He was terrified. The lantern trembled in his grasp as he ascended the old cobblestone steps one at a time. He kept the light held out in front of him while his other hand trailed along the wall. His fingers were coated in a thick film of dirt and dust. Daniel shivered; the chill of the castle had settled into his very bones. He had been hesitant to venture from the safety of his guest chambers, but Alexander had been withdrawn from him for several days. Although he would never admit it aloud, he was concerned for the older man's wellbeing.
However, he had not made it far into the winding halls of Brennenburg before the journey began to take a toll on his fragile health.
Ever since his return from Algeria, his mental and physical stability had been crumbling. Of course, the baron claimed that it was the shadow taxing him. Daniel had to agree. He had been plagued by never-ending nightmares that jolted him awake in the middle of the night. He was haunted by the crippling guilt of the deaths of every victim that had been killed by his damned curiosity. Also, his increasing phobia of the dark was quickly becoming crippling.
Suddenly, the soft light of the lantern wavered. Daniel's heart leapt as he watched his only source of light extinguish in a puff of foul smoke. He gripped the lantern handle tightly and winced when the metal cut into his palm. It felt more difficult to breathe - he started gasping for air. He stumbled up the remaining stairs and collapsed onto the landing. Glass shattered everywhere.
In the back of his mind, he was aware that he was in the middle of one of his newfound panic attacks. They had become more frequent as of late, especially when the shadow drew ever closer. The pitch blackness seemed to press in on him, smothering him. He dug his fingertips into the floor, crying out when the remains of the lantern slashed his flesh. This wasn't working; he needed to focus. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to remember what Alexander had told him in the midst of one of his attacks.
"Focus on your heartbeat. Try to count the beats instead of focusing on your fear. Breathe."
Daniel inhaled deeply, concentrating on the frantic beat inside his chest. It felt overwhelmingly fast.
1.. 2.. 3.. 4.. 5.. 6..
He felt like he was going to burst with anxiety. Voices were whispering in the dark. He could hear women wailing in their prisons and a child's desperate pleas for mercy. He ground his teeth and curled into a tight ball against the cobbles, no longer aware of the glass grinding into his clothes and his skin. Distantly, he realized that he deserved this pain.
Someone was calling his name. He pushed his hands over his ears. He had to block them out. The ghosts of his victims would never cease to stop haunting his every waking moment. They were calling out to him, screaming his name.
Something grabbed the sleeve of his coat. His eyelids burst open as the countless voices rose into a crescendo inside his head. However, only the baron was in front of him, holding a lit torch. Its orange flame drew Daniel's gaze as it cast a shadow against Alexander's face, which was set in worry.
Daniel licked his cracked lips and tried to make sense of the situation. He had fallen. There were shards of glass scattered across the floor from the husk of a broken lantern. His head was pounding, and his hands were shaking. He looked at Alexander, trying to find the right words to remedy the situation.
"I-I'm sorry, Alexander." He scrambled to his knees, ignoring the sharp sting of glass. "I'll clean this up right away." He struggled to get to his feet, but the panic attack had sapped all his energy – his legs were trembling. He did not possess the strength to stand. He fell against the wall in a heap and cursed, "Dammit!"
Alexander set the torch into a metal handle on the wall and crouched down to Daniel's level. He refused to meet the baron's sight directly. He would flush with embarrassment, if he even had the zest to do so. He felt tiny and weak under Alexander's observant gaze.
"Calm down, Daniel." The old man's hardened features had somewhat softened. Daniel found himself enamored by Alexander's eyes, which held no amount of his usual scrutiny. He offered his arm to the young Englishman. "Come on."
Daniel was hesitant, but he took the baron's offer, nonetheless. Just as he was upright, a wave of dizziness nearly knocked him back down. Alexander hoisted him up, wrapping Daniel's arm around his shoulder in order to steady him. After a moment, Daniel had caught his breath and the walls had stopped swaying. He realized that Alexander was supporting most of his weight. The older man's other arm was clutching his waist.
He tried to pull away in vain, "I'm sorry, sir."
Alexander gripped him tighter. "Daniel, please do not fret over something so trivial. I'm going to carry you to the guest room. You obviously tired yourself out." He reached out to collect his torch and handed it to Daniel. "Can you at least carry this?"
Daniel nodded mutely.
Oh, so slowly, they shuffled to the downstairs bedroom.
"Explain yourself, Daniel." Alexander finally demanded, albeit with an edge of agitation.
Daniel felt guilt weighing him down. "I-I was worried, Alexander," He fumbled to find the right words. He felt ridiculous to admit something so childish to the great baron. "I haven't seen any sign of you or the servants in many days. I was…concerned."
Silence engulfed them. Meanwhile, Daniel focused all his remaining energy into staying upright. He would not fall again. He had already caused too much trouble for the baron. He had done his best to stay quiet and out of the way as a guest at Brennenburg since he had arrived, but his declining health had effectively botched that for good.
"Daniel, I apologize for leaving you alone." Alexander said. His voice no longer sounded irritated. Instead, he seemed genuinely sincere.
Daniel's head whipped around to look at him. "Well, it-its understandable. You're quite busy, yes?"
The baron grumbled in agreement before continuing, "I understand your fear of isolation, especially since the shadow is drawing nearer." He paused, as if considering his words carefully. They stopped in front of Daniel's bedroom. Alexander did not move to open the door, until he spoke again, "I swear, we will stop the shadow together, Daniel. Do not worry."
He pushed the door open, revealing Daniel's quaint room. The tables were littered with candles, some burnt to wax while others flickered faintly. The familiar glow of light was comforting. An instant blanket of reassurance enveloped him. Alexander took the torch and set it into a nook on the wall outside the room before closing the door. Daniel gently released himself from the baron's grip and managed to make his way to the bed. He fell into the comforters with a sigh of relief. His mind was quietening, and his heart beat had slowed considerably.
He closed his eyes and counted the beats.
1.. 2.. 3.. 4..
When he had fallen asleep, Alexander grabbed a book off one of his shelves and took a seat in the bedside chair. He decided that he would keep the young man company for the night, until he awakened in the morning. He stared at the page until the words blurred out of focus, his mind lost elsewhere. Alexander wondered if an ancient entity such as himself could possibly still feel love or affection. His gaze gravitated towards Daniel – peaceful in his slumber with locks of hair falling across his face.
Something foreign fluttered inside his chest. Maybe it wasn't too late for him, after all.