And again. Still need to edit this one.

The peon's pick chips the stone barrier. Slowly, but steadfast; the peon does not dare stop working, no matter how tired, and the commander is pleased to see that. He supposes this particular group's dedication might have something to do with his personal attention. But no matter. They are making progress.

And progress…progress is what he needs. Progress is how he will ascend. He has been here too long, and soon enough the Crimson Lord will find him. Soon enough the Crimson Lord will kill him. The commander knows only one way to prevent such.

A loud crack breaks the commander out of his reverie. He looks down and unclenches his fists—had he clenched them?—and sees a pick, broken near the shoulder, on the ground at his feet. A peon holds the majority of the haft, eyes showing a dull resignation. He picks up the peon with one large claw and throws. A sickening crunch. The others don't even pause. The overseers will know what this means. They will send a new pick.

The commander is absolutely sure this is the right place, and even more so when the wall finally breaks and a faint blue light pours out. He is making progress.

Violet falls.

This is problem number one. Come on come on come on come on—

She windmills her arms and twists in midair and draws aether into herself and her wings whip out abruptly, which is when she encounters problem number two. Her feathers hit something, hard, and Violet gives a whimper of pain as her wings scrape jagged rock. She's falling, and it's cramped. Very cramped. She grips her bow as hard as she can, and at least she has that.

Air rushes past her ears, and Violet thinks she can feel the island itself shaking. A loud crack and rumble drown out all other noise. She draws herself into a ball, knees against her chest, so she has more room, but the wings are enough for her to glide, for her fall to break, and it's enough for her to feel herself slowing and the sense of vertigo to fade. Then the ground looms out of the dark at her and Violet's eyes widen, which is problem number three. She can't see.

The ranger lands safely, if a bit bruised, and draws her wings into herself. No need to use too much aether or give away her position with them. The asmodian would be able to see in the dark better than her. Assuming he survived. She has no reason to believe he hadn't. Problem number four.

Her hands push against the floor—jagged, broken rock. She pushes herself to her knees, then rises to her feet. Her first few steps are shaky as she tries to get used to stumbling over some minor outcropping or stubbing her toes on a loose rock every few seconds, and holds out her hands for balance. Just like hiking on Kuriullu, right?

Violet holds her breath until her fingertips touch more rock. She recoils, then pushes harder. Stable. Okay. The ranger leans against the wall, and exhales.

What is she doing here again, so far away from the Core? From Terminon? From, well, all of Elysea? She's not ready for this, and she should've stayed with Kartik and maybe signed up for patrol in Heiron or something.

Violet diagnoses that as problem number five.

Problem number six she realizes just a moment later when a stab of pain shoots through her hand. She has to hold it up really close to her face to see what's wrong but the trickle of blood is obvious, as is the wooden splinter stuck in her palm. Which leads the problem number seven. Where's her bow?

She'd dropped it.

Deep breath. Deal with her problems in order. Okay. Problem number one, she's falling. Not anymore. Solved. Problem number two. The environment. Not as easy to solve. She steps away from the wall, one hand outstretched and the other's fingertips clinging to rock. It turns out, she doesn't have to: the—room? cave?—she's in is narrow enough for her to touch both walls at the same time comfortably. Cramped. A thought occurs to her, and she reaches an arm up high. Nothing.

She shuffles a couple meters forward, and does the same. Still nothing. Lots of vertical room, then.

Problem number three should help her figure out exactly where this is. Well, solving it. Violet closes her eyes, shoves away all her other thoughts—that she's lost and doesn't have her bow and an assassin probably wants to kill her and what would Kartik say and how far away is she from the nearest obelisk again—and focuses.

There is aether in her. There is aether around her. There is aether everywhere. Especially here in Reshanta.

Water is dripping about thirty meters ahead of her, once every ten or so seconds. The walls to her right and left are solid, but covered in marks and dust. So is the ground. This is a deep island. Behind her, the tunnel, because that's what this is, winds back and forth before branching. A few dozen meters up, rocks tremble, ready to fall at a moment's notice.

She should move. Violet opens her eyes and finds the world visible, if dark. Ten quick steps into the tunnel remove her from the rocks' path should they decide to keep falling.

Problem number four. The asmodian. No way to deal with that immediately, but Violet draws her sword from her hip. The bow is preferable, but at least it's a weapon she knows how to use it. And her eyes are so tuned-up she'll be able to find him even if he decides to turn invisible.

Problem number five. Don't think about it.

Violet starts walking, taking careful stock of her surroundings. She runs her fingers along the wall, taking in the chipped edges and marks—and winces as the splinter digs a bit deeper. Like someone had taken a pickaxe to them. She frowns. The surface of the island was dotted with ruined structures, and maybe those spread downward? Was she walking in the remnants of ancient tunnels right now?

Is this a problem? Violet decides against it. Right now, the ruins are a curiosity. She'd report them to the Expeditionary Forces or Lord Kaisinel's legions when she got back, but not before letting the Zephyri know to be on the lookout. But, problem number eight. Find her way out and return to Terminon. Easier said than done.

She keeps walking, sword in non-splintered hand. Once she judges she has walked a considerable distance, she sets her sword against the wall and fumbles for her cube. Her injured hand Violet holds up again to examine.

Right. Violet grimaces, plucks a white cloth from the cube, and presses it against her hand. The fingers of her other hand rest lightly on the splinter. A quick jerk—it's out, and she hopes her hiss of pain wasn't too loud. The next steps are easy—dab at the blood with the cloth, and put both away, and hope she doesn't leave a trail.

That's problem six accounted for.

That's also problem seven set aside, and the realization makes her pause. The splinter was big. Even if she found the bow again, would it even be in usable condition?

Violet had spent so long crafting it, and gathering the egrasi wood, and figuring out how to aethertap, and saving up qinah for the refining stones, and all those times falling out of the air when she stayed at the vortices too long—getting by without it is going to be much, much harder.

Grasping the sword in her right hand, Violet continues on her way. The walls continue, chipped and cracked and broken, giving way to narrow offshoots. Mining tunnels, the ranger realizes. Someone had carved these out. The rock is still crumbling, but this place is deserted—noiseless. That tells her nothing about when they were carved out.

Problem number nine, an offshoot of eight: where is she right now? These tunnels would have an exit, right?

And—would she run out of air?

The thought is so ridiculous Violet doesn't know whether to laugh or stop and think about it. But if she stopped, she might not start again, so she has to keep going.

The place has no noise, she'd thought earlier, but that's wrong. Steady rhythmic thudding, continuous. A…tinkling chime? No, too faint. Her ears buzz.

"Might as well," Violet whispers to herself, the words sounding much much louder in her augmented ears, and then she slips into the tunnel she thinks she heard the noise from. It would be prudent to check out her surroundings, after all.

A few turns and twists later, Violet is lost, but the noise is definitely getting louder. The thuds and cracks fall without order, without rhythm, and she can make out multiple sources for them. Then there are duller sounds, too—scrapes and stomps, and that might be a whimper. Footsteps, and a voice.

The ranger steps into the tunnel.


Violet freezes and throws herself into an alcove, flinging out a hand behind her—it meets nothing, and she falls, and her sword clatters as her eyes widen. Not good. A sharp sting lances up her elbow from her palm, and she can feel the gritty dust under her fingers and something wet on her palm. Not good. Then a harsh, guttural voice actually calls out, and she doesn't know what it means but—definitely not good.

Quickly the ranger fumbles for the sword and shoves it unceremoniously in her sheathe. She clambers to her feet and sidles forward until she can peek out of the side tunnel with one eye.

The tunnel is thin, barely a slit. A blue glow shines from the end. Several short creatures—sapiens? she hasn't seen anyone with fur like that before, but they look like kobolds, or shugos, now that she thinks about it—chip at the walls repetitiously, monotonously, their work barely illuminated by a small torch. Something holds the torch. A taller figure. Taller than the sapiens, taller than her, as tall as the teleport statues.

A bulky upper body, armored in heavy robes, both elim-like arms grasping the pole on which the torch stands, spikes sticking up from behind the head, eyes malevolently fixed on her.

Violet can't understand the yell, but she can understand the pointing finger. She turns around and runs.

Problem number ten!

She knows what she saw on the tall figure's face, briefly illuminated by the torch. Scales. She's studied the armor design, the too-many-spikes and reptilian eyes. Problem number ten is a balaur in the tunnels. And if there's one balaur—

Her feet slow so she doesn't trip over anything, and she's glad she doesn't keep her entire supply of tripeed in her cube when she plucks three of the seeds from her belt pocket. Her nails dig into her palms and she begins the process of forcing aether into the seeds. Just for once, just for once, she wishes she had the time to set these traps before jumping into a fight. At this rate people are going to think her an assassin.

The tunnel forks in two. Violet chooses the left because she's closer to it. All the while the balaur's footsteps grow louder and louder and louder and is that its breath? Too close. How much time?

Twenty more seconds. She can buy herself that much.

Violet's thoughts turn to the assassin. He would have discovered the balic presence, right? No, worry about that later.

Air splits behind her and Violet throws herself forward and feels the aether streaming into the seeds wobble—no! Her fingers grate against rock and she whirls around and slashes at the balaur and aether lashes back at her pushing her away. Twenty meter headstart.

She opens her palm and looks at the seeds. They're turning purple. Not a good sign, but this will do.

Violet crouches and grinds her palm on the ground leaving the seeds there. Wait for it.

The balaur recovers and doesn't waste any time on words. Just charges.

Wait for it.

The staff glows, and rises above her head.

Wait for it…

Someone's coming down the tunnel.

The staff comes down. The trap doesn't explode. Violet throws herself out of the way. The staff misses her barely. The balaur is a big lumbering soldier. She's nimble. She doesn't bother to get up but stabs the sword at the balaur's knee behind the armor. The balaur roars in pain.

She can take this. She's taken balaur soldiers before. With her bow, granted.

A split second motion draws her attention from the whirling staff and Violet frowns. The staff's impact against her sword sends shudders through her arm. A quick jump to her feet and she retaliates with a practiced flurry—left, right, down-up—a horizontal stroke gets through and the balaur's head falls off.

Violet blinks, and something makes the ground tremble ever-so-slightly, too rhythmic to be natural. Overswinging the sword—why had it cut through so easily; there wasn't even any resistance—throws her footwork off, and she swings to the side.

The balaur isn't the only threat—

Nyerkface assassins and their invisibility.

It would take too much time to reinforce her eyes further, time the asmodian would use to strike. Violet breathes, attuning herself to the vibration of stone, the ripples in air, the web of aether. A crunch of half-grown tripeed seed. The softest footfall. An unreleased breath. Aether, about to carve through a knife. Her sword swings around, instinctively pointing at the assassin's throat.

Violet considers triggering the trap. Even if it didn't go off, it would still be a distraction. Maybe.

Her eyes flicker around out of habit. Where would he strike from? Her muscles tense. If she moves, it'll be an opening. Wait.

To her surprise he doesn't move, other than flinch away. His flinch carries him a dozen or so meters away. Nyerkface assassins and their speed.

"We are the only two daevas down here."

It takes her more than a second to parse the words and agglutinative syntax, and her eyes widen. "…yes we are."

Violet can just imagine the sharp-fanged grin. "How about," he continues, "You stop hunting me and I graciously show you the way out?"

Now how does she construct this? "You don't have way. If you had, then you already left."

"What makes you—"

"Instead," she interrupts, feeling bold, "You stop…attempting, to knife me in my back. Then I don't hunt you in this place."

A long silence. Why did she counteroffer? It's…problem one: it's treason; problem two: the asmodian's an assassin, by the all-seeing eye; problem three: why would the asmodian even believe her? She's asking for death. But… "Balaur are here. Bigger threat," she adds. "Additionally, uh, truce only in tunnels."

That's better, but…still a breach of protocol. Violet can imagine explaining the truce to Kartik. She can imagine explaining how she got into this mess, and can almost even imagine the lecture she'll receive. And she can imagine him explaining why she shouldn't have clarified the terms. Attack when it's least expected.

But the asmodian—the assassin—defines that concept.

The ranger readies her sword in a fight for her life. Least expected would be—now, when she's just offered peace.

The assassin laughs, and the air shimmers. Red eyes peek out of nothing, followed by a long pale face and a torn hood and armor that had really seen better days. Hands holding a dagger and wooden stick.

"Sure, sure, whatever you say. Truce. For now. I'm Magnus. Killer-for-hire. Convict you've been chasing for a year." He sheathes the knife and throws the piece of wood at her.

Violet catches it numbly, stammering out introductions. How is this even going to work? She can't trust him, regardless of mutual goals. First lesson in Miragent, in the legions, in everything. Know your target. Know your enemy. Problem number eleven. She could try to kill him again, but she's been trying for the past months and has gotten nowhere. Or she could wait and see how this plays out. Wait for a mistake. Get out of here, and take the thief with her. That's what Kartik would do.

"R—right. Truce. Violet. Of Miragent. And it's only been six months."

"Miragent? Figured. And Violet's definitely the fakest name I've heard." The assassin—Magnus, she knows now, maybe—crouches and inspects the balic corpse, runs his hands over the staff.

Violet side-eyes him and frowns, inspecting the stick. Jagged, one end broken. A notch for a bowstring. Egrasi. She turns it over. "Is not false, Csethir. How did you find me? Right here?"

"Aion's tower, your speech needs work. What, the Elyos forgot already?"

The ranger wishes she had her bow to shoot him, truce or not. Instead she sheathes her sword, taking care to grate the blade against the metal-reinforced lip of the sheathe. Best not get tempted yet.

The assassin laughs stands and picks up the staff and slams it on the ground. Nothing. "Your bow. Tracked you from there. You weren't concerned with hiding your tracks."

Violet winces.

"And I don't go by that anymore."

Problem number…ten is resolved. Eleven…several problems in itself, really. She's trapped with an asmodian assassin who's ostensibly her temporary ally. So. What next? She needs focus. Problem number eight. "…balaur should have exit in some place. We can't climb back up."

Magnus nods. "We're gonna need to sleep first."

Neither of them end up actually sleeping.