This is also on DA (where it's easier to read) and y!Gallery, and now unlocked from hidden-edit mode here for reading enjoyment as desired. Just over 8,000 words, and leaves the icky-sticky details of the guy/guy stuff to the imagination. P.S. Here there be spoilers.
|Another corridor after the book-lined library... or was it the study? It was all becoming a blur, a great, confusing blur. Maybe Daniel had spent too much time in the darkness. It seemed to affect him. Perhaps it was now what made him think he could hear something through the open door drawing nearer. The fact that it might be one of the creatures gave him pause, but a frustrated sigh from within that room spoke of a human. A living, breathing human. Could it be? If it were not an illusion of hope brought on by dancing too closely with madness, was the owner of that sigh a friend or foe? Had Alexander left the Inner Sanctum? That seemed entirely too convenient to be true.|
There were other sounds now. Books dropping on the floor, one by one, or something that made a very similar sound. It was now or never, or backtrack and receive no answer to this new puzzle. Answers were already too few and far between. The final steps to the doorway, the room beyond dimly illuminated by window and storm-muted sun...
There stood a figure by the far wall that made Daniel question his sanity once more. It, or more likely he, based off trousers and lace-frilled cuffs of white shirt... faced away, standing before a bookshelf slowly losing its contents. That was the source of the material falling as it was rejected with increasing impatience. The hair... it did not much match the guessed gender, straight and pure white and falling to the waist.
The figure hesitated, sensing eyes upon it, then turned. Its own eyes now visible held hints of pink in the bad lighting as they looked Daniel over uncertainly. Ghostly-white features spoke of either albinism or some less natural curse too easy to believe in a place such as this. The face was pretty, for a man, as proved better now... if one allowed oneself to make such an observation. After the memories of voices unearthed in the guest room, and the bits of more tactile memories that had come attached... it was a little too easy for Daniel to make that observation.
The fair one spoke first, unease mixing with confusion in the soft voice. "Are you... alright?" A French accent showed in the query, though the words were most certainly fluent English, if sparse.
It was then that Daniel realized he might very well look a fright. He truly did not know. Mirrors had been scarce of late, and propensity for startling visions was not a motivating factor for seeking out reflective surfaces. "Err, yes, in a manner of speaking, at least. How have you come to be here?" Thus far, the scraps of diary entries strewn about the castle held not a single word about this other man, nor were there any clues in the shreds of memories returned.
A lost look passed over the albino's face, and he brought a slightly-trembling hand to his forehead. "I... am not sure. I cannot remember. I awoke here, in this place, and I cannot seem to get out."
Daniel nodded, finding that he wanted to believe this person even with paranoia cursing him for the notion. "There is a lot of that going around. My name is Daniel, and it is one of the few things I remember myself."
"Aster," replied the pale one in turn, a slight blush not as well hidden with no other coloration to disguise it. "Aster St. Claire."
Daniel bowed politely and smiled, running fingers through his own brown hair that almost reached his shoulders and hadn't seen much straightening in a while. "Pleased to meet you, though I can't say I appreciate the setting for doing so. Far better it be elsewhere, but I suppose beggars cannot be choosers. You were looking for clues in the books here? I have found them useless myself." Truth be told, he'd barely paid them any attention. Aster showed wisdom in choosing such a course for information, though it was debatable how useful a course that was with the signs that it had come to nothing.
Aster nodded and frowned down at the tomes spread about on the floor. "It hasn't helped any. I can recognize some of the titles, and I have proved at least that I have not lost the ability to read or understand language..." A chuckle as he added, "...and I can speak, obviously. Strange, this forgetfulness that is so very selective."
The Englishman nodded at the observation. "Yes, well, it would seem I at least drank a potion to force my own forgetting, and left myself something of directives in a note." The entirity of those directives were rather a dark subject to admit to so vulnerable-looking a creature, so further words were quickly spoken. "It has made plain that there is something quite dangerous following me... something I barely understand and surely makes as little sense as my being here without my memories. I am... uncertain of how exactly I am to escape this thing. You have no such enigmatic guide yourself?"
The white head shook negative. "No, nothing. It is... very unsettling." The news of something dangerous being after this new individual was adding to that impression, though if this Daniel was being honest, then it was indeed an enigma and an unfair one at that.
Daniel nodded in agreement. "Indeed it is. Well, Mister St. Claire, perhaps it would be of benefit for us to combine our talents in solving this riddle."
Pale cheeks blushed again as a correction was offered. "Please, call me Aster. It is only fair... if I may call you Daniel." No last name had been given.
The one who could not remember his own surname smiled warmly. "You may indeed."
Aster tried not to stay too close to Daniel, but it was difficult considering how frightening the castle could be. At least the hallway they traversed was clear of such frights for the moment. All the albino had seen so far were hints of the more ghastly things Daniel had told him about as they crept through hallways and followed a trail that did not seem to make much sense. They had learned very little thus far, though there were more diary entries with little bits of the past playing out across torn pages. The year did indeed seem to be 1839 and the place Brennenburg Castle of Prussia, unless some vast trick was being played by the leaver of the clues.
As to each other, it was fairly evident that Daniel was several years older than Aster, though neither could remember their exact age. Daniel could remember telling himself where he lived at the very beginning of where his new memories started, but Aster could only guess his proper country of residence or at least his heritage based off his own understanding that French was his main language. He knew the country of France and a few of its sights, but those memories gave no better clues as to how he had spent his time there, or why he was now in this castle.
Daniel turned as he realized his new-found companion in amnesia and imprisonment had slowed to a stop. The paused one stood staring at a painting on the wall, illuminated by a flickering candle on a decorative table. "Aster?" There was no answer, just wide eyes with pink irises staying locked on the image. The Englishman drew nearer, looked at the scene within the frame but it seemed a fairly typical landscape of rolling hills in a countryside; it could represent somewhere not too far from the forest surrounding the castle, for all he knew.
A gentle hand on Aster's shoulder brought him back to the present, a slight flinch followed by a shy apology. "I... I am sorry... I think I just remembered something."
"Ah, yes, it's been happening to me too." Daniel realized he must look quite a bit like Aster just had during those moments, well, when his own mind wasn't giving him a fit that put him on the floor. Thankfully, nothing that drastic or even the milder version had happened since meeting the new companion. Though the memories were useful for clues, those clues for the most part added up to more questions. "What have you remembered?"
Aster looked again to the painting, but it had lost its magical hold. "I... I am a student... or I was. I had a class, an art class, this painting... I remember it from there. Something we were studying... but I do not think art was the focus of my studies." He sighed and looked back to Daniel. "That's... that's all I remember of it. Not where I studied, or what field I intended as such a focus."
Daniel smiled comfortingly. "Perhaps when we are out of this madness, we can figure out where it was you left off." It surprised him to say something so positive. Whatever else Aster might be useful for, he was certainly proving a motivation for overcoming darker thoughts.
Daniel raced through the hallway, hand locked onto Aster's and nearly dragging him along as the shambling thing behind them shambled entirely too quickly. There was a room at the end of the passage, with a closet, the Englishman remembered that much at least. Closets had thus far managed to fool the monsters. Now it would need to work to keep two souls in the realm of the living.
The room gained, the wardrobe doors standing open, and Daniel shoved Aster inside and followed, nearly catching his own fingers in his haste to shut the doors. It was dark with the feeble barrier in place, and it was still far too easy to locate Aster as the albino gasped for breath. Daniel pulled the panicked and shaking form to him, buried the face he could not see into his own chest, prayed to any deity that might be listening that the muffled breathing would be undetectable as his own breaths stilled in fear while lungs screamed in protest.
A crash outside said the door had just been forcibly opened. Daniel vaguely remembered sparing no time to close the door they'd run through... had the monster gone through the other door in the room? That might be convenient in a way, as it had been thoroughly jammed shut before. It was just not a happy thought that thus the creature would be moaning about in a new, unexplored area.
Speaking of creatures, a far less monstrous and far more vulnerable one had managed his own silence now, though wetness at Daniel's shirt proved tears were being shed. The Englishman waited in the dark, hands the only tools for comfort that was not as awkward as perhaps it should have been. Then one of those hands moved to a closet door, cracked it open a little bit, just to see...
Nothing. "Come on, Aster. We need to keep moving." Fingers helped wipe away tears, the haphazard embrace parting as the room was crept into again. The formerly-impassable door had indeed seen forced entry, though it hung closed at the moment. "Wait here..." A hand raised to keep the sniffly one near the closet, then Daniel approached the portal that looked rather unhappy on abused hinges.
It creaked as he maneuvered it carefully open just enough to peer beyond. Nerves had him ready to jump back in an instant, but all he could see was a stonework passage running away past arched windows. Failing light there showed that night would soon fall. There was no sign of the monster at all. Appreciable and eerie all at once.
"Daniel? What's wrong?" Aster's voice in the darkness, the continued touch of hands on arm.
Daniel had been following a tunnel deep within the complex, right hand to the stone wall beside and the other held out in front of him lest he bump into something. It was literally too dark to see anything, but the Shadow had completely blocked off the way back. There was no more oil in the lantern. No torches or candles to be found, and nothing to light them with regardless. And the darkness was taking its toll.
"Daniel?" Aster shivered in the pitch black, as much from nerves as from the chill in the air. Daniel had been his guide in all this, somehow not quite as lost as the albino, but now... forward progress had halted. Daniel didn't even seem to be moving at all.
Wait, no, now he was moving, turning towards Aster from the feel of it. Hands were seeking out the albino, touch gentle to arms and face. If Aster were to guess, this was something of a rather intimate advance. While the Englishman certainly was handsome enough for tempting thoughts, this was surely not the time nor the place. Aster's voice held little volume as he felt fingers sliding into his hair. "D-Daniel? What are you doing... why won't you speak to me?"
The only answer was the silent fingers suddenly taking painful grip in the albino's hair, the other arm pulling Aster roughly into a forceful embrace. The vulnerable one shrieked and lost his balance, falling backwards with Daniel toppling over him. The floor brought stars that did not light the dark, a new sort of darkness on which barely registered the sound of dangerous rumblings from below, and a feeling of sudden falling once more. Consciousness was lost to the albino, along with any more direct confirmation of what was happening now.
Daniel groaned, finding that he was returning to a world he'd lost hold on, and... was on top of Aster, who lay sprawled on his back upon floor strewn with rubble in a stonework room now lit by a high, flickering torch. The man below did not stir, and it was with dread that memories of what had so recently taken place flooded back into the conscious one's mind. Daniel picked himself up quickly, horrified at being able to remember what he had almost done to... to...
Now beside the albino who had taken the brunt of the fall from the cave-in, Daniel's words held the weight of realization. "Oh God, Aster, what have I done? Please, Aster... don't..." Don't be dead.
Reaching hands stilled in the air, a thought in the back of tormented mind speaking a shred of wisdom, that it was not a good idea to move the fallen one when no knowledge was present of possible breaks or injuries. There was no blood, not that could be seen at any rate, and an ear lowering to hover over pale, parted lips found relief that breaths were indeed passing between those lips. Careful touch now, just to skin at cheeks and brushing displaced hair away from the unresponsive face. "Aster... please... please do not leave me alone in this wretched hell..."
Nothing, no response. Flailing mind found a thought forgotten amidst everything else. The laudanum! It defied reality with its ability to heal wounds as if by magic, another of so many things that made so little sense in this castle. The stuff should be nothing more than a solution of opium and alcohol, a drug for recreation, not miracles, but with the terrible things that could happen here, the unexpected effects were certainly of great benefit. There was one bottle left, thankfully unbroken as it was fished out of pocket quickly.
Paranoia had already given Daniel thoughts that perhaps the gift of healing was not quite so much a gift as perhaps taking an unseen toll not easily guessed by one who was left without information as to how it worked... but in this moment, it was a risk worth taking. But how to get Aster to imbibe the potion while unconscious? It would not do to choke the poor creature, drown him in the intended cure.
Daniel put fingers over the bottle's opening, upturned it to get a few drops there. Carefully brought them to Aster's lips, eased the mixture inside where it could venture past tongue without being too overwhelming. There was no immediate sign that it helped, but Daniel repeated the task, laboring over the slow dosage and hoping for a sign that it was indeed making some difference.
Finally, a sharp intake of breath and a cough followed by a gasp of pain. Daniel was quick to speak. "Don't move, Aster. Can you hear me? I need you to swallow something. It's laudanum, it will... it should heal you, make you better." The stuff had not been mentioned more because it had been overlooked and unneeded in the younger's presence until these moments, but now a few more drops were poured directly between the albino's lips.
Aster heard the words, managed to swallow what was given, and then more. The pain receded, slowly at first and then faster as more of the terribly bitter-tasting liquid was consumed. Before too much longer he was blinking up at Daniel, hazy mind a bit confused over why... no, wait, there was the memory. The fear. Pink eyes closed as breath quickened, confused thoughts not too well matching up the current situation with the last one remembered.
Daniel understood the reaction, his own heart sinking while his concern over Aster's health still fought for supremacy amongst other thoughts. "Aster, I am so sorry, I cannot even begin to... I was not myself. The darkness, it disturbs my mind. I do not know why it has so terrible an effect on me, it has been that way ever since I found myself here... and it has now hurt you through me. Oh God, Aster, can you ever forgive me?"
It would seem Daniel was at least back in his right mind now, but the albino was not processing things too well just yet. He wanted to believe the older man, in fact quite desperately, but for the moment he shifted away, found that he could roll onto his side and put his back to the speaker. The laudanum had indeed done a very good job of curing an unknown amount of damage, though joints were still stiff and a little sore as Aster got an elbow under himself and managed to rise a little.
Daniel's hands wanted very much to help but they hovered not quite touching, afraid of upsetting the fair one further. "Please, believe me Aster, hurting you is the very last thing I would ever want to do. Are you... does it hurt much? The laudanum is gone, perhaps we can find more..." If only Aster wished to continue exploring together. If only.
The Frenchman's tone said little about how he felt about any of it. "I will be alright." Physically, at least... for now. He did know he needed to decide if he could trust Daniel, though indeed no further sign of evil had presented itself; there had certainly been and technically still continued to be quite ample opportunity. Aster sat up properly and sighed, stretching a little before looking to the downcast face that did indeed appear most sorry... and most unexpecting of forgiveness. "If the darkness makes you mad... then we shall need as much light as possible."
Hope dawned for Daniel as he looked up at the pink eyes that smiled kindly if uncertainly back at him. "I... yes. Thank you. Thank you, Aster. I surely do not deserve..." Then he gasped as a new dread hit him. "The lantern!" He got up, eyes frantically searching for the thing that had been attached to his belt once its usefulness had passed with lack of oil. There were enough randomly-placed bottles of the stuff around that hopefully it could be filled again soon, but if it were broken...
There. It lay half-concealed in rubble, and proved with a sigh of Daniel's relief to be quite intact, if a bit banged up. The glass casing had survived, now it was just be a matter of locating more fuel. Turning back showed Aster had managed to find his own feet, and now hopefully they could continue exploration even if the younger did not fully trust the older. Daniel could not blame him for that.
There was oil in the lantern now, though it was not necessary as the current passageway held plenty of torchlight. Conversation had found the air again, though Daniel was careful to keep his voice down as he continued to muse aloud.
"I have noted that I am better able to focus when you are near... but at the same time, when my sanity is fully drained from me, that focus seems to remain on you... and then it is dangerous." Strange, that Aster had such an effect, but useful until that dangerous point was met. Before, loss of sanity would come more easily, and make Daniel nearly too dizzy to walk, or see things that weren't there, or leave him writhing on the floor until enough of his mind returned to get him back on his feet.
Aster blushed at the mention of that particular encounter. "You were gentle at first... had you remained so, I would have been less inclined to resist."
Daniel stopped, tried not to gawk at the admission even if he had been hoping to hear it. Although it was certainly true that men took other men as lovers in secret due to the current standings of such relationships by the laws of his own homeland, it still came as something of a surprise. "You mean, you appreciate such advances?" He could feel a blush warming his own cheeks, the bits of memories of himself and Alexander a little too telling for his own part. Alexander had been in charge there, though, and Daniel was learning that he would rather prefer to have that roll himself.
The albino's cheeks were quite red as the reaction spread across too-fair skin. Pink eyes averted though a soft smile betrayed the truth of it. "Yes, I do indeed, very much... from the right individual."
Daniel sighed and looked away, feet moving again though the pace was certainly not as quick. "I frightened you... I hurt you. I nearly killed you. I surely do not deserve you."
The other's feet did not have to move far to catch up, eyes now on the Englishman who would not return the gaze. "And without you, I am lost in this place. I need you, Daniel..." Aster's hands together caught the other man's nearest, halting forward progress once more. "Without you I would surely be dead by now. It is not your fault what has happened to you."
The white fingers against his own Caucasian skin found Daniel's gloomy gaze now, a pretty enough sight but it was difficult to appreciate considering the circumstances. "Do not be so sure... the writings are proving otherwise."
"Yes, but that was who you were before, if it was indeed you who wrote those things. Perhaps it is for the best that you have forgotten, for you can decide now what sort of person you are. I think... I think you have already become something much greater. When you are yourself now, you are kind to me." Aster raised the hand held warmly between his own, hugged it to his chest. "You are a good man, Daniel... and I believe you can remain good. Your old self... do you like what you are learning about him?"
"No, and I fear I will only learn worse of my former self." Once again, Daniel was feeling the nearly-magical soothing ability Aster possessed, or perhaps it was merely the attraction factor. Whatever person the pale one had been before, it was difficult to believe anything other than that the albino had always been a gentle, caring creature. At the very least, this comforting part of Aster's personality had most likely transferred across the memory loss.
"There you have it. You can begin anew, are beginning anew, and I will help you, and you can help me too, because I surely do not know what I have lost myself. I only know that I am here, and you are here, and... I am glad at least that we are together in this, if either of us have to be cursed with it." Aster brought the hand to his own cheek, cupped it there and leaned against the touch.
"As am I, Aster... as am I." Daniel's fingers moved gently into the soft, white hair smudged a bit now from their adventures, brain behind the motion feeling the guilty sting of unhappy memories from the last time this gesture had been done without nearly so much thought behind it. "I can only hope that this incredible trust you have placed in me does not do you more harm."
"We must be sure you do not remain in the dark too long... although... I do very much like the dark, for the right occasion." Half-lidded eyes and demure smile gave all the emphasis needed for the exact meaning of the words. Aster received for his openness the arms around him that he wanted, and any further words lost out to the meeting of lips that sought to end all discussion in a gesture of true passion.
Daniel found a deeper kiss immediately welcomed, Aster's arms curling around his neck as the embrace tightened and everything else was becoming fast forgotten. There was apparently a wall not too far behind Aster, because that wall met the albino's back without any complaint over the gentle collision. When the kiss finally broke it left the albino breathless, but it was those pale lips which managed words first.
"Perhaps... perhaps we should find a better place for this... quickly..."
The embrace reluctantly parted just long enough to discover that the next door led to a small room with plenty of material for blockading the portal shut. A precious tinder was used to light the solitary candle on a small desk, and an empty corner nearby became the better place so entirely needed by both men.
One of the more debilitating fits had finally hit Daniel, and as it left him he found that reality had taken a dangerous enough turn to make him wonder if he were still quite insane. But the water now filling the passageway at wading level felt quite real, and quite cold. The bracing jolt gave him ample clue that he was indeed in his right mind. What had just happened? And more importantly, where was Aster?
The albino was nowhere to be seen, fear gripping the older man's heart that the fair one had run off, if there had been unkind actions not remembered now from the fit. Or worse, Aster might be drowning, but there was no sign of the albino nearby. Sound. There was most certainly a sound heading Daniel's way, a splashing that seemed a little too rhythmic for a lost human being's return. "Aster?"
The source of the sloshing was now coming into sight, from down past boxes heavy enough to remain islands in the water. That water... was splashing all on its own, or being moved through by something invisible. Daniel could think of only one thing as panic set in, heading for the nearest box as the water dragged at his legs. He did not quite make it in time, though he did gain the high ground. Whatever was in the water left a tearing pain along his side that made him nearly lose his balance and his refuge.
"Daniel!" Aster called out in the empty passageway, the space that had been shared with his guide and lover only a few moments before a dizzy spell had hit the albino, blurring away the environment for precious seconds. "Daniel?" It was most likely not wise to be making so much noise, but Daniel was missing, had vanished faster than made any sense in so short a time. There was no response to the cry, and a much softer whimper left the lips as the albino hugged himself. "Daniel..."
Was it wisest now to remain here, so that if somehow Daniel had wandered off, he could find his way back and they could be reunited? Or... was the Englishman now gone, either completely, which was not at all what Aster wanted to think, or perhaps further ahead? Had more time been lost than had been felt during the dizziness? Surely... Daniel had not left him behind... no, this had to be some evil work of the castle or its owner. Had to be.
The question was now, beyond just standing here, should the way forwards be attempted, or was backtracking in order? Standing here... at the moment, felt like the best course, simply because nothing was currently trying to eat him. Although a very good reason, it did not help with the concept of getting out of the castle... though out did indeed seem to be less and less a viable option as things had progressed. What option was left without Daniel's assistance? Could... could Aster do anything about Alexander on his own? Could the albino even make it that far?
Footsteps approaching from the unexplored corridor beyond brought Aster back to the present. They sounded the sort that belonged to a proper human being, not the things that lurched around the hallways of late. A hopeful and yet frightened whisper left pale lips. "Daniel?"
The figure materializing out of the gloom was most certainly not Daniel. It was an older gentleman, far older, white hair falling to shoulders not a sign of albinism but of age. That hair looked like it could see better upkeep, but then the man was not exactly properly dressed either, wearing only a robe tied at the waist and shoes that looked something better suited to an evening of tea and reading far away from the insanity of the current location.
The stranger's voice held a deep purr, something that might have been entrancing if the listener were not so entirely taken aback. "There you are, my dear. You are not helping things, you know. You were never supposed to aid my fallen apprentice, or have you forgotten?"
Aster took a step back, those words too much a confirmation that this was indeed Alexander himself. "I... I don't know what you speak of. Please, I want nothing to do with you..." It was highly unlikely that asking to be let go would come to any good, but the other was speaking again regardless.
The words came with a smug grin. "Then you have forgotten. The potion must have worked a little too well, but this is only a minor setback. I will make you remember who you are." Alexander strode forwards, path enabling him to corner the one who shrank away.
Aster put up a hand defensively, backed very literally into a corner. "D-don't touch me. Please, leave me alone." There did seem to be something familiar about this, though it was little more than a nearly overwhelming fear that said... this had happened before. Something like it. The Frenchman did not believe, or at the very least did not want to believe, that he had any unscrupulous part in Alexander's schemes. It was much easier to believe that an evil, manipulative individual would lie about anything to further his own causes.
Alexander rolled his eyes and in turn raised his own hand upon which several rings glinted in the poor lighting. It did not even touch, yet Aster gasped as the room spun and he found himself sinking to the floor as the walls so close to him stopped being the proper supports they should have been.
Pale lips barely managed a frightened query as most of the unearthly movement stopped but the dizziness remained. "H-how are you doing this?"
"Convenient, that you do not remember... not that it would help you now."
It had taken more of the precious laudanum and entirely too much energy to escape the nightmare world of invisible water creatures, but it was done. More frustrating puzzles, more exploration, more God-damned bloody monsters, and still no sign of Aster. Daniel was beginning to lose hope, though if there was a chance the fair creature still lived, still needed help getting out of this hellhole, then it was worth struggling onwards. The thought of killing Alexander for purely half-remembered reasons paled by comparison, though that at least helped add a little more motivation to keep fighting through every new wave of insanity.
Then the ambush hit, so near to what appeared to be the resolution at last. Monsters, too many of them where there had been none only moments before. Agony, darkness, and then... Daniel woke to find he still lived, and with much less pain than he would have expected. Unfortunately, he was also now sequestered within a moldering prison cell that proved his being still quite deep within the castle bowels.
Words came to Daniel's mind, words spoken in the now from Alexander's mind, wherever it currently rotted in this accursed place. Daniel did his best to ignore them, to ignore that he had once been like Alexander, as that man now was trying to assert still remained the case. That Daniel would do anything to escape the shadow just as much as Alexander would. No. There were most certainly things this new Daniel would never do in his right mind, now that he had it. Whatever the past had been, the present was different. As he rose shakily to his feet and tried the door found as locked as expected, a truly-missed form could be seen lying prone on the floor in another cell across the room.
"Aster!" Jostling the door more emphatically did nothing, nor did the continued pleas directed towards the unmoving one. "Aster, it's me, Daniel! Please, please tell me you are alright." There was no response, no movement at all. The urgency of escaping the cell had risen exponentially, but how... well, although the door was sturdy enough, one of the other bars looked quite rusted and had even bent under the strain of either ages or something more direct coming into contact with it.
Adrenaline helped urge that bar to bend further, worked it back and forth until it snapped as deteriorated metal gave way to the laws of physics. It was not the only thing deteriorating, the hole left by the bar not promising to squeeze through but a section of stone wall did not last long with the help the improvised pry-bar. Losing the bar in the process had not been planned, but as Daniel scrambled to Aster's cell it became obvious it would not have helped entry.
"Aster, wake up, please wake up." Daniel tried to reach through the bars but fingers could not span the last few inches to the figure whose face was turned away and hidden by the long hair. Though dressed, the albino's shirt had been undone at some point. There was at least no sign of physical harm beyond the more obvious unconsciousness, and watching carefully proved that the one who barely breathed in forced sleep was indeed still alive.
Searching other cells led to a clue of a key, a key so desperately needed now. Found, trembling as it met the lock most wanted open, and then Daniel was kneeling beside his lover with gentlest touch to fair hair while words again found the air. "Aster, please, I am here. I am here. What... what has happened to you?"
With the contact now, Aster finally stirred with a quiet, disoriented moan. Movement seemed acceptable to the waking creature, and Daniel was so very careful as he shifted his pale treasure into his arms to hold him properly. Gentle kisses were placed on tousled, dirty locks and forehead, further soothing words murmured.
An attempt was made to speak Daniel's name, then there were tears, and still Aster did not seem altogether present. Clearer words made it through finally as the older one continued to sooth. "He... he did things... to me..."
Ice met Daniel's heart as he did not want to guess and yet in the same moment knew who and what was meant. "Who..."
Aster did not want to speak the name, but it escaped him in a tearful whisper. "Alexander."
If Alexander had needed to die before for reasons much less personal to the new mind Daniel had acquired, now the old man had a fate sealed in stone if Daniel had any say in the matter. "He will pay, Aster, I swear it. We will finish this thing... and whatever happens, I will see to it that he dies."
More tears from below. That future could be put on hold a little while for the gentle comfort needed now. One thought was not quite so comforting, the idea that the Shadow might be very near and soon attempt to consume its target. Daniel delayed even so, just a little, just long enough to give Aster what time was available to recover as best he could from a nightmare far too real.
One quandary had not properly been solved, that of the strange dead-but-not-dead form who went by the name Agrippa and had been left trapped in the husk of his bodily remains by Alexander. Daniel had been unable to find all the ingredients to free the informative soul of its prison, and thus the rather talkative thing was left behind. It was up to Daniel now to stop the portal Agrippa had mentioned, something magical being done by Alexander; it made as much sense as anything else of late.
And Aster, poor Aster was still trying very hard to continue on, but his spirit was failing him. The red, globulous signs of the Shadow's presence were nearly everywhere now, encroaching equally on walls, floors, ceilings, anything it wanted to take over. It was well known to both of them that contact with the stuff caused serious pain that could result in injury, but now it seemed to be making Aster ill without even touching him. It did not help that neither of them had eaten in entirely too long.
They were going to the Inner Sanctum. They could do it now, were doing it, making the last of the progress necessary to get inside, though Daniel now had to support his lover while walking and kept needing to leave him sitting in the safest locations possible while the pale one shivered with what seemed like a high fever. Daniel worked as fast as he could through the last of the infuriating puzzles locking the final door. If it were at all possible, he would stop this so-called portal from giving Alexander a chance to escape the same hell being brought on himself and Aster. If nothing else, the one who still deserved death would receive it. The other two... they could not really even know what to hope for anymore. One way or another, it would be finished, and soon.
There. The ominous eerie sounds signaling more of the Shadow's advance timed uncomfortably well with the knowledge that the door was now unlocked. Daniel raced back to kneel beside Aster, helping the younger man rise once more and getting his own shoulder under the other's arm. "Come on, Aster, we're nearly there now."
Pink eyes barely opened, the first few steps a stumbling mess while Aster's guide tried to keep balance between the two of them. "Is it... is it almost over, Daniel?"
The Englishman managed a smile marked by the sadness he felt deep within his soul. If anyone did not deserve this fate, it was Aster, surely. Alexander's lies could not touch this one, hints of things said relayed by the albino before the illness had become so great. No such memories of being an unscrupulous person had surfaced in his most recent mistreatment, only the certainty that he had been badly treated before. Perhaps very soon those half-wakened memories would be lost and soothed away forever. "Yes. Yes, it is almost over."
The Shadow's touch spilled now across the floor as the two tried to cross it. Aster cried out as the red goo seethed and caught his feet, writhed up his legs, attempting to cling to him and drag him down. Daniel dragged back with all his might, pulling Aster away and fleeing for the last hallway. The albino could no longer walk, the older man lifting the younger and thankfully-lighter man into his arms before continuing the flight to the doors as the Shadow followed in his wake.
It was a struggle getting through the entryway quickly enough with his arms full, but he made it and kicked the doors shut behind him. The new room might have challenged his ever-questionable sanity if he no longer cared what his eyes showed him. There was a central standing vase-like sculpture of large proportions and rather alien design. Three thin columns were placed evenly about it, if there had been a fourth one on the far side, though there was not. Glowing power of unknown origin surged from the top of those pillars to meet above the central thing that must be collecting that power for a reason. The portal? And high above, in the domed ceiling, large chunks of rock spun about as if the laws of nature were being stripped of their every last hold.
On the far wall there was a raised dais, almost like a stage, surrounded by glowing blue flames. Floating in the air above it... Alexander. Wearing no clothing, no less. Whatever Daniel had seen in the man before was not evident now, but then perhaps some part of this ritual had stripped the old man of former luster. Alexander's voice still proved just as potent, having an echo to it from the acoustics of the chamber. "I was wondering if you were going to show up."
Daniel wasn't sure where he could put Aster now that would be safe. With the shadow so closeby, the walls were not promising, as they would surely be consumed first. It was too much to ask that only the entry door would be so immediately affected, but then the opposite side was too near Alexander, and the flames were not promising. That left the central sculpture thing, furthest away from door, walls, and villain.
That villain was still speaking, rambling on in those ever-smooth tones of his. Daniel had only a few words to spit that direction. "Shut up, you God-damned fool!"
"Ah, Daniel, you do not need to be so rude. Have I erred in not offering you a cup of tea upon your arrival? My apologies. As you can see, I am quite busy."
Daniel muttered a low, "Quite naked, more like it," as he carefully set Aster down to sit with back against the central collector-thing. A confused murmur from the half-lucid one received a comforting caress to tousled hair, then Daniel had to see what exactly he could do to make a proper mess of things. He only hoped that he had not placed Aster in the most dangerous location of all.
Alexander was speaking again, ignoring that his words were not appreciated. "I see you have brought my precious little diamond back to me. How thoughtful. I am not going to take him with me now, however. He has served his purpose."
Daniel moved to one of the pillars, found that it was a rather unstable thing. He shoved at it with all his weight and it toppled, the stream of power from its top vanishing with the connection broken. He did not hesitate to move immediately to the next one and treat it likewise.
"Daniel, stop! What are you doing!?" There was real fear in Alexander's voice now, something Daniel couldn't remember from any of the flashbacks. It was a nice change, that fear belonging finally with the person who most deserved it.
There was only one more pillar, and there was no question what would happen to it as Daniel raced towards it. Even with only one source of power left now, there glowed above Aster's resting place a new circle that signified all too well the coming of an otherworldly doorway. Daniel's shoulder met the last pillar, toppled it, and the mechanism was broken. Completely gone were the last of the light-play and the beginnings of the portal.
The mastermind of unraveled plans shouted down from his impotent hovering. "No, you fool! You killed us, you killed us both!"
The whole room was shaking, reality warping, stones falling from the ceiling. Daniel stumbled his way back to Aster, drew the frightened and disoriented form into his arms, held him tight with one arm curled protectively around the head that would be too fragile versus the size of the rocks breaking from their tenuous positions above. A glance towards the dias showed the shadow leaking in through the walls, a good part of it directly behind Alexander. With a tortured cry, the old man curled up in pain, then disintegrated before his former underling's very eyes.
It was a welcomed sight, yes, but now fate would decide what to make of the other two occupants of the room. Daniel did not want to watch his own death arrive. He closed his eyes, leaned his cheek against the head he protected, waited as the air shrieked and groaned and the stones beneath him shook. He only hoped that Aster was too far gone to truly know what was happening, would be spared the brunt of the torment expected now.
That torment took its sweet time, was not yet arriving... and then the air was growing quiet. Was it one last torturous trick of unabashed evil? Daniel braved opening his eyes, found that there was no red matter ready to swoop at him, none visible at all anywhere in the room. The blue flames had died. There were no more rocks floating above, scattered now about the room. There was a calmness in the air, a peace. A sense that things had been made right, somehow, by the actions that had played out.
Daniel closed his eyes again, felt tears of relief sting his eyes, kissed Aster's hair and then eyes were open again, looking to that very special person who still did not seem quite so with it. "Aster, we did it, we stopped the-" He didn't even want to mention that word again. He drew a deep breath, let it go in a much-needed sigh. "We're safe. It's over. We can go now."
Aster smiled softly, eyes barely open, voice hardly audible. "Oh... good..."
Daniel managed an exhausted chuckle and kissed his lover's cheek, squeezed him tight one more time and then struggled to get the both of them standing. The room might look safe enough at the moment but the lucid one did not want to spend any more time here or anywhere in the castle than was necessary. It was going to be a difficult exit, however, as he could already tell his body was giving in to too much wear and tear. Perhaps it was something to do with what had just occurred as well. Either way, it was getting difficult to move and he had Aster's extra weight to contend with.
"Come on, Aster, I can't... I can't carry you. You need to walk."
A shoulder under the younger's arm was most certainly doable, and necessary; Aster was now at least trying to help the first weakened steps become something of better progress. It was slow going, but they were going, each area retreated through seeming like it had taken place a thousand years before, and another thousand before that, and another...
Finally, the front doors. Daniel could not remember finding them before. He did not question how he had located them now... or why, if the way had been blocked before, it was open this time. A white hand and one not so pale raised to push the creaking, heavy barriers open, and then they were through, stumbling into overcast morning light and down stone steps even as the sound of the castle beginning to collapse took the peacefulness away from the tranquil air.
Daniel looked back only to be sure that this new bizarre occurrence would not cause further danger. Their path took them out of the range of crumbling stone before it mattered, and the Englishman had to wonder at the timing of it. No, actually, he decided he would not question this either. So much of what had happened here would only lead right back to madness if it were thought upon too hard. He would rather not think about it at all. He was free, Aster was free, they had the rest of their lives to make memories to fill the haunted emptiness and make their own version of the world a happy and beloved place.
That thought made Daniel smile as he turned his attention to the one whose eyes did not appreciate even the muted daylight, though there was a little more clarity in the pale face. "Well, Aster, where do you wish to go now?"
The smile returned was feeble but present. "I do not care... as long is it is away from here... and... as long as you are with me."
"Done and done." Daniel kissed his lover's forehead softly, then mustered the rest of his strength to continue the journey down the new road to wherever it led, with the only person he cared about anymore held close beside him. It was not an ending but a new beginning, and they would go only forward now.