Princess Holy Aura – Chapter 18

Chapter 18.

“I push the door open slowly,” Seika said, miming the action across the broad table. Her voice echoed in the mostly deserted cafeteria, giving an appropriate overtone to her words.

Holly glanced at the other three members of the Steampunk Adventure Club. “Any of you doing anything while the Countess opens the door?”

Caitlin Modofori shrugged. “Iron Jake’s got his flux baton ready, but other than that he’s just watching.”

“By my calculations,” said Tierra MacKintor in a deliberately hollow, flat tone, “there is a ninety-two point six percent chance we are about to enter combat. The Argent Automaton is prepared.” The startlingly redheaded girl pushed back the gear-encrusted silvery mask and shifted to a more normal tone. “That means I’m holding my speed boost ready for action at the first sign of a fight.”

“Got it,” Holly said. “If there’s combat, you’ll start already at full speed. Good thing you told me; I’d assumed you would be going with the strength boost.”

Tierra grinned. “Speed kills.”

The third member, Nikki Hand, closed her eyes. “The Mystic is opening the Third Eye!”

“You’ll get a chance to see any supernatural influences. Good thinking, if it turns out there’s something beyond the mundane involved.

“As you open the door, you can see a huge, shadowy figure at the far side of the room . . . an immense, monstrous statue. There are many robed figures in front of it . . .” Holly continued describing what the Countess could see, and saw the others exchanging glances.

The fact that both she and Seika liked role-playing games had suggested the possibility of forming a gaming group to both of them. The school required a minimum of five people for any club that met after school hours, and though they’d found both Nikki and Caitlin fairly quickly, they’d been stuck for a couple of weeks looking for a fifth.

Holly knew, of course, that Dex would’ve been willing to join in a flash, but she honestly wasn’t ready to take that risk. Sure, visibly there was nothing to link her with Steve Russ, but long-term social interaction was a lot different than just passing someone in the hallway.

Finally, though, Tierra heard them discussing a Spirit of the Century adventure as a possibility and immediately spoke up about the art and fantastic costuming possible. Once she agreed to join, the Steampunk Adventure Club began meeting.

Just as well that we chose this genre, Holly thought. Steve never ran anything in this kind of setting, so I had to invent a new world. If Dex ever does join, or even hears about it, this isn’t going to remind him too much of what we used to do.

But there still were similarities — in the group, if not in the campaign. Seika was by far the smartest, though she wasn’t nearly as loud or clueless as Dex; Nikki was the cheerful supporting player who would take whatever role the others left open, reminding Holly poignantly of Chad; even her brown hair and broad figure echoed Chad’s own. Caitlin was more serious and thoughtful in play, a strange maturity that echoed the vastly older Eli — although her wavy honey-blonde hair looked nothing like Eli’s close-cropped black-and-silver. Tierra’s constant support of the campaign with little sketches, bangles, and costume props was certainly a lot like Mike, who used to make portraits of everyone’s characters.

Are these four the Apocalypse Maidens? Are any of them?

The thought always intruded, whenever she was talking to a girl near her own current age: Are you one of us? And she was never sure if she wanted the answer to be yes or no. As she was getting more used to being Holly Owen, the strain of being the only person who knew the secret was getting worse.

The players started discussing the tableau Holly had described, deciding how they wanted to approach this. Holly looked up, saw that the windows were almost pitch dark. “I think we’d better stop it here, everyone.”

A faint murmur reached their ears, and Seika grimaced. “Yeah, the teams are all coming back in.”

The girls’ sports teams practiced on the same days that the Steampunk Club currently met — as did a couple of other clubs. That was partly for the very good reason that if the teams were practicing, there were enough kids to justify keeping some of the buses available, saving parents trips while still getting the students home safe.

They started packing up the dice and books — or, in the case of Holly and Caitlin, tablets. “Darn, I was looking forward to kicking some heads in!” Seika said.

“I know you were,” Tierra said. “But it can get tedious. I’ll be glad to start that battle completely fresh.”

“Tedious? But . . .” Holly bent and picked up her backpack as the two began arguing mechanics versus dramatics and, Holly thought, preferences. Heh. You can’t please even all the players all the time, all you can do is hope to keep them happy MOST of the time.

“Come on, guys, we’d better head to A-Wing. Get better seats in the buses before the whole volleyball and football teams get in.”

Tierra had just opened the cafeteria door when the lights went out.

Nikki jumped and gave a tiny scream. “Sorry! I just . . . really hate that.”

They waited a few seconds, but the lights didn’t seem to be coming back on. They could hear the distant protests of the athletes. “Come on,” Tierra said after a moment. “It’s not that dark, and the buses won’t care. I just hope it’s not out back home. So boring.”

A bright white light appeared; Nikki had activated the light on her phone. “It may not be ‘that dark’ but isn’t this easier?”

They all laughed, and started down the corridor, steps echoing loudly in the deserted corridors. “There’s the door to A-Wing,” Caitlin said. “Why’s it closed, though?”

“I don’t know — ooof!”

The “ooof!” was forced out of Holly as she’d tried to push through and the door had refused to budge. “What the heck . . . ?”

“Some idiot’s locked it?” Tierra shoved against the door, but it wouldn’t move. “They know we’re here, right? We’ll have to go all the way to the other end and out the fire doors — and that’ll set off the alarm.”

Hurrying their steps so that they could still (hopefully) beat the teams to the buses, the five girls headed back toward one of the red fire exits; these were never locked, but any attempt to open them would set off a loud-screaming alarm (something that, invariably, someone would do at least two or three times a quarter). Holly saw the dully-gleaming bar come into view, strode forward, and —


She bounced off the door so hard she sat down on the cold granite floor.

“What the fuck?” Seika demanded in her Karkat voice.

Holly rose slowly to her feet, and suddenly the darkness around her was sinister, filled with amorphous menace. A chill stole down her spine. A bunch of girls locked into a place with the power suddenly out . . .

“There’s a back door through the cafeteria,” Caitlin said, sounding a little nervous. “We could go through there.”

“Fine,” said Nikki, “But I’m calling my dad anyway. It’s illegal to lock a fire door on the inside! People could get killed!”

She lifted her phone a bit higher as they walked. “Huh. I’m not getting any bars. How about you guys?”

Wow. It’s true. The hairs on the back of my neck are starting to stand up. The gooseflesh marched down Holly’s arms. “Shouldn’t Mr. Jefferson be in back of the cafeteria anyway?”

“Duh, of course. He’ll have the keys.”

Holly had been concentrating furiously, but apparently Silvertail couldn’t do his telepathic-talking trick to mere Holly Owen. Still, he’s gotta be nearby. He’d follow me. I’m not actually without any backup.

A rumble of thunder came from outside, and a flicker of lightning vaguely illuminated the hallway for an instant; they could see the black square of the open cafeteria doors up ahead. The tapping hiss of rain on the roof became audible.

“Wow, this is creepy!” Tierra said, in a cheerful voice. “Maybe we should be telling ghost stories or something.” They headed across the empty floor of the cafeteria. “Mr. Jefferson! Mr. Jefferson! Someone’s locked the doors to the wing!”

“Is the roof leaking?” Caitlin demanded. “It dripped on me!”

“Boy, I hope not,” Nikki said, turning the white light upward to look.

All five of them screamed, a sound that momentarily drowned out the growl of thunder.

Directly above, at the very peak of the ceiling, Mr. Donald Jefferson was spread-eagled, hands and feet impaled by something that glittered, a wide-eyed silent scream of horror showing above a red, dripping gash in his neck.