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Last chance

The charter to New Zealand was lost. No other ship captains would take Elias into cursed waters even if he could offer an endless bounty. None took an interest in his pleas. He was forced to seek alternate interests.

His meager contacts in the world of marine biology would not touch the subject of mythical sea monsters with a ten foot pole. Those kind of campaigns ruined careers, a wise investigator told him shortly before hanging up on him.

Tony and the crew were out of ideas. They patrolled the Moscow River for weeks and no more signs of the creature dwelling beneath the ice emerged. Elias himself walked the banks pouring his powers into the water like luring fish to bait, but his answer was silence and shivering cold.

He contemplated talking to Aria, such was his desperation. He had been told once before that monsters were real. Perhaps slaying an ancient aquatic creature would sway her people to taking him to the ocean, but given the Ascendancy's warning on the Atharim, it was best to not cross swords until safer allies could be identified.

Which was how he was led to the Antiquities and Museum of Natural History on the campus of MSU - grasping for last straws. The internet was rife with stories of monsters and discoveries of magical artifacts of late. One such far-fetched tale spun a fantastical web that most dismissed as pseudoscience and Fake News; but something about the portrait of the man involved caught Elias' eye. Something about the tale pricked his senses.

The world of antiquities he came to learn was a universe in and of itself. The shuffling of invaluable trinkets made and lost fortunes with as fierce and dangerous a trade as to rival drug routes over continents.

"Meet me in the Mythic Creatures exhibit. I won't be hard to miss,"
his message to the dealer detailed. This was his last chance. Hopefully the bait worked.

Ashavari ran curious fingers over the puckered tentacles of the giant model kraken cradling the glass exhibition cases, wondering what such a creature - if such a creature existed - might feel like to her senses. Such enormity might eject her entirely from her own body, even the barest caress of such an inhuman mind. It made her shiver even as it fascinated her, staring into that giant and unfathomable orange eye.

She moved to press a finger to the glass of the exhibit, absorbing the actual specimen within. A squid tentacle taller than she was by almost a foot, and nearly fifty years old. "Oh, El! From the coast off New Zealand!"
Not that she expected him to be listening; she could see the dark reflection of him in the glass, turned away, a frisson of impatience leaking like ink as he waited for his contact.

She'd joined him sometimes on the river banks these past months, but never felt anything tugging at her from those grey waters, just the fleeting dart of fishes about their business. Hat jammed over her ears and hands tucked close to her body she usually watched and tried not to disturb the billowing darkness of his mood. He was blank to her while his gift lashed at the waters, but she didn't need her ability to sense his disappointment each time they found nothing.

Her gaze dipped to read one of the plaques, the words murmured aloud simply for the pleasure of the cadence.

"'Below the thunders of the upper deep
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth...
There hath he lain for ages and will lie...
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.'"

Tennyson. She straightened, feeling those storm-tossed waves crash over her head. What beautiful, haunting words.
He had good contacts with the museum, and they expected him to be presented a certain way; thus today the Soren on show was the very model of the dealer who made a successful living trading in trinkets and antiquities. His suit was made of sharp and expensive lines, betraying little hint of the restless wanderer clothed inside. Only the amulet spoke of that, and it was tucked hidden against his chest.

He moved leisurely through the exhibits but did not much pause to look at things he had perused a thousand times before. Instead he watched the milling patrons, a nod or a smile offered in appeasement to those who glanced back. Most people didn't notice the odd eye, or if they did they were too polite to stare with enough scrutiny to satisfy their curiosity. Paragon did impressive work, though the transition had not been without its drawbacks. He was learning to live with the side-effects. A faint tracery of pale scarring still webbed the area, the only tell of an injury that otherwise appeared long since healed, despite only short months having passed. The asthetic did not concern him, but the pain did

He paused, observing a boy and girl near the gaudy modelling of a kraken. She was engrossed. He was not.

That the creature he had come to see looked to have been dredged up from the stormy depths did not appear to phase him as he approached. His hands rested in his pockets, casual in spite of his smart attire, and his smile was affable. "Mr Donovan, who I shall not be able to miss, I presume."

Given the context of their surroundings, Soren made an educated guess as to the subject. He'd been asked about Roopkund before, of course. Declan's name honoured the discovery, but Soren never denied he had been there too. Though looking at the kid, with his long draping hair and dark smudged eyes, did little to inspire confidence that this would be an endeavour worth his time. The odds were this was just another fantasist, but curiosity never did Soren any harm. Or if it did, the sacrifice was generally worth it.
Elias turned half-way through Asha's recital. They covered Lord Tennyson's poetry in 10th grade, Elias recognized it.

His memories of the sea were fading by the day. The months passed in Wellington were the fondest of his life. If only his uncle hadn't gone and died and ruined it all, if the New Zealand government hadn't smothered the inquiries into the manner of his death, Elias may still be there.

He studied the curves of the sculpture before them. Elias felt like the Kraken. He felt sorry for the beast. Dwelling ancient and alone in the dark abyss of his home, finally lured to the surface, only to find light and die. Tennyson's poem was suppose to be a Sonnet, but Elias found it sad. He was given a B- on that essay in 10th grade. Apparently saddness was the wrong reaction to the poem.

Asha saw something grander in the sculpture, and Elias opened his mouth to speak to his thoughts when another voice interrupted.

The man before them carried himself like an alpha-male barely tolerating their presence. Elias' eyes narrowed even as they openly studied the marks of injury on his face.

"Sören Lindgren,"
he did not stumble over the pronunciation of the northerner's name. Butchering names only reminded him of being born a hick. Google was handy like that.
"Elias Donovan,"
he started, glancing at the man's hand, but made no move to offer his own gloved palm. "This is Asha,"
he finished.

He half-heartedly thought Soren would not show up. Now they were face to face, he was obligated to say something about the deaths mentioned in the news. "Our condolences for the loss of your colleagues."
Forced, maybe, but he said it. Images of Roopkund's pit of skeletons and gaping maw of a cave swirled in his mind like a whirlpool.

"I mentioned before that I had a proposition for you. Do you know anything about the videos put out by the Lir Navy?"
He exchanged a look with Asha. The Lirs were all gone now.. their fleet decimated. She had been there through it all, and it took a toll on her, Elias knew, even if he could do nothing to relieve her the pain.

"The Lir's beast in the sea is more than a big fish. It's guarding something; and I can prove it. My tale is long, and I will share it with you if you require, but my proposal is simple. I am seeking a man who knows how to extract hidden treasure."

A twisted smile touched his lips as he crossed his arms. That left one looming question. "Do you believe in the Kraken?"

The barest shift in Elias's emotions drew Asha'a attention up from the plaque, and she wandered closer to where he stood as the man in the suit approached them. Her fingertips brushed his in a fluttering and by now habitual motion, though the gloves barred any intrusion from her senses. Afterwards she pressed her hands deeply into her own pockets, wary of how these formal greetings so often involved the shaking of hands. Her large eyes took in the tall man curiously, though he didn't so much glance at her. Just as well since the surprise registered blatant on her features.

She couldn't feel him. Not even a little.

She glanced at El, for a moment a touch confused. Whenever they had encountered another like him before, Elias invariably winked out too, like a predator squaring off. But she could still feel him, and he gave no indication of concern. In fact he was intent on the task. She shifted closer, lips pursed into a small frown, but didn't interrupt the conversation.
The condolences washed over him without comment.

Plenty had asked about the tomb. About what had drawn them there. About how they had discovered what lay beneath the bones when a hundred years of tests wrote the site off as nothing. Plenty asked about the treasures within, and of those there had been plenty.

But no one had sought him out because of the beast that guarded the lake. Slain amidst the screaming ice, but not before spitting the venom that melted his eye.

He knew the story seeped into the ether; that wondrous and probably exaggerated stories circulated an approximation of the truth. There had been no body by the time Declan's colleagues claimed the site and began the laborious process of studying the antiquities within. There were no photos or video feeds proving the claims. But the whispers persisted all the same.

he said simply. "But I didn't believe in Roopkund either."

Soren smiled, amused by the request and the melodrama of its proposal. By contrast of that darkness, the girl at his side looked like a scared little lamb. Children, both of them. But he'd disregarded Declain's enthusiasm at first too; had only agreed to tag along because it had been crucial at the time for him to push aside the seduction of Moscow's embrace. For that reason alone he didn't laugh. Perhaps he was simply in a magnanimous mood, but he indulged them. And he had seen those feeds.

"Prove it, then, Elias Donovan, and then explain why such an endeavour would be of benefit to me."
Relieved of the expectations for a long, drawn out exchange of pleasantries before they could discuss what actually mattered, Elias withdrew his uncle's Wallet. The fact that Soren didn't hang up the phone or laugh in his face was a good sign. He glanced at Asha while the Wallet powered on. She seemed perplexed, although Elias couldn't guess why. He almost asked what was wrong when the Wallet buzzed to life.

Soren wanted to see proof. Elias did not disappoint. "My uncle was a marine biologist,"
so the story he'd repeated dozens of times by now began. Unlike most of the other times, he had a rapt audience, and he methodically went through the details pieced together over the months.

He showed Soren the data that was dismissed as anomalies. He revealed the triangulated coordinates put together with the information published by the Lir navy. "...but then they all perished in a massive fire,"
his voice trailed. The mass murder was probably the government's doing.

He told Soren of the professor at MSU that led them to another anomaly along the banks of the Moscow River. The guardian described by the old man was explained in graphic detail, including the gruesome ritual the locals said must satiate the river spirit to pass safely. It didn't work, Elias was unsurprised to relate. The guardian thrust massive spikes of ice, like arrows from it's many tentacles, and tried to slaughter them all. Leaving out Tony and the crew by name was wise. He had no interest in exposing Tony's secrets.

"...There was something there. I sensed it,"
he explained, knowing it made no sense. "The creature has all but disappeared, yet the energy source remains,"
he tapped his Uncle's Wallet still glowing with the location.

"Finally, there is one last detail to share, assuming you haven't put it together yet,"
he glanced around them as though wary of who was listening. Snake people were every where. Tony long ago warned him of Atharim before Brandon revealed their presence on the air. "This energy source is something unique. The water beasts will need to be slain. I need an ally on the journey. Interested in some treasure hunting?"

Beneath the shelf of his brow, Elias' gaze was piercing as the barbs flung from the ice.
He listened, expression bland as he filtered through the plentiful detail -- some of it startling familiar. Nothing in the boy's earnestness swayed him, and though he absorbed everything carefully he did not become swept up in that dark tide. Just stood, immovable; let the plea wash over him. Elias provided him with all the information he needed, including coordinates, and with one of these guardians already slain by his hand, there was no reason to strike an alliance. He could do this alone, if he chose. If he was willing to pay whatever sacrifice might be asked of him in return.

The prize alone tempted him; stroking at his covetous side, wrapping possessive fingers around his heart.

But the unique resonance luring Elias must mean he was able to draw on the Runes himself. It also meant there was little reason he should not have been able to claim the objects as his own before now, supposing it did not come down to simple ineptness. Which would not make the most useful of allies. Except perhaps as bait. Not that Soren was entirely inclined towards such expenditure.

"I could do this on my own,"
he pointed out mildly. "But let me humour this. You would be asking me to help hunt a treasure you would be loath to give up."
Suddenly, Elias didn't feel quite so desperate.

"You can't do this alone,"
he laughed, but the sound was shrill was wind whistling in the rafters. That was the whole point. Nobody could do this alone. Elias, Damien and Manix, three powerful channelers together, were unlikely to succeed without bodies floating away on ocean waves.

This suit thought he could do what three of them were prepared to challenge? Let him try. It would give Elias a good shot of seeing what they were up against. Even as the monster devoured little crunchy Soren in one gulp.

"You are right about one thing. I am asking you to help. Did you go to Roopkund on the bargain you kept whatever was discovered there? You did keep what you found, is that right? What exactly was that?"

What did Asha feel from him? Was he just screwing with him? "What do you want out of this, then?"
There was the likelihood that Soren could perish at sea. Then the whole bargain would be a moot point anyway.
So the little sea stormed. Sören watched the dark waves toss and churn; the rage of seaform lit by arching spikes of lightning; the harrow of whistling shrill wind like laughter. His pleasant smile slid clean from his expression, resolving to grim patience and slate indifference. Storms did not frighten Sören, nor did they phase him. A child's tantrum, soon to pass. But the way Elias demanded his help like he were a supplicant on bended knee, begging the favour of a god, that irked him. He could feel his fingers twitching in his pocket, the urge to close them into the fist that would seize the power of the Runes into his grasp. Not to fight, but to tower.

He didn't.

But the humour drained out of him.

"I will rephrase then. I could do it without you."
Money and resources were not things he lacked. He collected people as much as trinkets, their gifts among his tools. Most recently, Grey owed him a favour for plucking his daughter from the shadows of the underworld -- that being the second time he had stepped in to save her life. Others bowed under similar weights of debt, or would ignite at the chance to invest for the promise of simple returns. Tales of Roopkund's creature smouldered trailing embers on the web, but they blazed a bonfire through the Network. The chance to study such a beast, to delve beneath the very flesh of myth. A vial of the acid that cost Sören his eye would probably earn enough to fund the entire expedition among the esoterics he frequently bargained with.

He allowed the words to sink beneath the waves. Didn't bother to qualify the assets his help came with -- they had come to him. Instead he sharpened his gaze on them; dissected them in turn, and found them wanting. A creature from the deep, and a vagrant from the streets, by the look of them. He assumed Elias's skills, but if the girl could channel she gave no sign on it. By now she had shrunk back, her cheek almost pressed to the dark leather of Elias's shoulder.

Dead weight and arrogance.

"There was no bargain; I went to Roopkund on the whim of a friend chasing phantoms. I didn't expect to find anything."
He didn't answer the other question, of course, nor even acknowledged it. He had taken what he desired, and would have done so even at Declan's protest, when the resonance filled his mind with the most beautiful music and squeezed everything else out of his head. If the shard had brethren, Sören wanted them -- of that there was no question. And he would take them whether Elias considered it payment or not. The only question now was whether Elias would be coming or not. "But you are not a friend, and I am a business man. I make my living in trades and deals. You're asking me to risk my life, for what? An adventure? Make me an offer and I promise to consider it fairly."

Last chance.

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