This story was my contribution to the Third Morbidity Writing Contest. A little what-if scenario! It was actually one point above tying for First Place with the other stories that won the contest, but I always exclude my own story in the final ranking :) Thanks to everyone who participated! Go and read the other morbid contest stories! They are all darkly awesome!
The shot shattered the peace of the sleeping house. And while footsteps hurried along the halls, Raoul sat looking into the darkness, holding out his pistol, ready to shoot again.
This time the two eyes had disappeared.
Light, people, Count Philippe, terribly anxious:
"What happened, Raoul?"
"I think I have been dreaming. I shot at two stars that kept me from sleeping."
"You're raving! Are you ill? For God's sake, tell me what happened!"
And the count seized hold of the revolver.
"No, no, I'm not raving. And we shall soon find out . . ."
Raoul rose and slipped his robe over his shoulders with excitedly shaking hands as his feet found his slippers.
"Raoul! Raoul!" His brother grabbed him by a shoulder. "There is a bullet hole in the window!"
"Yes!" Raoul said with a sharp laugh, pulling away and crossing to the balcony. "Yes, yes, I shot at two stars that kept me from sleeping," he repeated as he pulled open the French doors and stepped aside to reveal to Philippe and all who watched—the crumpled shape of a fallen man on the balcony.
"And I put them out for good."
The count's valet rushed forward and knelt beside the sprawled, cloaked figure.
"Who is he?" Philippe gasped, gripping Raoul's arm violently. "Raoul, what have you done!"
"He is Erik! He is my rival! He is no more."
"He is dead, sir." The valet looked up to them from where he crouched on the snowy balcony, and the hand he pulled from the widespread black cloak came away red and wet.
"What have you done?" Philippe moaned again, but his hand was thrown off by Raoul as the viscount quickly joined the servant and was followed by another who carried a lantern.
"Pull back the hood," Raoul commanded, his teeth chattering in the night air. "I want to know his face."
"What was he doing on your balcony?" Philippe joined them there, shaking his head and pulling at his mustache.
"Sir?" The valet looked up to Raoul, but was only answered by a stern nod. He pinched at the fabric of the all-concealing cloak where he thought the victim's face might be and gently tugged it away.
Silence from all the men, but the woman holding the lantern screamed, dropped it into the snow, and flew back indoors.
Raoul's giddy grin twisted into a scowl. "The Death's Head of Perros. So it is you," he said almost too softly for his brother to hear. "Fraud. Fiend. Monster."
"Did you... know this person?" Philippe knelt to look more closely in the dark at the hallow features of the deathly face in the growing pool of melted white-turned-red.
Raoul blinked and looked up to meet his brother's eyes as if he had not understood him.
Philippe's strong jaw clenched as the handle of the pistol twisted in his hand. "Raoul. You have murdered this man."
Raoul shook his head slowly, the realization of his act finally settling upon him. "He…He is Erik. He was a fraud… I…" He groaned, lifting his hands to his face.
"He was a burglar," Philippe answered firmly. "No doubt he had a weapon. You were protecting yourself."
"No, no." Raoul continued to shake his head and stepped back as he noticed blood soaking into his slippers.
The count stood and dropped the revolver into the deep pocket of his dressing gown. "If you had not shot him," he continued, his tone unchanging, "he would have surely murdered us all in our sleep."
"Sir," his valet said, uncertainly. "Do you think the police will believe it?"
"Why shouldn't they?" Philippe snapped. "It is the truth."
"She doesn't have to be afraid anymore," Raoul murmured as he backed away into his bedroom. "The demon angel is dead."
Philippe scowled and gestured to another hesitant manservant with a lantern to join him outside. "I don't know who this is, but…"
"He is Erik!" Raoul's voice interrupted, floating back to them at the edge of a laugh.
"Sir," said the second servant as he passed the lantern to the valet and used both of his strong hands to roll the body over. "He is not dressed like any burglar I've ever seen."
The valet nodded and the count scrutinized the dead man's clothes. It was true. Aside from the conspicuous black cloak and the hideousness of the strange man's features, he was dressed as if he had just come from the Opera.
The servant picked up one of the limp wrists to probe for a pulse, slipping his fingers beneath the edge of a fur-lined black leather glove. "He is already as cold as ice. This could be bad… Very bad for your brother, sir."
Philippe's moustache had never known such chewing. "Then we don't tell the police."
"Look at him. Have you ever seen a face like that? If it were not for the blood, I should have thought he were a corpse, dead and rotting for weeks."
"A monster!" Raoul shouted in a raspy voice from where he sat at the end of his bed, staring at them and twisting a corner of his robe round and round in his hands.
"Sir." The valet nodded to the count.
"If the police were to find him dead somewhere far from here, they would have no reason to connect him with us." He hesitated and glanced back into the room at his brother. "Would they, Raoul?"
"They don't believe in the Angel of Music," was all he managed to say.
Philippe shuddered. The servants nodded. An hour later, under the perfect cloak of a cloudy midnight, Erik's body was dumped quietly into the river.
If Raoul had not managed to eventually find sleep in the fine hours of the morning and awaken as late as noon, he would have never have been able to find the strength to bring himself to tell Christine of what happened. He did not dare wait until after the opera that evening, but instead sought her in her dressing room an hour before Faust was to begin.
"My darling friend," she gasped as she clutched his sleeve and pushed the door closed behind him. "You are in great danger!"
"Am I!" Raoul pressed his usual trembling kisses to her hands.
Christine pulled them away from his lips and began wringing them, a gesture it seemed she had not ceased to continue since she had lost that gold ring the day before. "I have been so afraid for you! Erik heard everything I told you last night! He is mad with fury! He would hear none of my pleas, none of my lies! He insists I sing tonight for the last time! Oh, you must take me away at once, Raoul or we shall never escape! He will kill you! You do not know how much I feared for your life since I saw you last! You do not know how wild his anger is!" And her voice broke off into sobs.
Raoul clasped her at once by the arms. "Did he hurt you, Christine? Did he hurt you?"
She shook her head, moaning and pressing the back of her hand to her lips. "He told me if I ran away he would follow me to the ends of the earth. He told me any man who wanted to marry me would be a dead groom before his wedding night. He… Oh, Raoul! Thank God you are here with me now! We must go, we must! But no, he will kill you! I cannot! He is insane with jealousy! Oh, how I have betrayed him! He saw me kiss you, Raoul. He has my ring. I am no longer safe!"
"Christine! Christine!" He pulled her into his embrace, pressing her face comfortingly against the shoulder of his coat. "Do not fear, do not cry. He will not kill me. He will never harm anyone again."
She shook her head against him, but he held her tightly. "He will kill you! And then I will die!"
"We will run away from here and we will elope, Christine. He will not kill me. Of that I can assure you, and do you know why? Because I have killed him."
All at once her sobbing died, and a strangled cry choked in her throat. She pulled away from him so that she might see his eyes and there beheld only all unquestionable seriousness. "You… What?"
Raoul straightened where he stood. "I have killed him."
"No," she gasped, taking a step back and shaking her head. "It is impossible! How? When?"
"He stole onto my balcony in the dead of darkness and watched me through the window as I tried to sleep."
She gasped again. "Surely he meant to kill you!"
"I keep a revolver in my bedside drawer."
"You… You shot him…"
"No," she breathed and fell into her dressing chair. "It is not possible…"
Raoul knelt before her, clasping her ringless hand in his own. "It is Christine, for it is true. We are free. We can fly from here. We can be married. And he will not follow us, he will not harm us, he will not haunt us ever again." He pressed another kiss to her hand and repeated much more softly, "We are free."
"Free," she whispered, and her eyes found her tearstained reflection in the mirror. "He is dead…"
"Yes, my love, and we can go at once. My carriage is waiting. All the preparations are in order. My brother knows, but there is nothing he can do to stop us. Let us leave all this behind at once."
Her tears were silent ones now. "No, Raoul… I must sing."
He hesitated then nodded quickly. "Then I will be here at midnight after the opera and we will be gone before either of us is ever missed."
"Oh…" She lifted a hand and slowly traced the damp streaks upon her face. "Free…"
"Yes, my beloved, my fiancée, free. Finally free. Just the opera, and then…"
"No, Raoul," she said almost too faintly for him to understand.
She looked down to him and shook her head, biting back the sob that trembled at the edge of her voice. "No, Raoul."
"There is no reason to run away now, Raoul." She paused for a moment as her voice threatened to break. "He is dead."
"But Christine, my beloved, my betrothed, we cannot be married if we do not go. My family…"
She shook her head, her tone growing more solid. "No, Raoul, I am not your betrothed… That was only a game. You must go to the Arctic. You must honor your family."
She stood and turned from him, folding her arms about herself and staring into the mirror. "There is no need now… He is dead."
He stared up at her, breathless. "Christine, I love you."
She shook her head again, slowly, and sighed away all the breath left within her.
He was on his feet at once. "Christine! Please! You cannot mean this!"
She turned to him and the grief in her eyes broke his heart. "You have set me free…"
She sang gloriously that night with all the love and sacrifice and sorrow that she had left. She offered up to Paris all that remained of her soul in an unabashed prayer that someway, somehow, those angels that were now in heaven might perhaps hear even just a little of the final glory of her heart. All Paris could offer in return was their applause, tears, and rose after rose at the faultless final curtain call.
And at midnight she was not in her dressing room. Raoul went back to his brother's house alone. Two weeks later, he boarded the Requin on a northbound journey from which he did not care if he never returned.
She had not loved him, he eventually concluded. She had only needed him in the face of a tragedy with the face of a corpse. But he did not hate her. At first, he thought he would, but none of those feelings were strong enough to overcome the misery in his heart. He had loved her. He still did. And he realized now that he did not care if she only ever loved him because she needed him. He wouldn't have cared if she only married him to escape Erik. They would have been happy together. They would have been happy… If only…
The melancholy that wrapped itself tightly about Raoul's personality estranged him from the start from the rest of the ship's crew. He found himself often spending most of his time in solitary sighing as he gazed out the window of his cabin at the passing fjords speckled with new spring flowers. He saw her face in the features of each young maiden with a basket that wandered the distant hills above the seashores. His heart ached for the warmth of the fireside beneath the smoking chimney of each little cottage that was nestled along those Scandinavian coasts. If only…
The ship was strong and fast and it was not long before flowers faded into ice fields and the rolling hills became lifeless cliffs, the dear cottages replaced by rough, dark cabins.
But he still saw her face in each cloud in the grey sky, heard her voice in each hollow moan of the night wind. Sometimes he was certain he heard singing. Sometimes he woke from his mournful dreams with tears in his eyes.
They left the ship often then, wrapped in fleece and furs, to survey the ice and make inquiries at the whaling camps. The D'Artois had been through the year before. Perhaps they would find it yet. The other sailors mocked the young viscount. They tried to cheer him with cruelty. They knew he had been in love. But he would not play their card games and he would not shoot seals with them. He would not shoot anything. They often sent him out alone with the dogsled. He seemed to prefer the solitude.
He had just returned alone to the ship long before all the others one afternoon, and was changing out of his wetted clothes when, through his window, he saw the dark silhouette of a strange dogsled appear around a frozen hill against the sunset. The driver whipped at his beasts and drove them out onto the ice with a boldness that no one in the Requin's crew would have dared. For they knew that this far south of the pole, the ice was thin. They knew it would break under the weight of the sled. And so it did.
Raoul watched in horror as the sea appeared in sudden great cracks between the floating ice and both sled and driver disappeared beneath as the dogs scrambled to save themselves from being pulled under as well, their howling cries lost in the moaning, singing wind.
Raoul pulled on his coat again and rushed out at once, screaming to the others, to anyone for help. Someone must be left on board! He could not have been the only one to witness such an accident!
He took no time to fasten snow shoes and slipped and skidded over the ice as he made his way to where the broken chunks were spreading away. He could hear the dogs crying now. One was already submerged.
Falling to his knees on the last frozen surface he deemed safe, he reached out and snapped the leather harnesses with the blade of his knife. A warm rush, and the animals bounded over him to steady ground. Flattening himself onto his stomach, he plunged a gloved hand into those icy waters. But sled and dog had already sunk into the depths.
He pulled back and shook his head to rid the tears that were sticking to his face. Why had it happened outside his window? Why had he been the only one to see? The wind sighed in his ears and blew them painfully cold. The surviving dogs were whimpering and licking each other. Raoul thrust his hand between his knees to keep it warm and closed his eyes. He could hear the singing again. She was free-but he would never be.
He forced the sound from his mind, and then with the sigh he had perfected, he moved to stand. "I am a mariner, just like the others," he whispered. "But your siren's song will not lure me. I will listen no longer."
But it was just as he said this that he realized, despite his efforts, he could not help continuing to hear the very distinct melody of song. He opened his eyes, but he was as alone as he had always been. "I will not listen," he said again, his voice trembling.
Listen, though, he could not help but do. The song was as real to his hearing as if the very sirens of legend themselves had found their home beneath the ice at his feet. He shook his head and turned back to look into the water. "It cannot be," he murmured. But it was. And the closer he leaned over the hole in the ice, the more distinctly he could hear a very real voice singing to him the most beautiful requiem he had ever heard.
And as he stared down at his own wavering reflection, mouth and eyes wide in shock, the image of his face upon the surface of the water was slowly replaced by the face of death itself rising to meet him. Two glowing stars that could never be put out. And two very strong arms exploded into the air, gripped Raoul by the shoulders, and dragged him into the water, submerging him immediately.
The viscount struggled, but he was weak and he was tired. He knew who it was that held him. He would never have forgotten Erik's face.
"You thought you had killed me," the sickeningly melodious voice sounded so clearly through the water, like the echo of a dream. "Christine cried when you told her I was dead."
Raoul opened his mouth, but he only breathed the crystal waters of the north. His eyes stared but he saw nothing more than blackness beneath the distant glow of the eternally setting sun.
"I wanted to thank you," the voice came again, all the more dreamlike. "I wanted to thank you very much."
Raoul's chest had begun to burn, had begun to cry. The light was almost gone.
"But that is all, and I cannot stay long," Erik spoke again after endless, torturous moments as if he had actually been waiting for a response from the drowning man. "Goodbye, goodnight." The fading chords of his voice weaved through that subarctic water and into the final core of Raoul's one last conscious thought. "I must go. She is waiting for me."
The sun set, night fell, and the strong arms released Raoul, finally setting him free into the empty depths of darkness.