Not long after I first wrote about the moral vagaries surrounding the use of soul gems, a reader pointed out that Dawnguard sheds some light on the issue. At the time, I had not yet done the Dawnguard questline, and so I looked forward to finally getting some firm ideas about the ultimate fate of the entrapped souls. Now that I have explored the Soul Cairn, I have more questions than answers.
What I know:
- Upon death, a Soul Trapped being’s soul is absorbed into a soul gem.
- Said gems may be used to enchant or recharge weapons and other items.
- The Soul Cairn is populated by entrapped souls.
- The Soul Cairn is vast and depressing -- more Limbo than Hell.
- Some souls deal better with the Soul Cairn than others (Jiub, Morven Stroud)
- Not all of the entities within the Soul Cairn are entrapped souls.
- Soul Gems can be filled by activating Soul Fissures inside the Cairn.
- During The Black Star, when Malyn Varen dies inside a soul gem, his soul is utterly destroyed (Nelacar refers to it as non-existence).
- As demonstrated by the encounter during The Black Star, the space inside a soul gem is not the same as the Soul Cairn.
- Soul husks are plant-like objects, but the name suggests that they are something left behind. Are they the residue of a soul being used in an enchantment?
- Are the souls in the Soul Cairn currently trapped in gems and awaiting annihilation, or are they here because their souls were already used up in an enchantment?
- Is the Soul Cairn only for the souls of man and mer? On the one hand, aside from Arvak, I only encountered sentient souls. On the other, the fissures filled up my petty, lesser, common, and greater gems.
- The Soul Cairn is a way station for entrapped souls. A soul is trapped and transported to the Soul Cairn, where it waits until the soul gem to which it is tethered is consumed. When the corresponding gem is used in an enchantment, the soul is obliterated.
- The Soul Cairn is the ultimate destination for souls used in soul gems. The soul remains trapped in the gem until the item is used for enchanting, at which point the soul is cast into the Soul Cairn. It is not annihilation per se, but rather an eternal nowhere.
For another view, I suggest this thread from The Escapist.