Book Blitz: Infernium, by Keri Lake

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Title: Infernium
Series: Nightshade #2
Author: Keri Lake
Genre: Dark Gothic Paranormal Romance
Release Date: June 30, 2022

 

BLURB

 

Pain is an abyss.

How naive of me to think I’d already reached the very depths of it when fate shook my world with a crushing blow. It turns out, there are fathomless levels of pain, like a winding labyrinth of doors leading to shadowy figures and long-forgotten secrets. The kind of inescapable descent into madness that twists nightmares into reality.

What lies at the end of this obscure path I have yet to discover, but where it begins, is a place called Infernium. An asylum, feared by those in Nightshade and untrodden by the angels who’ve forsaken its many lost souls.

Some say it’s the gateway to hell.

Others believe it’s where you go when the last flicker of hope dies out.

For me, it’s where I’ve damned myself for eternity–my penance for a crime against the heavens, and home to the demons that claw at my mind.

Yet, not even they stand a chance against my dark angel, Jericho. He fears nothing. Except losing me.

The longer I remain trapped, though, the stronger this darkness inside of me grows. A duality dividing my heart between love and revenge.

And, soon, saving me may no longer be an option.

 

 

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AUTHOR BIO

 

Keri Lake is a dark romance writer who specializes in demon wrangling, vengeance dealing and wicked twists. Her stories are gritty, with antiheroes that walk the line of good and bad, and feisty heroines who bring them to their knees. When not penning books, she enjoys spending time with her husband, daughters, and their rebellious Labrador (who doesn’t retrieve a damn thing). She runs on strong coffee and alternative music, loves a good red wine, and has a slight addiction to dark chocolate.
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Series Spotlight, Excerpt & Author Interview: Chase and Daniels + Giveaway

Harkworth Hall

Chase and Daniels, Book One
L.S. Johnson
 
Genre: Queer Gothic Romance/Horror
Publisher: Traversing Z Press
Date of Publication: 2017
ISBN: 978-0998893617
ASIN: B073QFH8WG 
Number of pages: 166
Word Count: 38k
Cover Artist: Najla Qamber 
 
Book Description: 
 
Ask him about his wives.
 
Caroline Daniels must marry, and marry well. But in her remote corner of England eligible suitors are few and far between, and none hold a candle to her closest friend, Diana Fitzroy.
 
When Sir Edward Masterson arrives, he seems the answer to Caroline’s financial worries, though she instinctively dislikes the reticent, older merchant. Soon Sir Edward has set his sights on acquiring both Caroline and the decaying Harkworth Hall.
 
Caroline’s future seems secure, save that Sir Edward’s enigmatic secretary hints at a dark secret, and Sir Edward shows an unusual interest in the nearby bay. To discover Sir Edward’s true purpose, Caroline will have to face the horror beneath Harkworth Hall—and the woman who will change her life.
 
 

Excerpt:

I first heard of Edward Masterson the day of the birds, though I forgot about them through much of what happened after. Indeed, in the moment, their strange flight was only a disturbing inconvenience, as it turned my father back from his walk to the village on laundry day.

My father was a gentleman of small, regular habits. He walked to the village twice each week, to gain news of the wider world and have two pints of ale before walking back. In winter, he had Mr. Simmons, who served as our steward as well as sometime butler and valet, drive him. But in the fine weather of late spring he would set off walking, in his plain suit but with his sword polished and ready should he meet any ruffians.

The rest of our little household—myself and Mr. and Mrs. Simmons; my poor mother had passed when I was young—would plan much around this simple outing, for the house was too much work for the Simmonses alone. My father made no objection to my helping with light chores such as dusting, but he had recently been infected with the disease of matchmaking, and he feared for my prospects should I develop a working woman’s hands and complexion. His solution for our overworked staff was to simply hire more help as needed, but I often snuck into his study to review our account books and there was no surplus for such luxuries. Thus, I learned to separate want from necessity, and while other women my age were dancing at assemblies or practicing their needlework, I was scrubbing floors and learning to make pastry. I learned, and I learned as well to not reflect upon my circumstances, lest I fall into melancholy—and many days there was simply no time for such indulgence. As soon as my father left, I put aside my role as Caroline Daniels, landowner’s daughter, and became Caroline Daniels, maid, stableboy, or whatever we needed me to be. Laundry especially was a daylong affair, and more than once we had sent Mr. Simmons out to delay my father so we could get the last damp pieces inside before he returned.

My father left, drawing the door closed behind him. I waited in the hall, seeing in my mind’s eye his stout figure striding down the drive. Now he would pat his pockets, ensuring he had a shilling but little more, for he had once been robbed on his return and had a fine watch and several shillings taken off him. Now he would think about that watch, and touch his sword in reassurance. All was well and nothing was forgotten; he could enjoy his journey in peace, and we could set about our work. I counted to fifty, then with a deep breath seized the first laundry basket and began dragging it back to the yard—

—when I heard the terrible sound of the door swinging open again, and my father bellowing for Mr. Simmons. At once I dropped the basket, smiling brightly. My smile faded, however, when I saw the spatters on his hat and coat, including a red smear on his face.

“Are you all right? Did you fall?” I rushed towards him, thinking to stop any bleeding with my apron.

“Quite all right,” he said. “Only the birds are going mad.”

For a moment I stared at him, believing I misheard him, but then I saw movement in the sky past his shoulder. Birds of all sizes and shapes, flying at odd angles to each other but all heading inland. As I watched two collided, then set at each other with horrific shrieks and bared claws. Feathers drifted down as they fought.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s quite late in the year to be mating, and there are gulls up there. They usually stay close to the shore—” My father suddenly broke off, frowning at the laundry basket. “What are you doing with that laundry?”

“I was looking for a petticoat,” I said quickly. “I cannot find it anywhere.”

He gave me a suspicious look, but I was saved from further inquiry by Mr. Simmons appearing. As he fetched my father a fresh coat, I slipped past him and went out onto the drive. Dozens of birds filled the sky, and save for when their paths provoked a conflict, they were doing so in near silence, as if they needed all their strength to fly. But what were they flying towards—or were they fleeing something? I scanned the horizon: there was not so much as a cloud, not a hint of an incoming storm.

Above me two more birds crossed paths, and the larger one viciously raked the smaller. It tumbled to the ground, then carefully righted itself and began limping forward, still heading unerringly inland.

“Caroline, dear, don’t distress yourself with such sights.” My father took my arm and led me back to the house.

“But what could be causing it?” I asked, still craning my head. “Something has frightened them, something worse than a storm.”

“They were probably startled by an animal—perhaps we have a wolf again. I’ll ask in the village,” he said. “Oh, and I forgot to tell you! I will be stopping at the Fitzroys’ on my way home. I was thinking if Diana spends the season in town again, perhaps you could join her? A stay of some weeks will help you become more comfortable in society, and develop your acquaintanceships further.”

And there were so many replies I wished to make, all at once. The Fitzroys were our closest neighbors, and Diana my oldest friend. Having both lost our mothers early, and without siblings, we had been for a time closer than sisters. The memories of our girlhood, pretending to be the pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, or the tragic princess Caroline, still filled me with longing. But the Fitzroys’ finances had flourished where ours had declined, and I took no pleasure in the prospect of marriage. A season with Diana promised only embarrassing shortfalls and uncomfortable encounters.

I wanted to say all these things, and that I had seen far worse than a wounded bird in my life, for had I not seen my own mother die in childbirth? But such was not the speech of a dutiful daughter, and I quailed at the thought of disrupting our affectionate relationship. I was still struggling for words when he kissed me on my forehead and shooed me back inside, as if I was still a little girl.


Leviathan

Chase and Daniels Book Two
L.S. Johnson
 
Genre: Queer Gothic Romance/Horror
Publisher: Traversing Z Press
Date of Publication: June 15, 2018
ISBN: 978-0998893624
ASIN: B07DJQZ8GM 
Number of pages: 185
Word Count: 40k
Cover Artist: Najla Qamber 
 
Book Description:
 
We will survive this, Caroline.
 
It has been several months since Harkworth Hall burned, and mere weeks since Joanna Chase came back into Caroline Daniels’ life. But when a stranger arrives in their village and asks to see the damaged bay, they know that word of the creature has spread. With tensions simmering between France and England, they depart in haste for Medby, where Sir Edward’s brother resides. There they hope to discover if Thomas Masterson has stepped into Sir Edward’s shoes, and now wields the monster called Leviathan.
 
The situation in Medby, however, is far worse than they anticipated. Claiming the French attacked his ships, the younger Masterson seems about to launch an audacious reply. But his true plans are not so straightforward and there is little time for Caroline and Jo to uncover them. 
 
With the threat of war demanding risks in kind, Caroline and Jo must weigh their deepening affection against the greater good … and learn to trust not only their instincts, but their hearts as well.

 

The Painter’s Widow

Chase and Daniels Book Three
L.S. Johnson
 
Genre: Queer Gothic Romance/Horror
Publisher: Traversing Z Press
Date of Publication: June 26, 2020
ISBN: 978-0998893655
ASIN: B089QW92YN 
Number of pages: 182
Word Count: 40k
Cover Artist: Najla Qamber of Najla Qamber Designs
 
Book Description:
 
You know by now what a woman is capable of.
 
Caroline is home with her father and the woman she loves—but with the Leviathan still unaccounted for, such peace can only be temporary. Soon, the mysterious Mr. Smith is asking for her aid once more: one of the Mastersons’ conspirators has been murdered, and the only clue lies in a painting that was last seen in Medby. Meanwhile, Jo has worries of her own, as her affianced sister wants assurances she cannot give—not without denying her very self.
 
With her arrival in London marked by a second murder, Caroline finds herself once more drawn into a world she wanted to forget. Aided by old friends and new, she and Jo search for the painter, while staying out of reach of Jo’s sister’s powerful fiancé. But soon they suspect that darker forces are behind the murders, involving not only the painter but his young, pretty wife … and an imaginary land called Arcadia.
 
As Caroline and Jo struggle to both stop the murders and protect the life they’ve made for themselves, they find a new conspiracy is just beginning … and their choices will come at a price greater than either imagined.
 
 

A Shining Path

Chase and Daniels Book Four
L.S. Johnson
 
Genre: Queer Gothic Romance/Horror
Publisher: Traversing Z Press
Date of Publication: April 2, 2022
ISBN: 979-8985797213
ASIN: B09SY7GJFH 
Number of pages: 198
Word Count: 47k
Cover Artist: Najla Qamber Designs
 
Book Description:
 
There is so much evil in the world … but this one thing we can make right.
 
The island colony of Arcadia promises hope, prosperity, and tolerance to all who settle there … and asks only that they protect it with their lives. For Caroline and Jo, however, this opportunity could spell disaster, for the island’s owner is none other than Mrs. Masterson. Is her invitation an honest offer, or a deadly lure? And what relation does this Arcadia have to the one in the widow’s paintings—a place accessible only by magic, and the last known location of the monster called Leviathan?
 
To uncover the truth, Caroline and Jo set out for Arcadia, only to find that each of their fellow travelers has personal reasons for accepting Mrs. Masterson’s offer. Caught between this impromptu army and the might of England and France, knowing at any moment the Leviathan might reappear, they race to stave off the impending violence. 
 
But the further they get, the more they realize that Mrs. Masterson has set herself, and the Leviathan, against a far greater opponent than any one nation. Her success will mean catastrophe for millions, but stopping her may cost Caroline and Jo what they hold most dear: each other.
 
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Author Interview:

1. What inspired you to write this series?

The 2016 U.S. election. It was such a horrifying, terrifying result, and it left me devastated. I started writing what I told myself was a standalone lesbian romance because I desperately needed a story where women win, where women live happily ever after. That it ended up also being a horror story, and a series to boot, is just how my brain works.

2. What, if anything, did you learn in writing the series?

Oh, there were so many lessons. These books were my first attempts to really come to grips with the novella, with its length and structure—I’d written several shorter novellas, around the 20k mark, and I had drafted novels of 90-120k words, but this ~40k length was new for me. I worked hard on representation, on balancing worldbuilding and plot, at trying to find that perfect overlap between fantasy and historical fact. As the series grew I also had to contend with a growing cast of both protagonists and antagonists, and make sure their arcs ended in a satisfying way.

3. What surprised you the most in writing the series?

That I made it to the end, lol. I’ve been writing these books off and on since 2016. It’s been a while.

4. If it’s not a spoiler, what do the titles mean?

The first one is a location, the second has a double meaning, the third is a character, and the fourth is a prophecy.

5. Were any of the characters inspired by real people?

Not that I know of, haha. I mean, all my characters incorporate facets of people I’ve encountered in one way or another. But I shy away from modeling characters on any one person. I do have a few private Pinterest boards of faces, especially historical photographs, but I think of it more like “oh, my character resembles that person.”

6. Do you consider the series to have a lesson or moral?

Not overtly. But I believe that every book, even the lightest, most humorous tale, presents a certain worldview, and values associated with that worldview. How you shape your tale, who you include in it, how the world acts upon your characters: these are all choices made by the author, choices that have both moral and political dimensions. I feel like with this series I took increasing care with my choices—thanks in no small part to excellent feedback from readers.

7. What is your favorite part of the series?

Oh, I have several! Two things I really love to write are dinner parties—especially dinner parties with, how should I say, undercurrents—and dramatic entrances. By the latter I mean those dun-dun-dun, “s–t’s about to get real” kind of entrances. I got to write a couple of each in this series, and I loved every minute of it.

8. Which character was most challenging to create? Why?

I veered out of my lane with a few characters in this series, with regards to both race and gender. I think I did okay. I tried to be careful: I brought in sensitivity readers, I did a great deal of research using both primary and secondary sources. This series isn’t historical fiction, it’s historical fantasy; still, the note I always try to hit is to make the story feel possible, even plausible—that things might have happened this way if there really were sea monsters/witches/etc. In this series, that meant grappling with life in a country that was profiting from slavery and persecuting queerness, all while trying to tell an entertaining story. Readers can tell me how I did!

9. What are your immediate future plans?

I am drafting a much larger series called Prima Materia. It’s historical fantasy again, about vampires, alchemists, and the possible return of a serpent god in Enlightenment Europe. And, in a total leap of faith for this very anxious writer, I’m actually sharing the draft as I write it on primamateria.online. Subscribers can read chapters as I finish them, see my research and process notes, and get the final books when they’re published. I’m also working on a few short stories, and I’m considering a possible hardcover omnibus of the Chase & Daniels books. It’s a lot of work, but there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.


About the Author:

 
L.S. Johnson lives in California with a spouse, a cat, and numerous goldfish. She is the author of the Chase and Daniels quartet of gothic novellas and over 40 short stories. Her first collection, Vacui Magia, won the North Street Book Prize and was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Her second collection, Rare Birds, was an IPPY medalist. Her vampire serial, Prima Materia, is happening now. Find her online at traversingz.com.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


Spotlight: The Guardian of the Opera: Nocturne + Excerpt

The Guardian of the Opera
Nocturne Cover
The Guardian of the Opera: Nocturne
by Cheryl Mahoney
Genre: Historical Fiction, Gothic Romance
Published June 5th, 2020
by Stonehenge Circle Press

 

Set against the backdrop of 1880s Paris and the stunning Opera Garnier, The Guardian of the Opera: Nocturne brings you the familiar tale from a different direction. Meg Giry met the Phantom of the Opera once when she was twelve years old, a new ballet dancer lost in the Opera’s maze. Years later, when an Angel of Music offers singing lessons to her best friend Christine Daaé, Meg is sure she knows what’s actually happening. But as strange events unfold and the pieces stop adding up, Meg has to wonder if she truly understands the Phantom–or Christine.

Erik is a man of many talents and many masks, and the one covering his face may be the least concealing. The opera house is his kingdom and his refuge, where he stalks through the shadows as the Phantom of the Opera, watching over all that occurs. He never intended to fall in love; when he does, it launches him into a new symphony he’s certain can only end in heartbreak.

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Excerpt:

Sometimes I believe the course of my life was set because I got lost one day when I was twelve years old.  I got lost often that year, but only once that mattered.

I had first come to the Opera Garnier only three days before, and I defy anyone to learn that labyrinth of rooms and passages so quickly.  It didn’t help being a girl from a small village, come to Paris with my mother just a week earlier.  The city was bewildering, unimaginably bigger than my little village of Leclair.  And the Opera was the heart and center of Paris, stranger and wilder and even more confusing.

I was supposed to be on my way to ballet practice.  I was a petit rat, the lowest tier of society among the Opera’s performers.  Madame Thibault the ballet mistress presided over us, and she did not tolerate tardiness.  I didn’t want to be late.  I desperately wanted to be at ballet practice—but I was lost.

Some wrong turn mixed me up somewhere, and from there I could only fly through the maze like a small ghost, unable to find the way back to my intended path.  The Opera held too many similar corridors, with their polished marble floors, gilt paneled walls, and long arrays of mirrors.  No space in the Opera was plain or generic, until the dizzying amount of detail, the carvings and the gold designs and the patterned grates overwhelmed me, so that I couldn’t pick out one familiar note in the crashing, thundering symphony of it all.

It felt equally impossible to ask for directions from anyone I passed, the looming scenechangers with gap-toothed grins or the elegant sopranos with their noses in the air.  By the time I might have built up enough reckless courage to speak to someone, no one was left.  I had got below ground level, probably not very far, but low enough for the halls to be deserted, low enough for it to feel cool despite the summer warmth above.  I’d left behind the human smells of the upper corridors, the grease paint, perfume and cigar smoke.  Down here the air smelled damp, reminding me of the fabled lake said to be even farther down.  In stark and jarring contrast, these walls were plain, white-washed stone, unevenly lit by flickering gas lamps.

When I came to a bleak and empty dead-end, I gave up.  I slid down to sit against the cold stone wall, one arm around my ankles and forehead against my knees.  With my other hand I held tightly onto my small gold necklace, the barest of comforts in the desolation.  My hair fell forward like a golden curtain around my face, blocking out the dismal, silent, baffling corridor.  I half-believed that I would never get out, that I would die lost in the depths of the Opera.

Part of me found that the preferable option.  To stumble in late to ballet practice would mean facing the ballet mistress’ mocking disapproval.  She would hate me, the other girls would laugh at me, and my entire life, not to mention dancing career, would be over forever.  I’d never earn any money to help Mother afford to stay in Paris, and we’d have to go back to Leclair where nothing would ever happen to me ever again.

So I sat in that dead-end corridor and cried.

“It can’t be as bad as all that.”

The voice that broke the silence was the most beautiful I had ever heard.  Perhaps that was a strange adjective for a male voice, but it was a true one.  It was a melodic voice, every syllable flowing smoothly into the next while the pronunciation stayed crisply clear.  And it was a kind voice as well, sympathetic with a bracing amount of levity.  It was a voice I would have had the courage to ask directions from, just a little earlier.

By now, the situation felt too far gone to be salvaged.  Ballet practice would start within minutes; I couldn’t imagine getting there in time now even if I knew the way.  So I just sobbed out, “I can’t find my way to practice and the ballet mistress is going to kill me.”

Only then did I lift my head to push my hair back, wipe my eyes and look at the man who had spoken.  And then—sob catching in my suddenly tightening throat—then I got scared.

The other ballet girls had already taken great delight in telling me about Le Fantôme, the Phantom of the Opera, the specter who stalked the corridors, harbinger of death and disaster.  I froze, staring at this strange figure so tall above me.

He was wearing the formal, all-black evening clothes the stories had promised.  The legend also mentioned hands covered in blood, which his weren’t.  His eyes weren’t the glowing yellow of the tales, but he did wear a molded white mask over the right side of his face in a more mysterious touch, while a broad-brimmed hat cast another layer of shadow.

A mask and evening clothes in the morning were unusual, but we were in an opera house.  My instinct that he was the Phantom came from clues harder to define than a mask: a shroud of mystery surrounded him, from the swirling black cloak to the inexplicable way he seemed as much shadow as man, indistinct in the dim light, as though he was so used to blending in that he forgot to stop.

Somehow I thought of the Phantom at once, before he even had time to say, “In that case, I understand why you’re upset.  There are many people I would rather cross than the ballet mistress.”

It was a sympathetic remark, made in that perfect voice, with a faint smile as well.  However, my mother had warned me often enough not to trust strange men just because they smiled, and this one was stranger than most.  “Who are you?” I gasped out, though I felt horribly sure that I already knew.

He fingered the brim of his hat, and I read thoughtfulness in his stance.  “I am a sort of…guardian of the Opera,” he said at last, which only confirmed my worst fears.  “You seem unfamiliar.  Are you new?”

I could think of no answer that felt safe, so I chose the truth and said, “Yes.”  In a way, everyone was new.  The Opera Garnier had opened in January, and this was only June; I couldn’t imagine learning every face in six years, let alone a mere six months.

“I see.  Old hands have no business getting lost, but when new it is difficult to avoid.  I will help you.”  And he extended one black-gloved hand.

My heart pounded in my chest so loudly he must have heard it, and my fingers tightened, wrapped around my legs.  I stared at his hand, unmoving, for so long that he took it back again and said, “Not too new, I see, to have heard of the Phantom.”

So it was true, and only more terrifying that he admitted it.  I looked up at his green eyes, at that mask, and squeaked, “Are you going to kill me?”

He crouched down, bringing his face nearly to my level, black cloak pooling around him.  Closer now, I could see his eyes through the shadows, greener than anyone’s I had ever seen.  “I will tell you a secret, but you mustn’t tell anyone else because it would ruin my reputation.  I do not eat girls’ hearts.  I have never drenched any walls in blood, at least not in this country.  I cannot read minds or send nightmares, and—brace yourself, this one will be shocking—I am not actually a skeleton with glowing yellow eyes.”

He said it with such perfect solemnity that a giggle escaped me in spite of myself.  It may have been slightly hysterical.

He nodded once.  “I swear on Mozart, Beethoven, and Stradivari that if you come with me, you will reach ballet practice unharmed.”

When he extended his hand again, I took it.  Even though I knew it was probably just a trick of voice, I was obscurely reassured by the vow—and I was also acutely conscious that he could kill me whether I went voluntarily or not.

His fingers closed around mine and he rose to his feet, drawing me up.  For a supposed ghost, he had a warm and solid hand.

“One story that is true—I walk through walls.”  He reached out to the wall behind me, and I turned my head in time to see a panel pivot out, revealing a dark space behind it.  How many doors like that existed in the Opera, if one had happened to be right next to me all along?

He waved his hand through the air, a candle appearing between his thumb and forefinger.  He lifted the candle and blew lightly over it.  I was still noticing that he was a ghost who could breathe when the candle crackled to life with flame.

“How did you do that?” I asked, eyes widening.

His half-smile broadened.  “Magic.”  He stepped through the opening, candle illuminating a narrow tunnel of bare stones and wooden cross beams, more a space between walls than a proper passage.

Following him was either the bravest or most foolish thing I had ever done.

The Phantom guided me through endless turns and up a multitude of tight curved steps, the candle seeming to cast as much shadow as light.  At first I walked stiffly, spine tingling with terrors, but slowly my breathing began to steady and my heartbeat to settle down, as we kept walking and he kept up a pleasant, if mostly one-sided, conversation.

He told me that the ballet mistress, though fearsome, had never actually murdered anyone.  He advised me to stay away from the cellars, and if I got lost in the future I should keep going upstairs, never down.  Some time when I wasn’t lost, I should go up to the roof to see the excellent view.  He also told me I was not to worry if the ballet girls weren’t friendly at first, and I was never to feel that their opinion defined who I was, a statement that at the time seemed absurd and yet became remarkably comforting in later days.

I peeked at him when I dared, though with the shadows around us, the shadows cast by his hat, it was hard to see even his unmasked features.  I thought he maintained a friendly expression throughout, rarely looking at me, focusing instead on the path ahead.  I couldn’t hazard much of a guess at his age.  No gray hair or stooped shoulders, definitely not an old man—but also definitely belonging to the foreign realm of mature adults that any people at least ten years older than me seemed to inhabit.

I had little time to contemplate.  That dark walk didn’t last more than five minutes, though I would spend far more time remembering it.  That day, he was soon reaching out to another wall.  A movement of his fingers and a panel slid to the left.  Beyond it, I could see a brightly-lit hallway, empty of people, full of the Opera’s characteristic decorations.

“Turn left, go right at the first intersection, and you should be just in time for ballet practice,” he said, handing me over the threshold.

I stepped out into the light, flexing my newly-released fingers.  For feeling so reluctant to follow, I now felt strangely adrift to be sent back on my own.  I hesitated, looked back at him in the shadows.  “Thank you.”  It felt inadequate.

He touched the brim of his hat in acknowledgement, stepped back a pace and vanished into the darkness.  The wall slid shut, looking no different from every other panel in the corridor, as if it had never existed.  As if he had never existed.

I tentatively reached out and touched the wall, patterned in pale blue with generous gold molding.  Nothing moved, and I couldn’t even see a seam amidst the intricate design.  I drew my hand back and shook my head, fuzzy, as though I’d just woken out of a remarkably vivid and extraordinary dream.

Here in the waking world, I still had to get to ballet practice, with no minutes to spare.  At that thought I dashed off down the hall, spun right at the intersection, and arrived breathless at the mirrored practice room just ahead of my time.

The ballet mistress looked down her narrow nose at me as I came in the door.  “Do save some breath for dancing, Mademoiselle Giry.”

But that was nothing; that was harmless.  I was on time to take my position at the barre and she wasn’t angry with me, and besides—I had met the Phantom of the Opera and lived to tell the tale.  In the afterglow of that, even Madame Thibault didn’t seem so terrifying.

He waited until the rapid beat of her footsteps faded around the corner, then turned to make his way through the narrow passage towards the nearest descending staircase.

He didn’t often intervene so directly.  It wasn’t safe.  But he found it hard to consider a crying little girl dangerous.  She was small and alone.  Before she lifted her head, he had thought she was even younger than she was.  Helping her had seemed harmless enough—even amusing, to show off that candle trick.  Mere sleight-of-hand, but enough to impress a Persian Sultana, and certainly good enough for a little ballet girl.

Nothing was ever unmixed though, and for all he had found the encounter pleasant, it hadn’t been without a pang.  He hadn’t liked hearing the fear in her voice.  Surprising, when it was exactly what he wanted, what he had spent these past months carefully composing.

He needed the fear.  He needed the Opera Company to think that he was the dangerous one, so it wouldn’t occur to them that they, with their numbers and their confidence and their ability to cooperate, were the true dangers, the ones capable of hounding and harrying and hunting down the outcast in their midst.

He ran his fingertips along the rough wall of the passage, mere inches from the busy life on the other side.

Any attack would be more complicated than a raging mob with pikes; France was a civilized country, outside of her sporadic revolutions.  But the result would be the same.  The guillotine, or even worse—a cage.  He was guilty of the crime of being different, the world had convicted him at birth, and he had ample precedent to suggest how they would sentence him.

But not while he possessed the Opera Garnier.  Not while he was the Phantom of the Opera, stalking as ruler through its hidden passages, shadowed vaults and lofty catwalks.  They would never catch him.  They would never cage him.

Not again.

He would do whatever was necessary to ensure that.  For all their melodramatic complaints, the Opera Company was happy enough to be occupying a haunted theatre—a high-quality ghost lent a certain prestige—and if Monsieur Poligny the manager was not so happy about paying a salary to a ghost, well…the man should have chosen more wisely than to marry a woman with his wife’s background.  The Opera Ghost had recently obtained some very interesting information, and a little judicious blackmail should resolve any further issues with the management.

As for the little blonde girl, likely it would turn out for the best with her in the end.  The ballet dancers and chorus girls loved telling tales about the Ghost, and they much preferred blood-curdling horror stories to ones about a helpful specter.  She would be absorbed back into the anonymous crowd of little dancers, all much alike.  It had been merely an educated guess that she was new—he didn’t really know every face, at least not yet.  By the time she was telling the adventure to a dozen giggling friends, it would be about how the terrifying Phantom had nearly abducted her and she’d barely escaped with her life.  He wouldn’t waste his time watching that conversation.  He knew that was how it would go.

And it was better that way.

Author Bio

Cheryl MahoneyCheryl Mahoney lives in California and dreams of other worlds. She is the author of The Guardian of the Opera trilogy, exploring the Phantom of the Opera story from a fresh perspective.  She also wrote the Beyond the Tales quartet, retelling familiar fairy tales with new twists. Cheryl loves exploring new worlds in the past, the future or fairyland, and builds her stories around characters finding their way through those worlds–especially characters overlooked or underestimated by the people around them.

She has been blogging since 2010 at Tales of the Marvelous. Her weekly Writing Wednesday posts provide updates about her current writing, including excerpts. She also posts regularly with book and movie reviews, and reflections on reading. She has been a member of Stonehenge Writers since 2012, and has completed NaNoWriMo seven times.

Cheryl has looked for faeries in Kensington Gardens in London and for the Phantom at the Opera Garnier in Paris. She considers Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet to be life-changing and Terry Pratchett books to be the best cure for gloomy days.

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