Author's Note: This was originally part of the prologue for one of the "Nightingale's Odyssey" novels, "Shadowcrest's Hammer" (hosted on this site). It was cut due to me finding a stronger entrance closer to the events. But, on reflection, I have decided that there are gems enough in this to share with fans who might savor a little glimpse into how Erik and Nadir first got to America in my series. I referenced it in the story, but never showed it. Here, I cleaned this up, and cut out some rambling backstory bits that every Phantom fan already knows. For my series of five fanfiction novels I anchored them off of Kay's "Phantom". The difference is that Erik didn't actually die when Christine returned willingly to his lair. Instead, the master illusionist played a trick to set her free … Enjoy, and check out the entire "Nightingale's Odyssey" series.
Mid-Atlantic, Aboard the Morningstar Ocean Steamer
Click click click.
The sound was an unending accompaniment that grated against my simmering fury.
Click click click.
It seeped into every resistance, through every wall I tried to erect in my stony silence as the floor shifted beneath me. The continual annoyance battered against my strained patience like storm driven waves, threatening to snap the final fragile thread that tethered my waning sanity!
Click click click.
There must be a way to stop it.
There was a way to stop it. All it required from me was to break my stubborn silence. Clamping my hands into fists, I drew in a stiff breath before casting a hostile glare over my shoulder at the source of my torment.
"Nadir! Would you stop that infernal teeth chattering!" The shivering man, huddled in the woolen blanket between the crates, exploded backward in sudden alarm at the intensity of my tone. The jade eyes of the Persian observed me with the same degree of shock one would display if one had been sprung upon by a venomous cobra in the darkness and now awaited certain death.
When my angered gaze did not leave his prone figure, he tensely collected himself. "Erik … I'm freezing. By Allah, I swore you were never going speak to me again! It's been well over a day!"
I spat out each word. "If you are freezing, whose fault precisely is that? After all, these lovely accommodations are all your doing. And as for not speaking to you again, that had been my sole intention until your teeth threatened to drive me mad!"
Under the onslaught of my words, he retreated deep into the blanket as though the thick fabric could shield him from my anger. "The deception was necessary."
Emerging from beneath the cloak, where I had previously sat in stark silence, I stalked towards the unfortunate man. My voice carried a note of intense calm, "Let me make one thing abundantly clear. When I suggested we should discreetly enter America, my intention had not been to awaken inside a crate in the cargo hold on an ocean steamer!" As I spoke what little restraint I had left rapidly diminished, leaving him as the singular target of my unrestrained fury. "I seem to recall a similar discussion in the past when I informed you I would not be treated like a crate of tea!" With a violent kick I split the side of a crate and sent it skidding across the cargo deck of the ship. "What in hell made you think I should find such a debasing arrangement acceptable now!"
He fell back on his elbows, beads of sweat dripping as he pleaded, "It was the only way! This was all I could come up with once I discovered that all new arrivals in America are sent through the Emigrant Landing Depot." His trembling hand pointed up at the white mask I wore. "I knew it was essential to avoid such a place where … the situation could get uncomfortable. Once in here, I figured while we crossed the Atlantic ocean you had sufficient time to devise a method of getting past port security since they are less strict with cargo."
It took every fiber of my willpower to resist the urge to wrap my hands around his neck. "And so instead of informing me of this plan you decided it was wiser to just drug me and let me find out about it once you were locked in the confines of a ship accompanied by a man with a talent for murder!"
Under the onslaught of my harsh glare, his trembling was no longer sourced by the frigid temperature of the cargo ship's midwinter voyage. Wilting into the folds of the blanket, he buried his face in his hands. I do not believe he had intended for his muttered words to be spoken, but his lips betrayed him. "Allah, what am I doing? Why have I commenced an irreversible journey across an ocean when I know what this man is capable of! Why was I not wise enough to just walk away?" For a long moment he just sat there, breathing, lost in thought before his shoulders fell in defeat. "Because there is nothing left for me in all this world but to ensure he keeps his promise."
For all the horrid deeds I had orchestrated in my life, I was not without a heart. As angered as I was by his deception, memories haunted me of that road in Persia when I had faced that my days upon this earth were certain to abruptly end. Damn it. Fate had seen fit to thrust this self-proclaimed living conscience back into my life. In a moment of desperation, fate had forced me to beg him for a favor that would change our lives forever. Even my anger could not withstand that revelation of how much I owed this man.
"If you want to go back it is a long cold swim." I remarked dryly. "If you think it is cold here, I assure you the Atlantic's waters this time of year should be substantially more punishing."
He glanced up, pulling the blanket tighter about him. "Aren't you cold?"
Running my hand across the rough side of a crate, I felt the ever-present chill of the bare skin. "I would by outright lying if I said I was not. However, I have certainly been in worse states in my life. The house under the Paris Opera tended to be a little frigid, no thanks to the waters of the underground lake. One simply gets accustomed to a certain level of constant misery. Apparently it is something called life. Not that I count myself as having much of one."
"It doesn't have to be that way." Nadir rose slowly, the blanket threatened to fall from his shoulders as he tried to pull it closed around him. Puffs of crystallized breath hung in the air. "There is a chance, things could be different now."
A short, bitter laugh escaped me. "Such optimism. Shall we count how many times that my well intended foundations have crumbled into chambers of horror?"
"Erik, there is no need to lash yourself for the missteps of the past."
"Oh yes." Feeling the effect of the millstone of the years, I hung my head. "I am certain that the victims of the Phantom of the Opera will be elated to know that the specter has discarded his obsessive whim to play with mirrors and trap doors. That he has abandoned his ventriloquism pranks of the blackmailing of the management to control the performers he finds unworthy of a stage. That beneath the vaults of the theater no longer lurks the remnants of a monster that loathed human society for every stone, both physical and verbal, that had been flung at his scarred hide. They shall all just move on with their victimized lives as though justice has been done … because I am dead."
The only sound in the hold was Nadir's pained swallowing.
Too long the silence lasted, casting my gaze over my shoulder at him I fought the urge to sob. I only narrowly suppressed it. "I tell you, my death shall mean nothing to this world."
Taking a hesitant step towards me, this man who had come to know my secrets shook his head and tried to mimic my odd sense of humor. "You look remarkably well for being dead. There is life yet in that blue eye of yours, it's a little harder to see in the brown one though."
A groan escaped me. What a pitiful attempt to try and make me laugh. And yet in some way, I was flattered he should even try. It was true, the mismatched eyes I possessed were a part of me I could never conceal from the world, even with the mask hiding the rest of my hideous facial deformity. My left eye was a bright faultless blue, the right a brown so dark the pupil was nearly lost within the hue. Beneath the mask lurked a visage likened to that of a corpse. The malformed skin resulted in the appearance of a skull atop my sinewy built frame. Was it a wonder that for a time I had been showcased as the Living Corpse?
How often we are forced to hide our sadness with the mask of a smile so that the world never glimpses the bitter truth. Suffering in the cold silence of our entombment, no one ever sees the thorns bleeding our hearts dry. Leaning heavily against a crate I muttered, "Why the hell am I here?"
Nadir cocked his head curiously. "You know how we got aboard the ship … or are you being philosophical?"
I glared at him and snapped, "No, tell me again of how we got here. Of course I am being philosophical!" I held out my hands glancing back and forth. "Is it true? Somehow through all the deception and death was there some miracle that rendered my heart lighter than a feather?"
"What?" His eyes narrowed in confusion. "What are you talking about?"
"The weighing of the heart." I studied him for some sign that he knew of the cultural reference. There was none. "Must I teach you everything? The Egyptians speak of a ritual upon death where the heart of the deceased is placed upon the scale and weighed against Maat's feather; the goddess of truth, order, and justice." Picking up a ball of woolen yarn I had freed from the smashed crate I held it as though it was the heart. "If the heart is weighed down by malice and evil, the scale tips and the heart is snatched up by the jaw of Ammit, a nightmarish chimera." With a swift turn of my hand the ball vanished. "The heart is devoured, and the spirit of the deceased is gone forever."
Wide-eyed, Nadir inquired, "But, if the heart is lighter than a feather?"
The ball once more became a toy in my restless hand. "Then the spirit moves onwards in the journey to the afterlife." I stared at the simple object, plagued by this riddle in my life. "It does not make sense why I am still here. Why have I been permitted to go on?"
"Erik," he interjected. "Need I remind you that you are not truly deceased. You did what you had to let Chr—"
"Silence!" I shouted, banishing the name from his lips before it had the chance to injure me. "Do not speak of that! Not now! Not ever!" It was too soon, I could not think of what I had done.
A tense silence followed, eventually filled by the renewed chattering of his teeth.
For the sake of my sanity I had to do something to help him get through this. Shifting through the cargo I produced the knife, ever my constant companion, and began to pry into a few crates in the darkened hold. It was some time before Nadir's voice interrupted my methodical search. "What are you doing? That is someone else's cargo entrusted by this crew for delivery."
Shrugging I remarked, "Is it my fault they misplaced their trust?" Removing the blade from the hole I had bored into the side of a small cask I dipped my finger inside to find it filled with wine. It appeared to be a dark red. A quick taste left me chuckling at the irony. "Port wine. Perfect for a ship voyage, do you not think so, Nadir? Well now, that should sustain me."
The chattering of his teeth followed on my heels. Unhindered by my living shadow, I continued opening crates up at will. "Hrm, what a shame. Seems this ship suffers from a rat infestation." My blade rendered grooves in the soft wood resembling the teeth of the little vermin.
"This isn't right, Erik. We just need to find our own crates. There are supplies within them."
"Already found them." I pointed across the hold. "They are over there. I must thank you for thinking of packing my violin. My fingers shall need something to occupy them." The crack of a board announced the opening of another crate. Peering inside, I smiled at the wink of the bottles. "Ah ha, here we are." Pulling one out, I tossed the bottle to Nadir, who clumsily caught it. "A few nips of this and you shall feel as warm as on a spring day by the Caspian Sea."
He stared into his hands incredulously. "Followers of Allah are forbidden from drinking alcohol! And worse, this is stolen!"
I laughed darkly. "So, Allah then desires you devoutly freeze to death. How touching. Forgive my infidel nature for showing disdain at the desire of some higher power wishing for mortals to suffer despite the means to do something about it."
With shivering hands he held the bottle up in a shaft of poor light. "What is it?"
"Whiskey. Excellent for lighting a fire in one's belly. Soon you shall either be warm, or at the very least, too contented to care about being cold." I waved a hand to spur him on. "Now mutter whatever contemptible prayer to your god for forgiveness you feel necessary and take a drink before I shall have to sing a requiem mass for you."
It seemed too easy to bend his upright will. However, I had to recall that Nadir had once been more accustomed to the spoiled opulence of the Persian courts. Perhaps the cold, which I could choose to ignore out of practice, he was more prone to. I watched as he brought the mouth of the bottle to his nose and drew it back in sudden revulsion.
"Go on." I chuckled. "You will get used to it, and learn to welcome the fire."
Heaving a sigh, he lowered the bottle. "It is astonishing how you can display the manners of a gentleman and yet I know you truly have no scruples, Erik."
The cork shifted from my right hand to my left then back again, seemingly with no contact. "When a time comes that being in possession of such a trait works within my favor, maybe I shall. In the meantime, I do what I have always done. Shift for myself."
Closing his eyes, he muttered something quickly, which I knew to be a prayer. Once more he brought the bottle to his lips and threw his head back with a violent swallow. The fire hit him like a jolt of electricity. Gasping for breath with wide eyes locked warily upon the bottle he leaned against the crate.
"You stopped shivering." I pointed out before striding to our own personal crates where I procured my Stradivarius. Returning to where I could discreetly keep an eye on my only friend, I sat down resting my back against a crate as I tuned the instrument. The strings had changed length in the bitter cold. Out of the corner of my eyes I noted that Nadir clutched the bottle beneath the wool blanket, intermittently taking smaller sips. Color was gradually returning to his darker toned palette.
At last. No chattering teeth.
In the blessed quiet, I drew my bow across the strings uninterested in playing anything in particular. My mind was once more circling that curious thought of why I had been spared the certain fate of oblivion. I was well aware the actions throughout my life, regardless of their reasoning, were less than exemplary. So, where had that spark of redemption originated from?
It could not be … could it? Oh, how I had wronged her. Forced her to choose. But a choice was not that I had offered. Only the ultimate betrayal of the heart.
The frail young rose shocked me with a strength I had not known she possessed. She approached willingly and … kissed me. I stood before her, the master rendered a student within her embrace, forever changed, and I knew then because of how completely I had given my heart to Christine, I could not bind her to my cursed existence. She deserved a stable man, one not damaged by the ravages of society.
I'd let her go. Completely, with no turning back. After all, nothing is more permanent than the chasm of death, even if it is an illusion pulled off by a concoction made to mimic lack of a pulse. The potion had been brewed by me, however the idea had not been mine. That was Nadir's credit. She had retured on the day before her wedding as I had requested of her, when she departed, for all she knew, I had passed on from this realm. Only a few nights ago since my eyes shut on her for the final time.
I had to lift the mask to wipe a tear from my eye. Would this pain never ease? If we were not in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, I swear I would be doing whatever it took to return to her.
Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath before lowering my head in defeat. Nadir knew the danger of my obsessive nature. He had hoped that a whole ocean would be sufficient enough to stand in my way. That this plan would leave Christine and Raoul to live their lives in ignorant bliss, unknowing that the monster that once tormented their lives still breathed.
With a sigh, I set my violin beside me and studied Nadir's now sleeping figure. As much as I blamed him, this whole mess was entirely my doing. I would never utter that aloud. But had I shown some restraint I would never have burned the Paris Opera resulting in this essential exile. In the silence I felt something odd stirring within me, a nagging intrusive thought that gradually surfaced through my turbulent melancholy.
Had I shown some restraint I never would have known …
It was a spark lighting a candle. That first feeble flame that dares to take hold in the dark. I did not dare to believe it was there. For far too long I had clung to the unbending mantra that no one could ever accept me. Yet … she had. She was it! She was the reason I was still here! It had to be!
Maybe there was a chance in this new world. If I laid my foundations well enough, if I was careful in how I entered the circles of society, if I focused on the force of creation, there was a chance I could achieve that which I had always believed impossible.
A slow smile crossed my lips. Oh yes, that had always been a sure way to be certain I would achieve something. Tell me it was impossible.
I will never see her again. I swear that if I did the guilt of my past sins would consume me. I had been dead for nearly the whole of my life, it is because of her that I will strive on this time truly taking a chance to live … at last.
Check out the entire series, all searchable under "Nightingale's Odyssey".