The Test
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Red Dragon Inn - Dragon's Mark -> Things that Go Bump in the Night

#1: The Test Author: Natalya BristolCan Be Found: When she wants to be PostPosted: Sun Feb 22, 2015 9:37 am
    —
The ruins at Delphi were among the most famous in all the world. It was here that Apollo had wrested control of the Oracle from Gaia by defeating her great serpent; here that generations of Ancient Greeks had come to petition the Pythia for news of their future. Even now, centuries later, the place resonated with power, filled with tourists and academics alike, all wanting to touch what little had been left behind by those great figures of myth and legend. Yet Delphi held one secret very close to its heart, a secret only discovered by those who were meant to find it. Avalon had chosen well when it had sent its Champion and Priestess to seek out the Rod of Asclepius, though Nat found that debatable in this precise moment.

The caverns beneath the ruins were real, yes, but they were only accessible by means of a tiny tunnel cut into the rock that opened onto the sea. Which meant that both Rhys and Nat were dealing with their respective forms of claustrophobia as they navigated their way through the dark space, not to mention Nat's acute terror of the water that reached to her chest. She hadn't stopped swearing in her native Russian since they'd entered the tunnel, wishing every second for it to open out and let them free of the oppressive crush of water below and rock above.

"All I have to say is..." Rhys started, grunting his way through a particularly tight passage, "...this thing better be worth it." As if it wasn't enough that it was dark and dank and cramped, it had to be cold and wet, too. At least, the agents who'd preceded them had warned them about what they'd encountered, though in Rhys' experience, there was always something unexpected, no matter how well prepared they were. He paused a moment as he almost got stuck, but let out a breath and somehow managed to wiggle his way through the tight space. "You okay?" he asked, in a hushed voice. There was no telling who or what might be listening, but he needed to hear her voice and know she was all right. Neither of them was very fond of closed in dark spaces, but she had the added fear of water to deal with.

"... nezakonnorozhdennym synom shesti oblapannaya krysy..." Nat jumped as Rhys spoke to her, ceasing her monologue on all things curse-worthy. Her hand groped toward him in the darkness - smaller than he was, the water was brushing her chin as they moved along, but she had little difficulty wriggling through the gaps that were giving him trouble. "You want honesty or politeness?" she asked him through clenched teeth, torn between panic and tears and only managing to stay calm because he was with her.

"Politeness, I think. Lie to me all you want. I'm good with that," he told her, his fingers reaching for hers. "I shouldn't have had that last donut," he grumbled under his breath. He hoped they were wrong about snakes. Just the thought of anything swimming around in the water with them was enough to send him into a panic, which was why he wasn't thinking about that right now. He'd heard her swearing and he knew her well enough to know this was pushing her to the very brink of panic. "It's okay. If the others made it through, we'll make it, too," he assured her, trying to believe that himself.

Politeness it was, then. "I have been better," was what she eventually told him, gripping his fingers tightly as they edged along. "No one said the water would be so high." But blessedly, they were almost at the end of the painfully small opening. Just a few feet beyond Rhys, the rock above them rose from a few inches to a couple of dozen feet, the walls on either side opening out into a vast cavern. Steps led up to dry rock, an enclosed maze-like walkway among the lapping water that led, inexorably, toward the far end of the vast space.

"Maybe it's rained since then," he suggested, wincing a little as he shoved himself through the tight rocks. Thankfully, his clothing should protect him from cuts and scrapes, but he had a feeling they were both going to be hurting later, assuming they got out of this alive, and he refused to think otherwise. He breathed a sigh of relief as he squeezed through the last tight passage and found the space opening up. He turned, holding fast to Nat's hand until she, too, squeezed her way through. He wasn't looking forward to going back the way they came, and with any luck, they wouldn't have to.

She was shaking by the time he pulled her out of the tight little passage, only too grateful for a little dry rock to sink down on and try to get control of herself once again. "That was not a pleasant experience, milaya," she informed him, though it had been her idea in the first place. He'd been all for planting explosives and going in at a run from dry land. She raised her head, blinking as her eyes adjust to what little light there was. It seemed to be emanating from a niche set in the far, far wall, from torches flickering with flame. "Does this seem too easy to you?"

While she sat and caught her breath, he took a moment to take a take a look at their surroundings. He flicked the switch on his flashlight and brought it to bear on the rocky space around them, noticing the light in the not too far off distance that seemed to be beckoning them forward. "Easy? Are you crazy? I felt like the cream in an Oreo cookie back there." He frowned as he turned back around and crouched down beside her, offering her a water bottle, though they had just been surrounded by the stuff. They were both soaked through to the skin, but thankfully, so far, their only obstacle had been the rocks and the water.

Taking a sip from the water bottle, she met his eyes with a faint smile. "Where was the test?" she asked him. They knew by now that the Rod had punished both agents for not accepting the test it had set them to prove their worthiness to hold it, but there had been no clues as to when the test would be revealed, or even how they were going to know when it was in front of them.

Rhys turned again to survey their surroundings, his focus on that gleam of light in the distance. "My guess is we haven't gotten that far yet. I mean, I don't see any Rod around here, do you?" He paused a moment as a thought came to him that he'd been mulling over for a while now. "You don't think there are any snakes down here, do you?" He hadn't been able to get that image of the thing out of his mind, wondering if the snake was real or just a symbol. He'd read the history of it, the mythology behind it, but that didn't really tell them what to expect exactly, and the agents had no recollection of what had happened to them.

"I do not know," she told him, lifting her hands. "Help me up." With a groan, and his help, she found her feet again, glad to find that her shaking had abated now they had taken a moment to recover from what had been a distinctly daunting trip from the rocky beach at the base of the cliffs. "I would have expected to see the snake already, if it was down here." She squeezed the water from her jacket, looking toward the lit niche. "I think we need to go that way."

He took a swig of water from the bottle, careful not to drink too much. While there seemed to be water aplenty down here, they had no idea if it was safe to drink, and Rhys wasn't taking any chances. "Maybe we haven't proven our worthiness yet," he suggested, remembering what they'd gone through once upon a time to prove themselves worthy of possessing Joyeuse, the Sword of Charlemagne. He helped her to her feet, glad to find her shaking had subsided a little. He leaned over to press an almost protective kiss against her temple while she squeezed the water from her jacket. "I think blue jeans might have been a bad idea," he grumbled, hoping he didn't come out of the chafed, though that was probably the least of his worries. "Can't say I blame Ana for screaming when she's got a wet diaper." He glanced toward the niche, shining his flashlight that way to see if he could determine the best route.

#2:  Author: Natalya BristolCan Be Found: When she wants to be PostPosted: Sun Feb 22, 2015 9:38 am
    —
His wife leaned into him as he kissed her temple, laughing a little at his comment on their daughter and his possibility of chafing. "We should get you some leather pants," she threatened quietly, following the beam of the torch as it swept over the maze-like walkway. "Wait ..." Not maze-like at all. Her hand covered his, drawing the beam of the torch back. "It's a labyrinth. A spiral. The niche is a decoy. We need to follow the spiral."

He snorted in response. "You know how I feel about leather pants," he told her. No matter how much she insisted that leather was more practical than denim at times like this, he refused to believe it, finding denim much more comfortable and practical, even if the material did chafe when it was wet. He followed her gaze as she guided his hand and the light, taking a moment to see what she was seeing. "Okay, you're the expert. The labyrinth it is," he said, taking her hand again to lead the way up the rock-hewn stairs to the maze of rock that awaited them.

Nat drew him to a halt at the entrance as they reached the top of the stairs. "In the Minoan myth, the labyrinth was built to contain the Minotaur," she reminded him in a tense voice. "If there is a guardian, it will be at the center of the labyrinth here. See, on the rock ... the darker stone spirals? I think they are the clue, the means to get in and out. And if I am wrong, then I am sorry in advance."

"Minotaur?" he echoed, stifling a shudder. "You don't think we're gonna have to go up against one of those, do you?" He'd only come prepared with a hunting knife, though he could call on the sword Caliburnus at any time, or so they believed. Rhys moved the light from the flashlight over the symbols, trusting himself to Nat's instincts. "If you are wrong, we'll find another way," he told her. "Come on," he said, taking her hand and leading the way into the labyrinth with the flashlight and the symbols to lead them.

For a long time, the only sound was their footsteps on the stone beneath them, their breath in the darkness. The spiral they followed seemed to go on forever, confusing their wits with the unsettling feeling that they were walking in a circle and not getting anywhere. And suddenly, there they were. The narrowness of the spiraling passageway opened out into a small circular space, and in the center of that space stood the Rod of Asclepius. And again, Nat caught his arm.

"Wait ..." She took the torch from him, turning the beam of light onto the mantle of stone above them. Etched into it were the beautiful mystery of Greek symbols. "Know thyself," she read aloud, frowning in thought. "That is written in the Temple above us."

It was a good thing Nat caught his arm or Rhys might have stepped into that circle a little too quickly, too impulsively, which could have led to disaster. He stayed where he was, his gaze following the beam of light to the mantle etched in symbols that meant very little to him. It was perfect how she made up for his weaknesses and he made up for hers. It was obvious to him that she was the brains and he was the brawn, at least, in this case. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" he asked, quizzically.

Her frown deepened as she considered the puzzle, still holding his hand to direct the torch over the floor of the circular space in front of them. It was covered in symbols and sigils, markings she couldn't see clearly from here. "Drisnya," she muttered, yet another curse from her lips as she rolled her eyes. "The leap of faith. I can't see those symbols without passing this doorway, and in passing the doorway, we are accepting the test. The test is to prove that we know ourselves."

"Oh, come on," he grumbled. "They did in The Last Crusade," he pointed out, though that test seemed quite a bit different from this one. He paused in thought as he, too, contemplated the puzzle before them. "There's no reason we both have to go, is there? I mean, why risk both our lives? I'll go. You wait here. That way, if anything happens to me, you can still get out." Of course, Rhys would suggest this - he was nothing if not gallant, especially when it came to Nat's safety.

Nat bit her lip, not happy with this suggestion, but fully aware that it was at present their only option. She sighed, turning to face him. "I do not know what the test will be," she told him. "But do not think. Act on instinct as you would if it were real. I have no doubt that the Rod will find you worthy, milaya, none at all."

"Well, if Joyeuse did, maybe the Rod will, too, though it seems a little like comparing apples to oranges. I mean, a sword is a lot different from a staff of healing... or whatever it is. What's the worst that can happen? I get infected with some disease and get sent back to Avalon. Piece of cake, right?" he said, snapping his fingers like it was nothing, though he knew it was nothing of the sort.

"Just remember, Rhys, it is a tool of healing. That is the perspective it will look at you from." She wasn't sure if she was explaining this very well or not. Sometimes it took days to get a concept through her husband's mind; not that he was slow, but some things were a little obtuse. She reached up, pulling him into a deep kiss. "Be yourself, dusha moya."

"But there's nothing wrong with me," Rhys argued with a confused frown on his face. "How can it heal me of something that I'm not..." He broke off a moment as he realized something. "Oh. You don't think it's gonna make our worst fears come true, do you?" he asked, turning a little pale in the darkness.

She shook her head. "I do not know. All I know is that you must react the way that you know you would if it was real. You must know yourself to be able to take the Rod, and this may be the only way. Are you sure you want to do this?"

"It's either me or you, right? So, it's gonna be me. I'm depending on you to get me the hell out of here if I screw up, though," he added. "Wish me luck!" he told her a little too flippantly, which was usually a sign of his nervousness. He tipped her chin upwards and planted a kiss on her lips, hoping to heaven or hell that it wasn't the last kiss he ever gave her.

"I'll be here," she promised him, gripping his wet jacket as he kissed her. "Be yourself, milaya, and you will be worthy." She had so much faith in him, but she knew how these tests went. He was not going to be happy when he stepped out of it.

"Can't be anyone else, can I?" he asked her, lingering a moment to kiss her again, needing her to know how much he loved her, just in case the worst happened. "Love you," he told her, one arm around her waist to hold her close a moment longer before taking a deep breath and turning to face what was ahead of him. "Might as well get this over with," he said, leaving the flashlight with her. He had a feeling he wasn't going to need it.

And indeed, he did not. The moment he crossed the boundary, light erupted around him, blindingly bright. The damp chill of the cold stone all around him disappeared, replaced with a numbness that drew all feeling from his limbs. Before him, shapes began to emerge from the brightness, figures that were familiar and yet unfamiliar. On one hand stood a man, a wriggling baby held in his arm, a knife sweeping toward that baby's heart. Green eyes looked at him from the infant's face, his own Ana screaming for her Papa to save her. And on the other hand, a hideous hybrid creature crouched low over the bleeding body of his wife, all teeth and claws and sprouting, canine strength, inches away from delivering a bite that would change his world forever. The choice was before him. Did he truly know himself well enough to know which his choice would be?

#3:  Author: Natalya BristolCan Be Found: When she wants to be PostPosted: Sun Feb 22, 2015 9:39 am
    —
Rhys found himself stumbling onto his knees as all the feeling was drawn from his arms and legs, too numb for a moment to do anything but watch in horror as the two people he held dearest to his heart were seconds away from death. Some part of him knew it wasn't real - it was just a test, after all - but the panic and the fear were real enough, terrified at the choice put before him. It wasn't so much having to know which he'd choose, but which Nat would want him to choose. It was almost too easy really, as heart-wrenching as the choice was to make, and it was all too real. "I'm sorry, Nat," he said in an agonized voice, heartsick with the choice he had to make, the only choice he could make, sacrificing the life of his wife for that of that daughter. It was the right choice, he knew, but that didn't make it any easier. Sure steps took him toward the man, knocking the blade from his hand and snatching the helpless baby from his arm. He was damned if he did and damned if he didn't. He could only save one of them; he just hoped he'd chosen the right one.

As his hands closed on the avatar of his daughter, the light faded. The child faded from his grasp, the attacker disappeared. The snarling creature bent over dissipated from view. The circular space reappeared, the cold cling of damp stone returned, and for a long moment, there was silence. Then a wracking, wheezing breath broke that silence. Nat lay on the floor, bleeding from the clawed wounds in her side. This was no illusion, no unreal test. It was the true test. Beside her, the Rod of Asclepius slowly turned in place, illuminated by some unseen light. Know thyself, Champion of Avalon.

He felt a sickening sinking feeling as the illusion faded, and he feared he might have failed the test. He'd chosen to save their daughter, who was in reality safe in Avalon, and not his wife, who was lying on the floor bleeding and broken. "Oh, God, no..." he muttered, his chest constricting with fear and panic and dread. "No, no... Nat..." Tears filled his eyes, terrified that he might lose her. Nothing else was important at that moment but Nat, not the Rod, not Avalon, nothing. Only the life of the woman he loved. He scrambled over to her, drawing her into his arms, tears on his face, sobbing openly, even as he heard the words of some unseen being telling him to finish the test. And there it was, as clear as day - the Rod of Asclepius, and Rhys knew what he had to do. It was the only thing that could heal her. He reached for the thing with pure intent but a heavy heart, hoping only to save his beloved.

The smooth wood felt warm to the touch, the snake unwrapping itself from about the Rod to curl about his wrist as the powerful artifact accepted his intention. The light faded from about the piece, absorbed into Rhys and pushed outward into Nat from the arm that supported her as she struggled for breath. There was no slow, gentle closing of wounds; in a rush, it was as though she had never been injured at all, but for the mouthful of blood she spat onto the ground as she sat up. The Rod went still, the snake undulating back into place to become wood once more. Nat offered her husband a wry smile. "That was unexpected."

He crumbled onto the cold floor beside her, holding her close as the light from the Rod seemed to move through him somehow into her. He felt a strange surge of warmth as some power moved through him, if only for a moment, and then it was like Nat had never been hurt at all. Rhys choked back a sob, his fingers still curled around the Rod, even as he pulled Nat against his chest, breaking into sobs of relief. "Oh, thank God," he muttered between breaths. Test or not, it had nearly broken his heart to go through it, to have to choose between daughter and wife and then to know that he might have lost her anyway.

She gathered him into her arms, the pain of wounds she had not even seen inflicted already forgotten as she sought to comfort her husband in the darkness of Apollo's labyrinth. "Shh, milaya, shh," she whispered into his ear. "It was just a test. I knew you would pass it. You are a good man at heart, and you do not act for selfish reasons." She shifted onto her knees, stroking his hair tenderly, brushing kisses to his temple. "We need to leave," she murmured to him gently. "Before the guardian comes."

It took a few minutes, but eventually the sobs ceased, the pain and the grief subsided. She was all right; they both were all right. They both had survived, and Ana was safe back in Avalon with his sister and her angel. "I love you so much, Nat," he told, just needing her to know that right there and right then, even though she knew it already and had always known it, nearly from the first day they'd met. He drew a hand across his face to wipe away the mess of his tears and climbed to his feet, the rod in one hand, her hand in the other. "Let's go home." Home being Avalon.

"We need to get out of the labyrinth," she told him as he drew them both onto their feet. "There is too much power here to risk the guardian following us into Avalon." And there was a guardian - they could hear it now, the sibilant hiss of scales on stone. Nat's hand tightened in Rhys' as she flicked the torch on. "We should run."

"Oh, Christ," he muttered as he caught the sound of that hiss, his heart freezing in fear. He was no fool. He knew better than to tempt Fate more than once. "Time to go!" he told her, grabbing hold of her hand and turning to hightail it out of the labyrinth with her, this time letting her lead the way.

Whatever else Nat might be, she had a fair turn of speed, keeping her eyes on the stonework as she followed the turning spirals as fast as she could, acutely aware that the sibilant hiss from behind was growing closer. Cue more swearing in Russian, along with the fervent hope that she could part the mists once they were out of the labyrinth itself. Her boots skidded on the stones as she tripped on the edging, lurching forward down the steps toward the water with Rhys firmly in hand.

"Take the rod!" Rhys called as he half-ran, half-tripped out of the labyrinth, soaking wet and gasping for breath. Thankfully, Nat had led the way or Rhys might have never made it out alive. They might have made it out of the maze, but they weren't out of danger yet. The guardian - whatever it was - was hot on their heels, and Nat still had to part the Mists of Avalon before they were safely out of harm's way. What he intended to do seemed obvious enough. He was going to keep guard while she worked on getting them out of there.

Stumbling to keep her feet, Nat swore as the flashlight took a tumble into the water, nowhere near confident enough to dive in after the thing. "What?" she asked, spinning about to find him thrusting the Rod in her direction and turning to face the serpent that was following them. "What do you think you are doing? Keep running!"

"We're far enough. Part the mists! I'm not squeezing myself through those rocks again and watching you half drown with Nagini on our heels." He placed himself between her and the guardian, but close enough that once the mists were parted, she could easily pull him through with her. "Caliburnus! I have need of you!" he called, stretching out an arm to summon the Sword of Avalon to his hand.

"Who?" One thing his wife had not read was Harry Potter, it seemed. With Rhys setting his back to her and calling his sword, he was treated to the sound of his wife calling him something highly unsavory behind him as the rushing hiss of scale on stone grew louder still. In the half-light of the cavern, an enormous snake slithered into view, rising up on its coils to flash ruby eyes down at them, fangs dripping with venom.

He hadn't read Harry Potter either, but he had stayed up late watching the movies when he'd been unable to sleep. Rhys wondered suddenly why he'd taken this tack instead of submitting them to the rocks and water again, which in contrast seemed easy compared to this, but he wasn't sure what would happen if they tried that again now that the Guardian had been awakened. He planted his feet and took a firm grip on the sword, though his heart was pounding with fear. "Better hurry up, Nat!" he called. "This thing doesn't look too friendly."

#4:  Author: Natalya BristolCan Be Found: When she wants to be PostPosted: Sun Feb 22, 2015 9:40 am
    —
"Oh, you think that maybe it has a problem with us removing the object of power from its place of rest?" she snapped at him, trying to empty her mind enough to call the mists down on them. It was not a difficult task, but made infinitely more of a challenge by the water lapping at her knees and the sight of Rhys facing down a giant snake all alone. No, not a snake. Gaia's serpent. "Oh, drisnya," she swore, and quite suddenly her mind was clear, calling up the mists as they formed around her. Nat's free hand reached out to grasp Rhys' jacket and yank him backwards as the serpent lunged ... and she fell backward, onto the cold winter ground of Avalon.

"I passed the test!" Rhys pointed out, as if that should matter. He wasn't sure why the serpent was after them when he'd already passed the test, but there was no time to debate that now. He was just about to swing the sword with the intention of taking the thing's head off when Nat yanked him backwards and he stumbled onto the snowy ground of Avalon, laughing like a lunatic.

The Handmaidens they had startled barely gave them a second look, although the older ones kept an eye when they registered Nat's expression. It didn't matter that the Champion was laughing like a drain, or that both of them were in wet clothes that were quickly freezing to them. Nobody wanted to miss what was coming. Nat watched her laughing husband for a long moment, and then quite firmly slapped him about the back of the head.

The laughter was merely relief bubbling up after such a harrowing experience, a release of pent-up adrenalin brought on by grief and fear and excitement, but it didn't last long. The slap to the back of his head knocked him sober and he swung a confused glare at his lovely wife. "What the hell was that for?" he asked, rubbing the back of his head.

"You were going to take its head off?" she demanded incredulously, pushing herself up onto her feet as her teeth started chattering in the cold. "The last being who did that to a serpent of Gaia ended up connected with the Pythia of Delphi. Did you want to spend the rest of your life linked mentally with some intoxicated fool who can't even speak the future in plain sentences?"

"I was defending you! Or maybe you like being Slytherin food!" he argued, climbing to his feet, too, and doing his best to ignore the cold that was seeping into his veins. He sent Caliburnus away with the merest thought, no longer needed and dangerous to have near now that there was no immediate threat. If they hadn't just narrowly escaped with their lives, this little debate might have been funny. It was clear his knowledge of Greek Mythology was lacking, but then he was the Champion of Avalon, not the Loremaster. "Well, maybe he'd speak more plainly then," Rhys countered, knowing it was a pretty lame response. "We have to get out of the cold. You're freezing," he pointed out, stepping toward her to wrap his arms around her. "Well, don't just stand there gawking!" he said to the Handmaidens gathered around. "She needs a cloak or something!" He wasn't usually that snappish, but he wasn't going to lose her now to pneumonia.

"We ... you ... I ..." Stumbling over trying to come up with some way of explaining just how stupid killing Gaia's serpent would have been, Nat went easily into Rhys' arms, shivering as her clothes froze on her. "You are freezing too," she pointed out, her teeth catching on her tongue as she spoke. "We s-should take this to the Tr-treasury, and s-see Ana ..."

"Yes, we should and we will." As freezing as he was, as much as he was shivering himself, he scooped her up in his arms, one of the Handmaidens stepping forward to offer a cloak and spread if over Nat's shoulders. "We need to get her warm as quickly as possible," he told them, forcing his teeth not to chatter, and typically ignoring his own needs.

"The bathhouse," the Handmaiden nodded, gesturing to the communal baths where the Lady's maidens washed each day, fed by hot springs. Steam rose from the doorway as it opened and closed.

In his arms, Nat yelped a little at the scraping rasp of icy clothing against her skin. "And you," she insisted, despite the violent chatter of her teeth.

He made no comment regarding himself, but only nodded his thanks to the Handmaiden and set off toward the bathhouse, which wasn't far away. It was a place where he couldn't enter though, or so he thought, as he was decidedly male. He set her on her feet once they arrived and took the Rod from her. "You warm up. I'll take the Rod to the Treasury." His hair had frozen on his head and he looked weary and drained from their little adventure, his face pale and his lips starting to turn blue, as cold as she was, but too stubborn to admit it.

"Nyet." Nat's hand wrapped about his lapel with an iron grip and pulled him inside with her, into the bathing heat of the steam. As she advanced into the bathhouse, she raised her voice. "All Handmaidens please cover up, the Champion is close to hypothermia and needs to warm up fast." There was no squeal of alarm, though splashes from up ahead declared that several bodies had removed themselves from the stone baths and were moving to cover themselves. No one seemed ready to argue with the Priestess.

"I'm fine, Nat. You're the one that's-that's freezing to death," he said, teeth chattering just a little. Okay, so he was cold, but at least they were safe and she wasn't smacking him upside the head anymore. "Sorry, ladies! My wife is very insistent." He gave in, letting her pull him into the bathhouse, the heat of the place too tempting to deny.

"Get in," she told her husband, gesturing to the first wide stone bath they came across. Nat turned to the nearest Handmaiden, murmuring quietly to her for a long moment. The ageless woman smiled and nodded, backing from the room to leave the Lady's Chosen in privacy. A moment later, Nat walked straight into the water, not even bothering to try and peel her icy clothes off straight.

He assumed she was asking her to bring them clean, warm clothes, but he couldn't be sure. He set the Rod aside, frowning worriedly at it a moment before realizing no one would dare touch it without their leave. "What I wouldn't give for a glass of brandy right now," he murmured to himself, at least having the sense to take his half-frozen boots and socks off before climbing into the steaming water.

Immersed in the water, Nat groaned at the sting of heat against her cold skin, fiddling with her laces to get her boots off. Her jacket followed soon after, but she didn't bother with the rest, choosing instead to curl herself into his arms. "Mulled wine will do just as well," she assured him. Her hand rose to touch his cheek. "Why do you always choose to fight, dusha moya? A sword is not always the answer."

He sank slowly down into the water, sighing with relief as the heat seeped into his bones to relieve the cold. He wasn't sure which was worse - fire or ice, both as deadly and painful in their own right. His arms went around her as she curled herself into his embrace, only warming them both further. The terror was over; they had won. "It is when your life is in danger," he told her quietly, tilting his cheek into her palm. "There's nothing I wouldn't do for you, Nat. I was terrified I'd made the wrong choice and that I was gonna lose you back there."

"I knew you would make the right choice," she promised him. "I don't know what the choice was, though I would assume it was between saving me or saving Ana. If Ana dies before she bears a daughter, Avalon will end. And if I ever survive something to hear that you sacrificed her for me, I will castrate you." There wasn't much evidence to say if she was being teasing or not, but he knew his wife. She held no resentment against him for the choice that had left her in a pool of her own blood for a few moments.

#5:  Author: Natalya BristolCan Be Found: When she wants to be PostPosted: Sun Feb 22, 2015 9:41 am
    —
He frowned at the reminder of the choice he'd had to make. He'd known it was some kind of illusion or spell, but it had seemed all too real for comfort. "I didn't really have much time to think about it. It was a terrible thing to have to decide between you, Nat, but I knew what you'd want. I knew what my choice had to be." It hadn't even been about what was good for Avalon, so much as what was good for their daughter. "I don't ever want to have to make that choice again," he said, resting his head against her shoulder, close to tears at the memory of it that hadn't faded as quickly as he might have hoped.

She twisted to wrap him tightly in her embrace. "You will never have to, milaya," she promised him, her lips pressing to his temple as they lingered together in the steaming water, soaked through and warm once again. "I swear to you, you will never have to make that choice in reality."

He couldn't bear to tell her what he'd seen, knowing he'd have nightmares about it for a few nights to come. There was nothing more terrifying than seeing your own child come so close to death, even if it was just an illusion. "I need to see Ana," he said, though he obviously wasn't going anywhere in wet clothes again. For now, he was content to soak up the heat of the hot springs, as well as her arms, but he needed to see his daughter before long to make sure she really was all right. He drew comfort from her embrace, just as he hoped she did from him. "I'm sorry, Nat," he apologized quietly at last. "It's just I couldn't bear to see you struggle with the water again."

Reminded of the sheer terror of struggling down that passage, up to her neck in lapping sea water, Nat shuddered, hugging tighter into him. "Spasibo, milaya," she murmured through clenched teeth for a moment, forcing herself to relax, to push away from that feeling once again. "If I had known ... we should have found a different way in." She understood his need to see Ana, knowing it was a need, rather than a wish. He would not rest easily until he saw their daughter safe and well. "I will take the Rod to the Treasury," she told him, despite the wrench she felt at putting off holding her baby that little bit longer. "I will meet you at your sister's house."

"Don't be long," he told her, kissing her lips, though they still weren't going anywhere until one of the Handmaidens returned with warm clothing. "We did it, Nat," he said with a smile. Despite everything, they had succeeded again, and the world would be a safer place for it. That smile was not only relieved but proud. He was proud of his place as Champion of Avalon. It wasn't so much a matter of ego, as it was his desire to help people and keep them safe.

She smiled with him, trading kisses back and forth, reminding him that it had all been an illusion, a test that he had passed. "We did," she agreed tenderly, carefully preventing herself from pointing out how easy it had been. Like him, she was proud of her place; prouder still to have proved that it had been the right choice. This had been their first assignment from Avalon since their ascension to these roles, and it had been completed within a matter of days. No one could grumble now about the positions of influence they had been given.

In some ways, their first assignment had been easy, and in other ways, not so easy. It had been easier than the test he'd had to pass in order to be deemed worthy of Joyeuse, he thought, but just as emotionally draining. Thankfully, it had only been an illusion where Ana was concerned. Rhys wasn't sure what he'd do if anyone ever actually tried to harm her. "It's safer here on Avalon, you know," he told her, though he had a feeling if they stayed there too long, they might become a little too complacent, a little too lazy.

Nat smiled faintly, easing back to look into his eyes. "And how would we get by, not being able to call Aurelia and Ian whenever we like, not being able to visit with Jason and Bethany?" she pointed out. "I love Avalon, but it is sanctuary only for us. We were made to walk the world, together, to serve Avalon where she needs us most. And I would very much miss pizza."

Not to mention Adam and Gina, his oldest friends in all the world - they were like family, at least to him. "I know," he admitted, frowning a little as he looked into her eyes. "It's not us I'm worried about. It's Ana," he admitted, like the over-protective worrisome father that he was. He was willing to do whatever it took to protect their daughter, and yet, he knew he couldn't hide her away somewhere either. She needed to be part of the world, not tucked away somewhere for safekeeping. Nat's remark about pizza made him smile, despite his worries. "I'd miss double bacon cheeseburgers... and chili cheese fries... and tacos... and Chinese..." And the list went on.

"And Ana would never forgive us if we kept her here all her life," his wife laughed gently, finally moving to take off the clothing that was no longer frozen to her skin but just waterlogged. "She is our daughter. She will have her Papa's smarts and his bravery and his integrity. We don't want her to see Avalon as a cage, milaya."

He couldn't help but snort at her remark. "Reckless bravado, maybe. Smarts and integrity she'll get from her mother," he countered, following her lead in stripping down, first the jacket and then the shirt. He had already set the contents of his jacket aside with the Rod, though he hadn't been carrying much. "I know you're right, Nat. I just worry about her safety. That's all."

"We would not be parents if we did not worry," she pointed out, twisting to wave her feet in his direction as she took a firm hold on the edge of the bath. "Pull these off, please." These being the leather pants she was wearing that took effort enough to get on and off when they weren't soaking wet.

"No, I suppose not," he admitted, though she hadn't seen what he had, or so he thought. "You, uh... You didn't see that illusion, too, did you? I mean, what happened after I stepped into the labyrinth?" he asked, as he sloshed closer to help with her pants. "You know, this is why I don't wear leather!" he teased.

"No ... I did not ..." This was offered in a strained tone as she held on tightly, trying not to be pulled across the steaming bath as he tugged on her pants. They were ruined, certainly, but to be honest, she wasn't too concerned. Getting them off without removing a layer of skin as well was the main concern here. "I did not get bitten or scratched by anything, did I?"

He momentarily contemplated cutting the damned things off her, but decided against it, not wanting to chance slicing her by accident. He grabbed hold of the fabric as tightly as he could and gave them a tug, the first too gentle to budge, the second a little harder. Her question gave him pause though in mid-tug. "Bitten or scratched?" he echoed, furrowing his brows at her. "Then you don't remember," he said, giving the pants a good yank.

"Remember what?" She blinked in confusion, yelping as the leather finally slid off her legs with the last yank he gave it. Whatever had happened beneath the Temple at Delphi, she had obviously not been allowed to retain the memory of lying bloodied and dying on the stone.

#6:  Author: Natalya BristolCan Be Found: When she wants to be PostPosted: Sun Feb 22, 2015 9:42 am
    —
Rhys grunted as the force of that last yank sent him thumping backwards against the side of the bath, the leather pants flung backwards with him to land with a splat on the floor. That was one way of getting them off, he supposed, but he'd whacked his elbow hard enough to smart, and funny bone or not, there wasn't anything funny about it!

Nat winced as she settled back into the water. "Spasibo," she thanked him gently, moving across the bath to gently kiss his whacked elbow. That kiss was then touched to his lips. "Your turn, milaya."

"My turn for what?" he asked, more than a little distracted by her kiss, though his elbow was still smarting. At least, neither of them had suffered any major injuries this time around. "Nat," he started, frowning a little as he realized her meaning and grabbed hold of the sides of the bath so she could return the favor and remove the denim that was starting to chafe. "You were bleeding back there, but as soon as I touched the Rod, you were healed. I know what I saw. It wasn't an illusion."

She frowned, confused by what he was telling her. "But it was an illusion," she countered uncertainly, clever fingers undoing his jeans to begin pulling them off his hips. "I do not remember any of that. I remember watching you enter the room, I heard you apologize to me, and ... the next I knew, you were holding me." She gave the denim a firm yank.

"Why do you think..." He broke off, grunting a moment, holding tightly to the sides as the denim budged, almost as hard to get off wet as leather, but not nearly as snug. "Why do you think I was holding you?" he asked, giving her a pointed look. So, it seemed her memory, like the agents who'd gone before them, had been wiped clean of what had happened. It was just as well really. It wouldn't have been a very pleasant memory to keep.

"Because ..." She pulled harder, digging her heels into the smooth stone at the bottom of the bath. "Because I was not the one who took the test?" she suggested, her voice strained once again, though this time she was the one doing the tugging. "If I was somehow a part of the test, then it would make sense that I would not remember it. To remember would be to cause harm."

"How would remembering cause harm?" he asked, the jeans finally coming loose, which was both a relief and a little disconcerting as it made him realize just how much chafing had occurred. Okay, so maybe she was right - maybe he should have worn leather. He stifled a yelp at the friction of denim on chafed flesh and the sting of hot water.

"Sorry!" Realizing that being rough was just making it worse, she gentled her tugging, easing the denim free rather than simply yanking it loose. "The Rod is an object designed to heal, not simply physical wounds, but mental ones, too. Why would it allow me to recall an unnecessary pain? You could heal yourself of that memory, if you truly wished it, milaya. All you would need to do would be to ask the Rod."

"And how does the Rod determine what's necessary and what's not?" he countered, wincing a little as the jeans finally gave way and his legs were free. As painful as it was, he wasn't sure he wanted to be healed of those memories. It was just such worries and fears that kept him wary and made him careful. He didn't want to get lazy or complacent, worried he might miss something and put his family in danger, but did he really need to remember every detail? He knew what he'd seen would give him nightmares for a few days, maybe weeks to come, but it also kept him on his toes.

"I do not know," she told him, tossing his jeans onto the stonework with her pants. "I do not think anyone truly knows how or even why such objects work as they do. But a will strong enough to dominate that power? That does not bear thinking of."

"I'm not trying to dominate anything," he pointed out, misunderstanding her perhaps. "You know what I saw there?" he asked, staying where he was for the moment, on the opposite side of the bath. "I saw you, bloodied and dying, and I knew the only thing that could save you was the Rod. Do I want to forget what I saw there? Hell, yes, I want to forget it. But at the same time, it gives me an edge. It keeps me vigilant. I forgot once, Nat," he explained further. "Something or someone stole my memories from me. I didn't even know my own name. And you know what? I was content for a little while, but eventually, I wanted to know who I was because without those memories, as painful as they are, I'm somebody else. I'm not me."

"I did not mean that you would dominate it, milaya," she told him quietly, a little hurt that despite everything they had been through, he could misunderstand her so easily. "I simply meant that it cannot exist in the world any longer, because someone would find a way." Footsteps echoed for a moment in a whisper of sound, betraying that their dry clothing had been brought for them, and she turned to climb from the bath. He had never told her, outright, any of this; it had been her brother's shade who had made her aware of that chapter in his life. "It was a stupid suggestion. I am sorry."

"Nat," he said, gentling his voice and catching her by the hand as she turned to leave him there. "Don't. Please? I need your help on this one." Whether he'd misunderstood her or she'd misunderstood him or both didn't matter. It wasn't easy for him to ask her for help, and this decision seemed too much for him. He felt like he was damned if he did and damned if he didn't. "I know it seems like a no-brainer, but it's not. Not for me." This wasn't about the Rod; it was about Rhys.

She paused, twisting to look at him. "I do not know what it is you need my help with," she pointed out to him. "I offer a suggestion, I offer advice, and I do not know what your reaction will be. Whatever I say, it will be wrong, because I do not know what you want me to say, milaya. And of course I do not understand, I did not experience it."

"It won't be wrong because it comes from you," he told her, looking about as needy as a lost puppy. Did he dare tell her what he saw or would it be enough to just give her the gist of it without going into detail? "It sounds so easy to just ask the Rod to help me forget, but that scares me, Nat. I don't know why. Maybe I'm afraid of losing my memories again. Maybe I just don't want to forget because I'm afraid it will make me complacent." What he was asking without coming right out and asking was that he needed her help in sorting it out.

Nat stilled for a long moment, finally working out what was bothering him here. She turned to ease back into the water. "The Rod will only remove what you ask it to remove," she told him. "You will not have memories that make you who you are taken away from you. Just the test. But that is not a decision I can make for you, milaya. It is your mind, your memories. I can only tell you what I know of you. And what I know is this ... you do not need the memory of an illusion to love and protect your daughter."

"It's not just about Ana, Nat," Rhys replied, reaching out to touch her cheek, his voice quiet and close to tears again at the memory of almost losing her. "It's about you, too." But maybe she was right. Did he really need to subject himself to more nightmares in order to protect those he loved? Hadn't he already been doing that before he'd stepped into the labyrinth? Wasn't that partly what the test had been all about? "I couldn't save you. I had to choose. I don't ever want to have to do that again."

She held his gaze for a very long moment, wondering if he even realized what it was he was saying. "Rhys, you died for me," she reminded him quietly, her own eyes wet with that awful memory no one could take away from her. "You died in my arms because you took a risk you would never have taken if I was not there. How can you possibly think that the illusion of a choice could ever affect the man that you are? I know you. I know that I am safe with you, that Ana is safe with you, that Micah and Dylan will be safe with you, always. There is no reason to hold onto a memory of something that did not happen."

#7:  Author: Natalya BristolCan Be Found: When she wants to be PostPosted: Sun Feb 22, 2015 9:43 am
    —
"I'd give anything in the world to take that pain away from you, you know," he told her, his voice quiet and trembling with tears. "But I wouldn't change what happened there. I did what I had to do, and I'll always do what I have to do where you and our children are concerned. I love you more than you can possibly imagine. You're the best thing that ever happened to me, dorogaya. You and Ana are everything to me." He drew her close, needing to touch his lips to hers, needing her to know they weren't just words, that he meant what he was saying with every fiber of his being. He had decided finally, though he had not told her what that decision was just yet.

"Then you do not need me to help you make the decision, dusha moya," she murmured beneath his lips, hugged close into him as he kissed her. She knew he meant every word, but that did not mean that she knew what his choice was going to be. "I would not see you suffer for something that did not happen, Rhys. It is a cruelty."

"It's a good thing I have such a wise wife," he told her, a faint smile breaking through the tears, fingers touching her cheek to wipe away the tears of her own memories that haunted her still. It wasn't just an illusion he'd seen there in the labyrinth, but she was right - what was the point of remembering something she didn't and that hadn't really come to pass? What was the point of tormenting himself with such a memory? "I won't be able to tell the Lady what happened," he pointed out, though he had a feeling she probably already knew. His heart felt a little lighter just knowing he wouldn't have to carry the burden of it with him any longer. "I'm sorry I made you angry, Nat. I didn't mean to."

"She already knows," Nat told him softly. The Lady knew everything when it came to them, it seemed, and though that might have seemed an attack on their privacy, she begrudged Elaine nothing. There was still a little jealousy there for the closeness of the relationship between her husband and the Lady of Avalon, but Natalya had shut it away. It had no bearing on their lives. "I was not angry, milaya," she told him softly. "I was hurt, that you could believe that I would think you would dominate such a thing for your own ends. That you could believe I know so little about you."

"I misunderstood. I'm sorry," he apologized. It was true, or as close as he could come to the truth. He'd been so wrapped up in the horror and confusion of those memories that he'd completely misunderstood her meaning. "Can you forgive me?" he asked, nudging his nose against hers, confident she would forgive him in time, just as she always had, no matter how stupid he'd been.

She rolled her eyes at him, her smile small but there. "What is there to forgive?" she asked him gently. "It was a misunderstanding, milaya, that is all. If we need to talk, we can talk later. For now, we have unfinished business."

"Talk," he repeated. "I intend to do a lot more than talk," he told her, pulling her close against him to give her a small preview of what awaited her later. If they kept on like this, she'd be pregnant again in no time, but he didn't really care. The more children, the merrier, and they'd been promised two more.

She laughed a little, patting his chest as he drew her close. "You have to see Ana," she reminded him. "I have to take the Rod to the Treasury. Do you want to do this now, or do you want to wait, until Lionel can talk you through it?"

"No, let's do it now," he said without hesitation. Once he'd decided on something, there was no point in waiting, and the sooner those memories were gone, the better. Besides, he'd prefer it were her, rather than Lionel to see him through it, trusting her implicitly. It wasn't that he didn't trust the Master Templar; it was only that he thought this a little too private to bother the man with.

She nodded, reaching out to pick up the Rod where it lay. The snake shifted a little beneath her hand, uncoiling to wrap itself about her wrist, surprising her as she looked at it. "Oh ..." A faint smile touched her lips. "I should have thought of that. An unselfish reason to use it; I have it, this time." Her free hand rose to gently touch his cheek. "You are sure this is what you want?"

He watched as she picked up the Rod, wondering if he should warn her about the snake, but it was already too late, the thing coiling itself about her wrist. It was an unsettling feeling, but it seemed that was how the thing worked, and once they were through, it would go into safekeeping in the Treasury with all the other items Avalon held secured there, safe from the wrong hands, never to be used again, unless completely necessary. "Yes," he replied, once more without hesitation. "You're right. Why torment myself with the memory of something that didn't really happen?" Oh, there were so many memories he'd have liked to have purged from his brain, but it was only this one that he asked for because without the memories of his life, as painful as some of them were, he wouldn't be who he was.

"Then I will take it away." Her hand slipped to rest over his heart as she looked down at the Rod in her hand, a little unnerved by the way the snake seemed to be looking right at her. "The memory of the test, nothing more. Please." The Rod glowed in her hand, the light passing through her, warm and powerful, seeping into Rhys through the hand that lay over his heart. Wiping away the painful memory of what he had done to prove himself worthy to lift the Rod from its resting place.

It was strange how the light and the warmth seemed to radiate into his chest, though the memory of the test was in his head. For a moment, it seemed as though nothing was happening. He felt suspended in time and space, as though nothing mattered, as though time itself had ceased. There was no pain, no conscious knowledge of what was going on in his head. The memory of the test there, and then suddenly, it was gone, and no searching of his memory would bring it back. He blinked a moment, remembering everything that had happened except for that one piece of the puzzle, feeling only relief at its loss. He seemed to know that something awful had happened, but he couldn't remember for the life of him what it was, and somehow he knew it was better that way. Still, he couldn't help but tease his wife a little, his heart light again and full of his usual mischief. "I'm sorry," he started, looking at her with a puzzled expression on his face. "Who are you again?"

The horror that rose in her expression was heartbreaking to watch, proving that he really did need to work on his timing when it came to pranks like this. "Nyet ... no, no, that was not my question!" She pulled away, tears suddenly streaming down her cheeks, scratching at the snake wrapped about her wrist, wanting it off before she damaged it in her pained fury.

#8:  Author: Natalya BristolCan Be Found: When she wants to be PostPosted: Sun Feb 22, 2015 9:43 am
    —
Rhys' expression mirrored her horror when he realized he'd been a little too convincing. "Nat! It's okay! I was only kidding!" he told her hurriedly, pulling her around to face him. "I'm sorry. It was a stupid thing to do," he said, looking understandably chastened. Oh, she was really going to be angry with him now.

Tears did turn to anger this time, and he had definitely earned the slap she gave him in his chest. "That was not funny," she growled at him, shaking her hand in his direction. "Get this thing off me!"

"No, it wasn't," he said, though he was having a little trouble hiding the smirk from his face, biting his cheeks so that he didn't break into a mischievous grin. "Relax and stop flailing around!" he admonished. "You look like a bird flapping a broken wing," he said, reaching for her hand to very carefully ease the coiled snake from around her arm. Teasing or no, it seemed to have worked. He was back to his old self again, for better or worse.

As his hand touched the Rod, the snake uncoiled itself from her wrist, resuming its rest about the staff itself, returning to its wooden state. Unfortunately, Nat's temper was not so easily mollified, and it had been something of a trying day. She pulled away, stepping out of the bath to grab a towel and dry herself off, her jaw clenched with fury.

"Nat, I'm sorry, but you have to admit it was a little bit funny... wasn't it?" He really had no clue why she was so upset. The spell or whatever it was had worked, and he just couldn't resist teasing her a little bit and right after they'd resolved one argument, going right into another. "Nat?" he asked, reaching out to touch her shoulder and realizing she really was pissed at him. Very pissed.

So pissed, she didn't even trust her voice. Holding her mouth tightly closed, she shook off the hand he laid on her shoulder, holding up one finger to warn him against trying again. Now was not the time to try and cajole her into finding his teasing funny. She pulled on the clothing that had been left to her with little care for how her presentation came out, very unlike the woman he knew. "I will go to the Treasury," she said in a stiff tone. "Go and see Ana."

"Nat," he tried again, at a loss as to why she was so angry or how to make it up to her. "I'm sorry. I was just kidding." He had a feeling it was going to take her a little while to calm down, but she had to forgive him sometime, didn't she? Frowning like a child who'd just been scolded for doing something stupid - which in a way, he was at times - he turned away to put his own clothes on, sulking miserably. He knew he was an idiot. This was probably why he'd never managed to stay with anyone very long. To be fair, he'd never had a proper upbringing past the age of nine, no mother to teach him proper manners or that it was rude and even hurtful to tease someone in such a way. Little did she know, he'd feel guilty and blame himself long after she'd forgiven and forgotten, but maybe that was a good thing.

She paused in the act of taking up the Rod once again. "We will talk about this later," she told him, and her tone suggested that it was not a conversation he was going to enjoy. "Go and see your family, I have work to do." Her boots echoed on the stone floor as she walked away, steaming with hurt anger that just couldn't quite be expressed yet.

"I love you!" he called after her as she walked away, knowing that wasn't quite going to cut it, at least, not until she cooled down. He muttered a few words of profanity, mostly at himself, wishing he could take back what he'd said, but it was too late for that. "I'm gonna have to say a hundred Hail Marys for that," he muttered to himself, pulling a tunic on over his head. He wasn't quite sure why he was going to see Ana and not to the Treasury with Nat, but he knew it had something to do with the test that he'd taken and that he couldn't quite remember.

That was his biggest clue, but without some help, he wasn't going to be able to work out quite why his wife was so angry with him. Lucky for him, there was always plenty of help on Avalon. First stop, a little house built into the hill where a fallen angel and his wife were babysitting a very special little girl.

((His timing could do with some work, couldn't it? Very Happy They'll survive, they always do!))



Red Dragon Inn - Dragon's Mark -> Things that Go Bump in the Night


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