A Groundskeeper’s Assistant Longs to Study Magic Openly In This Excerpt From Infinity Alchemist

Books Features Kacen Callender
A Groundskeeper’s Assistant Longs to Study Magic Openly In This Excerpt From Infinity Alchemist

Kacen Callender is a National Book Award author who is best known for their emotional, contemporary YA stories with great queer and trans representation like Felix Ever After and King and the Dragonflies. And if you’ve read any of them, then you already know why the prospect of this particular author turning their talents to the world of fantasy is so exciting. 

Infinity Alchemist is Callendar’s YA fantasy debut and it’s a big swing—the story of three young alchemists who set out on a quest for unimaginable power, and find something a lot like love and family along the way. Full of trans, queer, and polyamorous characters of color, Infinity Alchemist follows the story of Ash, a self-taught alchemist whose social status keeps them from being allowed to legally study magic. (Alchemy, which in this world is pulled from the body’s energy, is almost the exclusive province of the wealthy and connected.)

As he struggles to keep his secret—and his low-end job at the Lancaster College of Alchemic Science—Ash must join forces with a gifted apprentice to try and track down a legendary sacred text and decide what kind of power he truly wants to wield.

Here’s how the publisher describes the story.

For Ash Woods, practicing alchemy is a crime.

Only an elite few are legally permitted to study the science of magic—so when Ash is rejected by Lancaster College of Alchemic Science, he takes a job as the school’s groundskeeper instead, forced to learn alchemy in secret.

When he’s discovered by the condescending and brilliant apprentice Ramsay Thorne, Ash is sure he’s about to be arrested—but instead of calling the reds, Ramsay surprises Ash by making him an offer: Ramsay will keep Ash’s secret if he helps her find the legendary Book of Source, a sacred text that gives its reader extraordinary power.

As Ash and Ramsay work together and their feelings for each other grow, Ash discovers their mission is more dangerous than he imagined, pitting them against influential and powerful alchemists—Ash’s estranged father included. Ash’s journey takes him through the cities and wilds across New Anglia, forcing him to discover his own definition of true power and how far he and other alchemists will go to seize it.

Infinity Alchemist won’t hit shelves until February 2024, but we’re able to give you an early look at the story’s first two chapters right now.

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1. 

Snow drifted from the gray sky— slowly at first, lazily, the sort that was caught on eyelashes and tongues. Ramsay gripped her mother’s hand as she crunched across the frozen dirt, ice like glass shattering beneath her boots. The thin white trees were covered in knots that looked like dozens of eyes watching as they passed. Puffs of steam left her mouth as she breathed hard, trying to keep up with her mother’s long strides. Ramsay’s many questions had been ignored. She was only told to hurry, don’t stop now, they were almost there. Ramsay complained that she was cold, but Amelia only tightened her grasp.

 “Come along,” she said, voice gentle. “It’s almost time.” 

They crossed a frozen river. Her father had always told her not to walk along the river in the winter. The surface was too thin. It could crack, and she could be washed away, never to be seen again. Her mother let go of Ramsay’s hand and told her to wait there, right there, right where she was. Ramsay pulled on the ends of her shirt nervously while she watched her mother walk to the other end of the riverbank, back onto the solid ground of snow. She stood in a clearing of the trees and looked over her shoulder at Ramsay with a loving smile. 

The snow began to fall faster, then— hard enough that Ramsay had to shield her eyes from the ice that stung her cheeks. The world became a white blur. The snow turned red. It fell to the ground, drops spreading like blots of ink. The blood dripped from Amelia’s cheeks. Her smile faded as the screams began. 

2. 

Ash was lost in thought, as usual, when he saw the alchemist he wanted to meet. Gresham Hain strode through the beige stone corridor with purpose, surrounded by a group of chattering scribes. Ash had only ever seen Hain in grainy black-and-white photos in the texts he’d written, but it was definitely him. He was a pale-skinned man nearing his sixties, but his back was straight, frame muscular, and though his hair had turned a stark white, it was full, gray stubble on his jaw. Ash had heard that Hain sometimes visited the college. The man was an advisor to House Alexander, but he was technically still a professor, though he rarely taught classes or took on apprentices. Ash had often imagined this moment— imagined finding enough courage to march up to Gresham Hain and tell the man his name. 

As Ash watched Hain striding toward him, his anger grew. The rage became a mirage of heat that glowed from his skin, a second pulse inside him. Ash’s hands clenched into fists. Ash hated Hain— hated him enough to want to scream at him and hit him and— 

“Excuse me,” Ash said. His voice cracked. “Sir Hain, I’m— ” 

Hain walked past, speaking to a scribe. He hadn’t heard Ash— hadn’t even spared a glance. It was like Ash wasn’t there. A scribe gave Ash an odd look and seemed moments from asking him why he was standing in the middle of the corridor, and didn’t he have anything better to do with his time? The anger faded and died until it was replaced by numbness. Ash bit down on his teeth, ducked his head, and walked in the opposite direction. 

It was a cold, nasty morning. A misty rain hung in the air. Ash knelt in the dirt beside a stone bench as he patted a new layer of soil. Each flower, every plant had its own energy. The wilting hydrangea there, for example—Ash could feel that it had a calm, slow, rhythmic vibration, perhaps an acceptance of death, transforming from one state of the physical into the next. Its petals were shriveled and brown. Ash held it in his palm as he looked over his shoulder. 

The campus was shrouded in a thick yellow-gray haze, stone buildings disappearing in the fog. The students and professors were in class, no one else in sight. Ash looked back at the flower and shut his eyes. He imagined the hydrangea in full bloom— pictured in his mind every detail, from the velvety softness of the petals to the dew glistening and dripping onto his hand. Alteration was tier three, but it wouldn’t require much alchemic power for something so small. Energy sparked inside of him, a flint lighting flame. He felt the heat grow under his brown skin, spreading through him— 

“You don’t have much love for this job, I see.” 

Ash stood and whirled around, heart hammering. He let go of the flower and dropped it to the dirt. It was in full bloom, just as he’d imagined, dew on his hand. Frank stood behind him in his usual workwear overalls, hands in his pockets. The man was almost seven feet tall, but he snuck around like a cat. Ash couldn’t be convinced that Frank wasn’t also secretly practicing alchemy and hadn’t simply materialized out of thin air. 

Ash gave what he hoped was a charming, sheepish grin worthy of forgiveness. That grin, plus his floppy brown curls and big brown eyes, had gotten him out of trouble before once or twice. “Saw that, did you?” 

Frank was often in a foul mood, but it was made even fouler now. “You must not have any love for your freedom, either,” he said.

 “I didn’t know anyone was here.”  But even Ash knew that was a sorry excuse. 

 “Maybe you could try explaining that to the Kendrick,” Frank said, not even the hint of a smile on his face. Ash sometimes felt that Frank took it upon himself to be a fatherlike figure a little too much. 

“You wouldn’t call the reds on me, would you?” Ash asked. “You’d be down an assistant.” 

“I made do without you before,” Frank said. “I’ll be just fine without you again.” 

The two stood in silence for one long moment, staring each other down. Ash was used to being on his own, and he wasn’t very fond of obeying anyone—but Ash needed this job, and besides, Ash appreciated Frank and his gruff straightforwardness. It was a breath of fresh air, in a place like this.

 “Sorry,” Ash said. “It won’t happen again.” 

Frank eyed Ash as if he wanted to continue his lecture, but thankfully he only gave a nod before he carried on across the lawn, disappearing into the haze. That’s often how the man operated: like an unaware energy that had forgotten it was no longer alive, walking from one dimension and into the next. Ash sighed, dusting his hands off on his cotton overalls, and pushed the wobbling barrow in the opposite direction, back toward the greenhouse. 

Ash had been technically hired as a domestic of the college to fold sheets and wash dishes in the kitchen, but Frank, for some unknown reason, had taken the boy under his wing in the past few months, asking for his assistance with various groundskeeping tasks. Even if Ash was annoyed at the man, he was also grateful. He preferred to be outside, hands in the dirt, than in the shadows of the college’s corridors, hiding from the gaggles of laughing students and the professors with their cold stares. 

It wasn’t quite that they eyed Ash like he was mud tracked onto expensive rugs, or that they insulted him in the halls, though that did happen, too, a whispered sneer about the state of his clothes and hair, and oh, yes, the one girl who had laughingly said that Ash would be cute, if he wasn’t so short and didn’t smell like fertilizer. It was more that, for the most part, they didn’t even look at him at all. It was as if Ash was invisible to them, or that he didn’t exist; that he wasn’t even worthy of enough attention to show disgust, let alone respect. 

Ash had applied to Lancaster. Just a year before, he had saved enough sterling from his part-time job at the docks to send off an application and take the entrance exams. He’d worked hard for years before that—hours of studying alone at night, bent over texts, because he’d convinced himself that he could have a shot at becoming a student of the college. Any and all financial need would’ve been met if he’d been accepted, and he would’ve greatly increased his chances of passing the license examination. Ash had tried to earn an alchemist license before on his own, without studying at Lancaster, but the sheet of paper had been designed to only allow an elite few to pass with its endless, ever-changing questions about random trivia focusing on the history of alchemy and technique of various tiers. The exam didn’t let Ash show what he could do, prove that he deserved to pass—and so he’d failed each of the three times he took the test. 

With a license, Ash could find a job in alchemy, doing something he actually loved—and with the money he earned, he could’ve applied to any of the eight Houses. His life would’ve changed. But it quickly became clear that it didn’t matter what Ash did, or how talented he was, or how hard he worked. He would never belong. Thank you for applying to the Lancaster College of Alchemic Science. Unfortunately, due to the high number of applicants . . . The thought alone filled Ash with shame, the fact that he’d believed someone like him could make it into some fancy college for magic.

It was a cruel irony that Ash ended up working at the college instead. That was something alchemists often wrote about in the texts he’d read: the infinite universe as understood through the finite human brain was a tapestry of threads that often paralleled one another, synchronicities sometimes appearing as cosmic jokes. Ash hated his job and the constant reminder that he wasn’t seen as good enough, but it was the only one he’d been able to find that offered a decent enough wage. And Hain. Yes, that had been a part of Ash’s decision to apply to the college and to take this job, too. But now that he had seen Gresham Hain in person, Ash realized that he was too much of a coward to meet his father. Meeting Hain had been his only accomplishable goal in life, and now even that he couldn’t achieve. It was a depressing realization. 

The barrow squeaked as Ash pushed it along the path lined by buildings, toward the campus gardens and the glass greenhouse. Ash’s stomach grumbled as he entered. He couldn’t help it—he was often hungry, especially after practicing alchemy. Ash and Frank kept their tools hung up and leaning against the far wall, and long tables held pots of seedlings that were Ash’s babies, cared for until he planted them in the ground. Ash exchanged the wheelbarrow and gloves for a rusting watering can. He heaved it up into a sink, water gushing from the faucet and into the opening until it was full. 

The campus buildings had ornate white stone and stained glass windows along green paths of damp grass and dirt that lined the main courtyard and its lawn. Ash had practically every room and office memorized. He knew that Vanderbilt Hall’s dusty, shadowed, and mostly abandoned classrooms were where students sometimes liked to shut doors and have their fun, from the sound of giggles and groans; that it was better to avoid the Trumbull Tower late at night, when certain energies had a habit of playing the piano that was left in storage, taking pleasure in startling whoever was near, laughter echoing through the realms whenever Ash jumped at the sudden banging of keys. 

Ash also knew that the Giddings Library held some of the rarest texts on energy alchemy: electrodynamics, manifestation, nonphysical explorations of the quantum, and more—all once known as magic. Ash had always had an unquenchable curiosity for the science of magic. He wasn’t a student nor a professor and so would swiftly lose his job if he were ever caught, but sometimes he couldn’t help but stay on campus late at night and steal through the stacks long after the library closed, learning what he could by moonlight. 

Magic was an outdated term, used rarely, though Ash found he liked the energy of the word. Magic. The word implied universes unknown and adventures undiscovered, power unfulfilled and possibilities that were endless. Magic was once thought to only be gifted to the unique or special, the chosen ones. Now it was commonly known that every single person in the world had the capability to become an alchemist. 

Legally, however—the House Alexander had created the law almost a century before that only licensed alchemists were allowed to practice energy of the higher tiers. The first tier was legal for all—it was the energy of existence, of breathing and blinking and feeling, not something any human could really help. The second, the tier of channeling more energy past a standard measured point, was still legal without a license, too. It was the kind of alchemic practice that was usually seen among artists and musicians and dancers and athletes—the sort of alchemy that would have an audience whispering that the performer had a certain glow as they performed. 

Tier three and upward, however, required a license. Ash tried and failed to ignore the bitterness that spiked in his chest. Yes, emotions such as anger and resentment were energy, too, and he was embarrassed that he couldn’t figure out how to transmute and release these emotions so that he wouldn’t feel so trapped by them. All the texts he read gave the same instructions, but no matter how he tried, he struggled to accept where he was in life and find joy in small pleasures. There was still so much potential he had, so many impossible dreams he hadn’t yet reached. Attending Lancaster, receiving his license, finally being looked at with respect. But that was all they were. Impossible daydreams.

As Ash arrived at Boylston Hall, he realized he’d been distracted by his many thoughts and taken too long on the walk from the gardens. He only had a few minutes before the bell rang and the corridors filled with students, something he preferred to avoid. Ash dragged the watering can up the steps, pushing open the heavy front doors with his back.

Not all the buildings of Lancaster were extravagant—Ash had been surprised to see the faded wallpaper and scuffed floorboards of various Halls, the college at times keeping its older charm—but Boylston was the main manor of the campus. It was practically a fortress towering over the courtyard, filled with a mixture of offices and lounges and classrooms, with shining white marble floors and golden ornamental wallpaper. Ash’s first destination was a sitting room for guests. He watered the large-leafed monstera in the corner before he moved on to the administrator’s office where five older adults sat at their desks, barely giving Ash a glance as he watered the pothos plants, careful not to let a drop fall onto the stacks of papers. In a small private library for instructors, where Ash couldn’t help but stare at the titles of each of the cracking faded covers, he watered the hanging philodendron. 

Ash was just thinking to himself, rather proudly, that he’d managed to whip through this errand without the bell ringing when he entered the lounge. It was usually empty at this time of the day, but now, for some unknown reason, there were students. One sat at the chess table on the side, playing a game by herself, while two more students sat on the sofas in front of the dim fireplace, speaking lowly. They all wore the college’s uniform of plaid pants and tucked-in, buttoned-up shirts and ties. Ash stopped at the door’s threshold. It slammed shut behind him on its own, grabbing the students’ attention. They glanced over with some surprise, then gave Ash the familiar look—the oh, it’s no one realization, eyes sweeping from his face and down to his shoes, before they turned away again, back to their conversation and solo chess match. 

Ash hesitated. He knew firsthand how cruel the students of Lancaster could be when they were bored, and even worse was that, no matter how much he wanted to, he couldn’t fight back— not if he wanted to keep his job. But Ash had already pissed Frank off enough for the day, so he took a deep breath as he walked to the spider plant on the fireplace’s mantel, raising the watering can above his head with trembling arms.

“Anyone could travel to a realm of another density,” one boy on the sofa said snidely. He was interchangeable with any number of students on campus. He had yellow hair and light-colored eyes and an air of wealth about him. He raised his chin as he spoke, as if he had an implicit understanding of his own worth that Ash wasn’t sure he would ever find for himself. “Haven’t you read the teachings of Henry Bates?” 

Ash’s ears perked up. He’d just finished a text by Henry Bates a few nights ago. Over a century before, the man had theorized that, because the universe was a complex woven system of infinite realms, and humans were a part of this universe, then humans could also travel to those realms, leaving their physical bodies behind—if they had enough alchemic power to do so, anyway. 

“Yes, of course I have,” the other brown-haired student said. “You aren’t the only one attending this college.”

 “It sometimes feels like I am.” 

The stories Ash heard painted the higher realms as universes containing an endless number of worlds and dimensions, too infinite for the human mind to comprehend. Ash had tried to reach the higher realms, but this was tier-six alchemy, the most difficult form of all, and he’d only ended the night with a headache. Some famed alchemists claimed to have been successful over the past few decades, but there wasn’t any way to prove that they were telling the truth. There were the darker stories, too—tales of alchemists who’d lost their minds in their attempts, caught between dimensions and unable to return to the physical realm. 

“I’m not saying it’s impossible,” the student argued defensively. “Only that it would take years of training if it was. The physical body is too much of a manifestation in this reality to drop it and enter the nonphysical realms easily.”

He was repeating lines from a text Ash ha read a year or so ago now, by another scholar whose name Ash was forgetting. Ash slowly lowered the watering can as he listened.

“You’re mistaking your definition of you with your physical body. If you have a true connection to Source, then you’ll realize that you are Source,” the other student said, “and so anything you imagine can be created and become reality.” 

Ash almost rolled his eyes. Yes, the boy was right, of course— but it was such an overused phrase that it felt unoriginal and pretentious to repeat now. The line was seen in nearly every single text on alchemy, this constant reminder that everything in existence was a conscious extension of Source—

“Can we help you?” 

Ash looked up, startled. The two boys were watching Ash. He realized he had stopped to listen to them so intently that he’d been staring at their shoes. He hesitated, then shook his head quickly. 

“No,” he said. “No—I was just leaving.” 

He tried to do just that, making his way to the exit, but the yellow-haired boy held up his hand. “Hold on,” he said, and Ash hated that he had no choice but to do as he was told. As an employee of the college, it had been made clear that he was expected to follow any orders given by the students and professors. 

Ash clutched the watering can’s handle so tightly that his knuckles ached. The boy stood slowly, several heads taller than Ash. “Weren’t you ever taught that it’s rude to eavesdrop?” he asked. “Especially as a servant.” 

The brown-haired boy sneered from the couch. “Listening in on conversations isn’t exactly a part of your job description, is it?” 

Ash tried to swallow the fire burning inside him. “I’m not a servant.” 

“What was that?” 

“I’m the groundskeeper’s assistant,” he said more loudly, ignoring the small voice that whispered at him to stop. “I’m not a servant. And even if I was . . .” 

“Even if you were . . . ?” the blonde boy said, smile growing even as his eyes narrowed. “Well? Go on.”

 It pained Ash, knowing that he could run alchemic circles around both boys if he’d been given the chance. The words were on the tip of his tongue. I’d still deserve respect. But fear found him first. Source, why was he such a coward? 

The two students laughed at his silence. Entertainment, Ash realized—that’s all he was. 

Groundskeeper’s assistant,” the blonde repeated. “You should be out on the grounds, then. Not here, interrupting our conversation.” 

Ash nodded, hating himself and the words he bit out of his mouth. “Yes. You’re right.”

“An apology, perhaps?” the blonde suggested. 

Disgust and humiliation raged through Ash. “I’m sorry,” he heard himself say. “It won’t happen again.” 

The yellow-haired boy nodded slowly, eyeing him. Ash stared back, unable to hide the anger that smoldered through him, even as he was afraid that the boy would, on a whim, decide to alert the college and have him fired. Luckily it seemed to be too much effort for the student, maybe already bored with Ash’s presence. He sat back down on the couch with another lazy gesture. “You’re dismissed.” 

Ash nodded and hurried from the room, trying not to outright run, ashamed that he’d depended so much on the boy’s mercy. Ash often wondered what the true definition of power was. Some alchemists claimed that power was Source—feeling aligned to the energy within all beings, the oneness of all creation, seen and unseen, infinite and unending, and knowing without any doubt that he was as powerful as the universe itself. But if that was the case, and Ash was as powerful as these alchemists claimed, then why were there so many people who had the power to decide if Ash was worthy or not? 

There were few professors’ offices with plants that needed Ash’s watering, but one had so many that the space felt more like a jungle. Ash’s nerves spiked as he came to the door. The wooden nameplate read Ramsay Thorne. The Thorne name was infamous, connected to a gruesome past that Ash preferred not to think about. He couldn’t help but feel vibrations of fear whenever he came to this office. Ash was lucky to have never met Ramsay Thorne, but he’d glimpsed the professor from across campus. He’d never seen Thorne without a scowl, and the professor was avoided by everyone, from what Ash could tell—workers and students and other professors alike. 

He took a deep breath and pushed the door open. The heavy curtains were pulled shut, only a sliver of white light shining through, dust particles dancing past. The office’s faded Damascus wallpaper still had golden tints, and the floorboards were heavily scuffed and scratched, perhaps by shoes that had a tendency for pacing. The room was cramped, made even smaller by the bookshelves that lined the walls. The single mahogany desk was piled with towers of papers that threatened to collapse and even more books, many of them open and stacked on top of one another, breaking the spines, notes scrawled across the margins. The sight offended Ash. He so rarely had the opportunity to study texts that if he ever got his hands on a book, he treated it with special care, afraid to wrinkle a single page. 

And there were the plants themselves: ferns and clusters of snake plants and hanging vines from the top of the shelves. Ash knew from Frank that Thorne didn’t want anyone to come into his office at all, but that the professor so often traveled away from campus impromptu that someone was needed to look after the plants while he was away. 

It was as Ash was emptying the last of his watering can that something on the desk caught his eye. Ash often struggled to control his curiosity in this office. Fear was a large motivator—he couldn’t imagine being caught reading a book by an angry Ramsay Thorne. But today, there was a paper on top of all the mess, and the single stream that slipped in through the curtains shined upon the yellow parchment like a spotlight. Ash saw at the top, underlined several times, dis. book of source

He wasn’t sure what the dis. meant, but Ash knew about the myth of the Book of Source just as much as anyone who studied alchemy. Legend told that the Book of Source was a sacred text and that its reader would become an all-powerful alchemist, so aligned with Source that they’d be able to create entirely new realities, to live in their body immortally, to give and take away life with a single thought alone. 

It was just a legend, of course, a fairy tale. There was no proof that such a script ever existed, and even if it did, stories of the text had likely been mistranslated and exaggerated over the passing centuries. It was ridiculous to think that a single book could really offer a person so much power. Ash was surprised that someone like Thorne, a professor at a serious institution like Lancaster, would have notes about the Book of Source at all. 

Curiosity piqued, Ash bent closer to the paper to attempt to discern the messy scrawl. 

text = energy manifested—tethers power into this reality symbol of manifestation:

And there was an odd shape drawn on the paper itself. It was a hexagonal pyramid, but one pyramid, pointing up, was on top of another, pointing down. The lines that defined the shape were like a cage, sketched in a bright blue pencil, unlike the messy notes taken in black ink. Ash held the paper up, inches from his face, as he inspected the shape. Ash didn’t always think his decisions through, and he was prone to taking unnecessary risks, but especially now he felt a rush of energy—an inspiration to create that overwhelmed reason. Maybe it was the same sort of inspiration that had poets running to find a piece of paper and a pen or a musician longing to touch their piano’s keys. Ash could see the shape even as he closed his eyes. 

Creation alchemy was tier four, one of the more difficult forms of alchemy. Alteration depended on taking a physical substance and matter and altering it, shifting it, with the imagination. But rarely—oh, so very rarely—an alchemist like Ash was able to pull enough physical substance from the air and atoms alone to create something new. Ash imagined each particle connecting to another, forming the thin line, the color, the angle of the shape. He felt his body heating with energy, felt as if he was rushing forward, as if time had sped up, and there was so much energy that he felt like laughing, as if his body couldn’t contain the heat and excitement and joy of creation, and he could feel chaos dancing at the edges of his mind also, the chaos that called to him, the chaos that he feared, because he could understand, too, how easily an alchemist’s mind could break if they entered into that unknown, just as so many had before him— 

Ash opened his eyes. The shape floated in the air. Ash plucked it and held it in his hand, warmth fading. The object was as small as a newly budded rose, silvery light cast on Ash’s skin before the glow died down as well. Its lines were thinner than Ash had imagined, and he hadn’t managed to pull enough physical matter to create the shape fully. But it was still there, this thing that he had made. He felt a soft pride as he smiled. 

“What’re you doing?” Ash’s smile dropped as he spun around. His heart stuttered as Ramsay Thorne stepped into the office. 

Infinity Alchemist will be released on February 6, 2024, from Tor Teen, but you can pre-order it right now.


Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB

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