Author's Note: I hope this chapter was worth the wait. It's not a happy chapter, but I had a blast writing it, and I'm fairly pleased with it despite how out of practice I feel. Of course, it's you as the readers who will determine that. Enjoy, guys! We only got two, maybe three chapters after this, and it means the world to me that you've stuck with me for this long!
The Darkest Night
Christine did not know why she was afraid. In her heart, she knew she had no reason to be afraid. She was with Erik, whom she knew would never do her any harm, and yet the whole situation felt wrong. She could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice. Although Christine still thought there was nothing worse than being totted off as the new bride of a tallow merchant, she began to doubt her decision by coming here. Her previous vision of Erik whisking her off into his arms into the starry night was gradually growing dimmer and further away.
Erik moved through the crowd of people as if they did not exist, the masked dancers parting around him like the tide around a stone. Christine followed reluctantly, because she felt as though she did not have any other choice, as though a giant, invisible hand was pushing her along and resistance was otherwise useless. They passed through the Opera House as though moving through a dream; Christine was only dimly aware of following Erik through the vast silence of the main stage and the maze of now-vacant backstage corridors, her mind buzzing with newborn anxiety and her blood sang in her ears. It was only the slight pressure of Erik's hand on her back that summoned her back to reality. Christine saw that they had paused before the tightly-coiled wrought iron staircase that would take them to the upper levels of the Opera House and eventually out to the roof. Whatever it was Erik needed to tell her, he wanted to make absolutely sure no one would be able to overhear them.
Christine looked up at Erik with unspoken question, but the look in his eyes told her she had no other option. With her heart lodged firmly in her throat, Christine began to climb their staircase, the slight reverberation under her feet the only indication that Erik was following her.
The night air had lost most of its stifling humidity by the time Christine stepped onto the roof of the Opera Populaire, and the formally cool breeze had picked up into a chill frantic wind, carrying with it the distant echo of thunder. Christine shivered in spite of herself, but it was only partially due to the cold. The slight motion did not go unnoticed to Erik, and only a heartbeat later Christine felt the warm weight of his coat settle over her shoulders, shielding her from the biting wind.
"Christine, you were limping."
Christine grimaced. In her effort to find Erik, she had forgotten about her twisted ankle from the fall from her bedroom window, but now it throbbed with renewed pain. Before she could even attempt to convince him it was nothing to worry about, Christine felt Erik gently yet firmly guide her to the ledge of the roof. She sat down on the low molded border at his unspoken command, her own words failing her as Erik knelt down before her, taking her injured foot in his hands. He slipped the shoe off, then began to gently massage her ankle, and with each ministration the pain became duller even as her own heart became heavier.
The silence was near unbearable. Down below, the sounds and music of the Masquerade continued to carry on, but it seemed very far away, like the memory of a fabulous dream that was now beyond Christine's reach. Unable to stand it any longer, Christine cleared her throat, but her voice still cracked horribly. "I don't suppose we could have gotten very far with my ankle like this." She struggled to keep her voice light and unassuming. Confronting Erik head-on about the subject would only test his temper and create more heartache than she could stand tonight.
Erik stiffened, his taloned hands ceasing in their ministrations. Christine held her breath, her stomach somersaulting. She saw his shoulders heave in a silent sigh before he stood up, turning away from her to look out over Paris. Christine rose to her feet as well, removing her mask and setting it down on the roof, barely taking notice that her ankle no longer hurt. "Erik? What's wrong?" This time she did not mask the apprehension in her voice. When he wouldn't answer, she finally said in a smaller voice, "We're not going to Paris." She did not make it a question.
Erik closed his eyes and Christine truly believed his regret. "Christine... There has been an unforeseen change in plans. Nadir and I now know for a fact that the Grand Vizier is here in Paris. The corpse in Opera House has told us that much. But we…Nadir and I…do not know if he knows we have found each other yet." He hesitated a moment, knowing that neither of them would like what he had to say next. "Therefore…it is only reasonable that Nadir and I travel on, alone, until the Vizier is no longer a threat to any of us."
The air in Christine's lungs left in a rush. She had expected him to say something like this, but hearing it voiced made it a hundred times more painful. A new emotion suddenly welled up inside of her, swift and unexpected; anger, building like a wave to drown out rationality and reason and bringing with it a terrible surge of selfishness. "And what about me, Erik?" Christine demanded, not caring how childish she must have sounded to his ears. "Am I to play the wife of a tallow merchant until you feel that it's safe to return? I would rather die than suffer that fate!" Erik actually winced under her assault, but Christine forced herself to ignore the small movement, to not feel the guilt. She felt that her anger was justified. She was tired of the broken and empty promises, of having her dreams built up only to have them dashed on the harsh rocks of reality. For just once, she wanted answers, she wanted certainty, and she would be damned if she let it pass her by again.
The look of pleading forgiveness in Erik's golden eyes had Christine nearly regretting her furious outburst, but before he could say anything something behind her suddenly caught his attention, and Christine suddenly found herself being pulled behind him, putting himself between her and the mystery intruder. She immediately forgot about her anger as gut-wrenching fear took its place, only to turn to icy dread when she saw it was not the Grand Vizier who had found them, but her cousin Giselle. What made it all the worse was the look on Giselle's face. It was not one of shock of finding Christine on the roof of the Opera Populaire with the masked magician of Persia, but one of cold, smug triumph. Words failed her, giving Giselle the advantage of speaking first.
"You might want to reconsider your options, Christine. Being the wife of a tallow merchant might not be such a horrid fate compared to what he has in mind for you." Giselle nodded her head towards Erik, but would not lift her eyes to his masked face.
"What are you doing here, Giselle?" Christine demanded, coming out of her shock. "How did you know we were up here?" It was hard to keep her voice from shaking. The smile on her cousin's face told Christine that whatever Giselle had in mind, it was nothing but horrible.
"Oh…nothing much." Giselle cooed, her smile deepening. Thunder rumbled in the sky above them as the first cold raindrops began to fall. "I just came up here to tell you something." She suddenly tore her eyes away from Christine and forced herself to look at Erik, her face twisting into a horrible grimace, as though someone was trying to force her hand into a fire. "By the powers of the elements and the will of the cosmos, I bind thee to me!"
The hairs on the back of Christine's neck and the top of her head stood on end as the air crackled with power, the force of it a pressing weight on her shoulders. Erik went completely rigid beside her; she could feel his muscles tense under her fingers, his taloned hands clutching into fists as a sheen of sweat appeared on his exposed upper lip. "Erik?" Erik said nothing, but Christine could tell by the clench of his jaw that he was in a great deal of pain. She rounded on Giselle, the fire in her eyes causing her cousin to flinch. "You horrible hag! What did you do to him?"
For the space of a few heartbeats Giselle only gawked stupidly at them, as if she had not expected whatever she did to Erik would actually work. But her composure quickly returned to her, the same smug smirk returning to her features. "Just a little trick someone taught me. I believe you two know him. He says he's an old friend from Persia."
Christine felt fear seize her by her mid-section as the rain began to fall harder, plastering her hair to her head and her heavy costume dress to her body. "Giselle, how can you trust that awful man? He's dangerous! I would have hoped that even you weren't foolish enough to see that!"
"Don't speak to me about being a fool, Christine! I am not the one who was blindly enchanted by that devil you've fallen in love with! You! Magician!" Giselle snapped, rounding on Erik again. "I order you to show Christine the scroll!"
Erik growled deep in his throat. Blood dripped from between his fingers where his talons pierced his skin, mixing with the rain.
"By the power of the cosmos that bind you, I order you to show her!"
Christine could hear Erik's teeth grind together as he continued to resist Giselle's demands, watching in horror as blood began to trickle over his lower lip and down the sides of his face, his whole body shuddering as the force binding him tightened its hold. Unable to endure it any longer, Christine grabbed hold of his sleeve. "Erik, Erik please, don't fight it! Please, just show me! This isn't worth it!"
Erik only shook his head, the barest back-and-forth movement creating agony. Desperately, Christine reached up and grasped both sides of his face, feeling the warm stickiness of his blood that flowed from his ears. "Erik, listen to me! This isn't worth it! Please, just show me what ever it is she's telling you to! It can't be this bad!"
Erik met her gaze evenly, and through the pain he was enduring, Christine could hear his unspoken confession: But it is.
"Show her, magician." Giselle ordered.
"For me." Christine implored.
The magical bonds slackened as Erik moved his arms to obey the command. One shaking hand dipped into his coat, withdrawing a tightly rolled scroll of ancient-looking parchment. At first Christine did not see what was so special about it until she saw the rain rolling off the scroll as though it were covered in wax. Erik flicked his wrist, sending the scroll flying into the air where it froze, hovering above their heads before unraveling itself with a flourish. As Christine watched, gold script began to flow across the parchment, glowing like flame.
"Read it." Giselle commanded.
Christine heard Erik take a trembling breath, his voice shaking as he spoke. "If youth and beauty doth thou seek, 'tis the heart and soul of love doth thou reap."
Christine blinked, confused. "I don't understand. What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means, my dear cousin, that in order to obtain beauty and be free of his wretched face, he must make a sacrifice of the one he loves. You."
"I don't believe you." Christine snapped back, even though she could not ignore the sickening sensation that crawled through her innards.
"What's there not to understand, Christine? The gentleman from Persia explained everything to me so I might save your life. Why else would you think he would follow you all the way to Paris? Because he loved you?" Giselle laughed, a high, cold sound. "You're more foolish than I thought. Look at him, Christine! He's not even human! He probably doesn't have a soul, much less a heart! Face it, cousin; you're an end to a means."
Tears burned in Christine's eyes, flowing down her face in hot rivets against the cold rain. Anger boiled in her chest, but waves failed her during Giselle's verbal onslaught. She spun to face Erik, her numb hands clutching the front of her sodden coat. "Erik… Please, please Erik! Tell her none of that it true! Tell her that everything the Vizier told her is a lie!" But there was the Scroll of Eros, the very scroll Erik had gone to Persia for, hanging in the air above her, mocking her with its very presence. God, why wasn't he saying anything? Why wasn't he denying Giselle's accusations?
Slowly, Christine released her hold on him.
Erik did not respond, but only curled up into himself as his body convulsed with a new form of pain removed from the binding spell Giselle had put on him.
Erik's wings unfurled explosively from his back, tearing the coat of his costume and spraying Christine with second-hand raindrops. She only had time to utter a wordless cry of despair before he took flight, immediately swallowed by the rain-darkened night.
For several long, dragging moments, Christine was stunned into silence, her mind struggling to comprehend what had just happened. Erik was gone. Gone. Swallowed by the dark night, and this time, Christine was certain that he did not intend to come back. Fury quickly replaced the crushing despair before it had the chance to overwhelm her. She rounded on Giselle with the same unbridled rage of an erupting volcano.
"You!" Christine spat at her cousin, snarling like a wildcat. Before she could pounce of Giselle and tear her limb from limb, the door leading to the roof they came through opened with a sudden bang, revealing a very disgruntled looking stagehand who looked revealed instead of surprised to find two young women standing on the roof in their masquerade costumes.
"Hey! You two!" He shouted over the hiss of the rain. "What are you doing up here, and in this weather no less? Your parents have the whole Opera House in an uproar looking for you, the both of you! Now I suggest that you should both get inside and out of the rain before you get in any more trouble than you already are!"
Giselle fled the scene immediately, taking the opportunity to escape from Christine's wrath. Christine did not follow right away, but continued to stand in the sheeting rain, letting it wash away her anger and her grief, allowing her to face her family with at least some dignity.
"Mademoiselle." The stagehand requested firmly. Christine had no other choice but follow, leaving the Opera House roof and following the man back to the masquerade on invisible strings.
Giselle had taken advantage of Christine's moment of composure to reach their family first, and judging by the smug look on her rain-stained face, she had already told her mother and father her account of the story. Christine did not flinch as she solidly met her aunt's furious gaze. While she knew that her aunt would never make a scene in such a prestigious social event, Christine had no fear of the wrath that awaited her when they returned to the townhouse. She had nothing left that they could take from her.
Aunt Celeste sniffed, straightening her spine as she looked from one sodden young woman to the other. "Well then, ladies, I think we've had enough fun for one evening. Come; the carriage awaits." Christine hid her eagerness to leave the ball, regardless of what was waiting for her at home, leaving the whispered rumors of the other masquerade guests behind her.
No one spoke to one another on the carriage ride home, which felt to take several hours to Christine. She only gazed mutely out the windows onto the streets darkened by the night and the rain. Francine sat beside her, trembling at the force that filled the cab while Giselle set in between her mother and father with the same un-flickering expression of triumph while her parents fixed Christine with identical tight-lipped stares. Christine ignored very last one of them, her mind focused on two things and two things alone; Erik, and where he was at that moment.
The wind and rain swirled endlessly around him, a vortex of dark madness that matched the tearing despair inside of him. He did not know where he was going, nor did he care. All he knew was that Christine was lost to him forever, and she at last saw him as the monster that he truly was. Lightening flared across the sky, and below him Erik could see a field of stark black and white geometric shapes; the outlines of a Paris cemetery. Erik folding his wings and descended swiftly, hoping to find at least some solace amongst those whose hearts also no longer beat.
Erik landed hard on the cold granite crypts, tearing his mask from his face. Agony tore threw him like an animal in its death throes, begging for mercy he did not deserve. His hands clutched at the stone until it cracked under his fingers before throwing back his head and howling out his pain, the sound lost in a peal of thunder, knowing no one would listen even if he wanted them to.
The carriage finally came to its final stop before the townhouse, but Christine had thrown open the door before the driver even had the chance to step down from his seat. The wet cobblestone was dangerously slick beneath Christine's slippers as she made a mad dash to the front door. The servants immediately scrambled for safety when Christine burst through the entrance, spraying them with water as she dashed for the staircase. She knew that she had a very little chance of escaping her aunt's house without a fight, but if they wanted to stop her, they would have to catch her first.
"Christine!" Aunt Celeste's voice tore through the foyer like the roar of a lioness, the rage and shame that had been pent up inside of her since the Opera House finally released. "Where in the name of God do you think you're going? I demand that you come down here at once and explain yourself!"
"Demand all you want, aunt, if it will make you feel better!" Christine shouted back as she climbed the stairs, leaving a spiteful trail of water on the expensive rug that covered the steps. "Or, better yet, ask your daughter for an account since you probably won't believe me anyway! I'm sure she's itching like a whore to tell you if she hasn't done so already!"
"You horrid girl!" Her uncle bellowed up at her as his wife and daughters recoiled in shock. "I will not tolerate this behavior wile you live under my roof!"
"Since I won't be under your roof much longer, you won't have to, uncle!"
"You ungrateful little urchin!" Giselle stepped forward as she joined the battle. "That monster was getting ready to cut out your heart and eat it had I not been there! You should be thanking me for saving your life!"
Christine came to an abrupt stop on the stairs before she rounded on Giselle, unaware of nothing else but the purest rage she felt for her oldest cousin. She flew down the stairs faster than she had climbed them, closing in on Giselle before the blonde woman had any hope to react. The edge of Christine's knuckles caught the curve of Giselle's pretty jaw and sent her, quite literally, flying out of her slippers and into her equally flabbergasted family. Christine's hand throbbed, but it was dull and far away compared to the wrath that filled every cell of her being. When she spoke, she had to form the words around her heavy breathing. The calmness in her tone surprised even her.
"If Erik truly did come to Paris to eat my heart in exchange for beauty, then he would have done so by now. He had more than his fair share of chances to do so with all the time we spent together. But do you know why he did not – would not – do it? It's because the love we have for each other is something you can never possibly understand. It is a love that you will never experience, Giselle, even if you live to become old and feeble. That's because you are a spoiled, selfish, self-absorbed cow who only loves herself, so you could never hope of seeing what is good and kind in other people. I don't know why Erik had the scroll on him, but he knows that I love him more than anything else in this life, mask or no mask! I truly pity you, cousin, knowing that you will never know the love that I do, but I also rejoice knowing you can never do anything to reserve it."
Christine had expected swift and equally terrible retaliation from her family, but her family only stood before her, motionless, stunned into shocked silence by her outburst. She wasted no time while the opportunity still presented itself, and she turned away to tear up the stairs again, dashing to her room and locking the door behind her in case they came to their senses too quickly. Ayesha stood on her bed, her fur standing up along her arched spine.
"Christine! What happened down there? I heard all that awful shouting!"
"We are leaving, Ayesha. Tonight." Christine said abruptly as she worked to free herself from her heavy, soaking dress. She did not question why Ayesha was in her room in the first place. Perhaps Nadir had sent her, sensing something had gone amiss at the masquerade.
"What's wrong? Where's Erik?"
Christine hesitated only for a second. "I don't know. But we're going to find him. Before something else does." Christine let the once beautiful gown fall into a shapeless mess on the floor and left it there as she pulled on a steadier traveling dress made of wool. She only briefly recalled that her provisions were still hidden in the Opera House dressing room, but that was not important at that time. They could always return and get it later. Right now she had to focus on getting out of the house before her family came after her and attempted to keep her from leaving. No matter if they did. She could always climb out the window if it came down to it.
Christine threw a heavy cloak over her shoulders, pulling the hood up over her head. "Ayesha, let's go." The cat leapt gracefully from her bed and onto her shoulders as Christine swept from her room without a backgrounds glance.
Her family was still huddled in the foyer when Christine emerged on the landing. Her aunt was fussing over Giselle and the swelling bruise on her face while Francine paced back and forth, emitting little choking, sobbing sounds amongst the clicking of her heels. All attention was turned back to Christine as she descended the stairs, taking them two at a time. Aunt Celeste moved protectively before her daughter as if she half-expected Christine to attack her again, but her eyes would not leave the slinky Siamese cat wrapped around Christine's shoulders.
"Christine, how did that filthy animal get into my house?"
Christine did not answer, keeping her head high as she made her way to the front door, stopping only when her uncle stepped into her path.
"And just what do you think you're doing?"
"Something I should have done a long time ago: leaving."
"I don't think so. Never in my life have I ever met anyone so ungrateful to the charity shown to them! Your aunt and I gave you everything when we could have very well have left you on the streets, and this is how you repay us? You will account for your disreputable behavior tonight, or so help me…"
Her uncle never had the chance to finish his threat before the door behind him exploded off its hinges, the heavy wood slamming against her uncle's back and pinning him to the floor. Celeste screamed as clutched her daughters to her as an icy cold wind howled through the foyer, dragging the storm in with it as it extinguished all the lamps, upturning and shattering furniture and decor and plunged the house into absolute darkness. Ayesha stood from Christine's shoulder, hissing and spitting as if possessed, but fear had rooted Christine to the floor, throwing her heart into her mouth and robbing the breath from her lungs.
Lightening flared, filling the world with its harsh white light, revealing the silhouetted shadow of a monster that filled the empty front door. Ayesha leapt off Christine's shoulder, hurtling herself at that terrible form only to have the creature catch her effortlessly in one hand before flinging her into an ornate mirror with a flick of its wrist, shattering the silvery face. Ayesha fell to a boneless mass to the floor amongst a rain of glittering glass.
Christine cried out wordlessly for her fallen friend, the sound cut off abruptly as a hand – an unbearably cold and scaly hand – closed over her mouth, cruelly twisting her face around so she was looking up at her captor. Christine could not suppress her whimper as she stared into the empty eyes of a hideously grinning chimera mask.
"Fly away now, little bird." The man behind the mask growled, and darkness consumed her completely.
Through the driving rain, the howling wind and the rumble of thunder, Erik's eyes snapped open as he swung his head back towards the city. Something was wrong. Horribly wrong.
Erik launched himself off the crypt he was perched on, catching the next gust of wind and flying back to Paris as fast as his wings could carry him.