Chapter 37

"You have come here, to the seat of sweet music's throne, to this kingdom where all must pay homage to music…" –Erik

Another World

"Are you sure you want to go tonight, Erik?" Alana asked, watching as he slowly raised himself out of the chair and stood unsteadily on his feet.

"Yes." He spoke with quiet determination. "It will be easier to reach the opera house unseen under the cover of night, even with the soldiers. I've done this before."

Alana sighed and turned to look out the dirty window. They were staying at the hotel closest to the opera house, one of the few establishments that was still in operation. It was surprising to her how empty the streets were here, with many of the businesses closed down. It seemed like ordinarily, this would have been a nice part of town. The hotel they were staying at had once been grand, Cerise had told her, and though the furnishings and decorations were still beautiful, everything somehow seemed faded and sad now, slowly falling into disrepair. "It's getting dark now," she said, watching as the last few stragglers made it off the streets into the safety of their homes for the night. "I'm ready to go when you are." She looked at their pile of luggage on the other side of the room. "Bringing those along might be difficult…"

Erik shook his head. "If you would, take the set of lockpicks and skeleton keys in my suitcase, but leave the rest. You can take a bag for yourself with a few things in it if you wish. You won't need much. There will be plenty of supplies where we're going."

"Will you be all right here by yourself?" Alana asked Cerise as she went to pack her bag. During the carriage ride back they'd discussed everything, and Cerise had decided to stay behind when Alana and Erik went to the opera house. Part of it was her cousin's fear of the dark and being underground. Alana didn't mind; it would give her more time alone with Erik. They had so much to talk about, and with Cerise's promised cover story of Alana going to Détente to visit Marguerite Durand, she would have the time they needed.

"I'll be fine," said Cerise. "Don't worry about me. You two just stay safe."

"We'll try." Alana pulled her cousin into a hug, holding her close. "Thank you so much for all your help. I don't know what we would have done without you."

"You don't have to thank me. We're family. It's my job to help you stay out of trouble," Cerise laughed.

"Well, I'll try not to get into any more," Alana said. We've had more than our share." She looked wistfully at Erik, who'd made his way to the door and was ready to leave. After a final goodbye, Alana and Erik left the hotel through a back door and began walking down the alley.

They walked side by side through the dark backstreets, with Erik still leaning on Alana for support, telling her where they needed to make turns. Every few seconds brought a supposed perception of movement somewhere in the shadows, or the sound of someone approaching, seeing them. Alana felt she would go mad with the fear of being sighted. She glanced up at Erik. She could see the pain he could not hide written on his face, but he continued to walk on. She couldn't believe how strong he was, to keep on going like this, and his perseverance and presence close beside her made her stronger.

"Turn here. This is it." Erik pointed to a final right turn that took them to the back of a building.

"It is?" Alana could see the gigantic opera house towering over all the other buildings, but it was still down the street a ways.

"Yes." Erik let go of Alana and leaned against the wall. He was sweating visibly and his breathing was labored, but he wiped the sweat from the side of his forehead that was exposed, and held out a hand. "Lockpicks."

Alana reached into her bag and pulled out the little metal tools, spreading them out in open palms. Erik quickly selected one and made his way against the wall to the back door of the building. After fiddling with the lock for a moment, the door swung open. He gestured for her to step forward.

Alana walked into the room. By now it was almost completely dark outside, and inside it was even darker. She could see that there were tall shelves in the room, and slowly made out the shapes of pots and pans hanging up. The room was still warm and smelled of delicious food. "This is a restaurant kitchen," she said in bewilderment.

"Yes." Erik entered the kitchen and limped slowly through the dark, searching for something. Soon the room grew lighter. He'd found an oil lamp. "Follow me."

He led Alana to the far side of the kitchen and they stood facing a tall cluttered shelf. "This shelf isn't what it looks like," he told her.

So many things are…like you…

"It's a door, leading where we need to go," he continued.

Alana looked at him in amazement. "How do we open it?"

"We'll have to push it aside." Erik moved toward the shelf.

"No! I'll do it," Alana said, walking in front of him and blocking his path. "You need to save your strength."

"It's heavy."

"I'm stronger than I look."

Despite his pain, Erik gave a soft laugh. "I don't doubt it…"

Alana put her hands onto the side of the wooden shelf and began to push. At first it didn't budge, but she kept pushing harder and harder, breaking into a sweat, until it began to move forward slowly. She felt a rush of cold air and pushed even harder, the muscles in her arms straining painfully with the effort. And then, the shelf slid forward with a sudden ease, revealing the doorway into the tunnel.

Panting, she looked over at Erik. "I told you I could do it!"

He just smiled at her, andthenwalked over to the shelf, pulled out a lantern, and lit it. Alana came and took it from him, and they walked into the passageway. Erik directed her to close a heavy iron door from their side of the tunnel, and then they were in utter darkness except for the light of the lantern.

It was freezing, and there were sounds of dripping water and scuffling, chattering noises that had to be rats. Alana shuddered. "Is this where you lived?" Her voice echoed off the cold, damp stone walls.

"I lived underground, yes," he said. "I passed many hours in tunnels like these. But the place where I spent most of my time is not like this at all. You'll see. Come now, follow me." He took her hand and began leading her forward.

"Do you need help?" He'd seemed so weak the past few hours, and she couldn't bear to see him stumble and fall to the ground, hurting himself even more.

"No." His voice had gotten stronger, and he seemed to be walking faster than before, as if being back in this place was giving him some new strength. As she followed him, holding his hand tightly, he sometimes looked back at her, as if he were afraid that somehow she'd disappeared. But Alana never once took her eyes off him. In spite of the cold and the terrifying darkness, and her concern for him, she was happy. Though she did not know what would await her, she was glad just to be with him, to hold his hand, and to see his strength growing. There was something almost strange in his eyes, something she faintly recognized. She could tell he was at home here, in these dark and winding passageways, but it broke her heart that this lonely place was what he had had to grow so used to.

It seemed like they walked through the tunnels for hours, but over time Alana noticed the pathways growing smoother, less natural-looking. There were dusty, cobweb-covered, burnt-out torches hanging on the walls. They started to pass doorways here and there, and some places where the paths branched out in different directions, leading into large caverns or other passages. It's a labyrinth down here, Alana thought with a shudder. Still, she focused on the presence of Erik in front of her, trying to ignore the sounds of rushing water off somewhere in the caves, and the sounds of rats moving around their feet.

Finally up ahead, Alana caught sight of a light other than their lantern. As they drew closer, she found that there were new torches burning along the walls.

"Madame Giry must still be here," Erik said, relief in his voice.

Damien's housekeeper. The one who'd known Erik. "Does she live down here too?"

"She always lived aboveground, but she spent as much time as she could spare down here with me," Erik told her. "Without her help, I could never have turned this place into what it became. When I first returned to Paris with you, she was living in the Comte de Bellamy's house and working for him. I believe you knew that from spending time at his home. What you didn't know was that she and her daughter were hiding me at that very house."

Alana stopped in her tracks, forcing him to halt as well and look back at her. "What?" She couldn't believe it. "You were actually living at Damien's house? All that time? He wanted to kill you!"

"So I learned." There was sadness in Erik's voice. "But he never would have thought to look for me there, at least not at first. Not until he began seriously questioning Madame Giry. Likely the Vicomte's doing. Their…quest for revenge led them to her apartment. But by then, her daughter Meg and I had already escaped. We came underground, and the three of us stayed here for a while, until I left with you for the ball."

If I hadn't begged and pleaded for him to come to the ball with me, he never would have gotten so hurt…nearly killed…

"It's not your fault, Alana." It was as if he'd read her mind. He looked at her intently, squeezing her hand. "Don't you dare blame yourself."

She said nothing, and he turned back around.

"Come now. We're almost there."

They no longer needed the lantern; the light was growing brighter and brighter. It was almost as if they were no longer underground. At last, they came to a large open space.

In the center of the room was a large bed, carved into the shape of a swan with a black lace canopy overhead, and all around were strange furnishings and pieces of artwork that must have been from all over the world. One piece that stood out among all the rest was a figure of a monkey sitting on a small carved wooden box, wearing Persian clothes and holding little cymbals in its tiny hands. Alana wasn't sure why it stood out to her; perhaps it was its placement on the floor, away from everything else.

She glanced over at Erik, hardly able to believe this was part of a cave. "This is such a nice room…" she began.

He smiled slightly. "You haven't seen anything yet." He took her hand again, and led her out into a giant open space.

There was a lake there, in the middle of the cavern.

But there was more than that. The cavern was lit by what must have been hundreds of candles. They were everywhere, burning brightly on tall gold and silver lampstands, shining light on all the beautiful things in that cave. Paintings, drawings, sculptures, instruments of all kinds, furniture…there was so much there that Alana hardly knew where to look. Still, as she turned, her eyes were drawn to the giant organ that stood shining and proud above it all.

"Do you…like it here?"

Alana looked back at Erik, who was searching her face. His eyes seemed to plead with her. Like it here. Please, like it here.

"I do…" she searched for words. "It's incredible…beautiful…" How can I begin to describe it? "It's like a whole other world…"

Erik smiled faintly. "All pays homage to music here…" A strange expression crossed his face as he trailed off, his face pale and drawn. His face was pale and drawn, and he swayed slightly on his feet. Suddenly, Alana saw him falling to the ground, and she sank down and caught his head before he hit it on the hard stone. He closed his eyes and grimaced with the pain.

His strength had run out. Alana looked at him sadly She stroked his face gently and thought about how she could get him up to that bed they had passed.

Then she heard footsteps hurrying toward them, and a girl with blonde hair came into view. When she saw Alana and Erik she stopped, and disappeared again into a passageway. In a few moments she returned, accompanied by the housekeeper from Damien's city house. Madame Giry.

The two other women rushed toward them. "Mademoiselle Valjean?" Madame Giry began, her voice laced with urgency and worry. "What has brought you here? What is going on?" She knelt down beside them, and the blonde haired girl stood nearby, looking at Erik with horror. "Oh Erik," the older woman whispered, taking his hand in hers. "What has happened to you now?"

Erik opened his eyes and met Madame Giry's gaze, but he did not say a word.

"He was shot," Alana said softly, apologetically. And it's all my fault. "Damien…your master…shot him."

"He is no master of mine," Madame Giry said sharply. "Not anymore." She examined Erik's injuries. "He was beaten as well?"

Alana nodded, fighting back tears. Looking at his wounds and the pain that he was suffering hurt her, too. "And they were cutting up his face. They stopped when I found them, hurting him. Then I ran away and hid, and they thought I was gone. They threw him in the river and left him for dead, but I found him, and I tried my best to take care of him." She took hold of Erik's other hand. "And my cousin and I brought him back here. Do you think you'll be able to help him?"

Madame Giry sighed, managing a wry smile. "Yes, of course. It is what I've always done…isn't that right, Erik?" Alana saw him give the other woman's hand a squeeze. "It seems to be the unending task I have been given. I will always help him. Now, mademoiselle, I need you and Meg to help me get him to bed." The blonde haired girl came forward, and the three of them lifted Erik to his feet, half carrying, half leading him back to the room with the swan bed. They laid him down gently onto the red cushions, where he closed his eyes again and lost consciousness. Madame Giry sent Meg to fetch him some water, along with some new bandages for the cuts on his face and the gunshot wound. "Can we get you anything?" she asked Alana. She just shook her head, and Meg went off to find water and bandages.

Madame Giry covered Erik with a blanket and tucked it gently around him. When Alana looked at her, she could see how much she cared for Erik. The woman glanced over at her. "You have done well, mademoiselle, in helping him the best you could. Thank you for bringing him back here." She sighed. "He is like family to me."

"I had to help him," Alana said. "He's helped me so much, and I care about him. He's been so good to me…"

"And you have been good to him." The other woman smiled at her. "I have seen a change in him. I see it every time he returns from spending time with you." Alana blushed, and Madame Giry continued. "You bring out a different side of him, Mademoiselle Valjean. He has never…been a happy man."

Were those tears in Madame Giry's eyes? Alana studied the woman's face, full of emotion. "I still don't know very much about Erik, other than the little he's told me, but I can see that his life has been a hard one." She sighed sadly, looking down at the broken-bodied man she loved. "I hope he's able to recover from this…what those men did to him…it was the most terrible thing I've ever seen."

Madame Giry shook her head slowly. "He's been hurt badly before. He may not look it now, but he is extremely strong. It's a good sign that he was able to make it all the way down here. I'm sure he'll be able to pull through again." She turned as Meg entered the chamber.

Alana watched in silence as Madame Giry re-treated Erik's injuries and woke him briefly to give him some water to drink. By the time he had drifted off again, Meg had already retreated to another chamber to sleep, and her mother's red-rimmed eyes were beginning to look tired as well. She turned to Alana and told her, "If you wish to go to bed now there are other chambers underground here where you can sleep."

Alana nodded. The stress of the past long days had left her exhausted, and the thought of going to sleep made her even more tired all of a sudden, so she followed Madame Giry back through the winding passageways until they came to a small chamber stocked with supplies, with a good-sized bed along one of the walls. The other woman fetched her some blankets from a supply shelf, and bid her goodnight.

Alana expected to fall asleep the moment her head hit the pillow, but instead she lay there awake, waiting for sleep to come. It didn't. Her mind raced endlessly as she wondered what would become of her. If Erik did recover, then what would they do next? Would he stay underground and she return to her uncle's house? What would happen then? What of her father…would he stop drinking? What would happen when she saw Damien again?

But more than anything, thoughts of Erik filled her mind. Memories of when they'd first met and gotten to know each other, the music lessons, the beautiful night they had at the ball before all hell broke loose. The horrible sight of him being beaten and mutilated by Damien's men, while the man that was once her friend just looked on. What Damien had told her…that Erik was not who he told her he was, that he was deformed, insane, and murderous. The confusion she felt, torn between caring and loving him, and being angry with Erik for telling her so many lies. She wished she could speak with him, to learn who he really was. She wondered how he was doing, alone in the dark…weak, tired, and in pain.

Alana got out of bed right then and followed the torch-lit passages back to the room where Erik was sleeping. In spite of the bandages covering half of his face, and the knife cut on his left cheek, he was still beautiful, she thought, especially now, as he seemed to be resting peacefully.

The man I know can't be all evil…no matter what Damien says.

In spite of her anger and confusion, deep down Alana knew she still loved Erik. She couldn't stop loving him. It was crazy, illogical, and she didn't understand it, but she couldn't change it. And she didn't want to, though she felt her heart was breaking. She bent down and kissed him softly on the cheek, and then climbed into the bed beside him, sinking into the luxurious red velvet. She took his hand in hers and closed her eyes, and then at last she found sleep.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Cerise returned home alone just before noon the next day. Her mother and father came outside and embraced her.

"It's good to have you back! I can't wait to hear everything about the ball!" Amelie said excitedly.

Her husband looked toward the carriage and frowned. "Where's Alana?" He folded his hands over his chest.

Here goes another lie, Cerise thought miserably. "She decided to go to Détente, actually, to visit her friend. Madame Durand? She's like family to Alana." She spoke with confidence, making eye contact with both of her parents. They have to believe this story.

Amelie also frowned. "She went from the Comte's chateau to Détente? That wasn't part of the plan, was it?"

"No," Cerise said. "But she's been missing her town and the people she knew there since she came here to live with us. I guess going back out into the country made it worse. I tried to talk her out of going to Détente by herself, but she insisted she wanted to go, and she didn't want to force me to tag along with her."

"And what about the man escorting the two of you?" Raimond was visibly upset now. "Did he decide to go to Détente, too?"

Cerise realized how this must look. Her parents were thinking Alana had run off with Erik. Which she kind of had. There was nothing good about this situation…her cousin was alone with a man that she had feelings for, and that man also happened to be a wanted criminal. She couldn't let Raimond and Amelie know the truth. "No. Monsieur Erik left the night after the ball on business. We don't know where he is now. The whole thing was quite strange."

Her father was shaking his head. "You mean to say that you traveled all the way back to Paris unaccompanied?"

"Yes. But I'm here now, Father. And Alana's safe in Détente, visiting friends. We're all right. There's no reason to worry."

Raimond sighed. "If you say so. You've never lied to me before." He uncrossed his arms and went to carry Cerise's bags into the house. Amelie and her daughter followed.

"Do you know how long Alana will be gone?" Amelie asked.

"No, she didn't say. Hopefully not too long. It's been nice having her here with us, don't you think?"

Amelie smiled. "Yes, it has. The poor girl has been through so much, so I'm glad we're able to give her a place to call home." Her expression grew troubled suddenly. "Perhaps it's for the best she's not here now, though."

Cerise stopped, confused, and studied her mother's expression. "Why? What's wrong?"

"Andre." Amelie paused for a moment, having trouble continuing. "He's no better," she finally said. "He keeps finding ways to get his hands on a drink, and he's been wandering off the past couple of days since you've been away. When we woke up this morning, he was gone. Your father and I don't know what to do about him. All we've been able to do is pray up until now, but Raimond is thinking of taking serious action and forcing him to go to a sanitarium. It's not the most ideal of options, but it may be the only one left for a problem as grave as his."

"It is for the best that Alana's gone, then. She worries about Uncle Andre so much already. Perhaps he can make progress before she comes back…"

"I certainly hope so. He promised Alana he'd change. It will break her heart if she sees that he hasn't," said Amelie. "Come inside now. You should rest from your journey…and think on something happier. You can tell your father and I all about the ball and being at the Comte's chateau."

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Another carriage from the chateau de Bellamy had arrived in Paris the night before. Once its occupants had been dropped off at their grand city house, and the carriage had been delivered to the Comte's residence in Parc de Seigneurs, the driver set off on foot to another neighborhood. Later that evening, Emilian reached Sacree Boulevard, and used his tip from earlier to pay for a room there. He didn't have much else to his name, but he'd have enough to sustain himself doing odd jobs, whatever they might be. Luckily for him, the businesses and houses nearby were very low on is going to be easy, he thought.

He could see the church from his window—he was so close to where the Valjean girl lived.

It was then that he had an idea. He grinned.

All too easy.