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Serena could not remember a time when she'd been more terrified. The moment her boots touched the stage, her control began to unravel. Her thin mask of bravery chipped at the edges; she gnawed at her bottom lip, began to toy with the sky-blue ribbon around her neck. She felt utterly exposed underneath the bright lights, neath the scrutinizing eyes of an audience now cloaked in shadow.
She tugged her long red vest tighter around her torso as though to shield herself from the painful memories. The first time she'd set foot onstage had also been her last. And what a train-wreck it had been.
Her Showcase debut had started out well enough—she and her Pokémon partner, Fennekin, had strutted down the runway side by side. Their senses were assaulted by the raucous cheers, the blinding white flashes, but the buzz of nervous excitement was enough to keep them moving forward. And then, just when she'd allowed herself to smile, everything fell apart. In her peripheral vision, Serena saw her tiny fox Pokémon trip; she'd swooped down and cradled the shivering creature against her chest, but it was too late for second chances. She could not bring herself to continue.
The stunned silence never registered in her ears; all she heard were hoots of mocking laughter.
The traumatic experience shattered Serena's confidence like a fragile teacup. After that she'd cut her hair, changed her look so that she was almost unrecognizable. And, above all else, she'd vowed to never go onstage again.
And yet here you are, one month later, a small voice piped up. Yes, here she was. Out to prove to herself that she would not be hounded by the ghosts of her past.
What a stupid stupid girl you are! The thought blared so loudly that Serena could've sworn she'd screamed it aloud. Fresh terror curled it's chains around her throat, obstructing her airway. Her vision grew dark and the world started to sway.
What she wouldn't give to just pass out and have it all be over.
A cold touch shocked Serena out of her tortured thoughts, caused her surroundings to snap back into focus. She glanced down at the long fingers that encircled her wrist like handcuffs; in her moment of panic, she'd completely forgotten that she was a guest on someone else's stage.
Her gaze meandered upward, past a black sleeve, a white collar barely visible, to look the magician in the eye. While the left side of his face was the one on display, it was the right half that held her attention. The white plastic mask was sculpted to look intimidating, with a high cheekbone and arched brow designed to veil the wearer's eye in shadow. What it concealed was a mystery, though Serena noticed upon close inspection that not everything remained hidden. A small scar ran across his upper lip, the corner of which was tipped a dark purple. His right eye was oddly triangular in shape, as though it hadn't developed right, and ringed with purple and gray like it was bruised.
"Breathe, child. Listen to me and breathe." The Phantom spoke for Serena's ears alone, his voice so low and calm that the girl found herself instantly entranced. "You have no reason to be afraid. I promise no harm will come to you. Now, what is your name?"
She answered him with crystalline clearness, all the fear suddenly gone from her voice. It was like someone had flipped a switch in her body, causing her heartrate to return to normal, her constricted lungs to take in air again.
"Serena," the magician announced to the crowd. "A lovely name for a lovely young lady. Follow me, if you please."
His grip on her tightened as he led her across the polished floorboards, stopping only when they reached just left of center. The Phantom turned to face her, his cloak swishing round his ankles as he did so. He could tell by the tiny creases in her forehead that the girl was not entirely at ease. Momentarily abandoning his normal professional aloofness, he placed his hands gently on her shoulders. This girl was nothing to him but another human being, yet he couldn't deny that her expression made his heart ache.
"Two tricks," he murmured. "That's all I ask. And they'll be easy—you'll hardly have to lift a finger. When you see me blink I want you to raise your hand and push the air in front of you. Until then, just relax and enjoy the music."
With a fleeting smile, the Phantom retreated back several paces until he stood at the opposite end of the stage. Serena remained rooted to the spot. The song on the sheet music she'd delivered was still being played, a romantic sort of waltz with a dark undercurrent. The melody made her want to both succumb to it's spell and clutch herself with unease. Judging by his looks, it didn't take much for Serena to assume that the man before her was the genius who'd penned it.
The overhead lights dimmed until the performers found themselves in the same muddy gloom as the audience. Serena could see nothing of the mysterious Phantom save for his towering silhouette and shining yellow irises.
The moments that followed could have been ripped from the reels of a horror movie. One by one they materialized in the furthest corners of the room, bobbed and spun among the branches of the chandelier: shimmering Will-O-Wisps seemingly possessed. Like creeping predators, they floated silently over the crowd, casting ghostly blue light on people's faces as they advanced.
Serena was not aware of the roaring pulse in her ears, nor of the fact that her muscles had gone rigid as stone. All the she knew was the chilling music, the staring points of gold, the fist-sized balls of flame that now circled around her head like restless spirits and washed the stage with their sputtering cobalt glow. And deep down, beneath the dread she couldn't perceive, she was in awe; this was truly magic at it's finest.
The golden orbs flickered, forcing Serena from her stupor. Her right arm felt as though it was made of lead when she raised it. Following the Phantom's instructions, she pushed at the empty air in front of her face.
Without warning four flames shot straight at the magician. In a movement so quick it was almost unseen, he lifted his own hand. There were gasps of utter disbelief as a sphere of dark energy bloomed at his fingertips, capturing the balls of fire like electrons around an atom.
Serena's mouth moved on it's own accord. Though no words came out, in her mind she was shrieking. Is that…it can't be! But that's the only thing it CAN be—a Pokémon move! He's using a Pokémon move?! That…that's impossible!
Across the stage, the Phantom grinned at the astonishment in his young helper's eyes, the residual amusement from his hanging stunt bubbling over into delight. This was the part of show business he'd grown to adore: the looks of shock his acts effortlessly procured, that beautiful combination of wonderment and horror. A sharp bark of laughter burst from his lips as his mood morphed into barely controlled excitement; there was tension in the room, tension against his hand as the purple ball of energy—a Shadow Ball, as it was known—wavered and crackled with the need to be released.
"Let my Shadow Ball fly!" The Phantom's bellow shook the walls as he turned on the audience. With a simple flick of his wrist, the sphere and the flames were launched into the air. They flew through the darkness in an arch, exploding near the ceiling in a glorious shower of violet sparks and blue embers.
Serena could only watch, thunderstruck, as the feat was repeated twice more. She didn't remember moving her arms, but found herself clapping along with the bewildered crowd when the lights rose up again. A cyclone of emotions raged in her head as the Phantom strolled up to her.
His expression might have settled into an unreadable mask, but that did not diminish the impact of his looming presence. That air of mystery and threat still billowed off him like black fog.
"And now for my final trick of the evening. Whether you in the audience have been fans of mine from the very beginning, or this is your first time seeing me, you'll no doubt have noticed my knack for the sleight of hand. You heard it in the way I was able to throw my voice, saw it just a moment ago. My clever illusions baffle both the ears and eyes—and, by extension, the mind. I plan on taking that notion one step further tonight. I will make Serena here see something that's not really there, experience it with all her senses at once."
A frigid finger curled under Serena's chin, tilting her head back and trapping her in the Phantom's burning gaze. Her heart a racing lump in her throat, the girl squeezed her eyes shut.
Warm breath tickled her ear.
"Empty your mind, child. Purge it of all those squabbling thoughts, undo all the ropes that bind it to reality. Ignore the heat radiating from the lights, the sound of the violin—let even my voice fade into the background. The only thing you know is your body and the dark void behind your eyelids."
It was almost frightening how quickly Serena fell under his influence. Within the span of a few seconds she felt as though she was floating. Beyond the fact that she was still a physical being with a physical body, nothing registered in her semiconscious brain; not the temperature, not the floor under her feet, not the terror that had previously consumed her. The only thing to ground her in this black limbo was that beautifully hypnotic voice, now little more than a faraway whisper.
"Now let a new world gradually trickle into your perception. Do you hear that? The soft sighing of leaves rustling, the chirps of bird Pokémon nesting in the canopy? Can you feel the moist breeze as it whips your hair, filling your nose with musky scents of tree bark and greenery? Can't you just picture the vast forest of emerald all around you?"
She could. Oh yes, she could! The nothingness had been invaded by sensations of touch and sound and smell; even the faintest outline of a forest flashed behind her closed lids.
"Now…open your eyes."
In spite of the stimulus that told her otherwise, Serena half expected a white mask to be the first thing she saw. Instead she found herself alone in an endless shady wood, surrounded by trees and foliage so lifelike she swore they must be real. Afternoon sunlight dappled the path in front of her, kissed the skin of her arm; above her head the sky was pale and scattered with puffy white clouds.
Questions whirred in her brain by the millions. How was this possible? Where in the world was she? What this the true reality—had the theater simply been a vivid daydream and she'd been out here the entire time? Or was this just some fantasy conjured up and projected into her vulnerable mind? She couldn't hear the Phantom's voice anymore, so there was no way of knowing.
Well, I… I guess there isn't much I can do about it, Serena reasoned with a shrug.
At a loss for what else to do, she began walking down the little dirt trail.
Serena did not feel it when the Phantom grasped her shoulders, firmly locking her in place as she shuffled her feet. Her glassy eyes stared through him as though he was every bit the ghost his name implied.
He glanced sidelong at the the audience; they sat on the edge of their seats, waiting impatiently for him to indulge them.
"I've hypnotized her, you see," he explained, turning the girl so that she faced the crowd. "Lulled her until she was nearly asleep. Her mind open and wandering, I was left to craft a world for her. Whatever I wanted her to sense became her reality. She's in a forest now, exploring. As far as she's concerned, this theater doesn't exist anymore—nothing does, until I see it fit to deliver her from my elaborate illusion."
To prove his point, the Phantom waved his hand over the girl's blank face and snapped his fingers.
He gritted his teeth when Serena lurched against him, unaccustomed to the touch of strangers. Her head moved to and fro as she appraised her surroundings, overcome as the real world flooded her senses; she froze for a long second, perhaps realizing whose chest she was pressed against. A tiny squeak escaped her throat as she whirled away, roses blossoming on her cheeks.
The Phantom fixed a smug half smile on his face.
"You can confirm that you were walking though a forest, yes?" To this the girl nodded mutely. "That's what I thought. And who in the audience believes her?"
Two young men next to Serena's empty seat—her friends, perhaps—raised their hands. The rest seemed skeptical, cocking their heads to the side and furrowing their brows doubtfully.
The magician's smile only widened, eyes glinting under the brim of his hat. A collective gasp echoed through the room as every eye in the audience glazed over, staring at something only they could see.
"What are you…how are you…?" Serena stammered, her attention flitting between the gaping crowd and the surely insane man standing not five feet away.
"A good magician never reveals his secrets," the Phantom remarked, fingertips brushing his mask absentmindedly. "So I'm afraid that is something you will never be privy to."
He bridged the distance between them in two easy strides, his smile loosing some of it's wickedness. A flash of blood red burst from his wrist; he produced a single de-thorned rose from inside his sleeve.
"Take this as a token of my appreciation. You were incredibly brave tonight and you played your part wonderfully. You are now free to go. A good night to you, my child."
The audience murmured in confusion, their senses abruptly returned to normal, as the Phantom strode to the center of the stage. His gaze swept over the hundreds of gawking faces, over the young girl who gripped his rose to her chest; the violin music was a fast-paced wail in his ears.
"And a good night to all of you, as well. I hope to see you again soon."
With a sense of true finality and a tip of his hat, the Phantom took a bow.
Screams split the air as a vortex of orange fire erupted from the floorboards around his feet, flaring up to where it almost licked the catwalks. The heat was so intense that audience members in the first row felt it nip at their flesh; Serena had to flee the stage in an effort to avoid being singed. People covered their ears against a sudden onslaught of savage cackling.
The noise died along with the flames, eventually petering out entirely.
In their wake they revealed nothing but an empty stage.