Watching from the Shadows

I contributed a story about Impa and Princess Zelda titled “Watching from the Shadows” to Goddess Reborn, a zine celebrating the female characters of the Legend of Zelda series. You can check out the zine’s Twitter account (here), and you can read my story on AO3 (here). Here’s a short description of the story…

Impa prepares to train Princess Zelda as a Sheikah warrior during the year following the fall of Hyrule Castle. Zelda is tired of hiding and eager to fight, so Impa shares stories from the past to demonstrate that there is wisdom in waiting for the right moment to strike.

This spot illustration was created by the magical and marvelously skilled Frankiesbugs, whose sharp and deadly work can be found on Tumblr, on Twitter, and on Instagram.

The Capra Demon Is for the Gays

While waiting for more news about the Breath of the Wild sequel, I started playing Dark Souls on my Nintendo Switch. I’m not into character customization, so my Chosen Undead is the basic male character. I named him Tulip. I am very bad at this game, and Tulip has been having a rough time of it. Yesterday evening, for example, Tulip fell down some stairs and died.

Tulip is currently spending a lot of time with someone called the Capra Demon. The Capra Demon infamously functions as a gatekeeper who blocks the player’s access to the majority of the game. It’s impossible to beat him without knowing exactly what you’re doing or getting help from real-life friends, and the game makes getting help difficult for reasons that are complicated to explain. Everything about this game is complicated to explain, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I leave it at “it’s just very hard to beat this boss.”

The Capra Demon exudes Pyramid Head energy in that he’s extremely fit, shirtless, and carrying two heavy meat-cleaver swords in such a way that his shoulders are pulled back, his chest is thrust forward, and the muscles of his arms are bulging. I made a stupid pastel-colored sketch of him and put it on Twitter, and I immediately lost five followers. I lost five more overnight.

When I say that I hate Pride Month – and sometimes I do hate Pride Month, kind of a lot – what I mean is that I hate the commodification of queer identity, and I hate how this commodification necessitates the sanitization of queer sexuality. Everyone is happy to see cute Disney animals dancing with hearts and rainbows, but nobody actually wants to see gay people being gay. And the Capra Demon is just about as gay as gay can be, which I think is charming and delightful.

I know the history of Pride Month, and I know why it’s important. Still, I wish people were able to accept difference not because it’s fun or attractive, but because… I don’t know, because it’s the right thing to do? Because we’re not animals? Because we’re capable of moral reasoning and extraordinary flexibility concerning what we’re able to accommodate into our worldview? And I just don’t feel that corporate rainbow merch and police-sponsored city pride parades are really helping people outside the community understand that being gay isn’t like Christmas, meaning that it isn’t a “special” thing that we collectively tolerate because it only happens once a year.

Like, being gay is being thirteen years old and playing Dark Souls because your friends are playing it, and then you get to this one boss, and you don’t know what’s going on but there’s just something about him, and the next thing you know you have your pants down and a wad of tissues in your hands, and then when you go to school the next day, maybe the way you talk about this video game character is a little weird, and your friends would never say that they’re homophobic, because of course they aren’t, but there’s just something about you that they don’t like, so they stop talking to you. You’ll make other friends as you find your community, but now you’ll have to live with the anxiety that there’s an element of who you are that a lot of people are always going to understand as being bad and wrong. Just like the Capra Demon is bad and wrong… but don’t his legs look fantastic in that cute little skirt?

I don’t really have a thing for the Capra Demon myself, to be honest, but as soon as I saw him I knew what was up. The Pride Month version of “this is for the gays” has become whatever sweet and wholesome child character is trending from whatever sweet and wholesome children’s cartoon is popular at the moment, but I don’t think that’s an accurate reflection of the reality of queer identity and sexuality. The Capra Demon is for the gays.

Ananth and the World of Demons

Most of my novel The Demon King is set in postapocalyptic New Jersey in an era far in the future, but the world before the apocalypse is my attempt at imagining a contemporary “low fantasy” society where magic is commonplace but not particularly fantastic. Almost anyone can perform magic, just as anyone can play an instrument or do math without a calculator, but most people either don’t care or don’t bother.

The difference is that being good at guitar or having the ability to solve equations in your head can’t directly hurt people or reshape reality. Kids therefore have magic classes in school from age nine to age fourteen; and, starting at around age ten, children attend magic academies for three or four weeks over the summer. Attendance at summer academies is mandatory during middle school and optional during high school. Some of these academies are private, while others are state sponsored. Most of the subsidized summer academies are hosted by local colleges and universities, while others are conducted at specialized institutions.

Magic classes and summer academies are ostensibly intended to train children and teenagers to use magic responsibly while helping them to develop their talents, but most kids take magic class about as seriously as they take art class – which is to say, not very seriously at all. The real purpose of magical education is to alert professional magic users called mages to children with unusual talents.

Most people don’t have much magical aptitude, but a small percentage of children demonstrate powerful magic from an early age. Performing magic is a complicated process that requires an external point of focus, meaning that it’s not something that can be done unconsciously or accidentally. Regardless, any type of magic can be dangerous if the user is powerful and untrained. Children with an unusually high level of magical ability are therefore singled out for extra attention and education.

Many magically talented children grow up to use their magic professionally. Almost all sports involve an element of magic, for example, so most athletes are skilled magic users. People who specialize in “shadow” magic, which involves manipulation of the perception of light, often go into the arts, while people who are skilled at “sun” magic, which involves the manipulation of organic matter at an elemental level, go into medicine. This doesn’t mean that magic is necessary to become an artist or a doctor, but rather that many professional fields accommodate magic.

Highly trained professionals called mages study magic for its own sake. Mages work (and often live) at the magic academies that run summer programs for children, and one of their primary duties is to monitor and police the use of magic. Although mages may be occasionally be affiliated with law enforcement, they mainly operate according to traditional codes of law that are international in scope. As a result, their activities may be extralegal at times. This is because magical threats are extremely dangerous, and it’s necessary to contain such threats as quickly as possible.

Thankfully, magical crises are highly uncommon, as sociopaths and gifted magic users are equally rare. Moreover, the vast majority of potential problems are neutralized at the summer academies, which serve as an opportunity for mages to keep watch for antisocial behavior and dangerous magical talents.

Each of the permanent academies that train mages houses an “elemental keystone,” which is a physical object that functions as a magical battery. A keystone can be anything, but it’s often symbolic and generally small enough to be held in one hand. These keystones contain traces of the power of every mage who has studied at the academy, and they distribute magical energy to the academy’s infrastructure while serving as a repository of tradition and knowledge.

The process used to transfer individual magical power into and away from the keystone can also be weaponized to permanently drain someone’s magical ability. Although this happens only in the most extraordinary of circumstances, the complete absorption of someone’s magic into a keystone can be used as a punishment or a preemptive measure. In most cases, the person is unharmed; while in others, the process renders them physically and psychologically inhuman.

The victims of such tragedies are called “demons,” and their existence is unknown to everyone but the most advanced of mages. The process that creates demons is horrible and inhumane, but the alternative of giving free rein to dangerous magic users is unthinkable.

In order to prevent keystones from being easily accessible, they are hidden within labyrinths that can’t be navigated by anyone who isn’t a mage-level specialist in the particular type of magic contained within the keystone. Human interactions with these keystones are therefore infrequent. Some cultures view them as sacred objects, while the more secular view is that prolonged contact with keystones is demonstrably unhealthy. Starting in the late nineteenth century, there’s been a halting but gradually growing movement to do away with them altogether. Nuclear power is a useful but imperfect analogy, as keystones remain the only way to neutralize dangerous magical abilities.

Like any other magically enchanted object, keystones gradually lose their charge if not maintained. There is nevertheless a covert and illegal trade in keystones, which are perceived as art objects of historical and archaeological significance even if they no longer contain magical power. By the twenty-first century, fully active keystones have become extremely rare, so much so that most people consider accounts of their power to be mere legends.

The apocalypse was triggered by a young researcher at an East Coast R&D branch of a large and wealthy tech company. The researcher and her team had access to multiple keystones in close proximity to each other, a situation that never would have been possible without the company’s extraordinary wealth, prestige, and power. To make matters worse, this researcher was working outside of the academy system with no oversight by more mages who possessed a better understanding of how keystone magic works and what makes it so dangerous.

In the process of triggering the apocalypse, the researcher managed to absorb a portion of the magical energy of the disaster into a new keystone, which happened to be the closest thing she had at hand – her smartphone. After decades of postapocalyptic turmoil, this smartphone-turned-keystone eventually became the magical relic that powers the water purification facility hidden in the mountains separating the kingdom of Whitespire from the ocean, whose water has become toxic to humans. The relic’s existence is a secret guarded by the royal family of Whitespire and the esoteric order of monks who serve them, as its destruction would mean the certain demise of the kingdom.

Ananth, the eponymous “demon king,” comes from the world before the apocalypse. His parents are both specialists in sun magic; but, instead of being able to manipulate matter at a quantum level, he can manipulate time. Suspecting that his magic is highly illegal and would result in his detention at a magic academy if its nature became known, he presented himself as completely unable to use magic for most of his life. When the apocalypse happened, however, the benefits of time travel suddenly outweighed its risks.

As well as going back in time, Ananth is able to jump forward into the future. There are a number of limitations and caveats to what his magic can achieve, however; and, on top of that, he’s a normal person with no magical training. Through extensive trial and error, he’s realized that his best bet for preventing the apocalypse is to steal the keystone from Whitespire and return to the past with it, where he could hopefully use its power to cancel out the initial magical chain reaction.

When The Demon King opens, Ananth has been time traveling for years, but he hasn’t gotten anywhere. He’s seen the apocalypse happen countless times and been unable to stop it, and he’s seen countless people killed in countless wars as he watched civilization re-establish itself. He’s almost been killed countless times himself. He’s gotten older, and he’s tired. Despite himself, he’s managed to become friends with Ceres, the reigning queen of Whitespire, and he finds himself increasingly involved with the people who live in her era.

Ananth is therefore faced with a terrible choice. Is it worth saving his world if he has to destroy another world in the process? More importantly, if Ananth can’t save the world, who’s going to save him?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This illustration of Ananth was created by the legendary Sam Beck, who writes and draws a fascinating and nuanced comic about lost magic and renegade wizards called Verse, which you can check out (here). Sam goes by @sambeckdraws on Twitter and on Instagram, and you can see more of her professional comic and illustration work on her portfolio site (here).

Ceres and the Poison Sea

I just finished Chapter 10 of The Demon King, an original fantasy novel about adult wizards making terrible decisions. This chapter is an extended flashback to the time before the apocalypse that created the world of the story. Although I’m still brainstorming the details of this disaster in terms of the universe’s magical system, what essentially happened is that a frustrated researcher with a wealth of funding but no oversight managed to create the equivalent of a miniature sun that exploded into a supernova before collapsing into a black hole. This set off a chain reaction that rapidly accelerated climate change, which in turn significantly raised the sea level and irradiated the ocean.  

The researcher’s tech firm was located in New York. Because of the disaster, the city no longer exists, nor does anything east of Newark Bay and the Arthur Kill Straight. In order to prevent the decimation of the entire Mid-Atlantic region, mages pushed the landmass of Manhattan Island and Staten Island westward to create a mountain range protecting the mainland from the toxic ocean and its storms. This mountain range also serves as a water filtration system that feeds a system of freshwater lakes and rivers to its immediate west, which has become a kingdom known as Whitespire.

Geographically speaking, Whitespire is somewhere in the vicinity of Elizabeth Seaport in New Jersey. Although a great deal of I-95 is underwater, Route 1 still functions as a major trade route, and Whitespire is about halfway between the Northern Kingdoms (Hartford, Springfield, and a bit of Rhode Island) and the Southern Territories (Baltimore and Washington DC). Because of changing climate patterns, everywhere north of Albany and south of Richmond is uninhabitable, as is the land west of the Appalachian Mountains. Meanwhile, most of New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania is a wasteland where water is scare and nothing grows.

The Northern Kingdoms are governed by draconian regimes that are constantly at war with one another, while the Southern Territories are lawless and threatened by the steadily rising ocean. Whitespire is the only real civilization left on the East Coast of North America, which has been isolated from the rest of the world by the impossibility of travel by sea or air. The citystate thrives because of its mild climate, access to plentiful fresh water, and relative distance from other centers of power.

Whitespire is ruled by a royal family whose primary duty is to ensure that the system filtering the seawater through the mountains continues to function properly. The bloodline of the royal family is not strictly hereditary, as anyone able to command the necessary magic may be adopted into royal line. Generally speaking, however, knowledge of the kingdom’s secrets and rituals are passed from parent to child. The queens and kings of Whitespire are supported by a religious order dedicated to preserving the magic necessary to protect the kingdom.

Under the stewardship of its royal family, Whitespire has been peaceful for several hundred years, but this doesn’t mean the monarchs have absolute authority. Political power is shared between the noble lines that maintain the rivers and lakes that spread from the Whitespire Castle, and there are occasional disputes over succession, taxes, and territory rights.

Ceres is the current reigning queen of Whitespire. For reasons known only to herself, Ceres’s mother resolved disputes among Whitespire’s aristocracy through strategic assassinations, which eventually resulted in her murder. As a result, Ceres ascended the throne during a political crisis when she was nineteen. She is a supremely competent ruler, but her reign has been marred by lingering political tensions. She navigates this challenge by presenting a wise and virtuous image of herself in public but being crafty and merciless behind closed doors.

Ceres was born to be a queen, and she plays her role with style and grace. Her only concern is that she is entirely ignorant of the vast majority of Whitespire’s deep magic, as her mother never shared the kingdom’s lore with her. To make matters worse, the former queen killed many of the people who were close to her, along with the entire order of priestesses dedicated to the worship of a deity called The Weaver, who supposedly established Whitespire by wresting the primordial world from the control of demons.

Although the truth is more complicated, “demons” are believed to be powerful monsters whose magic can’t be controlled and can thus only exist in a state of madness and chaos. Demons are real; and the eponymous “demon king” Ananth, who has traveled centuries into the future from a time that he considers be the pre-apocalyptic present, is one of them.

Ceres is primarily a foil to Ananth during the first two narrative arcs, but I plan for her to become the main viewpoint character during the third and final part of the story. She befriends Ananth mainly for political reasons as she attempts to prevent a coup organized by operatives from the Northern Territories, but her real interest in him comes from his openly stated intention to steal the hidden relic that’s the key to the magic of the royal family. Ceres needs this relic just as much as Ananth does, so she aids his plans with the hope that he’ll find it for her. As someone who possess powerful magic of her own, Ceres has full confidence that she can fight and kill Ananth if necessary, so she’s completely unbothered by his antagonism toward her.

Ananth doesn’t treat Ceres like a queen, so she returns the favor by not treating him as a demon capable of destroying her kingdom whenever the mood strikes him. As a result, they gradually form an unlikely friendship that gives Ceres a stage to be her best and most authentic self, namely, a strong and self-assured woman who loves drinking and dick jokes. It goes without saying that she’s a joy to write.

The illustration above was created by Doc Hollibee, who is on Twitter (here) and Tumblr (here). Doc drew me a picture of Princess Zelda with a sword (here), and I loved it so much that I asked her to draw Ceres with the same energy. Doc creates marvelous illustrations that depict the women of the Final Fantasy games as beautiful but still powerful and full of personality, and I’m thrilled and delighted to see the same artistic sensibility applied to my own original character.

The Demon King Reboot

Around this time last year, I finished an original fantasy novella called The Demon King. I serialized it on AO3, posting each chapter as I wrote it with a minimum of editing. This year I’ve been slowly editing the story into a legitimate novel. The process has been a lot of fun, but I’ve had to make some major changes.

I originally planned to serialize The Demon King in five arcs. The outline of the story was structured for each arc to focus on one character while providing the reader with one major revelation. I wanted there to be something resembling a punchline at the end of every scene, so I wrote the story as a comedy centered on character interactions. In other words, I saw The Demon King as something like an ongoing prose webcomic illuminated with occasional illustrations. AO3 isn’t a good platform for a project like this, however, and it was impossible to build an audience. I therefore closed the story at the end of the first arc.

In the original version of the story, I deliberately left room for the plot to spool out across later installments. In order to write a proper novel, however, I need to make the structure more streamlined and compact.

My strategy has been to simplify the plot in order to focus on the most important themes and character development arcs. The easiest way to go about this has been to remove half of the cast from the story. This was relatively painless, as I’m sure these characters will return in another project.

Another efficient way to simplify the story has been to make certain aspects of the plot clear from the beginning. A major component of this was to drop the conceit of the main characters going by multiple names. In the first draft, the eponymous demon king called himself “Balthazar” because he thought it sounded like a wizard name, and the characters closely associated with Balthazar humored him by using wizard names of their own. I decided to cut the plot points relevant to Balthazar using a fake name; so, in the current draft of the story, he goes by his real name, Ananth.

Ananth uses time magic, which needs to be clear from the beginning. The extent of the time travel will only be revealed gradually, but it will make my job infinitely easier if the reader sees Ananth using time magic in the very first chapter. Not only does this explain a number of aspects of his character that would otherwise be needlessly mysterious, but it also creates a compelling sense of mystery by providing opportunities for the reader to understand that Ananth is in fact very bad at using magic. Given that his only real talent is a basic ability to manipulate time, how did he become so powerful? Where (or when) did he come from, and what are his intentions?

While Ananth’s character has changed significantly, his foil Ceres hasn’t changed much at all. Ceres is her real name, and she’s not hiding anything by being catty and manipulative; that’s just her personality. The one significant edit I made is that Ceres is no longer a princess, but a queen. Then again, this isn’t much more than a matter of using the “find and replace” function to switch a few words, as Ceres was always a queen in my heart.

In any case, I’ve succeeded in compacting the story outline from fifty chapters into a solid thirty, and I’ve managed to finish the first ten. I enjoyed serializing fanfic novels on AO3 because of the constant stream of positive feedback and encouragement, so the major challenge of writing an original novel has been working in relative isolation. It was difficult to get started on revising this project, and it’s been slow going. Still, now that I know the shape of the story, I have a better sense of working toward an achievable goal.

The illustration above is by @Lunie_junk on Twitter, who also shares her work on DeviantArt (here) and on her Patreon page (here). I love Lunie’s Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy art, and I’m a huge fan of her soft pastel style and colorful fantasy illustrations. She takes character commissions on a regular basis, and I recommend checking her out on her Carrd page (here) if you’re interested. I adore the story illustration Lunie created for me, and I really enjoyed working with her!

Plant Space

No one in this house is “productive.” 🌿

Inspired by my annual reading of Sarah Ahmed, I drew this as a reminder to myself that there’s room for stillness and silence in the ongoing resistance against systems that seek to exploit our energy and labor. It ended up becoming an unintentional self-portrait. I was thinking, “What sort of person would live in a house like this,” and then I realized, “Oh right, I do.”

A lot of my plants have been all across the United States as I moved from apartment to apartment while chasing jobs in a market that depends on people like me, by which I mean young(ish) people who are willing to cut their connections and uproot their entire lives in order to have a small chance at getting their foot in the door of an unnecessarily competitive industry. Academia especially is built on exploited and largely uncompensated labor, and there’s so much survivor bias that not even the people who have experienced and suffered from this precarity acknowledge how harmful it is to everyone involved.

It’s wild how the vast majority of critiques of capitalism are contained within the logic of capitalism. Capitalism is all about doing things and being productive; and, in exactly the same way, most critiques of capitalism are about doing things and being productive. To give a classic example, Marx says that workers need to utilize the “muscle power” and “vital force” that have been harnessed by capitalism and redirect their energy and labor to overthrow the system. I would argue that not doing things and not being productive is an equally valid means of resisting capitalism. Sarah Ahmed, who has just as fraught of a relationship with academia as I do, has argued the same thing: Don’t allow yourself to become a tool in the hands of people who are intent on breaking you.

After being destroyed by a “dream job” that I almost had to kill myself to stay on top of, I made a firm decision to take it easy and chill out for a bit. Part of this decision is deprogramming my instinct to be “productive,” but a lot of it is simply taking the time to be quiet and listen while creating the space to appreciate the sort of time-consuming writing, scholarship, and art that’s been marginalized and pushed aside by the constant demand for new content. Like my plants, I’m going to sit still and soak in the sun.

………also, I needed an “author photo” for my summer project, a zine about Gothic botanical horror. 💀🌱

A Public Service

Queens don’t have to do paperwork. 👑

It’s been a while, but I’m back to work on The Demon King, an original fantasy story about tired adults doing their best. I wrote a stand-alone novella last year, and I’m currently expanding it into a proper novel. I drew the thumbnails for a few comic scripts back when I first started playing with ideas, and I recently decided to ink and color a few of them just for fun. This one is loosely based on a study of a panel in Tess Stone’s Not Drunk Enough, a stylish horror comic with a target audience of me specifically.

The Magic of Fiction

I thought long and hard (so to speak) about the title of the book the Demon King is reading, but everything I came up with was awful. I decided to give up after “Dragon with a Hard-on” and just leave it up to the reader’s imagination.

This comic is written by me and drawn by Frankiesbugs, whose art is sometimes cute, sometimes creepy, and always stylish. You can follow them on Instagram, on Twitter, and on Tumblr for more comics, demons, and attractive people in fancy dress behaving badly.

The Shadows of Hyrule

Honey, everyone has a murder dungeon in Kakariko Village.

The joke is that, while the “evil” Yiga Clan is characterized as violent and bloodthirsty in Breath of the Wild, the “good” Sheikah Clan is canonically just as disturbing. They’re all magical ninja assassins. What do you expect?

These two characters are Sooga and Impa from the Breath of the Wild AU melee fighting game Age of Calamity, and this is fan art of the four-part Sooga/Impa fancomic Shadow Folk by Frankiesbugs on Tumblr. You can read Shadow Folk on Tumblr starting (here), or you can donate 1€ to download a PDF version (here). I have to admit that I never considered any sort of relationship between Impa and Sooga until I read this comic, but the art is stylish and beautiful and the story is a lot of fun.

On the Internet, No One Knows You’re (Not) Kris

I recently participated in the annual Yuletide fic exchange for small fandoms. More than a thousand people contribute their work to this exchange, in which each participant is anonymously matched with someone who requests a story for one of the fandoms they’ve offered to write for. The person with whom I was matched asked for fic about Deltarune, and they requested “existential horror about free will and the ethics of a player guiding characters with self-awareness.” I’m always up for existential horror, and the recipient’s description of how they view the player-character Kris really vibed with me: “A Weird Kid who’s kinda lonely but not quite knowing how to make friends/not liking many of their options in town before the game starts.”

This prompt inspired me to write a story called “On the Internet No One Knows You’re (Not) Kris,” which is an exploration of Kris’s character within a narrative meta-analysis of the game. You can find it on AO3 (here).

The person who requested the story confessed that they’ve spent countless hours diving down the rabbit hole of Deltarune theories, so I took a plunge into the internet theory maze as well. The game subtly implies that Kris isn’t in full control of their body or personality, and that what’s manipulating them is their SOUL, the red heart that represents them during battle sequences. Many Deltarune theories try to answer the question of who (or what) is controlling Kris’s SOUL. There’s also the issue of what connection Deltarune might have to Undertale, as the two games share the same metaphysics and many of the same characters.

This ended up being my favorite Deltarune theory:
https://theamazingsallyhogan.tumblr.com/post/663249972697907200/great-big-massive-spoilers-under-the-cut-part-1

What this theory posits is that Kris has made a devil’s bargain with their SOUL, exchanging their free will for the power to rescue a childhood friend who mysteriously vanished a few years before the game begins. Although this theory doesn’t explain everything that’s going on in Deltarune – which, after all, has only released its first two chapters – the essay shines light on the characters’ backstory, which is only very briefly alluded to in the game itself.

This theory led me to create an illustration (here) based on the scene from Howl’s Moving Castle in which Howl makes a pact with the fallen star Calcifer, and I drew the comic above about how the ostensible villain of the second chapter of Deltarune might have a radically different view of the concept of free will. I also created an animated illustration (here) of the secondary villain Spamton, but I ultimately decided not to include it with the story. Spamton is bizarrely beloved in a certain corner of Deltarune fandom, but I think it’s probably safe to say that he’s an acquired taste. Still, I had a lot of fun writing Spamton’s dialog in my story. Despite spending far too long on the Deltarune wiki, I regret nothing.