A Stone Heart: Chapter Four
Dex makes it to the academy. Hope everyone survives his arrival.
“…how glad I was to get your mother’s call, Dex.”
Proctor James Lake led me around the campus of the Markwith School. The place was enormous, with just under seventeen thousand acres in Oregon. In the two weeks since I left home, I’d gotten my introduction, signed the requisite forms, met with the counselor, and been accepted into the program. During that time, Huey was conspicuously absent at night when I went home, and my heart ached every evening when I curled up in my bed, the house completely silent, and I fell asleep.
Before I left, I put a note on the table near the door, telling Huey I would be thinking about him the whole time, and how I knew he was disappointed in me, but I honestly thought I was doing what was right. Then I shut off the lights and left our place, closing the doors behind me, and headed down to catch my ride and begin the nine hour journey to Markwith Academy.
From the moment I stepped out of the Jeep, my whole body let loose with a deep, shuddering sigh. I toed off my shoes, then tugged off my socks. I wiggled my toes in the dirt. My senses opened fully for the first time in years, allowing me to feel everything around me. Each tree sang out at my arrival, every animal, from the smallest fish, to the large and majestic elk to the silly turkeys all took notice of me, and their life force mingled with mine, in a way that no human energy could. I felt alive, vibrant. The woods near the house were nothing like this.
“You can feel it, can’t you?”
Proctor Lake’s voice pulled me back to the moment. “I’m sorry, what?”
He smiled. “You can sense everything around you, right?”
I nodded. I’d never felt so alive. The earth hummed with power, which flowed over and through me. It made every cell in my body stand up and take notice.
“This is nothing. When we’re done with your training, you should visit our campus in Nevada. It’s over 150,000 acres. It’s not wooded like here, but there are prairie grasses and animals of every shape and size. The whole place is teeming with life. You’d love it.”
I had no doubt I would, but the woods called to me in a way that no expanse of grasses could. Being the son of a dryad, I could actually live inside a tree if I chose. In fact, when I went to the woods for my weekend sabbaticals, I usually chose the tallest, stoutest tree and merged with it. The way I felt with I was connected with it was indescribable. My roots were nourished by the earth, my leaves could feel every trickle of rain or morning dew that slid down them. Even the insects that nibbled at my bark made me feel alive. Tearing myself away when I had to go home was hard. I kept thinking I could just stay there, merged with the tree, and be happy like my mom had been for all those years. Then I’d think about Huey, and realize—shit. I hadn’t even been at Markwith for ten minutes, and already Huey was on my mind.
“Your energy shifted. It went from being full and joyous to being…not. What’s wrong?”
I turned and Proctor Lake gave me an indulgent smile.
“Nothing. Just thinking about a friend at home. I miss him.”
I could go on, tell him more about Huey, but… For whatever reason, I wanted to keep Huey to myself. After Mom’s reactions, I didn’t want anyone trying to split us up.
“Ah.” He reached out and patted my hand. “I understand separation anxiety. But what we’re doing here is for him and everyone else around you. Your mom told us about the…incident and gave us her impressions. Now, before you say anything, I haven’t read that part of your file. I don’t want anyone else’s thoughts to influence mine, so I’d rather get to know you myself. As far as I’m concerned, the minute you stepped out of the car, we’d just met. Will that be okay?”
Part of me wanted to say yes, to enjoy being a blank slate, but the biggest part of me realized that if they were going to help me, they needed to know everything they could find.
“Go ahead and read it. You need to know what you’re dealing with, right?”
He gave a one-shoulder shrug. “If that’s what you think is best. I always prefer to learn as I go.”
The rumbling buildings, the cracked concrete, the lash of the winds, and the rain that pelted down on everything. No, most definitely not a thing to be trying to understand on the fly.
“No, you don’t know what I almost did. I appreciate the fact you want to help me, believe me, but I can’t have you flying blind, especially since I’m pretty dangerous.”
He chuckled. “See that tree?” He pointed to the charred remains of an old pine tree. “That was me on my first day here. My parents, who had no idea how to deal with a magical son, sent me here and I was pissed off. I get out of the car, and the proctor approaches me, and all hell breaks loose. They counted seventy-two lightning strikes in just a few seconds. Now, it could have hit the proctor instead. Or anyone else who was around the campus at the time. Instead it was confined to the tree.” He drew in a sharp breath. “And the reason I didn’t wasn’t because I had control. It was because the proctor directed the strikes to the place they’d do the least harm.”
The least harm? Tell that to the tree.
“When I got here, I was pissed off—sorry, does swearing bother you?”
“Me? Fuck no.”
He chuckled as he patted me on the back. “I thought I was being sentenced to this place, like it was a punishment. I hated my parents, and I hated myself for having magic.”
That made no sense to me. “I thought magic was descended from your ancestors?”
“It is. I was adopted when I was a baby. No one knew who my parents were, and the fact I had magic wasn’t known until I was six and turned my vegetables into chocolate cake. And for the record, that was the best cake ever. In fact, Mom made something for us to eat one night before she had to go out on a work call. Dad pleaded with me to turn it into cake, because that’s how good my stuff was.”
He ran a hand along my arm, and I drew back. Sure, he was cute and all, but he wasn’t Huey. Having someone else touch me was…weird, unnatural.
If it bothered him, Lake didn’t let it show. Instead he clapped his hands and smiled at me. “Anyway, let’s get this show on the road, okay?”
I wished I could sound enthusiastic, but I wasn’t feeling it. Though being surrounded by the earth energies was intoxicating, that was the only thing I found worthwhile. I followed him as we toured the campus. The air here was clear and pleasant and it filled my lungs. It wasn’t at all like the city, where breathing always pressed down on my chest. I couldn’t say it was exactly painful, but it was never comfortable. Here? I could be happy here, amongst the nature that called to my heart. Only… My heart wasn’t mine to give. It already belonged to Huey, and no way could I take that back.
“Since your magic seems more attuned to nature, you’ll be working in this building,” he announced, gesturing to the large brick building covered in ivy. “Fortunately we’ll be working together, because that’s my key too.”
While I should have been happy to hear that, for some reason I wasn’t. Proctor Lake said all the right things, he smiled most of the time, and he seemed interested in me, but… There was something there that squicked me out. Maybe it was his eyes. They were a bright blue, but there was a…I don’t want to say darkness, but that’s how it felt. When I peered into a person’s eyes, I could usually see myself reflected in them. In his eyes, it was like a morass, and I didn’t really feel comfortable. I tamped down hard on it, though, thinking that maybe it was me being out of sorts. After all, when he’d gotten here, he let loose with lightning. At least I hadn’t done that.
The bundle of twigs smacked into the back of my head, which caused me to wince. “You need to focus!”
The rebuke went through my core, and it pissed me off. “I’m trying!”
“But are you trying hard enough?” Lake cleared his throat. “How about if we up this difficulty a little bit? Maybe that’ll push you.”
As I stood there, glowering at the pole Lake wanted me to set ablaze, the air around us—around me—crackled, and a split second later, lightning struck the earth beside me, making my hair stand on end. I won’t deny, it scared the shit out of me. I whirled on him, and sneered.
“Dude! What the fuck’s your problem?”
He grinned, and I hated that smug look. “You haven’t tapped into your magic, and it’s been two weeks.”
Because I needed the reminder. At twenty-four, I was the oldest person in our group, even though the others were far more advanced. John Percek, only sixteen, juggled balls of ice, then tossed them into the air, before standing under them and catching them in his mouth then crunching them with a satisfied grin on his face. Trevor Dansbury, at fourteen, could shapeshift into any animal, and speak its language perfectly. Now at twenty, he’d mastered the forms he could take, but was working on maintaining them longer. He and I held a few conversations, with others watching us and shaking their heads. I have to say, Trevor was shy and uncertain, but the moment he shifted, he had a wicked sense of humor and a dirty mouth. Hudd Davis, the oldest before I got there at nineteen, could become one with the air. He’d be solid one second, then he would be gone, dragging his body into the breezes around us. When he was found trying to sneak out of the girl’s locker room at school, that got him sent to the Academy.
These guys stood around, snickering and looking bored as they waited for….something to happen. They’d already mastered their abilities, or were on the right path. Me? I couldn’t even get a spark of flame or lightning or…well, anything. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t get a reaction from my body. It was as though it simply didn’t need to prove itself like some sort of show pony. Every time I reached for my magic, I could feel it, and when I tried to coax it out, it settled in my chest. Yes, it ached in a way it never had before, and the more I tried, the more it seemed it resisted.
“Performance issues already?” Hudd teased. “Dude, that’s going to suck when you find a girlfriend. You can give her my name. I’ll make sure she’s taken good care of.” He gave a thrust of his hips as he leered. “She’ll be satisfied, I guarantee.”
“Boyfriend,” I snapped. “And thank you for the reminder.”
“Okay then, boyfriend. I don’t discriminate. I’ll take care of him too. A hole is a hole. I like ‘em all, y’know.”
There was no doubt he was trying to bait me. Probably something Lake suggested to him. The thing of it was, I knew Huey would never go for Hudd. Sure, he was sexy with his red hair, and his deep, forest green eyes. But deep down, I knew Huey wouldn’t be interested in that cocksure attitude. Then again, what did I know?
“Not going to work,” I spat as I whirled to face my tormentors. “Throw lightning or insults all you want, it’s not going to help. I can’t do this.”
“You can,” Trevor whispered. “It’s all a state of mind. Think about what you were doing when the magic came out the first time.”
My first time with magic was pretty benign. A squirrel ran in front of our car, and mom clipped it with the tire. It lay on its side, heaving for breath. I got out and went to it, kneeling down. Mom came to me and put a hand on my shoulder.
“Can you feel her pain? You can fix that.”
I was maybe five, and my mind was filled with the squirrel’s pain and shock. Her dark gaze was locked on me, and she was certain she was dying. I reached out a hand, and in a coaxing voice told her I wouldn’t hurt her. I ran my fingers over her fur, the broken bones feeling sharp and jagged beneath my touch.
“She’s hurt bad,” I whispered, my eyes filling with tears.
“She is. She’s going to die, if you can’t help her.”
Five years old, and we were talking about death. Even now that seemed so wrong. The squirrel was young, she’d just left her nest a few weeks ago and—I stopped, wondering how I knew that.
“You can feel her pain because, like me, you’re connected to all living creatures. You have to learn to control that, otherwise it’ll overwhelm you. If you want to help the squirrel, you can. If you think we need to let her go, we should help her pass on.”
There was no way. I couldn’t let this tiny creature, whose life was literally in my hands, die without doing my best to help.
“What do I need to do?”
And that was my first lesson. Mom taught me how to knit the broken bones, even the ones that would never have healed on their own. She helped me understand the squirrel’s language, so that I could speak to her, tell her what I was doing. She lay there, her chest heaving, as I worked. In my mind, I knew what I needed to do. The certainty was undone when the squirrel died, too far gone to hold on. I remember the pain that welled up inside me, the anger and frustration that tore through me, because my mom had made me do this, and because of it, the squirrel was dead. My gaze snapped to her, all that impotent rage needing an outlet.
And then it happened. For the first time, the winds swirled around me, lifting me off the ground. My eyes ached as the universe opened up to me. I could see patterns of life energy swirling in a big, chaotic mess. It was the moment I realized how all life was connected by mystical threads. How every life—and death—affected every person, even if they couldn’t sense it. It was beautiful and messy and I was awed by it.
“Can you see it, Dex? Every life is touched by all others. Humans—people—think they’re separate from this, but they aren’t. They just try to deny it. It’s why the earth is in such pain now.” She knelt by my side and lifted the squirrel’s limp body from the ground. A moment later, its head popped up and it chittered at me, scolding me in that way only a squirrel can, then it ran off and zipped up the tree.
“You’ll learn to harness that energy one day, and you’ll discover so much you never knew was possible.” She took my hand in hers. “The thing is, you can’t tell anyone. Sometimes being special means keeping secrets from people. Do you understand?”
I didn’t, but if Mom said it was true, I trusted her. I nodded, and she beamed a smile at me.
The thoughts swirled in my head. Patterns of energy. That’s all magic really was. There were relatively few people who could tap that power, manipulate it in various ways. I was a conduit for it, and it flowed through me. The magic and I weren’t separate entities in opposition, we were one. I pulled it in, my body soaking it up like a sponge. A rush of power zipped through me, lighting up every cell in my body.
The magic swirled around me, the energy cascading over my body. It was the blood that flowed through my veins, that which gave me life. We were one, as we were always meant to be, and I reveled in it.
Of course, that’s when everything went to shit.