wish to be evil and dark and coldÖ

No! She wailed, letting a small nova erupt in the imaginary hallway. The globe of pure white should have incinerated the menace, but Damien only kept smiling.

Iíll be seeing you, Langley. Every time you wish for me. He blew her a kiss, turned, and walked nonchalantly to the rear exit of the corridor, into the half of her mind that knew he spoke the truth.

She awoke with her lungs empty. Greedily she sucked in the cold night air, throwing off her covers. Her thin nightgown was soaked and chilling on her back and chest. She sat up and tapped her head against the talisman. She fell back and stared at it, the silver gleaming for the dim street lamps outside her window.

Her belief had been enough, she realized. It had been her heart that had been weak and betrayed her.

Author's note:
November 1998 to May 24, 1999. Sorry if the ending sucked, Dhreugh had taken the dreams out of me. Psychology rocks. I hope the nightmare sequence scared you, because writing it at 1:30 in the morning in a dark house scared the hell out of me, too. Changed a few names of landmarks here so I wonít be sued in some ridiculous way. Dreams of Reality is not a real bookÖ I hope.

Berger, Kathleen Stassen. The Developing Person Through the Life Span. (4th Ed.) New York: Worth Publishers.1998. (Pg. 267-269)

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Coven of Angels copyright (©) 1999 Sylvia Leung. All rights reserved.