PROGENY

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Progeny

by Becky L. Meadows, all rights reserved

PROLOGUE: CHRISTINE

He had vanished.

Sheer black fright swept through me. Icy fingers of terror ran across the back of my neck, down my spine to my arms and hands. My fingers were numb, my voice was gone.

I regained it in a heartbeat.

"Christian!" I screamed. I dashed madly about the garden, around the red rosebushes whose limbs I had pruned and loved until they bloomed with the full color of spring. The red sunset that had flamed to one side of the sky began to fade to dusk. My forehead broke out in sweat, either from the heat or the terror that washed through me like a cold fountain.

"Oh, God!" I moaned. I would die if anything happened to him. I covered my face with my hands, then looked up. He was nowhere. My three-year-old son had disappeared.

"Christian! Where are you?" My heart pounded in my throat. I ran all around the garden, pushing aside leaves and flowering plants, peering under everything that crossed my path.

I caught my breath when I heard his soft chuckle. I propped my hands on my hips and concentrated on his voice. He chuckled again. "Angel," his perfect voice said. I rolled my eyes toward the sky. He must have been chasing butterflies again....

I gasped when I heard another voice. Its tone was soft but deep, gentle and alluring. It stirred memories deep in my soul and brought such a wealth of happiness surging through my veins that I clasped my hands together and fell to my knees. I had to bite my bottom lip to keep from calling out his name, the name of the man to whom I had given my soul before he died, a name that was forever banned from being spoken at my new home.... No matter how long I lived, I knew I would never forget his voice. I loved him more than life itself. Tears began to run down my cheeks in torrents.

"Go," the voice said. "Go to your mother. She wants you."

My heart ached as I covered my face with my hands and began to sob. Christian laughed. "Angel," he crooned.

I bit my bottom lip, then leaped to my feet and lunged around a corner of the garden in the direction of his voice. He was standing with his back to me. He turned when he heard me behind him. He smiled, his white teeth gleaming in the soft evening light, then he turned back around and pointed in front of him.

Nothing was there.

"Oh, Christian," I said. I swallowed hard. I gathered him in my arms and hugged him tight against me as that melodic voice continued to speak inside my mind. "Don't you ever run off from me again, do you hear? Ever!"

A sudden chill blanketed the air around us. Christian looked at me, his brown and yellow eyes laughing, then turning serious as he moved his fingers in the tears that still ran down my cheeks. "Mama," he said. "You cry."

"Yes," I replied. I smiled and kissed his little hand, then ruffled the top of his dark hair. "Yes, I didn't know where you were. You frightened me."

He smiled, then pointed again at the area where he had been standing. "Angel," he said.

"Yes," I murmured. I stared at the spot where a cloud of mist had begun to gather. "I suppose you have an angel, as well as I." I smiled at him, then set him on the ground and took hold of his long fingers. I couldn't stop staring at the spot where he had stood. "I miss my angel," I whispered. "I love him very much."

A soft sigh came to my ears. I peered at the spot more closely, then began to push various shrubs aside as I looked all around. At one point I thought I saw a dark shadow hurry away....

The creak of the garden gate opening made me jump. I whirled around to see Raoul step through. Christian squealed with delight, then took off running toward him. I smiled at Raoul, then turned back to the spot that now was covered with gray mist. I looked up at the sky. The moon had just come out, its full white light illuminating the speckles of stars around it. I sighed as heavy sorrow descended on my heart. Tears ran down my cheeks again.

"Thank you, Erik," I said. I could feel him smile. I closed my eyes and again felt his hand touch my cheek with that trembling love that had ignited the fire in my soul years ago. I kissed my hand, then tossed the kiss into the sky just before I turned and walked away.

BOOK ONE: CHRISTIAN

CHAPTER ONE

The end of the figure's dark cloak vanished around another corridor. Without hesitation I threw myself after it, my feet pounding frantically on the dank stone floor. I turned the corner just in time to see the figure hesitate, then disappear around another turn in the dark corridor in the bowels of the Paris Opera House. I hesitated. My mind had become a confused maze of thoughts; it was instinct, rather than reason, that governed my actions. Who was this person fleeing before me? Should I follow? My feet answered. I began running after the figure again.

I saw it turn another corner, and as I fled after it, it occurred to me that this figure ran silently. I heard only the sound of my own footsteps; the person running before me seemed to glide over the floor. All thoughts of my triumphant evening performance, of the throng of people on their feet hailing my talents, disappeared from my mind. I wanted nothing more than to find out who it was that fled before me.

I whirled around another corner. My throat burned from breathing in sharp, rapid gasps. I considered myself in excellent shape; my more than six-foot tall frame was lean, even lanky by the terms of the girls who giggled when I kissed their adoring hands after a performance. As I rounded this last corner, a brief flash of fright swept through my veins, sending a shiver of chills up my spine, down my arms, leaving my fingers tingling. The black shadow had stopped. Now, it stood with its back to me, its hands at its sides. It had the bearing of a king, the stature of a prince. The air around it was as cold as the icebergs that rip at ships and send sailors plunging to their deaths.

In the flashing fire from the nearby furnaces under the opera house, I could see streaks of gray hair at the dark figure's temples. The rest of its hair was as black as night and sleeked back, much like mine. I watched the figure turn slowly toward me, its long, black cloak enveloping it in swirling grace, and I was reminded of the legend of Dracula. I realized with a start that it was not I who had been the pursuer. As I studied the eyes that glittered under the stark white mask, it dawned on me that this man had led me here. He had stayed just far enough ahead of me to keep me in the chase, and now, at his whim, he had decided to end our game of cat and mouse.

How the game ended would not be up to me.

"Well?"

I stared at him, my mouth open in awe, and I closed my lips and swallowed hard. He exuded a mysterious power and strength that shook my very being. He was immaculately dressed in a black suitcoat and pants which blended with the darkness. His white shirt glowed, as did the stark white mask that covered his face. I looked at that mask closer. It only revealed his eyes, golden orbs of light that glittered supernaturally in the dark shadows that surrounded us in this subterranean world under the Paris Opera House.

But it was not his mask that made my jaw drop. It was the astonishing beauty of his voice. The resonance, the tone, the depth of it made me shake my head briefly. Nothing in his appearance had prepared me for his most powerful instrument, whose sound made my senses spin and made my most wonderful vocal note seem like the bleat of a lamb.

"You have followed me. What do you want?" He crossed his arms over his chest, his fingers hidden under a pair of white gloves. His eyes continued to glow at me as I struggled to find my voice. I had never seen anything like him.

"I saw you outside my dressing room. Why were you there?" I grimaced as my voice wavered with agitation.

"An autograph, perhaps?" I sensed, rather than heard, the sarcasm drip from his deep tone. My hands went ice cold when he began walking slowly toward me. Every muscle in my body tensed as I wondered if I would have to physically defend myself. He stopped a few feet from me.

I watched as the yellow eyes under the white mask studied me. He looked deep into my eyes, then let his gaze travel slowly down. I also wore a black suitcoat with tails, the usual attire for my performances.

I had seen him from the corner of my eye as I entered my dressing room in an obscure part of the Paris Opera House, the applause of the audience still ringing soundly in my ears. At first I had thought what I saw was just a dark shadow, but my heart leaped when I saw the shadow's cloak flutter behind it as it whirled away and began moving down a corridor. Now, I stood with my heart frozen in my chest as he looked me up and down. I noticed with a bit of consternation that he was a few inches taller than me, and more robust, despite the gray hair that flecked his temples. If I was forced to fight, it would not be an easy battle.

His glowing eyes came to rest on my face. "You look very much like her," he said, his tone soft and warm, the glow in his eyes dimming with a hint of wistfulness.

I drew back. His words, his expression, were not at all what I expected. My mind reeled with shock. "Like who?" My voice was firm this time, my tone a low imitation of his. My muscles relaxed as all thoughts of a physical confrontation began to dissipate.

He inclined his head to the side. "Your mother," he replied. I heard the thoughtful frown in his voice.

"You know my mother?" I frowned. "How?"

"That is none of your concern, young Chagny." His tone had suddenly become cool again, all warmth at the mention of my mother gone. "I also know your father. I dare say you get your musical talent from your mother, but the depth of your voice puzzles me." He shook his head, then whirled away from me and strode to where he had stood when I stumbled upon him. He bent to retrieve a black fedora hat from the floor, then placed it on his head. It added the final touch to his attire, its long brim shadowing the white mask. It did not hide the sparkling yellow eyes that leveled on me.

The darkness in this subterranean corridor under the opera house lent a sinister air to his appearance. A cold air blew softly down the dark hallway, and a warning bell sounded in my mind. The tone of his voice made my heart quiver with fear and sent chills down my spine again, but I commanded myself to show no emotion. "Do not come to this part of the opera house again, young Chagny," he said. "Death is not particular in choosing his next victim. Nor am I." He spun around on his heel and disappeared around another corner.

"Wait!" The darkness surrounded me and settled like heavy lead on my chest, but my head was full of questions without answers. "Wait!" My voice faded a bit as I stared at the spot where he had stood. My last words were almost a whisper. "How do you know my name?"

He had once changed my mother's life forever. Now, he was about to change mine.

I began to wonder at an early age why I resembled neither my father nor my mother.

My father, Viscount Raoul de Chagny, was rather tall and stocky, with blonde, curly hair and friendly blue eyes. He had a manner of tilting his head to the side when he spoke that endeared him to the hearts of many ladies in his youth, so my mother said. As middle age crept onto his face, it brought a few wrinkles and some sparse gray hairs that were impossible to see at first glance. Age brought an unmistakable aristocratic air about him that demanded immediate respect from his peers who often came to our chateau to talk business.

My mother, Christine Daae de Chagny, had long, dark brown curls that fell down around her shoulders and back, a perky face and full, curvy lips that betrayed her inner sensuality. Age brought some wrinkles to her face, also, but only a few gray hairs that highlighted her temples.. She was of medium height and slight build. Yet, even as a youth, I was aware of the deep sorrow that lay within the depths of her round, dark brown eyes, a heart-rending sadness that never left, even when her lips curled in a delightful smile. It was as if a deep mark had been left on her heart, and her eyes were condemned to forever tell the tale.

I was about twelve when I looked in a mirror in our sitting room and realized something was wrong. My hair was as black as a raven's wing, as straight as a slide rule. My eyes were deep brown but mixed with flecks of gold that sparkled when sunlight hit them directly. I wore black trousers and a white, full-sleeved shirt. I always had an affinity for black. I frowned as I studied my image in the mirror, then lowered my eyes to stare at my long, slim fingers that made pianos and violins speak with words to make people sigh.

"Whatever is it, Christian?"

The sound of mother's voice brought me around on my heel. I could feel the heat of a blush searing from my chest to my cheeks. I didn't want her to think me vain. All my life I had wanted to please her, to make her proud of me, with the hope that somehow I could be the person to wipe away that deep sadness behind her eyes.

"Nothing, Mother."

"Nonsense. Why were you looking in the mirror like that?"

"I was wondering who I look like." Her face suddenly drained of color, leaving only a white shell highlighted by the dark shadows which appeared under her eyes. The sorrow, that heavy-laden grief I wanted so badly to erase, filled her dark hues. A surge of guilt grew inside me.

"I don't understand this sudden fixation with your features, Christian," she said, a touch of unusual anger in her tone. "Why should you care who you look like?" She moved with the air of a queen across the red rug that covered the floor of the room to stand beside me, both of us studying our reflections in the gold-edged mirror that hung above the fireplace. Her deep green dress clung to her form, then cascaded in a full skirt. The top of her head came a touch above my shoulder.

"I certainly don't look like you, Mother," I replied. My eyes locked with hers in the mirror. My heart lurched at the flash of fear that swept across her face and left her standing speechless beside me. Her only movement was the rapid blinking of her long lashes.

"No," she said at last, her voice soft, her eyes pleading me to stop this line of questioning. "No, you don't look like me, Christian, except perhaps your lips." She managed a weak smile as she turned to trace the outline of my lower lip with the tip of her slim, quivering finger. Our lips were almost identical, both full with an endearing pout, but that was as close as I came to resembling her.

"I don't look like Father, either," I muttered as I gently took hold of her hand and pulled it away from my face. "Who do I look like, mother?" It was such a simple question, one that should have been easy to answer. A quick answer would have soothed my soul and brought an immediate end to my questions, but her reply only left me aching with the hunger for that knowledge.

"I'm not sure, Christian," she said. I sensed she was lying as she turned away from me and wrapped her arms around her slim shoulders. She shook her head. "It's possible you take after someone in the Chagny line, a grandfather or uncle or cousin. I'm not familiar with all of your father's relatives." When she turned back to me, her face had become a white mask of fright; her eyes were glazed with sadness and terror. "You love me, don't you, Christian?"

"More than anything in this world, Mother." I stepped toward her and folded my arms around her shivering form.

She sighed, a long, deep, weary exhaling of breath. "Then don't bring this up again, please. For my sake." She managed a weak smile before she turned and walked out, leaving me alone in the room to brood over why my question had scared her so....

That brief encounter with my mother in front of a mirror set off a chain of events that dramatically altered not only my outlook on life, but the outcome of my life.

I could tell from my mother's reaction to my questions that something was wrong. She alone knew a secret, something that threatened her. I in no way wanted to hurt her, but I knew I had to find the answer to the question that raged in my mind and left smoldering embers in my soul.

I came a little closer to the truth the day my father had to take me away from boarding school.

It started in the school yard. John Rogers, an arrogant, boastful boy of about thirteen, was holding a piece of bread out to a stray dog. The animal shuddered. It looked like a bag of bones with some flesh stretched across them. My heart ached as I watched it wander brokenly up to John. I felt a brief flash of admiration for John, a regular rebel-rouser at the school, as he held the piece of bread out to the dog.

The animal had just reached timidly forward, its lips curled back over its teeth as it took the piece of bread, when John suddenly thrust himself to his feet and swung his leg full force at the dog's side. A resounding yelp blanketed the air. The dog lay cowering on the ground while John again and again flung his foot at its side.

I leaped to John's side, my long fingers curled around his forearm as I jerked him around to face me. "Enough!" I screamed, my voice coarse with the red, raw anger that surged through me. My pulse throbbed with the fury that roared in my ears like a rushing river of blood. John's lips curled in a sarcastic sneer. He looked straight into my eyes, then raised his leg toward the dog again.

The next thing I remember, I was standing beside the master of the boarding school. We were in the school yard. His fingers felt like hot lead around my cold arm, but he held me in an iron grasp as he looked into my eyes.

"Christian? Can you hear me, Christian?"

I shook my head. My senses were numb. My chest felt as if it would burst. Remnants of the hot fury that had flooded through me still remained, leaving my fingers tingling as they clenched and unclenched into fists. My hands hurt. I felt a knot of fear wedge at the back of my throat as I raised my hands to stare at the bruised, broken skin on my knuckles. Blood flowed freely between my long fingers.

The murmurs of the crowd of school boys standing around me escalated to the harsh buzzing of a horde of bees, then died to a hushed whisper. My vision wavered, then slowly stilled as I looked around. I saw John lying on the ground near me, his face covered with the dark red blood that gushed from his nose and lips. Blue-green bruises had already begun to form on his cheeks. His gray school uniform was covered with dust and mud.

"You did this, Christian! You hit him! You kicked him!" One of John's friends began advancing toward me. I blinked in astonishment. "You've broken his ribs!"

I looked at the schoolmaster, who had an unfamiliar look of astonishment on his withered face. He shook his head, his gray hair waving about. "I saw it myself, Christian." He pulled gently at my arm. "Come. Let's go have a talk with your father."

I looked back as we walked away. John was still lying in a crumpled heap on the ground. I locked eyes with him, his gray-flecked and filled with terror, mine golden brown and filled with shock at how much damage I had supposedly wreaked on a fellow human being.

I didn't even remember it.

While I waited for father to arrive, I was confined to a room at the boarding school. My classmates were instructed to stay away from me. Food was brought to me on a tray, and slid through my door in such a rush that some of the items slid off the tray to the wooden floor. I had to ring a bell for someone to take me to the bathroom.

I may as well have been an animal in a cage.

I sat huddled in a dark corner of the room, my eyes riveted to the palms and backs of my hands. I could still see the blood between my fingers, even though I had washed my hands in the little bowl on a table in the room over and over and over....

It was unfair, so horribly unfair! They had immediately tried and sentenced me to this room, only for protecting an innocent, suffering animal. Nothing had been done to the person who had been so deliberately cruel. Smoldering black anger took over my thoughts and folded around me like a giant, dark cloud, and as I thought of how unfair the entire situation was, a strange feeling of glee came over me as I again saw the vivid fear in John's eyes. I soothed the ache in my soul by consoling myself that if I had acted as everyone said I did, I had effectively wreaked vengeance for the animal that had been so wronged. I began to smile even though I mentally berated myself for what I had supposedly done.

I sat in the same spot for hours. Eventually I heard the door being opened. I looked up through the gray twilight that had invaded the room. The schoolmaster walked up to me, then put his hands on his knees as he peered down into my eyes.

"Christian," he said softly. "Your father is coming to get you. Do you understand me? Can you hear me?"

"Of course I can hear you," I replied stiffly. I began to fantasize about leaping to my feet and hitting him full force in the nose, much like a caged animal reacts to an unwelcome master.

He smiled and held his hand out to me. "Would you like to wait with me in my office? The viscount should be here soon."

"I have no desire to be near anyone right now," I muttered.

He stiffened. His lips tightened, his jaw muscles began to grind. "Have it your way," he said. "You will stay here until your father comes." He stomped to the door of the room, then stopped and looked back at me. Everything around me had taken on a red glow, including his face. "Are you sure you do not remember what happened, Christian? Are you absolutely sure?" The click of the key locking the door was as final as the last shovel of dirt over a coffin.

I knew he doubted my story. I didn't care. A haze of ice descended on my mind and body, washing away the red glow and leaving my skin numb. The anger was gone, replaced by a cold nothingness. I began to ponder how Father would react; I was sure he would not be pleased! Yet, even as I began to tremble at the thought of what Father would do, that strange feeling of glee began to grow inside my mind again....

The ice in my veins had melted the moment Father had stepped into the room. He had swept through the door, his eyes scanning the room quickly, then widening when they landed on me. I slowly shoved myself to my feet. "Christian," he murmured. His blue eyes were warm with a mixture of concern and anger. He stopped in front of me, his face drawn, his knuckles white as his fingers worked at the brim of his top hat.

His face flushed beat red as he suddenly whipped around on the schoolmaster. I wondered briefly if Father would hit him. "Why have you locked him in here?" Father asked. His voice carried the same threat that fills the air right before a vicious thunderstorm.

The schoolmaster shrank back, then told Father I had had some sort of fit. I was not shut in the room as punishment for what I had done, he explained. I was a potential danger to myself and everyone around me, because I had had a fit and did not remember it.

Father flashed the man a glance of cold poison, then turned to me. "Come, Christian," he said. He brushed by the schoolmaster, shoving the man aside with his shoulder.

Father rolled his eyes at me as the carriage jolted down the rock drive from the school. "Christian," he said, his voice holding that admonishing tone that always made me flush with shame for something I had done. "Why in the world did you do that? Did you do it?"

"I suppose," I mumbled, my chin resting on my chest. "I don't remember, Father." I raised my eyes to his. "I remember John was kicking this poor dog, and he wouldn't stop, even when I told him to."

"Ah." Father's blonde curls bobbed as he shook his head. "You were defending something, I suppose. That was honorable of you, Christian, honorable and foolish. I sincerely doubt that dog's life was worth getting you thrown out of boarding school. Do you realize you can't go back there, Christian? I went to school there, as did your uncles and your grandfather. You will be the Chagny to break that chain." His hand clutched the top of his lion-headed cane until his knuckles turned white; his jaw muscles moved as he ground his teeth. He reached up to remove his black top-hat.

"I'm sorry, Father." I looked at him, his dark suitcoat and white shirt, the calm blue of his eyes somewhat soothing the fury that had begun to rise in my chest again. "I'm not sorry, though, for stopping John from kicking that dog anymore."

"At least you stand firm behind your convictions," Father muttered. "What shall you do with yourself now, Christian?"

Our first stop was at a local doctor, an old, white-haired man who had brought generations of Chagnys into this world--and seen most of them depart. His aged fingers probed my temples and head. I shivered as I sat, shirtless, on the table in his inner office. The incessant tapping of Father's cane on the floor rang through my skull, but I pushed it from my mind and concentrated on what the doctor was doing.

"No, that's ordinary," the doctor said. "No, nothing there." He suddenly released me and turned to father. "I see nothing wrong with him, Viscount de Chagny. He seems in excellent physical condition." The doctor turned back to me and leaned over, his gray eyes raking across my face. "Tell me, Christian. Everybody says you beat this boy half to death. Do you remember anything at all about it?"

"I remember the schoolmaster leaning over me, asking if I was all right. Then I saw John laying on the ground. That's all I remember."

"Interesting," the doctor said. "Please wait for your father in the outer room, Christian. I would like to speak with him."

I obediently lifted myself off the table, put my shirt back on and left the room. I began to wonder if this strange malady that had attacked my mind might mean my doom. I began to tremble as I sat there, alone, lost in the myriad of dark thoughts and visions of death that danced before my eyes.

Father emerged a few minutes later, his lips pursed with thought. He was silent for most of the ride back to the chateau. I glanced at his face, his soft, chiseled features lost in deep concentration, his eyes glazed as he stared out the window of the carriage. I still had not shaken off that impending feeling of doom.

"Father." My voice made him start, but brought his eyes instantly to my face. "Am I going to be all right?" A sudden surge of fear shook my heart, but the soft smile that played at his lips helped to somewhat calm it.

"You should be fine, Christian. The doctor said some people experience such fierce rushes of rage that they don't remember their actions." A thoughtful glint flashed across his blue eyes. "It's rare, though, and it's believed to be genetic."

I had inherited this from someone. I racked my brain to remember any such intense rushes of rage coming from either Father or Mother. I had never seen any. "Is there anyone on your side of the family that has had this?" I asked.

His lips curled in a soft, rye smile; his eyes filled with unquenchable sorrow. "No," he replied. "This doesn't come from my side of the family."

That would mean it had to be Mother. All during the ride back to the chateau I tried to envision her succumbing to raw fury, but her warm, dark eyes always came to the forefront of my thoughts. No, Mother was one of the kindest people I knew. Surely this fit of rage had not come from her!

Mother's face blanched when father explained what had happened. She threw herself across the sitting room of the chateau and wrapped me in her arms. "Oh, Christian!" she exclaimed. She ran her fingers through my hair. "Oh, you could have died!"

"No," father said, his voice flat. "The doctor said people rarely die from this."

"Thank God!" Mother exclaimed. She tucked one of her long, dark brown curls behind her ear as I pushed myself from her grasp and flashed her my most disarming smile.

"It's nothing for you to worry about, Mother," I said. "I'm tired, though. I think I'll go rest a while before dinner."

She stepped toward me. Her fingers reached out to gently touch my cheek, her eyes filling with shades of brown tears. "Yes, you get some rest, Christian," she said softly. "I'll call you for dinner."

As Father had predicted, I was not allowed to go back to the boarding school. Instead, he arranged to have a man come to tutor me privately several days a week. Although I missed some of my closest friends, I actually preferred learning at home. It allowed me the time to compose music on the large black piano in the back of the ballroom at the chateau.

I have loved music from my first memories of life. When I was three, mother arranged to have a small piano brought to the chateau. I began taking lessons, but soon I advanced to the point where my instructor could teach me nothing new. I hungered for more, more technique training, more vocal training. Mother employed a voice trainer she had had at the conservatory to come to the chateau twice a week. I marveled at the tears I would see gleaming in her eyes whenever we would walk into the hall after we had finished our lesson. "Bravo, Christian!" she would exclaim, and clap her little hands together almost in schoolgirl fashion. I would bow gracefully to her, and smile. It pleased me to no end to make her so happy, to drive that always-present sorrow to the back of her mind, if only for a little while....

My public recitals began when I was about fifteen, a little more than two years before I met the strange figure in the flowing black cloak in the labyrinth under the Paris Opera House. I would be so nervous I would sometimes vomit before a performance. Walking out to the piano on the stage was the most difficult part; I could feel the eyes staring at me, eyes full of wonder and fascination. I suppose it was unusual to see a boy of fifteen who could play as well as I did, but it did not seem unusual to me at the time. It came natural, almost as if the music had always been lurking deep in my soul.

Mother and Father would always be sitting on the front row, their eyes riveted to my face. Mother's face would be pale, her lips a deep red. Father would give me a wink and a smile of confidence that gave me the extra strength to sit on the piano bench and perform.

Once I sat down at the bench and turned my attention to the row of black and white keys in front of me, the rest of the world vanished. Nothing existed except the music that swirled around my head, in and out of my ears, all around me, all around the room. Music became my world, and I became its prisoner. Every emotion I had ever felt came forth through my fingers on those keys. When I finished and stood to take my final bow, there was not a dry eye in the house, including my own.

Despite having performed successfully in various theaters throughout France, I was a little shaken when I received the invitation to perform at the Paris Opera House.

The look of elation that crossed Mother's face took my breath away. Her pale features took on the look of an angel as she grinned and took hold of my arm, her slim fingers squeezing gently. "Oh, Christian!" she exuded. "Oh, it's wonderful! There's no feeling like a standing ovation at the opera house! Of course you must do it!"

"But what if I make a mistake? What if I hit a wrong note?" Various fears began to plague my mind, but the lively twinkle in Mother's dark eyes calmed them.

"You've never hit a wrong note during a recital!" She brushed my hair back from my forehead, combing her fingers through it in the familiar way of sleeking it back. She had combed my hair in this fashion since I was two. "It's natural to be nervous. You know that, dear. Oh, you just can't imagine how it feels to have thousands of people all on their feet applauding you!"

"What an ego you have, Mother!"

She laughed, a delightful, tinkling sound, as she clasped her hands in front of her. "Christian, you simply must do this. Please. Do it for me."

I clasped her hand and brushed my lips across her fingers. "Of course," I replied. "If that's what you want. I will do it for you, Mother."

My commission at the opera house was for two months. I was to perform a piano recital half-an-hour before the opening of each opera, to "warm up the crowd," as the managers said. I asked if I could do vocals to accompany my music, and they enthusiastically agreed I should do so.

Each performance was greeted with thunderous applause that pounded at my ears. The image of the standing crowd wavered as I stood and bowed. I was called back for numerous curtain calls before I made my final bow.

After one particularly pleasing performance, as I scanned the crowd, I noticed a box on the Grand Tier to the left of the stage. It was empty, its lights dark. It had a decidedly ominous appearance in the midst of all that light and merriment. I studied it a little more closely, then made my final bow and exited for my dressing room. I found Mother and Father waiting there. Mother flung her arms around my neck and smothered my cheeks in kisses. Father grinned and heartily shook my hand. Their greeting, along with the throng of young women waiting to meet me, took my mind off the dark, empty box.

It returned to my thoughts the next evening as I was getting dressed for my regular evening performance. I had just put on my black suitcoat with tails, black trousers and white shirt and tie when a timid knock came at my door. "Come in!" I called.

A young woman a few years younger than me stepped into the room, her eyes cast down to the floor. "Yes?" I said as I glanced at her, then resumed tying my white tie as I looked in the full-length mirror. "What is it?"

"The piano, sir. It seems there's something wrong with the piano."

I whirled around on my heel, the tie hanging loose around my neck. "What do you mean?" I demanded. I felt the heat of an angry flush rise in my cheeks. "What's wrong with it?"

"I'm not sure, sir. The management said to tell you there may not be a performance tonight. The piano has to be repaired."

"Then tell them to get another bloody piano here now!" My mind exploded in a tornado of rage. I watched through a cloudy red haze as the young woman cowered before me. I stalked toward her, my fingers clenched into fists. "Why are you still standing here? Go tell them now!" She scurried out the door, the sound of her frightened sobs echoing in the dark hallway surrounding my isolated dressing room.

I inhaled deeply, then exhaled the breath in one long sigh. This usually calmed the occasional bouts of fury I would feel, sometimes over the slightest things. I stomped back over to the mirror, my fingers shaking as I reached up to finish with the tie. My mouth opened in a gasp of astonishment.

All color had drained from my face, leaving only a ghostly countenance staring back at me from the mirror. Black rings had appeared around my eyes. My cheeks were blood red with the anger that still raged in my breast. The gold flecks in my eyes glittered almost supernaturally. I realized with a start that my latest bout with this fury that had begun to eat at my soul had left me with the appearance of a demon.

I looked down at the floor under my feet. I couldn't bare to face the person staring back at me in the mirror. This man, this tall, lanky figure in the black evening dress, whose white face and glittering eyes almost seemed to mock me, was not me. I had always been jovial, a fun-loving, laughing type of man. Who was this stranger I faced in the mirror? What stirred him to rise from the depths of my very soul?

I pushed the macabre image from my mind. When I looked in the mirror again, I had begun to return to my former self. The black shadows disappeared, the red haze of fury painted on my cheeks left in favor of my normal flesh color. I laughed as I told myself I had imagined that unreal sparkling in my eyes. I finished with my tie, then whirled around and strode out of the dressing room door.

At first it looked like only a black shadow. I caught a glimpse of it from the corner of my eye as I flung myself down the stairs leading up to my dressing room. I spun around and saw the end of something black disappear around a corner of the corridor to the side of the room. I instinctively leaped after it, a slight shiver of apprehension skipping up my spine, but it had disappeared.

I caught sight of it several times after that. I had made a habit of warming up before my performance by singing in my dressing room. The room, located in an obscure part of the first floor of the opera, was quite isolated, making for a perfect location to practice my singing. My voice would ring through the room; I could sing as loud as I wanted, with little chance of anyone hearing me. Sometimes when I would fling open the door of the dressing room unexpectedly, the dark shadow would flit away, almost as if I had caught it listening to me.

Then, one evening, right after a performance and a standing ovation, I returned to my dressing room mentally and physically exhausted. I flung myself in the chair in front of the vanity mirror and studied my image. My face was pale, my lips almost colorless from sheer exhaustion. I silently told myself to tell the management I needed a slight break; a couple of days of rest and recuperation at the chateau with Mother and Father would do wonders.

A slight creak made its way to my ears from just outside the dressing room door. I paused, my breath a moist knot in my throat. Someone was on the stairs. I watched in the mirror as a dark frown crossed my face, then I crept to my feet and moved to the door.

In a flash I grabbed hold of the door handle and jerked it open. This time I could see the shadow was someone or something clothed in a long, black cloak. Its end disappeared around the edge of the corridor to the side of my room. I flung myself after it, and shortly found myself facing the ghostly figure in evening attire, whose face was hidden mysteriously behind a white mask.

How had he known my mother? How had he known my name? The questions swirled through my mind as I made my way back to my dressing room. I sat again in the chair in front of the mirror, just moments before I heard another creak on the stairs outside the door. This time I leaped to my feet and flung the door open to find Mother standing there, her hand raised as if she were about to knock. The smile on her face vanished when she saw my ghastly appearance.

"My God, Christian!" she said. "What's wrong?"

CHAPTER TWO

Without another word she thrust herself across the threshold of my dressing room, her eyes studying my face with that odd mixture of concern and curiosity I had seen ever since my first memories of her. I stepped aside, my arm extended in the show of mannerly courtesy that befitted a member of the Paris upper crust.

Mother immediately turned back toward me. The yellow lights from the gas lamps in the room left golden flecks in her hair. The thought flashed through my mind that mentally, she was much older than her thirty-eight years. "What is it, Christian? Has something frightened you?"

"Mother," I began. "Have you ever known a man who wears evening attire with a white mask and black cloak?"

Her face turned a ghastly shade of white. Her fingers swept toward her throat; her dark eyelashes fluttered. I caught her just as her knees buckled.

She was a featherweight in my arms as I carried her still, pale form to the small divan on one side of the dressing room, just beside the full-length mirror I used to check every last personal detail before my performances. Cold shivers of fear crept down my arms. Why had what I asked frightened her to the point of fainting? I laid her gently on the divan, my fingers searching for her thin, stringy pulse. Her fingers were limp in my hand. Their cold made me draw in my breath.

It was only a few moments before her eyelashes began fluttering again, then fully opened. I expected her mind to be hazy. Instead, she immediately focused on me, her eyes bright with a mixture of ecstasy and sheer terror. Her mind had obviously not lost track of our conversation, even as she lost consciousness.

"Christian," she whispered. "How do you know of this man?"

"I met him just before you came to my door."

I thought she would faint again. Her eyes took on a supernatural sparkling in the midst of her colorless complexion, then her lips curled in a smile surely only given by angels in heaven. "You saw him?" she asked. She struggled to sit up on the divan, her eyes never leaving my face. "You saw him? Where?"

"Around the corner of my dressing room," I replied. I studied her face closely, trying to make sure I caught every single word, every single emotion she felt. Mother let her back fall against the rear of the divan, her cheeks exhaling a large puff of breath, her eyes glistening with tears. Her look of ecstasy had faded in favor of a deep sorrow that almost took my breath. I had never seen such sadness on her face, not since the day she and I had ventured to grandfather's grave. Her agony then was nothing compared with what I saw now. A vague feeling of guilt began to plague me again, but my curiosity overcame it.

"That's not possible, Christian," she muttered, shaking her head. "You could not have seen him."

"I know what I saw, Mother. Who is this man?"

"Did you hear me, Christian? You could not have seen him!" Her tone became firmer, her voice more loud, more insistent. A tinge of anger rang at the corners of her voice and shined behind her deep brown eyes.

"I know what...."

She didn't let me finish my statement. She took hold of my arm, her slim fingers biting into my flesh. I flinched and looked at her in surprise. Her face was white and drawn; her dark curls had fallen in disarray around her shoulders, leaving her with the appearance of a madwoman. The tone of her voice sent a shiver of dread down my spine as she hissed her words, rather than spoke them. "He's dead! He's dead, Christian! You could not have seen him!"

I knew I should not pursue the issue any further, but I couldn't stop myself. I put my hands on her quivering shoulders. The gesture seemed to calm her somewhat as she raised her cold hands to mine. "Mother," I said. "He is not dead. I saw him as plain as I see you. He spoke to me."

"What did he say?" She appeared to have suddenly become numb. She wringed her hands over and over, her teeth biting into her bottom lip hard enough to leave a spot of blood.

"He said I look very much like you."

"Oh, God!" She flung herself to her feet, her arms hugging her shoulders. "You look like me!" She peered into my eyes, then began to laugh, the sound becoming more and more hysterical. "Ah! If he only knew!" She gasped the words between her mad chuckles.

Then she stopped laughing. Her eyes grew round and wide. "Oh! What if he did know?" she asked. She looked at me, but I could tell she was not speaking to me; I was merely an object to focus on while she collected her thoughts. "What if he knew? Oh, God, what would he do?" She began walking slowly toward me until she stood only a whisper away. She raised her trembling fingers to touch my cheek. "No, he must never know! I don't know what he would do!"

Mother stepped back and blinked as she continued to reason with her own mind. "He can't be alive," she whispered as she looked down at the floor. "He's dead! I know, he's dead!" She looked back up into my face. Her eyes were wide and glistening with fright and disbelief. "Christian, you must have dreamed this!"

"No, Mother. He was quite close to me. I did not dream it."

"Then it was a ghost. Yes, you saw a ghost, only a ghost, Christian." She crossed her arms over her breasts and began pacing back and forth between the dresser and the full-length mirror. When she approached the mirror her step slowed; she walked toward it as if in a trance. "This used to be my dressing room," she said, her voice low. Her fingers moved silently across the mirror's silver surface; she caressed it like a lover, all the while staring intently at her image. Dark circles had appeared under her eyes, and it dawned on me that her image looked much like mine when I had almost suffered another fit of rage.

"What are you looking at, Mother?"

"Nothing!" She whirled around on her heel, her eyes blinking her sudden change from dream to reality. The color slowly came back into her face as she approached me and reached up to put her hands on my shoulders. "Christian, you must say nothing of this to anybody, not even your father." She lowered her gaze to the floor. "Especially not your father. He will think you're mad."

"Then what I saw was real? You know this man, Mother?" My heart began to pound furiously in my throat. It was true. Mother obviously had known the masked man in the corridor.

She stepped to the door of the dressing room, pausing in the doorway to turn back to me. "What you saw was a ghost. A ghost, or a bad dream." She shook her head, her eyes awash with tears of sorrow. "How I wish ghosts could be real, Christian! Oh, how I wish it!" She clasped her slender fingers together before her in a flash of ecstasy. "There are several I would like to see, like your grandfather, and yes, I would dearly love to see this man you saw! I knew him well once, long ago, before you were born."

"Who is he?"

"It doesn't matter now, Christian. He is dead. I can't see him again, until...well, one day perhaps we will have the chance to meet again. Things may be different then." She flashed a brave smile at me, but her quivering lips betrayed the raw shock my story had written on her heart. "Forget this ghost, Christian. Please don't mention it again." She gave a wavering smile as a stream of rainbow tears began to run down her cheeks, then she turned and ran out the door.

Her reaction and hasty departure left my mind filled with questions and thoughts that plagued me on into the late night hours. I did not leave the dressing room, instead remaining seated on the divan, my mind replaying the scene with Mother over and over. At one point I stood and walked to the mirror. My fingers slipped across its smooth surface. It seemed to shimmer under my touch. Why had she been so fascinated with the mirror? Who was this man that brought out such strong emotions in my mother, who was usually such a sweet, naive, steady woman? I had never seen her react so strongly to anything, not even my father!

I stood and opened the door to my dressing room. Several notes had been fastened to it, one inviting me to dinner after such a "spectacular" performance, another acknowledging my born talent to raise people to heights of ecstasy with my fingertips on the keys of a piano. I smiled. Flattery did not surprise me. I was used to it now. I expected it. I removed the notes and put them on the dresser in the room, then turned and walked slowly back down the steps.

I lapsed into deep thought, my mind not aware of where my feet led me. I blinked, and then realized I had walked down the path I had followed the masked stranger on before. A brief shiver danced around my neck as his words assaulted my mind: "Death is not particular about his victims. Nor am I." I wondered if I should be here, but curiosity overtook me and I continued down the path by which he had disappeared.

I had heard rumors about the labyrinthian underground of the opera house. Mother had often told me about its numerous cellars, even a mysterious underground lake. She had warned me of the dangers deep in those dank cellars, everything from packs of rats to scene props that could topple and crush someone instantly. I saw only a few scene props as I explored the floor directly under my dressing room. I could see the red lights from the furnaces burning in the distance, casting orange and red lights off their surroundings and lending the air of Hades to the dark underground.

Why had that masked man been here? I had seen his shadow several times before; it was only after I saw the end of his cloak that I realized it was a living thing. Determination welled in me. If he had been here once, he would be here again. If Mother wouldn't tell me the details of their encounter before my birth, then perhaps he would. He had sounded sinister, his voice filled with cold indifference of near-evil proportions, but I was determined to find out who he was and how he knew my mother, regardless of the circumstances.

Why was I so driven? I didn't know, and I didn't question. I only felt. Something had stirred my soul when I had faced the glittering eyes behind the mask; something had called to me. At the time I rationalized that it was because of Mother. I had to protect her from something that frightened her to the point of fainting. I didn't realize until later that it was so much more that drew me to him, making me search those dark passages night after night, my heart pounding with frustration after I was consistently denied any glimpse of him.

But he was there. I felt him. Sometimes when I would turn a particularly dark corner, the hairs on the back of my neck would stand on end. I knew I was being watched. He was observing me, making mental notes of my every movement. "Do I measure up to your expectations?" I called one night, half in jest. To my astonishment, I could swear I heard a soft, sarcastic chuckle just by my ear. I whirled around, my heart pounding in my ears, my breath gone, to find myself facing empty blackness. I took a deep breath, then rocked back on my heels. He had been there.

One night I journeyed further and further into the deep inner recesses under the opera house. My path grew darker until I could barely see my hand in front of my face. I knew I should be frightened, but I found a strange kind of peace in the blackness that surrounded me. I half expected him to leap out at me in the darkness, but I was sure he had had that opportunity before during my many nights of exploring. He had not accosted me then; why would he do so now?

Nonetheless, every inch of my body was taut and ready for action as I gingerly picked my way down a winding set of stone stairs. My heel slipped. I tried to grip the stone walls, but my fingers slid off their cold, smooth surface. I landed with a thud on my back, then slid unceremoniously down several more stairs. A blinding pain shot through my ankle, and I realized I must have twisted it when I fell.

I pushed myself to my feet and grimaced as I almost crumbled again under my own weight. I turned and looked back up the long flight of black stairs. I shrugged. I might as well go on down. Maybe there was something at the end of the stairs, another passage that would lead to the outside of the opera house. I could never make my way back up those stairs with a twisted ankle.

I managed a rye smile as I realized I had smeared a large spot of brown mud on the black leg of the trousers of my black evening suit. I had reminded myself to change clothes before I began this night's explorations, but in my haste I had failed to do so. The slick soles of my dress shoes were surely to blame for my fall.

I picked my way slowly to the end of the stairs, and found myself standing on a dirt surface. The night had suddenly vanished. I stood bathed in the eerie blue glow of a vast expanse of water. I had stumbled unwittingly upon the underground lake. "Amazing!" I muttered. The sound of my own voice rang back softly in my ears. Obviously there had to be walls around this lake, or an echo could not exist. I heard another soft sound, and instinctively pressed my back against the stone wall of the steps, my black hair and suit blending perfectly with the darkness.

My mouth opened in a gasp of astonishment as I saw Mother appear in the distance. She walked slowly along the side of the lake, stooping every once in a while to drag her long fingers in the edge of its smooth surface. She stood, the water casting a blue shadow across her long, white dress. Her hair fell down around her shoulders and back; her face was as white as the dress she wore. I heard her voice, softly at first, then louder as she drew closer to me.

"Are you there, Erik? Are you there, across the lake? Please, come to me, I've missed you so!" She dropped her chin to her chest, her arms hanging at her sides. "No, you can't be there, can you? You're dead! Please, let me see your ghost!" She raised her head and turned to stare in my direction. I shrank back against the wall, praying like mad she would not see me. My prayers were answered.

She peered up and down the shoreline of the lake. "Oh, if the boat were only here. I remember the way! Erik, won't you come to me, just one last time?"

A soft sigh came close to my ear. Oh, the sound of that voice! Surely sailors would jump into the sea to their deaths at the sound of that wonderful tone. And yet, for all its depth and timbre, it rang with the sorrow of all mankind, a hurt so deep and true it brought tears to my eyes. The person who muttered it had to be the most miserable human being on Earth.

Mother sighed, a louder sigh that rang in perfect harmony with that doleful one I had just heard. She turned and began to walk away from me, back down the surface of the lake. She had just disappeared from view when the sound of voices made me sink to my knees in a desperate attempt to stay hidden.

"You promised, Erik! You promised! Will you break your word to me now?"

"Damn you, Daroga! Damn you and your infernal promises!"

I watched as a small opening appeared in the wall at the foot of the stairs where I crouched. Two figures emerged, one in long, flowing robes and a pointed hat, the other in a magnificent flowing black cloak, black fedora hat and... my heart began pounding a crescendo in my ears as the figure turned toward me... a white mask. The eyes behind the mask glittered supernaturally in the eerie light from the lake.

The man in robes stopped at the side of the lake. The masked man I had met weeks before stopped at his side, his hands clutched into fists on his hips, his head tilted curiously to one side.

"You cannot stop me, you know." His voice made me blink to retain my senses; it had the curious power to lull me into oblivion. Its sound reminded me of tales I had heard about sirens, whose heavenly sounding songs had cast thick fogs over the minds of sailors and lured them to their deaths at the dark bottom of the sea. I fought its silent message and concentrated on his words. "I suppose I should apologize if that makes you feel rather... inadequate."

"No, I can't stop you, Erik. But I can tell the police you are still here. They think you're dead. I can tell them differently."

The masked man stiffened. A deathly calm descended around them. "They would have no reason to believe you, provided I allowed you to go to them."

The other man stepped back. I saw his face become pale as he studied the masked man. "You think you have ultimate power, don't you, Erik? Power over life and death? What about your soul? Have you no concern for it?"

"Soul? What soul?" Erik leaned his head back and filled the still air with his musical, sarcastic laugh. He grew serious again. "Daroga, do not force me to do something I may later regret! I advise you to stay out of my way."

I could vaguely make out the seal of the Persian national police on the daroga's robe. Apparently Erik and this man had met before....

"You let her go, Erik. You let her go years ago. She thought you died. You said you wanted it that way, so she could live a normal life. Well, she has a normal life, Erik! Will you take that from her now?"

Erik appeared not to hear the daroga, even though his sparkling eyes remained fixed on him. "All those years," Erik muttered as he shook his head slowly. "All those years of watching, of wanting to reach out to her, to touch her...just to touch her again...." He held his hands out, his fingers curling as if he were holding something, then he folded his arms around himself and dropped his chin to his chest in a gesture of unfathomable sorrow. He shuddered. "Why am I tormented this way?" Erik raised his hands to cover the mask. I marveled at the length of his fingers that stretched easily to hide most of the white fabric.

Suddenly he lowered his hands, threw back his head and took a step back from the other man. All the power and majesty that permeated his being returned as quickly as they had vanished. "You say I will burn in hell, don't you, Daroga? Well, I already live in hell, my friend! No amount of flame will increase my agony! God can give me no worse punishment than he has wreaked out on me in this life!" He whirled around, his cloak unfolding like a raven's wings around him, then stopped in his tracks and turned back to the other man.

"I thought I could live without her," Erik said. His tone changed from icy coolness to warmth, his voice begging for understanding as he held his hands out toward the other man. "But now I have seen her. She owns my soul! It is in her hands, the hands she uses to caress Raoul de Chagny!" His long fingers curled into fists of rage as his voice exploded at the end of his sentence and sent shivers racing across my flesh.

"You had your chance, Erik," the daroga said. His voice was soft, as if he were trying to calm this man whose emotions ran from soft passion to cold anger in a heartbeat. "Christine Daae wanted to stay with you. I saw it in her eyes, but you said she should go. You knew she could not live a normal life with you."

"I thought that then," Erik said, his tone dark with anger. "I was crazed...with love! I remember how she came to me, how she kissed my face...her hands were warm, her hair was so soft...so soft...." His voice became low; I heard the wistfulness, the mound of sorrow that he swallowed. He reached up and pulled the black hat from his head, his long fingers raking back through his straight hair. "Every night I sit alone and relive how she came to me, how she gave herself to me. God granted me a taste of heaven, then ripped it from my hands!"

"You would make her live a life like yours?" the daroga asked. "No, my friend. You loved her too much to condemn her to that, and if you love her as much today, you will not reveal yourself to her. Don't put her through that torment again, Erik. She has married the Viscount de Chagny. She has already chosen."

"Only because I gave her no choice!" Erik growled the words. He spun around on his heel and began striding down the dirt that crowned the edge of the glowing lake. The daroga began to run after him.

"Erik! Erik! If you persist with this, you will give me no choice!" Erik whirled around. The daroga stopped. They stood facing each other, the shoulders of each rising and falling as they took frenzied breaths. It was Erik's cold, melodic voice that first broke the stillness. "And you will give me no choice, Daroga," he said. His tone was low, his voice soft, his intent as clear to me as the scene I had just witnessed.

I watched, spellbound, as Erik walked quickly up the shore of the lake in the direction my mother had taken, until he disappeared in the distance. He moved with quiet stealth and regal dignity, a mysterious, dark form that intrigued and perplexed me. Who was he? He had obviously been in love with my mother at one time! He had wanted to kill Father! Worst of all, he wanted to again stir up whatever had happened between the three of them all those years ago!

My heart fluttered with the fear in my soul. He would kill Father if he had the chance; I had no doubt of that after merely hearing the tone of his voice. No wonder he had accosted me with cold curiosity one minute, then threatened my life the next! He obviously knew who I was, and saw Father in me. Another question picked at my brain, plagued my thoughts and left me twisting and turning on my bed several nights after I had witnessed the scene by the lake.

Why did he wear that mask?

I decided with little mental debate that I should not tell Mother what I had seen. If Erik had some diabolical plan in mind for her and Father, I wanted to find out what it was without driving her to the opera house to try to protect me. Besides, her behavior at the side of that glowing underground lake had perplexed me. She had called for Erik with a deep longing, a soulful, heart-wrenching urgency. I had never heard her use such passion with Father. I beat down any questions I was longing to ask her, and continued my exploration of the labyrinthian underground.

My plan was to find Erik's house. Obviously he lived somewhere under the opera house. Perhaps the daroga lived with him, I wasn't sure. Regardless, if I could find his house, I could begin making plans to ruin any attempts he might make at harming Father or Mother. Once I found the spider's nest, I could begin destroying the spider!

I found my way back to the side of the lake with relative ease. My ankle was still sore and tender, but it had not interfered with my performances, and I would not let it interfere with my more urgent mission at hand. I paused at the end of the stone steps, my ears tuned for the slightest sound. None came. I crept out onto the lake shore, moving to stand in the very spot Erik had stood only a few nights before.

A sudden shiver ran through me, almost like an electric current. I could still feel his power, his presence, here. Ever since our first encounter, I had never doubted the deep, dark force that surrounded his essence.

I walked the lake shore, my eyes roving from the glowing blue lake to the darkness that pushed against the other side. Erik could be anywhere. The thought made me uncomfortable, but made my senses acutely aware. I felt curiously alive, my entire body prickling with sensations. I noticed a shadow floating on the surface of the lake, right up next to the shore. As I approached it, I could make out the form of a small boat. My pulse quickened as I spotted an oar nestled against its side.

Mother's words rushed through my brain. "If the boat were only here. I remember the way!" The answer suddenly rang loud in my mind. Erik, wherever he was, whatever he was, was across this lake. All I had to do was get in the boat and row. I threw myself inside the boat, stopping a moment to check for any leaks. There were none. I took hold of the oar.

I had rowed only a few feet from shore when a soft singing made its way to my ear. The singing came closer and closer, louder, until it seemed to dance all around the boat, even under it. I blinked, surrounded by the soft blue glow of the lake and that mesmerizing melody. I had never heard such a voice. It sang of heaven and all its angels; surely that golden hymn, that cross between a nightingale and one of God's most trusted servants, came straight from heaven itself! I peered tentatively over the edge of the boat. Only the blue glow of the lake greeted my gaze.

I sat back up in the boat, my mind spinning, my senses slowly lulled almost into oblivion by that soft voice. It danced around my head, compelling me to look out over the side of the boat again. This time, I leaned out as far as I could, my neck and shoulders stretching to see where that angel's voice was coming from.

Suddenly a pair of arms came at me from under the water. They closed around my neck, their biceps bulging as they pulled me easily over the side of the boat. I managed to gasp my lungs full of air before I was pulled under the cold water. I instinctively closed my eyes and struggled with the figure that held me. I pushed against it, to no avail; it had wrapped itself around me as surely as a rope.

My lungs ached for air. My head throbbed. The thought ran through my mind that I was going to die here in this bright blue water. I had performed my last time that very night. I had seen Mother and Father for the last time. If I had not been totally submerged in water, I would have cried.

The arms that had held me powerfully below the water suddenly lifted me above its surface. An arm wrapped around my neck. I felt myself pulled along in the water, my lungs gasping for air. I pushed at the figure that had me clasped in its arms, but I was too weak to force it away from me. I found its presence strangely comforting; its strong arm held my head above water as it pulled me along. I caught a glimpse of an unfamiliar dirt bank that skirted the edge of the blue lake just before my world was swallowed in darkness.

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