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A Hot Time In the Old Town [IC]

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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

3:30 PM


It was another hot summer in Freedom. The heat seemed to stretch on for endless days, wrapped in the general mugginess of New Jersey. Normally, that moisture wasn't a problem for Eliza Oxum - it helped when you could manipulate a cool mist out of a thick haze - but today, her attention wasn't quite on manipulating the weather to her personal comfort. There were other matters at play. 


As she sipped at her iced coffee and watched the world go by on the streets, she thought back to last night's conversation with Sharl. He was planning to pursue opportunities in Emerald City, out on the West Coast. The commute would be nothing, really, to somebody who could essentially e-mail himself across country... but it still meant he'd be devoting plenty of time to elsewhere. He would be back, of course, and could be back easily. But it was... this was one of those frustrating parts of being a superhero. Having a long-distance relationship that wasn't really long-distance. It was in that weird interstitial zone of coming back together easily, but knowing how far apart you were the rest of the time. This wasn't the first time it had happened, and she knew the territory. But it was still a hell of a thing to unknot.


The faint smell of smoke roused her from her distractions, as did the shouts of people. She got up from her table and ran down the block. She could see the source of the hubbub soon enough. An apartment building - five stories, it appeared - was on fire, smoke pouring out the windows and flames licking off the roof. Eliza ducked into the nearest alley she could find, willing water from the camelback and pulling her coat out from her duffel bag. 


The good thing about this city was, there was always some distraction waiting right around the corner. 

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Like most primal things, fire was terrible and beautiful all at once - an engine of creation and destruction, of healing and pain. For Deep Ones, blinded by the light and dried by the heat, fire was particularly a symbol of the raw power of unchecked chaos. When Sea Devil saw the building on fire, high on patrol in her armor, she headed straight for it. A fire like this, on such a perfectly beautiful day, with all the pain and horror that would go with it, managed to make what was already a horror into something even worse. She closed the vents and visor of her suit, to block the heat and light from the flame, and flew down alongside Temperance, a heroine she recognized from the DuTemps Building. "This is bad!" she bellowed, her voice a deep, mechanical base from inside her suit. "What do we do?!

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Temperance recognized the voice from within the suit - it was Aquaria, the Deep One who resided at the DuTemps Building. She'd heard through the grapevine that there had been an incident in space that had ended in Aquaria getting a suit of power armor; this was just her first time seeing it in action. She didn't know what she could do with it... but it was a giant hunk of armor that she assumed had some capacity for super-strength, so she was happy to have some help.


"The first thing we do," she said, "is make a hole, if need be." She wrapped her coat around her hand and reached for the doorknob. Hot. She pulled back before the fabric or her hand could get burned. "That is a definite 'need be.' Stand back." 


She could feel the fire hydrant across the street. It was at a 45 degree angle from the door... but that wasn't exactly an obstacle to her. With a wave of her hand, she - like many urban residents in summer times before - knocked the lid right off of the fire hydrant, sending water gushing into the street. In an instant, it formed up like a cable, coursing through the air, weaving around obstacles, and slamming into the door. The door was matchsticks soon after, and steam rose as water took out the flames in the hall. 


"Your suit is heat resistant, I take it?" Temperance called some of the water under her feet, forming it into an icy sledge. With some will, she lifted it into the air. "There may still be residents in the building. You take the lower floors, I'll take the upper floors. Once we're sure the building is clear, we can devote our full attention to putting out the fire." The sound of splitting timber filled the air; the fire sounded like it was eating through one of the floors. "Though, if that suit does have a suppression device, I would say target anything that threatens the structure."

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"Spirits of the waters!" bellowed Aquaria at Temperance, shocked into momentary silence by the shamaness's mighty powers over Water itself. Lacking the time for supplication, she went to work - bounding into the building on all fours, her quadrupedal posture spreading her weight out on the potentially damaged floor. She made her way down the hallways quickly, leaping and racing along far faster than a human could run, her green glowing suit shining brighter as it repelled the still-licking flames all around her. Aquaria didn't have the ability to suppress fire - in fact, she didn't even know what a suppression device was, but what she did have was a very loud voice and the ability to cut her way through any obstacle.


"Everyone out!" she bellowed in a bass boom that her suit's speakers amplified all the louder. "Everyone out, there are flames everywhere! If you can hear my voice, run on your arms and legs!" She kept ears and eyes open as she went, doing all she could to find any Surfacers (or anyone else, for that matter) still trapped inside the burning building.

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Temperance rushed the student out of the apartment on the top floor. A falling timber had wedged his bedroom door shut, but a rapid barrage of ice - which was still holding up in this heat, thank heavens for small miracles - turned both the beam and the door into matchsticks, clearing a path. She led him onto the ice sledge, still resting on the living room floor - Well, at least water damage is only the second worst thing to happen to that carpet - and took off, dashing through the window. She made sure he was strapped in tight; it was clear this was not a common mode of travel for him. Or, well, anyone. She doubled back around, scanning the windows for any survivors missed -- 


-- when she saw movement in the hallways. For a second, she thought it was the flickering of flames, but... no. It was much too substantial for that. She kept moving, trying to track it. It was like a blob of plasma, oozing across the hallway floor with calescent fury. She could see the wood catching fire under its bulk as it moved. 


An elemental? No. It wasn't pinging her spirit senses. Then what --


And that was when the floor gave out, and the thing went plummeting into the depths of the building.




The small, furry mammal was struggling in Sea Devil's arms, trying to gain some sort of purchase. Its claws were no match for the armor, however, though that didn't stop it from trying. As she tried to move to the exit, she heard the sound of splintering wood behind her. As she turned, she saw a great flaming mass, as if somebody had set a lump of ambergris on fire. The mass uncoiled, oozing upwards like lava from a deep volcano. It seemed to be readying to strike. 

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"Gods below!" croaked Sea Devil, cradling the creature in one arm even as her trident flared to life in her other hand. Surfacer pets were so foolish - Baxter would surely have run from such a fire rather than cling madly to a rescuer. She couldn't remember the name of this species, just that they were bad for eating. Feelings or not, she automatically defended the creature from the strangely crawling fire-thing. jabbing at it with her trident and hissing in warning the way she would at a particularly hungry-looking shark on a day that wasn't for mating. The green burning tips of the trident made contact with the thing's fiery flesh, leaving behind verdigris flames that crackled and sparkled inside the creature's own flesh. As she looked at the fire-thing, Aquaria remembered lessons learned long ago on the ocean floor, and things taught about the things that Surfacers did not know.


"Starspawn!" she suddenly croaked in Lemurian. "Why have you come here from the sky?" She wondered, worriedly, if it had come because of the armor she had stolen.  

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Temperance saw the fiery blob plummet through the floor to the ground below. She turned to her reluctant passenger. "Hold tight, and get off the second we touch the ground." She bolted down, pausing slightly so her passenger could disembark, then swept into the house, the sled already melting under her feet. Most of her standard combat tricks relied on ice, and while she could freeze in pretty tightly, she wasn't sure she'd have a snowball's chance in Hell - ha - against this thing if she used ice. But then, this was something she'd longed to try for a while...


The mass of water rose up, splitting off into tendrils and drawing particulate matter out of the air. It was based on a tool Temperance had seen on Wikipedia - the water cutter. The tendrils formed into streams, hitting the elemental with a force that, if sustained, could cut through concrete. But the fury of the waves seemed to just boil off of the thing's bulk.


As Temperance thought about redoubling efforts, she heard Sea Devil address the blob. "You know of it?" she asked. "What sort of thing is --" 


Before she could finish it, she heard the sound of splintering wood. The thing may not have moved or lashed out, but it was still solid, heavy, and made of fire. Which was a problem, when it was standing on a wooden floor...

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  • 3 weeks later...

Impulsively, Aquaria lashed out, impaling the star vampire through one flank with her glowing tridents. She didn't think she'd done any damage, but the creature was now stuck, impaled on her blades like a jellyfish on a fishing spear. Immediately she realized the error she'd made, however, when she felt the heat from the star vampire burning its way up her tridents. She didn't whimper - pain was no new thing to her, but she felt her throat bulge against the insides of her armor as she took stock of her situation. "Better strike soon - can't hold," she cautioned Temperance, even as a part of her kept wondering how this fantastic creature had come to be here so far from the star that was its natural home. 

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Temperance still had no idea what this blob of fire was, but her curiosity could move to the very end of the line. She called up the waters again, this time drawing from the very pipes of the building. Sinks and showers ran as hard as they could without bursting as the water rushed to her beck and call. Once more, it rained down on the burning thing like God's lawn sprinkler, causing vast gouts of steam to rise up from its flanks. Sea Devil managed to dance around the fog; to her eyes, the fire vampire seemed somewhat diminished, and was reeling from the sheer onslaught. But that didn't stop it from continuing to burn. As the floor started to give way beneath it, it seemed that Sea Devil's trident was the main thing keeping it from plummeting into the cellar. 


"It's reeling!" said Temperance. "All it might take is one big push..." 

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Sea Devil twirled her tridents and yanked them apart, scraping their sizzling tips against the ground with such force that she left deep gouges on the wood beneath. The starspawn made a sound that wasn't a shriek but was as it tore apart into two halves, the fragments themselves tumbling away into diminishing sparks. She took a moment to breathe, her tridents vanishing away to nothing with a slight vorp, and belatedly she remembered the building they were in. "The walls will fall! You'll drown!" she croaked at Temperance, tumbling over her English in her hurry. "We must go!" The creature she'd been rescuing had long since bolted from the burning building as she warred with the starspawn - so with a mighty leap of her powerful back legs, Aquaria propelled herself up through the hole the creature had made, and then out the window nearby!

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The second the burning thing vanished, the floor beneath it split and gave way; though the bulk was gone, the heat had done plenty of damage. Temperance glanced down for a second, and her breath caught - the hole would have put the thing right on top of the water heater. This place could have been torn apart...


Of course, that was still a possibility. She took a few seconds to process the use of "drown," then called up her sledge. I need to make sure...


She crafted her sledge out of the waters and soared up through the hole Sea Devil had made. She rode it like it was a flying carpet, banking hard around the building. It was still burning in places, but it was more smoldering. She heard the sirens in the distance - the FCFD were likely less than a minute out - but that might not be enough time for some people. After scanning the lower floors, she returned to the top floor, where she'd been interrupted by the elemental. There was only one apartment she hadn't checked...


The glass shattered easily - but there was no need for haste. The place looked like a bomb had gone off in the heart of it. The charred skeleton of a couch, a few fibers of carpet, and a slagged television were all that remained to show this had been a living room. And in the center of it lay a charred skeleton, its arms raised in a familiar stance...


Defensive wounds... against fire? She scanned the room - the smoke wasn't as thick here, almost as if the fire had left with the elemental. Something glinted in the thin light of day - a half-melted lump of bronze, right next to the dead man. Too large to be jewelry, and really the wrong shape to be a candlestick. She picked it up; by some fortune, it hadn't melted into the floor. The sirens were deafening outside. She tucked the bronze lump into her coat and flew down next to Sea Devil, just as the firemen were five blocks down.


"Everyone's out," she said to Sea Devil. "Everyone living, that is. One man dead upstairs; burned to death, awfully fast. Whoever called that elemental may have had a target..."

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"That was no elemental," croaked Aquaria. Her faceplate went translucent, revealing the amphibious face within, as she hopped from foot to foot in a dance too precise to be anything other than ritualistic. When she was done, she settled down on the ground nervously - arms folded before her, powerful back legs folded behind her, and inclined her big eyes towards the sky. "That was..." She croaked again, and admitted, "I do not know what the word is in your tongue. We would call it-" She made a noise like a croaking bellow. then went on, "the hatchlings of the stars. Their home is-" another booming croak, "the eye of the one below - whose name we do not speak. It is..." She looked up at the light-polluted sky overhead and pointed one long armored finger at a barely-visible star. "There! From there, when the one sees sin, fiery starspawn come bringing doooom!

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Great. It's one of those cases. Temperance hadn't had much chance to interact with Aquaria; she knew she came from something of an isolated religious community, but she didn't know said community had so many Things Whose Names One Dare Not Speak. She tried to parse it out -- the thing was an alien? Sent from a star god high in the sky? What was that star called again? Was it Betelgeuse, or...?


Focus. She tried to recall, remember things she might have heard from the Court of Embers. One term came to mind, one spoken with a sense of rivalry, if not loathing. One she couldn't actually believe she'd heard the first time...


"I think I know what you're talking about. A... fire vampire? I think that might be one translation." But judging by Aquaria's account, these things did not come down willy-nilly; they were sent. Or...


"Could one... call the attention of the one above?" She pulled the bronze lump out of her coat and handed it to Aquaria. "I found this upstairs. Next to the body. For all I know, it could be a melted golf trophy... or it could be a ritual implement. Is it --"


Her comments were drowned out as the ladder trucks pulled up in front of the apartment. The firefighters leapt out, swiftly cracking open the hydrants and screwing in the hoses. Soon, the building was drowning. A stout man in his early 50s emerged from the officer's truck, his salt-and-pepper high-and-tight paired with an imposing mustache. He called out orders to his men while striding towards Temperance and Aquaria. "I'm guessing you two were the first responders. Everyone out?"


"All the living. There's a dead man on the top floor, back rear corner. He may have been at the point of origin."


"Any idea what said origin might be?"


Temperance fell quiet, as if trying to think of a way to explain it to the officer that didn't sound like gibbering madness. 

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"We must act quickly," croaked Aquaria, moving to keep Temperance between her and the police officers. Eliza could see the peculiar way Aquaria hunched down at the sight of the police - and no wonder, given what she'd heard of the Deep One's past. Her voice was a low, guttural whisper behind the now-raised opaque face-shield of her armor. "A ssstarspawn might obey a Sssurfacer for an hour, or a day, or a week - but their minds cannot grasssp the true name of the one below. I will help you, Temperanccce. I know the true language of the ones that came before - and of the piping songs between the stars. It's beautiful out there.

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  • 2 weeks later...

O...kay. Temperance realized that Aquaria was a bit odd in some aspects, but it was a bit much to have her suddenly go into the religious spiel. Then again... from what she'd heard, a lot had happened to Aquaria in the course of her life. The armor was just one example of it. And could a girl who talked to invisible beings really pass that much judgment? 


She looked past Aquaria to the fire chief. "We think the fire may have been magical in nature. It seemed to act of its own accord, move like a living thing - and not just in the metaphorical sense. It had weight, it plummeted through the floor, and --"


The fire chief raised his hand. "Is the part of it that's... moving, at least out?"


"My associate took care of that, yes."


"God, I hate this voodoo crap," muttered the fire chief. He turned back to his men. "All right, folks! Let's get some men in there! Make sure there ain't any nasty surprises!"


Some of the men loaded up in coats and tanks, heading in to the building with fire axes. Others stayed behind, training their hoses on the last smoldering embers. Temperance turned back to Aquaria. "All right. I'm willing to hear the songs. May not be willing to dance to the beat, though. Where do we start?" 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Aquaria turned the bronze idol over and over in her armored hands, spreading her three-fingered hands across its surface. In a Deep One city, or even in her own tribe, it would have been a simple matter to spill blood for Dagon and Hydra so that They might show the way to the defiling Surfacers who had blasphemed against the star-things. But such things would be difficult here and would be alien, even frightening perhaps, for the Surfacer mystic. "We go to where you sing to your gods," she finally croaked, "and see if they know the path to the stars. If you will open the door, I will show you the Crooked Way.." 

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I have talked to insanity spirits that have sounded more cogent. 


That was an awful thing to think. Temperance knew it, and she kind of hated herself for it. But Aquaria was her best lead right now, and if she knew more about these matters, then she didn't really have many other places to turn. "All right," she said. "Where I sing to my gods..." Something came to mind, and it would be rather appropriate. "Would the coast or the riverbank work? I am attuned to the ways of spirits of the tides, and they are figures of esteem to me. The worship may be a bit different than your faith, but..." 


Temperance trailed off as her eyes fell on the firefighters. Two of them seemed to be hanging back, trading looks. She knew that look - the look of someone trying to not be suspicious. A third firefighter exited the building and gave them the slightest of nods. Once that happened, the two moved forward into the building. "Some of the firefighters seem a little hesitant to fight the fire. Once we sing to the gods, perhaps we should look into this ladder company..." 

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  • 2 weeks later...

The two women wound up under one of Freedom City's many cross-river bridges, Aquaria easily bounding her way up the side of the brick abutment and along the underlying steel girders. They were well out above the river by the time she stopped, forming herself into a strange, inhuman crouch with her bony knees up higher than her head. "Sing to the waters," she croaked to Temperance, "and I will sing to those who swim below." Aquaria was no shaman, to speak to the gods herself in words or song, but she knew Temperance was - and was confident that between the two of them, they could win an answer from Those Who Swam Below. Dagon and Hydra always answered the prayers of true believers. 

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Temperance nodded. In a city like Freedom, the best way to get the attention of water spirits was through ritual and offering. Namely, purification. She reached into her coat and pulled out an emergency travel water purification kit, the kind sold to campers and survivalists. She took some of the river water and ran it through the filtration kit, watching the runoff, silt, and other background filth of the city catch in the many sieves. As she did so, she chanted in the secret tongue of spirits - which in this case, was much like the breaking of waves. As she was about to finish the ritual, she recalled what kind of water elementals they would be summoning. She took a pinch of sea salt from a vial in her jacket and added it to the water. A little bit of the sea in the river. 


She squirted the water back into the river, the offering of purity complete. As she did, the water rose, coalescing into humanoid forms... at first. When Temperance typically associated with water elementals - well, ones that weren't her dad - they took on mercurial forms. As sylphs crafted themselves as beautiful, lithe youths of substantial air, so did undines typically paint themselves as watery, athletic T-1000s. 


Except for now. One of the elementals opened its head, which shifted from a more human design to some sort of angler of the depths, complete with alluring antenna that caught the sunlight and turned it into a spectrum. The other had an octopoid head, seemingly framed on top of a woman's body with a long skirt - until the skirt opened to reveal hooks set into its sides. 


Looks like Aquaria was able to phone home after all...

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The inhuman avatars floated in the air for a long, uncomfortable moment as Aquaria watched them expectantly. As she did so, Temperance had the distinct impression that they were being watched in return, an impression sharpened when two glowing golden forms appeared on either side of the water-things. The golden shapes, squiggly circles that at first glance were like a child's poorly colored-in drawing, but on closer inspection were in fact yellow signs of near-infinite complexity, were like angel wings for the two water-avatars - or perhaps like the eyes of gigantic anglerfishes appearing out of the brightness just above great fanged maws. Aquaria didn't seem afraid, instead she cast her eyes low and bared the back of her neck, signs of submission for these avatars of the true gods, like reflections of reflections in one of Jessie's mirrors. 


DEFILEMENT croaked one in a deep bass - joined by the other in tones so profoundly low they made the very air vibrate. DESTRUCTION. The eyes were now distinctly regarding Temperance. SACRIFICE. That tone was echoed by the other in a distinct sound of approval. SACRIFICE

"They are angry," croaked Aquaria. "Tell them you did not summon the eye!

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Yeah. This was definitely not her department. And likely up her pay grade. Temperance knew of the various water gods, the ones who exerted influence over the ebb and flow, the shifting of the tides, and even the occasional tidal wave. She had a feeling that whoever she spoke to was the kind of high-ranking officer that put their office in the basement but still had veto power over the higher operations. 


"I did not summon the eye of the one below," she said. "The ones who did either called something they did not understand, or used it as a murder weapon. It has already claimed someone --" 




Temperance paused for a second, before realizing the spirits were using the much older meaning of the word. "A sacrifice? Why? For some favor?"




Enticement? "What sort of..." it hit her. "You mean an appetizer?"


The spirits were silent, the concept not really translating all that well to ancient, seabound gods. 


"...sorry. So, this eye of the one below was invoked by its faithful. But who would that be? People who love fire, or --" 




Temperance groaned as the meaning hit her like a rock. "They were right there..." 

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"We will punish the Surfacers who have defied the one below and the one above," croaked Aquaria, still nearly prostrate before the avatars of her gods with considerably more venom than Temperance had usually heard from the Deep One. If anything, the bass reverb in her voice sounded like the tones she remembered from the Deep One invaders of a few years ago. "They will never trouble the gods again!" The last was a deep bass bellow, Aquaria's long limbs shaking with emotion as she held herself perfectly still. 




One of the sets of 'eyes' turned to Aquaria, their glowing golden illumination now shining on Aquaria's blue-tattooed greenish-white skin with a glow that Temperance wasn't quite positioned well enough to see, as if the yellow sign was now facing away from her in space. The song that came from that glowing light was like nothing Temperance had heard before, eerie and alien and aquatic all at once, like frogsong and whalesong and other things together in perfect harmony. 


The other turned and cast a sidelong glance at Temperance and spoke not over the music of its companion but _through_ it. 





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  • 3 weeks later...

Temperance had seen a lot of weird spirit negotiations - fire and water dancing, songs in harmony and discord, even that thing between the rats and the lightning. This, however... this was definitely the weirdest of them all. She just decided to let Aquaria do her thing, offering mere gestures of praise and thanks to the spirits. Anything else seemed like it might border on cultural appropriation... and she had a feeling these spirits would do more than offer nasty glares if she did that.


When the spirits had left, Temperance turned to Aquaria. She was still somewhat shocked by the tone of Aquaria's fervor... but then again, meeting agents of one's god could likely do that. "It seems we have some idolators to put in their place," she said. "I think members of the ladder company who responded to the call may... actually have been responsible for the summoning. This town, sometimes... We don't know the extent of the cult, though, and just barging into a firehouse with blades drawn may not be the wisest idea. We should try for reconaissance first." 

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"We can watch them from afar," croaked Aquaria confidently. She looked unsettled by the encounter, or perhaps moved by strong emotion - it was hard to judge the emotions on that amphibious face. "Or even from above. I can hide from any Surfacer who has not gifts to see me," she predicted confidently. She wasn't entirely sure how exactly they'd go about this hunt - but she knew the gods themselves would be on her side. "Surfacers who worship the Ones Below And Above go mad from the strain," she added to Temperance as they made their way down the bridge pilings towards the littered grassy ground below. "They grow so downhearted with their place in the universe that they..." She croaked nervously, and added, "I do not mean to give offense.

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"I have to admit," said Temperance, "it does sound quite mad." Last semester, Temperance had taken an elective in Abnormal Psychology to fulfill the social sciences requirement of her degree. One of the things she'd found while flipping through the DSM-5 was that people with pyromania would often exhibit a fascination with firefighting - the equipment, the process, and, of course, the actual fighting and extinguishing of flames. I doubt this town's crazy enough to have every pyromaniac in the area just join the FD at once, so... 


"I'm not sure everyone on the company would be compromised. We may be dealing with a few very ardent evangelists. Still." Temperance willed some water out of the river, which quickly reformed into her familiar ice barque. "The best way to find out is to go to their temple." 


The barque touched down several blocks from the firehouse, melting away into Temperance's pack. The house seemed quiet from the outside - the garage doors were down, and no one was clustered outside. "Would you like me to take the roof?" Temperance whispered to Aquaria. "I might be able to peer down from a skylight while you sneak in." 

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