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?
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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).