A Slow, Flickering Flame
rating: +23+x

International Center for the Study of Unified Thaumatology: Three Portlands Campus
April 17th, 2012

Beatrice Ross let out a slow, controlled breath. She stood center stage within the Evocation Hall, a target dummy a good fifty feet away. She could feel the eyes of her classmates upon her as she prepared her mind for the casting.

"Alright, Bea." Robin Thorne stood behind her, overseeing the practice session. This was their final semester as Dr. Vogel's TA, and they were pulling out the stops to ensure they left everyone on a good final footing. "Whatever you want to cast. Just knock down the target, and minimalize the backlash."

Thorne then stepped off the stage

"Containment ring intact. Show us what you got, Bea."

Beatrice nodded. She let out another breath, closed her eyes, and began the evocation. Sparks leapt from her right index and middle finger as she pointed them, like a gun, at the target. As she squeezed her thumb down, a thin bolt of lightning launched out. With a deafening crackle, it struck the target's torso and sent it airborne, sparking and aflame. It hit the containment field with a loud, hollow smack, then slid to the stage below.

"Hell yeah, Bea!" Angela's voice called from the audience. A small round of applause erupted from the remainder in attendance. Beatrice grinned from ear to ear. This was the first time she had successfully cast something so powerful.

Her concentration then turned inward as the mechanisms of the universe began to swing into motion. Spontaneously summoning one of the most powerful effects of the natural world was not without its cost. The numerous thaumatological laws kicked into action and brought balance back to the world.

Beatrice's focus remained inward. She began to shiver, the heat from her body sapping away as the thaumatologic backlash ran its course, stopping when it had extracted its toll. She chuckled as she could see her breath.

"Well, hey, that's impressive," Thorne said, hopping back onto the stage and handing Beatrice her jacket to warm herself. "Most people on their first couple of castings just send the backlash into the wild and let others deal with the consequences. Looks like you've already got a solid handle on internalizing it. Well done."

"Th-th-thanks, R-r-obin," Beatrice managed to get out between clattering teeth.

"Just remember, you can't cast too many times in a row if you're going to hang your hat on that technique," Thorne continued. "You'll give yourself frostbite or worse."

Beatrice nodded in understanding. She zipped up the jacket and rubbed her hands together, heading to the edge of the stage. For the first time since failing her Conjuration final, she was proud of herself.


Three Portlands
September 24th, 2023

Often when visitors thought of Three Portlands, they pictured a sprawling cityscape, radiating outward into infinity. A hyperbole of counter culture and beyond-the-veil elements coalesced into an urban jungle that would make most mundane hipsters sell their vinyl collections for a chance to live there. This ultimately was the influence of Portland, Oregon, and that city's dominance in the noosphere over its counterparts in the UK and Maine. Still, there was no shortage of ways the latter two Portlands exerted their presence. From the famous Three Portlands lighthouses to the random bursts of sea air, to the occasional patches of lush deciduous forest breaking the monotony of concrete and pavement, the rural Portlands refused to be silenced by the monolith of their more famous descendent.

The largest and most expansive of these little forests was a place colloquially known as Autumn Hill: a deep, dark, and thick wood so named for being permanently trapped in the fall foliage of the Northeastern United States. It was here, on the edge of the wood's main path, that Agent Beatrice Ross of the Foundation and Agent Robin Thorne of the UIU found themselves.

"Fitting," Ross sighed. "She literally lives in eternal Halloween."

Thorne shrugged, disturbing a small bird on their shoulder. Shortly after they had arrived in Three Portlands, an albino robin had appeared by Thorne's side and remained there since. Occasionally, its form would briefly flicker out, indicating that it was at least partially spectral.

"I mean, I couldn't say I wouldn't have done the same," Thorne commented. "Certainly fits the aesthetic. I've also been told Necromancy is particularly strong here. Please don't pick a fight with her. This… this isn't the first time the UIU has put her through this song and dance."

Ross rolled her eyes.

"Familiar?" she then asked, pointing at the bird. "What's its name?"

"I never gave it one," Thorne said with a smirk, and gently placed the creature in their jacket pocket. Occasionally its head would pop out, and stare at Ross with unblinking curiosity. "Spencer started calling it 'Crowe' a while back, which I guess is good enough. Comes in handy in a pinch."

"Original," Ross commented and began down the path. Thorne trailed close behind.

Within half an hour, they had arrived at a clearing opening onto a small stone cottage overlooking a crumbling cemetery, the dates on the tombstones having long been eroded by Three Portlands constant rain. At the clearing's entrance was a sign:

Dr. Annebelle Lee, Ph.D.
Necromantic Solutions and Castings

"NEVERMORE!"

A skeletal raven landed on the sign. Red pinpoints of light in place of eyes glared down at the two agents as it curiously tilted its head and let out another screech. Crowe flew out of Thorne's pocket and landed beside the undead creature on the sign. For several moments the two merely stared each other down, but eventually, the raven let out a third cry, then flew towards the cottage. Within moments, a dark-skinned woman in a flowing purple dress emerged. A smug smile came to her lips as she recognized her guests, and beckoned them closer.

"Thank you, Edgar," the woman said softly, the undead bird landing on her shoulder before returning its unblinking gaze to the two agents. The two approached, Crowe returning to its perch in Thorne's jacket pocket. "It's good to see you again, Beatrice. That nervous blond man you were with last time we met, is he still alive? I thought his lifeline felt faint when we parted ways."

Ross could feel Thorne's gaze bore into the back of her head.

"Creed is alive and well, yes," she answered. "You have a lovely home, Annabelle."

"Worth a pretty penny to acquire, but I am a sucker for atmosphere." The necromancer grinned sheepishly. "I have to say, I didn't expect the UIU's own Robin Thorne to pay a visit. What brings you two out to Autumn Hill?"

"We needed your expertise," Thorne replied and handed their former classmate a folder. The smile quickly vanished from Annabelle's face.

"Oh," she said, flipping between images of shrunken necrotic corpses. "Oh no."

"Someone has been murdering members of the ICSUT Evocation Class of 2014," Ross explained. "Each one was found like this. What can you tell us?"

"Well, their souls were extracted from their bodies," Annabelle said. "Goddess, this is awful."

"Any idea as to why?" Ross continued to press.

"Any number of reasons ranging from spell component collection to straight-up murder." Annabelle returned the photos to Thorne. "The fact that these are all thaumaturge souls could mean something of ritual significance, maybe? That said, ripping out a soul from someone's body is a pretty effective way of killing them. Do these people have anything else in common other than being classmates at ICSUT?"

"Not that we are currently aware of," Thorne replied. "Does casting this kind of spell need any kind of specific components itself? We might be able to track them through business records at suppliers in the city."

"I can think of a couple." Annabelle nodded and began to head back towards her dwelling. "But I have a sinking feeling that whoever is causing your little murder spree here didn't have the common courtesy to leave you a convenient paper trail. Wait here. I'll create a component list for you."

"Would it be possible for us to have a look inside?" Ross asked.

Annabelle stopped midstride and looked over her shoulder.

"Am I a suspect, Beatrice?" she asked.

Ross said nothing.

"Am. I. A. Suspect?" Annabelle repeated.

"We haven't excluded you quite ye-"

"And do you have a warrant?"

"We do not," Thorne replied.

"Well then." Annabelle turned back to her guests. The whites of her eyes vanished into inky darkness as the temperature throughout the clearing plummeted. "Let me make something perfectly clear to you two. The nature of my work is incredibly sensitive to my clients and highly personal. I will not jeopardize that on a whim. I'm sick of you people constantly acting like being a necromancer somehow automatically makes you a murderer. Your welcome is worn out. I think it will be best if you two took your leave."

Humanoid silhouettes rose from the graves. Obsidian black bits of bone would emerge from the haze and quickly dart back into the shadow as distant whispering became audible. They started to close in on the agents. Thorne held their hands up and took a step back.

"Okay, okay," they said. "We're going. Please call off your wraiths."

The figures stopped and waited. Ross and Thorne quickly headed toward the exit of the clearing. Upon their stepping back on the path, the temperature returned to its prior level. Annabelle's eyes, while no longer monochrome, now flashed indignation as she returned to her cottage.

"Well, that could have gone better," Ross mumbled, her eyes still on the graveyard.

"What part?" Thorne replied flatly. "The fact that we aren't better off than where we started, or the fact that you tried to rifle through a necromancer's house and almost got us attacked by wraiths?"

Thorne sighed and began to walk away.

"I should have left you back in Portland."

"You wanted to do the same thing," Ross said defensively. "Don't bullshit me."

"Of course I did!" Thorne snapped back. "But I haven't lived on the other side of the Veil long enough to completely forget the kind of tact you ne-"

"NEVERMORE!"

The skeletal raven interrupted Thorne's rant. It had once more landed on the signpost, but this time carried a small slip of paper in its beak, dropping it into Ross's hand as the evoker approached.

"NEVERMORE!"

It let out one more cry and flew back to its master's domain. Ross began to read the contents of the note and smiled.

"Component list," she said. "That could have gone a lot worse too."

Thorne shook their head and sighed. The two began to make their way back along the wooded path.

"We're not done talking about you bringing Creed here, by the way."

***

It started raining at sunset, drenching the streets of Three Portlands in a new coat of moisture. Thorne and Ross took shelter at a diner near Autumn Hill, the two looking over a pocket map of the city as they worked out their next move. Partway through the session, Thorne's phone went off, the agent excusing themself from the table as they stepped away to take the call.

Ross sighed as she stared at the map. So much had changed in the city since she left for baseline reality, and little was where she had last left it. Despite what she told Creed and the rest of Tau-51, she truly did miss Three Portlands. One by one her eyes glanced over her former haunts, memories of her ICSUT classmates flooding back as nostalgia took hold-

"They just found Daxton in his apartment downtown." There was a grim expression on Thorne's face. They were already packing up and signaling for the check. "Same song and dance as the others. No sign of struggle. No forced entry. Spencer is meeting me there. You, however, need to head back to baseline. Now. I'll reach out to you as soon as we can pick it back up discretely. There is a Way on my route. I'll walk you there."

Ross nodded in agreement and began to don her coat.

"Fair enough. Promise me you won't leave me out to dry on this?"

"You know I can't make that promise. But I'll do my best."

The two stepped out into the downpour and made their way through the emptying city streets. Minutes passed in silence.

"So, I know this isn't really the time or place," Ross finally said, "I've been meaning to ask, how do you guys get cell reception in here?"

"I have no idea," Thorne said with a shrug. They sidestepped by a small crowd of robed people. "It was something Prometheus set up back in the 90s that people kind of just rolled with-"

Ross looked over her shoulder. One member of the crowd, a black-cloaked figure, was still starring at them as they got further away. She looked back after another hundred meters and saw them again, now walking hastily in the same direction.

"- some company called Asterism Communication basically has a monopoly on the service now. Anderson and the Maxwellists are big investors too. I think-"

"Thorne, I think we have company," Ross interrupted. A dull whistle filled the air as a projectile collided with the back of Ross's right leg with a small thud. The agents looked down to see a small dart sticking out of her prosthetic.

"Fuck! Get down!"

Thorne pushed their comrade into a doorway where both agents drew their sidearms as they peered out into the street. They saw the cloaked figure closing in at a sprint, hands glowing with necrotic energy. Ross removed the dart from her leg, nodded to Thorne, took aim, and fired.

The necrotic energy on the figure's hands dissipated as a shimmering bubble sprang up around it, Ross's bullets shattering into dust upon contact. So Ross threw a bolt of lightning at them. Electricity slammed through the bubble with a crackling explosion and tossed the figure backward across the pavement. The figure crashed into a rack of bicycles with a heavy thud and went limp. The two agents emerged from their hiding spot, weapons drawn, and closed in on their would-be assailant.

"If they're still alive we'll need to keep them stable until EMTs arrive," Thorne stated. "You have some training in conjuration right?"

"If they're not dead now, that will definitely kill them," Ross replied flatly. "But I know some basics."

The figure shot back up with a blast of force from its hands that tossed them both aside. Both agents fired back on reflex, but their bullets bounced harmlessly off while the two of them went sprawling. Ross picked herself up and saw the figure sprinting away, turning a corner and vanishing between the streetlights.

"Come on," Ross mumbled, getting back to her feet and hobbling after the figure. "They're getting away!"

"They won't get far." Thorne stood up and pulled Crowe from their coat pocket and tossing the beast into the air. They closed their eyes in concentration while it vanished into the rain. A grin slowly crept over their face.

"They're heading toward Kempton Park," they said. "Let's go!"

The two agents took off at a sprint into the rain. Overhead, thunder began to clap. In the distance, the dark twisted pines of one of the city's largest and most heavily forested parks loomed overhead.


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