Victor gets an unpleasant surprise when he returns to the Land of the Dead to retrieve his wife.
"Back - to the Land of the Dead?" Victor asked, excitement growing in his voice. "Victoria...?"
The Elder nodded.
"Is she there? How is she?" Victor asked.
Elder Gutknecht paused. "Yes, she's there and she's doing ... well."
Something about the Elder's tone of voice disquieted Victor. "Is there a problem?" he asked.
Another pause. "Not so much with her," the Elder said. "But we'll need to finish this talk down below."
"How do I get there?" Victor asked.
"Wake yourself up and meet me at the stone bridge. I'll take you the rest of the way."
"Wake myself up? How?"
"Try pinching yourself," suggested Elder Gutknecht. "But don't forget your amulet ... and meet me at the stone bridge as soon as you can."
"Okay," said Victor, and he pinched himself. Hard.
"Ouch!" he said as he woke up. "What a strange dream ..."
A half-hour later Victor arrived at the old stone bridge, carrying the amulet with him. Elder Gutknecht was there already. "Good to see you again, my boy," he said, and then he laid a bony hand on Victor's shoulder.
Everything started to swirl about him and Victor closed his eyes. When he reopened them, he and Elder Gutknecht were standing in the Elder's study.
"That Ukrainian haunting spell's a handy thing to have," the Elder quipped, and then he turned towards Victor. "Welcome back, my boy."
The young man nodded. "Thanks. But ... when can I see Victoria? And why am I here?"
The Elder held up a skeletal hand. "All in due time", he said. "But first, may I see it?"
Victor held it out to him. The old skeleton took it and looked it over closely, muttering and talking to himself.
Eventually, satisfied, he handed it back. "This is it, all right."
"This is what?" asked Victor.
The Elder looked up at Victor and shook his ancient head. "The rumours were true ... you do have it ... why, my boy - you've got a miracle here ... this is the 'Resurrection Stone' itself - the real thing!"
Victor was puzzled. "That's what the old lady called it, too. She said something about it being able to bring people back from the dead."
Elder Gutknecht nodded. "That's right - if you're willing to accept its conditions, yes."
"That's wonderful!" Victor exulted. "Victoria..."
"Wait, Victor," the Elder said. "We still have to talk."
"Okay, okay" said Victor, nodding his head impatiently. "So what is this 'Resurrection Stone' and how does it work?"
"Are you ready for a story?" asked the Elder.
"I suppose..." sighed Victor."It sounds like you're about ready to tell me one."
The Elder nodded.
"In the earliest days there lived an unusually wise man - a philosopher king who was a student of nature, life, and science. He devoted his life to solving the mysteries of the universe and to using those discoveries for the benefit of his people.
"Unfortunately, he was not satisfied with the secrets of his world alone, but became obsessed with finding out what lay beyond the boundary of death itself. Using his knowledge of white magic he opened a way between the two worlds to call up an old dead friend of his. But - instead - a powerful demon from hell itself came through the gap.
"Instead of admitting his mistake and seeking help he tried to fight the evil thing on his own and was nearly killed by it.
"Finally, in desperation, he cried out for help and an archangel was sent to rescue him - mercy shown for the sake of the king's people. At that point, the demon was finally defeated and forced into the jewel - into this very Stone set into the heart of your amulet."
"That's a very entertaining story," said Victor. "But what does that have to do with me? And how can this bit of jewelry bring back the dead?"
Elder Gutknecht continued. "For his transgression, the magician was judged and condemned to spend the rest of time - until the Day of Judgment itself - as Warden of the Stone and, to this day, he must fight a battle without end to keep the monster safely confined."
"So that's why the Pastor said it was cursed," Victor mused.
"In a way, yes," the Elder agreed. "The thing inside the Stone must never be allowed to escape, for it would cause devastation both in this world and in the Land of the Living. And one thing has not changed - the Warden cannot fight the demon indefinitely in his own strength alone, but must continue to draw upon an outside source."
"How?" asked the younger man.
The Elder paused. "The most powerful force in this universe is the power of love and it is this power which keeps the demon chained and powerless inside the Stone.
"To do this, the Stone requires an outside Holder to channel this energy from a living soul to the Warden inside. But the Holder cannot be alive: he or she must have been dead, to be resurrected and kept alive by the life force of the Holder's mate."
"I don't understand," said Victor.
Elder Gutknecht sighed. "The Stone must be held by a couple - one alive and the other returned from the dead - in order to keep the Warden empowered and fighting against the demon. In the course of holding the Stone, the resurrected one can continue to live for as long as the other does.
"When the living one dies, as all living things eventually must, the resurrected one must also die at that time, and the Warden inside the Stone then finds another pair to take over. Sometimes it happens that the resurrected one dies first and the Warden again must find another couple to hold the Stone."
"So - if Victoria and I would be willing to do this - to hold this stone - she can be 'resurrected' and come back with me? To live with me for the rest of my life?" Victor asked.
The Elder nodded.
Victor shouted with joy. "That's wonderful!" he exclaimed. "I can't wait to tell Victoria!"
Elder Gutknecht paused again. "She knows," he said quietly. "She's known for the last couple of days."
Something about his manner bothered Victor again. "There's something you're not telling me," he said to the old skeleton.
"I'm afraid so," Elder Gutknecht confirmed. "And that is why you must go and talk to young Victoria now. She is in the lounge waiting for you - I believe that you know the place."
"I'll send for you later," the Elder said. "We will need to finish this discussion then, and quickly. We don't have much time..."
Victor walked quickly to the Ball & Socket Lounge. He never would have thought that he would be seeing Victoria again, at least not nearly this soon...
As he drew closer he heard familiar voices. It sounded like his former in-laws the Everglots, but ... something was different ... these people were laughing. The Everglots he knew never laughed.
And then he heard her sweet voice.
"Darling!" he cried as he rushed into the place. "It's me, Victor!"
"Victor!" she smiled weakly. "Elder Gutknecht told me you were coming. It's good to see you again..."
Behind her, her parents, the Everglots fell silent and smiled at him nervously.
Something is wrong, he thought. She should be a lot happier than this to see me.
He pressed on anyway. "Has Elder Gutknecht told you the good news?"
She nodded and the smile faded from her face. "He has."
"What's wrong, Darling?" he asked her. His heart was pounding. "Please tell me."
"Oh, Victor ... I'm so sorry..."
"What!" he cried.
A look of deep regret and sadness passed across her face. "I'm not going back with you, Victor - I can't. I'm staying here."
"Here? In the Land of the Dead?" Victor was stunned. And then he was furious.
"What have you done to her?" Victor yelled at the Everglots. "What have you told her?"
"Victor," his former wife said quietly, touching his elbow. "This was my decision and mine alone. Mother and Father had nothing to do with it; if anything, they did their best to talk me into going back with you."
"But - why?" Victor cried, broken hearted. "Don't you know how much I love you? And how much I miss you? And need you?"
A tear appeared in Victoria's eye and she nodded. "I do, Victor. If anything, it was your love that kept me going.
"But - darling - sometimes there are times when love is not enough. You don't know what it's like to be afraid all the time, you don't know what it's like to have the weight of life crushing you all the time, and you don't know what is like to wish for death every day because it hurts too much to live..."
Victor stood mute. His mouth fell open. "But...?"
"You didn't know?" she asked softly. "But how could you? It was not a burden that I ever wanted you to carry. You couldn't have carried it, and so I hid it from you. Darling, it was better this way."
"Maybe we can talk to Elder Gutknecht," Victor suggested. "He'll know what to do."
Victoria shook her head. "No, Victor, I've already talked to Elder Gutknecht," she said. "And he agrees with me."
Crushed, Victor sat heavily on the nearest chair and covered his eyes. The sounds of piano music floated through the air.
Victoria came over and consoled him. "For what little it's worth, Victor, I still love you, and I always will. But I can't - and I won't - go back to your world. This is my home now."
Victoria put her hand on his shoulder and waited until he looked up. "But what will I do without you?" he asked.
She smiled a faint sad smile. "Do you hear the music? It's beautiful, isn't it?"
He nodded dumbly.
"There's somebody here who's been expecting you - someone who will be very, very happy to see you," Victoria said quietly. "She's playing the piano now... "
Like a zombie, Victor got up and walked stiffly in the direction of the music. As he walked into the room, the piano player looked up, and then abruptly stopped playing and sprang off the bench.
"Oh, Victor!" squealed Emily. She ran up to him and threw her arms around him.
Victor stifled a sob. "Victoria..." he moaned.
"Oh, Victor honey, I know, I know," she crooned, and she drew him close to her and held him as he sobbed.
"I'm sorry," he said at length, lifting his head from her shoulder. "I shouldn't be bothering you with my troubles."
"Sorry? For what?" Emily asked, letting him go and standing back. "Someone that you love very much has just told you that she's not coming back with you. You are upset - and rightfully so - and you need to apologize? No, Victor, in your place I'd cry, too."
Victor bit his lip, but said nothing.
Emily walked over to the piano bench and sat down, and then she looked back at him and patted the bench beside her.
"Come. Sit ... "she said.
He sat down beside her on the piano bench. She started playing a familiar tune and then she paused. "Your part comes here, Victor, remember?"
Reluctantly, he added his part to hers, the very same music as he had played for her years before.
They fell into the duet and for that half minute it was like the last three years had never passed.
After they finished, Victor slumped forward, laid his head down on the piano, and sighed. "I still can't believe it."
"About Victoria?" Emily asked.
Victor raised his head and nodded.
Emily looked off into the distance for a few seconds, and then she looked back at Victor. "I never had a 'best friend' when I was alive and, as you probably knew, she didn't either."
Victor nodded again.
"Well," she continued, "I was as surprised as everyone else when she came here, but I had the chance to get to know her as time went by. Since then, in fact, we've become kind of 'best friends'." A mischievous expression came across Emily's face and she raised a skeletal hand to her mouth and giggled. "We've certainly done our share of talking about you."
"Only good, I hope," Victor said with a wan smile.
"Mostly good," she smiled back. "You are a man, after all."
"So she's really serious about not coming back?" Victor asked. "If anyone would know for sure, then, it'd be you..."
The smile left Emily's face and she sighed. "It's hard to give your best friend good advice when you are still in love with her husband. But ... yes, she's serious - very serious. She has her reasons..."
"What did I do wrong?" he asked.
She smiled and shook her head. "You did nothing wrong, Victor. She still loves you, and that made it all the harder for her to make the decision that she did."
"So you think that she made the right decision, then?" he asked.
Emily sighed and looked away. "Oh god, how can I answer that when you know how I feel about you? What kind of answer do you honestly expect me to give?"
The young man was at a loss for words. Emily was right - it wasn't even close to being a fair question.
"Oh, Victor," she continued. "I'd give anything to be still alive now, so I could be there for you - to comfort you myself."
Victor reached over and patted her hand. "I'm sorry, Emily, I didn't think..."
"It's okay, Victor. Miss Plum would have said that it's a man thing."
Then she looked into his eyes and smiled. Reluctantly, Victor smiled back.
For Emily, time slowed, and then stood still as she continued to gaze into Victor's eyes...
Then Mayhew came into the room. "Oh, 'ello, kids," he said. "The Elder, 'e wants to see you now. You too, Miss Emily."
'Great timing again, Mister Mayhew,' Emily muttered to herself. Then she looked up. "Okay, tell Elder Gutknecht we're coming..."