Elizabeth Creasy froze.
The mother duck and her fluffy grey ducklings marched single file in front of her, crossing from the hedges on one side of the road to the embankment on the other. When the mother duck noticed Elizabeth standing nearby with her Springer Spaniel, Fenton, she nervously picked up speed. Her brood, in turn, also picked up speed. Within a few hurried moments, the feathery advance was finished and both the mother and her babies had disappeared into the deep grass of the embankment.
Elizabeth took a huge breath of fresh air and grinned. “What a wonderful day,” she informed Fenton, who merely stood by her side, ready to get going again.
It was indeed a wonderful day. Two years retired and she was yet to get bored with her lack of responsibilities. Her walks across the fields and woods next to her home were always exhilarating. After years of working in an office, she had forgotten the benefits of so much fresh air. She felt younger each passing year, not older, and at sixty-seven she was as able-bodied as when she was forty — loving life more than she had at twenty. Of course it would’ve been all the better if her beloved , Dennis, had still been with her. A heart attack at fifty-eight had taken him while he was driving his bus route. The crash had injured nobody, but Elizabeth had been left a heart-broken widow. Oh, how she would have enjoyed retirement with Dennis.
Since Elizabeth had retired and acquired herself a canine companion in Fenton, she had seen the value in enjoying what was left of her life. Dennis had loved her, and she him, so there was no reason to mourn the wonderful life they had spent together. She now looked upon her past fondly and allowed it to fuel her smile for the rest of the day.
Up ahead, Elizabeth saw the little knoll she enjoyed climbing. A year ago the act of hiking up the small hill had assaulted her knees, but now she often made it up in a brisk and sprightly fashion. From atop the modest incline, she could usually see right across the rolling fields and farmland all the way to the village of Crapstone.
“Come on, Fenton, up we go!”
Always obedient, Fenton started up the hill at a pace matching his owner’s. Together they trampled the thick, green grass and headed for the top. The backdrop to the hike was one of natural beauty: birds chirping, trees swaying, and sunshine so warm it seemed to have hands, massaging her shoulders. It was a perfect day.
She started singing. “All things bright and beautiful…”
At the top of the hill, Fenton barked. Unlike him.
Elizabeth leaned down and patted her companion on the head. “Okay, Fenton, settle down.”
Fenton barked again.
“Now, now, Fenton. Settle down.”
Fenton shuffled from paw to paw; floppy black ears twitching. Elizabeth was just about to scold him when she saw what had got him so worked up.
“Hmm, that wasn’t there yesterday, was it?”
The smooth black stone was about the size of a football and completely out of place up there on the hill. There were no other rocks or boulders and certainly none that were jet-black. The stone would have resembled a bowling ball if not for the fine grey veins running all along its surface. The closer Elizabeth got to it, though, the less smooth and black it appeared — like how a television picture degraded when you went right up to the screen.
Fenton began to tug on his lead, almost yanked it free of her grasp. She gave the lead a yank and brought the dog back to her side, ignoring the throaty growl coming from him. “Heel, Fenton.”
Elizabeth reached out a hand to the stone, without knowing why other than something inside of her seemed to require it of her. Her fingertips were just about to touch the veiny grey surface of the strange rock when Fenton bit her hand.
She recoiled and dropped the lead, which led to her dog sprinting away, full pelt, down the hill.
“Fenton!” she bellowed after him. “Fenton!”
No way to catch up with a speeding dog; she would just have to hope that he came to his senses and returned on his own. But why had Fenton bitten her? He was such a good dog, a gentle dog.
Her hand throbbed, a purplish-blue blotch where one of Fenton’s long canines had crushed her skin against bone. It already hurt to touch and was beginning to throb mercilessly. The throbbing was so bad that it seemed to travel all the way to her head, and resounded in her ribcage.
She turned and glanced back down at the strange stone.
The throbbing inside her body was not caused by the bite on her hand, Elizabeth realised. It was coming from the strange black stone in front of her. As she knelt closer she saw that the delicate grey veins had begun vibrating, almost pulsing, as something seemed to bubble and flow beneath the surface.
Elizabeth couldn’t help herself but to reach out again.
Her fingertips moved slowly through the vibrating air, partly because she was afraid, but partly because she was excited. There was something about this strange stone that spoke to her, aroused her love for beauty and nature. However this thing had arrived at the top of the hill, it was a hidden treasure. A hidden treasure that she alone had discovered — like the mother duck and her babies. You never could predict what nature would show you. That was what had made her feel so young again these last few years: she had surrounded herself with the innocent, natural beauty of the earth.
Elizabeth’s fingertips pressed down against the strange black stone and she was surprised to find that the surface was ice cold, despite the warm sun beating down on it.
It felt like running her hand down the inside of a fridge.
Then something seized Elizabeth.
She tried to pull her hand away but was unable to move. Her fingertips were glued to the cold black surface of the stone. Starting to burn. Her eyes went wide and her mouth dropped open as something took a hold on her mind and showed her the most incredible things — so incredible that she felt the images sear themselves onto her soul and boil the blood in her veins. She saw horror, suffering, and torture of the worst kind. And she saw an army of monstrous creatures beyond her understanding.
She saw Hell.
The images in her mind were so wondrous and terrifying that her eyeballs melted inside her skull and her heart burst like a pinpricked balloon. She remained standing for some time, mind trapped in agony, soul burning in flames. When her sixty-seven year old body finally fell down, it was no more than a husk.
In the distance, Fenton chased a deer.