My jaw went slack, unable to believe what he just said. What just happened? A minute ago I thought I was dead. I could still feel the press of his cold skin, the deadly strength in his arm against my neck. My heart was still racing, sending pulses of dizziness through my brain. Was he really not going to address what just happened between us? How could he turn that charm on and off so easily? My thoughts turned over and over in my mind, running from outrage to confusion and back again. I kept playing and replaying everything that had happened so far in some attempt at putting together the puzzle before me but coming up blank. It was useless to try to figure it out myself. He held all the answers. And if I wanted them, I had to play along.
I cleared my throat, still pained by my ordeal, and took a steadying breath. “Um, okay then, Darkiplier-“
“Oh, we’re friends. Call me Dark,” he grinned affably. So at ease, so comfortable. It all seemed like a game to him. A game that I hadn’t been playing very well.
Time for that to change.
Determined to hold my ground, I made a decision within myself. “I’ll call you Dark if you’ll quit calling me Kitten.”
The corners of his mouth dropped sharply at my boldness, one dark eyebrow arching up. I crossed my arms defensively and tilted my chin up, plastering a look that I hoped was smug and self-confident on my face, because truly, I felt like neither and my heart pounded in my ears. It was tricky, but I had to try to pull it off. Essentially, he’d get what he wanted, and I wouldn’t have to hear him using that name so familiarly anymore.
At last, his mouth relaxed into another of those crooked smiles. “Fair enough. So what can I call you?” That surprised me. He somehow knew my old nickname without me telling him—I assumed he could read my thoughts. Why didn’t he just call me by my name? “And before you answer, I should warn you…true names are a powerful thing. Especially here, and even more so when used by someone like me.” His expression grew sinister, the thought of such power obviously pleasing to him.
“Cas,” I blurted, not knowing what kind of power he could have over me, and certainly not giving him time to think about using it. “You can call me Cas.” I cringed a little. All my friends called me Cas, so I was again giving him what he wanted. Damn it.
“Casss,” he said, his voice hushed as he closed his eyes and drew out the end of my name. Shivers coursed up and down my spine. Power or not, I didn’t want to think about what my full name would sound like in his voice. “I think I like that even more.”
“Great,” I grumbled, sitting heavily back in the chair. I unfolded my arms and drummed my fingers on the tabletop. “So you’re, what, some kind of demon?” I asked, managing a weak chuckle before he could answer. “No, I wouldn’t give you that much credit.” In that moment, I remembered how Mark described his alter ego in a vlog a long time ago, what his evil side would be to him. Thinking about how silly it sounded, using that absurdity to give me strength, I gave him a sly, mocking smile. “Oh yeah, I remember… Mark’s emo vampire roommate?” I laughed again, flippant and harsh. It felt so good, I didn’t want to stop! “What happened, no one snapped at the poetry slam?”
My laughter dried up in my throat as shadows flared behind his back, spreading up along the wall like fell wings. It only lasted a second before faded away but that was enough for me. I shut my mouth and turned away, feeling a little faint as the blood rushed away from my head. I kept forgetting where I was, what he could do, and that spelled out bad things for me. Many silent moments passed while I waited for…I don’t know. Something. For him to speak, to move, anything. It was too still in that room.
“I’m the part of Mark that he doesn’t like to talk about. He doesn’t know exactly what I am—he doesn’t even know that I truly exist—so he describes me in a way that makes him feel comfortable. Oh, the lies we tell ourselves…” He trailed off, a wistful look coming over him. Casting his eyes into a corner, he beckoned to a cloud of darkness which promptly slipped into his hand. He studied it for a moment, like it was a strange creature writhing around his fingers. Disinterested, he waved his hand and sent it skittering back into its corner. “Our boy, Mark, has a strong mind,” he continued. “He’s done impressive things by reaching out to others, and I’ve managed to wriggle my way into some of those moments. I’m sure you remember them. Raspy Hill, for example.”
I swallowed hard, a deeply rooted shudder running up my spine again, just like it did when I first saw that video. To this day, I can’t think of another that unnerved me as much as that one did. Goosebumps raced over my flesh. “That doesn’t tell me much,” I said, pretending I wasn’t impressed with what he’d told me. “If you’re just Mark’s dark side, how are you here? And where is here? And why am I here?”
Dark held up both hands, waving my questions down with an amused smirk. “Slow down there. You shouldn’t be so curious. ‘Curiosity killed the cat’.”
A prickle went up my neck, his allusion to the old nickname quite obvious. “’And satisfaction brought her back’,” I fired back. “If you’re going to speak in cliché, use the whole thing.”
Dark’s eyes burned into me, his sly smile broadening. I clutched the front of my robe closed, suddenly feeling very self-conscious. “Satisfaction, eh? I can certainly oblige with that, Kitt… oops, my mistake… Cassss…”
My face flushed with heat, inwardly cursing his ease at getting me so off my game. In the corner of my mind, I recalled the gentleness of his finger under my chin, lifting my eyes to his. A chuckle escaped him, and my flush grew hotter. He could probably see that memory playing out in my head. Another possibility—one I liked even less—was that he somehow had a hand in that memory replaying itself at that moment. Frowning, inwardly fuming, I reached into my mind and brought the memory of his arm tight across my throat to bear, reminding myself that this man was a dangerous one, not one to trust.
“Oh, Cas, you can be such a bore,” he sighed, shaking his head a little. “Fine, but remember, you asked. Now let’s see, how am I here? To put it simply, I am a shade, a spirit of the Lesser Dark. Our power is the shadow, and our home is the Voidrealm. As our host grows, so do we, especially if they have a tendency towards mischief, like Mark.”
I nodded numbly, unable to keep from smiling as memories of Mark’s many pranks and tricks he played on his friends and his fans. Such a trickster. Then, a disturbing thought entered my head. Did that mean that every time Mark acted…well, darker, that it was actually this spirit-thing? Did he have some kind of control over Mark?
Dark seemed to sense my unspoken questions, for he held up a hand and shook his head before he went on. “Once the connection is made, the shade holds sway over the host’s dreams. What darkness we leave behind is theirs to use if they choose, and what they discard returns to us. We are not demons; we don’t possess.” A blackness passed over his brow as he spat the word “demons”. I’d have to ask him about that later. It faded and he grinned lopsidedly again. “Shades are far more subtle.”
His admission made me feel a bit better, but I knew he still withheld information. Swallowing past the dryness, I ventured ahead with my next question. “So we’re in the Voidrealm?”
“Close. We are in a small offshoot of the Voidrealm. Well, small is relative I suppose. But it’s mine, and I can mold it, sculpt it however I choose.” He glanced at a shadowy copy of a framed print of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” on the wall above the TV. “For now, I chose a familiar parallel, but later…” Those black eyes snapped back to me, glittering with secrets. “Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil it…”
Later? How much later? How long did he expect to keep me here? Part of me wanted him to tell me what he was hiding, all cards on the table. Shout it from the rooftops, I needed to know! That secret needed spoiling in my book! Another part of me, quieter and wiser, wanted to remain ensconced in blissful oblivion. I knew that the kind of secrets he kept had prices attached to them. Trying to quell the growing anxiety in me, I dropped my gaze to my hands. I studied them, finding the chipped polish on my nails absolutely fascinating. If I could keep my focus away from him, maybe I could sort this all out.
Have you ever been in a situation that is so foreign or strange that a detail that should be so glaringly obvious somehow escapes you? I hadn’t noticed until now…there had been so many things happening that I didn’t understand that it somehow slipped past my realization. The skin on my arms and hands, once pale and peachy, looked a lot like his—soft, pallid gray. The polish on my hands was dark charcoal instead of shimmering purple. There was no mirror in sight, but I knew a look into it would show a small woman with black eyes and smoke gray hair. It suddenly became harder to breathe, like the air had gone thin. My vision clouded at the edges as panic pounded through my heart. Was I becoming like him? Would I ever see my home again?
His voice flowed silkily over me from across the room, carrying a vibration of power with it. As quickly as the panic began, it ended, my nerves unlocking all at once. If my hands weren’t already on the table, I might have slumped over it. I thought I was about to pass out, but instead a deep feeling of ease suddenly, inexplicably overtook me. It felt like I’d just gotten a deep massage all over my body. A quiet alarm went off in the recesses of my mind, screaming at me to beware. My nerves twitched awake, but I was too late. In a span of seconds, he’d blinked behind me again, slim strong fingers curling over my shoulders. “No need to get so worked up,” he murmured, his touch just firm enough to hold me, but I was too dazed to move anyway.
After a few moments, I gave my head a little shake, clearing the softness from my thoughts, “And…what about me? Why am I here?”
He gave me a slight squeeze before trailing his fingers up my neck, just softly lingering on my skin. “Well, you see, for a while, we worked very well together. He enjoyed playing with the darkness he could find, and I steadily grew by influencing his dreams. Lately though, Mark hasn’t been utilizing the gifts I offer him. Oh, every now and then, the mood hits, but it’s miniscule at best. Think of it like flexing one hand while the rest of you is shoved into a small space. Not acceptable at all.” He kept moving his hands as he spoke, gliding up through my hair. I knew it had to be snarled and mussed, but he never caught a tangle. “So, Halloween night, as shades can do—as all spirits can do—I took a stroll out from my host and into the Lesser Dark.” He gathered my hair up and laid it over one of my shoulders, bending close to me to whisper in my other ear. “And there you were, just waiting for me.”
Waiting? That made no sense at all. I mean sure, when Mark got a bit creepy, it was fun and kind of intriguing, but that didn’t mean I was waiting on his dark side to find me. And what about the millions of others who watched his channel, who were probably watching that Halloween night? “What do you mean, ‘waiting’? I didn’t even know you existed. Why me?”
“Because you can hear me.”
Confused, I craned my neck back to look at him. “Well…of course I can hear you. Everyone who watches Mark’s videos can. You speak through him, right?”
Dark gave me a look that you usually reserved for a child that tried to show how much he knows about adult things. His hand fluttered over my cheek, just close enough to feel the cold radiating from his skin. “Oh, so precious. No, no, like I said, we are much more subtle. That night, I sent a little message out to the minds of whoever was around. ‘Good trick, wasn’t it?’” His voice rippled clearly into my ears, though his lips didn’t open even a bit. It echoed in my mind, reverberating over and over. With a smile at my shocked expression, he dissolved into a stream of shadow, pouring over my shoulder and cascading across the table. They snaked around the black-flamed candles and coalesced into the chair on the opposite side of the table. Dark shimmered back into view, the shadow-light of the candles playing across the planes of his face. “And you heard me. My true voice,” he said. “That makes you a very…gifted woman. It’s the only way you could have found your way here.”
“What are you talking about? You brought me here. Through that…that abyss…that…hell…” Just remembering the deadening of my senses in that void sent a dank, sickly feeling through my stomach.
“True. But you could feel me calling you. How else did you know how to get out?”
With a frown, I mulled that over in silence. It made a slight amount of sense, what he told me, and in this craziness a small amount seemed like rock solid logic. But there was still something he was skirting around, the secret reason I was here, and it was time that question got answered. I gripped the armrests of the chair and pushed out of it.
Or I tried. I couldn’t get up. Looking down in a panic, I saw shadows circling my wrists, ankles, and waist shackling me to the chair. Frantically, I wriggled and strained against the bindings, desperate for something to loosen. Sweat beaded and sheeted down my face as I thrashed, high-pitched gasps hitching out of me.
Darkiplier leered at me and pushed his hands through the table, scattering it into black wisps and leaned forward, hands on his knees. In response, the chair I sat bound in began to slide forward along the floor. I dug my toes down into the carpet to stop the motion, but all I got were burned toes. In the span of seconds, we were less than two feet apart, our knees almost touching. My head drooped to my heaving chest in defeat. He was right. I had no power here. I could fight all I wanted, but in the end, he held the power, and that was what would get me out.
“What the hell do you want with me?” I whispered miserably, too tired and scared to play his game anymore. No sense in playing brave anymore. He knew how scared I’d been the entire time.
“Where’s the fun if I just tell you?” Dark’s voice held an eager edge to it, his smile triumphant and predatory, all teeth and no pretense. “Oh, but I can see you aren’t having much fun. That’ll change,” he crooned, lightly brushing his thumb along my chin. I gathered up the last bit of nerve I had and jerked my head away, lunging forward for a bite at his hand. It darted away like a clever bird and my teeth clacked together on air. A hearty laugh exploded out of him, echoing deeply through the room. “Naughty thing, aren’t we? Tsk. Tsk. And just when I decided to send you home.”
Hope welled up in me like fresh water leaping high. I know he could see it in my eyes—his ever-growing smile told me that. It also told me that an opportunity like this wouldn’t come again…and there was a catch to it. Still, I couldn’t pass it up. My voice nearly caught in my throat, a stuttering “please” barely making it out coherently.
Dark unfurled one hand beside him, and at once a small hole appeared in the air. The edges glimmered a bit, but beyond them yawned thick, immutable blackness. The kind of black that made the black of his eyes jealous. The weak light of the room seemed bright in comparison to the utter nothing. Slowly, the edges of the hole widened, eating up the material of the room. Tightening my grip on the chair, I looked up to Dark for an answer. Then, the answer came to me, washing over me in a sick wave of dread. I knew that darkness…the sensation of the clinging dark was far too fresh for me to forget.
“No…not there…no…no,” I chanted, unable to look away from the growing void. Tears prickled the rims of my eyes. I let them fall, skating down both cheeks as I quietly repeated my litany of denial.
“My, you’re a lot of work. There it is, your way home, wide open for you, and still you won’t take it.” Dark languidly raised a hand and stroked up one side of my face, startling me out of my spiraling panic. His skin was a frost burn against my tear-soaked cheek. As he drew back, I saw something sparkling on his hand; he’d caught one of my tears. His expression went blank at he stared at the twinkling droplet, contemplating it for a moment before it sank into his pale gray skin. For several long moments, he stood before me, eyes shut, like he’d retreated into his own mind. The black portal had stopped its steady growth, but it was still big enough to fit through.
When he opened his eyes, they were soft as shadows. His leer lessened a bit, less predatory and more calculating. “What say we make a deal, hmm?”
Catch. There it was. I knew it would come along. My eyes darted back and forth between the black hole of nothing and the twin pools of his black eyes. The terror of the unknown versus the devil I knew. “What…what kind of deal?”
He stood up lazily, waving his hand over the portal. It shrank considerably, drawing a fairly loud sigh of relief from me. “Ah, you’re interested! Good. Cards on the table then, Cas. The reason you are here is simple: I need a diversion. Mark hasn’t been calling, so I need to find a way to stay sharp, on my game. That’s where you come in. You are receptive to me, so it’s much like influencing a dream. The difference is that the experiences are far more real. It’s like an interactive game!” The level of actual excitement in his voice genuinely surprised me. He sounded almost like Mark did when talking about a new project that he was proud of. Remembering himself, he calmed and put his focus back on me. “Ah, but we can hash out the boring details later. Now the matter of getting you home. I could send you back through the void, but I can make it much easier…for you and me.” He waited for me to nod or say anything, but I came up blank, still stuck on the disparate emotion he just showed. Shrugging, he waved over the portal again, shrinking it further. “I will facilitate your journey here, bypassing the void, in exchange for your…cooperation.”
“Cooperation?” I croaked, my mind reeling with implications. And the vaguest memory of “Danger in Fiction”…
Leaning over me, Dark slid his hands over mine. “When you feel the call of this place, you will not resist it. Just close your eyes and accept it. It won’t hurt, if that’s what you’re worried about. And I won’t come calling when it’s not safe, like when you’re driving or in the tub,” he smirked, the thought of me in the tub obvious on his face. That coy look vanished in an instant, replaced by the most chilling expression I ever saw on his face. “And if you think your feeble will can keep you away from me, just remember how easily I brought you here. I can take you, willingly or not, and you won’t find it so easy to make it out the next time. I’m being very generous. You won’t get a better offer.” He slid closer to me, pressing his cheek to mine, his cold lips brushing my earlobe. “And I will not make this offer again.”
I was trembling by then, hyperventilating as his body pressed against me. It took all my strength not to pass out. The memory of the dead air and the loss of my senses assaulted me, clutching my heart painfully in terror. He had me, he knew it, and so did I. My head dipped in dismay, my forehead brushing his shoulder.
“Deal,” I wheezed, feeling the last of my strength dry up. The air in the room thickened around me, softening my frayed nerves. Dark placed his hand to the back of my head, gently twining his fingers in my hair. A small tightening eased my head back into his hand. In this position, I couldn’t help but look right into his face. He smiled at me…and I saw Mark in that smile.
“Close your eyes,” he said softly, running the tip of his finger along my collarbone, circling the hollow of my throat. The rim of my vision darkened, my eyes stinging with sleepiness. Danger screamed at me from the back of my mind, falling farther away as my eyes slid closed. My breathing deepened, my mind ready to welcome the sleep. “This might sting a bit.”
My eyes flew open as an icy jolt struck me right under his circling finger. My body convulsed with the force of it, like I’d been struck by lightning. My teeth clamped together so tightly that my jaw ached. I scrabbled against the arms of the chair, a scream trapped by my clenched teeth shredding my throat again. Just when I thought I would be torn open from within, the pain flew away like it had never been there, and I pitched forward into the darkness with a groan.
A new pain slammed into the center of my head sending me into a cursing recoil that nearly toppled the chair backwards. “Ow! Shit, shit, OW!” I groused, pressing my palm to the sore spot. Stars sprang through my sight, forcing hot tears up. Angrily, I swiped my sleeve over my eyes. Damn it, I was not going to keep letting him make me cry like this!
I froze as the realization hit me; my arms were free. Lowering my arms, I opened my eyes and scanned the room.
I was home. Really home. The colors were back and more vibrant than ever, seeping into my eyes in blinding brilliance. The candles on the table sill burned, their golden light dancing in the room casting shadows that didn’t crawl or haunt the corners. A look outside showed gray drizzly skies, late evening light streaming in the windows. My forehead throbbed from my collision with the table, but the rest of me felt great. Wonderful even. No aching muscles, no fatigue, no scream-ravaged throat. I splayed my hands before me, laughter bubbling up as I took in my lightly tanned skin, the gleaming purple nail polish adorning my fingers. Jumping up, I raced into the bathroom, a fierce need to see my own brown eyes and hair overtaking me. It had been a dream! And it was over!
As I beamed at my reflection, my eyes caught sight of something that slowly, steadily stole my smile. At the base of my throat, a small dark shape marred the once clean skin. It was a perfectly shaped black spiral, turning three times around. The kind of black that other blacks dreamed of.