Blind Mask

(by Nicole Gruebel)

Disclaimer: ... see chapter 1

Summary of the past chapters: When Erik finally faced Christine after the fire at the Opera House he had to learn that Raoul had asked her to officially become his fiancée. She feared to lose Erik, but apparently wasn't ready to choose him either. To survive the uncertain hours till Christine would make her final decision, Erik gave in to Morphine once more. This weakness, however, allowed Noelle to uncover her eyes and touch his face. Erik's fit of rage sent Noelle into a panicked flight. He believed her sight had returned and that she had seen him.

You will notice how much help I had from Maria in writing the past chapters and this one when you'll read the next ones. Unfortunately she won't have time for this anymore, but I'm happy that she finally will start her new life. So, even if she is an E/C-shipper, I'd like to dedicate this chapter to her!

Fortunately I'm not left all alone, for Lotte Isilya helped me to clear up some last errors, too.

Please review, no matter if you like my story or if you have some comments for me. Since review-answers apparently aren't allowed here anymore, I can only get back to you if you have an e-mail address in your profile, or something like that.


Chapter 11 - The veil is lifted

Tears of confusion and fear streamed down Noelle's face, yet she did not wipe them away. The young woman merely stumbled onward as fast as she could, as if she were chased by the devil itself. 'He is insane! He must not find me!' Erik's voice, with all its pain and anger, echoed in her head. An emotional turmoil raced within her. The mere thought of a man who up until recently evoked in her unconditional trust, now brought forth her worst fear. It appeared he had changed into a completely different person.

Noelle didn't know where to go; she had lost all sense of direction and was trapped in the darkness of the catacombs. When her bare feet met only cold, wet stone she gathered she had left Erik's house. 'Where am I? I can't cry for help - he might hear me.' She hesitated a moment, trembling from cold and fear. 'Do not stop!' An inner voice cried in alarm and Noelle continued her flight, feeling her way along the wall.

She reached a corner. Noelle hesitated and strained her ears to perceive anything that might help her decide where to go. There was only a soft sound of dripping water mingled with her heavy breathing. 'I know there must be people nearby! Somebody has to help me!' It had been a long time since she had last longed for company other than Erik's. Now she wanted nothing more than to get as far as she could away from him. She had not realized the true value of his presence, until her delicate sanctuary came crushing down upon her.

Suddenly new sounds reached her ears, distant at first, then coming closer and closer - low, screeching noise. 'Rats!' Noelle pressed against the damp wall, wishing away the bleakness of her situation. A moment later, she continued along the wall and around the corner. Standing still was not an option.

OOO

Ayesha did not like the tunnels. The stench was awful to her sensitive nose and it was difficult to find a dry path. Every now and then, the cat sat down and cleaned her paws and fur. She was in no hurry, and Noelle left an obvious trail to follow.

She had hoped that the woman would lead her to an interesting place. Perhaps Noelle was going home, and would reward her with a treat? After all, Ayesha liked that woman, and they had become friends. But it appeared that Noelle wandered around rather aimlessly and in a very unpleasant area, so the cat began to lose interest.

A sharp bitter scent distracted Ayesha. Instinctively her fur bristled and her tail flicked nervously. She could handle a few rats at a time, but she hated the filthy rodents. Luckily, the little tunnel-dwellers apparently preferred to avoid the cat this time and scurried away. Or did they fear something else? Ayesha's attention shifted to another tunnel, while Noelle moved on.

OOO

Erik's search was taking longer than he had expected. 'Where has she wandered off? She couldn't possibly find a way out on her own!' Hardly anyone ventured into the labyrinthine tunnels surrounding his refuge beneath the church. It made find Noelle's trail easier, but made it difficult to follow. Erik could use no shortcuts; it was impossible to tell where she had gone. Her path crossed itself on the many junctions and was often lost where she appeared to have walked through a flooded tunnel. The once advantages of his refuge were turning against him.

Erik did not call for her. The misleading echoes in these tunnels might only frighten her further, and he hoped she would come to a stop somewhere instead of continuing her flight. He also knew that there were exits to other cellars and some that led directly to the streets. Most were blocked or well hidden, either by him or by the Parisians, but they were not soundproof as a rule. Erik had to be careful not to draw attention.

He occasionally spotted the long tails of rats vanishing into cracks in the walls, but most of the time he only heard them. Although Erik moved quietly, they feared the fire of his torch and were not hungry enough to get near a grown, strong man. He was not certain whether the human rats that sometimes were down there would be as wise. Erik was confident in his ability to move around safely in the catacombs, but he was growing more and more worried about Noelle.

OOO

There were more corners than she could count. Sometimes Noelle would stumble upon a dead end, only to go back in search of another way. 'Why are there no doors and no people?' She was very confused – Noelle could not imagine which part of Paris this might be. The smell was sickening and made her miserable state of mind only worse. 'Did I enter a sewer-tunnel near the Seine? This stench is as bad as when Erik came back the other night.' Until then she had not realized that the air around her was as stale as in Erik's rooms, if not worse. There had always been enough air to breathe, but Noelle had never felt the refreshing breeze from a wide open window. She rightfully began to suspect that she was not on the streets of Paris, but steadfastly denied the only logical alternative. Noelle held on to the withering hope that she had only taken a wrong turn. She was about to turn back when her hands suddenly found a ladder. It appeared to be firmly attached to the wall.

Noelle's ears picked up a faint sound from above and she listened harder. 'Those are voices!' She nearly let out a cry of relief, but restrained herself. 'I do not know yet if these people will help me, or if they are as unpredictable as Erik.' Noelle tried to understand what the muffled voices were saying, but it was futile. Finally she grasped the ladder with a shaking hand and began to climb it.

At last, she reached a landing. The voices appeared nearer now, but although she gathered that there were at last two men, the words were muffled. 'I still hear them above me. How can I get there?' When Noelle tried to climb on the landing, she hit her head on a ceiling she had not expected to be there. She hissed a curse and rubbed her head with her hand.

'What sort of place is this?' She reached up and felt cold bars; between them her fingers touched the rough surface of wood. Noelle tried to push and was surprised when the wood gave way. She nearly lost her balance due to its unexpected lack of resistance.

It took a few moments for her to realize she could see something. She squinted instinctively to shield her eyes from the bright light streaming from the crack she had opened. Although a bit blurry through the veil of tears in her eyes, there were distinct colors and shapes. She recognized her own hand, holding up the dark wooden board, which had covered the grating above her head. Through the rusty bars she saw a room full of barrels, bathed in dim light. Suddenly something tickled her hand that was closed firmly around the ladder.

All traces of relief at having regained her sight vanished at once when Noelle faced a filthy rat sniffing at her fingers. For a moment, she froze, but it took a single sound from the rodent for Noelle to regain all senses and she instantly withdrew her hand. The abrupt movement cost the woman her balance and, screaming, she found herself thrown off the ladder and into darkness once more.
When she hit the hard floor, a sharp pain shot through her ankle and the arm with which she had protected her head. It was hard for her to form a single coherent thought or to assess her current location.

A rough voice from above cut through the silence. It was much louder and clearer than before. "What was that?"

"A rat. Don't get excited."

"That was no rat ... at least not one with four legs and a long tail."

"You are hearing ghosts." The other voice dismissed.

When Noelle heard someone step on the wooden board she held her breath. "Look here! There is a trapdoor!" A second later the board was lifted again, only this time Noelle was more careful and instantly scurried away into shadow.

"It's another cellar!" Now the other man became alarmed, too. "We have to look down there. Can you open it, Jacques?"

An inner voice told Noelle that she did not want to be found by those men. She rose with shaking knees and winced when she tried to put weight on her injured ankle. Terrified, she looked around for an escape route. Now that there was some light, she noticed that she was indeed in a cellar – damp walls surrounded her completely. The ceiling wasn't very high and the ladder led up to a narrow landing in a low niche. She herself appeared to be standing in the middle of a long tunnel with no visible ending.

She heard a crack, followed by the noise of the grating being lifted and hobbled away. Fleeing from the men meant heading into darkness once more. Soon Noelle had to feel her way along the wall as if she were still blind.Sweat beaded on her forehead as pain and fear began taking their toll. She could not understand what the men were saying, their voices fading in the echo of the catacombs. But when she turned to check whether she was followed, a faint glimmer caught her attention - right behind a corner she had just rounded.

Panic rose in her and erased all thoughts of pain as Noelle broke into a frantic run. Every few moments she glanced over her shoulder, but she did not notice that suddenly another light appeared in front of her. Instinctively, she lashed out at the tall dark figure that appeared to block her path. Her worst nightmares came true when she felt intense heat on her forearm and smelled the stench of scorched cloth and hair. It did not matter that in reality she had merely grazed the flame of a torch; in her mind she was back in the menacing fire at the Opera House. She tried to scream, but a large hand clasped over her mouth her mouth and strong arms held her so tightly she could not move at all.

Noelle slipped into unconsciousness before the fallen torch went out on the floor. A moment later, she was carried away.

OOO

Erik instantly knew to whom the startled cry that suddenly echoed through the catacombs belonged, and his suspicions were confirmed as he stumbled upon the trail Noelle had left in her wake. However, he hesitated when he heard strange male voices. 'Should I let them find her? I am certain she can't show them the way to the refuge. This might be the best solution for both of us.'

But he found himself unable to turn away. Instead he remembered how Noelle had allowed him to help and guide her with blind trust. He had to admit that her company had been somewhat pleasant, even if it had been difficult at times. The memory of the happy expression on her face, when he had read to her or had played the violin resurfaced in his mind. Bewildered, he realized that part of him did not want to let her go.

'It was only an illusion. She cannot stay. And I need to go back to Christine.' Erik tried to clear his mind. He reminded himself of what had happened when Noelle had touched his unmasked face. 'I must not let down my guard again.' But before he could leave, Erik heard a cracking noise and the voices became louder. They did not sound friendly. Slowly, he approached the tunnel where he expected Noelle to be.

'Why can't I hear her anymore?' It was not only because of his vow to protect her that he was worried. 'She screamed. Perhaps she is hurt.' Erik did not want to show himself, but he wanted to be certain that Noelle was unharmed and that the men would help her out of the catacombs. He stopped before rounding a corner when he heard hasty steps and saw the shimmer of light. But before he could extinguish the torch to hide his presence, it was knocked out of his hand.

While the flame got drowned in a shallow pool of dirty water, Erik wrestled with the struggling body that had run into him. Although her features were full of panic and she was quite dirty, it unmistakably was Noelle. The sleeve of her nightgown had caught fire, but it was immediately extinguished by Erik in his attempts to get a hold of her.

He did not want to be discovered by anyone and covered her mouth firmly with his hand before she could scream. However, their brief fight had not been soundless, and a short, stocky man with a gas-lamp rounded the corner only a moment before Erik vanished into a narrow tunnel. Without thinking he had dismissed the idea of handing Noelle over to the stranger. Instead Erik had picked her up when she had fainted and hid her beneath his cape.

Jacques bent down to examine the fallen torch. He lifted his knife - the light from the lamp reflecting menacingly on its blade. With a step towards a niche in the wall, he illuminated the entry of another tunnel. A fierce hiss and piercing blue eyes startled him.

Cursing wildly, Jacques staggered backwards. Never before had he seen a cat like this. Its fur was pale, but her paws and face were brown. Obviously the cat was unimpressed with his - it kept hissing and growling. Jacques got angry, but when he tried to attack the cat, it scratched him and ran off in another direction. Furious, he followed it a few steps, but soon lost sight of the nimble animal. His companion called him and, grudgingly, he went back to the ladder.

To be continued …