Crystal teetered on the brink of madness. Imprisoned in her own mind and body, she could only watch as she stood by Nathan before a priest. The poor boy thought he was marrying her, but she wasn't in control. Beltrid, the demon, directed her actions and words.
She'd grown to love Nathan even through Beltrid's deception. His loyalty to her, despite his father and sister's warnings, impressed her. She sensed a deep love flowing in his soul. But did the love flow for her? Or did Beltrid's grip on him squeeze it out against his will? The boy proved too gullible to the demon's illusion.
She screamed in her mind, "Don't do this, Beltrid! He deserves better."
Often the demon ignored her, but occasionally he would respond. "Hurts, doesn't it—to see your lover tricked into marrying a demon? Or are you afraid of what he'll think if he finds out?" His smirking tone spoke of the joy he derived from her pain.
Crystal wanted to cry, but her body wouldn't respond. "He'll find out, and he'll save me when he does."
The demon laughed. "Him? Save you? He doesn't even know you. Nor does he have the power to free anyone from demonic possession, even if he knew."
"His father will. Sisko has power you don't."
"Sisko! Yes he does, but it will soon be mine. When he hands it to Nathan, I will control the ring. Through you, I'll gradually gain possession of him as well."
"Not if I have anything to say about it!"
Beltrid laughed again. "You have no say. But this priest does. And he's about to marry me to this boy. So enjoy the wedding. This is the closest you'll get to it."
Crystal struggled in her mind to move her lips, to say "stop," to do anything. But Beltrid's grip proved too strong.
The priest opened a book. "Have you, Nathan, a good, free, and unconstrained will and a firm intention to take unto yourself to wife this demon, Beltrid, whom you see here before you?"
"I..." Nathan's eyes narrowed. "What did you say?"
"Sorry, I have to be accurate or the service is no good. You have to know who you are marrying. The proper response is, 'I have.'"
Crystal leaped for joy inside her mind. The priest could see the truth! But would Nathan believe him?
Then Nathan turned toward her and his eyes grew wide. Nathan backed away, shock spilling off his face. His mouth hung open and his limbs shook. He saw the reality of Beltrid.
The bridesmaid pulled her veil off and ran to his side. Crystal's heart warmed. Kaylee, Nathan's sister, had somehow arrived here ahead of them. Beltrid wouldn't get his way now. He had failed.
Beltrid's rage burned inside of her as he spoke to her mind, "Failed? I think not. A minor setback. But for the moment, I'm done with you."
The scene before her wavered. She felt a wind whirling about her, fracturing the picture. "No, you can't do this!" She watched as Nathan and Kaylee huddled in a corner. Then Beltrid's control left her. She caught Nathan's eyes and wanted to yell, "I'm not Beltrid, I love you," but pain flooded her body. A fire-infested landscape overlaid the narthex of the church. She screamed as the world faded and the fires of Hades became reality.
She sat atop a small plateau, surrounded by fire and molten rock. In the distance, she could see other pillars jutting out from the fiery abyss with other poor souls languishing upon them. She stood and paced the rock, glad to at last have control over her own body. But her thoughts turned toward Nathan. She had no clue what Beltrid would do next. She offered up a prayer for his safety.
"This is what I get for giving into my passions." It felt good to say her thoughts aloud. Her father's words echoed in her mind, "If you don't control yourself, someone else will." She had discovered too late the truth of his words.
Now tears did push their way onto her cheeks. She collapsed onto the hot rock. Guilt welled up within her, turning her stomach. If only she could go back and start over. She'd do things differently. She wiped the wetness from her eyes and stared into the blackness above her. "God, if you're up there, I'm ready to listen."
"Then there's hope."
She jerked around but no one else stood on her rock. Could God hear and speak in this place? But it had to be Him. No demon would give her hope, least of all, Beltrid.
She lay on the ground. Time meant little in this unchanging Hell. How many days and nights cycled in Nathan's world? Did time even apply here? Whole lifetimes could have passed for all she knew as she sat, walked, took in every detail she could make out, and lay, sometimes sleeping. Nathan could have died by now. Beltrid was right. How could Nathan find her here? What chance did he have against a demon?
"I have a mission for you, my dear."
Crystal jerked up to see Beltrid standing before her. His stench rose above the smell of Hades' cauldron. "I'm no longer yours. Let me go."
He wagged a finger. "Not so fast. I've not released you and you have no say in the matter. I'm sending you to a new prison. One that will torment both you and Nathan for his entire life."
"What are you talking about?"
A wide smile slid across his face. "He thinks I wore a disguise to appear like you. You broke his heart, I'm afraid. He's none too happy about the deception you played upon him."
"You deceived him, not I."
Beltrid pointed a finger at her. "That doesn't matter. What he thinks is what matters. Please give the boy my regards...oh, wait. You'll not be able to speak except what I allow you to say." He grinned.
"You're not going to possess me again, are you?" She thought that would be pointless.
"You'll figure it out soon enough." He waved his hand, and the inferno transitioned to a forest. Birds winged their way through the tree branches, waving in a gentle breeze. The wind caressed her face, and the colors glowed with pastel brightness.
This is a prison?
Her feet moved, as if having a mind of their own, and she approached a clearing. She paused at the edge and watched. Out of thin air, Nathan materialized in the middle of it. His eyes soaked in the surroundings.
Crystal smiled outside, but leaped for joy inside. This wasn't a prison; this was paradise! Her feet moved her into the clearing; anticipation burst forth within her soul. She'd finally get to hold him as herself, and not as a demon-controlled puppet.
Nathan fixed his eyes on her, but instead of joy, his face grew red and the veins in his neck protruded. He drew his sword and sped toward her.
Her paradise morphed into a nightmare. She backed up, wanting to say something, but nothing would come out. She held a hand up as he stepped into striking range. He thrust his blade toward her. She tried to dodge it, but it plunged into her chest and through her heart. Numbing pain spread across her body; she fell to her knees.
She reached out a hand to him. "But, Nathan, I love you."
He clinched his teeth. "You don't love me, you used me! You tricked me. I was nothing more than a pawn in your hands. You couldn't possibly love me." He pulled the sword out.
Crystal fell to the ground, blood pooling around her. "No, I did love you. Whether you believe it or not."
The landscape dimmed, but Nathan's face remained solid. "Die, demon of my soul, and never return."
Blackness encroached from the edges of her vision. Death marched toward her, and she welcomed it. At least she would be released from this life. Some plan God had for her, to be killed by the one person in her life she really cared about.
The blackness swallowed Nathan's face, his piercing, angry eyes the last to vanish into the gloom of death. But Crystal still felt awareness. The darkness lightened, and trees, fuzzy at first, then growing sharp and clear, formed before her.
The forest, again? Was it the same one? Her feet stepped toward a clearing as before. She paused again to see Nathan appear in the clearing.
Outside she smiled, but inside she screamed as Beltrid's plan dawned upon her.
He'd trapped her in Nathan's mind. Not only his mind, but his dream. A nightmare of death. Once was bad enough. Now she'd be killed by him over and over. Within herself, she cried out, "Beltrid, I hate you! Hate, hate, hate you!"
She heard laughing in the distance as her feet pushed her into the clearing once again.
Crystal watched from the trees as Nathan's body materialized. For the hundredth time—in truth she'd lost count—Nathan scanned the area, waiting for her to appear.
Yet this time something was different. A different expression graced his face, as if confused about something. In all the replays of this dream, the least little difference stood out like a lonely tree on a plain. Could it be this time her fate would change? Would she have the chance to break out of this dream trap in his head?
She'd find out soon enough. Without willing it, she stepped forward from the trees as if on cue. She smiled as she had hundreds of times before, but her hopes crashed when he reacted as always.
His frown deepened upon seeing her, and his face turned red. He pulled the sword from his side, and raced toward her. She attempted to dodge his thrust, but as always, it plunged deep into her chest, piercing more than her heart. Her knees gave way, and she crumpled to the ground in a scream. No, nothing had changed.
From the ground she found the strength to reach up her hand to him. "But, Nathan, I love you." She'd said it so many times and it never made a difference. Would it this time? Maybe there was hope.
He snarled. "You don't love me, you used me! You tricked me. I was nothing more than a pawn in your hands. You couldn't possibly love me."
Pain raced through her body as blood fell upon the ground. The world grew even more dreamlike. But Crystal replied over and over as many times as her brain could muster, "No, I did love you. Whether you believe it or not."
He answered her pleas with, "Die, demon of my soul, and never return."
The barbs of his hate drained her soul as life drained from her body. But she noticed another difference as life ebbed away. Nathan acted as if he talked to an internal voice. His expressions were not the same as they'd been before. What could this mean? Maybe next time she appeared, it would be even more different. At least it had changed, and that offered hope.
Life vanished, and she expected to appear again outside the edge of the trees and repeat the dream. Yet, when the scene materialized around her, she didn't stand among the trees. She still lay on the ground. But Nathan wrapped her bloody body in his arms, held her close to his chest, and wept as she'd never seen him do before.
Joy raced through her soul. He had broken through the hate! She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you, Nathan. I will always love you. You've freed me."
He smiled through the tears, and she nearly giggled with delight. He would be healed of his hate, and she could look forward to freedom. Then the whole scene vanished into blackness.
She eagerly waited for what would appear next. If it was the trees in his dream, she would be greatly disappointed. If it was anything else, she would rejoice.
The darkness swirled with red flames, then blew apart, leaving her standing in what appeared to be a cavern. A large hole in the center swirled with a bluish-red light. A man caught her attention, dressed in white that nearly blinded her eyes. Another man stood next to him, staring at her from a kindly face and black hair. She'd never seen either of them before.
The bright one smiled upon seeing her. "So, you've finally been freed from Beltrid's trap. Right on time, I might say."
Though relieved to be out of the dream trap, she sensed the time for rejoicing would still eluded her grasp. "Who are you?"
The man laughed. "I go by many names. But for you, let's just say I worked with Beltrid."
Her gut twisted. Not another demon! Yet, this demon radiated like a morning star. She suspected he didn't tell her the whole truth.
The bottom line, however, is she still wasn't free from this nightmare. "What happened to Beltrid?"
"The fool demon vanished into the void. He had his uses, but his approach lacked a more discreet mode of operation." The bright one turned to the man next to him. "We can use her as bait. Even now they are making plans to search for her. We can use her to trap the woman into violating her beliefs, and when she does, the ring will be ours."
The man glanced at Crystal and back to his master. "How can we use her for that?"
"I have a plan, but I need to tie up some dangling ends before I can say. Return to your post. I will send word when they approach."
Crystal scanned the area as they planned how they'd use her. An opening lay at one end of the cavern. Stairs ascended until she could see no more. It could be a way out.
She inched toward the door. The pair didn't appear to notice her progress, so she stepped further toward it. She reached halfway; the demon glanced her way, and then did a double-take.
She jumped and sped toward the opening. Before she could reach it, her feet left the stony floor and she hovered in mid-air. "Let me go! I can offer you nothing!"
He shook his head. "No, my dear, you cannot. That is why you are nothing more than a worm on a hook. I own you and have not released you. If you end up catching the ring for me though, you will have offered me everything."
"I won't help you do anything!" She jerked about helplessly.
"Does a worm will to be bait? I think not." He spread his arms.
Lightning arced across her body, sending her into a numbing consciousness. She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound arose from her throat. The fabric of her soul and body ripped thread by thread as if someone stabbed searing hot pins into every inch of her flesh. The cavern wavered and split in two. It took a couple of seconds through the pain before it dawned on her that she saw the scene from two sets of eyes.
When the ripping finished, her body collapsed onto the floor of the cavern and her soul hovered above it. She watched from her soul as her body rose. A blank stare shot from her eyes, and her face lost all expression.
The demon grinned. "Your soul will remain in Hades, while we use your body to lure them here." He turned to the man by his side. "Take her to Circo who lives several miles outside Spinard. Tell him she's his reward for the service he provided the last time. Her soul I will keep here."
"Yes, master." He grabbed Crystal's hand and her body followed him as if she were a horse led with a bit.
The bright one examined her for a moment. "You will join the rest of the souls. I may call for you later." He flung a hand toward the pit.
A force sucked her into the glowing hole—a swirling vortex of souls trapped in a blue-red tunnel leading deep into...wherever she was. Death sank over her; despair filled her being as if something of substance. Hopelessness cascaded across her. She would have cried if it were possible for a soul.
Another soul brushed against her. Sadness filled his eyes. Don't give up hope. There is one who can free us.
She only stared, but didn't respond. She could think of nothing to say, but she recognized faith when she saw it. Nathan held that kind of undying faith, and his sister, Kaylee. But would he find her here?