He looked in the mirror.

Erik would have blanched had he been capable of it, but he instead held fast to his reflection. He hadn't seen it in years. He didn't even remember lighting the candle that stood on the table under the mirror, the memory of it hidden with the mechanical windings of a brain lost to dreamless sleep...

It was the middle of the night.

"What am I even doing," he muttered. "My mask is my only protection. Nobody sees me…"

He gazed upon his reflection momentarily.

"One… sees me, perhaps," he mouthed.

Erik grew silent. He let out a shallow breath that made the candlelight flicker unsteadily, causing him to lose sight of his reflection for a few brief moments. The wick stayed lit and the flame straightened once again, though his vision kept fading; all that remained in the room was the candlelight which burned an orange and yellow hole. The darkness seemed to be swallowing it, as it swallowed Erik's reflection. All he could see was the fire…

"What's happening to me?" Erik whispered, his voice reverberating back at him as if the inky shadows were forming a solid wall, surrounding him so closely that he seemed to be talking inside his head. Was he? Did he even say a word?

Do not fear. The darkness is consuming you. Soon you will see…

"See?" Erik asked fearfully, the words falling back down his throat. He gagged from the strange sensation and pulled against the folding black world around him. He blinked several times and reached toward the flame that was becoming smaller with every passing second.

Watch the candle.

Erik obeyed. The tiny flame danced and curled into the air as if it were the sun reaching out to its earthly servants, stretching and shrinking, widening and thinning; there was no limit to its body, which was just a cave shadow of its mighty cousins, who could destroy buildings, murder the innocent, even bigger still it could devastate a forest thousands of years old; bigger, it could consume a planet, create a massive void of nothing that would suck in anything close enough and guzzle its very existence; imagine the power to erase… existence…

Suddenly, the proud candle went out with silence, but somehow Erik could see the one snaking, gray finger of smoke trailing away from the wick and expanding into a small cloud before it disappeared into the air and wafted into Erik's nose and mouth. He smelt and tasted the remnants of the yellow orange flame as the smoke seemed to trail down his windpipe and out of his eyes, smoldering his vision and drying out his lungs until he began to cough roughly; he swallowed his coughs the same way he did his words. Puffs of smoke swirled around him, thickening until his eyes stung and he had to hold his breath. The puffs thickened even still and a smell like rotten eggs floated into the atmosphere.

Erik. Open your eyes.

Only then did he realize he'd been squeezing his eyes shut, protecting them from the heavy smog. Warily, he cracked them open to discover that he didn't need to be cautious. The smoke had entirely vanished, along with the curious scent in the air.

"Welcome."

A deep, pleasant voice. How very peculiar, thought Erik; someone welcoming me in my own home.

"I'm not entirely sure you're welcomed, monsieur," said the Phantom before his eyes scouted from whence the voice came.

"Here," the voice said in Erik's ear. It was so sycophantic that he hardly gave a start when he turned to face a man. The gentleman was of an average build, of average height which was a few inches shorter than Erik. His dress was formal and he wore a clean, white ascot tucked into a deep burgundy jacket. His slacks were carefully pressed, and his shoes shone pleasantly, though with what light was beyond Erik. The Phantom guessed the gentleman was middle-aged, and nonetheless concluded that there was nothing striking about him.

"Who are you, monsieur?" Erik asked with a slight twitch of irritation. "And why have you intruded upon my district?"

"I am Delano de Roux," the gentleman said with a polite bow. Erik waited for him to explain himself and there was a short pause before Delano continued, ignoring the Phantom's second question. "You are Erik?"

"What do you want with Erik?" he replied, coldly.

"Do you speak to all of your guests in such a manner?"

"Only those who arrive uninvited."

Delano arched a dark eyebrow. "I would not be here had you not invited me, Erik."

"Absurd," he responded, his voice suddenly sharp. "What game are you playing?"

"I do not play games," Delano said thoughtfully. "Games are frivolous and I dislike resorting to them. My goal is thought, change and perfection. You are an intelligent man, and I hope you would rather choose to think on my offerings than become stuck in an endless circle of games I regret to say you have no chance of winning, however brilliant you are."

Erik was shocked by this response. "Monsieur de Roux; your visit has expired. Please leave my home immediately. You do not understand what the consequences may be if you do not comply to my request."

Delano grinned sympathetically and didn't flinch nor budge a muscle. "Erik, you have much to learn."

"Get out of my house," he spat plainly.

"First, listen to me."

"Get out!" Erik cried. With a sudden surge of anger and uncontrollable reflexes, he flicked out the Punjab lasso and snapped it around Delano's neck.

Or so he tried.

Whether it was a sleight of hand trick too fast for Erik's mind to register, or that the man had moved at a tremendous speed, he would never know. What he did know was that one second the lasso was directly above Delano's head, the next, it was lying like a dead serpent curled on the ground. Delano stood calmly behind it, his gaze never disconnecting from Erik's. It was in the proceeding moment that Erik realized (he was convinced he would have seen it sooner in any amount of light) that the gentleman's eyes had no white color around the pupils; brown filled what should have been the pasty oculus, like an animal's.

"What are you?" Erik asked, giving away his abrupt fear as his voice became momentarily weak. He was not a coward by nature, but dealing with the supernatural was entirely out of his league. He had not the slightest doubt that the man who stood in front of him was trying to conceal whatever he really was, which definitely was not human. Erik struggled to gain his composure. "What do you want?"

Delano licked his lips guiltily. "I believed my foil would at least calm you for a short while before you discovered me for who I truly was. Your rash behavior is entirely inappropriate if I must express my opinion, Erik. You'd have had better luck with this meeting had you only trusted me. Now look, you have gotten yourself all excited."

"What," Erik repeated slowly, "are you?" Had any normal man been confronted with this dangerous tone, he might have turned and ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction.

Delano blinked reasonably.

"I am whatever you want me to be. You think you see me as a man? I can be anything. But to see the truth… you must unfold this charade. Just peel away the flesh with you eyes. It is only a binding shell that limits me to your human boundaries. See me, but only if you will listen to me. I will give you honesty but in return you must hear my offer. Agreed?"

Erik barked a laugh but did not reply straight away. The insanity of the situation made his mind reel wildly, and he had to close his eyes briefly to collect his thoughts. Don't do anything foolish, he told himself. Don't even begin to think you can hold the upper hand against whoever this is. But his curiosity got the better of him.

"Reveal yourself and tell me your offer," he finally answered, suspicion eminent in his voice.

Delano grinned widely. "As you wish. Watch closely."

Erik didn't see any change at first, but suddenly there was a twitch of movement, like a wave across the man's entire body. He began to see slight stirring, and concentrated on Delano's eyes. Then, it started to happen.

The gentleman's facial features were the first to change. They distorted and shrank, widening and mixing and at the same time darkening so that the flesh on his face was rapidly turning black. His nose extended and widened, his mouth became smaller and lost its lips. Ears shifted to the top of his head and a sheen of midnight fur layered itself over his features. The only part that remained the same were his deep almond eyes, buried against his new complexion.

Next, his arms thinned and blackened, coating themselves in the same textured, catlike fur. The clothes he wore disappeared into the swirl of constant change. His fingers elongated and molded into four sleek claws. Hair grew over them in tufts, and they extended like the fingers they used to be, joints forming to make skeletal black fingers of polished bone. His shoulders shrank slightly into his neck, which stretched until it was longer than any human neck could naturally be. His torso extended and became as thin as Erik's, ripples of black fur pushing its way down to his abdomen.

His legs thickened and muscles built noticeably around his thighs, down to his heels. His feet ate the shined shoes and grew shaggy, protruding to be at least six sizes longer. On top of that, claws sprouted from his toes, which had widened and become shorter. There were only three claws on his feet, but unlike the spindly fingers he now bore, the claws of his feet were massive and obviously used to walk on. They grew at least eight inches long, and spread out to resemble sabers. They flattened at the tips and hoisted his body higher, which was already as high as the astonished Erik.

The transformation was complete. This strange Delano loomed at least six inches over the Phantom, his neck curled low to make easy eye contact with him. It was the eeriest thing Erik had ever laid eyes on.

"Now you see me as I truly am. Are you ready to listen to me?" Delano asked with the same deep, pleasant voice.

Erik shook his head in disbelief. "Yes," he uttered, finally.

Delano took one powerfully-clawed step forward and was an inch in front of him, breathing into his face. The breath felt cold, and very slight. Erik looked calmly up into Delano's emotionless eyes with his own, shining abnormally yellow in the dark.

"Do not be alarmed," the Creature said simply. Before Erik could do anything, Delano impaled him with the claws of his right hand, straight into his heart.

Erik let out a gasp and doubled over, peering down in shock at his chest. He felt no pain, but the pulsing of his heart doubled and strengthened. It beat rapidly, stronger and stronger until the pounding shook his entire body and the pulsing turned into a buzz. His eyes fluttered, his weight against the supernatural body of Delano, which finally all disappeared into total darkness.

He felt very light. He could see without eyes, feel without hands and feet. He perceived everything with a tingling sensation that he didn't know the base of, as he had been stripped from his body. No, not stripped… He'd flown out of it. He'd been flown from his body, the vulgar restriction of his true nature. It dawned on him that he was now no longer a disfigured living corpse, but a livid, free spirit.

Delano appeared beside him with a tiny flame in his hands. The candlelight, Erik thought briefly before the Creature tossed it in front of them. It burst into a French scene, inside a quaint but elegant flat. Erik sensed himself moving next to Delano, into a comfortable room. An oriental rug spread across a hardwood floor. In front of it there was a fireplace, and a sparkling piano stood in one corner. There was a mahogany divan cushioned with deep red velvet. Two people sat on it, their arms folded around each other. One of them was unmistakably Christine.

"My angel," Erik said, his voice carrying around the room in an echo that confirmed that this vision was only a vision, nothing more. Christine didn't hear him.

A little girl in a white dress, with beautiful golden curls and an angelic face skipped into the scene and said something Erik could not hear. Christine was her mother, Erik realized, as she nodded in affirmation to whatever the child had asked. Christine kissed the girl, who smiled in return and hugged her father before bounding off again. She left the room, but not before she took one look back that seemed to be directed at Erik. She smiled and turned back to disappear out of the scene, which seemed to startle Delano for a split second.

"That little girl," Erik commented. "She looks just like Christine. But who is that man with them?"

"It is her husband, Raoul de Chagny," he replied. "Lovely family, yes?"

Had he still been in his body, he was sure he would have felt a painful sting at those words. Instead, he simply agreed; "Yes."

"Erik. You love her," Delano said.

"More than anything," he confirmed.

"My offer is this." The Creature pointed a claw at Raoul de Chagny. "You can take his place."

"By what means?" Erik asked as the vision depicted Raoul tightening his arms around Christine, lovingly.

"By taking his life."

Erik was not surprised by those words. He knew he could and would do it.

"Delano de Roux," he said. "I would do anything for Christine to love me as she does that man."

Delano nodded knowingly. "You are brave, Erik. I showed you this possible future, and now you can make it yours."

"Why?" Erik sensed Delano's feeling of accomplishment. "Why are you helping me?"

"My duty, you must understand, is to see the many ways a certain life will be led. You have earned your right to a good life. I merely took it upon myself to warn you of what would happen, and what can happen if you are willing to cross a silly, moral boundary. Come, now." Delano extended a hand to him and Erik felt himself being pushed back into his physical form, stuffy and confining. But before he could entirely return, he felt a tugging on the spirit part of him that yanked him back toward the vision. It cleared again and he saw the little girl standing in the center of the oriental rug.

"Erik." Her blue eyes sparkled. "What are you doing?"

"Child," he replied, "I am going to live a beautiful life alongside the woman I love. Don't I deserve that?"

"Don't be fooled by Delano. He can only bring misfortune and pain."

"He is giving me a real life!" Erik's surreal voice rose impatiently. "He is allowing me to be happy!"

She shook her head grimly. "His powers do not breach love. He cannot make Christine fall in love with you, Erik. He can only tempt you to murder and fall deeper into hate and agony. Don't you see it is a trap?"

"Do not believe her!" Delano hissed, once again at Erik's side.

"Delano, how is she speaking to me?" Erik asked. "If she is just the character of a vision?"

"I am not," she insisted. "I have come to protect you."

Delano laughed coldly. "Erik, are you hearing this? Do you need protection from a little girl? Do not let her sway your decision; listen to me. I promise you that you will be happy with Christine if that man does not meet her and take her away from you!"

It was the child's turn to laugh. "Delano, you can promise him nothing like that." She turned to Erik. "You love Christine. Save her by letting her have the life she chooses. She is so happy in this vision. She has a daughter."

"I want a daughter!" Erik cried. The part of him that was still in his body surged with emotions; anger and desperation. "I want Christine!"

"Unfortunately, you cannot decide what Christine wants. I beg you; let her go and she will be happy. If you love her, you will give her the man who will present himself to her very soon in time. You will let them go together."

"But you love her!" Delano growled. "You deserve her! You have gotten nothing from life and she is all you care for! That man has everything he could possibly want. Kill him!"

"You know what to do," the child said.

"I don't!" Erik shouted. "I don't know what to do! Will Christine truly be miserable with me? Will she?"

"Go back to your body, Erik," the girl said, pushing his spirit further into its solid, mortal cage.

"No!" Delano yelled with ethereal intensity, his eyes blazing red. "I am not done!"

"Don't make me go!" Erik cried simultaneously, his words drowned out by Delano's. But it was too late. With a final shove, he was knocked back into his body for good. The weight of it made him stagger, and he fell as a wave of sadness and despair hit him so hard that he collapsed, sobbing. Delano was gone, and he once again felt the cold floor of his house beneath him. The mirror still stood, and the candle burned as if no time had passed. Erik noticed none of this as he continued to emit deep, uncontrollable sobs, crumpled and shaking for a long time.

When he finally calmed himself, he breathed deeply, taking in everything that had happened to him, which had occurred in only the span of a few minutes. He knew what he had to do for Christine. He knew what he had to do for love.

He stood up slowly and noticed his reflection, which he'd forgotten was raw and unmasked. With a sudden pang of fear he clawed frantically into the darkness for his lost mask. His fingers stumbled upon the silk which he grasped with a slight twinge of relief although his hate for the black shield never left him. As a silent stream of tears flowed from his eyes, he finally understood his unfortunate fate and that he was powerless to stop it. Erik, giving in to the realization that he was nothing to her, and that she would never know of his secret sacrifice, once again pulled the mask over his face.