They were rejoined shortly by Walsh, and from there the four of them and the Bretinne folk went to look over the elemental line connections. There were three lines, two seated in earth and one in water. The trenches in which they were to be settled had already been dug, and the materials to seat the energy laid out alongside them.
Malthusius’ earth-seated lines were run in long bars of stone and metal, which had been fused together with the purifying and melding properties of fire energy. The bars were etched with complex written containments and grounded heavily with wards against tampering. Walsh spent some time examining the spellwork before descending into the ditches with a tape measure to make sure they were being seated at regulation safe depth. Everything was found to be in order. Vico had not expected otherwise. Earth lines were generally stable and reliable and utterly unremarkable.
The water line was a little more complicated. The usual method was to run a channel of water around the property, from which energy could be drawn at the leisure of the mages who would be working there, but the complex automagic spellwork required a stronger and more direct approach. The Malthusius, consulting with a group of Talese mages flown over at Bretinne’s request, had drawn on a pipeline from their water plant at the river’s edge, a costly investment, as it had required digging up a number of existing pipes and re-warding them for the purpose. The pipes ran around the property in the same formulation the channel would have, but underground, with a series of smaller connections to link the energy of the water directly into the spellwork of the machinery. It was much more efficient, energy-wise, but also dangerous, considering the complexity of the spellwork needed to prevent the risk of an unregulated polarity reaction with the fire energy that would soon be running in close proximity.
The pipes themselves were a metal alloy, specially formulated and warded against corrosion, and like the bars that seated the earth line, etched with the spellwork to maintain the lines and keep the water running, so that the motion and cooling properties of it could be harvested and fed continuously into the workings of the machinery. They lay on the ground next to the trench in which they were to be seated. Walsh studied the spellwork carefully and measured the trench, but puzzled for some time over the problem of the energy levels. The technique was wholly Talese, and ran at a much higher level of energy than the traditional Caldi technique; there were no regulations on the Caldi books that covered it completely. This was the part that had been making Vico the most nervous, and also the reason he’d been willing to put up with a certain amount of bother to get rid of Weyland, who was more familiar with this sort of magic, and who would know exactly what to say to persuade her to put off clearing their operation. If Walsh decided to postpone the installation until it had been vetted by some tedious committee, the costly delay would further risk the affiliation.
Fortunately, he and Duvall’s L&R crew were well-versed enough on the specifics of the magic, and they had made a good enough impression on the inspector that she decided in their favor. The only compromise they’d been required to make was a regular check-in report describing the maintenance and stability, which was easy enough to accomplish. The papers were signed, and Walsh took her leave. The Bretinne folk left happy for once. Duvall had his crew start putting in the connections for the lines.
With the papers tucked into a folder in his bag, Vico felt free to call it a victory for himself and leave, but he stuck around to watch the seating of the water line. Duvall grumbled a little, offended by what he perceived as a pointless bit of supervision.
“It’s just a professional interest, boss,” Lejan said. Vico tossed him a grateful smile, standing back out of the way as the mages worked. The earth lines went in first, since earth-based energies were the most stable. It was simply a matter of shifting the bars into place, fitting them together, securing the connections, then activating the energy. It was routine work, took about an hour, with no problems at all.
Then they began to fit the pipes for the water line, which also went without complication, except for a minor leak in one of the fittings, which was fixed easily enough. Once the water was running through them, the energy was palpable all over the grounds, the humidity suffusing the air unpleasantly in the heat of the late afternoon. They let it run for a half hour, keeping a close eye on the fittings, the way the energy ran through the connections into the machinery. Once satisfied with that, they started filling in the trench. The mages worked in pairs, shifting the displaced dirt back in place over the pipes and settling it firmly in place to lock in the water energy, the gestures of their spellwork brisk and efficient.
Micah was starting to make his impatience known, so Vico waved his goodbyes to Lejan. As he turned to go, he thought he caught something sparking out of the corner of his eye, and stopped, frowning at the pair of mages nearest him, who were moving the dirt into the trench with somewhat less careful gestures than the rest, causing the dirt to fly out in odd directions. He saw the spark again a moment later, from a group further down. Something about the color niggled at him insistently. “Wait just a moment,” he said, turning back to get a better look.
“What is it?”
“There’s something in the dirt. Looked like elemental charms—they had a reddish spark to it, like a fire charm.”
Duvall saw him starting back toward the line and scowled. “Rhaimes, you are not a part of our department, and we don’t take orders from mediators. I’m telling you to get the hell out, now.”
Vico glanced to Micah for help. “We should probably go,” Micah said under his breath.
“You don’t think I saw something?”
“I’m sure you did. A bit of broken glass, or a shard of some shiny stone catching the light. If there was something wrong, one of the mages would have sensed something by now.”
“I know I saw something. What harm can it do to look into things? After all the trouble we’ve had over this place—”
“I’m not Jayen, I can’t just veto the head of one of the L&R crews. It’ll cause problems, and you’ve got enough of those right now, don’t you?”
Vico shot him a look and stalked down past the row of mages and around the curve of the trench to a spot that was not being worked yet. Micah followed him with a sigh.
The pile of dirt excavated for the laying of the pipes was high enough that it obscured them from the view of the mages at work, though not completely. Duvall was scowling at them, but at the moment he was too busy keeping an eye on his group’s spellwork to come throw them out himself. Vico laid his hands on the dirt and reached out with his sense. At first he felt nothing but the slightly disturbed resonance of the churned up earth beneath his fingers, and the warmth of the sunlight that had soaked into it over the course of the day. The trenches had been dug for over a week, so the dirt had settled some, further obscuring anything that might have been buried inside. He rolled up his sleeves and worked his hands into it. It took a minute, but then he felt it, a slight change in the texture of the heat that would have been easy to miss without the physical proximity. His hand closed over something hard and warm. By the time he pulled it out, it had grown too hot to hold onto, and he dropped it with a hiss of pain. It hit a patch of dry grass at his feet and immediately sparked it to flame. Micah gave a shout and reached for his dueling charms, drawing energy from a water charm, which he mixed carefully with a helping of stabilizing stone energy to prevent a polarity reaction as he cast a dampening over the smoldering grass.
Vico knelt and stared down at it, its faint light fading quickly under Micah’s dampening spell. There was a hairline crack in the glass that should have been containing the spark of it. “Shit,” he said, scooping it up and wrapping a containment around it in case the fire energy resurged. He jumped to his feet and went back to where Duvall stood.
Duvall glared at him. “I thought I told you to get lost, Rhaimes.”
Vico held up the charm. “I found this buried in the dirt. I’m pretty sure it’s not the only one, either. I know I saw something earlier—”
Duvall turned to Micah. “Callahan, get him out of here. I’m not putting our preparations behind again over some paranoid fantasy. Just because the heir is obsessed with him is no reason to let him walk all over us—”
Vico set his jaw. This disdain was the reason he had been trying to distance himself from Jayen. Not the only one, but the most important one from a tactical standpoint. “I know what I saw, Duvall,” he snapped, flinging the charm at him, setting Micah’s barrier spell to dissipate as he did. Duvall fumbled trying to catch it, and it fell on the ground, the grass at Duvall’s feet beginning to smoke.
Duvall’s expression went from angry to alarmed, and he knelt to pick the charm up, dampening it again and studying the crack in the glass with slowly dawning suspicion. “It doesn’t prove anything. Some fool from security could have dropped it carelessly.” He did not sound convinced.
“That’s not one of our standard issue charms—” Micah began, but he was interrupted by the sharp crack of a polarity reaction from somewhere in the trench behind Duvall.
Micah and Vico grounded themselves and drew up shields immediately, a reflex from working security. Duvall was taken off guard before he could think to do so and was slammed forward onto his face with an inarticulate cry. About thirty feet away, the dissonant energy of the polarity reaction was spreading rapidly, and the mages in its immediate vicinity were all on the ground, some unconscious, many suffering scalds from the dangerous combination of water and fire energy. Only a handful of the mages were still on their feet and able to cast.
“Micah, check Duvall and the other fallen mages,” Vico said, and shot past him to where the dissonance was peaking. He was relieved to see that Lejan was among those still on their feet, and beckoned him to help, along with three others: Koenig, Desielle and Ariada. He hoped the five of them would be enough to get the reaction contained before it started to affect the earth lines or cause damage to the spellwork in the factory.
“What the hell is going on?” Lejan asked, drawing up shields as he stared at the space in the trench where the polarity reaction was swirling out of control.
“I found a broken fire charm in the dirt,” Vico said. “Can you and Koenig work up something to dispel or contain that dissonance so the rest of us can try to get in there and remove the charm before the reaction damages the pipeline?” He didn’t want to think of how much more dangerous the reaction would get if the pipe were to burst, releasing a torrent of actual water. It would probably explode into steam on contact, depending on how much energy was left to the broken charm, possibly cause a chain reaction with more of the fire charms, if indeed there were more.
“We’re on it,” Lejan said. He and Koenig moved closer to the site of the reaction and started erecting a containment of raw earth energy around the dissonance, siphoning the energy out in chunks and combining it with roughly drawn energy from the dirt and concrete paths around them to settle it.
Vico turned to Desielle and Ariada. “We’ll need to channel through the containment Lejan and Koenig are making, get the excess dirt out of the way and grab the charm before it causes damage to the pipe. Once it’s out we can sink the remaining water energy into the earth resonance underneath to settle the dissonance.” He made a rough diagram of the spellwork in the air for them to follow. “We’ll key our spellwork through the bond,” he added. That would increase their sense range and improve the cooperative nature of the spellwork they would need to find the charm that had started the reaction.
“Why are we listening to him?” Ariada demanded of Desielle. “He’s not even with our department!”
“Because he’s the one who stepped up,” Lejan said over his shoulder. “Duvall’s in no shape to be doing it and our crew is down by two thirds. And he knows this stuff inside and out.”
Desielle shrugged. “He’s got the spellwork right,” she said, and tuned into the clan bond. Ariada followed suit, grumbling a little, but she cast as he directed.
“On my mark,” Vico said, extending their combined sense out to the dissonance. He could feel the heavy, muggy heat of the energy suffusing the air even through his shields. It was starting to calm under Lejan and Koenig’s manipulations, but it was still dangerous.
Lejan and Koenig opened careful, vented channels in the containment and Vico directed the mages’ spellwork through to shift the dirt back out with slow, cautious gestures, until the spark of a charm was uncovered.
“Too far away from the pipe to have been the one that set it off,” Vico said grimly, as Desielle and Ariada formed a small barrier around it and drew it out.
They continued, uncovering another charm before they located the one that had set off the reaction. It lay beneath the curve of the pipe, and the metal/stone alloy was turning black already from exposure the the heat of the energy it was leaking. The carefully etched spellwork on the pipe was slightly warped by the reaction, but it looked to be holding. Desielle and Ariada drew it out in the same way as the first, allowing Lejan and Koenig to calm the rest of the dissonance by combining the water energy into the stabilizing ground below. Vico dropped down into the trench to examine the damage while the other mages went around to check on the injured parties and dispel the remaining dissonance lingering in the air.
Duvall was fine, having been knocked only briefly unconscious, and he chose to remain on site to keep an eye on things. The two mages who had been working closest to the reaction had been badly burned and another had fallen into the trench and broken her arm. Those three were taken immediately to the compound to be looked over by healers. A pair of healers remained to treat the rest of the injured, and first crew, under the grim eye of Chief Mage Madderly, head of the L&R department, was also dispatched to aid with the repairs. When Duvall was declared fit for work, he and Vico and Madderly spent some time going over the damage and arranging for first crew to unbury the parts of the trench that had already been covered.
“It’s definitely going to cause another delay,” Duvall said. Vico was not looking forward to informing the Bretinne folk of this latest incident. The written spellwork on the pipe had held, but the damage ensured that the whole section would need replacing, which meant rolling back all the applied spellwork they had spent the last hour casting and shutting off the water to drain the pipes. There was also another polarity reaction while they were unburying the line, though this one was less damaging, as they had taken precautions.
“And we’re going to have to have a team of mages settle the resonances of the property before we can start the repairs, too,” Madderly growled as she and Micah prowled the perimeter, searching for traces of whomever might have buried the dozens of faulty fire charms they had uncovered excavating the pipes. First crew was still sifting through the dirt to make sure they had gotten them all.
“What was even the point?” Lejan wondered after he and Vico had made a full report of the damages. “The way they were just thrown around didn’t leave any assurance that there would be a reaction. The fact that there was one at all was sheer luck, and it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. Whoever did this must have known the earth energy would mask and mute the fire energy.”
“I suspect it was meant to disrupt the resonances during the inspection,” Vico said. “To make us look negligent, or perhaps just to reduce the efficiency of the spellwork. The damage could be an unexpected bonus. It must have been done after you took the traces Tuesday morning, since Walsh accepted those instead of having us do new ones today. The change wasn’t apparent while we were out looking things over, probably because it was so hot today that it covered the energy. I think I would have noticed if the readings in the trace were higher than normal. I’m going to look it over again just to be sure, though.”
“Clearly we were negligent,” Micah said. “I’m coordinating with the heads of the crews who were responsible for keeping this place secure now.” He scowled into the distance, tuned into the bond with Landen and Ardesayne, head of security’s second shift day crew. “I’m going to have to bring Jayen in on this. Were you done here?”
“Pretty much. Lejan, can you make the new traces for my report?”
“Sure,” Lejan said.
As they were walking back the car, Duvall caught up to them. Vico sighed, expecting a torrent of abuse for interfering, and for daring to be right about it, but the man held out a hand to him. “Your quick wits kept this from getting out of hand,” Duvall said. “Thanks for your help.”
“You’re quite welcome,” Vico said, almost too surprised to accept the outstretched hand.
“Your grasp of the spellwork involved here was impressive,” Duvall added. “I didn’t realize you were so up on all this.”
“Just doing my job,” Vico said, watching him walk back to the cluster of mages working around the trenches. He turned back to Micah. “I’m not hallucinating, am I? Didn’t get my brain scrambled by the polarity reaction?”
“I guess you impressed him,” Micah said. “Or maybe he’s just hoping you won’t report them for not listening to you in the first place.”
“That’s probably it,” Vico said, though Duvall’s gratitude had felt genuine enough. It was such a rare occurrence that Vico could not simply be happy at the thought, only unsettled.
Seya had dozed fitfully all evening, and it wasn’t until Jayen started getting up every few minutes to look out the window with a mixture of anxiety and nerves that she realized how late it was getting. It was full dark out by the time Vico got home.
“You said a few hours, what kept you?” Jayen said, blinking at the sight of him. Vico was all over sweat and dust and mud. “Did it not go as planned?”
“Does it ever?” Vico said. He dropped his bag on the floor in an atypically careless gesture and raked his fingers through his hair, grimacing as his hand came out streaked with dirt. “Micah will fill you in. It’s a mess, that’s all I’m going to say right now.”
“I thought you were just mediating,” Seya said, sitting up from where she had been dozing lightly on the couch. He was exhausted, and there was tangle of disturbed resonances and elemental dissonance still clinging to his aura. Anger and frustration too, but he was already tucking it all away behind his shields as he headed for his bedroom.
“Shit happens. You know how it goes,” he said, waving a hand in weary dismissal. “I was really expecting you guys to be shouting the house down when I got back, at the very least. Dare I hope you were actually getting along, or did you both just sulk like the stubborn brats you are the whole time?”
“We had a nice talk,” Seya said. “About you.”
“Why does that sound far more terrifying than anything I was imagining?” Vico asked. “Gods, I’m tired. And starving. I’m jumping in the shower. Thanks for coming over, Jayen. You should go now. Micah is waiting to talk to you.”
“Why don’t you just throw me out the door,” Jayen muttered.
“Why don’t you think about the people who’ve been sitting outside the door all evening? They’re probably tired too.”
“They get paid for that.”
Vico shook his head. “Do whatever you want then, you always do anyway,” he said, and shut the bedroom door behind him.
Jayen huffed irritably, but by then someone had pinged him through the clan bond. He listened for a few minutes, his forehead wrinkling in consternation. He got up and went into the kitchen. “Where were those leftovers he was talking about?”
“Top shelf in the fridge,” Seya said.
“You want some?”
He warmed up a plate and left it on the stove for Vico. “Tell him goodbye for me,” he said. Seya blinked up at him in surprise, but he was closing the door behind himself before she could reply.
Vico wandered back out of his room a few minutes later, flicking water out of his hair and casting a bemused eye over the living area and kitchen. “Jayen actually left?”
He caught sight of the plate on the stove and smiled. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“I didn’t,” Seya said.
He absorbed that information in silence, and whatever he felt about it he kept to himself. Seya was tempted to reach out, just to know, but she didn’t want to do anything to open up their bond more. Tomorrow, she thought, as she lay awake on the couch that night, too restless to get to sleep. It had to be tomorrow. Even if the curse wasn’t fully neutralized; she would find a way to manage.