WINNER – American Fiction Awards, “Best Fantasy” 2023
A Kirkus Reviews starred review
A Kirkus Reviews “Best Books of 2021” selection
Thirteen year-old Daniel Scratch has been living alone for years since his parents passed, cared for by his home’s tiny, elf-like brownies and his somehow-still-living great-great grandmother.
But when Grandmother sends him to the village to be Tested, his life turns upside down. He’s abandoned on a craggy isle, home to the Tower of Endings, and discovers he’s to be the next adherent to the Sixth Axis, one of the most powerful magical forces in the world.
He lives in the Tower for years, learning all the basic magics of witchkind along with the great Seven Forms of his Axis. Along the way, learns more than he ever thought possible about his people and their society, and their relationships with the far more-numerous humans of the world.
His education culminates with an irreversible Choice, thrusting him into a mystery whose resolution will save all of humanity and witchkind – or doom them all to chaos and oblivion.
Paperback ISBN-13: 978-1-953645-00-5
"Adult and teenage fans of thoughtful fantasy will love exploring this beautifully described world of arcane powers. This meditative look at power will engage readers who like their fantasy with a side of philosophy. Great for fans of Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book."
"This book is delightful! It's tickling my inner nerd somewhere at the intersection of 'Harry Potter, ' 'Avatar: The Last Airbender, ' and 'Skyrim, ' all while being its own unique story and world."
"...Jones has created something new, compelling, beautifully written, and somewhat reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)...An engrossing, well-written, and original story; readers will be eager for the next installment."
“Here you go, Master Daniel,” Abbygail said, sliding a plate of eggs and sausage onto the rickety table before clambering back down her worn wooden step stool. The house’s formal dining room table was far grander—and sturdier—but the room was also dark and foreboding. I preferred the little servant’s nook in the kitchen. It couldn’t exactly be called sunnier, given the grimed-over condition of the thick, warped windows, but it felt less like a mausoleum.
And yes, I know what a mausoleum feels like.
The whole house, in fact, had something of a mausoleum feel. To begin with, it was old. Two centuries old, at least, and very probably more. The walls told its history, with wallpaper layered over paint, layered over plaster, layered over the old wood lath. The current wallpaper—probably not the first these walls had seen—was faded and peeling in places. The stout wooden floorboards were time-worn, with the nicks and scratches that are earned only through decades of service. The threadbare round rug that lay under the table—the only floor covering in the kitchen, and one of very few rugs in the entire house—had probably been around since before my parents were born. Probably before their parents had been born.
I picked up a fork, smiled, and nodded, careful not to offer thanks. Abbygail was a brownie, and the knee-high, white-haired, blue-skinned little creature had been with the family for decades. After Mother and Father died, more brownies had arrived. Abbygail said her kind simply sensed the need and showed up. They were the house’s only servants now, cleaning up what they could and keeping me fed. They were also, frankly, my only friends. But a single word of thanks to any of them would see them all vanish before nightfall, never to return. Mother had taught me that much before… well. Before.
I quickly finished my breakfast as Abbygail bustled quietly about the ancient kitchen, climbing up to the sink to wipe the heavy cast-iron skillet, scurrying down to bank the fire in the ancient wood-burning stove, and then peering through the pantry cabinets, scratching one of her long, pointed ears and trying to decide what she’d make for lunch. The pantry was never full, but also never empty, through some magic of the house itself. It made for a lot of repetitive meals, but at least nobody starved. Mother had always supplemented the pantry’s unvarying stock with fresh produce and treats that she conjured from the market in the village.
I especially missed the crisp, tart obuolys-fruit, but I’d never quite caught the runes Mother had used to summon the food, and I wasn’t even sure how she paid for it. I supposed she could have sent coins the same way she brought the food.
I was just starting to wonder what I’d do with myself all day. Even before my parents had gone, I’d been a solitary boy, keeping to myself and largely keeping myself amused all day. With no siblings, I had turned to the many books in the house for companionship. With no school—I would learn later that I was unusual in that respect—those books were also my education. If I grew bored of reading and the weather seemed nice, our expansive estate gave me plenty of room to wander. I could visit the dilapidated outbuildings, throw pebbles into the pond, or walk through the abandoned and overgrown horse pastures. If the weather was poor, I might even help the brownies keep the house clean.
I’d almost decided it would be a reading day when an insistent, loud clanging rang from the attic, echoing down through the walls and plumbing. Abbygail froze, looking anxiously at me. “I’m going,” I said, resignation coloring my voice.
Great-Great-Grandmother had called.
The house itself was devoid of any living beings other than myself, the brownies, and the kobolds who dropped by almost weekly to handle heavier tasks, like the seemingly continual repairs the creaking old building required. I’d never even seen a spider, although I’d read about them and seen a few sketches of them in some of my books. Great-Great-Grandmother was something… else. Certainly not a “living being.” She’d grown up in this house, following at least half a dozen generations before her. But unlike her forebears she’d declined to leave the house simply because she’d died. Instead she’d moved into the attic and made it her domain. When she wanted something from the living—meaning me—she’d make a racket until someone showed up. I always showed up quickly, too: I’d once made her wait almost ten minutes and it had put her in an even colder mood than usual.
I hadn’t known about her when Mother and Father were alive; they’d simply forbidden me to wander higher than the second floor where our bedrooms were. It wasn’t until Mother was gone that Great-Great-Grandmother had first summoned me, banging and scratching until I’d finally overcome my fear and ascended to discover her. As far as I knew, she never left the attic, although I had no idea what she did up there to while away the days.
But she had called, so I once again trudged up the four flights of massive, creaking stairs, running my hand along the smooth, worn handrails all the way. I’d learned early on that the stairs liked to play tricks. Not so much with the family, although with no other opportunities they’d occasionally get bored and try to trip me up. The handrails never tried such things though, and were always firm and steady under my grip. The handrails were yet another sign of the house’s grand past, carved into a comfortable shape and featuring intricate, delicate engravings of flowers, birds, and woodland creatures along the sides. When I was younger, I’d spent hours looking at the little carvings, running my fingers over them and inventing stories about the animals’ lives.
As I passed the landing for the second floor, I brushed my fingers over the portrait of Mother that hung there. She’d been much younger when the painting had been made, still unmarried, with the rare, pale skin that she’d gifted me, and the straight, honey-colored hair that she’d always kept in braids when I knew her. My eyes were my father’s though, gray and sharp; Mother’s were the bright, lush purple that was so common amongst the women in her family. I didn’t linger any longer over her picture, though: one didn’t keep the matriarch waiting.
Great-Great-Grandmother always heard me coming of course, and the stout wooden attic door flew open as soon as I’d stepped onto the landing in front of it, swinging silently despite its obvious weight. The room beyond the door was dark and murky, and Great-Great-Grandmother sort of oozed out of that darkness. She was every inch a witch from human stories: a long, full dress of embroidered black material, including a black knitted shawl that she clutched around her thin, bony torso. Her back was hunched with age. Even her nose, a bit bulbous, attempted a slight hook at its end. Her face was at least not colored green, although it was deeply lined, especially around her eyes. Those still retained their purple color, although they’d darkened and faded to a dull, dim shade. A black mole, complete with two stiff bristles of pure white hair, decorated one cheek. She smelled horrific, an aged combination of butterscotch and rotten flowers. I held my ground on the landing: she’d never once let a single part of her body extend beyond the attic doorframe, and so I kept a good three feet between us.
It goes without saying that I’d never ventured beyond the doorframe into the attic itself. In my imagination, the attic wasn’t even a room. It was another dimension, one inhabited solely by Great-Great-Grandmother and whoever or whatever she’d captured.
She sniffed. “You’re thirteen today,” she said, as if there was a particular odor associated with that age. Her raspy voice was like two pieces of thick, worn leather twisting around each other. “You’re to go and be Tested,” she added. That last word was uttered with such weight that I knew at once I was to be Tested, not merely tested. Whatever that meant.
But then I blinked. Thirteen?
I’d been alone in the house since Mother had been dragged off to Witchhold—two years ago? Three?—to be tried and interned. The prison had sent word scant months later that she’d died, still screaming the curses and epithets of whatever madness had taken her. The official letter expressed regret at failing to discover a cure for her ailment, let alone identifying its cause.
It didn’t matter, Great-Great-Grandmother had said. She served her purpose.?
I’d remained in the house, the last living member of a once-proud family. Looking back, I wonder that nobody thought to do something. I mean, even the Proctors who’d taken Mother must have known they were leaving a ten year-old alone in the house. Must have known, no? And yet I’d been undisturbed for three years. I’m sure now that Great-Great-Grandmother had something to do with it. But with no living adults around to remind me, I’d quite given up on observing birthdays and was mildly surprised to learn I was now a teenager.
I nodded to Great-Great-Grandmother because once she’d made a proclamation, it was far easier, and safer, to go along with it. I’d left the great house only a handful of times since my parents’ passing, every time at Great-Great-Grandmother’s whim on some errand or another. “Where do I go?”
She extended a frail, bony finger toward me, holding it just short of the doorframe that bounded her world. I stepped forward, closing the distance between us, and leaned my head into the doorframe. Her long, thick yellow fingernail brushed my forehead, she muttered an arcane phrase, and I suddenly knew where I was to go. I stepped back quickly, and she retreated back into the inky darkness just as fast. The attic door flew shut, clicking closed with surprising gentleness given the force of its swing.
“Abbygail,” I called as I trudged down the stairs. “Could you fetch my coat?” I was to go into the village, but I didn’t ask if the brownie wanted me to fetch anything for her or the house. When one was on one of Great-Great-Grandmother’s errands, one didn’t deviate for any creature or reason.
But a short delay wouldn’t be noticed. I stopped on the third floor, where the tiny, empty bedrooms intended for the house’s staff nestled closely together, lining both sides of a short, narrow hallway. I stepped into the hallway and placed my back against the wall next to the first door. That door had stopped closing properly decades ago, and even now its warped surface leaned slightly inward. Dim sunlight crept through the opening, but there was no reason for me to go in. Instead, I slid down the wall and came to rest on the battered wooden floor.
“Father,” I said quietly. “Grandmother says I’m to be Tested.”
I waited. Father had died in the vast basement three levels down, but for some reason his restless spirit had taken up residence here. I sometimes told myself that he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving his only child alone in this enormous, empty house, but it was just as likely that death had held no more interest for him than his family had. All my life, he’d been more interested in tinkering with his experiments and machines than in engaging with my mother and me.
A scratching sound came from inside the wall. “Don’t eat the food,” a gruff, hollow voice said, echoing behind the plaster and lathing. The scratching faded, and I stood.
Don’t eat the food.
Our old house sat on the very outskirts of town, mandating an hour-long walk to make it into the center of our little village. Mother had made the trip with me in just a few minutes by using her magic, but she’d never shown me the trick of it, so I was stuck doing it the slow way.
A wrought-iron gate—surprisingly sturdy for its age—provided egress from the estate. A single dusty road stretched from that gate through empty meadows and little copses of trees. There were no other houses on this side of the village; Mother had said the family had once owned all the land leading up the village itself. I didn’t know if that land was now all mine or not, but even if the family had sold it, nobody had bothered to build any closer. There was only the house, overgrown remains of farmlands, quiet meadows, and the village. The occasional bird would let out a soft cheep, but I’d never seen one. I’d never seen any other creatures on the land, for that matter.
It was a clear day, the second moon still stubbornly clinging to its place in the sky even as the sun threatened to blot it out. The weather was mild, as it was for much of the year, and the breeze blew gently through the leafy branches of the trees that lined the road.
As I neared the village, the packed-earth lane gained a cover of fine gravel. This is where the humans’ buildings began, starting with rickety wooden farm-cottages and slowly improving into sturdy homes. I passed chicken-coops full of clucking, pecking hens. There were small vegetable gardens, tended by sturdy-looking men and women in simple, homespun clothes. There were children frolicking in front of their homes, dogs running around and barking, and adults’ voices calling to each other across their properties. Notably, this far from the house, there were even birds and the occasional insect, all flitting through the air.
The road then transitioned to tightly placed cobblestones as the old stone buildings of the village proper began. These buildings were worn and crumbling around the edges, but the remained sturdy, hunkered closely to one another as if for protection from the outside world.
The villagers ignored me: I was just one more child dressed in black slacks, sturdy (if dusty) black shoes, and a long black coat. I seemed to warrant no special attention on their part, although it couldn’t have been common for a child my age to be wandering into the village alone. I cast sidelong glances at them: I’d had few opportunities to see humans up close, but as far as I could tell they were physically indistinguishable from witchkind. Perhaps they dressed a bit plainer, and perhaps they moved with a bit more of a trudge in their step, but then again perhaps that was simply this village’s way of doing things.
The village wasn’t especially bustling, but it wasn’t empty either. I passed the market where Mother had somehow summoned her groceries from, and a small banker’s office where two or three people waited to conduct their business. Further down the cobbled street, I knew, was a tiny smithy, a spacious courthouse, and the village’s ancient church. I could hear the rattling, clanking sounds of a carriage rolling over the uneven streets, likely carrying goods to some shop or other. This village was far removed from the humans’ iron roadway, Father had told me, and relied on carts and carriages to haul in whatever goods the villagers might need.
I made my way to the narrow alleyway that ran between a busy general store and the sleepy post office. Two steps into the alleyway led me to the ancient lead pipe that carried rainwater down from the rooftop gutters. I’d never seen it before, but Great-Great-Grandmother’s magic had placed its location and image firmly into my mind.
Witchkind couldn’t afford to live cheek-to-jowl with humanity; we’d learned that ages and ages ago. And so when we couldn’t have a secluded place to ourselves far from the humans, we crept around in the nooks and crannies they ignored. My heart pounding lightly in anticipation, and my nerves giving a slight jitter to my hand, I gave the old pipe two gentle knocks with my knuckles, on the exact spot where a small rune was carved into the soft metal. It echoed ringingly for a moment, and then fell silent. Then with a pop, a small section of the pipe swung open, like a tiny lead door, and I was sucked inside.
I emerged into a small, crowded office. Great-Great-Grandmother had sent me on a few errands into the village before, and if there was one common attribute of witchkind, it was that we seemed to enjoy clutter. The walls of the office were lined with shelves and cubbies, and each was precariously overstuffed with books, knick-knacks, trinkets, piles of paper, and more. Glistening little sprites flitted between it all, stirring up eddies of dust that then meandered independently around the room. Presiding over it all was a prim, matronly woman whose pewter hair had been gathered into an elaborately coiffed up-do. Her burgundy-colored dress reminded me of Great-Great-Grandmother’s: a slim bodice, high collar, and a dress that presumably descended to within a scant whisk of the floor. She even had a knitted ivory shawl wrapped round her shoulders. Her face was less lined than Great-Great-Grandmother’s, and she appeared to be fully alive. Oh, she also lacked Great-Great-Grandmother’s distinguishing wart. She sat at an imposing oaken desk that easily occupied three-quarters of the room’s floor space. The desk was a stark contrast to the rest of the room, its uncluttered top occupied by a broad leather blotter, two neat piles of paper, and a large, well-worn wooden box full of small, neatly stacked cards.
She looked up as I appeared, peering over half-rimmed glasses that were secured to her neck by a thin gold chain. “May I help you, dear?” she asked, her voice absolutely neutral and devoid of interest or emotion.
“Yes,” I answered hesitantly. “I’m here to be tested. Tested,” I amended, emphasizing the word the way Great-Great-Grandmother had.
Her eyebrows rose. She opened her mouth to say something but was interrupted by the ding of a bell. She immediately swiveled her chair around to face the wall as a small wooden panel slid upward, revealing a nook of some kind. She reached in and pulled something out, and then swiveled back to me. “Lunchtime,” she said with a tight smile, setting her burden down on her immense wooden desk. “Be just a tic.”
The panel behind her slid closed. I looked down at her desk, and saw a large china bowl filled with broth and what appeared to be some kind of cooked shellfish. Incongruously balanced atop it all was a cheeseburger. I loved cheeseburgers, although I hadn’t had one since Mother had been taken away. The house’s pantry didn’t ordinarily stock ground meat. The woman smiled at me and said, “Meal selection number two.” She licked her lips, revealing teeth that were perfectly white and straight. “My favorite. Just a quick bite and I’ll be with you, dear.” With that, she wrapped her hands around the cheeseburger, and the shellfish immediately started moving about in their broth. As she lifted the sandwich clear, I saw that several of the shellfish had clamped their shells to the bottom bun, as if in a race to see whether they could devour the burger faster than the woman could. The other shellfish were snapping their shells and attempting to jump clear of the broth and get their own hold on the burger.
The woman took a small, tidy bite of the burger and, closing her eyes, chewed slowly. “Mmmm.” Her voice at last betrayed some kind of emotion. Swallowing, she opened her eyes, replaced the burger and its attendant shellfish in the bowl, and once again leveled her gaze at me. “What’s your name, dear?” she asked, her voice again flat. One hand poised over the wooden box and it’s little cards.
“Daniel Scratch.” Not my real surname, of course; my family’s True name was so old, so infamous, and so powerful, Great-Great-Grandmother said I must never use it with outsiders. I had faith that whatever arcane mechanisms witchkind used for keeping track of each other would be fine with the alias, though.
Never taking her eyes off me, the woman nimbly flipped through the stack of cards as if her fingers had a mind of their own. She stopped suddenly on a particular card and, without breaking eye contact recited, “Mother Beatrice and father Neville.” Her eyebrows rose again. “Both deceased. No guardian of record listed.” Interesting, I thought. Not that Great-Great-Grandmother would permit herself to be listed as anything so mundane. “There’s a fee, dear.”
My own eyebrows rose, as Great-Great-Grandmother hadn’t mentioned anything of the sort. Then again… I dipped my hand into my coat-pocket, and found two coins lying there. I pulled them out and held them out over the woman’s desk. She presented her hand—never place your coin anywhere but in the hand you mean to have it, Great-Great-Grandmother always insisted—and I dropped the coins gently into her palm. Not once breaking eye contact with me, she laid the coins on her desk, letting them clink softly, one atop the other.
“A meal is included, of course,” she said. She tapped a small button that was embedded into her desk-top. “Another number two, I should think.” Within seconds, the bell dinged again, and the woman swiveled around to retrieve another burger-and-shellfish lunch from the nook behind her. She laid it gently on her desk, in front of her own meal. “Join me?” she asked, once again reaching for her cheeseburger.
Don’t eat the food, Father’s words echoed in my mind. “No thank you,” I said as graciously as possible. I hardly needed Father’s warning to avoid this particular dish.
The woman froze, her eyebrows beetling down and almost meeting in the middle of her brow. She abandoned her cheeseburger, picked up the plate that had been intended for me, and unceremoniously dumped it in a bin next to her chair. I listened carefully, but didn’t ever hear it hit bottom. “The kitchen isn’t pleased,” she said, voice still flat and void of emotion. “You’ve failed their test.” She leaned back a bit in her chair, folded her hands on her lap, and stared at me. “You may go.”
Shopkeepers had tried to dismiss me on past errands, and I knew to hold my ground. My family’s coin couldn’t be accepted without obligation, Great-Great-Grandmother had taught me. “I’ve paid for the Test,” I reminded her, once again emphasizing the last word.
She lowered one hand to her desk, covering the two coins that still sat there. She made to push them toward me, but they wouldn’t budge from their position. Looking confused, she finally broke eye contact with me and looked down at her hand. She once again attempted to push the coins, and they once again remained stubbornly in place. She lifted her hand and, for the first time, looked closely at the coins. Her eyebrows climbed nearly to her hairline, and her head snapped up as she skewered me with a a sharp gaze. “I see,” she said carefully, her voice no longer flat but instead tinged with a mix of curiosity and respect. “Then the Test you shall have, young Mr. Scratch.”
Once again holding my gaze, she reached down and opened a desk drawer. From it, she plucked a thin piece of ash-colored wood, perhaps the size of a playing card. “Take this.” She gripped it by one corner and held it out to me.
I reached for the small piece of wood, but as soon as my fingers touched it, it began to blacken and dissolve. Within moments, it had transformed into a fine dust, joining the rest of the office’s ample supply. The woman had never released it and now held, pinched between her fingers, what looked like a slim glass rod, no more than two inches long. With a twitch of her fingers, the rod flipped upright, pointing toward the office’s moldy ceiling. She leaned forward, extending the rod closer to me. “Blow gently across it,” she instructed, her voice growing soft. “Like blowing out a candle.”
I bent down slightly until my lips were just a few inches from the rod’s tip, and blew gently. The rod-end immediately erupted into an inch-long hot blue flame that blew away from me and toward the woman. I pulled back instinctively, but the flame continued to burn, flickering away from me as if I were still blowing on it. Tilting her head slightly, the woman stared at it for a moment, and then dipped the flaming end of the rod into her broth. The shellfish immediately started tossing themselves furiously around, only the weight of the cheeseburger keeping them in the bowl. Within seconds, the broth itself was boiling, and within a few more seconds, the shellfish had stopped moving. Finally cooked, I thought to myself.
“Well.” She released the end of the rod she’d been holding and stared forlornly at the sandwich. “Number two, as I said.” She pushed the entire bowl off the side of her desk and into her trash-bin. Like the one meant for me, this dish seemed to fall endlessly, never striking the bottom.
Then, in what seemed like a single sudden movement, she swiveled ninety degrees to her right and stood, reaching for one of the many boxes on the office’s walls. The box she pulled down was a lacquered black cube, perhaps four inches to a side, with a key-hole occupying almost the entirety of one side. She withdrew a large bronze key from her dress-pocket, inserted it into the key-hole, and twisted. With a click, the box’s lid snapped open. Releasing the key, she withdrew a small, irregularly shaped glass medallion that was suspended on a length of green ribbon. She flicked her wrist and the box-lid snapped shut again. She replaced the box on its shelf, extracted the key, and dropped the key back into her pocket. Then she turned to me.
“Lean forward,” she instructed. I did so. She draped the ribbon over my head, sliding it so that the glass medallion hung over my sternum, then stepped back and resumed her place in her chair. “I shall tell my sisters of this strange and eventful day,” she said, stepping back and resuming her place in her chair.
I looked down at the medallion, and saw the green ribbon slowly turning to black before my eyes. Small threads frayed away at the edges, but once the entire ribbon was a dark, glossy black, the change seemed to stop. The medallion itself changed next, turning from a crystal-clear, irregularly shaped shard into a flat diamond shape swirled throughout with deep red.
I looked up at her, and she made a flicking motion toward me with her fingers. I felt a rushing wind, and found myself back in the alley.
I knew enough to head directly to Great-Great-Grandmother’s attic when I got home—there was no way she’d send me to be Tested and then take no interest in the results. Once again, I trudged up the four flights and stood on the landing as the attic door swung open. She drifted forward out of her darkness, and I saw her eyes immediately widen. She sniffed at the air—a short, sharp inhalation first, followed by a longer, deeper draught. Never taking her eyes from me, she nodded slowly. “Finally,” she whispered in her rough, grating voice.
Her hand stretched out to me, but rather than extending a finger toward my forehead, this time her bony claws clutched a thick book by one corner. She held it out to me, spine down, the book never protruding past the doorframe. It looked to be quite heavy, but her old arm didn’t waver.
I stepped forward hesitantly: Great-Great-Grandmother had never handed me anything tangible before. The book was easily three inches thick, bound in sturdy covers whose cloth was faded, but not frayed. I held a hand out, palm up, extending it almost past the doorframe and into the attic—the furthest any part of me had ever ventured into her domain. She dropped the book into my hand, her mouth quirking in—a smile? Impossible. I caught it, my arm drooping slightly from its heft. It felt like a box of rocks, and I couldn’t understand how Great-Great Grandmother had held it so easily.
Suddenly, the house vanished from around me.