Princess Holy Aura – Chapter 04
The white rat’s warning hadn’t faded from Steve’s mind in the last few days. Though Silvertail hadn’t said anything about it since, Steve knew that the one-week deadline was already pushing what Silvertail thought was safe.
But there were still questions . . . over and above the ones he’d already been wrestling with. With a sigh, Steve dumped his laundry basket out on the bed before speaking. “Silvertail, I’ve got another question — one that’s been nagging at me a while.”
The wizard-turned-rodent glanced up at Steve from Silvertail’s perch on the end of the bed. “Go on, Stephen Russ,” Silvertail said, as Steve sorted through his unfolded but clean laundry for a shirt to wear.
“I get why you didn’t want to choose a young girl for this gig — and I agree with your reasons, believe me. And most of those reasons apply to choosing a boy of that age. But why didn’t you choose an adult woman? Or maybe look for someone who was, well, already going the transgendered route?” He found a T-shirt featuring the entire collection of trolls from Homestuck and pulled it on over his head, covering the Star Nebula Brooch which hung from a leather cord around his neck.
“There are several reasons,” Silvertail answered after a pause. “Though I certainly did think of simply looking for a woman of the appropriate type and of roughly your age. Certainly they would not have the . . . issues that you may encounter simply from the transformation, although a great many adults — I suspect including yourself — would not look forward greatly to becoming a young high-school student again.”
“God, no. My experiences in school sucked until I hit my full growth spurt, which was, like, the end of my junior year. Until then I was pretty short, a little too fat, and a loudmouthed geek, which made me a perfect bullying target. Kinda like Dex is now; he’s a little taller than I was, and skinny as a sheet of paper, but even though he’s better looking than I was, he’s got that unconscious arrogance that sets bullies off. So no way would I want to go back.”
“But to answer your question . . . I did keep that as a possibility,” Silvertail continued. “In truth, I was only a few days from giving up on searching for a man of your qualities. But I chose that direction first because of the potential advantages. If I could find a man with the requisite character — courage, willingness to risk himself for others, clear empathy for the plight of those less fortunate, and so on — ”
“Okay, you’re starting to embarrass the hell out of me,” Steve said, and ducked into the bathroom so the potential blush wouldn’t be visible. And I need to go anyway. “I’m no paladin.”
A sniff of amusement was audible through the thin door. “Indeed? Perhaps not, but you certainly have many of the qualities. In any event, if I could find such a man, and one who had a firm self-identity — who was, nonetheless, willing to give up that self-identity for the sake of the world — then I would have found a Princess Holy Aura who would be far, far stronger than any since the very first time the enchantment took hold and made my daughter Aureline and her friends into the Apocalypse Maidens.
“This I explained to you earlier. The important point for the purpose of your question, of course, is that this level of self-sacrifice — and thus potential power for Holy Aura — did not apply to the other categories you mention, other than the possibility of finding a woman who hated her own identity as a woman; such a person would, undoubtedly, have at least as many potential issues to deal with as would you.”
Steve nodded, then realized that Silvertail couldn’t see him. “Yeah, that makes sense, I guess.” Another thought occurred to him. “Hey — that doesn’t mean you set up poor Emmanuel, did you?”
There was an injured tone in the white rat’s reply. “Certainly not!” Then Silvertail’s voice took on a more apologetic note. “Though . . . not deliberately, but in a sense . . . yes, I suppose. Not that I directed the events, but the magic that aids me in finding the Heart that was Sought also will tend to draw the opposition to my area. It was, in that way, inevitable that some sort of conflict would emerge, and those conflicts are what bring the destined Holy Aura to the fore.”
That made sense. Steve stood up and pushed the handle on the toilet; he was rewarded with the sound of something snapping, a jingle of a chain, and almost no sign of anything flushing. “Dammit!”
Opening the tank showed that a key piece of plastic had given way; the entire float and flush assembly would have to be replaced. “Wonderful. Hey, Silvertail, I don’t suppose you could give me a sort of down-payment on that ‘everything coming up roses’ reward? Because this is going to really hit my nonexistent budget.”
After a quick explanation, the white rat shook his head. “No, I have no immediate remedy for this situation. What little magic I still wield is not terribly useful for fixing damaged objects. Although getting more resources . . .” He paused for a moment. “Not yet, no. Unless you commit — unless Princess Holy Aura is manifest — my powers remain extremely limited, circumscribed by my mission.”
“Then we’ve got to go shopping, much as it pains me. I really, really hate digging into my savings.”
“You do have savings, however?”
Steve grimaced as he dug out his backpack. “Such as they are. Three hundred and seventeen dollars. That’s five years of savings, and it would barely cover one month’s rent.”
“I see.” Silvertail watched Steve as he strapped the pack on. “Shall I stay here?”
“From what you just told me, that would be stupid, wouldn’t it?”
The white whiskers twitched in an unmistakable smile. “I would not consider it wise to be far separated from you, no. That is why I have gone with you to your place of work and hidden nearby during your workdays.”
“Okay, hop in; you can ride in the pack.”
It was a three-mile walk from the apartment, and Steve mopped sweat from his face with one arm of his T-shirt; the early summer day was already promising to be scorchingly hot. Finally, the broad storefront of DIY Home, the building supply chain, loomed up in front of him. DIY Home sat at one end of the Twin Pines strip mall, the anchor store for a long stretch of shops that ranged from restaurants to office supply outlets, shoe stores, and others.
Silvertail himself probably wasn’t having a great time of it either; that backpack, even with the upper zipper open, was going to be awfully hot. Silvertail hadn’t said a word of complaint, though. And pretty soon I have to give him an answer. It’s been four days, I’m past the midpoint of my week.
On the positive side, Steve knew exactly what he was looking for; he’d fixed more than one cranky toilet in the past, and DIY Home had everything set up to make it easy to find. Fifteen minutes later, he handed over almost all the money in his wallet and left the building supply giant with a gray and orange bag swinging from his hand.
I really need to keep some money on hand. With a reluctant sigh, he turned toward the bank sitting isolated in the middle of the mall, separate from everything else to allow space for its drive-through service. The ATM, at least, was free. It only took a few moments, and another wince at the reduction of his savings, to withdraw thirty dollars. Gotta make that last a week. More, actually. If nothing else breaks, anyway.
Steve headed for the path that led out of the mall — across the surrounding verge of grass to the main road — but stopped by the far side of the pet supply house, which was a blind wall and out of sight of everything else. “Here, Silvertail, get out a sec; I want to put this stuff in the pack.”
“I appreciate the chance to get out of that stifling thing,” Silvertail said primly. His bedraggled look emphasized his discomfort.
“Sorry about that. Here.” He took the water bottle from the side of the backpack and opened it, letting Silvertail drink. “Better?”
“Much, thank you.”
The ground quivered.
“Whoa!” Steve steadied himself against the wall as the vibration peaked, then faded away. “Wow. Haven’t felt an earthquake around here since I was a little kid.”
Silvertail was stiff, nose twitching; he said nothing.
Then the ground shook again, more strongly. Shouts of surprise and concern echoed around the mall parking lot, and there were faint creaks and jingles from the buildings. As Steve stepped out to look around the mall, a lone shopping cart suddenly turned and rattled downhill, jarred loose from its prior perch. Everyone else stood frozen, waiting for the earth to resume its normal immobility.
Steve felt a creeping chill working its way up his spine; he looked down at Silvertail, whose red eyes met his levelly. “That . . . wasn’t an earthquake, was it?”
“I suspect not,” the white rat said grimly. “It –”
The ground rocked under Steve, accompanied by a shuddering, crunching sound that transmitted itself violently through his boots; Steve barely managed to keep his footing.
The blacktop in the center of the parking lot heaved skyward, sending an SUV and two compact cars flipping end over end like discarded toys. A second tremendous impact, and the dark asphalt gave way, opened up like a malignant flower, and something reared up from beneath the earth.
Steve swore, unable to think of anything coherent to say. The thing was huge, fifteen, maybe twenty feet across, an eyeless, gray-stone monstrosity that rose up higher and higher into the air, a worm the size of a freight train with a mouth of whirring, crushing assemblages that had no business being in anything living. It brought with it a hideous stench, a smell of brimstone and decay, and even the brilliant sunlight was suddenly cold and distant, an alien and sharp light revealing an abomination from an ancient and inimical realm. “What the hell . . . ?”
“A dhole, sometimes called a chthonian,” Silvertail answered, his calm, controlled voice somehow audible even over the screams, the rending of stone, the rumbling snarl of the creature as it turned down, seeking, questing for something. “A creature of the deep earth, but a mystical one, a species allied closely with our enemies.”
Steve felt himself shaking. The nightgaunts had been terrifying, but still on a human scale. They were things he could fight, that he could imagine himself fighting, creatures that a good hard swing with a crowbar could break.
But this? His brain couldn’t even grasp how huge the thing was, and the idea of fighting it wasn’t even laughable.
The dhole turned toward the screaming, running people, and slid forward, crushing cars and the pavement itself with a casual and horrific force. Steve saw distant terrified faces and realized that even though the creature was clumsy and slow to turn, it was only a matter of minutes before it crushed and devoured something much more vulnerable than empty vehicles.
The Star Nebula Brooch pressed coolly against his skin, beneath the T-shirt, and Steve could not ignore it. Swallowing hard, he reached down and pulled the glittering piece of jewelry out. “Okay, Silvertail . . . how do I turn this thing on?”
“Are you sure, Steve? Once done, it cannot be undone.”
He risked another glance, saw the dhole crash headlong into the main storefront, punching a hole in the wall, accompanied by a shrieking, grinding noise as the thing’s mouth pulverized whatever it had consumed. “Dammit, yes, I’m sure! I can’t stand here and let people get killed! I’d never be able to live with myself! Now, Silvertail! I accept this mission, this calling, whatever it is, I’ll be this, this . . . Princess Holy Aura! Tell me what to DO!“
The white rat bowed his head, then raised it. The golden crown suddenly shimmered, and an argent glow flickered around him. “Then repeat after me, Stephen Russ. To avert the Apocalypse . . .”
He took a deep breath. “To avert the Apocalypse . . .”
“. . . and shield the innocent from evil . . .”
“. . . and shield the innocent from evil . . .” he repeated. The Brooch hummed abruptly in his hand, a warm vibration utterly different from the monstrous shaking and impact of the dhole.
“. . . and stand against the powers of destruction . . . I offer myself as wielder and weapon, as symbol and sword . . .”
The monster froze suddenly, then pivoted. Steve was barely conscious of the motion, as a warm, tingling sensation began to spread outward from the Star Nebula Brooch, and he found himself completing the oath in chorus with Silvertail, now taller, brighter, no longer a tiny creature but a shimmering figure of a man, indistinct and luminous. “. . . mistress of the spirit, ruler of the stars beyond, Mystic Galaxy Defender, Princess Holy Aura!”
The Star Nebula Brooch burned like the sun, and everything — the mall, the charging rock-worm, Silvertail, and even Stephen Russ himself — dissolved into a pure silver luminance and an echoing note of music that shook the stars in their courses.