Tam wasn’t surprised to see the wall beside her tumble down in flames. Walls tended to do that when they were poorly constructed and served no purpose in a building that had far greater problems. Problems like a fire that should have been handled long before it became the raging inferno that was devouring the greater part of the structure. The wall in the lobby of the mall’s anchor store was the first thing to collapse but it looked like a decent portion of the rest of the building was going to join it shortly.
“Can you do anything about this?” she asked, gesturing at the curtains of flame that covered each of the remaining walls around them. Around her an octet of teardrop shaped balls of sapient water floated a few inches off the smoke wreathed floor.
“No, this is too much even if we could reach our poolmates,” Valia, the leader of the water elementals, said. Her features were difficult to read in the glare of the fire light. With a body composed entirely of water, her eyes, mouth, and other features were merely shapes on the surface of her teardrop body.
“Can you reach out to them?” Tam asked. The heat of the flames didn’t bother her any more than the toxic gas because she’d had the good sense to leave her physical body behind.
Astral projection was a new trick James had taught her. She’d struggled with it for the longest time until she’d translated his metaphors to a format that clicked better for her.
James had tried to explain it as a loosening of the spirit’s hold on the body so that it could float free on the ‘Astral Sea’, but that conceptualization had been too terrifying to work for Tam. She had no interest in losing her hold on her body. She liked having things like lungs, and taste buds, and hair that Cynthia could run her fingers through.
In place of the poetic suggestions James had offered, Tam had decided to approach the issue mathematically. Her senses were ultimately just information and information could be transferred from place to place easily. Astral Projection therefore took the theories which underlay the scrying spells she already knew to a new level. Rather than casting her vision or hearing to a distant location, she worked out a formula to cast all of her sense together somewhere, wrapped in a lattice of thought and magic and a thread of her spirit so that she could not only experience the distant location, but interact with it magically if the need arose.
Tam hadn’t expected to need to use that aspect of her Astral Projection spell so soon, but the need had clearly arisen.
“We are cut off,” Valia said, the ripples in her body sharing the same connotation as a shiver of fear would in a human.
“Don’t worry,” Tam said, pushing the flames back with a flick of her hand again. Within the circle she’d cleared the temperature was rising, but far slower than it was in the rest of the burning mall.
Defending sapient water elementals in a burning, and thankfully abandoned, mall was not how Tam had planned to spend her Tuesday afternoon. With Cynthia being on shift for the day, Tam had scheduled time with James to work through some of the more exacting mystical measurements which recent experiences showed they needed to make.
From the Chinese military base they’d visited no longer being free of ley lines, to the appearance of an island in the South Pacific which was supposed to be on a decades long rotation to one of the mirror-Earth planes, to the overall rising level of magic they were encountering, it seemed as though the old maps and charts they relied on were perhaps a little too old to be worth basing their estimations and plan on any longer.
“Can you put the fire out?” Valia looked at Tam with eyes grown impossibly wide with hope.
There was a cartoon-ish aspect to the water elementals that Tam found charming, but she held back a smile. Their peril was real and even if circumstances had been more pleasant, she suspected the water elementals wouldn’t be pleased to be treated like amusing magical children.
“Not directly,” Tam said. “There’s a lot of energy to work with here, but I’m not familiar with the style of the magics that are in place already. If I tamper with them, I’m pretty sure I’ll just feed the fire even more power.”
“Ah. Yes. Don’t do that, please,” Valia said.
“Don’t worry. I can’t douse the flames but I can find a path out of here for you, if one exists,” Tam said. “I’ll need your help though.”
“We are in a poor position to either refuse your aid, or fail to offer the help you need,” Valia said.
“Yeah, sorry about that. I don’t really understand how you got stuck here.”
Water elementals could spawn in many places. Typically those places included streams, secluded ponds, and even rain storms. The middle of a building fire however was not exactly high on the list of possibilities, or even on the list at all.
“We were called to the constrained water which lived within the building,” Valia said. Tam could tell that the elemental was struggling to put concepts into English which had a much clearer expression in her native language.
“The constrained water?”
“Yes. It was held in pipes within the building. It ran throughout the structure, though there were many blockages,” Valia said. “Our home was up there before the fire began.”
She pointed to the ceiling and Tam saw the fractured and broken piping that lead to the mall’s fire suppression system.
“You were in the sprinklers?”
“Until the fire came.” Valia nodded, which bobbed her whole body.
“That explains why the fire swept through here I guess. It looks like your homes were the first thing that broke, so the water inside couldn’t douse the flames when they were just starting. How did you get stuck in there though?”
“We were called. Sigils with our pool’s name were etched into the pipes. They made the water within comfortable for us.”
Tam blinked and looked more closely at the ruins of the pipes which had dropped to only a half dozen feet above them. The sigils etched onto the pipe’s surface still glowed slightly in the fire light, though the water inside had long since poured out.
“I’m not familiar with those bindings,” Tam said. “Did they trap you in the pipes?”
“No. We were not trapped until the fire came,” Valia said. “The name of our pool made the water in the pipes a piece of our home. We were able to flow through it the same as we could our home pool.”
Tam tried to puzzle out why someone would have done that, but no obvious reasons leapt to her mind. The fire flared higher again distracting her further and she decided to shelve that question for a later time.
“Ok, we need to get out of here,” she said. “Unfortunately that’s going to mean going through one of the stores and there’s a lot more fire inside them than out here.”
They were standing at the entrance to one of the malls anchor stores. Time and decay had robbed the location of any hint of what it had once been, but even if there had been a logo left, the smoke that enveloped the inside of the store’s area would have made it impossible to read.
“Are there no better exits?” Valia asked. “I do not know if we all will survive the heat.”
“There were supposed to be several other exits,” Tam said. “Unfortunately the roof has already collapsed and cut us off from them.”
“Did the fire do that to trap us?” Valia asked.
“I think the roof on this floor fell in a while ago. There might have been some parts the fire brought down that were hanging on loosely before, but I don’t sense any intent within the fire itself.”
“If no one drives the fire, how could it have gotten so bad?” Valia asked.
“If I’m right? The fire itself isn’t malicious, but the person who set it was.”
“Will they have set traps in our path?” Valia asked.
“I don’t think they were planning to endanger you,” Tam said. “There were too many ignition points and they were spaced too far apart from where you were. I think the motive here was greed, pure and simple.”
In the flickering of the flames, she caught a brief glimpse of what she’d been looking for.
“Ok, time to go,” she said, and began walking to one of the stores beside the anchor. It had been a restaurant, if her guess was correct, and from the gust of air that blew out of the building through it, there was probably a door open on the far side of it.
The water elementals fell in step around her, forming a half moon as they relied on Tam to keep the flames at bay.
The interior of the restaurant was filled with thick, noxious smoke. Tam knew that if she’d been present bodily her lungs wouldn’t have been troubled by the poisonous gas. It was hot enough in the restaurant that they would have been seared beyond usefulness long before the poison could kill her.
With that cheerful thought, she marched forward, summoning a circle of wind to drive back to the smoke and carry the worst of the heat away from them. It was a stopgap measure at best. While the wind did reduce the temperature briefly, it also fanned the flames even higher.
“We are drying up,” Valia said, her voice growing thin and scattered.
“Hold together, we just need to get to the kitchen and then the stockroom,” Tam said. It was slow going, maintaining the winds and keeping pace with the rapidly dwindling speed the water elementals could manage.
“We cannot,” Valia said as one after another, the water elementals sank to the floor and began to sizzle and steam.
“No! Wait!” Tam scrambled to think of something that would save them.
The elementals had turned up in part because their cry for help had been so mystically loud and in part because they were close to Tam’s physical location. She wondered for a moment if she could reach them in time in person. It would offer her a wider array of effects to draw on, but looking at the elementals she saw there was no chance she could make it in time.
“Ok, huddle close to me,” she said and bent down to floor. She couldn’t draw a proper circle of protection around them since she had no physical form to work with but with some minor prestidigitation, she was able to shape the ashes on the floor into a crude approximation of the Seal of the Fimbulwinter.
Where the heat had been overwhelming one moment, the instant the Seal was completed, frost began to form within the circle.
“Thank you,” Valia said, her enter body heaving with the effort speech required.
“This only buys us a bit of time,” Tam said. “I can’t move the seal, and it’s not going to last very long.”
“Even a short respite is better than none,” Valia said, her voice gaining strength.
“Yeah, the problem is, I don’t know what we do when the Seal breaks,” Tam said. “The flames are going to be even bigger and hotter at that point.”
As if in answer to her question, a figure stepped out of the smoke from the kitchen. They were covered head to toe in the sort of gear one should be wearing when navigating a burning building, including a full face mask and sealed breathing apparatus.
For a moment Tam couldn’t place who the stranger was despite the sense that how they moved looked very familiar. The moment she pieced together the figure’s movements with a face from her memory though Tam smiled.
“Tam?” Cynthia asked, sounding only mildly confused rather than as stunned as Tam guessed she might have been. “What are you doing here?”