Princess Holy Aura – Chapter 02
Steve goggled down at the slightly oversized rat with its overly-shiny white fur, tiny golden crown, sitting on his hind legs and regarding Steve with a far too knowing look. “Become what?”
“Mystic Galaxy Defender, Princess Holy Aura,” Silvertail repeated calmly.
The repetition of the ridiculous phrase left Steve speechless. He would have laughed, but the situation was not, in fact, funny; instead, he stood there, rubbing his broad face and feeling the never-quite-eradicated five o’clock shadow rasping on his palm, looking around at the monstrous, eyeless corpses scattering the alleyway around him, trying to grasp everything that had happened.
As the ebony bodies began to evaporate like dry ice in the slanting sunlight breaking through the clouds, the ludicrous words finally bounced back into his consciousness. “ARE YOU COMPLETELY BLIND?”
“While ordinary white rats do often have vision problems,” Silvertail replied primly, “I can see far better than you — into the soul, in fact, as well as more mundane spectra.”
“Then perhaps you can see why the word ‘Princess’ isn’t exactly appropriate,” Steve said sarcastically. “Let alone the rest of that hackneyed Magical Girl word salad you spewed.”
“You need to have a little more respect for an ancient tradition, Stephen Russ, especially as it is now your destiny to take the Star Nebula Brooch and the name of Holy Aura.”
“You have got to be kidding me, furball. Go find a nice klutzy junior-high or high-school girl — this Holy Aura is like fourteen, isn’t she?” Steve had watched more than enough magical girl or mahou shoujo anime to know the outline of any plot involving a magical girl and a cute furry animal.
“Well, yes, roughly fourteen in physical –”
“Exactly. Or if you want to avoid the stereotype, find the most awesomely competent schoolgirl you can and give her this . . . brooch.”
“So, you want me to send a fourteen-year-old child up against the beings who sent those?” Silvertail asked quietly.
That stopped him like a sledgehammer. The melting monsters were now night-crystal skeletons of claws and fangs and graveyard wings, and the memory of their savagery had not faded. “You just told me that’s how old, um, Magical Defender –”
“Mystic Galaxy Defender Princess Holy Aura,” corrected Silvertail.
“Fine, Mystic Galaxy Defender Princess Holy Aura,” he repeated, trying not to laugh at the ridiculous name. “That’s how old you said she was.”
“That is the necessity of the magical girl or mahou shoujo manifestation of the power, yes.”
“Look, I could, I guess, kinda take it if I was King Holy Weapon or something.”
“The matrix was determined thousands of years ago, Stephen Russ. It can no more be changed than you could shift the mountains in their courses, and even if it could, I have good reasons not to do so.”
“But why me?”
“Because,” Silvertail said, and suddenly he was not supercilious at all, but tired and grim, “I have a conscience, and because there are some very practical limitations of the power.”
“A conscience?” He remembered the earlier exchange. “Oh. You don’t want to send a little girl out against your enemies.”
“No. I have done so before, and each time it has gnawed at me, eaten at my resolve, no matter what the reasons or the stakes. And even if I felt no such remorse, the requirements are extreme. Can a girl of that age, in this civilization, truly understand what we are asking of her? What would you do to someone who recruited your fourteen-year-old daughter, if you had one, to become the main warrior in a battle against forces that could destroy your world?”
“I think I’d kill you.”
“Yes. And you would be right to do so. What would it do to such a girl to be placed in that situation? Even if she survived, what would she be like after fighting in a shadow war against such enemies — ones that make those you just defeated look like gnats?” Silvertail sighed. “I have tried many options through the eras, Stephen. I have seen so many die. I have seen so much that was wrong.”
“What are the practical limitations of the power you mentioned?” Steve was starting to realize that, if this wasn’t the most bizarre dream he’d ever had, he was on the verge of the most important decision . . . well, maybe in the world.
Silvertail opened his mouth, but there was a slight stirring nearby. Emmanuel was starting to come around.
Steve grimaced. Dammit. I’d forgotten about the kid in this insanity. “We’ll pick up on this later, okay?”
Silvertail nodded. “I will pretend to be nothing but a pet until you say otherwise.” He scrambled nimbly up Steve’s pants and worn leather jacket and settled himself comfortably on Steve’s shoulder.
“Hey, Emmanuel, you okay?” Steve asked.
Emmanuel sat up, shakily, looking around. Following his gaze, Steve could see that there was barely a trace of the monsters, and nothing that would draw the boy’s attention. “The cats! They turned into monsters!”
Steve put his best “concerned adult” face on. “What? No, though they did puff themselves up and fight back. Scary as heck. But they’re gone now.”
Emmanuel was pale under his dark skin tone, and was wobbling on his feet. Steve caught him. “Hey, take it easy.” Picking up the little boy, Steve could feel him shivering, and there were still many scratches and bites visible. “I’ve got you. It’s just a little way to your house. Just relax.”
Shaking, the little boy gripped Steve’s arms tight as he headed out of the alley. Good that he’s a skinny little thing; wouldn’t want to carry someone much bigger very far.
In a few minutes he’d reached the door to the Ochoas’ apartment and knocked. The door was quickly pulled open; Emmanuel’s mother stepped back with her hand to her mouth, saying what Steve thought was “My God!” in Spanish. His father shoved his chair away from their dinner table and ran to join her, leaving two other boys and three girls staring with worried eyes.
“It’s all right, um . . .” — he ransacked his memory, dredged the name up — “Luciana, I don’t think he’s been hurt too bad.”
He let Luciana take the boy as Alex — short for Alejandro, if Steve remembered right — looked at both of them. “What happened, Mr. Russ?”
He’d already decided how to tell the story on the walk here. “Bunch of feral cats; never seen so many in my life. I heard him crying in the alley, ran down, and chased ’em off. They didn’t want to go right away, as I guess you can see.”
“Jesus.” Alex frowned. “Some of those cuts are . . .”
Steve knew exactly what the other man was thinking. Animals might be rabid, certainly might cause infections, he should take the boy to the hospital, but the cost . . .
Steve sighed, dug into his pants and pulled out his wallet. “Here. I know you’ve got basic insurance, but the co-pay’s what, a hundred for the ER?”
“A hundred and fifty.”
Ugh. Well, ramen isn’t that bad, I can survive on that and what Barron’s Bagels will let me skeeve off them. “Here’s two hundred. That should also get any meds they give him — ”
“What? No, no, Steve, I can’t — ”
“Take it. I want the kid taken care of right, and so do you. Maybe you’ll be able to pay me back someday, or just do something for someone else, okay? No big deal.”
The Ochoas both tried to argue, but he refused to take no for an answer, and they did, after all, really want to have the doctors look at their son. He got out finally, evading the too-effusive thanks with an excuse that he was late for an appointment.
He looked somewhat forlornly at the McDonald’s that he usually passed on the way from work. He’d been planning on treating himself to a cheap dinner, but that wasn’t happening now. He muttered a small curse as he realized that he’d lost, and completely forgotten about, the small sack of bagels he’d been bringing home from work. Thinking back he now could remember the bag falling and breaking open. Total loss. “Ugh. Well, there is ramen. And maybe the gang will bring some snacks tonight.”
Finally he got to his house — or rather, the house he rented an apartment from. It was a third-floor apartment, which from his point of view was pretty swanky; at least he didn’t have to deal with people trampling over his head at random hours, other people had to deal with him.
Have to remember to pay Lydia the rent tomorrow. Which will leave me like thirty bucks. Ascending the stairs, he got to his apartment and shut the door behind him, locking it and putting the chain on. “All right, Silvertail,” he said. “You can stop the act.”
“Thank you, Stephen.” Hearing the refined accent was actually something of a relief; the events of an hour past had been so bizarre that they had started to acquire a dreamlike quality. “I must say, you conducted yourself in a fashion truly worthy of a — ”
“Do not go there, not yet.”
“As you will.” Despite the straightforward reply, Steve got the impression that Silvertail would have been grinning broadly in vindication, if rats could have grinned at all.
“Emmanuel’s family never noticed you.”
“No. I thought it best that I was unremarked, and I have had long practice at that over the years.”
Steve busied himself with digging out some ramen; to his minor gratification, he found that there was still a bag of frozen vegetables in the freezer, so he broke that open and put some into the broth as it was cooking. “You hungry, Silvertail? And if so, what do you eat?”
“Famished, in fact; I used a considerable amount of power to heal you.”
Not without a wince at the small but now significant cost, he added a second ramen packet. “Okay, I’ll have food for us both in a minute.”
Time to focus on this . . . ludicrous situation. I’ve got guests coming soon. “Now . . . I was asking about the ‘practical limitations’ that you mentioned?”
“The power you call ‘magic,’ and that we might as well keep calling that, has the ability to . . . not violate, precisely, but to trick reality, to make the laws of reality in effect look the other way, to negate reality in specific ways. But that takes energy. A great deal of energy to negate the very foundations of reality. And one rule we cannot violate is that energy cannot be created from nothing. Thus the energy to perform all magic comes from the magical being itself.”
Steve untangled that after a moment. “You mean that this Princess Holy Aura burns her own mass to get the energy to do her stuff?”
“Exactly. Why do you think your depictions of magical girls tends to show many of them with astounding appetites? We’ve worked hard to disseminate the meme, so that it can be recognized, perhaps accepted, because support and belief are also powerful forces for magic to draw upon. But the energy itself can only be drawn from the actual body of the mahou shoujo.”
Steve looked down at himself and grinned wryly. “Well, it’s not like I don’t have a few pounds to spare, I’ll give you that. Why else?”
“Mindset. You came into that alley determined to protect others, and with the willingness to face pain and injury in combat if necessary. How many fourteen-year-old girls, or boys for that matter, as opposed to adult men, have that mindset? Oh, they can learn it, of course, just as young people of all ages have been turned into soldiers, but an adult who has developed it naturally is more stable.”
“Plus, if this . . . Princess keeps even part of my knowledge, she’s got a lot different perspective on the world than someone who’s less than half my age.”
“Correct. Yet . . . you have a certain . . . idealism, Steve, a belief in the general rightness and justice that is, or should be, in the world, and that, also, fits my needs. Am I correct?”
A part of him wanted to deny it, because it was becoming more clear that the impossible talking animal was making sense in a certain twisted way. But . . . “Yeah. I guess. I want to believe that people are good, that the world is a good place.”
“And if you have a chance to make it a good place?”
“Damn you. Look, don’t you see this is all kinds of wrong? If I have to be this . . . Princess Holy Aura. Well, okay. Maybe. If I just have to be her when fighting. But . . . Jesus! It’s not like I have anything against girls, but this is just . . .”
“I understand your reservations, Stephen Russ. But you may have to wear that form and seek both allies and enemies, for our enemies also understand the same weapons as we.”
“Why in the world did you guys choose this . . . particular shape for your superweapon?” he demanded, even as he took dinner off the stove and served it into two bowls.
“Thank you,” Silvertail Heartseeker said as the bowl was placed before him. “To answer your question . . . psychological warfare,” Silvertail Heartseeker said. “Firstly, such a girl will be underestimated in nearly all cultures and times. They will not be seen as the formidable force they are, and even those who should know better will subconsciously underestimate her. Secondly, that age is often a representation of innocence and purity on the edge of adulthood. She stands at the border of light and dark, of child and adult, of weakness and strength. Princess Holy Aura stands between the innocence and purity of the world and those who would corrupt it.”
Steve thought about that. It made sense, again, in a strangely twisted fashion. If you accepted the existence of magic, the idea that symbolism was part of its power couldn’t be dismissed. “So . . . what are our enemies, then?” There had been something almost eerily familiar about those eyeless winged . . . things, a familiarity that gave him the creeps.
Silvertail eyed him. “I think a part of you has already guessed. You recognized the nightgaunts, did you not?” At Steve’s unwilling nod, he went on. “Some of your authors knew or touched upon the truth — Robert Howard and H. P. Lovecraft, among others.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” He suspected that this might become a catchphrase if he kept hanging around with Silvertail. “Nightgaunts? Lovecraft? Cthulhu? Wait a minute, let me see that brooch again.” Silvertail proffered the jeweled item without comment. “Damn. That’s an Elder Sign, isn’t it?”
“The broken-pointed star, yes. Though ‘broken’ is not quite correct. It represents . . . but we are getting ahead of ourselves. Our adversaries are a . . . not race, but assemblage of beings, some of them unique individuals, others various species, who hail from a mystically separate reality that is, unfortunately, compatible with ours in a manner that is inimical to our survival.
“Periodically — ‘when the stars are right,’ as your authors have put it — their agents here can begin the arrangements to open the gateway and let their ruler through; if she were to manifest completely, she would become . . . a catalyst and an anchor, transforming the Earth to something like their own world and providing an almost unbreakable beachhead for their people to enter our world with.
“They first attempted this when I was young; fortunately for our world, that was also when our ancient civilization was at its peak, and we were able to fight them off, restrain them, until at last we created our ultimate weapon.”
“This Princess Holy Aura.”
“And her four companions, yes.”
“You mean you’re going to have to find four other guys who will even consider this insanity?”
Instead of looking amused or defiant, Silvertail seemed to wilt. “If it were only so easy.”
“Oh, not in the sense you mean. In that sense, yes, it would be hard enough to find men with the same basic decency and courage as yourself, let alone ones willing to risk their own personal identity in such a drastic fashion. But that is in fact an irrelevant question . . . if there is no Princess Holy Aura first. The other Apocalypse Maidens, as they are called, will not be able to be located and awakened unless Holy Aura is already there and active, if I have not already fired the opening shot, so to speak, in this era’s war against darkness.”
He rose on his hind legs again and proffered the brooch. “Take the Star Nebula Brooch, Stephen Russ, and become the shield of light, the vanguard of good against ancient evil. Become Mystic Galaxy Defender Princess Holy Aura, and learn the truth of your soul and the power of the innocence you have always sought.”
Steve looked down and took a deep breath. Then he heard footsteps climbing the stairs. “Damn. I have other questions, a lot of other questions. But . . . I’ll think about it, okay?”
Silvertail gazed at him for a long moment, then gave an audible, tiny sigh. “I suppose I can expect no more. But,” he said, as a knock came at the apartment door, “the time for that decision is not unlimited. We have defeated the first scouts of the enemy; their troops will not be long in coming.”