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Children's Fiction Fantasy & Magic

The War of the Witches

by (author) Zetta Elliott

illustrated by Cherise Harris

Random House Publishing Group
Initial publish date
Jan 2024
Fantasy & Magic, African American, Mythical
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Jan 2024
    List Price
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Jan 2024
    List Price

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Recommended Age, Grade, and Reading Levels

  • Age: 8 to 12
  • Grade: 3 to 7


The witches are ready to go to war, but Jax and his friends are still searching for a path to peace. . . . In the epic series finale of Dragons in a Bag, friends and foes must unite to defeat the mighty Scourge before it drains all magic from the world.

Jaxon could never have imagined the adventure that would start with an old witch called Ma and three baby dragons shipped to Brooklyn. Ever since he returned the dragons to the magical realm of Palmara, Jax has searched for a way for humans and magical creatures to live in harmony. But despite his efforts, an ancient monster has been released. The Scourge has defeated the powerful Guardian of Palmara and set its sights on the human realm.

It takes just one stray spark to ignite a war. With the Scourge now free to move between realms, the witches are preparing for battle. Can Jax and his friends put the flames out before it's too late? Or will magic disappear from the world forever?

About the authors

Born in Canada, Zetta Elliott moved to Brooklyn in 1994 to pursue her PhD in American Studies at NYU. Her poetry has been published in several anthologies, and her plays have been staged in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland. Her essays have appeared in Horn Book Magazine, School Library Journal, and The Huffington Post. Her first picture book, Bird, won the Honor Award in Lee & Low Books' New Voices Contest; it was named Best of 2008 by Kirkus Reviews, a 2009 ALA Notable Children's Book, and BIRD won the Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers. Elliott's first young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, has been called "gripping," "a revelation...vivid, violent and impressive history." Ship of Souls was published in February 2012; it was included in Booklist's Top Ten Sci-fi/Fantasy Titles for Youth and was a finalist for the 2013 Phillis Wheatley Award. Her latest novel, THE DEEP, was released in November 2013. She has published several illustrated books under her own imprint, Rosetta Press. She currently lives in Brooklyn.
Learn more at:

Zetta Elliott's profile page

Cherise Harris' profile page

Excerpt: The War of the Witches (by (author) Zetta Elliott; illustrated by Cherise Harris)



I need a new job. Not so I can make money--I’m nine, and my allowance is pretty decent. But a job isn’t just about money. A job can also give you sense of purpose.

Some people have a talent. I guess they’re born with it and they know early on that they’re meant to dance or sing or play chess or whatever. Maybe job isn’t the right word. I guess what I’m really talking about is a calling, something you just know you’re meant to do. Not because you can make a lot of money, but because it’s your destiny.

I had a destiny once, a purpose. I was a witch’s apprentice--until I wasn’t. Then I became ambassador to Palmara, the realm of magic. I had a clear mission: persuade the Guardian of Palmara to open all the gates connecting her world to ours. I did that--and I freed my grandfather from the Forgotten Tower. I thought I was doing a pretty good job!

Then my best friend, Vik, started to communicate with the Great Spiders. They told him we were heading for war and so our plans changed. Now we had to destroy the enchanted bridge because Ol-Korrok, the Guardian’s twin brother, only created it to lure a monster called the Scourge back to Earth.

So that’s what we did--but not in time. Guided by the signal sent by the bridge, the Scourge found its way back to our world. The Guardian tried to fight it but failed. She sacrificed herself to save me and the phoenix, but now the radiant bird has vanished.

Palmara no longer needs an ambassador. The witches I thought were my friends don’t want me in their coven. I don’t have a job, or a mission. Nothing’s clear anymore. Is it my fault? Did I make a mistake? All I wanted to do was help others. I tried to do the right thing, but I think I may have helped the wrong person. And now we’re on the brink of war. . . .


The Scourge

“Brother . . . help me!”

Her plea brings me back to my senses. Before I drain the last of her magic, I rein in the hunger that led to my banishment so many years ago. I have vowed that things will be different this time. I will be different this time. So, when the massive dragon collapses and shifts back to its frail human form, I wrap the unconscious woman in a tender embrace and carry her to Palmara.

Though I have not been home for thousands of years, I easily find my way to the capital. The gates of Kumba open as I approach, but no one emerges to greet me. I gently set the Guardian down on the soft red dirt and withdraw to wait. I do not expect to be thanked, so I take no offense at this strange reception. Understandably, their concern is for their friend and themselves. Friend. In time, perhaps they will see me that way. For now, I must prove that I am not the threat they believe me to be.

I gather my misty tendrils so that I can be more easily seen. Then I retreat even farther before calling out, “Help her. You must help her. I will not advance. You have my word.”

“What is that worth?” someone whispers from behind the gate. I do not mean to invade their private conversation, but my keen hearing grants me access whether I want it or not.

“It’s a trap!”

That voice belongs to a child, I think, but the next speaker is much older. “We can’t just leave Sis out there--she needs our help.”

A man clears his throat and takes charge of the situation. “Mo, Lex, and Rex--go to the Great Hall and bar the door.”

“We want to help, not hide.” This speaker is not human. I can smell the freshness of their magic and know the creature is young.

“If it is a trap, the Scourge will target you three first,” the man replies sensibly. “We’re human. We have less to offer the beast, and so we have less to lose. Now, go!”

A boy asks, “What if it isn’t a trap? What if the Scourge is making some sort of peace offering?”

“There’s only one way to find out. Wait here--and don’t budge until I give the all clear.”

“Be careful, Professor!”

Within a few seconds, a small man wearing a brightly colored shirt walks through the open gates. Behind his spectacles, his eyes dart between my mass and the Guardian’s seemingly lifeless body. When he reaches her, he kneels and lowers his ear so that it almost rests upon the Guardian’s chest. Then he pinches her wrist, and I realize he is searching for a heartbeat.

Listen closely, I want to tell him. It is faint but it is there. I know because I can hear the Guardian’s heartbeat as clearly as my own.

A cluster of humans cautiously peeps around the edge of the gate. I scan them and find that some are not wholly human--or have acquired magical abilities somehow. Their magic is not powerful enough to overwhelm me, but I don’t know how to assure them that they are safe. So I stay where I am . . . and wait.

The old man with white whiskers waves his three friends closer. The humans--all brown-skinned but different sizes and ages--hurry over and form a protective circle around the Guardian’s unconscious body.

“Is Sis dead?” the littlest one asks.

I dare to draw a bit closer and address the group. “No--she is weak, but she can be healed if you help her.”

The girl flashes her eyes at me, and I see that she and the defeated dragon woman are kin. Kin. What is it like, I wonder, to see one’s features reflected in the face of another? There is no other creature like me. I am, by design, alone in all of creation.

The one they call Professor rushes to reassure the child. “The Guardian will recover in time. She just needs rest and care. I’ll go get a stretcher!”

He is spry, but I can tell that spending many years in Palmara has extended his life. I drift closer as he reenters Kumba, irresistibly drawn to the faint scent of magic he leaves behind.

Those of us who remain find our eyes drawn to the Guardian. She looks like she is sleeping peacefully, but her friends can sense that all is not well. I feel the need to apologize, but instead I say defensively, “I did not harm her.”

This time the boy scowls at me. He is taller than the girl, but I can tell they are related. The boy has no dragon blood, but traces of ancient magic twinkle around his ears. The Great Spiders have left their mark on him.

“How can you say that?” The boy flings his words at me like daggers. “She’s barely breathing!”

I nod to acknowledge his concern. “The Guardian fought bravely. I spared her the shame of defeat.” Their faces still show no gratitude, so I try again. “I brought her back to you. I did not leave her to drift among the stars. I know how lonely that can be. . . .”

The elderly woman with silver curls nods at me. She is wrapped in beautiful gold-trimmed fabric that shimmers, but not with magic. “Thank you. We certainly do appreciate your, er, consideration.”

I shift closer to her, though she has no detectable magic. That makes her safe to approach. Beside her, I do not need to fight my true nature. Even in her weakened state, I can sense the magic that remains within the Guardian. But I will not touch her again.

“How can you thank it, Aunty?” the girl complains. “That . . . thing almost killed Sis!”

The girl’s aunt makes a strange clicking sound with her tongue. “Shouldn’t we be grateful for the mercy that spared our friend?”

The girl folds her arms across her chest and glares at me with her dragon eyes. The elderly woman comes over to me and does not flinch when one of my misty tendrils brushes against her skin.

“What should we call you?” she asks.

I have waited for this moment for so very long. Yet now that it has arrived, I can barely speak. Finally, I manage to reply. “I am . . . the Scourge,” I state simply.

She smiles at me. “Yes, I know, but . . . is that really what you want to be called?”

I think for a moment. “No. I--I would like you to call me . . . friend.”

The girl practically explodes. Tendrils of smoke escape from her nostrils. “Uh-uh--no way!”

Unlike his sister, the boy remains calm. “That name has to be earned, Aunty.”

“Exactly!” The girl scowls at me. I did not expect a body so small to hold so much rage. “I’m not calling this monster my friend,” she declares.

I shrink from the child’s outrage, but the old woman takes another step closer to me. “How about Mitra?”

“Aunty, no!” the boy objects.

“Mitra?” The word feels foreign on my tongue, but it sounds pleasant in my ears.

“It means ‘friend’ in my mother tongue,” she explains.

A flood of gratitude almost makes me swoon, but I manage to control myself. The woman smiles and says, “Would you like that? Of course, you’re free to choose your own name. It’s just a suggestion.”

“I would be honored to bear that name,” I tell her.

“Mitra it is, then.”

“What should I call you?” I ask.

“Goodness--we forgot to introduce ourselves. I am Nira, but you can call me Aunty. This is Vikram and Kavita, my grandnephew and grandniece.”

There is an awkward pause before the elderly woman speaks again. “So . . . can you tell us your plans, Mitra?”

I answer truthfully, “I am here. I have come home.”

They all watch me, clearly expecting to hear more. Finally, Aunty says, “I see. And . . . do you intend to stay here in Palmara?”

“Where else is there to go?” I ask.

Kavita looks at Vikram, who looks at the old woman. Aunty does not answer right away, which tells me she is hiding something from me. She calls me friend, but perhaps I still frighten her.

Aunty takes a deep breath and says, “All the portals have been reopened. I only wondered . . . whether you intended to . . .” She hesitates but finally asks, “Will you cross into the human realm?”

I consider her question for a moment. I must say something to reassure her, to earn her trust. “That is your home?”

She nods. “For most of my life, it was. I live here in Palmara now.”

“Do many Palmarans visit the human realm?”

“You know they do!” the girl blurts out. “But you can’t follow them--we won’t let you.”

I want to laugh at Kavita’s arrogance, but I do not. If I wanted to use these portals to leave Palmara, there is nothing she or her friends could do. Not even the Guardian, fully restored, could stop me. The question is, can I stop myself?

It is clear that Kavita is not yet in control of her power. It would be so easy to take it from her--punish her for her insolence. But I am here to make peace.

The elderly man returns with the stretcher. “If Yula was here, they would know which plants to gather to revive the Guardian.”

“Dawn’s breath and goldenwort might help,” I suggest.

“Are you a healer?” Aunty asks.

“I know the properties of some of the plants that grow in Palmara,” I tell her. “But the Guardian will need a powerful potion to restore her strength.”

“Uh--thank you for your advice,” the Professor says. “Hopefully, Yula will be back before too long. Teamwork--that’s what we need now. Can you help me take Sis to the Great Hall?”

I would help, but the request was not addressed to me. With much care, they work together to shift the Guardian onto the stretcher and carry her back inside the capital. No one tells me to wait outside, but no one invites me inside, either. I stay where I am, at a safe distance.

The boy lingers at the gate. He glances over his shoulder at me, and I hear him tell his friends he will join them soon. “I’d like to get to know our guest a bit better.”

I am so pleased that Vikram wants to stay with me! It’s like we are friends already. It is possible he does not trust me enough to leave me on my own, but I prefer to believe he truly wants to get to know me.

He leads me away from Kumba, along a path that winds through a meadow. I follow, keeping a respectful distance between us. For a long while, he says nothing, so I ask a question of my own.

“Your magic is new--and yet it is old. How can this be?”

The boy veers away from me, and I realize he fears I will take his magic away. “I am not here to harm you--or anyone,” I assure him.

He does not sneer, but his voice is not kind. “You can’t help yourself--can you? It’s your nature to steal magic from others.”

“I have changed.” When doubt twists his mouth, I remind him that I returned his friend to Palmara. “If I had no self-control, the Guardian would already be stone.”

“Like Imfezi,” he says softly. In a more confident voice, he asks, “Is that what happens once you’ve taken someone’s magic? They turn to stone?”

I do not lie to him. “Without their true essence, they become a shell of their former self.” Then I promise, “It will not happen again. I give you my word.”

To my surprise--and delight--Vikram smiles at me. “You’re not what I expected,” he admits, casting a sidelong glance as I use my tendrils to propel myself over the field. “Everyone calls you a monster but . . . you move so gracefully--like an octopus almost.”

“I have made mistakes,” I humbly admit. “My banishment was painful . . . but it was also just. I see that now.”

Vikram shrugs and says, “Nobody’s perfect. My friends and I don’t have as much power as you, but we still struggle with how to best use our gifts.”

“I have been . . . irresponsible,” I tell him. “But I can do better. I will be better this time.”

The boy offers me another small smile. Fragrant flowers wave in the breeze. I breathe in their pleasing scent and marvel at the dramatic change in my circumstances. Hours before I was alone among the stars. Now I am back in Palmara with a new friend and a chance at a new beginning.

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