The clanking of the chain seemed to grow louder still in Alexander's ears as he turned the wheel slowly but with determination, the room so dark that he could barely see anything but the outline of his apprentice in the very middle of the chamber, his bare skin so ghostly white that he almost seemed emit light of his own.
Daniel was suspended in mid-air, trying to remain as relaxed as he could, the heavy manacles bound around his wrists slowly rising and pulling his body higher. No weight was attached to his ankles, but it was hardly necessary; he could not have felt more trapped and helpless than he already did. The strappado was as nasty a creation as any other found within the walls of that thrice cursed castle, and Daniel knew each of them in more detail than a man ever should. His were the hands that oft controlled the wheel; his were the hands that determined the fates of many. He knew with acute precision how the device was meant to be used, how it dislocated joints and shattered bones with such ease that should not be possible and prolonged agony beyond the limits of human understanding. He knew all too well, and the knowledge tightened sickeningly at the pit of his stomach as he rose higher.
"Daniel, let me bind your eyes."
The blindfold was bound tight around his head, black, impenetrable to any remaining light that might have reached the chamber. It was the first step, and the Englishman had trembled from head to toe as he had accepted it with a curt nod, submitting himself to the darkness that would follow and engulf him in the worst of his fears. Alexander's calloused hands had wrapped it around his wide, fearful eyes, as green as new leaves on spring and as lovely, all the while whispering into his ear that it was necessary, that he had to let his fear swallow him whole, that only by submitting to it could he ever hope to quell and conquer it. And then the wheel had turned and his feet had left the ground.
There was nothing but darkness to Daniel, darkness where each small noise took the form of his horrors and seemed magnified hundredfold. And it was not enough to simply take it and surrender to it; each step had to be accepted willingly, with full consent, for another could do no more than assist in this ritual. Only he could reach the turning point. There was no one who could save him but himself.
After what felt like an eternity he heard something brought before him, emitting a shrill sound as it was dragged across the stone floor. Daniel heard a footstep, two, three and then he could feel Alexander's breath inches from his face, and he guessed it must have been the stepladder. Long, thin fingers curled under his chin and tipped his head back, a thumb almost tracing his bottom lip.
"Daniel, let me gag you."
The silence that stretched out between them was expectant, heavy. Alexander studied his face in silence, watching how conflicting emotions twisted his features as he tried to find the resolve within himself to go on. Daniel's voice broke when he answered.
The elder's face softened into a small smile. "That's a good boy."
Fingertips pressed against Daniel's lips and he opened his mouth obediently, allowing them to briefly brush against his tongue and slip the gag between his lips. Fastenings were pulled behind his head and tied in place, pulling at the hairs stuck underneath and making his scalp itch uncomfortably. His jaw was already starting to ache and he breathed slowly through his nose, trying not to dwell in his discomfort too much and stay as still as possible.
Warm air tickled his skin as Alexander mumbled his ceaseless encouragements and brushed his chocolate hair back just enough to expose his ears. Daniel's fingers were twitching erratically as though trying to grasp the chain just for something to hold on to but he could not reach it. By this point he no longer had control over the tremor of his arms, his shoulders searing under the strain and begging to be released.
"Daniel, let me plug your ears," he murmured, the low rumble of his voice sending more shivers down the brunette's spine. The pounding in his head was becoming too loud for him to think clearly and he bit his teeth into the object hard, tears streaming down his face as he finally nodded, his chest heaving as he tried to steady himself.
Something heavy was carefully placed over his ears, fastened so tightly that he ultimately heard nothing, nothing but the desperate palpitations of his heart and within it was that which he feared; the void, voices which defied description. It was dead of the night and he was in one of his nightmares again, but nothing pierced through the darkness to wake him this time.
When Alexander lifted the riding crop to drag its small leather tongue slowly across his exposed flesh the touch was subtle enough to be ticklish and yet it had drawn a cry of terror from the Englishman, muffled against the mouthpiece. Alexander circled around him calmly, knowing the other could do nothing to predict what would come next and where it would come from, deaf to his footfalls, each caress of the crop making him shudder violently as if struck.
The rational part of his brain was telling that it was just Alexander, that he was still safely in the ritual chambers and nothing could harm him there, but the persistent voice in his head that haunted his nightmares whispered that the guardian was always watching, always drawing near. It will come for the one who disturbed its slumber now that you have no means of escape, the voice cooed maddeningly, the words oozing through every encouraging thought he tried to conjure for his protection.
Every little touch was a horror that made him sob in panic against the gag, his skin crawling at the sheer knowledge that he was completely defenseless. He was a child again curled into a ball in the wardrobe, fingers in his ears so he would not hear his father yelling, fearing the moment the doors would burst open and he would be dragged out of his hiding place to face the punishment that always awaited him. Frightened, helpless, anticipating the belt. The rush of blood in his ears was almost dizzying, and when the first strike came, unexpected and out of nowhere, he could do nothing but scream silently.
In his mind he imagined the resounding slap of the crop against his skin, pictured the marks it would leave. There was no pattern or rhythm to the strikes, making it impossible to prepare for them. All his muscles tensed in fearful anticipation as he waited and waited for a lash that didn't come until his body gave up out of sheer exhaustion. The next strike always landed on his skin when he least expected it and forced all air out of his lungs.
He knew all too well this technique; he had learned it by watching the man now at the other end of the crop. Alexander never let the pain build up to an untolerable level. He would only strike once or twice, then leave him alone for minutes on end to let the memory of the last lash subside before striking again and sending him into fits of panic, and the pain of each strike was all the more brutal for it. Slap! More harsh. Slap! More unforgiving. Slap! And it all blurred into an endless continuum where only the white-hot tendrils of pain would disturb the darkness in and around him, and time stopped existing.
When it was over Alexander turned the wheel once again until Daniel's feet touched the ground and continued to lower him further when his knees failed under his weight. The brunette hadn't the strength to startle when hands pried away the contraption around his head, the sounds of his own fitful breathing filling his ears. Alexander murmured something under his breath as he carefully unfastened of the gag and let it fall to the floor, but all that Daniel managed was a small noise that could have been a sob or could have been a cackle, neither could tell.
The blindfold was damp with tears and sweat as Alexander untied it, the fabric having left wrinkles on the other's skin. Daniel nothing short of gasped when it was finally removed, his eyes making out nothing but the blurred outlines of the man kneeling in front of him.
"Alexander..." he wailed quietly, his throat dry. He gave a small, pitiful jerk, his arms so numb that he could barely move them but Alexander's hushed him gently, his hands already opening the shackles with experienced ease. His arms were there to catch the younger male when he fell and softly cradle his head against his shoulder.
"You did very well, Daniel," Alexander complimented him, slowly rocking his still shaking body to and fro, fingers running through his mane of damp dark hair in an attempt to soothe him. Daniel only managed to lean against him, lethargic, barely even feeling the touches over his tremor, his eyes still open wide and staring into nothingness over Alexander's shoulder.
His chest heaved wildly as he struggled to draw breath over what Alexander took as voiceless sobs at first but that eventually rose into hysterical, gasping laughter, his voice broken and hoarse. The elder froze and with some effort extracted Daniel from his lap, holding him at an arm's length to examine his wide, staring eyes that seemed unable to focus on anything. He looked nothing like himself and his lips moved as he struggled to form words, nothing but disconnected syllables leaving his mouth.
"What is it, Daniel?" the older man asked and for once he feared what he saw before himself. Daniel's hands crawled across his chest, feeling for his arms before grasping a hold of them and leaning closer. His breathing was labored and inches from Alexander's face, their noses almost brushing against one another, and his face was the face of a believer who had witnessed the miracles of his God.
Chapped lips brushed against his own as Daniel uttered the words against his mouth.
"I saw the light, Alexander. I saw the light."