Princess Holy Aura – Chapter 03
“Hey, he’s kawaii, Steve!”
Silvertail held himself still as Richard Dexter Armitage reached out a finger to gently stroke his white fur. Kawaii? Japanese quoted in reference to anime, obviously. Not surprising that Mr. Russ’ friends have similar tastes. He had already noted the multiple posters of science fiction and fantasy shows of all types, reinforcing his impression of Stephen Russ — along with a wall case filled with weapons ranging from the mundane to models of science-fiction devices. But that is all to the good. At least Stephen understands the essential nature of the mission, and I need not waste time explaining the basic role of the Apocalypse Maidens, even if there are details he does not understand.
“Gentle, Dex,” Steve said; Silvertail saw a quick sideways glance at him, obviously worried about how well the “rat” would handle being treated as a pet.
“Steve, I know how to handle white rats,” Dex said, rolling his eyes as he picked up Silvertail and brought him nose-to-nose, grinning and making sniffing noises; Silvertail recognized typical “play with cute pet” behavior and simply sniffed back. “My family’s had lots of them over the years. Where’s his cage?”
“Er . . . I ended up getting him today without warning. Long story. So I’m going to keep him in this box for tonight.”
Dexter — a contrast in opposites to his much older friend, with long golden-blond hair carelessly combed back, a delicate-featured face, and slender build — made a face. “If he decides he wants out, he’ll get out of that in about two seconds. You’d better get a cage real quick.”
“I know, I know. Now put Silvertail down. The others will be here soon, and I thought you had character work you wanted to get done.”
“Oh, yeah!” Dex returned Silvertail to his friend’s shoulder and sat down, dumping a large collection of books, papers, and a bag of dice of varying shapes onto the large, chipped folding banquet table that occupied a large part of Steve’s living room. “Look, I was going through this supplement, and since I’m playing a wizard I thought . . .”
Silvertail tuned out the details of the conversation; he was aware of how role-playing games worked — in fact, he remembered with a slight pang the similar games that had existed long before this civilization ever rose, games he had played before that had become impossible. He was much more interested in observing the people, and especially Stephen.
The other players who filtered in over the next hour were an interesting group; one young woman, probably ten years younger than Steve Russ, named Anne, clearly paired with another man of her own age named Mike; a rather hefty but energetic boy named Chad, with a scruffy almost-beard and a cheerful expression, who appeared about the same age as Dex; and one much older man named Eli, quiet but with the air of a military man about him.
What most impressed Silvertail was the way in which Stephen directed his game, even though he was clearly distracted by the events of the evening. It was obvious that Dexter was the smartest member of the group, although Anne was often more dynamic as a personality. That only applied in the real-life interactions, though; Dexter shed his nerdish uncertainty when playing his character, and his quick mind and surprisingly powerful voice often dominated play. Eli was quiet, contributing to the game with a considered and careful approach that made his comments and characters’ actions stand out the few times they acted; Chad simply played his character with a cheer and verve that echoed his own personality, while Mike always seemed a bit intimidated by the louder members of the group like Dex, Anne, and Chad.
What Steve did — without, as far as Silvertail could tell, making the others consciously aware of it — was to redirect the sometimes overbearing certainty of Dexter to reduce his spotlight-hogging tendencies, bring Mike more into the game by asking him exactly the sort of questions that his character would be most interested in, and direct events to allow, in general, all of the players to get their moment to shine.
After several hours, the game had to come to a temporary end; it was getting late and some of the others had to get up early. Silvertail noticed Steve trying to hide his interest in the leftovers — chips, pizza that Eli had brought, a vegetable plate from Anne. This is not a luxurious apartment. Did Steve sacrifice more than I realized this evening?
To his surprise, Dex — who Silvertail had tentatively tagged as a rather self-centered young man — intervened as the others were packing up. “Hey, let’s just leave the extras here. Either Steve’ll eat them, or we can have them for the next game day after tomorrow.”
“Well . . .” said Anne, hesitating.
“Remember, always bribe the game master,” Dex said, glancing at the fridge with an expression that told Silvertail that the younger man was very aware of how empty it was.
At that, the others laughed and agreed. Dex was the last to leave, and as he did, Steve touched him on the shoulder. “Hey, Dex,” he said. “Thanks.”
“For what?” the younger boy asked; he looked distinctly uncomfortable.
“For making sure they left the food.”
“Well . . . yeah.” Dex flushed visibly. “Figured you could use it. Didn’t see your usual bag of bagels.”
Steve grinned. “You’re sharp. Anyway . . . thanks.”
“You’re welcome. I mean, it’s just smart game tactics — ”
“Shut up and get out of here before you make yourself look like a dick.”
“Right. See you in a couple!”
The door closed and Stephen sat down with a whoosh of relief. Then he glanced at Silvertail. “You can still talk, right?”
“I certainly can,” Silvertail answered.
“Still going to take some getting used to,” Stephen said. “So, I still have questions.”
“I have no doubt of it, Stephen Russ. But it is quite late; I believe you have to work in the morning?”
“Yeah, but right now I’m not ready to sleep. Not without some more answers.”
“As you wish.” The questions were, after all, inevitable, and it wouldn’t matter if they came now or later. The real trick would be to answer them in a way that would be acceptable to Stephen Russ. Mostly, of course, Silvertail intended to be — and had to be, in fact — honest, but there were very delicate aspects of the situation that probably were best left to later.
Stephen sat down, looking at him somberly. “Not that it really makes much difference if the situation’s as bad as you say . . . but I’d like to know if I get anything out of this.”
“You mean, is there a reward, other than the self-satisfaction of fighting for humanity’s survival?”
He looked pained. “I guess, yeah. I mean, it’s worth it just for that, don’t get me wrong, but . . .”
“Say no more. A hero is still a person, and still needs to worry about their survival. Yes, Stephen Russ. The magic that binds you to the contract once made also binds the world to reward you once Azathoth of the Nine Arms is banished once more to the realms beyond this one.”
“Azathoth? I thought that was the, what, ‘blind idiot god’ at the center of the universe.”
He sighed. “Stephen Russ, you of all people should recognize that the common perception is not going to always be the truth. Lovecraft . . . sensed certain things, was exposed to elements of the truth in passing. But they were filtered through his mind, his beliefs, his prejudices and perceptions of the world. This is true of all others who have glimpsed portions of the truth.
“So no, Azathoth Nine-Armed is not a formless mass of chaos. She — for that pronoun fits better than any other — is an alien invader, ruler and director of the forces and beings beneath her. Her precise manifestation — and even more so that of her underlings, the scouts and shocktroops who will come to prepare the way — is affected by the human consciousness, the gestalt of human perception and the specifics of those that they encounter and of the civilization that they are seeking to conquer. So some manifestations of your adversaries — if you take up your destiny — will be of ancient lineage, while others may seem far more contemporary.”
“So they’re shaped by, what, our beliefs? Some Jungian collective unconscious?”
Silvertail twitched his whiskers. “To an extent, yes, that would be a reasonable way to view it. A more modern and cynical way might be to say that they are rather subject to meme infection.”
Steve laughed, a short and nervous but still genuine sound of amusement. “That’s funny. Hopefully that doesn’t mean that they’ll manifest spouting ‘all your base are belong to us’ or something stupid like that.”
“No, the more amusing memes would not be their forte,” he replied. If only they were. But the memes they will likely manifest . . . you do not need to be reminded of now. “In any event . . . yes, there is a reward, Stephen Russ. If you defeat these enemies, avert the apocalypse, then the world returns to what it was before this began. Even you will not recall it. But you will find that you are . . . well, fortunate would be the best term. The success that has eluded you thus far will seek you out; whatever ‘happy ending’ you might wish for in this world will be made possible. That will be true of you and all the other Apocalypse Maidens.”
“So I’ll save the world, not know the world ever needed saving, but then have everything start coming up roses?”
“In essence, yes.”
“That kinda sucks. I mean, not the everything coming up roses part — I guess you can tell I’m not exactly doing great on my own, though I won’t complain, lots of other people are worse off. The having done something awesome and not knowing it, that sucks.”
“I cannot disagree,” Silvertail said. “But it is part and parcel of the nature of the enchantment and the war. The powers of magic that make the war possible are usually walled off from this world, ever since the first great conflict. So the battle is fought, the world witnesses the battle, but all of this is affected by — is a part of — the grand contest. Once the conflict is resolved, the world returns to what it was before the magic appeared.”
“That almost sounds as though magic’s real source is this Azathoth, or wherever she comes from.”
“Not truly. It is more a matter of the fact that the way in which she was sealed away was done using all the power of magic we could channel, so that her entry to the world would of necessity bring the magic back . . . and any attempt to bring magic back would, almost certainly, unleash her as well.”
Stephen looked at him. “So why do you remember?”
“I am . . . the key, you might say. Or the flaw in the prison, an inescapable one given that there were magic-workers on this side of the barrier. I am the one who watches for the cycle to resume, whenever the conditions are right, because I am the only one with the ability to find those who can close the door.”
He sighed, feeling his whiskers drooping, remembering in the distant, distant past when it would have been human shoulders slumping. “Because I was the one who created the Apocalypse Maidens, Stephen Russ. One of thirteen, the most powerful of Lemuria’s wizards, and the only one to survive the conjuration that transformed my daughter and her four closest and most courageous friends into the weapon the world needed. As you can see” — he gestured to himself — “it . . . cost me.”
Steve looked simultaneously sympathetic, outraged, and pained. “Do you have any idea how hard this is for me to deal with? I mean . . . Lemuria? A wizard stuck as a white rat? And you did this to your own daughter?”
“I did not do this to her; she volunteered, and . . .” His voice, despite untold centuries of control, threatened to break. “And . . . I have never been more proud than I was that day.”
“Oh. Sorry.” Steve paused. “So . . . what about the other twelve of you?”
“They . . . were consumed by the ritual. We knew the risks, of course — the power we were unleashing was by far the greatest magic ever worked by mankind. I think I only lived because there was, as I said, a necessity that there be a key, a linchpin, a nexus of the enchantment that would remain throughout eternity.” Even after all the centuries, remembering the deaths of his friends still hurt.
“But your daughter and her friends . . . they did win, right?”
“They won, yes. And in doing so ripped the foundations of magic from this cosmos, shattered the stability we had enforced upon the world, and wiped out our entire civilization, nearly dooming humanity to extinction.”
“Holy shit. And this is the good outcome if I take this brooch-thing up and win?”
“No, no, Stephen. That was then, when the world was filled with magic, when so much relied upon magic that to withdraw it was like turning the foundations of a building to water. My daughter and her friends did survive, and so did enough of humanity — or we would not be here to speak of it. But in the other repetitions of the cycle . . . while there is great destruction sometimes wrought during the combat, the world is returned to its prior state afterward. Not entirely without cost — if people were specifically slain by the forces of our enemies, they will be found to have died, albeit by more mundane forces, after the victory. But the world will not be destroyed if you win. Only if you lose will it be plunged into a creeping shadow of its old self.”
Steve nodded slowly. “Jesus.” He looked down at the Star Nebula Brooch, lying on the table between them, and picked it up reluctantly. “And this really is the only way to fight these things?”
He shrugged. “The only one I know of.”
Stephen Russ sighed. “Tell you what. I’ll . . . carry it for a while. Think about it. But . . . this is all of me you want me to change.”
“Not all of you. I might even say the least important part of you. I do not wish to change the sort of person you are.”
He bit his lip. “Yeah. I guess. But dammit, my entire life and self-image aren’t just something to toss aside, either.”
“I did not say they were, and perhaps I should apologize; one’s self-image is not at all unimportant, and indeed for a man of your age, that self-image is the rock on which you have built your identity. So, yes, I was wrong, and I do apologize. I ask you to make a very significant sacrifice, of your self-image, of your position in a society that — you know well — values men more than women in many areas. I ask you to, at least temporarily, sacrifice even the respect that age and size have given you.
“But know that these sacrifices will make you, as Holy Aura, vastly stronger; the willingness of the Chosen to take up the battle at great personal cost, this is one of the greatest sources of power in any magic. Your willing acceptance of this price may give us the key to a swifter and more certain victory. And they will certainly make it more likely that one day you will wake up — the same Stephen Russ you are now — and your life will become brighter, and the world will be safe.”
Silvertail could see Stephen considering that. “So,” he said, “in a nutshell, the more I’m personally willing to sacrifice to the cause, the more powerful Holy Aura will be.”
“Correct. If you accept the burden, you are — while Holy Aura, in any event — sacrificing a major portion of your personal foundation and viewpoint; this will make you immensely stronger as Princess Holy Aura.”
“You say ‘while Holy Aura’; does that mean I can change back to Stephen Russ?”
“Yes. You will of course have no access to any of Holy Aura’s powers while in your original form, but yes, you will be able to change back. You will not, however, be able to change your mind once you have accepted the power; once done, the enchantment cannot be undone.”
Stephen surveyed the brooch again, eyes tracing the beauty of the curves absently. Finally he straightened. “Okay. I’ll think on it. And not too long. I promise I’ll have an answer for you in . . . um . . . a week. Is that okay?”
A week . . . She will have learned of the loss of her creatures soon. She will know that either I chose to act, or that the Princess has been found. Yet . . . I have no right, nor power, to force the issue. “If it must be, then it must be. One week, Stephen Russ. May that time be well spent, for our enemy is already moving.”