It was my name.
It was the only name I was ever called.
I braced myself for the inevitable when I heard the sound of the broom slicing through the air. The blow came as hard as expected, stinging my back, and knocking the air from my lungs. A strangled cry escaped me as I fell to the floor. Pain spread outwards, seeping through my limbs.
“You stupid girl! You’ve broken the brush now!” My father’s words flew at me, causing more damage than the broom ever could.
Turning slowly, I reached for the broom head that had fallen to the floor. My fingers curled around its spiky bristles, digging into my skin.
“You throw that at me, and it’ll be the last thing you do!” he yelled.
Crouching, prepared to defend myself from a further attack, I hissed at him.
He scowled. “You’re weak, pathetic, useless. No one cares about you. You should have died as soon as you were born, if not before. At least your mother would still be here. You’re the reason she’s dead!”
My fingers uncurled from around the weapon in my hand as my father marched away. Hearing the door lock I allowed myself to believe that my ordeal was over– for now. But, I knew he could return at any time.
I curled into a ball, crying silently.
He was right – I had killed my mother.
As a young child I had always tried to please my father, but always failed. At the age of five I had been locked in an upstairs room, the windows boarded with wide planks of wood, to keep me hidden from everything and everyone.
It was then that Darkness introduced himself.
The only time Darkness disappeared was when the narrow slats between the wood at the windows allowed shards of sunlight to penetrate the room. But, on my tenth birthday, I was dragged from the room and thrown down hard concrete steps that led to the cellar. The sun never appeared there.
I gave up trying to please my father the day he locked me in the cellar. From that day on, Darkness was my constant friend, as was a calm, male voice that offered support when I so desperately needed it. But, their words and comfort were often pushed aside by Pain, who visited more often than I wished for. They were my only companions. And, after each of my father’s beatings the calming voice spoke to me, Darkness came to comfort me, and Pain reminded me that I was still alive.
Clothes that I had long grown out of stretched over my pale bruised skin. When I lifted my hands to my face, I felt hollow cheeks and distinct deep set eyes. Touching my hair, it hung loose in parts, tangled and knotted in others. The strands that were not matted fell in greasy long clumps around my thin face and across my sharp collarbone. Narrow wrists, breakable arms, scabbed knees, blistered feet. I was a mess.
I was Ugly.
For seven years the cellar had been my home, but for the past two months I’d worked on an escape. My hands were blistered; self-inflicted injuries caused by digging a passage to the outside. While locked in the room upstairs I had peeked out at the world beyond the boarded windows. I had seen sky and trees – lots and lots of trees. They would hide me, keep me safe, and disguise my escape when I broke free from the cellar. The thought of running through the trees didn’t frighten me like it would any other girl, for I knew Darkness would be with me. Pain would follow - there was no way he would be left behind. But I had to escape. I couldn’t live like this any longer.
My fingers bled as I scratched away at the earth. Tears ran down my face as I fought the frustration and anger that swept through me. I didn’t deserve this life. I deserved better.
As a rush of cold air hit my hand, and I began to dig frantically, ignoring Pain as he mocked my attempt to escape. More air rushed through the gap I’d created, and it wasn’t long before there was a hole large enough for me to squeeze through.
As I emerged into the outside world, Darkness swirled around me. Hidden in the night, I ran, ignoring Pain as he reminded me of the earlier beatings I’d endured.
“Not tonight,” I chanted as I raced towards the forest. I was free from the cellar, and free from my father. Nothing would stop me, not even Pain.
The branches of the trees shivered as I passed them. Animals scattered as they heard me approaching. Birds ceased to sing their evening songs as I progressed through the forest. Even the air around me seemed to shrink away.
Pain sliced through my ankles as my matchstick legs pushed my body forwards. And Darkness – he surrounded me.
“I am here,” spoke the male voice I’d always heard in the cellar.
“So am I,” chorused Pain, stabbing my chest with his gnarled finger. “Don’t ever forget me. I’ll never leave you. But Darkness will. How can he stay with you when the sun rises in the morning?”
My feet felt heavy, invisible branches twisted around my ankles, trying to trip me. I fell to the ground, my knee cracking loudly. Pain laughed, rejoicing at my newly acquired injury.
“Come to me,” the voice whispered. “You don’t have to leave. I have been your friend since the day your father locked you away. I have comforted and surrounded you with my shadows.”
“Darkness?” I asked. Had the voice I’d heard for all these years been Darkness?
“Don’t leave,” he begged. “There are ways you can stay. Please, don’t leave.”
Leaves rustled in front of me, causing a small whirlpool of activity, and I lifted my gaze from the ground.
A man, a few years older than myself, stood before me.
“Are you Darkness?” I asked, quickly lowering my eyes from the intense stare I had momentarily caught him giving me.
I didn’t fear him. I felt calm and safe when he was with me – I always had.
“You’re my friend?”
“Of course,” he replied.
Fingers gently nudged my chin, lifting my face and giving me no other option than to look back into his eyes. Deep set, completely black eyes watched my own as I took in his appearance. He was dressed in black clothes, but his face was as white as porcelain and looked paper thin. His cheeks were tinted a soft blood red, but the red of his lips was even darker. I wanted to reach out and touch his face.
Pain reminded me of my injured knee and I winced at his unwanted interruption.
“You feel Pain. Is he always with you?” Darkness asked.
“Not always. There have been times when I welcomed him, but not now.”
Darkness sighed deeply. “You need my help. But, if you keep running, leave the forest and find your freedom in the light on the other side of these trees, then you will lose me, and I will lose you.”
I frowned at him, still unable to look away from his eyes. They held me, trapped in their gaze. Every breath I took seemed to be controlled by him.
“Can you still feel Pain?” he asked.
Darkness frowned, running his fingers across my cheek before tenderly caressing my neck. I shivered under his touch.
“I can make him disappear.”
His hand cupped my face, holding me still.
Moments later, Darkness’s soft lips met mine. I offered no resistance as he wrapped his arms around me. Cocooned within his embrace, I felt safe.
Warmth spread through my whole body before Darkness released me from his kiss, but not his hold.
“Can you feel the difference?” he whispered.
Pain had gone. My knee didn’t hurt. There was no soreness in my ribs or across my back.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Can you see the difference?”
Confused, I searched his eyes for clarity of his words.
“Look at your clothes,” he prompted.
Slowly stepping backwards I inspected my clothes. Gone were the ill-fitting and soil covered dirty rags. I was wearing a clean, waist pinching black dress. The sleeves were long, elegant in the way they billowed at the shoulder and narrowed towards my wrists. The skirt skimmed my ankles, and I had no doubt that it would float behind me as I moved.
“How did you do that?”
“I am Darkness.”
“I know. But this, this is magic.”
He smiled, gently pulling me back into his arms. “I can do more,” he breathed against my ear.
“More?” My heart raced at his proximity. Each and every word he spoke was edged with an alluring resonance; a softness that seeped into every nerve, and awakened something deep within me.
He nodded. “But only if you let me.”
It was my turn to frown.
“I am Darkness,” he repeated. “I have the ability to stop you from ever feeling Pain again. You will be free.”
I shook my head. “I can never be free.”
“Oh, but you can.”
His lips curled into a wide smile as he released me. He continued to stare into my eyes.
"Are you real?" I asked. I had no understanding of how he was making me feel.
Darkness chuckled. "Real? Well, I'm here, aren't I? You can see me, feel my touch, hear me talk?"
"But, you are Darkness..."
"Does that make me any less real?"
Did it? I had no way to answer his question. Men couldn’t step out of the dark in the way he had. They didn’t have powers to take away pain.
"A ghost, are you a ghost?" I insisted with my questions. I needed to know.
He laughed softly. “No.”
Silence descended around us. Darkness leant back against a tree, crossing his arms as he watched me. His eyes followed my every move as I shifted from foot to foot. The smile that had been so prominent on his face slowly disappeared.
"If you leave, I cannot help you,” he said. “I cannot be with you if you choose to live in the light.” He looked past me, his eyes widening even more at the forest behind. "Even though I have sent Pain away, he will return. He will be angry that you allowed me to kiss you. He knew that he would be forgotten when you experienced the feelings you did while we kissed."
"So, he'll come back?" Now that I had experienced what it felt like to be free of Pain, I never wanted him to return.
"Can you send him away forever? Is there a way for him to go and never return?"
"Yes, but I can only rid you of his presence if you stay with me." Lifting his hand to the side of my face, Darkness smiled. “I want you to stay with me. But, I will not force you to do so.”
“Oh, yes. I could easily make you stay with me.” He sighed heavily.
“I… I think I’d like to stay with you.” My words flew from my mouth. It was as if my whole being had made the decision for me. How could I pass the opportunity to stay with him when he stirred such strong feelings within me?
“You would?” He sounded surprised.
“Yes. But I can’t go back to the house. I won’t go back to the life I have escaped from. I refuse to be beaten by my father again.”
“You will never be beaten by him again. I promise you that if you join me. But we must return to the house if we are to be together. I have seen the life you’ve endured. Any lesser mortal would have given up and died. Yet, you are still here. You fought him. He calls you Ugly. But you are the most beautiful creature I have ever seen.”
My cheeks heated, no doubt showing my embarrassment at his compliment. It was something I had never experienced before.
Darkness continued. “I have been with you for years, hiding in the shadows that surround you. I couldn’t stop from falling in love with you.”
I froze, stunned that anyone could ever love me. I was unlovable, strange, stupid…ugly.
“How can you love me?”
“You still question my feelings? Can you not feel what there is between us?”
I looked into his eyes, seeing a sparkle within them.
“I felt something, like a light had been lit – a glow that warmed my entire being,” I told him.
“And I can ensure that you will always have that feeling.”
“But, only if I stay with you.”
“Yes. I would like to give you time to think, but I am impatient to have you join me. Pain will soon return, and I do not want to see you suffer that way any longer. If you have decided to stay with me then we must act quickly.”
“I need time to think.” He had given me much to consider.
“You do not have time!” Darkness gripped my wrist tightly. “You said you wanted to be with me. Let me make that happen.”
I looked at Darkness, searching his face for any signs of anger. There was none. He had never hurt me, he had always comforted me. He had ensured he was there whenever I needed him. The voice, telling me how special I was, how much he cared, had always been him. He wanted to be with me, forever.
I was aware that the life he was offering would not be the same as the one I was living. He would do something to me, he’d even said he could force me – but he wouldn’t.
I had two options. I could walk away and head into the sunlight that would greet the new day, or I could live with Darkness in the house.
“What will I be if I join you?” I asked tentatively.
“You will be even more beautiful.”
He knew that’s not what I’d asked. He’d evaded my question, but did it really matter?
“I want to be with you,” I confirmed. “Do whatever it is you need to do.”
As the words left my mouth the leaves around our feet began to swirl, just as they had when he first appeared in front of me.
“Thank you,” he whispered before his lips met mine.
My body moulded to his as he deepened our kiss. As his hands slid into my hair a powerful surge of energy stunned my body. When I tried to pull away from him, his kiss intensified. I should have feared him, screamed for a release from the way he surrounded me, but I didn’t.
Soft lips trailed away from my mouth, kissing a path across my cheek to my ear.
“This will be the last time you feel Pain,” Darkness said. “This will hurt. Pain will rejoice while this happens. Trust me. Do not struggle.”
I swallowed loudly. Scared, but somehow calm at the same time, I prepared myself for the unknown; for whatever Darkness was about to do.
In a movement too quick to register, I was twisted around to face away from him. He trapped me in his arms, pulling me backwards against his firm body. While one arm remained tight and restricting across my chest, the other moved higher. Strong fingers stroked my neck before caressing my throat. My chin was tipped up, my head pushed to the side.
A kiss pressed against the side of my exposed neck as Darkness breathed heavily. The arm across my chest tightened seconds before his teeth scraped at the exact place his kiss had been. Pain began to laugh, and I grabbed Darkness’s arm, trying to pull him off. I didn’t want Pain to return.
But it was too late. As Darkness sank his teeth into my neck, Pain returned stronger than ever before. His laughter filled my head as Darkness sucked vociferously from the open wound on my neck. The sound of my thumping heart flooded my ears. I tried to twist away from the hold that Darkness had on me, but he was too strong. I couldn’t move.
“Please…” I murmured as tears fell from my eyes.
Darkness ignored my plea, continuing to rapaciously suck my life force from within me. My body became limp. Every drop of blood I had was been stolen by Darkness. Pain stabbed me everywhere, and I was unable to stop myself from screaming when he surrounded my heart.
Pain’s laughter was louder than my scream.
It was the last thing I heard.
Opening my eyes, I saw Darkness looking at me in a way I had never been looked at before.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It was the only way.”
He held my gaze, waiting for a reaction. When I didn’t respond he continued. “How do you feel?”
How did I feel? I wasn’t sure. I’d just woken up. I was sitting against the trunk of a tree. Darkness was mirroring my position at a tree a few feet away. Cautiously touching my neck, I searched for the area where he had sunk his teeth into me. There was only smooth skin. I couldn’t feel Pain. I couldn’t hear him. Had he really gone?
Looking at my arms, I saw no bruises; on my hands, no blisters. But it wasn’t just the visual injuries that had disappeared. Something had changed deep within me. I felt different. Stronger, braver, lighter… free.
“You’re beautiful,” Darkness whispered, repeating the words that he had spoken to me many times before. They were the words that had comforted me when my life had seemed so empty.
“I knew you’d look like this. You’ve been hidden away for far too long. Even though I was with you all that time, protecting you whenever I could, I never imagined you would blossom into such a stunning creature.”
He slowly rose to his feet. Offering me his hand, I took it and was pulled flush with his body. His lips covered mine in a scorching kiss. When he had kissed me before I’d felt my emotions stir, but this time they were even stronger. I matched each searching sweep of his tongue with my own, pushing him backwards with a strength I never knew I possessed. As his back hit the tree, he spun me around, growling at my action.
Holding my shoulders, Darkness forced me away from him. “Beautiful,” he said, “We have things to do, but satisfying our needs in such a way is not possible yet.”
“Beautiful?” Had he spoken the word as a name for me?
His lips twitched into a perfect full smile. “I have always called you Beautiful. If you agree, I would like to continue to call you that.”
I nodded, unable to respond.
“Good. Now, I have something to show you.” He reached for my hand again. “Come with me.”
Running alongside him my feet hardly touched the ground. There was still no sign of animals or birds. The forest was quiet without them.
When we stopped he pointed to a large expanse of water softly lit by the moon. “Go take a good look at yourself in the lake.”
I inched forward, uncertain of what I would see. I had only ever seen myself in the distorted mirrors of shiny surfaces back at the house. I didn’t like what had stared back at me.
“Be brave!” Darkness encouraged.
As I nervously peered into the water, I concentrated on the face reflected back at me. It was someone I didn’t recognize. Long black hair hung in soft curls, tumbling down either side of her face. Her cheeks had colour against her ghostly white skin, and her lips were full.
I leaned closer, and Darkness’s face appeared at the side of the reflection.
Moving my hands to my face, I saw my mirrored image do the same. The softness of my hair slid through my fingers, before they touched the plumpness of my lips.
“Look at my eyes,” I breathed, accepting that the face in the lake was my own.
“Beautiful dark orbs,” Darkness confirmed.
I turned to face him. “Just like yours.”
He smiled and nodded. “There is one more thing you must do to complete your transformation. After that you can finally be with me.”
“I will do anything that means I can be with you completely.”
Darkness brushed his lips against mine, and I grabbed at him, wanting more than a passing touch.
“Patience, Beautiful. Your need for me cannot be as strong as mine is for you, but we must wait until you are the same as me. Only then can our love be sealed in the way we both desire.”
Growling at him, I let him hear my impatience. The way I longed to be with him was a powerful force, one that risked me losing all sense of normality. But, what was my normality? The life I had endured at the hands of my father would never pass as normal. And what had happened here tonight was anything but.
“You have to kill your father,” Darkness stated, no emotion in his voice. “To complete your transformation you have to kill someone, and feed on the blood from their heart. I suggest that the someone is your father. There should be no innocent people killed tonight.”
I should have felt disgust, shame, even shock at what Darkness had told me. I didn’t. Instead, I smiled at Darkness. “Lead me to him.”
Our laughter sounded out as we ran back to the house. Pain had gone. Darkness was by my side. Seventeen long years he had remained hidden in the shadows and the blackness of the night. He had always been with me, and now I was with him.
Silent as we entered the building, we glanced at each other, eyes matching eyes, thoughts matching thoughts. Darkness and I slipped into the hallway, shadows passing through a life I had left behind and had never wanted to return to. Hand in hand we walked towards the sitting room.
“You know what you must do.”
“Yes.” My voice was weak, threatening to disappear altogether.
“Once this is done, you will be completely free. You can join me.” His eyes sparkled with excitement. “I know you can feel it. It’s strong isn’t it – the desire to finish this, to avenge your father.”
As soon as Darkness mentioned my father, my light steps became determined. The shadows, witnesses to my past, joined us. United we moved forwards, heading to my father.
As I pushed open the double doors Darkness swooped into the shadows.
My father spun around in his chair, quickly rising to his feet as he saw me.
“Who are you?” he leered. “What sort of woman enters a man’s home knowing he is alone and in need of female company?”
I smirked, walking around him, stalking him like a hunter stalks his prey.
“Do you not recognise me?” I asked.
His eyes narrowed and he stared intently at my face.
“May be if I’d rolled in the dirt, messed my hair, and grovelled at your feet for food, you would realise who stands before you.”
“Ugly?” he questioned. “Is it really you? How did you get out?”
His eyes focused next to the doors I had barged through. A set of large keys dangled from a hook on the wall.
“Locked doors will not stop what I have come to finish tonight.”
My father screwed his nose up at me, ignoring the threat in my words.
“I see you’ve found a dress. Tidied yourself up. You’ve had help though. You could never manage such a transformation yourself. Has someone taken pity on you, have you let them sodomise you in return for your freedom? Prostituting yourself would be a fitting way for your life to turn, for no normal man would give you a second glance.”
The lights in the room flickered, and I smiled at Darkness’s reminder that he was still here. He was angry.
“There is a man,” I admitted. “But, I am no prostitute – I have found love.”
My father roared with laughter before glaring at me. “Where is he then? Too scared to show himself to me?”
The flames in the fire struggled to stay alight - Darkness was already having an effect. Shadows crept around the edge of the room, heading nearer to the flickering flames. I followed their lead as my father watched every move I made.
“So,” he started, “Now that you’ve escaped from the cellar, what do you want from me? Money? New clothes? A bath?” He began to laugh.
I scowled at him. I knew what I had come for, but I also wanted answers.
“Seventeen years!” I shouted. “Seventeen years you have punished me, locked me up, beaten me and hated me!”
“You killed your mother! My wife, my love.”
“I didn’t. She died when I was born. How was I ever knowingly capable of killing her?”
“You did,” he spat at me, his face turning red with anger. “She was all I had. All I ever wanted, and you purposely took her away from me.”
I steadied myself against his torrent of hate.
“Well, I thank God that she’s not around to see the cruel way you’ve treated me. She would be really pleased with the loving home you’ve provided.”
His hand slapped me across the face, but I didn’t feel the sting I had experienced many times before.
I began to laugh as my father slapped me again.
“I’ve changed,” I said, narrowing my eyes at him. “You can’t hurt me anymore.”
“Really?” He sneered, eyes darting around the room. Was he looking for a weapon, or an escape? Neither would save him now.
Shadows moved around the edge of the room. Darkness was impatient. The sooner I had killed my father, the sooner we would be together.
Stepping up to the man who had beaten me repeatedly for seventeen years I hit him, just as he had me. His whole body stumbled to the side, and I heard the familiar laughter of Pain. This time he was taunting my father.
Grabbing the poker from the fireplace, my father spun around. I braced myself for the blow from his newly acquired weapon. This would be his last ever attack.
Just as the poker was about to make contact with my side, I yanked the weapon from his hands. Not pausing in my movements, I struck him across his back. He sunk to his knees, crying out.
“More, more!” Pain cackled, urging me on.
Hitting him again, he fell to the floor. Hearing the crack of broken bones, I continued to slam the poker into his body.
“Feel me,” hissed Pain. “Feel me!”
Pain was with my father, not me. I wanted him to suffer, just as I had, and hit him one last time.
Coughing and spitting blood from his mouth my father rolled onto his back. I saw the shocked look on his face.
“Justice,” I hissed as I stood over him.
“Do it!” Darkness called. “Let him feel all that you did. Let him feel your Pain!”
Crouching down at the side of my father, I ripped his shirt open as he watched me, wide eyed. His chest rose and fell frantically, the sign of a beating heart that would soon cease.
I smirked as I pushed my fingers through his skin and into his chest.
Screams filled the air. Pain rejoiced as blood flowed in thick crimson rivers.
Wrapping my fingers around his heart, I pulled it from his body.
As I looked at my blood soaked hands, holding my father’s heart like a trophy, Pain’s singing abruptly stopped.
Darkness appeared at my side. “Eat, satisfy your hunger.”
He covered my blood covered hands with his own, guiding them to my mouth. As I tore into the soft, warm muscle with my teeth, more blood oozed between my fingers. Each bite I took I swallowed ravenously. Darkness encouraged me, watching every mouthful I ate.
When I had eaten the last piece of my father’s heart Darkness kissed each of my blooded hands before kissing my crimson coated lips.
“It is done,” Darkness whispered, running his fingers through my hair. “He can never hurt you again. Say your goodbyes to him. I shall wait until you are ready.”
He moved away, melting into the shadows once more. I looked at my father’s lifeless body, blood pooling around him as it still flowed from the large open cavity in his chest. I had nothing to say to him – not even goodbye.
Turning towards the shadows, Darkness stepped forwards.
“Come to me, Beautiful. It is time for you to join me in the shadows.”
With no hesitation I stepped towards Darkness. When his arms closed around me, I knew I was home.
It was where I’d always belonged.