Watch a man in times of adversity to discover what kind of man he is; for then at last words of truth are drawn from the depths of his heart, and the mask is torn off.

Chapter 1

The Flight

Erik staggered through the tunnel, feeling nothing but pain. Biting, piercing, exploding pain. His body was whole, but his heart was in pieces. His eyes were so full of tears he could barely see, but he could hear. He heard the shouts of the mob that had found his lair…the police, soldiers, actors and workers at the opera house, and enraged citizens who'd come to the opera that night, witnessed all hell break loose, and were determined to help finally end the terror that'd gripped the Opera Populaire and all who were involved with it. As he ran through the passageway, blinded by tears and darkness, feeling his way along the cold stone walls with his hands, the sounds of shouting gradually faded. By now they must have found his home, and were probably tearing it up looking for him. Home. How could he even call it that? Homes were places you shared with people you loved and who loved you. At home, you could be safe. Happy. You were never alone. But he was always alone. No, he had never had a home. And he never would. Images flashed through his mind of all the things he'd collected being destroyed as the mob searched for him-his treasures broken, his sheet music ripped and tossed on the floor, trampled by muddy boots. He was stricken with feelings of loss, but his possessions were no longer so precious to him. How could they be, when his greatest treasure of all was gone?

Erik stopped, too grieved to run any more. He collapsed onto the damp stone floor and wept uncontrollably, his tears mixing with the water that dripped steadily from the ceiling and became a small stream throughout the passageway. Like a river of tears. He didn't know how long he lay there, but at some point, he found himself getting up and feeling his way through the tunnel again.

But why am I even running? he thought. Why don't I just surrender myself to them? What do I have to live for now?

Nothing. He had nothing to live for. But he was afraid. More than anything, he wanted the pain that had haunted him for so long to die. But there was only one way for that to happen, and he was afraid. The thought of dying terrified him-he knew what would await him after death.

Fire.

He felt a new wave of grief wash over him as the tears streamed down his face. He stopped again and closed his eyes, weeping. He wept for himself. For her. For the people he'd hurt. For everything.

Suddenly he felt something soft rub against his face. He opened his eyes and blinked away the tears clouding his vision. He was leaning against the wall in the tunnel, which was dimly lit, but enough to see his horse standing beside him. Raven. Black as his despair. Erik had kept her down in the tunnels all her life. Her makeshift stable, which was really just a cavern chamber with its floor covered with hay and straw, was not far ahead, and was lit by many candles and wall torches that cast enough light into the tunnel for him to see a little. Raven was his only friend, the only one who could look at him without fear, love him in spite of the terrible things he'd done. He stroked her nose, then put his arms around her and buried his face in her neck, letting his tears soak into her mane.

He wasn't sure how long he stayed like that, but when he heard shouts down the corridor, he used every ounce of will he had to pull himself together. They had found the mirror-broken, now-but they would never find him. He walked quickly to the stable, taking Raven's saddle and bridle and putting them on her as fast as he could. The sound of men's voices grew louder. Erik glanced over his shoulder and saw the light of torches a ways off. He jumped on Raven's back and as if she could read his mind, the horse immediately charged into a full gallop. The sound of hoof beats now echoed through the tunnels, and Erik knew the mob would hear them, but that was no matter. The men would never catch them-they didn't know the catacombs like he and Raven did. If they continued after him, they would be lost forever in the darkness.

Erik guided Raven through the tunnels. Sometimes there were torches or candles to light their way, and other times there was only darkness, but they knew the passageways by heart. Erik took random tunnels here and there, stopping to let the horse rest when she grew tired. He waited till the next night fell to leave the catacombs under the Opera Populaire. That way, he would have the cover of darkness long enough to make it out of Paris without anyone seeing him, or even worse, recognizing him. By now, the police and the mob had given up…or died in the tunnels. He could no longer hear them. There were many dangers hidden in the endless dark passageways.

Before he left, Erik decided to leave Raven to let her rest a little longer, and he walked until he reached one of his several storage chambers. He had a few of them scattered around the catacombs, stocked with food and drink and clothing, and most importantly, money. In the center of the chamber lay a huge chest full of it. Hurriedly, Erik took enormous handfuls of money and stuffed it into a sack. No matter how bad things got, he thought, he refused to live like a beggar-he had had enough of that long ago, during his childhood. He took two more bags, putting in the first bag food and canteens that he'd filled with water from some sealed jugs, and some clothes in the other. He also found a few more wigs and masks, thankfully.

He looked at the mask in his hand and grimaced, feelings of shame rising up inside of him. Christine had pulled off his mask in front of a theater full of people. They had all seen his face. And screamed with fear. Why had she done it? Why did she have to expose him like that? Was there even a reason? There was a lump in his throat, accompanied by a bitter taste in his mouth. He'd thought Christine was different from other people, like the ones he had grown up with in the carnival. But she wasn't. Something like anger towards her swelled up inside of him, but it was quickly overshadowed by sorrow and despair. He fell to the floor and curled up tightly, just laying there and sobbing.

Erik woke. He had cried himself to sleep, and wasn't sure how long he had been there. He found a stopwatch among his possessions that he'd decided to bring. It kept perfect time, and it read 8:00. The perfect time. Quickly, he dressed in a new set of evening clothes and pulled on a wig and mask. His face was so swollen from crying that the mask didn't fit well, and it rubbed painfully against his skin. No matter. He was used to pain. He gathered his bags of essentials, along with his violin case, which held one of his most prized possessions. There was nothing for him to live for but music now. Without music, he would die.

He didn't want to leave the catacombs. This place had been his…no, not his home…just, the place he had lived for such a long time. He knew so little of the outside world; all he had to go by were memories of his wretched childhood, and the things he had read in the books Madame Giry had brought to him over the years to amuse him, keep him company, and make him forget his own sorry life for a while. He missed Madame Giry. He missed Christine. The only people who'd ever cared about him. But still, even they were afraid of him.

Why was I cursed? he wondered. Why was I born like this? Condemned to spend a life in darkness? Alone.

He went back to where Raven had been resting and rubbed his horse's neck. At least he knew she would never leave him. He attached his bags to her saddle and led her up a final staircase. Then he walked toward an old, rusted door. He opened it slowly-it creaked loudly, making him cringe. Then, he stepped through the door.

They stood in a darkened alley behind the opera house. He climbed on Raven's back and took in their surroundings. The once bright lights of the Opera Populaire were all gone out now, the windows were broken, and the smell of ash and smoke still hung in the air and hinted at the destruction within the walls of the building. He'd destroyed it. Guilt gnawed at his insides. But still, his anger snaked its way into his mind and burned as bright as the flames that had ravaged the opera house. He'd done something terrible, but the people in that opera house had tried to do something terrible to him. And he hated them for it.

Suddenly a scream pierced the quiet of the night. Erik turned and saw two small figures in the shadowed alley-a little girl, and a boy even younger than she was.

"Who is it?" the little boy asked his sister, who stood trembling with fear, her fists clenched."

"It-it's him!" the girl's voice shook. "It's the Opera Ghost!" Without warning, she dashed off down the street and her brother, whose eyes had grown wide with fear, bolted after her; both shouted "Police! Police!"

Erik leaped back onto Raven's saddle, and urged her into a gallop. They'd be gone before the police came. As he rode through the street-lamp lit roads of Paris, he thought of the fear of the little children. It's the Opera Ghost! They had never seen him before, and yet they knew him. Or at least, the evil, nameless phantom of a villain everyone thought he was. Maybe he was wrong and everyone else was right. Christine had said the true distortion in him lay not in his hideous face, but within his soul. Now all he could feel in his heart was cold and darkness. As they passed rows and rows of houses, Erik thought of the people who lived in them. They were families, living together in homes. With love. Rain began to fall from the sky, which grew into a steady downpour and mixed with the tears running down his face and his mask.

Raven ran all through the night. Erik rarely had to guide her as they left Paris behind and entered the countryside. He had no idea where he was, but it didn't matter, since he didn't know where he was going. Now he was riding on a quiet country road. The rain tapered off, and Raven slowed to a walk. As the sun began to rise, Erik began to panic a little, and searched for a place to hide. The sun was burning his eyes, and he couldn't let anyone else see him; though he wore a mask again, he felt as if it were invisible, and everyone could see the twisted, haunted face beneath. No, no one could see him, not after what had happened the last two nights. Two nights. It felt more like two years.

Nearby there was a small patch of forest, and between the trees Erik glimpsed a small building. It was a dilapidated little wooden shack; it looked abandoned, so he guided Raven toward it. A closer look revealed that it was abandoned, so he dismounted and unsaddled Raven, setting her free to rest and graze in the adjacent meadow clearing.

"Don't go too far," he told her. It was the first time he'd spoken since two nights ago, and his voice was hoarse and barely audible. Don't you leave me too, he added silently. He turned and looked the shack up and down. Well, at least he had a project now-to turn that shack into a place he could live in. Suddenly he realized how tired and thirsty he was, and he led Raven in a search for water. Erik had another project as well-survival.