Moving Pictures

Thorne held their breath as the lava started to break apart again, offering a clear line of sight on the anartist. 'And by the way, it's Agent Thorne.' They raised the gun and fired.

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March 22nd, 2017

There is a burning cold that lurks beyond reality. An encompassing void that devours the real and unreal alike, giving birth to the surreal. It is a realm of unbound concepts, devoid of mind to conceive them or matter to contain them. It is, in the most absolute sense, eternity.

It is through this vast fullness that the Ways travel, flickering threads of reality crisscrossing the void to connect the disparate pocket universes that compose the multiverse. In a sea of abstractness, they form concrete ties that bind the worlds together.

Kenneth Spencer was no stranger to Ways. He'd felt the cold of the Outside before, and it hadn't fazed him. But the Way he traveled now was a far cry from the familiar Ways of Three Portlands, which were made strong and steadfast against the void by decades of use. This Way was barely more than a sliver, a tattered tunnel that could barely hold back the encroaching emptiness. Spencer could feel the endless cold grasping for his soul, and he shivered.

The moment lasted less than an instant before he was dumped out of the Way and onto the smooth marble floor of another place.

He picked himself up off his knees and slowly scanned the room, which he immediately realized was an art gallery. The walls were covered in paintings, each one demonstrating a different mix of impossible colors. Infrablack and deep white, true stygians, dichromes, and dozens of others that defied description. It was an astonishing display of anart. There were many curators in Three Portlands who would likely — and quite literally — kill to have even a fraction of the collection.

However, what Spencer didn't see — and which was quite conspicuous by its absence — was either of the two agents who had entered the Way with him.

He tried his earpiece, but got only static. Whatever had separated them had also taken out their comms.

Cursing under his breath, he picked a direction at random and started walking. It was just about the worst possible strategy when lost in an unknown pocket dimension, but he didn't have any other options. If he wanted to get out of here, he needed to find Thorne and Green — at the very least, he needed to find Thorne. And he needed to do it before Dustin got the drop on any of them.

Agent Green rolled as he exited the Way, coming up into a kneeling position on his uninjured leg. The stun gun which had been his only permitted weapon in Backdoor SoHo was held firmly with both hands, sweeping back and forth for hostiles.

When nothing immediately attempted to kill him, Green lowered the stun gun slightly and allowed his attention to focus on the statues that filled the room. He couldn't see anything overtly anomalous about them, but there was still something off-putting that he couldn't quite place.

Rising to his feet, he cautiously approached the nearest statue — a piece of marble carved in the representation of something with too many tentacles and far too many eyes. As he did so, something moved in his peripheral vision. He swiveled to look at it, but saw nothing but statues, all of which were still in their same places.

Frowning, he squinted at the statue directly across the room from him. Even though it was facing forwards, the eyes were turned away from him. As were the eyes on the one next to it. And the one next to that.

Green turned back to look at the nearest statue again, and just caught a glimpse of its marble eyes turning to look the other way.

He laughed. "Clever."

Shaking his head in bemusement, Green leaned his back against the wall between two of the statues and shoved the stun gun back into his holster. Then — pausing to look up and scan the room occasionally — he removed his wristwatch and began disassembling it.

The UIU's jurisdiction was accepted in Backdoor SoHo, largely out of convenience. Someone had to do basic policing, and nobody particularly trusted the city's anartists to do it. The Foundation, on the other hand, was barred from the pocket dimension — legally by the Hoover Mandate, and physically by the Doorman. It had taken significant negotiation on the part of Thorne before Charlie had agreed to let Green enter the city, on the condition that he only carried a stun gun.

Green had agreed to these terms immediately, and had broken them almost as quickly.

He laid the pieces of his watch out on the ground, revealing that it contained a large number of very unwatchlike components. Components like a telescoping magnetic accelerator.

It took him the work of only a minute to reassemble the pieces into a small but functional coilgun. He pulled out his carton of cigarettes and removed the last one, unwrapping the paper to reveal that it wasn't a cigarette at all, but rather a carefully disguised flechette, which he loaded into the accelerator tube. He would only get one shot with it, but that wasn't an issue. It was a weapon intended for killing reality benders and wizards; if he missed the first shot, he probably wouldn't get a second one anyways.

Green hefted the tiny gun in his hand and set off deeper into the museum. He was going to find Dustin, and when he did, he wouldn't miss.

Robin Thorne stepped out of the Way and found themself in a darkened atrium. The only source of light was a large amorphous glob of what appeared to be molten lava floating in the center of the room.

Thorne put a hand into their jacket and slid one of the defensive charms within over their wrist. With the other hand they drew their gun. Keeping the weapon pointed at the ground, they cautiously approached the floating lava.

As they approached, the glob of molten rock broke apart, sending several glowing blobs drifting upwards. Thorne watched as they bounced off the ceiling and started to descend again, only to be reabsorbed into the central mass.

"It's a lava lamp," someone said.

Startled, Thorne raised their gun to point at the source of the voice and spotted Sierra Dustin standing on the opposite side of the lava. Gossamer strands of liquid rock partially obscured the view, but they easily recognized the anartist.

"I picked it up from an exhibition in Reykjavik," Sierra said. She started walking around the lava, but Thorne matched her movements, keeping the molten rock between them. "The Foundation were going to destroy it, so I took the liberty of liberating it from their custody."

Thorne remembered something that Green had said earlier. Last time this happened, it was a duck sculpture in Reykjavík.

"Is that why you planted the duck bomb? So you could steal some artwork?"

"Well, yes," she said. "What, did you think I was doing it for fun?" She stared at Thorne for a moment, watching their face for a reaction. "You did, didn't you. That's so fucking typical of you Suits."

Thorne kept their gun pointed at the anartist as they continued walking, but the lava blocked any clear shots. "So that's it? You go around putting lives in jeopardy, all so you can add to your personal museum?"

Sierra pursed her lips and clicked her tongue disapprovingly. "You make it sound so gauche that way. Tell me, do you realize what this place is?"

"Poorly lit?"

She smiled and spread her arms, gesturing at the works of art scattered around the atrium. "Miss Thorne, this is the single largest collection of illegal art outside the Library. And not just anart — politically motivated works outlawed by repressive regimes, grossly offensive pieces banned under obscenity laws, blasphemous and heretical religious iconography — anything you jackbooted thugs and your ilk seek to suppress. You name it, it's here. I rescue these works from destruction because they're the works that most need preserving."

Thorne lowered the gun slightly and stopped walking. "What about Three Ports?"

The anartist stopped and tilted her head in confusion. "What about it?"

"Why plant the memetic bomb there? What were you planning to steal?"

Sierra gave a cheshire grin. "Tell me, do you know what the nearest Foundation site to Three Portlands is?"

Thorne looked at her cautiously. "Do you?"

"Oh, fine, don't play along," she said, frowning petulantly. "We both know it's 64. Which just so happens to be the largest Foundation anart repository in the Western hemisphere."

Thorne stared at her in disbelief. "Holy shit. You really are crazy if you think you could have pulled off a heist from a Foundation site."

She shrugged. "Maybe. But I bet with all their task forces occupied containing the situation in Three Portlands, I would have had a decent shot at it. Sadly, Miss Thorne, because of you and your partner, we'll never know." The artist raised her hands, clearly preparing to cast an evocation or perform an exploit.

"I hope you aren't expecting an apology." Thorne held their breath as the lava started to break apart again, offering a clear line of sight on the anartist. "And by the way, it's Agent Thorne."

They raised the gun and fired.

Spencer had been walking for several minutes now — following the right-hand rule the whole time — and he was starting to suspect that the museum might be non-Euclidean. Usually, taking four right turns would bring you back to somewhere you'd already been, and he'd managed to take seven right turns so far without revisiting any rooms.

His suspicions were confirmed when he turned right for the eighth time, entering yet another new room full of unfamiliar displays, and noticed Agent Green walking along the ceiling — which was actually the floor of another gallery.

He waved at the Foundation agent. "Hey skipper, what are you doing on the ceiling?"

Green looked up and frowned. "God dammit, I hate unusual topographies."

"That makes two of us then," Spencer said. "You haven't seen Thorne anywhere, have you?"

Green shook his head. "Nope, just you so far. This place is huge."

"Yeah, well, hopefully that means Dustin's having as hard a time finding them as we are." Spencer took his eyes off Green and started scanning the room for a way to get up to the other agent.

"Thorne's a wizard though, surely they can handle her."

"Maybe. But Dustin has home field advantage, and Thorne's no combat thaumaturge. I'd rather not chance it." Spencer spotted a hyperspatial statue that seemed particularly suitable for climbing and started walking towards it.

"Maybe we should split up then to increase our odds of finding them."

Spencer shook his head and started climbing up the side of the statue. "No way. With the way this place is laid out, that will just make it harder for us to find each other again. And personally, I'd rather not risk running into a crazy anart witch by myself."

He pulled himself up onto the flat top of the statue and gauged the remaining distance. If the gravity changed directions in the exact middle of the room, then he could probably get past the switching point by making a running leap.

Green watched his progress skeptically. "Are you really going to try to jump that?"

Spencer looked back up at him and shrugged. "Do you have any better ideas?"

Green sighed and shook his head. "Just try not to break your neck."

"Will do." And with that, he leapt off the edge of the statue and threw himself at the ground above.

Fortunately, he had judged things just right. As he neared the top of his jump, he felt the gravity suddenly invert and begin pulling him down towards what had been the ceiling. Tucking his head in, he angled his shoulder forwards and landed with a roll.

Pulling himself to his feet, he winced and started rubbing his shoulder. "I think I sprained something doing that."

"You did just fall ten feet," Green said unsympathetically. "Maybe try landing on your head next time, it might knock some sense into you."

Spencer opened his mouth to retort, but was interrupted by the sound of gunshots from elsewhere in the museum.

Green swiveled to look towards the source of the noise. "Sounds like your partner found trouble."

"Or trouble found them," Spencer said. He started running as more gunshots echoed down the halls. "Come on, this way!"

The bullet stopped midair in front of Sierra and stayed there.

"Did you really—"

Thorne pulled the trigger again, and kept firing until the magazine was empty.

Sierra stared at them scornfully through the cloud of bullets now floating in front of her. "Really?"

Thorne ejected the magazine and started backpedaling away from the anartist. "I figured it was worth a shot."

Sierra waved her hand lazily, causing the bullet cloud to rearrange itself into a helix spiraling around her. Slowly, she started walking towards Thorne.

"You know, you really surprised me when you showed up in the Backdoor looking for me. I figured you must have been using some high-class thaumaturgy to find me there, and I didn't want to risk a duel out in the open. If I'd known you were just a featherweight sorcerer with a gun, I wouldn't have bothered coming here."

She flicked a finger, sending one of the bullets whizzing towards Thorne, but the defensive charm on their wrist glowed brightly as it intercepted the projectile and absorbed its speed. The lump of lead bounced harmlessly off their suit and landed on the marble with a clink.

"Still think I'm a featherweight?" Thorne asked, moving to place one of the displays between themself and Sierra as they reloaded their gun.

"I'm not impressed by your enchanted baubles, if that's what you're asking." She flicked her finger again, sending another bullet towards Thorne, which shattered the glass display case they were hiding behind before being stopped by their defensive ward. "Although I must admit that I'm quite curious how you managed to find me in the first place. Obviously it wasn't thaumaturgy, unless you found a better wizard to help you."

"It would hardly take a wizard to find you," Thorne said, retreating behind a stone column. They reached into their pocket and slid on another warding charm. The first one could probably hold out indefinitely if Sierra continued flicking bullets at them one at a time, but if she launched them all at once, the accumulated kinetic energy would make the charm glow hot enough to burn Thorne's wrist. Adding another charm just provided another sink for the absorbed energy.

"Is that so?" The dancing helix of bullets came to a stop as Sierra paused her assault, curiosity getting the better of her.

"Yeah, it is." Thorne took the momentary reprieve to eject the unfired bullet they had just chambered, catching it out of the air with their left hand. "You know those flickering messages you kept leaving as a calling card? Well, we did a little chemical analysis of the paints you used, identified the supplier as Iris Arts. The Foundation hadn't been able to do that before we got involved. Iris only operates in areas under the Hoover Mandate, so the Foundation didn't have any composition samples from them."

Sierra frowned. "Iris has thousands of customers. You couldn't possibly have identified me based on that alone."

"You're right," Thorne said. They closed their eyes and focused on the bullet they were holding while they continued talking. "We talked to an anart expert too. Quinton Wright, you've probably heard of him, he's a pretty big name in Three Ports critique circles. He knows the styles of just about every anartist worth knowing. Another lead the Foundation wouldn't have been able to follow without our help."

"And what did Quinton tell you?" Sierra asked, an impatient tone tinging their voice.

Thorne needed to keep the anartist distracted a little bit longer so that they could finish their spell. "Wright gave us a list of anartists who used that kind of exploit in their signatures. And what would you know, when we cross-referenced the two lists, there you were. Sierra Dustin, small-time anartist with an outspoken hatred for the restrictions on public anart displays. Foundation scooped you up for questioning and a stern warning back in '07, and then you dropped off the map after that. Seemed like a pretty obvious suspect. After that, it was just a matter of canvassing past associates until one of them told us where you were."

Sierra had been listening intently this whole time, and nodded now in understanding. "I underestimated you Suits. If I'd known you were so resourceful, I would have been more careful in Portlands." The swarm of bullets began to rotate again as she prepared to resume her attack.

Thorne opened their eyes as they finally finished the spell. "You know what the hardest part was though?"

"What's that?"

"Stalling you long enough to do this," Thorne said, diving out of cover and unloading their gun in Sierra's direction.

The anartist didn't even blink as the bullets stopped mere inches in front of her. "Again? You disappoint me, Agent Thorne." She raised her hands to hurl the entire cloud back at Thorne.

Thorne grinned. "Actually, I was talking about this." They opened their clenched fist, releasing the single bullet they had ejected earlier. As it fell towards the ground, it emitted a soft blue glow.

The part affects the whole…

The magic bullet hit the floor and shattered.

The cloud of recently-fired bullets in front of Sierra exploded.

Spencer exited the hall onto the third-floor gallery overlooking the atrium, followed at a short distance by Agent Green. On the floor of the atrium below, Sierra and Thorne could be seen engaging in their duel. Neither one of them seemed to notice the two agents enter.

"Looks like Thorne's holding their own," Green said, crouching down behind the railing to avoid being seen by Dustin.

"For now," Spencer said. He crouched down next to Green. "We need to get down there and help."

"If it's all the same to you, I'd rather not get caught in the crossfire of a wizard duel."

Spencer frowned. "It doesn't look too bad."

There was the sound of gunshots from below, followed by an explosion.

Green looked at Spencer. "You were saying?"

"Okay, maybe you have a point." He peered over the railing to check on the duel. "Whatever just happened, Dustin's still standing. I can't see Thorne though… no, wait, I see them now."

"Well, as long as we're up here and unseen, why don't we just shoot the artist while we have the element of surprise?" Green gestured to his coilgun.

Spencer turned to look back at him. "Where did you get that?"

"Does it matter?"

Spencer opened his mouth to reply, thought better of it, and just shook his head. "I don't think it would work anyways. Dustin's got some kind of spiral of bullets circling her, probably from Thorne shooting at her. For all we know, our shots would get caught in it too."

Green peeked over the railing to see for himself. "Yeah, looks like you're right." He paused, studying the scene. "Aha, there! Notice how she keeps moving the fingers on her left hand? Same gesture repeating every five seconds. That's exploiting if I ever saw it."

There was a flash of light and sound from below, and for a moment Green thought he could taste the color blue.

They both looked down to see Thorne rapidly backpedaling from Sierra, who was attempting to hit them with blasts of magic. Thorne, for their part, was managing to deflect or divert the incoming energy, but wherever the blasts hit, ice quickly formed in a wide radius.

"There's no way Thorne can defend against something like that for long," Spencer said, concern creeping into his voice. "Whatever we're going to do, we need to do it now."

"We need to take out her hands first." Green said. "Stop her from using exploits so we can get a clear shot." He started looking around the gallery to see if there was anything that could help in that goal. His eyes alighted on a piece of anart — a globe made from sculpted water — on the other side of the room. "And I think I just found a way to do just that."

Thorne didn't wait for the explosion to dissipate before diving behind cover again. They had perhaps a few seconds before Sierra recovered and came after them again, and they needed to make it count.

"Is that the best you can do?" Sierra shouted, blinking rapidly to try and clear her vision. Her face and arms were covered with tiny scratches where fragments of bullet had hit her, but she was otherwise unharmed.

Thorne pulled the first aid kit out of their jacket and dumped the contents out on the ground. They grabbed the epipen and jammed it into their leg without hesitating.

What they were doing was dangerous in the extreme. Thaumaturgy requires energy like anything else, and for evocation that energy comes from the body's calorie reserves. It was why Thorne carried around energy bars, to use as a quick source of fuel for heavy-duty casting. But they didn't have time to eat right now. Instead, the rush of adrenaline from the epipen would boost their thaumaturgy for a time, but the energy it provided wasn't real — it only served to let them overdraft from their normal reserves. When the adrenaline wore off, there was a good chance they'd collapse outright.

Thorne shoved their hand back into their pocket one last time and slipped on their remaining defensive charms, then stood up and turned to face Sierra. If they were going to go down, they were going to go down fighting.

Calling up what power they could, and without even bothering to try to contain the backlash that would inevitably result, Thorne pointed a finger at Sierra and said a single word.


Flames sprang forth from their hand and rushed towards the anartist, intent on engulfing and consuming her. Backlash from the unconstrained working reverberated around the atrium, sparking and booming in an array of colors and sounds as reality itself shuddered under the force of Thorne's thaumaturgy. Three lemons materialized in the air behind Sierra, and then just as quickly vanished. Somewhere back on Earth, a vole gained the ability to understand Welsh.

Sierra raised her hand and caught the fireball in her palm.

"Strike three," she said, extinguishing the flames by clenching her fist. "You're out."

Thorne stared in disbelief as Sierra thrust her hand forwards, sending a bolt of pure magical energy directly towards them. They barely recovered in time to catch the energy on their wards, redirecting it harmlessly into the ground. Ice spread across the marble tile where the bolt struck.

"I'm going to turn you into an ice sculpture," the artist said, throwing another freezing blast at Thorne. "I'll put it up in the entrance hall, to remind me of the UIU pest who thought they could take on a real wizard."

She sped up her attacks, flinging blast after blast of magic at Thorne, driving them backwards and causing their defensive charms to glow furiously. It wouldn't be long before they started to overload.

One of the charms disintegrated, a minute flaw in its enchantments causing it to fail under the strain. The remaining charms burned red hot as they suddenly took up the extra load, causing Thorne to cry out in pain. They fell to their knees and scrabbled to remove the burning jewelry.

Sierra stepped forwards, a look of pure hate on her face and a ball of freezing magic conjured in each hand.

"End of the line, Agent." She raised her hands, preparing to cast the final spell.

A giant globe of water fell on her from above, freezing her hands solid as the liquid connected with the ice spells. The bullets that had still been orbiting her fell to the ground as the exploit that had been propelling them was cut off.

Sierra shrieked — either in pain or fury — and looked up to see Kenneth Spencer looking back down at her.

"You!" She shouted.

"Yes, me," he replied. "Green, now!"

Sierra started to turn to find who Spencer was talking to, but was stopped by a flechette slamming into her shoulder at supersonic velocity. Blood splattered across the floor and Sierra stumbled backwards, but managed to remain standing.

The artist lowered her hands, the ice around them shattering as she willed occult flames into existence. There was an inhuman rage in her eyes as she looked between Green and Spencer, trying to decide which one to smite first.

"It's over!" She shouted. "I'll kill you. I'll kill you both. I'll —"

Whatever she was about to say next was cut-off as her nervous system was overloaded by the occult equivalent of a million volts of electricity. She fell to the floor, instantly unconscious.

Thorne was kneeling some distance away, the anartist's blood smeared across their hands, which were trembling from thaumatic exhaustion. Staring at the defeated Dustin, they said a single word.


And then they collapsed too, the accumulated expense of their thaumaturgy finally claiming its toll.

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