Minneapolis Burns
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The first time Florence Elsinger used magic, she was fifteen.

She almost turned the Twin Cities into a pile of cinders.

She hadn't meant to. She had been hungry, alone, and on the verge of freezing to death in the Minnesota snows. So, in a flash of desperate, instinctive reflex, she had cried out for warmth. For anyone else, that cry would likely have gone unanswered — the universe is a cold and uncaring place, and the gods pay no heed to human prayers. Of course, most people aren't unwitting teenage wizards with more thaumic muscle than the battlemages of the last occult war. When she cried out for warmth, the universe heard her, and responded to her will.

It took almost a dozen fire engines and their crews working around the clock to contain the ensuing blaze, which ended up consuming half a city block in the Mill District. That none of the old flour mills had detonated in a spectacularly deadly dust explosion was something of a miracle, although it wasn't the only one that night. The spontaneous combustion of most of a city block was also a miracle.

There are people who make it their business to pay attention to miracles. Especially the unpleasant ones. Most of these people aren't very nice, but they're all extremely cunning. You have to be, to separate the real miracles from the mere coincidences. It didn't take long for them to track down the source of the blaze: a starving, shivering, and scared wizard, half dead from thaumic exhaustion. To a miracle-hunter, she was a potential weapon, defenseless and free for the taking — the kind of thing they killed people for.

Fortunately, the Lake Ghosts got to her first.

The remnants of the Chicago Spirit were criminals, but they weren't monsters. Organized crime entails structure, rules, a code of conduct, else it wouldn't be organized; for organized paracrime, these things are made essential by the strictures of the Veil and the threats of its keepers.

Of the people and people-adjacent things that could have found her, the Lake Ghosts represented the third or fourth best outcome for Florence. They had taken her in, giving her food, shelter, and even something like a family. All they asked in return was that she occasionally set something on fire.

Or someone.

The first time they asked Florence to kill a man, she was just sixteen years old.

Granted, he hadn't technically been a man, just a narco demon posing as one. The demon drug dealer — in the many senses of that phrase, including a dealer of drugs who was a demon, a dealer of drugs to demons, and a dealer of drugs made from demons — had paid a double insult to the Lake Ghosts, first by withholding their "licensing fee", and then by trying to deal on Block E, deep in Minneapolis, the heart of Ghosts territory. The Lake Ghosts might have only been a shadow of the old Chicago Spirit, but they weren't pushovers. They sent their newest enforcer to deal with the problem.

Florence had incinerated the demon, his merchandise, and the entire building he was hiding in, all with a single spell. In her defense, she hadn't meant to burn down the building, and no one would miss it anyways. Plus, nothing else on the block had caught fire, which was definitely an improvement.

By the time she was nineteen, Florence had burned down twelve more buildings (almost half of them intentionally), assassinated scores of demons, gangbangers, and demon gangbangers, and had honed her skill in combat thaumaturgy to a deadly, blazing inferno. Her talent was unrefined and her grasp of occult theory was non-existent, but she possessed enough raw power to punch a god in the face and make it wince. The Lake Ghosts had used her to eliminate any and all competition in the Midwest; then, after decades lying dormant, the Spirit of Chicago began to spread beyond the Great Lakes.

Florence was content, maybe for the first time in her life. She wasn't happy — it was hard to be happy living your life in fear of both fellow and rival gangsters, not to mention the cops and the normalcy orgs — and she definitely wasn't safe, but she had a purpose and people who cared about her. Admittedly, that purpose was to hunt down and incinerate uppity paracriminals, and those people only cared about her because of her utility as an enforcer, but it was still a pretty big step up from being an orphan living on the streets. Now she was an orphan living in the slums.

Naturally, that was when things fell apart.


November 10, 1985
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Florence had never experienced silence during a fight.

Guns are loud. Everyone knows that, and that knowledge makes everything else seem far quieter in comparison. But even in the absence of firearms, fights are noisy. Men and monsters alike all grunt, groan, and gurgle as they brawl, bleed, and die. Knives whistle when they cut through the air, clubs crunch when they break bones and shatter skulls, and fists thump and pound upon bruised flesh. Plasma projectors, in the rare conflicts where they appear, thunder like the fiercest lightning. Even Florence's flame evocations, magical manifestations of raw will, made sound — fire crackled and popped, metal and stone howled from thermal stress, and reality itself reverberated from the backlash.

So the sight of muzzle flashes — unmistakable after years of street fighting — accompanied by complete and total silence, left her unnerved.

She opened her mouth to say something, maybe to shout a warning, but no sound came out.

That was spooky.

Florence had one way of dealing with spooky.

She raised her arm above her head and pointed her index finger at the sky. She snarled a wordless evocation, and was relieved to see a brilliant burning flare spark from her finger and shoot into the air above the alleyway. She might not be able to hear it, but her spells were still working.

The flare flew up, casting the surrounding streets into a blood-red glow that would alert friends and enemies alike. It wasn't ideal, but at least she had raised the alarm.

She didn't know who had the audacity to strike at the heart of Lake Ghosts territory, or how they had managed to cloak the entire block in silence, but they were about to discover what happened to people who threatened the closest thing she'd ever had to friends.

She extended her left hand out in front of her, fingers splayed and palm face-up, and conjured a small inferno. She swept her arm through the air, trailing flames from her fingers as she spun in place until she was encircled by a wall of fire. Within seconds, the alley was filled with a miniature firestorm with her at its epicenter.

Then her inferno moved, stalking towards the source of the gun shots. Her flames lapped across the ground, hungrily snapping up any loose detritus and testing its flammability. Anything that didn't burn melted, and what didn't melt shattered from thermal shock.

It took only moments for the conflagration to reach the scene. The opening attack had cut down the Ghosts standing watch on sentry duty, and Florence found four men clad in all black tactical gear standing over the corpses. She was just in time to see one of them double tap Charlie McKenna with an assault rifle.

From within the hellish cyclone, there came a silent scream of rage.

The firestorm exploded, wicked flames lashing out in all directions with a single goal: revenge. The nearest attacker had just enough time to throw up an arm in front of his helmet visor before the inferno engulfed him. In that moment, Florence could see the emblem stitched in white upon his shoulder.

A circle, crossed by three inwards-pointing arrows.

The symbol was simple. Concise. Almost primitive.

It frightened her.

She kept the firestorm going, counting off the seconds by her heartbeat. After ten beats, she relaxed her will, allowing the flames to retreat back into her fiery cloak. The fire and the smoke cleared, giving her an unobstructed view of the alley.

At the edge of the street stood the four members of the black ops team. They hadn't moved during her assault, yet they were completely unscorched and unsinged.

That terrified her.

The halo of flames that surrounded her spun faster as she gathered her will for another attack. It had been her experience that everything was eventually flammable if you poured enough energy into it. She was about to test that theory once again when she was interrupted by a blast of pressure from behind. She stumbled slightly, then turned to glance back down the alley.

Four more black-clad operatives stood behind her, all of them holding what looked like rifles. Flames spewed forth from the weapons and streaked into the air above and beside her.

Not only were they fighting fire with fire, they had terrible aim. None of the gouts of flame came anywhere near her. She felt another pressure wave, and glanced back to the mouth of the alley to see the original four-man team doing the same thing.

So. They wanted to play it that way. She grinned wickedly, ready to unleash another wave of red-hot fury. The firestorm around her blazed brightly, responding to her will.

Then it flickered.

She blinked, surprised. She hadn't expended that much energy, had she? She snarled again, forcing her will into the flames. Her head ached, a side effect of all the magic she had been throwing around, but she ignored it. She had pushed herself a lot farther than this before.

The flames flared back up again, brighter this time, before faltering once more. Gaps appeared in the ring as the firestorm started to sputter. Her head throbbed, and she could feel her muscles screaming at her as if she had just run a marathon.

She shouted, wordless and silent, and poured every last bit of her remaining will into the spell. The firestorm surged back to life and lashed out at her attackers. She let out a crow of triumph, which quickly turned to a cry of dismay as the flames guttered out before crossing even half the distance.

Her entire being ached, body, mind, and soul. She felt herself gasping for breath and then start choking. Distantly, she was aware the she had fallen to her knees. As she stared up at the bars of flame that gushed forth from the flamethrowers to encage her, she realized what they had done.

All fire, even fire summoned by thaumaturgy, needs two things: fuel and oxygen. When battling forest fires, firefighters will sometimes start controlled burns ahead of the wildfire in order to cut off its fuel supply and starve it. For fire called forth by evocation, the fuel was supplied by her own raw willpower, which made it impossible to starve in such a way.

So they had cut off the oxygen.

Dimly, she noted that fires weren't the only thing that needed oxygen to survive.

If she hadn't been suffering from hypoxia, this might have even made her panic.

As she collapsed to the ground, the part of her mind that had finally made the connection screamed at her, trying to force her to gather up her will into one last spell. Fire wouldn't do anything, but if she could hit one of the men with a blast of raw force, it would disrupt the cage of flame and allow her to breathe.

It was a good plan. It might even have worked.

But it was also too late.

As her vision faded to black, she heard the flamethrowers belch and cease their bellowing. Whatever had been deadening the nearby sounds had finally stopped, although she wasn't cognizant enough to register this.

There was a sound of boots on concrete, steadily growing louder. Getting closer. She could feel the vibrations through the ground for a brief second before the sound stopped. It must have been really close. Almost on top of her, even.

As she took the time to slowly process this, the molasses trickle of her thoughts was interrupted by the touch of a gloved hand on her shoulder. The material felt soft and cool as it brushed against her bare skin, which was odd, since she was wearing a jacket.

The small part of her that was still awake and aware noted that her clothes must have been burned off in the firestorm. The rest of her oxygen-deprived brain found that hilarious for some reason, but she was too tired to laugh.

From far away and somewhere above her, she heard someone speak.

"Sherman One, this is Sherman Two. Target Atlanta has been disabled and we are prepping containment. Are we clear to proceed to Objective Savannah?"

Silence, and for a moment she thought that maybe the sound nullifier had returned.

"Copy that Sherman One, we'll neutralize the secondary targets. Over."

She felt the gloved hand again, and then something cold was placed against her face, covering her nose and mouth. She tried to struggle, but all she could manage was a weak twitch.

"Shhh. Easy kiddo. It's over now. Just breathe."

She sucked in a breath and felt cool air rush down her throat. There was a minty taste to it that wasn't unpleasant. She relaxed.

"There you go. You don't have to fight anymore. You can sleep now. That sounds nice, doesn't it? You must be so tired."

The voice was right, she was tired. She tried to nod, but her head wouldn't move.

"Go to sleep kiddo. You're safe now."

Safe. She hadn't been safe in a long time. It was nice to be safe.

"Sleep. You're safe. I've got you."

And that was the last thing she heard before the darkness closed in.

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