(Fiction) To End All Prisons

Despite that many of them were Freemasons, 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 Freemasons were vassals. Since they hadn’t asked, neither had they been expressly refused. Thus, 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, even though they sometimes acted it. 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 formal ratifying power. At the same time, enterprises that threatened to upset the balance were always likely to bring their scrutiny, and so, if only from mere prudence, it was always better to seek their consultation in advance, where possible.

Here the Founders were shrewd. No sooner had fighting ceased than a secret delegation was dispatched. The Freemasons knew that The Masters had been pursuing their own grand enterprise for centuries, that 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, whereby dark forces enter our plane. 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 that enterprise, although given their size and antiquity, no one had yet 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 Masters agreed, the first such scheme to be formalized in writing. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 was orchestrated expressly for this purpose, 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 kept the United States formally separate from The Masters’ regime—whence came the Freemason’s motto, which predicted a “new world order”—the fledgling nation also couldn’t request support in matters arcane, which left America with a unique problem: how to police members of its growing magical community, many of whom had emigrated not 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 by 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, submitted 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. Everly and Thorne’s genius was to invert the hex, to turn the binding inward, to keep people in rather than keep them 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, including the War of 1812, and took a further thirteen years. When the doors were finally opened in 1822, it was without ceremony, for by then, the project had taken the lives of three women and thirty-seven men, including the founders. Mr. Thorne died in a smelting accident. A casing exploded and plated the man from head to toe in sterling silver. Two years later, the brooding Mr. Everly succumbed to melancholia when bog water inexplicably flooded the foundation for the third time and he threw himself in. In honor of the men, the project once destined to be called Black Water Penal Colony was instead humbly ordained Everly-Thorne Penitentiary. But it was a hulking place, remote and dire, and none of the inmates ever called it that, nor too the guards and wardens who lived in the fort for months at a time. Forty 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.

It was the Civil War that ended the Founding Fathers’ dream of a continent free of the influence of old world magic. From the beginning, 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 out of expediency. 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 additional concessions that kept a permanent arcane presence on the continent. The bulk of the New World’s magic users had settled in the south, for various reasons, and after the outbreak of civil war, the largely industrial Union found it had no adequate response to the Confederacy’s occult army. Lincoln’s government had no choice but to scrap the document of understanding and ask for aid, and slowly but surely over the next hundred years, The Masters asserted their influence over the whole of the Americas.

The first concession requested by the Old World powers 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 human 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, 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.

To reach the hexagonal fort at the center, or to escape it, the Rings True had to be pivoted—down in the case of the outer ring, up in the case of the inner. To preserve a continuous barrier, only one ring was tilted at a time. The energy required to move each ring, 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, making the prison 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 between two rings, 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. Nor was 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.

rough cut from the fifth and final course of my full-course occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS. Part One is available now. The epic urban fantasy concludes next year with Part Two.