Pieter van Ammers sat by her deathbed, staring intently at his wife's face. He noted the paleness, the drawn expression, and the shallowness of her breathing and knew it would not be long. Crying freely, he reached down and lifted his briefcase to his knees. Opening it, he removed a spiral-bound notebook, its pages full of notes penned in his spidery hand. Carefully he removed a wrapped package and placed it on the bedside table.
For weeks she had been asking for release from the pain. With a rising feeling of guilt he had prolonged her suffering, for the little information he found on the Soul Gem during his research, undertaken when he learned Elizabeth could not be cured, was clear; she had to die without interference, thus giving the transfer the greatest chance of success.
Pieter knew he was weak. He could not live without her, and he could not follow her into death. The Soul Gem was the answer to all his prayers. According to the few excerpts he had uncovered regarding it, it would allow communication with the souls of the departed.
Years of research into metaphysics had prepared him to accept this possibility, and he had fervently followed up this information, finally finding the mother lode, a recipe of how to make a small facsimile of the legendary Soul Gem.
With a lightly shaking hand, he reached toward the bundle and slowly unwrapped it. It was the shape of a tear and instantly bathed the darkened room in a pale green light. Gently cradling the sliver, which was about the size of a small coin, he referred to his notes and then placed it gently upon Elizabeth's forehead. It immediately began to pulse slowly in time with her breathing. Sitting back, he took one of her cool, dry hands in both of his and waited. Her breathing steadily weakened and became more ragged. He began murmuring to her, not sure if she could hear him or not but hoping the sound of his voice would be a comfort if she could.
Pieter knew the time had come just before it happened. With a light, elongated sigh, Elizabeth stopped breathing. For a short moment he sat in numbed silence, then reached toward the gem and carefully turned it ninety degrees in a clockwise direction. The green light flared, and as if in response Elizabeth's cold dead hand convulsively gripped Pieter's. Her eyes flew open, and in a cracked whisper, she uttered "No!"
The sliver again flared, and then began to smoke around the edges. The green smoke grew in intensity until it completely obscured the gem. Frantically Pieter flipped through his notes, but could find nothing mentioning this. The smoke continued to thicken and then accompanied by the sound of a strong wind it flew into the room's air conditioning vents, revealing that the sliver had gone. Pieter cast a wide-eyed look at his wife's body. Her eyes were wide open, her head cast back slightly, a look of disbelief etched onto her features. Pieter let out a sob.
"What have I done?"
Pain lanced up his arms as they took the brunt of his fall. Cold mud oozed over and through his gnarled fingers and soaked into his old, well-patched, jeans.
"That's what you get for coming into the swamp at night in your condition. You're a fool, old man!" He had begun talking to himself shortly after Elizabeth had died. How long ago that was, Pieter chose not to remember. Fifteen years sprang to mind, but he could not be sure. If asked, on the few and shrinking number of times he saw another human, his answer was always the same.
Shortly after her death, he had resigned his seat at the university and spent every waking moment of every day researching the Soul Gem. He sold everything to finance his research, and did so without thought. After many years of following fruitless leads, he had eventually come across the one book that discussed the gem in depth. It had horrified him. Following the information in the tome, he had managed to determine the Soul Gem, the real Soul Gem, not just the conveyance sliver he had created, would be in this swamp. He had been here for about five years without finding it. Yet every morning he rose at sunrise and searched until sunset, sure that it was within the swamp somewhere.
Recently, his body had begun to succumb to old age, his joints beginning to seize up with arthritis, his vision blurring, and his short-term memory becoming unreliable. It was for these reasons that Pieter had banned himself from the swamp at night. Not a safe place in the best of conditions, it was no place for a half-blind old manand yet tonight he had broken his own rule following that light, like a fool, into the swamp's depths. It was not the normal gas lights produced by the swamp. Its colour was a bright emerald green and it had formed a perfect, seemingly solid sphere. Recognition came to him, and with a quickening heartbeat, he had followed it without pause for a good hour before losing both it and his footing simultaneously.
Achingly slowly, he levered himself into a standing position and looked around in an attempt to catch his bearings. A gibbous moon gave the area a haunted look, throwing the few stunted trees and bushes, which huddled on small areas of dry land, into stark relief. Pieter knew the swamp well and realised that he had travelled a good distance from his home. It would be a long and painful return trip. Sighing, he turned, but only limped a few steps when he halted, staring into the swamp.
Off to his right a green light barely forced its way through the scum that covered the stagnant pool there. Absently he hobbled to the pool and, careless of his already wet trousers, knelt beside it. Reaching out a hand, he paused a moment and then, like a striking bird, plunged it into the murky pool. Blindly he searched, his hands encountering things of slime and texture that he did not want to dwell on. Finally his fingers, attracted by strange warmth, clumsily grabbed a hard, round object.
To his surprise, it seemed almost weightless in his grip as he lifted it from the waters. The light it produced flared, illuminating his surroundings clearly. It was a little smaller than a baseball and perfectly spherical in shape. Despite being as smooth as glass, the surface gave under his grip, dimpling slightly beneath the pressure of his fingers. Even through the glare of the light it produced Pieter found he was able to see the object quite clearly, and holding it before him, he stared intently at this strange wonder he had finally found, after all the years he had searched. The light within began to gently pulse, and Pieter allowed it to capture his complete attention and lost himself in its rhythm...
The light seemed to embrace him, enfolding him its warmth. Everything faded from view in a wash of green and with it went the pains of old age. Pieter gasped in wonder as all the ailments that had afflicted him fled. Time seemed inconsequential, and he could not tell how long he had stood unmoving before he heard the voices, the voices of all the souls trapped within the gem since it was created. Although barely whispers at first, the voices quickly grew in volume until he could plainly hear them calling out names, their yearning and longing plainly discernable. Eventually, shadow images of humans began to flash before his vision, a different one accompanying each change of voice.
"Pieter, is that you?"
Shock hit his body like a physical force and he found himself, once more, kneeling in the swamp, the still slightly pulsing sphere held in one hand before him.
"Elizabeth?" It was little more than a whisper. The image that had accompanied the voice had been her before the cancer had withered and destroyed her body, before it had suppressed her spirit and finally her will to live. "Elizabeth!" Startled calls from night birds answered his grief-stricken cry. Standing, he shoved the gem into his pocket and, turning with heavy feet, began to head for home.
Stumbling and cursing, he eventually made it back to the squat, square cabin. Due to the seasonal floodings it was raised upon four stout pillars, requiring Pieter to complete a painful climb up the stairs to complete his journey. Cursing again, he kicked his muddied boots off at the door and entered. Embers glowed dimly in the fireplace, the few remains of the large fire he had banked up before leaving. Comfortable with the heat in the room he ignored it and, stomping over to the rough table that held pride of place in the centre of the room, he sat.
With an odd feeling of reluctance, he withdrew the green gem from his pocket and placed it on the table beside the large leatherbound book already there. Lifting a large magnifying glass, he once again read the pages, pages that Pieter had read so often that he could almost recite them from memory. They were delicate and yellowed by age. The text was handwritten in a flowing, elegant script.
Reaching out a shaking hand, he carefully turned a well-read page. His rheumy eyes trailed over the text, mumbling the words aloud. How had he have been so stupid, so selfish? The warning contained in the pages was clear; he had trapped Elizabeth's soul, preventing it from ever finding peace, from entering the afterlife. Some of the yellowed leaves tearing in his haste, he turned to the last page and read the last words the book had to say on the Soul Gem. With a faltering sigh, he clasped his head in his hands.
"Oh, Elizabeth, what have I done?" Tears fell then, for the first time since her death, staining the pages of the book with their moisture. He wept until the sweet oblivion of sleep claimed him.
He awoke not knowing how long he had slept but with a cold knowledge of what he must do. Picking up the pulsing gem, he stared into its depths. She came to him almost immediately, and he almost wept at the sight of her.
"Pieter, it is you. Where am I? What is this place..." She gestured around at the green light that surrounded them.
He cleared his throat. "I have been a fool, Elizabeth..." In faltering words he told her of her death and of his life since that time, how he had created the sliver without full knowledge of what he was doing, how when it had taken her soul it sought the actual Soul Gem, and what he must do to fix everything. She stood silently through it all, a look of dreadful understanding and pity upon her face. He looked at her for a long moment, drinking in her image, before blurting out.
"Elizabeth, I am sorry. Sorry for not helping you die when you asked. Sorry for making you suffer so. Sorry I was not strong enough to follow you to death as I wanted ... and sorry for this. I am weak."
"Oh, Pieter. You gave me everything, were everything, in my life. You do not need to be sorry. And you do not need to do this."
"Yes I do."
They were silent for a moment, and then, hesitantly at first, they began to talk of their lives together, remembering times spent, places visited, events witnessed. Finally, he stood back.
"I must get this done, before I lose my nerve."
Gliding to him, she enfolded him in an embrace. The feel was not physical, but imparted a sense of her deep love for him.
" Pieter, I'll be waiting for you."
Slowly he lowered the gem to the table and, standing, quickly retrieved the axe from outside the front door. Striding over to the table, he tested the blade with his thumb, then released a practiced blow, bringing the blade down upon the gem. Despite the force of the blow, only a small tear appeared at first. From this a small amount of green gas appeared. The force of its venting created a loud hissing noise, and the building pressure within caused the gem to bulge alarmingly. Pieter slumped into his chair as he watched the gem slowly split asunder. Wind buffeted at him and green light flooded the small room. He fancied he could see the disembodied spirits fleeing their prison and looked vainly for one last glimpse of his beloved.
Finally, the room grew silent and still. He waited, head on the table and eyes closed, knowing what was to come. At first a draft, steadily growing to a breeze a windstill increasing. Items began to shift in the tempest that now swirled around the room with the gem at its epicentre. Fanned by the wind, the embers in the fire sprang into glowing life. Relentless, the winds dragged some of the coals out into the room, scattering them around. A few landed on the aged book, the only book in existence to mention how the Soul Gem was found and used, and immediately smoke and flames leapt from its dry pages.
Accompanying the wind was a pressure that grew at the same rapid pace, a pressure that physically assaulted the body. By the time fire destroyed the book, Pieter was in an all-encompassing pain and beyond caring. Blessed unconsciousness finally claimed him.
When he returned to his senses a green, slightly pulsing light surrounded him. The gem had claimed its compensation for releasing its other occupants.
Pieter knew he would be here for a long time, with only the memory of his beloved Elizabeth for company. He smiled. It was enough.
The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
The Harrow is published by THE HARROW PRESSSM