Princess Holy Aura – Chapter 06
Silvertail watched tensely as the pact was fulfilled and Princess Holy Aura was finally reborn. Let it work, he prayed. In the name of all we have sacrificed, in the name of all that was and could be, let this not be a failure.
With eyes that could see what ordinary mortals could not, he watched as Stephen Russ’ mortal frame dissolved in light, a core of brilliance forming into a new shape both delicate and strong as a steel blade, head suddenly thrown back, midnight-purple tresses arching up, sparkling with power, coming down in a waterfall of indigo silk, even as the armor formed, different yet exactly as it had always been. Princess Holy Aura’s crown materialized in blessed light and sealed itself to her brow, and eyes the color of amethysts and dreams opened for the first time.
Within the small figure, Silvertail Heartseeker could sense confusion and conflict, and for a moment the girl’s form trembled. But she straightened as the dhole renewed its attack and threatened innocents, and called it to confront her: “. . . this Apocalypse Maiden says that you are going down!”
That was somewhat different from the usual, but that was also good. Stephen must be accepting his mission! He began to dare to hope, and once more felt his own powers beginning to be unlocked. If she can triumph . . .
A jump, evasion, and he suddenly remembered that Stephen — Holy Aura — did not yet understand her powers, or the desperate urgency of this combat. He shouted his warning, saw her shift her stance.
The immense weapon formed without warning in her hands, and for a moment he was taken aback. Why in the name of the Sunken Lands would that be the shape of the Silverlight Weapon? But that was a minor concern. The important thing would be to guide her in how to use it. The channeling of power through the blade was not a trivial —
Princess Holy Aura, however, did not even seem to hear his attempt to instruct her, but lunged to meet the gigantic armored worm head-on. No! Such a creature cannot be defeated by brute strength, not as you are now! You need to —
His mind went blank with complete shock as Holy Aura’s bisento very nearly bisected the eldritch creature in a single blow. By the Powers Beyond . . . He felt a tiny smile stretching his furry features. She is even more powerful than I had expected. This is wonderful!
But then he saw the girl follow her victorious bow with a leap away . . . and sensed the rising turmoil, the confusion and fear. “Oh, dear,” he heard himself murmur. With the threat of the monster now gone, Stephen’s mind was now realizing the changes, the aspects that he had only contemplated in the abstract before, and Silvertail realized he had to catch up with Holy Aura — or Steve — very, very fast.
That was not, however, so simple when you were a small white rat. And even if he could change that aspect of himself, he could not even approach the speed or strength of the fleeing Apocalypse Maiden.
But a fleeing animal — man or woman or otherwise — will in the end seek a refuge. And Stephen has only one refuge.
It took him some time to make his way back to the apartment — not merely because a rat has, relatively speaking, short legs, but because the last thing Silvertail needed was to draw attention to himself or Steve’s neighborhood. More than two hours had passed before he made his way up the stairs, hopping up them one at a time and occasionally pausing to make sure that a creak from below didn’t indicate someone coming up behind him.
The door was open a crack. He sniffed; the scents told him Steve was inside, and further emphasized the confusion, fear, and anger he had sensed before. Silvertail slipped inside and, with some effort, nudged the door completely shut.
Steve sat unmoving on the battered brownish couch, staring at empty space. His hands were dirty — covered with black and gray smears of some sort — and one lay on his jeans without regard for the stains it might transfer. Two empty beer bottles were on the stand next to him, and the other hand gripped a third tightly.
“Stephen,” Silvertail said quietly.
The big man started violently, spilling beer over his T-shirt. “Dammit. Silvertail?”
“Yes. I am sorry for startling you. I see you made it home, in any event.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, and rose, putting the bottle down on the table. His attempt to look casual about it was belied by the way his hand shook and knocked over one of the others. He started, tried to catch it, and only succeeded in knocking all three down, the remaining liquid fanning out across the carpet and almost instantly sinking in. “Dammit!” Convulsively Steve threw himself across the room, ripped the roll of paper towels from the holder, and started trying to blot up the mess with a fevered focus on the mundane task.
“Enough, please. Stephen, stop.”
“Can’t stop, this will stink if I don’t get it out, and my landlady — ”
“Please, Stephen, stop.”
Stephen Russ froze in midscrub, then slowly sat back, his massive frame collapsing like a deflated balloon as he sagged against the wall, eyes closed, hands shaking and clenching.
Silvertail sighed, smelling the stench of fear and anger mixed with the hops and alcohol. “Eleitai, halama, meritami,” he muttered, and light streamed from his outstretched paw; the broad brown stain faded away, leaving the carpet clean and dry.
That roused Steve slightly. “That’d be real handy on laundry day.”
“No doubt.” Silvertail still wasn’t sure how to approach the current — very delicate — situation. “But in my current state it is not, I am afraid, something to do casually. Why not wash your hands, at least, in the more usual way?”
The man looked down at his hands as though he had never seen them before. “Oh. Yeah, they’re pretty filthy.”
Unsteadily, Steve got up and made his way to the sink, scrubbing away at them. “At least the transformation doesn’t, like, disintegrate my clothes or anything. When I turned back, I even had the backpack with me. Good thing; I just got the toilet repaired, works like a charm now. But that’s how I got all dirty, you know, even when you try to keep things clean, things get a little dirt on ’em, then you’re working with water, and — ”
“WHY THE HELL DIDN’T YOU WARN ME?”
The bellow was so loud and unexpected that Silvertail jumped back in alarm before the furious, blotchily terrified face of Stephen Russ. “We had discussed the changes, Stephen,” he said finally.
The outburst had exhausted Steve; he sank into the couch and put his face in his hands. Finally he swallowed audibly, looked up. “You didn’t tell me that she . . . she had an identity. I thought it would be . . . well . . . sort of like playing dress-up, a cosplay where I had real powers and had to deal with really having a different body.”
“That was — to an extent — rather what I expected as well, Stephen. What are you saying was different?”
Silvertail could smell some of the immediate anger fading as Steve realized that Silvertail honestly did not understand the problem. “Well . . . when I became . . . Holy Aura, it was like . . . like I already knew I was a woman. Except that I still knew I was a man. But in that body, it was . . . real. I felt this . . . this impression of memory, I guess, of self, knowing how to move and run and everything, and it was all filled with the absolute . . . not even thought, just knowledge, assumption, that I was a woman. Not even a woman, a girl, a teenage girl. I . . .”
Understanding burst in. “Oh. Oh, by the stars and the Light itself, Stephen, I am sorry. There is the basic template of Holy Aura, yes, and it has been . . . well, affected, refined one might say, over the many centuries by those who wore the title. None of their souls, or their memories truly remain, but something of their essence must linger. For another girl who takes up the mantle, of course, this is not an issue at all; it merely helps make them more certain of themselves, of their role as Holy Aura. But for you . . . Stephen, I do apologize, completely and abjectly I beg your pardon. That certainty and knowledge permeating the template would be in direct conflict with your own personal self-knowledge. You did extraordinarily well, then, to push it aside — as you must have — in order to deal with the threat at hand.”
Steve extended one shaking hand and stared at it. “And . . . and that’s not going away, is it?” he said finally. “Whenever I . . . change, that remnant, whatever, is going to be there. It’s not disappearing as I, well, get used to it?”
“No. I am sorry, but now that I have thought on it, no, it is an essential part of the magic. In a sense, it can of course help you in your mission, give you some understanding of a body so utterly different from your own, but in other senses it will be a great trial.”
“I’m not sure I can do this.”
Silvertail closed his eyes and sighed. “Stephen –”
“I know,” he said, and his voice shook. “I know, I accepted it, it’s not reversible, I don’t have any choice. I made the choice. To save people.” His voice lightened for a moment. “To . . . save people.” He looked up. “I did, didn’t I?”
“You did indeed, Stephen Russ. As Holy Aura, you confronted a monster that would most certainly have destroyed that entire shopping mall and killed many of those there, and continued to do so until stopped.”
“And nothing except Princess Holy Aura — or one of these other Apocalypse Maidens — could have stopped it.”
“In this case that is not entirely true. It was an extremely dangerous and powerful creature, but the more formidable mundane weapons available to your civilization could deal with it. But many would have died, and much destruction would have ensued, before those weapons could have been brought to bear. It is true, however, that many of the foes to come will be ones beyond the power of mortal weapons to affect, and some will be ones on which your powers, even when you have learned to wield them, will not be very effectual without the assistance of the other Apocalypse Maidens.”
“Right.” The dark-haired man looked at his hands for another long moment, then clenched them into fists and stood up abruptly. “I’ll have to deal with it. Somehow. It’s not going to be easy, Silvertail. I’m going to need help from someone, and there’s no way I can talk about this to a shrink. Not without getting locked up. And maybe I’m paranoid, but I kinda think it could be a bad idea to just go to the agents that’ll be investigating this afternoon’s freakshow and tell them what’s going on. Though it’d be really nice to have the National Guard on standby.”
Silvertail allowed himself to relax a tiny bit. He is a strong-willed man, and his focus is still on helping people. That may just allow us to get past this. “I am afraid your instincts are correct. Besides the obvious mundane issues of their reaction to the sudden appearance of the supernatural, the fact is that at least some of the authorities will undoubtedly be under the influence of our adversaries. You . . . no, we, for you are correct, we must be a team, and I must help you as best I can . . . must for the most part perform this work alone, with only the other Maidens as our support.”
“Okay. Kinda goes with the whole meme anyway, right? You don’t generally see your magical girl or sentai team running over to the feds and asking them for help. Or when they do, it turns out the officer’s another eldritch horror out to eat their souls.” The humor was forced and Steve’s voice was still strained . . . but he was trying, and Silvertail felt a twinge of admiration. Would I have done so well in his place? I have to wonder. I might well be trying to run away even though I knew I had committed myself to the cause. “So, next step is to start finding the other Maidens, right?”
And we start on the next delicate part of this problem. “Yes, that would be our main goal. The sooner we can gather the full Five, the sooner we will be able to prepare to confront our adversaries, and the more practiced and skilled all of you will be with your powers. This will of course vastly increase our chances of victory when the time comes.”
“You didn’t specify when, exactly, the time will come — that is, when the Stars will be Right. Do you know?”
“Not exactly. The conditions that make it happen are tied to events here and in that other realm. The appearance of certain agents, and their activities, tells me the cycle has begun anew, and I can estimate it; no less than six months, no more than one year from now. As time draws onward, I will gain a better estimate. For now, of course, it is best that we assume it will be sooner rather than later.”
“Right. Assume it’ll be a very Cthulhu Christmas, then.” Steve’s voice had steadied. “Well, I guess it’s about time to have some leftover pizza. And I’ve got work tomorrow.” He went and got one piece out of the refrigerator. “So, how do we go about finding these others. You said it wasn’t going to be as ‘easy,’ if you can use that word, as finding four more guys willing to do the job.”
“Alas, no. While I am permitted the latitude — with, I should add, not inconsiderable personal effort — to shift the choice from a girl of the appropriate age to any other person I find satisfactory, the rest of the spell proceeds once triggered without any control by myself or anyone else, and the other four will follow the ancient pattern set by Holy Aura herself.”
Steve froze in the middle of punching in the heating time on the microwave. “Oh, Christ. You mean that the other four actually have to be teenage girls?”
“I am afraid so, Stephen.”
Steve closed his eyes, and Silvertail could hear him counting quietly to himself; the count reached sixty before the man’s eyes opened. “Let me get this clear. There are four other Apocalypse Maidens to be found.”
“They’re particular individuals out there somewhere. That is, I can’t just find some teenage girl I think would make a good choice and say ‘Hey, you’re going to be Apocalypse Maiden number two’ or whatever.”
“Also correct. The magic is already at work. In the original spell, we had the opportunity to select the Maidens ahead of time, place them within the circle, and so on. Ever afterward, the spell, upon being triggered, seeks out . . . well, appropriate vessels for the power and links them to the destiny of the Apocalypse Maidens. But I cannot actually see these links until they are close to manifestation.”
Steve rolled his eyes. “Do we have any idea of where these girls might be, or am I supposed to just start wandering the world, hoping I’ll bump into the right ones somewhere between here and Cairo or something?”
Silvertail managed a laugh at that. “It is not quite that bad, Stephen. They must be within a relatively short distance of your initial manifestation, and in fact will be found regularly in relatively close proximity in locations where children of their ages gather.”
Steve’s eyes narrowed. “Just what locations?”
“Well . . .” Silvertail found himself very hesitant, yet there was no help for it but to simply move forward. “In prior eras they might be regularly gathered to perform work of some sort, or gather for church, or . . .”
“Christ on a pogo stick. A school. They’ll all be going to the same goddamned high school, won’t they?”
“If there is one such near the area of your first transformation — ”
“Yes, there is, dammit, about half a mile off is Whitney High.” Steve stared at him accusingly. “You knew this from the start.”
“Well . . . yes. But it did not matter until now.” He could not quite restrain a whisker-twitching smile. “And you should have, given that I mentioned how your world’s memes strongly direct these events and phenomena.”
Steve grimaced. “Okay, you got me there. I should have known. So . . . I have to somehow winnow out four girls from an entire high school. You know, a thirty-five-year-old guy hanging around a high school watching the fourteen-year-old girls closely is gonna end up spending a lot of time behind bars, not saving the universe.”
“I understand the implications.”
“So . . . oh, my god. That’s why you mentioned high-school students before. You knew I’d have to — ”
Silvertail nodded. “I see no alternative. You, Stephen Russ, will have to enter the high school in the only acceptable guise — that of a fourteen-year-old girl — to locate, befriend, and ultimately activate, the other four Apocalypse Maidens.”
“Son of a — ” Stephen stopped, frozen.
When Steve turned back to face Silvertail finally, he wore a smile so cold that it made Silvertail shiver involuntarily. “All right, Silvertail. I remember you saying something else — that you couldn’t do much to help me until I committed. That means you can help me now, right?”
“That is true — ”
“And you know something, I got a different view of you when I changed. Now that I have committed, I’ll bet that you also have another form you can take. A human form. Am I right?”
His perceptions must be astonishingly acute as Holy Aura. He would have been seeing my spirit — and remembering what he saw, even during a most emotionally straining moment. “You are.”
He concentrated, and felt the familiar rush of power, the triggering of the remnant of the ancient pact in the manner that directly related to him. The light gathered about him, drew him upward, built him up. Silvertail opened his eyes, and for the first time in centuries looked down upon the world around him, even upon Steve. “This is my true, original form, Stephen Russ,” he said, hearing his own deep voice again. “Varatraine Aylnell, at your service.”
“At my service? That’s great, Varatraine,” Steve said, and slapped him on the shoulder, still wearing that disquieting grin. “Because you’re just what a fourteen-year-old girl is going to need . . . DAD.”