Princess Holy Aura – Chapter 01
Princess Holy Aura
First volume in The Ethical Magical Girl
By Ryk E. Spoor
Part I: The Princess and the Rat
The screaming came from the alley to Steve’s right; it was high-pitched, the voice of a child in terror and pain. Steve found himself sprinting down the alley before he’d even consciously realized what he was going to do. This sure wasn’t what I expected after leaving work. Most days he walked home from Barron’s Bagels after cleaning up and making sure the shop was set up for the morning crew, and either prepared for an evening of gaming, or just watched whatever happened to appeal to him.
It seemed that tonight wasn’t going to be quite so quiet.
There were a lot of shapes moving at the end of the evening-shadowed alley, he realized as he shoved his way past a dumpster. He skidded to a halt, frozen for an instant by the macabre nature of the scene.
A little boy — Emmanuel, a boy who lived in the apartment a few doors down from his — was backed into the far corner of the dead-end alley, eyes wide with fear, face bleeding, beating at dozens of feral cats that had surrounded the kid. A large white rat — a pet? — was clinging precariously to Emmanuel’s shoulder, balancing as far away from the hissing creatures as possible.
Jesus, that looks like a Halloween diorama. Steve knew that feral cats could be dangerous in packs, but he’d never seen such a mob around here; one or two, yeah, but nothing like this. Still, it was one thing to attack a little kid, another to deal with a full-grown man. Steve didn’t like fighting, but he’d found that being six foot three and slightly over three hundred pounds with a good deal of muscle could convince most things to not even try.
“HEY!” he bellowed. “SCAT! Get out of here!” He grabbed up a two-by-four from the ground and whacked one of the animals aside. “Go on, get!”
All of the cats turned their heads to look at him, an eerily synchronized action that sent gooseflesh rising in chilling waves across his body. Their eyes glinted a uniform green that seemed, impossibly, to be brighter than the light in the alley, almost as though they really were glowing. As one, the entire pack hissed venomously at him and then turned back to their prey.
What the hell? Steve was taken momentarily aback. Even the one he’d struck was returning to the attack, leaping up a set of crates for a better position. He’d expected the animals to scatter, at least, and really he’d pretty much expected them to run; now that he had a better look, there were only about a dozen of the animals, which meant that he still outweighed all of them put together by more than three to one, maybe four to one. But as Emmanuel threw a panic-stricken gaze toward him, Steve adjusted his grip on the board and struck hard. “I said SCAT!”
He connected well and truly this time, sending the animal flipping end over end across the alley, caught another on the backswing, and bored in to start flinging the creatures aside and get to the boy.
The hisses suddenly took on a furious screeching note, and then they deepened.
Steve fell back, horrified, as the furry little animals swelled to twice their prior size, eyes shrinking to nothing but faint ridges on a black, flat head with a mouth filled with ebony needle-teeth, body distorting to something semi-bipedal, wrinkled batlike wings extending from the shoulders. Blind the things might have been, but they still all faced Steve now, and he had no doubt they could sense him.
His stomach churned with fear, his knees shook, and he wanted to run. But there was a little boy in there, in among those monsters, and a tiny furry creature desperately trying to find shelter, and he was not going to leave them.
On the positive side . . . the monsters were now all focused on him.
One of them lunged, catching the board and ripping it out of his hands with terrifying strength; two more grabbed the board and broke it apart. Holy crap, they’re strong as hell! I need something tougher!
He saw it almost instantly: a lovely thick steel pipe, probably torn out of some nearby house, leaning against the wall just past one of the things. Got to try.
As the creatures started to slowly encircle him, he jumped forward — with a speed that had surprised a lot of people, thinking that his bulk was mostly fat and not merely an overlay of fat on heavy muscle. He raised his iron-toed workboot and stomped as hard as he could on the one in front of him; something crunched and he heard a pained shriek, a quick scuttling to get away that gratified him. Whatever they are, they can feel pain. He hadn’t been sure until now.
Something leapt onto him from behind, sinking what felt like a hundred burning needles into his shoulder and back, narrowly missing his spine. He cried out but finished the charge, caught up the pipe, and then spun around without slowing; his attacker absorbed the impact of his entire weight against the brick wall.
Two more flew at him — literally, flapping those leathery wings swiftly and powerfully to propel themselves through the air. Steve swung the pipe around like a baseball bat and a double impact shuddered down the steel shaft; the two monsters were sent smashing into the far wall.
But now the others, clearly realizing that Steve was a far more formidable opponent than they had taken him for, attacked in earnest. Teeth and claws slashed at his legs, two of them lunged for his arms and gripped, pulling, trying to disarm him, take him down to the ground where he would be dead in a moment.
Steve heard his own scream of pain and fear and it galvanized him; he shoved himself up against the tearing, wriggling mass and forced his body into another charge, ramming into the steel dumpster a little ways up the alley, bouncing back and forth between the walls, using his mass and strength and the hard city itself as a weapon to stun or crush his opponents. He spun the steel pipe around, brought it down in a piledriver blow that impaled one of the night-black monsters completely through, tore another from his arm and hurled it into the wall, hammered his fist into another yawning needle-filled mouth — feeling skin tear and rip — and then spun about like a top, hurling the stunned and disoriented things away.
The steel shaft felt right somehow, balanced in a good way like a fine quarterstaff, and its extra weight was comforting, helping firm his resolve and courage against these living nightmares. A lot of them were down now, but there were still more, six of them, and they were stalking, coordinating — remember they can fly — two of them gone, flanking him in the air, the other four trying to hem him in!
The four in the clear space ahead gave him an idea; instead of retreating, he dove at them, dropping his weight on two of them, a falling anvil, then rolling to his feet before the others quite caught him. The steel pipe whipped around as he rose, and he nailed one of the flying ones, the heavy strike sending it sailing thirty feet almost straight up before plummeting back down to land, limply, on the filthy ground. Steve ignored the aching agony in his arms and back and set the steel staff to whirling up, down, right, left, smashing at anything and everything that moved, the slightest sign of beetle-black motion drawing his wrath and the hard, cold vengeance of steel.
Suddenly it was still in the alley; nothing moved but Steve and his shaking, bleeding arms. He looked around, wary, fearful, but no attack came. Everywhere he looked, there were twisted, monstrous bodies . . . but there was not a hint of motion from any of them.
Emmanuel had fallen to the ground, and for a moment Steve had the horrific thought that one of the monsters had killed the boy while Steve was fighting them. But after checking his pulse, Steve decided Emmanuel had just passed out from shock and fear. No wonder; wouldn’t be surprised if I do, myself.
But the thought of being unconscious in an alley with those monsters — some of whom might not be quite dead — kept him quite focused on staying alert.
From behind Emmanuel crawled what Steve could now definitely see was a large white rat, fur gleaming slivery in the dim glow from distant streetlamps and the skyglow overhead. Oddly, it was wearing a tiny crown of some sort. Kids do put all sorts of strange things on their pets, that’s for sure.
The animal sniffed at Emmanuel, then stood up on its hind legs, surveying the area, sniffing at Steve and the air around. Steve, who had had a pet rat himself some years back, gave an exhausted grin. “‘Sokay, fella. I think I got them all.”
“That you did,” the rat said, with a dignified almost English accent. “Well done, Mr. . . . ?”
Steve blinked, then shook his head. “What the . . . did you just talk?”
“I did. Perhaps it would be better if I introduced myself first, and then you can provide me with your name. I am Silvertail Heartseeker. And you are . . . ?”
Am I nuts now? Did I just snap from boredom or whatever and imagine I was fighting monsters instead of cats? Talking rats? What the hell, Steve? You write better RPG scenarios than this!
He decided, after a split second, that if he wasn’t going to assume insanity, then dream was the more likely explanation, and therefore, being rude to the talking rat — Silvertail Heartseeker — was pointless. “Um, I’m Stephen. Stephen Russ.”
He tried to stand, found that it was really hard; screaming pain from uncountable lacerations echoed through him. I’ve never hurt like that in a dream. Tiny pains, referred pain from something that happened during the day, but nothing like that. It’s clear pain. Not muffled, not dreamed . . .
“. . . is this real?”
Silvertail Heartseeker nodded in a satisfied way. “The natural question, of course. Yes, Stephen Russ, I am afraid this is all too real. You answered calls of the innocent and helpless and risked your life to protect young Emmanuel from things far worse than you imagined existed. For that, I must first thank you. Many there are in the world who would have ignored those cries, and far more who would have fled when mundanity turned monstrous before their eyes.”
Silvertail bounced up and laid a pink paw on Steve’s hand.
Instantly a white shimmer of light flowed out from the tiny hand-shaped paw, light that was cool and soothing and that surged outward through Steve’s body. He saw the narrow rodent face wrinkle in concentration, the whiskers quiver, as the light erased pain, eased tension. Silvertail sagged down, looking as though he had just spent an hour running on an exercise wheel.
Steve flexed his muscles experimentally. There was still pain, but it felt superficial — more like the cat scratches he’d initially expected, not the deep, possibly dangerous wounds the monsters had left. “Wow. Um, thanks.”
“On the contrary, as I said, I thank you. I could not cure all of your injuries, but you will suffer no lasting ill effects from this battle.”Â He glanced at the boy. “Emmanuel will also recover, though he should receive appropriate mundane care shortly.”
He drew himself to his full height — which, standing, was probably all of eight or nine inches — and bowed. “I must formally greet you, who have passed a test that few in your world would have passed — a test of empathy, a test of attention, a test of reaction, a test of courage, a test of endurance, all compressed into this single battle. You are the one, the Heart I have been Seeking.”
Steve felt a chill of awe and anticipation, sensing that the tiny figure before him was far, far more than it appeared, and that it was speaking a ritual, a destiny, not merely ordinary words.
From apparently nowhere, Silvertail Heartseeker produced a glittering brooch, three inches across, of gold and silvery metal, covered with an elaborate pattern in gems. Even to Steve’s untutored eye, it was exquisitely made, the main body in the shape of a strangely broken-pointed star with a jeweled galaxy across it. Silvertail lifted the brooch in both tiny hands and said solemnly,
“Stephen Russ, you are the Heart that was Sought, the Courage that is needed, the Will that is eternal. It is for you, and you alone, to take up this burden and defend the world against the darkness that now rises to swallow the light. Take you up the Star Nebula Brooch, and become that which is your destiny. Take it, and become your true self — Mystic Galaxy Defender, Princess Holy Aura!”