The stars winked through my bedroom window. I winked back. Anytime I gazed upon them, they always transported me back to the day I had died and visited Paradise far beyond any of the twinkling lights I could now see. A memory that would always stay with me. A memory I looked forward to renewing someday when my life cast its last rays of energy in this world.
Did I want this life to end? Yes and no. I had carried the memory of Paradise with me for twenty years. But the reason I had returned to this world lay beside me. I glanced at Gabrielle's sleeping form. She shifted, and her golden hair, now a dull yellow in the dim light, fell from her face.
I brushed the remaining hairs back. My ring reflected the night lights against her delicate skin. The ring that led me to Gabrielle. As well as my death, but then to Paradise. Yet He gave me a choice to stay in Paradise or return to marry Gabrielle. Despite the pull to stay, I chose to return because I loved her that much.
My hand rested against her cheek. A gust of wind blew into the room; her hair waved in the wind and her sweet scent wafted across my nose. Yes, I could still taste Paradise in her. It never failed.
Her eyes cracked open and turned my direction. "Are you still awake?" She yawned.
"Not feeling too sleepy."
She rolled over, placed her hand on my shoulder, and glanced at the ring on my finger. "You're thinking about the ring, aren't you?"
I smiled. She knew me too well. "The ring, Paradise, the steam house. You."
She chuckled. "Glad I'm in there somewhere." She rolled onto her back and stared out the window with me. "All these years you've spoken of the steam house but you've never taken me there to see it. Or your parents. Remember ten years ago? You promised we would make the trip someday. Someday's flown past into yesterday and I fear any-day-now will, too. Take me to see the steam house as you promised."
"It's just an old, wooden building."
"Yes, one that turns people into animals and trees if they're evil. Or gives good fourteen-year-old boys magic rings to heal people with."
I shook my head. "No, not specifically evil people. It brings out character flaws and attempts to make people deal with them, or enables good traits."
She giggled and fell back on her pillow. "Well, excuse me for not getting it just right! I say if they're evil it will change them for the worse."
"Have it your way then." I chuckled. "But I have to say, if you went into the steam house in order to see everyone turn into something bad, you're not likely to come out in good shape yourself."
She laughed. "I suppose not. Still, I would like to go." She propped her head onto her hand and stared at me. "All we've heard are your stories. We need to go there. Can't we plan on it? Kaylee and Nathan are nearly grown and haven't once seen their grandparents or uncle. We're running out of time. You said we're going to do it. So do it now."
I sighed in mock exasperation. "I don't know. I have so much to do tomorrow."
She grabbed the pillow from behind her and swung it onto my head. "I demand you take me there!" She giggled as her blows landed on my upraised arms.
"All right! All right. I give! We'll go. I'll plan the trip tomorrow!"
She landed one more swing against my stomach, fell over on me, and wrapped her arms around my waist. Her smile hinted at victory. She lowered her lips to mine. Her hair caressed the sides of my cheeks as her soft skin melded into my lips. Her soul burst through me, as it always had from our first meeting. It ended way too soon.
She rolled back onto her side of the bed. "I've done all I needed to do for one night. I have a full day tomorrow and need my sleep. I leave you to your thoughts of the ring, the steam house, and Paradise."
"And you. Don't forget you."
She laughed, a tinge of impishness hung on the end of it. But within moments, she had settled down and snored softly into the breeze. I marveled how she could fall asleep so quickly. I, on the other hand—
I jumped. Then realized Josh, my best friend from Reol, must be trying to reach me. He had learned the craft of magic and had become quite the wizard. Before I left on my journeys, he'd created a link between us so we could keep in touch, and he'd promised to watch over my parents and brother. He would occasionally contact me to keep me updated on happenings in Reol.
I settled onto my pillow and closed my eyes. Yes, Josh?
I have some bad news, I'm afraid. I'm not sure what to make of it.
Are my parents all right?
For the moment. A demon named Beltrid attempted to kill them with a sickness and almost did. I nearly exhausted myself keeping them alive. They're bedridden, but still very much alive.
Josh, you have my eternal gratitude, but did you discover why?
I'm not sure, but when he realized he couldn't do any more against them, he made a comment about you. I believe he is trying to get to you through your loved ones. And he…interested…ring…playing into…hands…
The link stayed, but no further words arrived. Josh! Are you there?
Another voice broke through. Sisko, I must speak with you.
Who is this?
The darkness behind my eyelids deepened and I could feel a pull. I couldn't tell if my body remained on my bed or not. A moment passed before I felt a solid floor under my feet. A ray of light penetrated a dark void; I could only see a few feet away. The darkness hung heavy all around me.
"Hello, who has called me?"
Seconds passed before a form appeared. A pale face hung on a thin skull; eyes of fire blazed from a bald head. Long black robes sank over his frame, and a parched smile spread across his face.
"Sisko, my name is Beltrid. We must talk."
I stepped back. "What are you?"
"You already know. But what I am is not the issue. I'm here concerning the ring."
I raised my hand and gazed at it. "What about the ring? You could not use it."
A dry laugh echoed from him. "You think not, do you? Maybe He hasn't told you as much of its history as I thought." He studied me while he circled. "Sisko, you have much power. Power to heal and to kill. The ring grants that. Why don't you use it?"
Didn't he know I couldn't use it? I hadn't been able to since I used it for myself twenty years ago. "I've never used it to kill."
His eyes widened. "Really?"
Images swirled about and then rushed past me as if I flew through the air at great speeds. I tried to break out of the link, to open my eyes, but I couldn't budge them. He had trapped me in Josh's own magic.
When I landed to a stop, the view gelled into a familiar scene. I watched Jack holding my younger self, twenty years earlier, in front of his wagon. Sir Edward came forward asking Jack what he accused me of. "I brought him to heal my wife, but when he placed his hands on her and prayed, she died. He must have prayed for her death!" His face burned red. Grief and anger poured from him as a fountain.
"You see…" Beltrid's voice rose to a high pitch of excitement. "You have killed with the ring!"
"But no…I didn't." My voice trailed off. "I didn't."
"Oh yes, you did kill her. For once you used it to punish. But why you held back after that is a mystery to me." He moved toward my face. "Did you not have the stomach for its proper use?"
I had always taken comfort that her death had been a coincidence. That my power to heal had stopped working because of the curse. But could it be as he said? Could the curse have caused my prayer to kill her? I couldn't accept that.
I fixed my eyes on him. "I didn't pray for her death."
Beltrid shook his head and stepped closer. "You didn't have to. You used the ring to feed yourself. You even brought yourself back to life when they killed you. Three times you used it for yourself, yet you have refused to use the ring all these years since. Why?"
He thought he knew how the ring worked, yet he assumed I had killed her and brought myself back to life. I had indeed fed myself and brought the curse of the ring upon me, stopping any further miracles. Yet, as long as he thought I had power, he would be unlikely to attack me. "The ring can only be used to bless others."
Beltrid threw his hands up and groaned. "You heard the words your priest said! You're blinded by your religion's propaganda."
The world blurred into a stream of colors until a new scene formed. A priest focused on a young boy's ring. I heard him say words that I had heard thirty-one years ago. "The steam revealed you have a heart for helping people. So He gave you the means to do so in greater ways." The priest straightened. "The inscription God wrote in Hebrew says, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.' If you use the ring to help others, it will be a blessing to you. But if you use it for your own benefit, it will be a curse. So don't use it without careful thought, or you will wish you had never been in the steam house."
Those last words echoed in my mind. Wish I had never been in the steam house? Well, yes and no. It did lead me through some horrible experiences, but it also led me to Gabrielle.
"Did you hear what he said?" Beltrid interrupted my thoughts. "It can be a curse. That's the way religion talks about your rightful power. A Curse? Maybe for Him, but for you and me, it is the beginning of equality with Him." The demon thrust a pointy finger into the void. "He knows you could be his equal and wishes to prevent you from having it. But it's yours for the taking. Just reach out and ask, not for Him, but for yourself!"
The surroundings vanished into a puff of smoke. I stood before Beltrid in the dark room again.
"You have much power, Sisko. Use the ring again!"
Truly, demons weren't omniscient. Whether he knew truths about the ring that I didn't, or he had been deceived by his own evil I didn't know. But either way, I had but one answer. "I'll use it only to bless those around me, but never again for myself."
He shook his head. "Foolish idiot! If you'll not use it, then I'll find someone who will. I want the ring!"
Now he revealed his true intentions. "I can't take it off and God would prevent me or you from doing so."
"I know the history of the ring—better than you!" He spat on the ground by my feet. "If you'll not hand its power over to me, I'll find someone who will." A smile cracked across his face. "And that process is well underway, even as we speak."
A sick feeling arose in my gut. "What have you done?"
Smugness covered him. "My servant Rodan has met with your wife."
I trembled like a geyser ready to blow. "What have you done!" I struggled to move toward him, but my feet remained fixed to the floor.
His eyes narrowed. "The ring. I want the ring."
"I can't give it to you! Why attack my wife?" I pulled at my leg with all I had, but nothing would move. I screamed. The whole scene fractured into tiny pieces like glass breaking apart.
Sisko, are you there? Josh's voice pushed through the fog of debris.
Yes. My chest rose and fell rapidly.
He breathed hard, as if he had finished a sprint. What happened? Someone took over our connection, and I struggled hard to get it back.
Gabrielle! Beltrid has done something to her. I have to go.
Yes, of course. But we should avoid using this link for now. Not until we can ensure he won't take it over again.
Yes. Thank you, Josh.
I opened my eyes and immediately turned to where Gabrielle had lain. "Gabrielle?" I jumped from bed and threw on my tunic. I rushed through the cloth hanging over our doorway. The moon cast ghostly shadows through the windows as smoldering coals glowed from the fireplace.
Then I noticed the front door hanging open on the frame. "Gabrielle!" I rushed outside and scanned the area. "Gabrielle! Where are you?" Tears welled up in my eyes and a knot formed in my stomach.
I heard Kaylee and Nathan exit the house and I turned toward them. Kaylee's face fell upon seeing my expression. "Dad, what's happened? Is Amma—"
"I don't know. She's been taken, and I don't know what they've done to her." Kaylee's nickname for her mother reminded me how painful this would be for her. As a child she heard Nathan call her "mamma." She pronounced it "amma" and it stuck as she grew older.
Nathan's jaw tightened. "Who took her? I'll go after them myself."
"Someone I've never heard of before. A wizard named Rodan, a servant of the one I talked to in a vision tonight named Beltrid. I believe he is a demon of Hell."
Nathan wrinkled his brow. "A demon? Beltrid, Rodan? I've not heard of them before." He stared at Kaylee.
She shook her head as it sank. "I've never heard of them either."
Nathan squatted to scan the ground in the moonlight. "Here's her tracks." He crawled along the ground as Kaylee and I followed him.
He stopped about twenty feet from the front door and swung back and forth. "Her tracks stop here, as if she disappeared." He pounded his fist on the ground. "Now what are we going to do?"
I breathed deep, trying to keep the fear from my voice. "We'll all go find her. In the morning, we'll go into town and see if we can find any information on this Rodan. We'll get her back."
We moved toward the house. Kaylee opened the door. "Tell us about this vision. Maybe we can help you find out what happened."
I nodded, and they entered the house. I scanned the area one more time, hoping the nightmare would end. But I knew it wouldn't. Why Beltrid thought kidnapping Gabrielle would help him get the ring, I couldn't imagine, but he obviously wouldn't give up easily.
I stepped inside, and I felt as I shut the door that I had shut the door on my former life of bliss with Gabrielle. Now the curse had returned in full force. Now I did wish I had never entered the steam house. Not if it would end this way.