Magic, Crime, and Punishment Part Three: Fit to be Tried



 Fit to be Tried

"Pardon my saying so, Majesty… but there appears to be a distinct lack of prisoners in your cell."

-- Poplock Duckweed in Phoenix Rising


     Okay, now let's say you managed to catch (rather than kill in a desperate battle) that criminal. What do you do with him? If the fantasy world has an advanced judgment system, you'll have to give him a trial. If not, you may have to bring him in for execution, or put him in a dungeon until the King or Tribunal or whatever decides his punishment, but in any case, you've got to keep him where you want him.


     Here on Earth, a nice solid cell with bars will hold pretty much anyone, no matter how strong or powerful. Without outside aid, putting a person in ordinary clothes and stripping them of their possessions will render them essentially helpless to escape. Yes, there are occasional escapes but most of them required outside aid, and the few others usually get recaptured – and locked in another similar cell – shortly thereafter. The vast majority of prisoners can't escape, and if they did, they have no chance of remaining free.


     Well, our criminal Magalath is stated to be a master of summoning and symbolic magic. Summoning magic usually requires some sort of medium to summon something through… but not always. It's not at all difficult for a summoner to basically arrange for an elemental or other spirit or being to be summoned to them under some particular circumstances – speaking a particular word, for instance. Symbolic magic is even more of a challenge; a mage who can make his, her, or its power manifest in symbols can draw the symbols in their own blood (or other less pleasant products of the body) or even in some cases in the air itself.


     In addition, our friend Magalath is far from the most difficult target to hold. Some mages, and some other intelligent creatures, have inherent magic that's almost impossible to remove, and powerful enough to not just break out through the walls, but to take down an entire city block WITH their escape attempt; the most obvious of these creatures would be a true Dragon, who start at the size of large dinosaurs and are armored like literal tanks, and go up in power from there.


     It's clear that a simple jail cell can't reasonably be expected to hold someone with such powers; moreover, given the way the world works, there's much more incentive for someone to escape as there's always somewhere for them to go, rather than escaping into a world where the simple act of looking for a job could easily end with you back in handcuffs. Most fantasy worlds – and my own Zarathan is no exception – don't have the equivalent of extensive databases to search for employment and criminal history, so a person who's escaped from prison could easily go to another town where they're not known and start a new life, assuming they didn't have more grandiose plans.


This is partly due to the size and diversity of the population; on Earth we're used to major countries having hundreds of millions of people (and some now into the billions). For this reason it's become almost imperative that we be able to track people in large and small groups. On Zarathan, a few million is a large population for a country, and the extended, fragile nature of "countries" make it very difficult to keep track of them all. Even if you were to attempt to do so, there are many individuals and organizations, and even gods, who don't want to be "pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered!", and are quite capable of messing up your attempts to do so.


Communications is of course another key area. Today, if a major criminal escapes from prison, the news is transmitted to the police immediately, and if appropriate will be sent to local news outlets. By the time most escapees are a hundred yards from their prison, the good guys will already be throwing a net around their position. More, if the escapee manages to elude immediate pursuit and get to a distant city, the cops there will still have the info on him; if he tries to get a job, there's a good chance someone will ask the wrong question and he's off and running again.


On many fantasy worlds, communication is mostly by the speed of horseback, or at best limited to a small number of high-speed channels with significant limitations. For instance, Tolkien's Palantiri allowed people to see and communicate over any distance like a super-videophone/spycam combo,but there were only seven of them even in their heyday, and by the time of Lord of the Rings the Big Bad has got hold of one and any attempt to use another will basically put your brain online with Sauron. There are very, very few people who can do that and keep themselves intact.


Even on Zarathan, there are limited communications channels. Dedicated teleportation matrices, like the one used by Tobimar, Poplock, and Xavier to go from the Dragon's Palace to one of the Twin Cities, are one way of getting news fast, but as mentioned before teleportation has its limits.


In one of the deleted chapters I posted recently, it's mentioned that there used to be more reliable long-range communications; it was also shown that one way to sometimes get around that is to summon or otherwise control a fast-moving messenger and hope it doesn't get shot down or otherwise stopped. This is the more mystical version of carrier pigeons, subject to similar limitations.


Taken all together, this means that a prisoner escaping has an excellent chance of getting away if the alarm isn't sounded immediately, and may easily outrun news of his escape – possibly even outrun knowledge of his incarceration entirely.


Thus, magical security must be capable of negating virtually any powers. At the same time, making a facility capable of holding such beings is clearly not a simple one. In point of fact, only large cities are likely to have the people and resources to construct a prison capable of holding high-powered beings on Zarathan.


Assuming you've solved the problem of holding them, there's the issue of trials – do you have them, what are they like, and how do you run them?


In many fantasy worlds, trials aren't really like those held in the United States or many other countries; they may be basically dragging the accused in front of the King, Emperor, whatever, and that one person will decide what to do with him.


On Zarathan, it's not quite that simple; what happens to a captured criminal depends on where they are. The procedure in the State of the Dragon King is rather different from what you could expect in the Empire of the Mountain or in Evanwyl or Aegeia. It is of course common for major criminals – murderers and such – to end up committing "suicide by cop" or, more precisely, "suicide by Hero", but sometimes they are captured. In Zarathanton, they may well be captured by one of the Adjudicators; these are given the power to be judge, jury, and if necessary executioner, but depending on the crime may refer the problem to a trial which is at least superficially similar to the general outline we know here on Earth. In neither case is torture used; there are better ways to extract truth, and those who administer the laws are expected to exemplify them, not skirt them for their own purposes.


Many of the limitations in the broader world don't hold in a trial which will almost certainly be presided over by one of the holy orders of good and justice. While there are often restrictions on the direct intervention of the gods in the wider world (as discussed earlier, and as made clear in Phoenix Rising), in a formal trial held in a temple and/or presided over by a representative of one of the gods, it's a much different situation. There the god or gods will almost certainly provide direct oversight into the honesty of witnesses and the veracity of the evidence presented. Even other gods are unlikely to interfere in these proceedings; if the plot of another deity was involved in the crime, well, the god won't be on trial and will simply have to accept this defeat when and if their involvement comes to light.


It should be noted that this doesn't mean that the gods themselves can always walk away scott-free; just that most people will never see exactly how the gods settle these differences. And if a given god or gods cause enough trouble in the "mortal" realm, they may well be reminded, to their great sorrow, that some mortals are more than capable of playing on their level… or that there IS a limit to the tolerance of the other gods.


Most crimes in the State of the Dragon King are fairly straightforward; the State has relatively few laws and they're applied in a common-sense manner (enforced/overseen by the Dragon Gods, which allows a very loose system like that to work) and thus breaking these laws tends to be pretty straightforward and obvious. Where reparations can be made, the sentencing of a criminal tends to favor reparations; as noted multiple times with respect to Kyri and Myrionar, justice and even mercy are preferred over vengeance.


Imprisonment for a long term is much more problematic than temporary holding. Incarceration is, therefore, one of the least-used punishments. Execution is used, but it is very much restricted to those who have committed horrendous crimes. In some cases, the jurisdiction may be in question; a traveller from Dalthunia or the Empire of the Mountain may quite justifiably argue that the State of the Dragon King has no authority to imprison or try them. The upshot is that the more powerful and devious the criminal, the more likely that they will end up free and wandering the world again, unless executed.


Thus, once more, the need for the Adventurer types. If you really can't hold these types of people, you either need to kill them, or at the least have someone around who makes them think twice about bothering you. Wandering heroes make things just generally uncomfortable for bad guys, and the advantage of all these powers is that the good guys can be very much loaded for bear and able to match even the powerful villains.


     As a writer, of course, this is extremely convenient because I can then center the action around such people and have it make sense that they are, in fact, the center of the action!


     Of course, in a metaphysical sense, this is also justified; the actions and choices of heroes are symbolic in a mystical universe, and symbolism is powerful in and of itself. Jason Wood uses this in "Shadow of Fear" to deal with something otherwise out of his ability to control. Crime, in a mystical universe, should be dealt with more by individuals on the side of the light, simply because that is the way that has more resonance with the spirit; not a dry and mechanical maneuvering of legal principles, but a confrontation of right and wrong, of good and evil. This is the true foundation of the way things work in many fantasy realms… and is certainly the truest foundation of mine.





Your comments or questions welcomed!