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A Curious Scent
The worst part was when her mind stretched to its limit, then snapped back like elastic. After that her pack was gone, too far away to sense, and Tenzin was truly alone -- with many more miles to travel. The scent of a trail look her east before south to Delhi, following curious rumours to a village in Uttarakhand. Shadows kissed the sky before she arrived, joining a group of weary women trekking home after a day spent collecting green-fodder for cattle. They made amiable company, and Tenzin was glad to bask in the murmur of their voices and the steady heartbeat of their footsteps. It was another hour before they finally pierced the heart of the village.

Elder Gokul welcomed her curious visit, and over chai and warm stew he spun a story, relieved to have it reach rākṣasa hatyārā ears. An Ancient Soul had visited -- one of the Spirit Possessed -- and they and a companion had awakened a beast that slumbered at Roopkund. Gokul had offered a great treasure to appease both man and beast; one that would allow stealthy passage to the tunnels below. He touched Tenzin's sleeve, where her tattoo nestled, when he admitted the talisman he'd given bore the mark of the saṃsāra. Her brows peeked in question, but he did not know what the amulet did: just that it had allowed the man to kill the beast, though at grave cost.

"Another man died,"
he told her. "Now more will come."

It was a four day trek to the lake. Roopkund was surrounded by glaciers and situated near the base of two of the three Himalayan peaks that made up the Trident, an area completely remote of civilisation. The lingering stench of burnt flesh seared her nostrils as she approached the ridge that once held a basin of thick, clear ice. But nothing of that remained. The water had drained entirely, baring the curve of an underground entrance amidst the hundreds of bones. On instinct Tenzin's senses sang out, seeking her pack's support -- and finding nothing. A frustrated snarl curled her lip, but she pressed on fearlessly across the carpet of bones.

Natural stone curled above her head. A staircase down into darkness. She recoiled at the faint tang in the air, the hairs on the back of her neck shivering. Death lingered, though the body had been removed. She padded on curious paws, stiff with caution, but scented nothing alive within. Discomfort prickled her skin at the hug of stone walls; she tried to align her thoughts with that of a den, but her surroundings were too alien to supply comfort. Water pooled at the bottom, thick and deep, overwhelmingly stagnant. Curious fingers touched the smooth walls, imagining the beast rising swift and sinuous to once break the ice overhead.

After a moment longer she found a door still cracked open, an inscription above it. She devoured the image hungrily, then pushed into the space within. A low hum of awe escaped the next breath to leave her lungs. Lights hung suspended in nothingness, casting watery shadows over the room within. The air was surprisingly clean for so deep underground, but overcast by a hint of salt that made her think of the coast - somewhere this place was far from. Treasures crammed the space, but her gaze was caught on the walls behind, where spidery inscriptions and faint images hung in shadows.

At the centre, cleared by a ring swept clean, stood an altar. She knelt by it, gaze following the intricacies of its design. "You are very old,"
she told it reverently. Now that the beast was dead and the lake's secret flung to the wind, it would only be a matter of time before this cavern's treasures were despoiled. Tenzin adored the deeper mysteries, but it seemed a shame to disturb them in order to excavate their secrets. Her fingers shadowed the relief of a trishula amidst the waves, rising and falling with each of its prongs. Creation, maintenance, destruction. Past, present future. The three gunas.

"And you were guarded by something very powerful."

She stood from her crouch, contemplating the shortness of her time here as her eyes skipped over the glimmers of gold and pearl. She had no interest in plunder, but this was obviously an Ancient place -- the lights alone were clearly spirit-wrought. Its excavation should not be left to unknowing minds; something of great value had been kept here. But she had no Athari cousins to easily call upon, and no way of knowing what she sought. As Gokul feared, other men would come before long. Nothing could stop that.

Her jaw hardened against the desire to leave everything untouched. She did not look for items of value, but for those inscribed with written word. Things that might be of importance or of use to understand what was left behind. A few minutes intent search unfurled an animal skin that still smelled of the sea, its innards roped with letters. Within nestled a gleaming fragment of carved bone. Her brows pulled low at the strange revelation. She recognised the letters but could not read them. They were ancient Greek.

It was cold down here, and every second leeched more warmth from her skin. Tenzin itched to stay, but the wolf in her soul thrashed with the need to escape. She had four days trekking ahead in these frigid climes, and could not afford to weaken her body by lingering. Numbing fingers folded the skin and bone and tied it into her pack. She pulled back on her thick gloves, unsatisfied with her search, but forced herself to lope up back to the surface.

A week later
New Delhi teemed. Rickshaws and cars warred on the congested streets, the fumes sticking in her throat. A cacophony of scent assaulted her, enlivening her senses into a frenzy. Someone yelled as she wove a path through the traffic. A vehicle almost brushed her nose, but her gaze drew fixed ahead. A small crowd gathered about the news holo on the street corner, and Tenzin eased herself amongst them to watch. A great arch dominated the feed, flowing molten from the earth. The Ascendancy's severe face interspersed the commentary. Magic is real, read the ticker at the bottom of the screen. Whispers around her echoed her own slack-jawed shock.

But it didn't end there. BREAKING flashed a violent streak above the newest headlines; a burned body being loaded into the back of an ambulance, the Kremlin a glittering backdrop. An horrific still of the face. Tenzin blinked, dry-mouthed, through the press release that followed. A dark-haired Russian who spoke sombrely of a foiled nuclear attack. Her skin shivered as she pushed herself back and away from the press of people, heart rattling in the cage of her chest. Because among the bulletin images had been one she recognised. The serpent biting its own tail.
[Image: twolf.jpg]
If they stand behind you, protect them; if they stand beside you, respect them; if they stand against you, destroy them.

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