The dream came more often now; nearly every night. Flinging one hand over his eyes, even in sleep unable to find respite from the visions tormenting him, Vincent's expression twisted into a mask of foreboding as the hunger reached for him again. Taunting him, desire lured him to a place within himself he knew, even now, in dreams, was somewhere he must never go. In these last months, the nightmare always began in the same way…
He would be standing on a shell-strewn beach. The sun was blazing hot, like teeth biting into his flesh. Throwing back his head, he closed his eyes, inhaling the unique aroma of a majestic ocean. High above him came the high pitched screams of sea birds. Shrieking as they rose in the air as one body, their noise disrupted the stillness of a glorious summer day.
Glancing up, eyeing tiny wisps of clouds as they shimmered along the edge of the sun's path, Vincent smiled. Closing his eyes, he inhaled again. Ah, the smell of salt air was delightful--extraordinary! Then, anxiously, his expression changed to one of restlessness. The wonders of nature surrounded him with so much beauty, yet he was strangely uneasy. Why?
Looking out to sea, he scanned the horizon for any signs of life. But other than the gulls that still hovered overhead, he seemed to be alone. There were no ships, nor was there any evidence of this area being inhabited. There was no one here--no one but him. Yet he knew he wasn't alone. Although the presence wasn't visible, Vincent was certain that something, someone, was here on this beach with him, watching him.
An ominous shiver swept through him. With guarded, vigilant eyes, he scanned the beach. Such a wondrous place. It appeared that a long cherished dream had at last been fulfilled, enabling him to stand here at sunrise.
But, how did he get here? Indeed, where was ‘here’? Staring out over the waves, he disregarded the surging, white-capped foam, taking no pleasure in the sight of an ocean he had so long yearned to see for himself, nor did the sky's myriad hues of green and gold command his attention, or bring any aspect of serenity. Within him, there was only a portent of menace. As tranquil as it appeared, to him this region was fraught with peril. Moment to moment, an unknown maliciousness was moving nearer--he could feel it. Preparing to do battle with whatever, or whomever, awaited him, Vincent sniffed the air repeatedly, testing it. Probing for danger, his eyes shifted to left, and then to the right.
As fear gripped the pit of the stomach, he announced, "I sense your presence. Be you demon or specter, show yourself!"
‘I sense…’ His words reverberated in the stillness. ‘…demon…’
Shaken by the unnatural intonation in the echoes, Vincent instinctively dropped to a crouched position. Snarling a warning, he pivoted to face inland. With his heart thumping against his ribcage, his hands curled into weapons that could wrest flesh from bone when, or if, necessary, demanding, "What are you? WHO you are? And why have you brought me to this place?"
This time not even an echo rebutted his challenge. The only sounds Vincent could hear were the whoops of the gulls overhead and the frenzied crash of waves as they impacted against the shoreline. Was he alone? Was he hallucinating? A shudder tore through him. Dear God, what was happening here? Tilting his head to the left, he glanced upward, his eyes scanning the jagged cliffs that encompassed all earthbound sides of this bizarre site. Although he felt another presence, his eyes encountered none. Was his mind playing tricks on him?
Still wary, but relaxing his guard slightly, Vincent slowly flexed his legs and knelt in the sand. Splaying one hand out, he dug his fingers into it, relishing the texture. It brought to mind the grains caught in the shell Catherine had so graciously sent him from California years before. Wishing to savor the smell of it more closely, he dug his fingers into the gritty substance again, intending to lift a handful of it to his nostrils.
As he dug deeper into the sand, the feel of something abrasive slid across the center of his palm. Flexing a nail, he scratched at the damp earth and freed a small conch shell from its sandy dwelling place. Cradling it between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, Vincent examined the shell intently, running his eyes over the whorl of varied patterns and the muted tints of beige. Although the fragile shell was empty now, at one time something alive, something vital, had existed within its fragile core.
His mouth curled into a slight smile at that analogy. The shells' former occupant had existed as he himself had for far too long a time. For too many years he'd also lived within a shell--of sorts, within a prison of his own making, until finding Catherine. Her love and acceptance had drawn him out of his shell, for the most part.
Lovingly, he caressed the surface of the mollusk with the pads of his fingers as though it were her flesh. Catherine. The mere thought of her brought not only the sense of nearly overwhelming joy it always did, this time it also renewed his feelings of apprehension. Shivering as icy fingers seemed to clamp around his soul, Vincent swept the pieces of grit from his fingers and stood up. Searching the beach expectantly, he looked for her, but she wasn't here. Where was she? Why wasn't she sharing this moment with him? Why was he here at all, without her? As far as he was concerned, to be unable to experience this extraordinary time with the woman he loved, made being here utterly pointless.
A scowl deepened the furrows running along the sides of Vincent’s mouth. Where in the name of all the Gods was he? Although the beach and the scorching sun were invigorating, why did this site strike terror to the depths of his soul, nearly unnerving him when accompanied by thoughts of Catherine? Grinding his teeth, he snarled in frustration. Where was she?! The life force he sensed wasn't hers--it couldn't be. What he felt inundating him was a malevolence that could never be a part of Catherine's essence. Was it something near her he perceived as the threat? He had to find her, he had to make absolutely certain that she was safe.
Striding up the beach towards the rocks, hoping to find some answers there, Vincent froze mid-step as a familiar voice called out, "Hello!"
Waving to him from the far shoreline, Catherine laughed as she danced along the edge of the sand and played tag with the waves. "Here I am, my Love! Oh, this is fun!" Smiling, she beckoned, "Come, take my hand and walk with me? I've wanted to share a day like this with you for so long."
As Vincent's head snapped up and his eyes met hers, the pounding of his heart eased to a calmer pace. She was safe. Thank God, she was here with him after all.
Returning her wave, he called out, "I've been searching for you!" Unable to control the urge, he began to spin around and around until he grew dizzy, laughing aloud as he tried to capture the setting of her, the beach, and the sun within his heart--to bind the image there forever. "Oh, to be here like this, with you, Catherine! It’s wondrous, a miracle!"
Eyes darkly somber only moments before brightened to crystal pools of azure. To see her moving towards him, calling out for him to join her, brought tears of joy to Vincent's eyes. This beautiful woman waited for him. For him.
"I have to show you what I've found!" Holding the shell tucked carefully against his body, wanting to divulge this small treasure to his greatest one, Vincent lifted his foot, but he couldn't…move. Something was holding him fast, preventing him from closing the distance between himself and Catherine! "Release me!" he bellowed.
From behind him, a hand, a clawed hand, reached out and gripped Vincent by the left shoulder. Clamping down, the curved nails held him completely immobile. No matter how desperately he strained to break the hold, he couldn't; his body refused to obey him.
Roaring, "Let me go!" he twisted his body from left to right, fighting to get free.
"Not this time, my old FRIEND," the voice sneered, conspicuously snide. "This time, you stay here."
Sensing all at once precisely what and who stood just behind him, Vincent stiffened. The voice brought back horrific memories as it continued, "Greetings. Yes, it's me. Did you assume I’d deserted you? Oh, I’m so sorry to disappoint you."
"I must..." Struggling with all of his might, Vincent tried again to break free and failed. "Release me, damn you!"
"Ah, so you do know how to curse, after all." Laughing at his futile attempts to escape, knowing full well where Vincent wanted to go, the darkling sneered, "Never again will you touch her unless I allow it. Catherine belongs to me. She's mine! You don't deserve her. You haven't earned her love, I have!"
Aware that it was his own voice he heard, merely thoughts from within his own perceptions, didn't matter. Vincent was truly frightened as a face he despised, yet knew as his own, came into view at his left side. As the ‘other’ confronted him squarely, the detested part of his being challenged again, "I’ve earned the woman’s love, not you! It's me who protects her, me who has always protected her! I give all of myself to keep her safe. All you can give to her is TENDER adoration," the voice sneered.
Fighting the antagonizing words, Vincent curled his hands into fists and clamped them over his ears. "I will hear no more of your vile taunts! Be gone! Leave me!"
Yet still, the belittling accusations continued.
"Oh, such gentle ‘endearments’ you whisper to Catherine in the night; soft nothings-- signifying nothing! I would give her everything, all that I am, all that I could ever become, with her at my side. I'd take our pretty Catherine down from the pedestal that you've kept her on for so many years and show he what true and unrestrained passion can be. My passion."
"Never!" Vincent snarled. "Although you are part of me, I would gladly take us both to Hades before allowing your profane flesh to ever touch hers again!"
"Oh, would you now?" Came the sneered response.
Intense blue eyes met dusky, knowing ones. "In an instant. Never doubt that I would destroy both of us to save Catherine. I thought I proved that to you in the cave?"
The beast grinned. "Ha! I learned a lot more about you there, than you learned about me. A lot more than you may ever realize." Acceding to his fate, he shrugged. "You want my death and your own? Go ahead then, kill me. I might as well as be dead, for the so-called existence you ‘allow’ me isn't life."
A deep, abiding sadness filled his eyes as the ‘other’ resigned himself to whatever would happen. He was so tired of fighting, so tired of being so alone. "So let us die here, now, and be done with it. Are you prepared for that, Vincent? I am." Somber eyes flashed menacingly. "It's always degraded you to know that I'm part of who you are, hasn't it, my oh, so noble antagonist?"
"Yes," Vincent agreed, "For all you have ever brought me is pain."
"You feel pain!" The words were hissed scornfully as dispirited eyes met Vincent's, daring him to deny the truth. "Just once, feel what I feel, know my pain, what I've suffered because of you! Know my humiliation in being considered only the bestial side of the exalted, omnipotent being known as Vincent!"
A clawed finger reached out to poke at Vincent's breast. "All of your strength comes from me. From me! It's also MY blood that's spilled every time YOU defend your world. Your world, never mine--never ours! For a so-called MAN known for his fair treatment of others, do you consider that fair?" As he glared at his gentler self, the beast's tone of voice was at the edge of control, turning more spiteful with each passing moment. "Our blood drips into the earth when you bleed. Every time you were hurt, I felt the pain, too. Did you know that? Did you care?" Eyes ablaze with hate locked to Vincent's. "I feel the pain too!"
Turning aside his own anger momentarily, Vincent felt a sense of remorse, a pitiable sadness towards this unwelcome, unwanted being. "I never imagined for a moment that you could ‘feel’ anything in quite the same way that I do."
"I don't need your pity, you condescending bastard!" He threw Vincent a sinister glare. "Save it for yourself. You'll have need of pity soon enough. Very soon, you'll need all of the pity you can get!"
Knowing the heart of this creature, for it was his own--no matter how much he wanted to deny it--Vincent also knew his thoughts. They sickened and horrified him. "What…" Alarm overwhelmed him as his thoughts locked to that of his own private demon. "No! You shall not harm Catherine!"
The beast smirked at him. "Oh I would never ‘harm her’. She trusts me, even if you won't." The tip of a pink tongue darted along a leering mouth. "But I will love her, I WILL take her away from you."
"Please, don't touch her? You cannot, you must not!" Vincent pleaded, unnerved as he grasped the creature's intent.
"Why not? I've been patient long enough--too long! I have needs too, and I'm sick of denying mine! You won't let yourself love Catherine as she deserves to be loved-- with all that you are--because what you are includes me. You can't give her passion. I would, I will, and there's not one damned thing you can do to stop me. Not this time."
Loosening his grip on Vincent's shoulder, the beast continued, "I've waited long enough for you to smarten up. If you'd let your…OUR…body rule your DAMNED intellect just once, just ONCE, that would have been enough for me. If you'd been able to do that much, I'd have stayed away. But, you couldn't. You're a puling coward when it comes to love. You know it, I know it, and so does Catherine!"
The cloaked form pulled back and eyed Vincent arrogantly. Backing away, he made an impatient, crudely suggestive gesture towards his gentler side. "I'm tired of standing here debating this with you! There are better, nicer things to be done. Much nicer things. It's past time, and I need her."
After spitting those words at Vincent, the shadowed figure strode away, heading down the beach towards Catherine. Nearing her, he swept the woman he hungered for into the folds of his voluminous, ebony cloak and touched his mouth to the nape of her neck.
"Catherine," Vincent roared, "No! Don't trust him!"
Powerless to stop what was happening, he watched, devastated as his Beloved smiled, wrapped one arm around his waist, looked up into those eyes, and then stood on tiptoe to kiss the side of that face in welcome.
As she snuggled into him, the beast swung her up into his arms, laughing triumphantly, and started towards a cave at the edge of the cliffs.
As his legs gave way, Vincent sank to the sand. Seizing it between his fingers, he watched in despair as they faded from view. At that moment, the ground beneath him seemed to tilt to one side, threatening to hurl him into the sea, as the woman he cherished beyond life disappeared from sight into a salt-blue mist, her body held fast in the predatory embrace of a Being he despised.
"Damn you to the confines of everlasting Hell!"
Keening into the wind, Vincent howled his anger and grief towards the heart of Heaven itself, feeling as though his very soul had just been raped. A part of him that he considered base had not only taken his pride, he'd taken all that was most dear in the world. He'd taken Catherine! Why…WHY did she go with him? Couldn't she tell who it was? Didn't she realize exactly who was embracing her, or did she truly see no difference at all?
Like a tempest, the beast's thoughts ripped through Vincent's mind as bitterness and regret tore at his soul, rending it in two. ‘So, now you sense it in Catherine at last, do you? Yes, allow yourself to know her heart, as you should have known it years ago, and see what a fool you've been. Now, it's too late—you’re too late!’
A gray mist closed in around them as the mockery continued, ‘When Catherine looks at me, she sees you! To her, we're one being, one heart--we always were! She wants me, needs me, and now, she belongs to me!’ The beast's voice grew less harsh, almost tender. "Because she trusts me, and truly has no fear OF me, I would never harm her. Catherine knows that; she believes it with all of her being. Such a woman as this can't be yours. She's too spirited for your gutless kind of affection. The woman needs me! She's mine, Vincent, and now I'll never give her back to you. Never! Catherine is mine, MINE…"
"Curse you for the revolting thing that you have always been!"
Finally tearing free of the forces binding him, Vincent charged down the beach. Raging, eyes blood-red, wild with fury, he roared, "Before I allow you to have her, I'll tear you apart with my bare hands…"
Always beginning in the same way, the nightmare also ended as such. As Vincent lashed out at the madness before him, it would fade. Sitting up in bed, he’d find himself staring into the shadows as the nightmare ebbed; awake, terrified. The visions drained him of all energy, leaving him weak, disoriented. His lungs felt as though they were on fire. Gulping rapidly, he put one hand to his chest. Had he screamed aloud this time?
With his mouth dry beyond belief and his heart pounding in his ears, he looked over and found Catherine next to him in bed, as she always was, tranquilly asleep.
And no matter how desperately he tried, Vincent could never remember very much about the nightmare, except for the fact that it always left him feeling as if he were about to retch--which he usually did.