His old, spindly, misshapen fingers that were clutching at his album full of priceless knowledge, hurled it at the wall with a furious gesture.
“Nothing works!” he yelled, caring not for his old vocal chords that have long lost their ability to sing so beautifully.
His emaciated body trembled with sobs as he buried his face in his hands that have long lost their agility and strength and were shaken with violent tremor and ache.
His house on the lake was decrepit, just like its owner who built it 60 years ago. It had cracks in its foundation, and dust and grime were everywhere as he couldn’t clean it anymore.
And he had nobody to ask.
Because who in their right mind would want to clean a house, located five stories beneath the great Paris Opera House, inhabited by a man who has a monstrous face and just as monstrous a temperament?
His back ached as he lifted himself from his seat and stood, his knees almost giving out beneath him. He felt around in the dark for his cane, put his thick eyeglasses back on and waddled across the small room to get the cup of tea from another table next to the enormous bookcases.
He was constantly being haunted by the memory of the days of his youth. Even though he never had a beautiful face and was always shunned by the society, he at least had his strength and his talents.
Now, he had nothing but a decaying, aching body and a crumbling wormhole of a house.
It would collapse beneath the weight of the Opera House, and it would be his final and eternal tomb.
And nobody would ever visit it.
That thought brought him immense sadness, and tears seeped from the corners of his bright golden eyes yet again.
He became much more emotional in the last few decades.
He picked up the cup, waddled back to his worktable and lowered himself into his chair again, grunting and wincing as his knees protested. He let out a breath and looked back at the empty place in his workspace, and only then did he remember that his twenty years of work had resulted in nothing.
He lost his mind.
The gold-rimmed cup fell from his hands onto the rug below, spilling the hot liquid everywhere. He yelled and struck the table’s surface with all his remaining might, wiping at the precious alchemical equipment and just as precious books and notes.
He could once call himself the greatest alchemist and scholar on the planet. For the last twenty years, he threw all his resources and his remaining strength into this research, to create an elixir, or a pill, or a surgery methodic - anything - that would bring his youth and health back.
All for nothing. Science was useless before the unstoppable machine of time.
He fell onto the floor, crying like a child and pleading for a swift death. But he could feel the cold refusal, the stern feeling that he must live yet some more. He brought his hands down onto the carpet, which had a pentagram sewn into it. His eyeglasses fell off his face, and he unknowingly smashed them with his wrist.
Dazed by the sight of destruction, he picked up a small piece of glass and held it up.
“If hell refuses to take Erik,” he said, “then Erik shall come to hell himself!”
He crushed the glass in his hand, and felt it cut into his brittle skin with satisfaction.
He threw the bloodied piece away and, standing up on his knees, crawled back to his table, flinging the drawers open, searching for something.
At last, he found it. He took out a vial of some liquid and squinted to read the name of the contents.
Yes, it was the best and most efficient poison that he had.
He opened it, picked up the empty cup and poured the poison into it.
And then, with a great smile of excited madness on his face, he brought it to his mouth.
And as he did it, he felt his hand tremble and hesitate. The memories of old days, the memories of sunlight and warmth flooded back.
His breathing got wild, and his smile disappeared. Why was he hesitating? This was the way to end everything. Every sorrow, every regret, every ache would not matter once he’d done this.
Anything - even hell itself - would be more welcome that the prolongation of this torture of a living.
The taste of death lingered at his lips, and still, he had a vision of a happy gypsy camp that he used to be a part of back when he was less than 15 years old. He suddenly remembered the happy face of a young gypsy girl, with her flamboyant attire and her billowing skirts, and he moaned out in frustration and pain at these unwanted memories.
He cursed life. He cursed happiness. He cursed all science and music and everything that he thought would bring him happiness. He cursed all of humanity and their vanity, he cursed all of nature and cosmos, cursed the entire universe for making him suffer like he did.
He cursed his life and called for the Devil to come and take him, begged, pleaded, as the cup filled with poison trembled in his shaking hands.
And suddenly, he heard deep laughter from the other end of the room.
And when Erik opened his eyes, there he was - a handsome man who looked like he was in his forties, in dashing clothes, in a felt hat, and with the most uncanny smile the old man has ever seen. Aside from, maybe, in a mirror.
Yes, Erik had a Devil’s face… and a Devil’s smile.
“Erik,” the Devil said, addressing the shocked man. “Long time no see! Why are you so surprised?”
The Devil looked around, raising a sable eyebrow and waving his hand in front of him, as if smelling something foul. “Ah, you’re just as much of a wreck as you were seventy years ago. Nothing changes, huh?”
He approached Erik, picked the cup from his trembling hands and sipped at it. “Mmm, good poison. Were you going to kill yourself with this? Bad timing, my friend - your time hasn’t come quite yet.”
The Devil has only now seemed to notice Erik’s terrified expression. “What’s wrong? Come on, you should be happy to see me. What do you want now?”
Erik shifted away from the image. “G-go away!” he rasped.
The Devil only laughed. “Ahahah, leave? My dear Erik, you should know better than to address the Devil in this way. I have come a long way to see you- now, tell me what you want.”
“Erik wants to die! Erik wants you to kill him!” the old man exclaimed, coughing violently into his hands afterwards.
The Devil looked at Erik with disgust. “Nah.”
“Why?” Erik cried.
“As I said, your time hasn’t come yet. I will only take your ugly arse to hell when I have to. And, let’s be honest - both of us know that that is not what you really want.”
Erik’s hands fell onto his lap as he thought about this. “...Erik has already sold his soul to you a long time ago. Even if he did ask for something… he would have nothing to pay you for it.”
The Devil grinned yet again. “But my Erik, you have served me well your entire life. Ah, those days in Persia - how I miss them-”
“Do NOT talk of Rosy Hours!” Erik yelled, trembling violently. “I hate it, I hate it, I hate it!”
“Ah, calm down,” the Devil said with a perturbed expression. “Do not lie to yourself. You enjoyed it, too.”
Erik fell silent, disgusted with himself.
“Now. Since you’re so difficult to talk to, let’s play a game of guess. You want gold?”
“You want power?”
“Ah, curses,” the Devil sighed.
“I want youth.”
“I want to be young again,” Erik said. “I want to be healthy. I want… I want…”
“A normal life,” the Devil said, finishing Erik’s plea for him.
The Devil grinned yet again. “I can do that for you.”
Erik blinked. “What? Are you mocking me?”
“Not at all,” the Devil said with a smirk, adjusting his lapels. “The price is a mere trifle. I am at your service, my friend.”
“But- I do not have a soul-”
“Doesn’t matter! We will discuss the price later. Do you want to be young and healthy again?”
“Stop hesitating! Erik, this is definitely not like you at all! Alright, I see you need some convincing, you old fool- look! Look!”
The Devil pointed at the wall, and Erik squinted to see it clearly. On the wall, there was suddenly a vision - a vision of true beauty. A blonde woman with the brightest blue eyes, sitting on a chair with a straight back, and singing like an angel. Her eyelashes were lowered, and a small coy smile played on her lips as she sang.
He was blinded by this vision, stunned into silence. It tugged at his heartstrings, pulled him towards it- he was at its mercy-
The Devil breathed into his ear. “Well? What do you think?”
Erik extended his trembling hand towards the perfect vision. “...G-give!...”
“Yes, of course! Anything you want will be yours. Just sign this.” The Devil lowered a very familiar-looking contract on Erik’s lap. Erik had signed one just like this seventy years ago.
Erik hesitated yet again, remembering the last time.
The Devil growled in frustration. He took Erik's head by his sparse hair and forced his chin up, making him look at the singing vision again. "Look! You want it, right? You want her!"
Erik nodded. "Yes, I do!"
"Then sign this contract! Or else I will leave you to rot here for another decade!"
Desperate, Erik tapped into his fresh wound and scrawled his name on the parchment.
The Devil took the contract and lowered the cup into Erik’s hands. “Now drink this, my dear friend! There’s no more poison in it - only youth and health!”
Erik threw his head back, and downed the cup in one gulp.
As the liquid slid down his dry throat, he felt life pour into his veins. He dropped the empty cup and growled, pressing himself back against the wall. He was wracked with the most delicious sort of pain as his body began to restore itself.
It was an exorcism.
It was resurrection.
This must have been how Lazarus felt when Jesus called him from the grave.
Except that he was a monster, and he was being resurrected by Mephistopheles himself.
With glee he felt the strength return to his wiry muscles. He felt his wrinkled skin smooth out, felt his spine crack as it straightened itself.
His heart beat strongly and steadily once again, and the rasp was gone from his breath.
His scalp tingled as the white hair fell out, and black, thick hair grew in its place.
He let out a moan, and his vocal chords vibrated with the most sublime of voices.
His knees clicked, his swollen feet deflated, and his stomach grumbled with renewed hunger.
He opened his eyes, and the room's image was clear before him. His sight was back. He could hear the fire crackling in another room. His acute hearing was back.
He was back.
The Devil was fanning himself with a fan that Erik used sometimes. Erik had even forgotten where he kept it. "Erik, I forgot how absolutely stunning your voice is. You really shouldn't be moaning like that, do you have no decency at all-"
Erik ignored him. He sprung up from the floor, unfolding himself to his full height. "It worked!"
He whirled around, appraising himself, and then looked at the Devil with triumph. "I am alive!"
"Good, good," the Devil grinned, closing the fan and pocketing it away. "Why don't you change into something more befitting of you than an old bathrobe?" he asked and waved his hand at the wardrobe.
Erik took his bathrobe off with a whoosh and draped it over his chair. Then he strode to his closet and opened it. His suits, which he had no idea when he had worn last time, were all clean and flat-ironed as new.
He chose the most dashing suit and swiftly changed. The Devil observed him closely as he put on black socks, black trousers and a white shirt, a red tie, a grey waistcoat, shining shoes, a coal black frock. At last, Erik added golden cufflinks to his sleeves and a golden pin to his tie.
The Devil clapped. "You look wonderfully macabre."
Erik bowed with a smirk. "Thank you, Mephistopheles."
"Aw, you remember my true name, that is so endearing," the Devil laughed. "And you have your natural grace back. I am very excited about this."
The Devil then picked up Erik's cane and gave it to him. Erik looked at him as if he grew two additional heads. "I have no need for a walking stick anymore," he guffawed.
"Now, now, my Erik, all true gentlemen walk with canes these days," Mephistopheles nodded, still holding out the cane.
Erik made a face and rolled his eyes rather dramatically, but took the cane.
"Now, Erik, what do you wish to do?"
Erik had an answer ready. "I want to go outside. I want to see the Opera House again in all its glory. I want to clean my house, play music, and drink myself into a stupor in the best bar in Paris."
The Devil liked that attitude. "That's my boy."
Erik raised his hand and felt his face. His happy expression dissipated into a frown. "My face…"
"What of it?"
"Erik is still ugly."
The Devil threw his head back, laughing madly. "You didn't think I'd give you beauty, too?" he jeered. "That'd be too much, wouldn't you agree? You're perfect the way you are!"
"Ah- ah- ah!" the Devil shook his finger in front of Erik's face. "No. I am not giving you a nose."
"But why? You made me young! You made me healthy! Would it be so difficult for you to give me a nose?"
"Remember the reason why I refused you the last time?"
Erik's face fell.
The Devil nodded. "Mhm. That same reason. Let us not talk of it… However, if you feel so strongly about it... can give you something else. As a small gift… you worked so hard for me in Persia, after all. I have taken a big liking to you."
Erik's golden eyes lit up, and he cocked his head to the side, interested. "What is it?"
The Devil gave Erik that uncanny smile and slowly went up to the shelf where Erik stored his masks and false noses. He took up one mask - a flesh-coloured, leather one - and waved his hand over it.
Erik watched with rapture as the mask suddenly transformed into the most beautiful masculine face he has ever seen.
"This mask will make you as handsome as me," the Devil grinned. "It will blend perfectly with your face, and any person that will glance at you will see the prettiest face they can imagine. However… you already know what the limitations are, right?"
"Sadly, yes," Erik sighed, smoothing his hair down.
"Smart boy!" Mephistopheles exclaimed. "Indeed, you cannot visit any sacred places with this mask on. And it doesn't do well in the presence of holy crosses. Additionally… try not to get holy water on it. It'll be really unpleasant… Especially if you're wearing it."
The Devil held the mask out to Erik, who stared at it for a very long time. It wasn't true beauty, but…
He snatched the mask and quickly put it on. The mask would suffice.
When he looked back up at the Devil, the latter opened his mouth in surprise. "I didn't expect it to fit you so well. Just look at yourself, my friend!"
Mephistopheles suddenly held out a mirror, and Erik saw himself.
A strong jawline. A smooth forehead. Sable eyebrows. Piercing golden eyes. Sharp, high cheekbones. Thin, yet graceful lips, and an aquiline nose.
It wasn't his face.
And yet… it suited him so well…
He imagined that this would be his face if he was born normal, and he touched and pinched at the false skin, amazed by his own reflection.
The Devil snickered. "Now, don't grow to be a narcissist. It would be totally out of character for you. Plus, self-loathing is what makes you attractive. Pretty girls don’t like narcissists. Tsk tsk."
Erik looked at him strangely. “Do you think Erik has a chance with women now?”
The Devil guffawed. “Have you SEEN yourself? Have you HEARD your voice? You could have had any woman in the world even without this little trinket that I gave you,” Mephistopheles playfully tapped the nose of Erik’s mask. “I assumed it was only for your, ah, confidence,” he grinned. "But I am repeating myself! I have already told you all that when you were in Persia! Surely you remember."
"I do," Erik said through gritted teeth. He was sure the Devil was mocking him.
The Devil patted him on the back. "Now, let us go outside and find some adventures! Romantic adventures, of course," he cackled.
Erik turned his head to the Devil. "Would you like to hear me play first?" he asked.
"Of course! Your music was always pleasant to my ears. Such a jarring combination of dissonants… Play me your Don Juan Triumphant, my friend! For today, you really are him!"
They headed out to Erik's bedroom, which was in total disarray. The velvet drapes surrounding the coffin were dirty, the organ was buried beneath piles of dirty dishes, discarded paper and broken feathers.
Both men looked around in disgust.
"I'll clean everything up first," Erik said, clutching at his cane.
"Sure," the Devil shrugged. "I'll be right there." He unceremoniously fell into Erik's coffin and crossed his legs, looking at the ceiling of the canopy and at the walls which were painted with Dies Irae notes over and over again.
And Erik got to work.
First, he collected all the trash into several old bags and put it out near the front door. He took a clean rag, soaked in soapy water and cleaned all the dusty surfaces. After that, he attached it to the end of a broom and swept the floors. The Devil was gleefully watching him all this time.
Erik felt ecstatic. For so long, he wanted to tidy his place up - and he couldn’t, because of constant pain. In the latest years, he could only manage a few steps from his coffin to his study, to the bathroom, to the kitchen, and back.
Finally chasing away all the dust and the cobwebs and grime felt cleansing. So he cleaned the entire house, and not just his room.
When he was passing by the front door, he noticed that the bags full of junk disappeared from where he put them earlier. When he returned to his bedroom, he saw the Devil rubbing the tips of his fingers together with an evil expression.
"What did you do to the bags?" Erik asked, suspicious.
"Ah, I merely… helped you take them out," the Devil answered, still smiling. "Do not worry about it, my friend. I merely saved us some time. Now, play your Don Juan for me! I've been waiting for half an hour already."
With a sigh Erik lowered himself onto the organ bench and put the notes in front of him. He was severely out of practice… Years of being unable to play do that to you.
However, when he set the hand stops and the combination pistons into place and lowered his hands on the keyboard, he found that his hands moved by themselves, evoking the magnificent and terrifying sound of the most macabre and violent composition he had ever composed.
The chords jammed together into a strange cacophony; the melodies collided into a frightening chorus, and the ardent rhythm rocked the foundation of the house, its pulse hastened.
The Devil relished in that music, as it was beautiful in its own way. It captured the feeling of burning in hell very accurately, and Mephistopheles loved the composition for it.
When the music ended on an unfinished variation, the Devil jumped out of the coffin with applause. "Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! Truly exceptional. Ah, that's one of the reasons I don't really want to kill you," he sighed, putting his hands in his pockets. "After I ultimately drag you down below, you won't be able to play music anymore."
Erik, being very perturbed by this confession, nodded to the Devil. "I appreciate your praise."
Mephistopheles cackled and adjusted his hat on his head. "So. To the Opera we go?"
Erik opened his mouth. "Actually, I need to buy groceries and other necessities, write a letter to the managers signifying of my return, and I want to paint in oil-"
The Devil interrupted him. "What an absolute egghead! You are twenty-five again, and you want to paint in oil? Of all things!" He shook his head. "No, you're coming with me and we are having fun."
"B-but- but painting-" he pleaded.
"We are having fun, Erik! Today you celebrate!" the Devil said loudly and took Erik by the wrist. The musician only managed to open his mouth in protest, when absolute darkness suddenly surrounded them, and when he could see again, he found himself in a half-empty Foyer de la Dance of the Opera House.
He started, but the Devil lifted a finger to his lips. "They are staging Robert de Diable right now. In a few minutes, the opera will end, and this Foyer will be flooded with pretty patrons and pretty ballerinas." The Devil winked. "Let's pick ourselves a lover and have some fun behind the dressing room doors."
Erik clenched his teeth, feeling very tense. "I…"
"Aw, come on, my boy," the Devil smiled. "I told you, we are celebrating!"
"Your idea of celebration is quite different from mine," Erik said sternly.
"You are so boring, Erik!"
"I would much rather like to know where that girl that you showed me earlier is."
Suddenly, the auditorium just one hallway away erupted into grand applause, and people began streaming into the foyer.