~January 1897~

Carnegie Hall was standing room only despite the swirling winter storm outside. The evening had sold out within a day of the newspaper announcing that Erik's score, The Aviary was to debut performed by the Symphony Society. Wisely, the best seats in the house had been set aside for Christine, Charles, and Nadir.

Bathed in the bright lights of the stage, the symphony brought to life each brilliant movement, carrying both the gracefully somber and the vibrant currents. Every member of the audience sat in awe with the complexity presented for them … a veritable feast for the ears! Already the concert was running longer then Damrosch had assumed, due to the lengthy applause between each piece. He had been forced to wait, his baton not having the same commanding effect upon them as his musicians.

On his podium, driving into the spirited last movement before the intermission, a piece Erik had entitled Nightingale's Sonata, he felt like a song bird himself winging over his brethren, displaying bright plumage. He knew he was not the only one who fell prey to the imagery. More than once during a rehearsal, Erik had been prone to leaving his seat to cavort about the edge of the stage with his violin. An action that was most likely to seize him within this precise movement.

Sliding his gaze over at the concertmaster seated to his left, Damrosch expected to find the seat empty. Instead he almost dropped his baton! The work was complex, and directing it took nearly all his concentration. This was the first moment he had spared to truly look at Erik. He was playing, masterfully as ever — the notes pouring out from the Stradivarius like pure golden honey. Though it sounded effortless and beautiful, something was wrong. Erik's eyes were locked on something on the music stand — sheet music! Never in the five years he had played with the symphony had he ever used even a single sheet. This was his own work … and yet the eyes behind the mask were narrowed, strained with extreme concentration, the motions of his bow suffering a slight choked hesitation.

Trying not to stare, Damrosch drove the baton onward. To most of the audience, the strange behavior of this violinist was likely invisible. Erik was known for his perfection on the instrument, and even blind drunk he could outplay the next best within the city.

The last page turned, the conductor drew the powerful surge of the nightingale's full throated flight to a close! The audience exploded as the house lights flooded the auditorium. A standing ovation!

Holding his arms out to the symphony, Damrosch announced over the clapping, "We will now have a short intermission before the second half of our performance."

Turning to his left, he found Erik's seat was vacant. In the commotion, no one had seen him leave the stage, but there was only one door. Hastily Damrosch pushed through the musician's funneling backstage. "Has anyone seen Erik?" Musician after musician shook their heads.

Out into the main hallways, Damrosch muttered quietly to himself as he opened a few doors, checking inside the dressing rooms, "A man in a mask, he's not exactly hard to miss!"

At long last his search brought him to the door marked Director of the Arts. Through the frosted glass he saw no lights on inside Erik's office and so assumed as he opened the door he would find it deserted.

A sudden twisting motion caught his eye. Damrosch saw Erik hastily turning his back, shielding himself from the door.

"Close it!" His voice muffled by his sleeve was strained. "Leave the lights off!"

Shutting the door behind him, he stepped toward the desk. "Erik? Are you alright?"

"No." The mumbled word was followed by deep trembling. "Please, the lights … it is the stage lights. They hurt my eyes!" He lifted his masked face briefly from the shelter of his arm, before dropping it once more with a moan. "Leave the lights off!"

"They are off." Damrosch replied quietly. Observing the trembling musician for some time, he swallowed. "Do we need to cancel the rest of the concert?"

Erik uncoiled, his fingers clawing at the desk in desperation. "No! You cannot cancel! Please! This may be the last time I can hold it together enough to play! I have to play my composition! At least once — I must play my composition!"

No sooner had Erik lapsed into silence then his hands grasped his head in a vice. Clamping his eyes shut he growled. "It never stops! Never silent! Always chatting on and on and on! The voice! That insolent voice will not relent!"

Wide eyed, Damrosch tried several times to reach out. His hand hovered just about to touch Erik when he thought better of it. "Will this pass?"

Erik's eyes cracked open before he laid his head upon an outstretched arm. "Not entirely." He panted. "Give me the intermission to seek refuge and I will find the strength to suppress it for the duration of the concert."

Cautiously, Damrosch counted the number of times Erik winced as he lie there shuddering. "How long has this been happening?"

"Months. It has been nearly half a year now, growing steadily worse."

Leaning forward he gasped, "Half a year? Dear heavens! Does Christine know?"

Erik pushed up from the desk, supporting his head with a hand as he blinked slowly. "No … I have been hiding it from her. Seeking seclusion when I can no longer stand it … like now. I do not know why I have even told you … "

"You have to tell her," he replied severely. "Erik, she has to know what's going on!"

A low weary laugh escaped him. "Do not tell her … ignorance is bliss."

"You don't think she suspects — "

Erik's thin hand slashed the air with finality. "If she does, she respects my dignity enough not to mention it. Now … there is something else."

Reaching down, he opened a drawer. His fingers released a catch that opened a hidden compartment. From it he withdrew a large stack of aged leather-bound vellum placing it reverently into Damrosch's hands.

Wordlessly, the conductor stared at the titles on the pages, turning quite a few shades lighter. He swallowed before meeting the pained gaze of the composer. "Erik … this is a Requiem Mass. Your Requiem Mass!"

Solemnly he nodded before wincing. "I trust that when the day comes, you will conduct both the Symphony and Oratorio societies with the appropriate treatment in my absence."

"You're not dying … " he whispered, "are you?"

Very slowly, Erik shrugged. "I do not know what lies ahead … and that frightens me, a great deal. The ability to maintain the facade is steadily being eaten away. Sooner or later … " He lapsed into silence, his head edging down seeking refuge in the bend of his sleeve. The trembling was subsiding.

Bringing out his pocket watch, Damrosch laid it open atop the stack of aged vellum. His eyes watched the minutes ticking by as he let Erik rest in the darkness. Relentlessly, time drove ever onwards.

"Erik … " he softly called out, nudging the long fingers on the desk. "The intermission will be ending soon. We need to get back to the stage. Are you sure you can do this?"

His mismatched eyes opened sluggishly. Bracing himself, he pushed up from the desk in one lurching motion. "Yes." There was a cold determination in his voice. "I must do this." Taking the Stradivarius in his hand he took one staggered step followed by another toward the door. Each one grew that much smoother before he opened the door. Damrosch noted grimly how long Erik kept his eyes shut.

In the dark wing of the stage, they waited in silence. Erik leaned against the wall, frozen like a statue. It wasn't strange in itself, he was known for becoming taciturn in his preparation for a performance … Damrosch couldn't help but dwell on what he had discovered this morning when he arrived at the Hall.

The winter winds had gusted harder, changing directions at every whim. A small object fell from above his head, landing beside the row of main doors in a drift of snow. It left behind a deep depression of the most unusual shape. Bending down, he reached into the snow to find the object. In the drift, the frozen body of a little bird had plummeted from above. His tiny frame had been stilled in the act of being huddled, the condition of his feathers betraying he had succumbed to the harsh winter many a day before the wind had torn him from his final perch. This little bird had been no stranger to Damrosch. It was the little nightingale. Freed from the cruel cage by Erik's gentle hands, the little bird had likely no idea of where to fly when the weather had turned. Failing to seek refuge in the safety and warmth of Erik's mansion, the biting cold must have taken him to his early grave.

Clinging in the shadows of the wing, Erik's stiff body eerily resembled the frail bird he had cradled in his hands just this morning. Damrosch took a slow step toward him, his hand rising in a gesture to offer support.

Erik misread it as his cue to enter the stage. Wordlessly, he turned into the light. The moment it washed over him was like a string pulling him up to his full bearing. In a matter of two steps, he banished everything but a slight hitch in his usually graceful step. The casual observer would have missed it entirely.

Both hands closed tightly on the baton, Damrosch bowed his head as a bead of sweat trailed down his forehead. The world could never know the truth … he was witnessing the nightingale's fall from his pinnacle.

Author's Note: This concludes the third novel of the Nightingale's Odyssey. I hope you have joined me for the previous two, "Shadowcrest's Hammer" and "Nightingale's Strain", both can be found on this site. The forth follows some years afterward. This entire series of five works was completed prior to beginning publication. So I can assure you, they won't be abandoned. Throughout the series I researched the era and locations. I attempted to channel as much as I could to make it feasible. Something I love to see in series is threads and easter eggs throughout. Writing the entire series before publishing gave me the ability to see precisely where it naturally headed and go back to add foreshadowing or consistency. Thanks for reading this far-hope to see you on the final precipice.