Nolan Redcliffe

Interlude 11B – Erin And Nevada (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Yeah, well fuck you assholes too!” A loud clattering sound accompanied that outburst as Erin Redcliffe hurled the phone she had been using against the nearby wall of the empty (aside from desks and chairs) classroom she had stepped into. As it fell to the floor, she added in its direction, “Guess what, I’m gonna get hold of my dad whether you stupid fuckers like it or not!” 

From the doorway, Nevada spoke up. “Still having problems getting through to him, huh?” The young blonde teacher was holding an enormous brown sack in both hands that was completely overflowing with random objects, from a tall lamp, to a stuffed rabbit head, to a golf club, a long set of bells attached to a rope that hung out one side and jingled with each motion, and more.

“What–oh.” Spinning that way in surprise before realizing who it was, Erin visibly flushed, her face turning almost the same color as her recently vividly dyed hair. “Sorry, this is your classroom, isn’t it? Hang on, I’ll get out.” Walking quickly to where she had thrown the phone, the girl bent over to pick it up, mumbling to herself about finding some other place to scream.

“It’s okay,” Nevada assured her while shifting the heavy bag, making the lamp slide out of sight to reveal an umbrella with a shotgun attached as the handle. “Someone should get some use out of it. Not like there’s any classes going on til tomorrow anyway.” Squinting at her, she added, “I heard you and that new girl you brought in tried using Dreamjaunt to get hold of your dad, and even that didn’t work?”

After a brief hesitation, Erin nodded slowly. She held the phone (undamaged thanks to magical reinforcement that was intended to keep it intact through intense fighting) against her chest while murmuring, “And we know the spell worked on our end, because that’s how we contacted Vanessa and the Mason twins back here. Err, Lucas twins? They’re going by Lucas now, right?” 

“Yup, that’s right,” Nevada confirmed. “And if the Dreamjaunt worked for them, then it should have worked for your dad unless they were specifically blocking you.” She made a face at that thought, shaking her head. “In which case, damn. They really don’t want anything getting through to him.” Raising a hand to her chin, the blonde woman murmured quietly, “They must be doing that for everyone who leaves a family member back there when they take off. Or maybe just the ones who have a history of joining the Rebellion before.” Sighing then, Nevada added, “You know, cuz as long as he doesn’t realize you’re free and clear, he’ll keep playing nice with them.”

“Yeah, that’s kinda what I figured,” Erin agreed, still squeezing the phone tightly. “I thought I’d be able to get through to him once we got here, but everyone’s so busy. Vanessa and the others already left on that uhh, I think it’s a rescue mission? I’m not sure. Everyone else has their own things, even Dylan’s trying to get to know what’s going on around here. I don’t… know who to get help from.” Her last words were murmured softly under her breath as she lowered her gaze. 

“Well, I’m here, and like I said, no classes til tomorrow. So, I’ve got free time.” With an easy smile, Nevada stepped the rest of the way into the room, letting the door close behind her. “And to tell you the truth, I always liked Nolan.” That said, she heaved the enormous bag of apparently random junk over onto one of the desks, wincing as a set of bowls fell out to the floor. 

Ignoring those to be dealt with later, she made two of the nearby chairs slide closer and turn to face one another with a flick of her hand, gesturing for Erin to take one. “Let’s figure out how we’re going to let him know he can give those guys the finger and get his butt over here, huh?” 

Blinking twice before smiling as she moved to sit down, Erin managed a hesitant, “You’ve really got time to help? I mean, you don’t have some other life and death mission to run off on?” From the tone of her voice, it was clear that the girl had already become accustomed to that.

Wincing, Nevada took the other seat. “Trust me, I’ve got time. But yeah, I guess people around here are pretty busy lately. You know it’s nothing personal, right? It’s not that they don’t care about you or your dad. They do. They just–there’s a lot going on. Trying to keep all you students in the right classes and learning while also keeping up on these rescue missions that just seem to be getting more and more dangerous, with the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden people setting up traps to try to get people back under their thumb. Sorry, back where they can teach people right from wrong, as they’d put it.” Her head shook. “It’s a whole thing, believe me.” 

“I know it’s not personal,” Erin agreed, foot kicking against the floor lightly with a soft squeak. “And I know I just got here. But that doesn’t matter. None of that matters. I just have to let my dad know where I am.” 

“Then that’s what we’ll do.” With that announcement, Nevada held her fist out, waiting for the younger girl to bump it. “Don’t worry, Erin. Whatever it takes, we’ll break through that wall they’ve got your dad locked behind and get him out of there. And I swear I’m not just saying that cuz your dad still owes me seventeen homemade desserts after I kicked his butt at Jagdausflug last year.” 

“Man, why does he keep betting on that game?” Erin lamented. “He sucks at it. I beat him so bad back when we played, he’s had to do the dishes for like three years straight.” 

With a broad grin, Nevada offered a shrug. “I dunno. Dude’s always convinced he’s got a new winning strategy. Hey, maybe when we get him back, we can talk him into playing both of us together. Might be a good way of getting you a brand new car or something.” 

Giggling a little despite herself before swallowing it down, Erin quietly asked, “You’re sure we’ll get through to him? I just… they really don’t want to let him go.” 

“Hey, trust me, Erin, we’ll get him out of there,” Nevada confirmed. “And if any of those assholes try to get in our way, well…

“You saw the shotgun umbrella over there, right?” 

******

Back when the Rebellion had first been restarted a few months earlier, the fact that some of the Heretics were actually Hybrids, people with a mix of human and Alter parents, had come to light. Fortunately, this did not end up exposing every graduated Hybrid Heretic. A few had revealed themselves in order to openly join the side that didn’t think they deserved to die for existing, of course. But others remained silently in place, taking advantage of their positions to covertly help now and then. There wasn’t a lot they could do openly, given how many eyes were now watching for traitors. It was easy to be seen as suspicious. But they could help here and there. 

Being who she was, Nevada was in a unique position of knowing who and where basically every single Hybrid Heretic was. She knew them, and they knew her. Not as well as they had known Professor Zedekiah Pericles, but still, enough. They knew she could be trusted, absolutely. 

That trust meant that she was able to contact one hybrid in particular, who quietly reached out with his own contacts to find out certain schedules. Or rather, one schedule. Her contact was able to quietly track down exactly where Nolan Redcliffe was supposed to be that day. 

“They really sent him on a hunting trip?” Erin asked in disbelief as she and Nevada were sitting in a car parked on the roof of a tall parking structure, overlooking a few other buildings. Their eyes were on one warehouse in particular that was toward the end of the street. From their position, the two could barely see the mouth of an alley beside the building. From what their contact had said, that alley was to be the staging point for a raid into the warehouse itself. 

“They’re trying to keep him and others like him busy,” Nevada murmured before glancing toward the girl next to her. “And, you know, show them just how much good they can do. I guarantee the missions they’re sending people like your dad on right now are obvious hero trips. They won’t send them on any questionable missions. The things they’re hunting are gonna be the real worst of the worst, the monsters that kidnap and eat innocent kids, the big beasts that don’t leave any questions about whether they’re bad or not. You know, the ones that won’t challenge their assumptions at all. They’re trying to convince people like your dad that Crossroads really is the good side by showing them alllll the horrible monsters they help put a stop to.” 

Erin made a face, head shaking. “They really think my dad’s that easily manipulated? I mean, of course Crossroads does good things. That’s not really in question, right? You can do good things and bad things at the same time. If you take a gun and mow down a bunch of people in a prison, there’s a good chance you’ll get some that deserved it. But you’ll also hit a hell of a lot who definitely didn’t. I don’t think anyone on the Rebellion is saying that we shouldn’t kill the real monsters, just that not everyone who isn’t human is a monster.”

Reaching out, Nevada ruffled the girl’s hair with a small smile. “Yeah, pretty much. It’s kind of a level of nuance a lot of the people making these decisions about where to send your dad don’t really get. Or they just don’t care and don’t understand why others do. They think just showing how bad some of those Alters out there can be will convince people not to take any risks with them, I guess.” 

Erin was quiet for a moment, her gaze locked on that alley across the street and down several floors from their elevated position. Finally, after several moments of silence, she asked, “Do you really think we can get him out of there by ourselves? I mean, there’ll be others with him.”

“Only a couple, according to my old friend,” Nevada assured her. “Crossroads doesn’t exactly have a lot of extra people to throw around big groups at the best of times, let alone with this whole Rebellion going on. They’ve got to deal with people like us while trying to keep up with all the normal hunts. It’s spread them a bit thin here and there. Emphasis on the here right now.” She glanced to the girl, hesitating before adding, “The thing we really need to worry about is any spells they might’ve put on your dad’s equipment or clothes. You know, things that could yank him back if something goes wrong. They’d probably tell him it’s for his own safety with all the dangerous things out there, but everyone knows the truth. And he’d put up with the lie because-”

“Because he thinks he’s protecting me,” Erin murmured darkly. “Same reason he’s playing along with the rest of this. That’s why he hasn’t already taken off, because he thinks they still have me as a hostage.” She folded her arms tightly and frowned. “How many bad things do you think he’s done just to protect me already? How many people would still be alive if I’d just left with the rest of you guys that first night? Or just… or just gotten out earlier?”

Nevada was silent for a moment before speaking up. “Erin, listen to me. That kind of thinking doesn’t help anything. Believe me, worrying about what could have been won’t get anyone anywhere useful. We may have a lot of powers, but changing the past isn’t something we can do like that. The truth is, I do wish that we had managed to take the time to grab you and everyone like you who would have chosen to come with us. Unfortunately, there wasn’t time. And look at it this way, if you hadn’t stayed behind, you never would’ve met Dylan.” 

“That’s true,” Erin murmured thoughtfully while still staring down at the alley. “And she’s definitely worth meeting. Her and Fiesta and the pups.” That last bit was added with a small smile as she finally glanced toward Nevada. “Did you know–” 

“There,” the blonde woman suddenly announced, raising a hand to point back the way Erin had just been looking before. 

“Oh, of course,” the girl muttered, “the second I look away from–” She cut herself off in mid-sentence, because turning back that way revealed the thing–the person–she had been waiting to see for so long. “… Dad…” she breathed out the single word in a gasp. 

Indeed, Nolan Redcliffe himself, a thin man of average height with brown eyes and matching hair that fell to his shoulders, stood just barely in view at the mouth of that alley. He wore a beige suit, and was accompanied by two other men, as expected. All three of them looked like ordinary, boring office workers on their way to lunch, who had just happened to pause there at the alley to chat for a minute. 

“Of course they sent him with Coleman and Bridger,” Nevada murmured under her breath as she recognized the two men Nolan was with. “Those two are a couple of Ruthers’ most loyal–never mind. We’ll get him out of there. Let’s see if they split up at all before going in there. Just sit tight for a second, okay, babe?” 

Erin was clearly anxious, but she agreed. Sitting in the car, she watched while one hand squeezed the door handle so tightly her knuckles almost turned white. It took everything she had not to bolt out of the car and shout out to her dad. Seeing him there, being this close after everything that had happened to keep them separated, it was so hard not to shout to him. But she had to be patient. She had to wait. Because if they messed this up and those assholes took her father away again, they’d be a hell of a lot more careful from then on. Erin might not get another chance like this. Hard as it was, she would wait. She would be patient. 

That patience seemed to pay off about a minute later, as Nolan and the two men he was with did indeed split up. The other pair moved around toward the front of the building, while Nolan himself seemed to be focused on an emergency exit door a few feet further down the alley. 

“This is our chance.” With those blurted words, Erin shoved the door open and was already out of the car before the other women could respond. She moved to the edge of the parking structure, getting ready to hop down. Sure, it was a bit rushed, but as far as Erin was concerned, she had waited long enough. No way was she going to lose this chance to get her dad out of there. He was right there, in plain view, and his escorts had already moved away. 

Nevada, however, was a little more cautious for obvious reasons. And it was a cautiousness that, like their earlier patience, would pay off. Just before Erin would have hopped over the edge of the parking structure to drop to the ground, the other woman reached out quickly to catch her arm. “Wait.” There was a sudden tenseness to her voice, a fear that none of her students had heard the new teacher display before.

“Wait?” Erin echoed in disbelief. “What are we waiting for n–” 

“Look.” With that quiet, shaking voice, Nevada pointed to a figure that had just appeared in the same doorway that Nolan had been paying attention to. The door hadn’t moved at all, yet there was a woman standing there. Either she had been invisible, or had stepped through the closed door. Either way, the woman had short, dark hair and was saying something to Nolan. 

“She’s gotta be one of their targets or something, come on!” Erin blurted, still intent on getting to her father. 

But Nevada kept hold of her arm in an iron grip, holding the girl from leaving. In fact, even as she pulled her back away from the edge with one hand, the woman quickly held up a glowing coin with the other and cast an invisibility spell. It wrapped around the two of them moments before the woman in the alley and Nolan himself both turned slightly to look that way. They seemed to watch that spot briefly, then returned to their conversation. 

“Wha–what’d you do that for?!” Erin demanded in disbelief. She was half-struggling, trying to twist her way out of Nevada’s grip. “You said you’d help me get to my dad, and he’s right there! Those other guys’ll be back any second. Let go!” 

“Erin, stop, trust me.” Nevada kept hold of the girl, pulling her tightly against her own chest to keep Erin within the bounds of her invisibility spell. It did more than just stop people from seeing them, it also masked their sounds and most other ways to sense them. “Stop, it’s not about your dad, it’s about her!”  

“Her?” Erin shook her head. She wanted to struggle even more, wanted to jerk her way free and get to her dad. But she also trusted her teacher, young as the woman might’ve been. “What do you mean? She’s just some woman. Probably another Heretic or something. She doesn’t even–” 

“She’s not another Heretic, Erin,” Nevada interrupted. Her gaze was focused intently on the spot where Nolan and the woman were engaged in deep conversation. “I’m sorry. She already has your dad. We can’t get him away from her right now. Not without a lot more help.” 

“What… what do you mean?” Erin turned, confusion written across her face. “Who the hell is she? Why can’t we get my dad away from her?” 

“Because,” Nevada quietly informed her, “She’s disguised right now, but I know her. I know what she feels like. I can sense her. When I see her, I know her. That woman, she’s not a Heretic. She’s a lot worse than that. Erin, Crossroads doesn’t have control of your dad right now.

“Denuvus does.” 

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Mini-Interlude 36 – Larissa and Sariel

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the first meeting of Sariel (Vanessa and Tristan’s mother) and Larissa (Sands’ and Scout’s mother) after they were both adults (after Sariel was banished from Earth and had to connect to the last person she possessed, which was Larissa as a child)

Eight Years Ago

Larissa.

The voice was faint, a barely audible sound somewhere in the back of Larissa Mason’s mind. It was so soft and muted that the woman was almost confident that she had imagined it as she stepped out of the shower. The whisper was closer to an errant thought within her own mind than it was an audible voice, as if she had personally thought her own name for no reason.

Pausing, she let her head tilt to the side while focusing. It wouldn’t have been the first time that someone had contacted her telepathically, obviously. As the Head of Student Affairs for Crossroads, she dealt with angry complaints from parents and students alike, some of whom had the power to send their annoyances directly to her mind.

Ah, being a Heretic was full of interesting situations, that much was for sure.

After a few seconds of listening, she didn’t ‘hear’ anything. Shrugging to herself, Larissa quickly dried off and dressed before heading out of the bathroom. She was immediately ambushed.  

“Mommy!” Nine-year-old Sarah barrelled directly into her, almost knocking Larissa over with her exuberance. “Can we have pizza for dinner? Please, please? It’ll be easy to clean up and pizza’s like all the food groups at once. It’s got vegetables and meat and dairy and bread and–”

Smiling a little, Larissa reached down to hoist her daughter up from the floor. “Pizza?” she exclaimed with mock surprise while holding the girl close. “Do you even like pizza?”

The response was a shocked yelp of, “Uh huh! I love pizza, everyone likes pizza! It’s pizza!”

Pursing her lips thoughtfully as she held the girl away as though studying her, Larissa slowly shook her head. “Mmm… noooo, no, I’m pretty sure you hate pizza. We should have your favorite foods. Like brussel sprouts, eggplant, and nummy nummy creamed spinach!”

“Mommy, no, no!” Eyes wide with terror at that particular thought, Sarah’s head shook back and forth. “No, pizza! Pizza, Mommy, pleeeease?” She stretched the last word out pleadingly.

Smiling a bit despite her attempt to look serious, Larissa pretended to hem and haw for a few seconds before capitulating. “Oh, all right, I imagine Risa can pick up some pizza on the way. I’ll let her know.” Of course, it would be more convenient to have pizza delivered, an act that Larissa remembered well from her years as a normal Bystander. But, advanced as Crossroads society was, they had yet to find a way to have a regular pizza chain deliver to the island.

The resulting delighted squeal from her nine-year-old daughter made Larissa simultaneously smile and wince slightly. It was right next to her ear. “Yay! Thanks mommy! Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Sarah babbled before squirming her way free to drop to the floor. “Sandy!” she called, pivoting to run off and find her sister. “Sandy, we’re gonna have pizza, real pizza pizza!”

Watching the girl run off, Larissa shook her head while tugging a single hair from her own head. Using her Stranger-gained power, she converted the hair into a small bird. Whispering the message for Risa Kohaku about bringing pizza with her when she came to babysit the girls for the evening, she sent the bird off. That done, she started for the bedroom. There were still a few things to put away, and she had about an hour before it would be time to leave.

Larissa.

Again, the voice-that-wasn’t-a-voice. Hearing it, or at least believing that she’d heard it, Larissa paused and turned to look around. Her brow knitted slightly as she whispered a quiet, “Yes?”

Nothing. There was no response either in her mind or aloud. The voice didn’t return, and Larissa once more became convinced that she’d imagined it. Shrugging, she went back to her work. There was a lot to get done if she was going to meet Nolan in time. And not meeting her old friend would be a disaster.

After all, she couldn’t expect the man to clear out a nest of gargoyles without help.

******

“Sorry for dragging you out here away from your kids tonight,” Nolan murmured a while later as the two of them stood in the doorway of a closed antique store somewhere in New York. They were using it as cover from the deluge of rain that hadn’t let up at all for the past twenty minutes. “I didn’t know Liam was off-world when I called.” He glanced to her, raising an eyebrow. “You should’ve told me, I would have called someone else.”

Larissa kept her eyes on the building across the street, shaking her head slightly. “The twins are nine, Nolan, not two. They’ll be okay with their Aunt Risa for the evening. Besides,” she added with a tiny smile while turning her gaze to him briefly. “It’s good to get out and stretch my legs a little bit. I’ve been training, but it’s been awhile since I was in the field. Don’t wanna get sloppy.”

The man who had been one of her teammates while the two of them were going through Crossroads chuckled. “In that case, glad I could give you an excuse to get out.” He gave her a curious look while using one hand to brush his damp, shaggy brown hair away from his eyes. “What about the girls. How’re they doing? Miss their Uncle Nolan enough to give me hugs?”

A smile touched her face. “You could leave for five minutes and they’d miss you enough for hugs, Nolan.” Sobering a little, she looked back to him. “You really do need to visit more often.”

The man nodded then. “You’re right, especially if it means more twin-hugs. I’ll make it happen.”

Biting her lip, Larissa looked to him. “Speaking of which, how’s the adoption thing going?”

He didn’t answer at first, taking a deep breath that seemed to steady himself as though he had bad news. Then Nolan looked to her, winking. “The Committee approved it two days ago.”

Eyes widening at that announcement, Larissa demanded, “They did? Wait, are you screwing with me right now? Do not screw with me on this, Nolan. Don’t you dare screw with me on this.”

He was chuckling, bobbing his head up and down. “That might’ve been another reason I wanted you to come out tonight, yeah. You are looking at one totally approved single parent.” Eyes shining with a mixture of pride and happiness that proved just how hard it had been for him to hold it in for this long, he added, “Her name’s Erin. She’s about the same age as the twins.” Sobering noticeably, the man continued. “Her parents were um, her dad split when she was three, took off with some Colony-girl and decided he didn’t want to be a father anymore. Then her mom was killed last year. She’s been bouncing between a bunch of relatives since then, but nobody wanted full responsibility for a little girl so she ended up in the system.”

Larissa hesitated. “That’s… that poor kid.” Her hand caught his arm. “But Nolan, you’ve wanted a little girl since we were in school!” Since he’d been with Julie, really. But Julie had broken his heart and moved on, and Nolan had never really gotten with anyone else. Yet his desire to have kids had never gone away, even if he didn’t have a partner to share with. And now, now he would have someone, a girl who sounded like she needed someone as much as he did.

Larissa’s mouth opened to say something else, only to stop as movement in the windows of the other building caught her eye. “Looks like our friends are up and moving around.” Lifting her hand, she formed a circle with her index finger and thumb before using her stolen Stranger powers to magnify the view in the space between her fingers as if she was looking through binoculars. A moment later, another power allowed her to change the view to see through the wall of the building. “Yeah,” she murmured then. “Looks like three of them, just like you said.”

Nolan grunted. “They’ve been feeding off that no-tell motel down the street. You know, focusing on prostitutes and runaways, people that aren’t gonna be noticed very fast.” There was an undercurrent of anger in the man’s voice. Which wasn’t surprising. Nolan Redcliffe had always seemed to feel particularly defensive of people whom most tended to not care that much about. He spent a good part of his time in the field helping out at Bystander homeless shelters and soup kitchens, watching out for the types of Strangers that liked to prey on those people.

“Well then,” she announced with a nod. “I guess we should go take care of these assholes.”

They split up then, Nolan waiting for Larissa to make her way around the back. Then he would head straight in as soon as she gave him the signal, driving the gargoyles back toward her so that the two of them could catch the monsters between a rock and a hard place.

She took the long route around, to avoid setting off any warning signal. Working her way back around the far end of the street and then in from the rear, Larissa was passing by a dress shop when, from the corner of her eye, she saw one of the mannequins abruptly turn to face her, its long blonde hair seeming to blow dramatically in a non-existent wind from inside the store.

Larissa.

Jolting and stumbling a little, the woman snapped her gaze that way while her hand moved to the weapon holster on her belt. She focused on the window display… only to find nothing out of place. The mannequin that she could have sworn had turned to face her was back in its normal position and… wasn’t blonde. It had short brown hair, and wore an entirely different outfit than what she had thought that she’d seen in that brief couple of seconds from the corner of her eye.

“Okay,” she muttered to herself slowly. “This is not normal.” Stepping back from the window, she looked around once more. Maybe… maybe she should send a message to Nolan to pull back until she could figure out what was wrong with her, why she kept hearing that voice in her head.

Larissa. The voice came back faster that time than it had before, and was somehow ‘louder’ in her head. Or at least a bit more clear. It sounded… familiar somehow, as if she’d heard the feminine voice before, even if she couldn’t actually place where she remembered it from.

Eyes glancing up and down the street, Larissa frowned. There were a few people in sight, bustling through the rain without paying attention to anything around them. Rain that didn’t actually touch her, as another of her powers ensured that the water fell to either side of her body. Normally, she wouldn’t have cared. But in this case, even though fighting while soaked with rain might’ve looked cool, it was also a lot harder than the movies made it seem.

So she was completely dry, standing there in the middle of the downpour while the very few people who were still on the street hurried on their way. None were paying any particular attention to her. And certainly none were actually talking to her, either out loud or in her mind.

“Okay,” she spoke outloud in a quiet voice. “Whoever you are, you’ve got my attention now.”

There was another pause, just long enough that Larissa was starting to once again get the paranoid thought that she’d imagined the voice. And in the kind of work that Heretics did, imagining voices was both distinctive from and a lot worse than actually hearing voices in their heads. One meant that they were dealing with someone with telepathy, while the other meant… well, it meant that they’d been dealing with monsters for entirely too long.

Finally, however, just as she opened her mouth to speak again, the voice returned. Like the last time, it was stronger, to the point that it almost seemed audible, like it wasn’t just in her mind.

Larissa.

“I’m here,” she whispered out loud, tensely. She needed to hurry and get into position before Nolan wondered what was taking her so long and started to think something had gone wrong. But this was… what was this? She couldn’t understand it. The voice in her head, its familiarity… it was as undeniable as it was unexplainable. And this time, it said more than just her name. Yet for every word that she heard, more seemed to have been lost somewhere in the ether.

Larissa. — sorry. —- can only — even — tried to —- trying — years — can — to explain.

“Who are you?” Larissa’s voice was a quiet, yet firm demand. She had to know who was speaking to her, why the voice was so familiar even though she couldn’t place it. She had to know what they were saying, what they wanted, and why it was coming through so weakly.

Pivoting in a circle to take in the whole rain-soaked street once more, distracted from her original goal, Larissa jumped as the voice returned.

Trying to — taking a lot to — the connection — was harder than — would be — hold on.

A slightly longer pause then, silence aside from the drone from the ever-present rain. Then…

Is that better? It feels better. I can feel you a little more clearly.

Again, that… familiarity that she could almost place, like a name that was right on the tip of her tongue. “Who are you? Do you need help? Did we work together? Did we go to school together? How do I know you? Why do you sound so familiar?” In her confusion, the words kept coming.

Larissa, I… A pause then. My name is Sariel Moon. And I… I’m sorry, but I need your help.

“Sariel… I know that name.” How? How did she know the name? “But I don’t know any Moon.”

We weren’t classmates. We were… slightly closer than that. Another slight pause. I need you to listen. You’re not going to want to, but you’re the only hope I have right now, the only chance.

I told you my name. It’s Sariel Moon. But… Again, the voice paused. No. No, I have to tell you everything. It’s not fair. It’s not fair for me to ask for your help if you don’t know the truth.

“Listen to me,” Larissa interrupted. “I don’t know how I know you, but whatever help you need, if you can reach out telepathically to me, you can reach out to others. Gaia, Gaia Sinclaire, she might be able to help you better than I can. She can probably make contact if you just tell–”

I can’t talk to anyone but you, Larissa. One more pause, then… You were the last person I possessed.

In the few seconds that followed that bombshell, even the rain itself seemed to quiet. It was a thoroughly deafening silence that stretched on until Larissa finally blurted, “You what?”

Somehow, she sensed the wince from the other end. Sorry, that’s not how I wanted–I… the truth. The truth is that my name is Sariel Moon, and I’m what you call a Stranger. Capital S.

“No.” The word came reflexively before Larissa cursed out loud. “Damn it, fuck. No, I am not having a conversation with a Stranger. I am not–what–what do you mean, you poss–no. No.”

Larissa, listen, it’s complicated but there’s a reason that I had to–

“Shut up,” she interrupted, pressing both hands to either side of her head. “I don’t know what you’re trying to do or how you got into my head, but If this is some kind of threat, if you think you can come after me or my–”

Heretic.”

The voice, so filled with hate and promised violence, was far different from the one she had been listening to. Aside from the obvious difference in tone, it was spoken aloud, from behind her.

She turned, pivoting just in time to see what looked like a massive stone foot slam into her chest. Larissa was picked up and hurled backward a good ten feet. If she’d been any weaker or had fewer defensive powers, it would have collapsed her ribcage and probably killed her right then. As it was, the air was knocked out of her and she found herself on the ground.

It was one of–no, two of the gargoyles that she and Nolan had come to hunt down. They’d come, either fleeing from Nolan or heading out for their next hunt. Either way, they’d seen Larissa and recognized her as a Heretic. And they’d taken her by surprise.

Gargoyles. They were a little different from what most people thought. Oh, sure, they had massive, demonic stone-like bodies. But those were just a facade, a shell. The actual creature known as a gargoyle was only about a foot tall. They were tiny, pointy-eared creatures that looked closer to gremlins from that old eighties movie than the mighty beasts that they were known as.

It was the gargoyles’ power that had led to their reputation. They were able to manifest and control a stone-like (but often much stronger than ordinary stone) material to such an incredible degree that the creatures actually fashioned what amounted to armored suits for themselves. Armored suits that looked like what people thought of gargoyles. They used the suits in combat, and when they weren’t in use, the gargoyles parked their stone-like armored combat suits rather than spend the time to make more later on. In the past, they had often left their armored suits on the ledges of churches and temples, which had helped lead to the modern Bystander belief that such a thing was normal. As well as, obviously, the architectural choice of fake gargoyles. Which had apparently just complicated life for every Heretic who had been hunting the gargoyles before people decided to give them cover by making it impossible to differentiate between parked gargoyle combat suits and simple statues.

And now… now two of them were bearing down on her, while she was lying on the ground still trying to get her breath back from that first blow. One launched himself forward, great stone-like wings flapping down hard to propel himself literally on top of her. His taloned foot came down hard enough on her wrist as she reached for the weapon case at her belt to snap the bone, before his fist backhanded her across the face so hard her ears rang.

Switch. Water-form. Switch into her water-form. She could do that. Just… had to… focus…

Except the gargoyle’s hand was around her throat, its claws cutting easily through her skin as he cut off her air. Strong as she was, the gargoyle’s combat suit was even stronger. She couldn’t breathe, and if she couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t focus… and without focus… she… couldn’t…

“Let her go.”

The voice, it was the one that she’d heard in her head… only spoken out loud. It came from the side, in the middle of the otherwise empty street.

Together, both Larissa and the gargoyle that was holding her throat turned slightly to look that way. They saw… a blonde woman, who stood there in the rain, watching them with narrowed eyes. In one hand, she held a small stone, a chunk of broken concrete.

“I’ll say it again, but not a third time,” the woman announced. “Let… her… go.”

“Seosten!” the gargoyle’s loud, gravelly voice snarled. “But alone. Not the master here, not the master in this place.”

As the first one spoke, the other gargoyle that had appeared stepped down into the street, its combat-suit gleaming in the glow from the streetlights reflected in the puddles. “Kill Heretic, then kill you.”

The woman, Sariel Moon, let her eyes drift from the closer gargoyle back to the one over Larissa. “You know what I am. But you don’t know who I am.

“Allow me to introduce myself.”

With that, the woman’s hand snapped up. The small bit of concrete that she had been holding flew out, crossing the distance between her and the gargoyle that was standing over Larissa like a bullet that had been shot from a gun.

There was a sharp, sudden clanging noise, followed by a much… squishier sound. Then the grip on Larissa’s throat abruptly slackened. She was released, the gargoyle’s suit slumping over a little while blood seeped out of the thing’s mouth and eyeholes.

It took the Heretic woman a moment to realize what had just happened. This… Sariel had just thrown a chunk of rock so accurately, and with just the right amount of force, that it had actually entered the gargoyle’s combat suit through the eyeholes, hit the back of the inside of the head, then somehow ricocheted directly into and through the much softer, flesh-covered head of the actual creature further down within the suit, killing it instantly. And she had done so by chucking a broken bit of sidewalk… from at least thirty feet away… in the middle of a rainstorm… at night.

“Your much more intelligent forefathers knew me as Artemis,” the woman informed the remaining gargoyle. “I am not a lackey, or a soldier, or anything else you might believe you have a chance against. I am the goddess of the hunt and of the moon, the protector of young girls, bringer of death for those who stood against Olympus.

“And you are standing in my way.”

Not for long, he wasn’t. The gargoyle took a hasty step back, then sprang upward, his mighty wings carrying him a good fifty feet up in one leap. At the same time, the nearby suit, the one with the dead creature inside, flew up as well. Apparently he’d exerted his own stone control to bring the thing (and his dead partner) along.

The moment he was gone, the woman staggered a little. A grunt of effort escaped her, and she quickly took a few steps toward the still-prone Larissa. As she approached, her body became visibly transparent.

“No… no, I can’t hold it. I can’t hold onto it.”

“Wh-what? What, you’re a… you’re a…a…” Larissa stammered, staring at the rapidly fading figure in front of her while her mind reeled. Saved. Saved by a… by a Stranger. A Stranger who didn’t set off her senses, but a Stranger nonetheless.

“We don’t have time,” Sariel… Artemis, whoever she was announced. Already, she was almost invisible. “Listen to me, listen, Larissa. I will explain. I swear that I will explain. But you have to keep this secret. Please. You will be in danger if you don’t. You can’t tell anyone about this. I–I won’t hurt you. I would never hurt you. But my… my children. You have children, I know you do. So do I. And they’re in danger. My children and my husband. Please. I swear to you, I will explain everything. All of it. But you can’t talk about it. And… I need your help. You’re my only hope, Larissa, the only chance I have to find my children and husband again. Please, you–”

Then she was gone. The figure, and the voice, had both vanished.

“Larissa!” That was Nolan, appearing beside her with his axe in one hand. “What–are you alright?” he demanded, reaching a hand down to her. “You never signaled. Then the gargoyles started moving. I tried to get to you, but there were… complications. What happened?”

For a moment, Larissa didn’t say anything. She accepted the hand up, still staring at the spot where Sariel had been.

“Larissa?” Nolan repeated before grimacing. “That’s it, I’m calling in for help. They can–”

“I’m okay.” Turning back to him, Larissa gave the man a smile. “Sorry, I just got my bell rung a little bit there. But I’m fine. See? Just dandy.”

Sariel, Artemis, whoever… or whatever she was, the woman had saved her life. And then begged for her help. Help with her children. It might have been manipulation, or a trick. But… but she had saved her life. So Larissa would wait and hear her out the next time she… made contact.

She owed her that much.

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