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The Stone of Destiny
By JIM WARE
David C. CookCopyright © 2011 Jim Ware
All rights reserved.
Morgan Izaak hated Santa Piedra Middle School—he loathed physical education; he detested competitive games like football, soccer, and baseball and the twisted social caste system that was founded upon them; and most of all, he resented the people who had somehow been granted the power to use these instruments of torture to oppress him and make his life wretched.
What could a boy like Morgan do against that kind of power? Nothing. Not for the time being, anyway. But one of these days, he would throw off the shackles of his bondage; one of these days he'd wield a power greater than anything they'd ever imagined. One of these days he'd show them all.
He'd do it through alchemy.
Mercury, sulphur, salt.
It was a warm, dreamy afternoon in early spring, and Morgan was standing out in deep right field, his skinny legs spread wide apart, his lanky arms akimbo. Over and over again he rehearsed the formula to himself: Mercury, sulphur, salt. Sticking his forefinger into his mouth, he picked a scrap of lettuce from his braces—the last remains of lunch—and spat on the ground. Lazily he swung his fielder's glove at a passing fly and breathed out a prayer that the ball wouldn't come his way. Good thing nobody ever hits to right field, he thought. Mercury, sulphur, salt ...
Not the substances themselves, but their essential qualities ... essential qualities extracted from the raw materials ... One primal element ... in it all the power of the stars....
Off in the distance the game was dragging on, but Morgan hadn't the slightest notion of the inning or the score. His mind was fixed upon weightier matters: mineral spirits and elemental emanations; earth, air, fire, and water; the power of the stars and the unity of all things; freedom and release. He yawned. He stretched. He kicked idly at a dandelion that had pushed its way up through a tussock of tough crabgrass.
Then he turned and stared out to the west.
Across the field, past the chain-link fence, over the tops of the dark green pines and cypresses that covered the seaward slope beyond the schoolyard, he could see the afternoon sunlight glinting on the blue face of La Coruna Inlet. Like gold, he thought with a smile. Essence of gold. Again his mind drifted off into dreams of power—power to turn lead or tin into gold. Power to change things. Mercury, sulphur, salt.
"Hey, batta, batta, batta! Swing, batta, swing!"
Dimly, gradually, the remote shouts of his classmates elbowed their way back in among the jumble of his wandering thoughts. He glanced at the infield and frowned. Shoving a clump of yellow hair out of his eyes, he lifted his face to the sky and squinted. The sun was sailing far out over the ocean, and there was a damp, salty fragrance in the air—a sure sign that the sea-fog would soon be washing ashore down on Front Street.
It must be past three o'clock by now, he thought impatiently. It has to be! He pursed his lips, closed his eyes, and pictured himself leaning over the stained and mottled workbench in his lab, adjusting the Bunsen burner, leafing through the pages of a dusty old copy of Paracelsus.
Recombine the essences in an alembic over a flame of very low heat.... Fixed principle ... Volatile principle ... Quintessence of earth....
Only in the vaguest way was he aware of it: the sharp report of a bat and ball connecting somewhere, followed by the scuffle of running feet and the swelling babble of urgent voices raised in anxious shouts.
"Right field!" someone shouted.
"Wake up, Izaak!"
"Oh no!" breathed Morgan. They were calling his name! Was it the ball? Could it be? He shook himself, spun around, and feverishly searched the bright expanse of the sky. Blinded by the sun, he pawed the air helplessly with his glove.
Whoosh! A blast of wind like a passing truck.
Whump! A stunning blow to his abdomen, like the kick of a mule directly to the solar plexus.
Morgan gasped. He clutched his stomach. Stars clouded his vision. He saw a baseball drop to the ground at his feet. Then numb, dumb, and deflated, he doubled over and collapsed into the sweetly fragrant turf, straining for air, staring in wide-eyed shock at the grass-stained toes of his tennis shoes.
In the next moment his teammates gathered in a huddle above his head. Lower and lower they bent over him, a confused mass of dark shapes, blocking out the sunlight. A hand seized him roughly by the shoulder, ripping the sleeve of his new blue Oxford shirt. Someone yanked him mercilessly to his feet. He blinked, staggered, and swayed.
For all his dizziness, he couldn't help but recognize the voice of Baxter Knowles, captain of the team. "What have you been doing out here, Izaak? Daydreaming?"
Morgan lurched and retched and tried to speak but found he couldn't utter a sound. The muscles of his chest were completely paralyzed. There wasn't a single molecule of air left in his lungs, and he felt helpless to refill them no matter how hard he tried. Steadying himself as best he could, he gazed mutely from one end of the semicircle of hostile faces to the other while the scene oscillated, blurred, and spun crazily before his eyes.
"We've had it with you, Izaak!" Baxter said, glaring at him from under the bill of a San Francisco Giants baseball cap. "You're out of the game!" Baxter's face was red and glistening with perspiration. "Nick, you'll just have to cover center and right. We don't have a chance with him on the team!"
Murmurs of assent all around. Baxter let go of Morgan's shirt and turned away. Morgan crumpled into the grass like an old rag doll.
"Next time ask the Wizard for a brain, Strawhead!" Baxter said over his shoulder as the rest of the team followed him back to the infield.
"Robot-Mouth!" said another boy.
"Freckle-Nose!" added a third.
Morgan squeezed his eyes shut. He wanted desperately to yell something back at them. He wanted to tell them that he that he was glad to be out of the game. Most of all, he wanted to slay Baxter with a swift, rapierlike insult—to blow him and all his kind clean off the face of the earth. But he couldn't. He was absolutely powerless. He didn't even have the breath to moan or groan. And so, still struggling for air, he rolled over on his side, gripped his abdomen, and slipped back into the laboratory inside his mind.
The fusing of these materials into a new and unknown substance ... the single substance of which all material is composed ... yielding in the end a fine white powder ... a powder with transmutative properties ... in it—
all the power of the stars ...CHAPTER 2
The Tower Lab
The tall Gothic tower of St. Halistan's Church rose blue-gray and hazy in the gathering mist as Morgan came trudging up Iglesia Street. Upon reaching home—a white stucco duplex that he and his mother shared with the Ariello family—he cast an anxious glance at the darkened window. I hope Mom's feeling better this afternoon, he thought.
He hated to keep her waiting alone in an empty house, especially when she wasn't well. But he couldn't neglect his work, not now, not when he'd been making such encouraging progress. To tell her what he was up to was out of the question. So he let her believe that he'd been helping George Ariello around the church every day after school. That way, she didn't worry, and he didn't feel quite so guilty.
It was a harmless deception.
Besides, he had the consolation of knowing that once his experiments succeeded he'd be in a position to offer her some real help. With the Elixir, he'd be able to cure her every ailment. Smiling at the thought, he stepped carefully over the gaping cracks in the ancient sidewalk where the roots of an old jacaranda tree had pushed the pavement up into a steep little hill of broken concrete. Then he jumped off the curb and dashed across the street to the double oak doors at the base of the square stone tower.
Slinging his backpack over his left shoulder, Morgan seized the brass handle and opened the massive door. From within came the sweet tones of a violin. He had heard the tune many times before—a sad old Irish air called "The May Morning Dew." Almost involuntarily he paused for a moment to listen. Then he poked his head inside and squinted up through the confused jumble of light and shadow on the tower staircase.
At the top of the first flight, sitting on the last stone step below the first wooden landing, was a slim girl with a fiddle under her chin. At the sound of Morgan's steps, she lowered the instrument, shook a strand of copper-colored hair out of her face, and turned to him. Of all the striking things about her remarkable appearance, her eyes were the most remarkably striking of all, for they were of two very different colors. The right one, in keeping with her dark olive complexion, was a lustrous brown, but the left was sky blue—a blue so pale and clear that it seemed almost luminous in the dim and shifting light.
"Hey, Eny," said Morgan.
"Hullo, Morgan," she replied. "How's your day?"
Eny, the only child of George and Moira Ariello, St. Halistan's resident caretakers, spent a big part of her free time here on the tower stairs. The stairwell was one of her favorite haunts—the place to which she most naturally resorted when she wasn't at home or in school or down by the sea caves of La Punta Lira. Here she would sit almost every afternoon, reading or playing her violin. When she grew tired of stories or music, she would lift her face to the light and ponder the tall, arched stained-glass window above the landing: a colorful, jewel-like depiction of angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth on Jacob's golden ladder.
"My day?" said Morgan in answer to her question. "The usual. Baxter Knowles is still Baxter Knowles."
Besides his mother, Eny was the one person in the world with whom Morgan felt he could speak freely and openly. She could be dreamy and quiet, but she was also an unfailingly good listener. Though nearly two years his junior, she was practically Morgan's only friend. He thought of her as his soror mystica—the "mystical sister" every good alchemist needs to assist him in the Great Work.
"Anyway," he continued as he came clumping up the stairs, "I didn't come to talk about Baxter. There's something I want to show you. Up in my lab. Come with me?"
Without a word she laid the fiddle gently in its case and leaned it in a corner on the landing. Then she followed him up two flights of creaking wooden stairs until they reached a small green door on a dingy gray-carpeted landing. Morgan fumbled in the pocket of his brown corduroys, pulled out a little brass key, and unlocked the door. Inside lay a bare atticlike room where a rickety wooden ladder led to a square opening in the ceiling. Quickly he scaled the steps and flung open the trap door.
Slanting bars of fading gray afternoon light met his eyes as he entered the lofty, airy, cube-shaped chamber above. Each of the room's four mortared stone walls was pierced by two tall, slatted Gothic windows, through which the damp sea-mist flowed unhindered. Morgan climbed up, drawing Eny behind him, and threw his backpack down on a white Formica-topped workbench that spanned the entire length of the west wall. Switching on a green-shaded desk lamp, he pulled up an old cane chair and motioned to Eny to sit down.
"Messy as ever," she said absently. "What have you been doing up here?" She buttoned her brown woolen sweater up to the chin, shivering in the damp, chill air. Then she pulled a dusty old book off a shelf that hung precariously over the workbench and sat down to examine it. "What'Si liaster?" she asked.
Morgan glanced in her direction. "Careful with that! It was my dad's. Paracelsus. The Philosophy of Theophrastus Concerning the Generations of the Elements. Very rare. Really old and fragile. And you know what I'm working on. The same thing I'm always working on."
She looked up from the book. "Powder?"
"Transmutative powder. The Philosophers' Stone. The Elixir."
She wrinkled up her nose. "I don't think you should be playing around with magic, Morgan."
"It's not magic! How many times do I have to tell you, Eny? It's science! Alchemy! The parent of all sciences! Every major alchemical writer talks about the Philosophers' Stone. Hermes Trismegistus. Paracelsus. Edward Kelly. Armand Barbault. Fulcanelli. It's a transmutative powder. It changes things into other things. Turns lead into gold. They call it the Elixir of Life because it's supposed to have healing properties. In it all the power of the stars."
"If it's a powder, then why do they call it a stone?"
He scowled at her. "'Stone' doesn't always have to mean 'big rock.' In this case it obviously refers to a mineral essence of some kind. The One Primal Element. Paracelsus believed in the virtue of minerals. 'How does a Tree become a Stone, which then becomes a Star?' That's how Fulcanelli put it. That's the riddle of the Philosophers' Stone."
Eny shrugged, shook her head, and turned back to the book.
She was right about the lab, of course. It was pure chaos. Morgan knew it. But then he hadn't had time to think about straightening up. The work was going too well. It was intoxicating, consuming—success was so near he could almost taste it. Noisily shoving aside a few bottles, some crusty spoons, and a pile of crumpled papers, he groped around on the bench until his fingers found what he was seeking: two corked test tubes and his alembic—a narrow-necked glass jar connected by a thin tube to a small glass globe.
"Here," he said, squaring his shoulders and taking a deep breath. "This is what I wanted to show you." He blew a few strands of yellow hair out of his eyes, picked up the tubes and the alembic, and carried them to a sink in the corner. "I'm getting close, Eny. Real close. Watch this."
Biting his lip, Morgan carefully poured the contents of the first tube—a clear scarlet fluid—into the alembic. Then he uncapped the other, which was filled with something that looked like watery milk, and added it to the solution. Silence reigned in the chamber while the milky stuff mingled with the red. As they watched, the mixture turned green, then gold, then orange, then maroon. At last it became a pinkish liquid of a pearled and cloudy consistency.
Morgan felt a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. The blood was drumming in his ears. "See that?" he said. "That's just the way the books said it should happen!" With the greatest of care he transferred the alembic to the workbench, placed it gingerly over a Bunsen burner, and fired up the flame. Immediately he turned it down to a mere blue flicker. A flame of very low heat.
"So how's your mom?" said Eny.
He blinked and looked up at her abruptly. It was just like a girl to bring up a subject like that at a time like this. "Not too good," he said.
"My parents are worried about her."
Morgan grunted and turned back to the Bunsen burner. "I guess they hear all the coughing. The walls are thin enough."
Eny shut The Philosophy of Theophrastus with a snap. "Has the doctor said anything new?"
"Nope." Morgan's attention was focused intently on the pink liquid, which was beginning to seethe and roil in the alembic like a tiny tempest.
"And what about your mom? What does she think?"
"She says it's all 'in the hands of the Lord.' I say it all goes back to that bad case of the flu she had a couple of years ago. She's been coughing ever since. Lately she's had some dizziness, too. And fainting spells. But it's no big deal. She was supposed to see Dr. Vincent again this afternoon."
"So you'll know more when we get home?"
He nodded absently. By this point he was completely immersed in the drama unfolding inside the glass container. Sparks were jumping inside his brain in sympathy with the leaping and popping bubbles in the churning brew. Without shifting his gaze, he beckoned to her with his hand. "Quick, Eny!" he said. "Come look at this!"
She was beside him in a moment. The rosy solution was boiling rapidly now, turning over and over inside the alembic, sending up a pale roseate steam into the distillation tube. The steam, in turn, was solidifying into crystals inside the glass, and the crystals were slowly changing color before their very eyes—from pink to orange, from orange to scarlet, from scarlet to purple, from purple to blue.
"It's happening!" shouted Morgan, clapping his hands. "It's happening at last!"
"Mercury, sulphur, and salt ... extracted from common substances—dead leaves, seaweed, dirt, crabgrass—cooked down, hermetically sealed, slowly boiled over and over again. It's supposed to yield what the alchemists called materia prima—'prime matter.' And materia prima, if it's handled just right, produces the Stone! Watch the crystals, Eny! When they turn white, the process is complete!"
Suddenly he felt her grip his arm and squeeze it tightly. "Morgan!" she shouted. He jerked his head around and saw that her eyes were wide with alarm.
"What's wrong?" he said. "There's nothing to be afraid of! Just think—"
A flash like blue lightning illuminated the room. With one ear Morgan heard the blast of an explosion and the crash of breaking glass, with the other the piercing wail of Eny's scream. A sharp, searing pain slashed him along the right side of his face. He fell down into darkness.
Excerpted from The Stone of Destiny by JIM WARE. Copyright © 2011 Jim Ware. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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