(Fiction) Tilting the Rings True

Despite that many of them were schooled as Masons, a secret society steeped in the occult, the Founding Fathers envisioned an unspoiled continent, freed of old encumbrances—not just taxes but the arcane and complex practices that had for centuries determined the fate of nations. They deliberately enacted their rebellion without first seeking the advice of The Masters, of whom the Masons were vassals. Since they hadn’t asked, neither had they been expressly refused. When, against everyone’s expectations, the American Revolution was successful, the question naturally arose: what was to be done?

But the High Arcane were not autocrats. Except for the handful of matters where they took direct interest, their influence was intentionally oblique. They fancied themselves kingmakers rather than administrators and left the running of things to the men known to common history. As far as they were concerned, changes in government were inevitable, even healthy, and they neither desired nor sought ratifying power. The issue had merely been one of respect, and here the Founders were shrewd. No sooner had fighting ceased than a secret delegation was dispatched, independent of Congress, to offer the continent to the High Arcane for one purpose only. For centuries, they had been endeavoring to discover and seal the portals and doorways that dotted the earth, particularly at the intersection of its natural ley lines. It had been understood since the discovery of the New World that the continents of North and South America would eventually need to brought under this enterprise, although no one had contemplated how. Certain influential Americans vowed to support the project in return for assurances that the new government of the colonies would be left to run its own affairs. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 was orchestrated toward this aim, and Lewis and Clark, with the help of a native shamaness, made the first serious attempt to map the ley lines of North America.

Under the terms of the understanding, which was never committed to paper, the United States could not rely on The Masters or their agents for support in matters arcane, which left the fledgling country with a unique problem: how to police members of its growing magical community, many of whom had not emigrated to escape persecution but justice. Catching them was difficult enough. Holding them proved almost impossible.

A crisis was reached in 1804 when, after one such failed apprehension, the city of Detroit was burned to the ground. A secret meeting was called, unbeknownst to then-President Jefferson, and proposals were solicited for a final solution. It would be a full two years before a winner was selected and another three before the necessary funds were raised, for in typical American fashion, the structure to be built was unlike anything that had been attempted before. Not just a prison. A prison to end all prisons. Rather than a tower, which stretched the energies necessary to defend it, the centerpiece of the winning proposal by architect Jeremiah Everly and magus Zachary Xavier Thorne was a star fort, then a common method of military fortification. Originally designed to repel magical attack—by turning a castle into a giant binding hexagram—star forts were also effective against cannon shot until improvements in smelting technology produced the fragmenting shell. Everly and Thorne took those same advancements and turned them inward, to keep people in rather than out.

A remote island was selected in the bayous of Louisiana, far removed from any magical influence, and in the spring of 1809, ground was finally broken. Construction was beset by delays and took a further eight years. When the doors were opened in 1817, it was without ceremony, for by then, the project had taken the lives of twelve men, including the founders. Mr. Thorne died in a smelting accident. A casing exploded and plated the man from head to toe in 100% sterling silver. Two years later, the brooding Mr. Everly succumbed to melancholia when bog water inexplicably flooded the foundation for the third time. In honor of the men, the project once destined to be called Black Water Penal Colony, in an attempt to scare people away, was instead humbly ordained Everly-Thorne Penitentiary. But no one ever called it that, and 44 years later, at the outset of the Civil War, when management of the facility was transferred to a private consortium under the direction of The Masters, its true name was officially recognized—Everthorn Prison.

By then, the Founding Fathers’ dream of a continent free of the influence of old world magic had already begun to wane. The native shamans had resisted—sometimes violently—the sealing of the doors and portals through which they summoned their ancestors and healing spirits, and despite that the American ruling elite had no material interest in The Masters’ long-term enterprise, it chose to ally against the shamans. Advisers close to President Andrew Jackson secured his approval to invite members of the High Arcane’s secret apparatus—agents and provocateurs—to help break the shamanic resistance in the West in return for certain concessions, and slowly but surely over the next hundred years, The Masters reasserted their influence over the whole of the Americas.

The first concession granted was use of the remote star fort on a small island in the bayou, which over the subsequent decades became home to countless madmen, magicians, illusionists, warlocks, and witches from all over the world. The reason they came, some from as far as Tibet, was the same reason they never left. Everly and Thorne’s ingenious design included a pair of massive enchanted boundaries: the Rings True. The outer boundary, made of pure silver, was only seven centimeters thick but ran nearly three miles in circumference. Cast in one single piece—the largest casting in history—it took four years to produce and required new smelting techniques and several dozen attempts before a single flawless ring was produced without joints or welds. The inner barrier, made predominantly of iron, also required novel technologies. The iron was poured around a core of pure selenium, a metal previously known only to the alchemists. This second ring was smaller than the first but also much thicker such that it used the same total volume of metal and resonance was achieved between the rings, amplifying their power.

Being magical boundaries, one could not simply step over them, at least not without consequences. To reach the hexagonal fort at the center, or to escape it, the Rings True had to be pivoted—up in the case of the outer ring, down in the case of the inner. Even though, to preserve the barrier, only one ring was ever tilted at a time, the energy required to lift it, plus its brick encasement, had necessitated the construction of another novelty, a massive geared dynamo called the Prime Mover, which was half-buried between the two rings and thus protected from attack on both sides. The gear box for the Mover, the two-story volcanic obsidian hemisphere that encased the device, was bounded on the interior by a black salt moat such that no spirits could be sent to interfere with its workings and so facilitate an escape for anyone inside. Thus the prison was a universe to itself, hermetically sealed. Indeed, from the air, it resembled a solar diagram, or perhaps the atomic structure of hydrogen, with a black moon orbiting at a distance from a white six-pointed sun.

The cost and complexity of the construction meant that nothing like it was ever attempted again. Not that there was ever a need. In two hundred years of use, the inmates took control of the fort on three occasions, once for a period of 17 weeks, but not one ever escaped.

Not a single one.

background material from my forthcoming five-course occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS, which may or may not make it into the book.

cover image by Jose Luis Lopez Galvan