Princess Holy Aura – Chapter 22

Chapter 22.

“Seika’s been looking forward to coming over so much,” Mr. Cooper said, with a broad smile. “She could barely wait to get into the car. Thought she might just run over here herself!”

Holly smiled back, as did Trayne Owen. But inside, Holly felt roiling nervous tension that was taking everything she had to hide. I’m so worried . . .

Worried that Seika would run away when she learned the truth. It shocked Holly how much that thought hurt; as Steve he’d been close to Dex, and losing Dex had been painful, but that had still been . . . oh, a sort of parental thing, or at least a big-brother interaction. The anguished worry that was burning in her gut now went way beyond that.

Still, they managed to get through the usual parent-dropping-off-kid discussions. The two girls waited, listening, until they heard Dave Cooper’s car pull out of the driveway and head off down the street.

Words burst from Seika in a torrent. “Guys, guys, you have to tell me, that was all real, right, I wasn’t dreaming, because, O-M-G, I went to bed that night and when I woke up I couldn’t be sure, but then there was the damage at the school and all the rumors going around and — ”

Despite the sour tension in her stomach, Holly laughed. “No, Seika, it was real.” The smile faded; she couldn’t keep it going, not as things were. “Too real.”

The other girl’s smile didn’t disappear, but it did shrink, and she toyed with the huge poofy ponytails on the right side of her head. “I . . . guess I get it. I think.”

Trayne Owen made her jump by shrinking to Silvertail. “I believe you do . . . to some extent, at least. Seika, you are now bound to the destiny of the Apocalypse Maidens.”

“You are a magical animal! Wow. And . . . yeah, that bit with the transformation was weird. I mean, seriously freaky, I even knew what to say without knowing it.”

“Yet you seemed . . . ready to go along with it.”

Seika gave the white rat a look reserved for very stupid people. “Who turns down the chance to be a superhero?”

“Many people, in fact, and of those who would accept it, even fewer are suited to the role. And perhaps when you learn the entirety of the situation you may understand why.”

“Seika, I really wish we could’ve told you everything before — ”

” — But that’s not how it works, right?” Seika’s eyes were narrowed in concentration. “That . . . thing, it was like every slasher movie squished into one. And the new mahou shoujo getting chosen in the middle of a battle, that’s . . .” The eyebrows came up. “Holy fuck,” she said in that high-pitched affected voice, “it’s a fucking battle of the memes.”

Holly glanced at Silvertail, whose furry face echoed her own surprise. “You’ve . . . kinda nailed it, yeah. It’s more complicated than that, though.”

“Tell me.”

“We might as well sit down to dinner while I tell you,” Silvertail said, morphing back to his human form. “It will not be a short tale.”

They were well through most of dinner by the time Silvertail finished describing the background — Lemuria, the original Apocalypse Maidens’ creation, their enemies, the cycle. Seika looked deadly serious by that point.

“H. P. Lovecraft? That creepy old writer was right?”

“Say rather that he learned much of the truth, but it was of necessity filtered through his own knowledge and experience. And — as we saw a few days ago — as our adversaries adapt more and more to the current zeitgeist, their manifestations will be farther and farther from those imagined by your prior generations.”

Boy is this going to be hard to keep secret,” Seika said after a moment.

As good a segue as I’m going to get. “We don’t actually want to keep it a secret. At least, not from everyone, not from your family — or the other Maidens’, whenever we find them.”

Seika screwed her face up. “What? I mean, isn’t that part of the whole meme?”

“It’s one of the really problematic parts of the meme,” Holly said. “I mean, really, we’re not adults, and our parents worry about us going out alone to the store down the road, so don’t we think they’d like to know if their girls are going to be fighting monsters?”

“I . . . guess, yeah. But you said we’re stuck with this, so what if my dad or mom says, ‘No way!’ You can’t just switch me out for a substitute, right?” Seika’s anxiousness was almost funny; obviously the idea of having the awesomeness of being Radiance Blaze taken away and given to someone else really bothered her, and in a lot of ways Holly couldn’t blame her.

“No, alas, I cannot,” Silvertail admitted, returning to his normal form. “And choosing this path means it is difficult and potentially perilous. But in addition to the fact that your parents obviously have a right to know about your activities, there is also the fact that as time goes on, it is possible the rest of your family will be in peril as well. Our adversaries are not at all averse to attacking the Maidens through their friends and family. Holly and I agreed that they also must know this so that they will be alert to the danger and possibly even be able to avoid it.”

“It’s kinda like the way we finished Mr. Stalker back at the school,” Holly said. “We’re taking the parts of the meme that we know are stupid or dangerous and punching them in the face first.”

The smaller girl bit her lip, then nodded. “Okay, I get it. So we’re here to figure out how to break the news?”

“Partly,” Silvertail said. “But also to let you in on all the truth. Some of which may be disturbing, even frightening, in a way that you do not yet guess.”

Seika looked suspiciously at Silvertail, then to Holly. “We’re not really working for the bad guys, are we? Or stuck in some terrible time loop where we’re all going to get killed?”

“No to the first,” Holly answered, then paused. “But . . . the second . . . maybe sorta kinda? Not the going to get killed part, but sort of a time loop. I mean, we could get killed. Those monsters aren’t playing games, Mr. Stalker would’ve cut us in half if he could.”

“But a time loop, yes?”

“More a . . . side branch in time, if all goes well,” Silvertail answered. Holly let him summarize the situation.

“So I might help save the world and I won’t remember it? That sucks!”

“To an extent, yes. But on the other hand, you will not have to recall encounters with terrifying beings that truly do not belong in this reality — and neither will any of the less-well-protected victims. If people die in this continuity due to their direct actions, then they will, unfortunately, die in the main continuity as well. But if they have suffered any consequences other than death, those consequences will be undone if the Apocalypse Maidens are victorious and Azathoth of the Nine Arms is once more banished to the other side of eternity. Your world will return to what it was . . . only better, not merely for you and yours, but for a considerable time better for many others associated with you and even this area of the world. You in particular will find your life following a path of your dreams; each of the Maidens will have a life that rewards them for their risks.”

“Still not sure I like the idea. But I guess if I don’t remember, it won’t be bothering me then.”

“Yeah,” said Holly. Time to bite the bullet. “But there’s one other really important thing you need to know.” Seika looked at her, and the concern in her eyes showed that she could hear Holly’s tension. “This whole deal — about telling your parents, not hiding stuff from them — comes from Silvertail and I agreeing we had to do this right — that we couldn’t take kids and throw them into life and soul-threatening danger without their parents even knowing.”

Seika nodded. “Right, I get you. And . . . ?”

“. . . and that’s partly because Silvertail decided when he started this cycle that he was very unhappy with the whole mahou shoujo thing where he was taking half-grown kids and making them weapons. So . . . he decided that for at least one of them, the first, he wouldn’t do that.”

Seika froze. Then her gaze drifted around the room, looking at pictures, displays; she got up without saying anything and looked at the weapons, posters, and other things displayed all around the house. “These . . . most of these aren’t Mr. Owen’s. Silvertail’s. They’re yours.”

Holly swallowed. “Yeah.”

She turned back slowly. “You’re . . . you’re a lot older than you look. Right?”

“Well . . . yes and no. The person Silvertail chose to be Princess Holy Aura is a lot older. But the longer I’ve been Holly Owen, the more . . . well, I really am fourteen, just with really strange memories added in. But I feel fourteen. And I’m not . . . I was never pretending around you. I mean, pretending to be your friend.”

Seika looked nervously around. “Really?”

“Really. They’re . . . I mean, I have all the memories of the other me, but the feelings are different. It’s been . . . pretty scary, actually. I’ve been moving away from who I was to begin with ever since I started, and sometimes I’m terrified.”

“Which is part of the reason for Holy Aura’s strength. And, I believe, will contribute to yours as well,” Silvertail said. “One of the key factors for the power of magic, especially the magic the Apocalypse Maidens wield, is willing sacrifice — the ability of the Maiden and those around them to accept that they must give up or at least risk something vastly precious to themselves in order to achieve the goal of defending the world. If your parents accept your destiny, for instance, they are willingly risking their own child for the sake of the world — a very powerful symbolic sacrifice and one that echoes through the enchantment to reinforce your power as Radiance Blaze.”

“Well, wait, just hold it a sec, if you did that with her,” she pointed to Holly, “why didn’t you choose some adult for Radiance Blaze? Ms. Vaneman, maybe, if you’re stuck around the school.”

The white rat’s whiskers drooped. “As I told . . . Holly, I wish sincerely that I could. But while I am permitted — even, to be accurate, required — to select the one who will be the vessel of Princess Holy Aura, once that selection is made the enchantment proceeds of its own accord to trigger the selection and, at the right moment, activation of the other four. I have no ability to control that, or I assure you I would have done so in this era.”

At least she’s not panicking . . . yet. Or freaking out too much. But we can’t keep dancing around. “So he got to choose me,” Holly said. “And decided he wanted that selection to be the right person for the job. I . . . still sometimes think he chose someone not nearly as awesome as he needs, but what he wanted was someone who could handle the demands of protecting the world, fighting the monsters, and adult enough to really, really understand what Silvertail was asking them to do. And, if possible, someone who if they agreed would be sacrificing as much as possible in order to do it, so that they’d be the strongest possible Princess Holy Aura.”

Seika’s eyes widened. “No . . . way. You’re . . .”

Jesus, she’s smart. “Yeah.” She stepped back, to the other end of the room, so as to be as nonthreatening as possible. “He chose . . .”

A blaze of white-crystal light enveloped Holly, and suddenly he felt the height and mass returned. “. . . me.”

Seika stared at him, immobile. He stayed where he was. “Steve Russ. That’s my . . . well, real name. The name I was using before Silvertail chose me, and what I’ll be using afterward. If we win. Holy shit, now it feels weird being . . . me.” The voice he used to accept sounded completely wrong in his ears. The way his body felt — slow, heavy, ponderous — was actually repellent. “Dammit. But . . . you needed to know the truth. We decided that if the whole point of choosing me was to make the right choice, then we had to make the moral and ethical path we took the right one all along, as far as we could manage it. I . . .”

Steve concentrated, and felt the weight and mental heaviness fade away, replaced by the lightness and far heavier worries of Holly. “I . . . hope you can understand, Seika.”

The other girl said nothing for long moments, and Holly swallowed. It could all fall apart right here, right now. And yet she’ll still be the second Apocalypse Maiden, and how will we ever deal with that?

“Holly . . .” Seika finally said. “You . . . you’re real, right?”

“Now? I think I’m more real than Steve right now, and that scares me. But that’s part of the sacrifice thing, I guess. I’m risking . . . me. All of me. All the choices I made, the person I was.”

The black girl’s gaze suddenly transferred to Silvertail. “So a guy becoming a girl is a big sacrifice? Isn’t that pretty sexist, rat?”

Silvertail gave a squeaking snort. “In a sense, I suppose — because there is still much sexism in your society. But in truth, no. The sacrifice is in what you perceive as your self. If Steve had possessed a desire to be a woman, it would be less of a sacrifice. Had I chosen a transgender man — one who was born a woman, physically, and was forced to present as one, but who preferred to be seen and thought of as a man despite this — the sacrifice would have been equally strong, because their self-image and personal identity was in opposition to the one I asked them to take on. Yes, as a culture there is still a stronger stigma against a man choosing to take on feminine traits, but the sacrifice is purely a personal one, not a societal one. Steve has of course internalized some of the societal attitudes, but this simply makes his sacrifice of his own self-image, and even his physical form, as well as the respect and position granted by being an adult, more powerful.”

Seika took a slow, hesitant step forward. “What about the power — strength, all that?”

Holly grimaced. “It’s sort of a sacrifice and sort of not. As Holly Owen, I’m basically what you see. I’m pretty strong for a girl my age, but compared to Steve? He could tie me in knots without even thinking much about it. But . . . Princess Holy Aura could kick his fat ass even easier. Steve gets none of that.”

Seika toyed with her ponytail again, then looked back at Silvertail. “And you can’t take this away from me.”

“No. Even if you were to reject Holly because of what she was and leave this house, never to speak to us again, you would remain the living vessel of Princess Radiance Blaze. That would of course carry with it the risk — the inevitability — that our enemies would eventually seek you out. And while Radiance Blaze is powerful indeed, I believe you understand that, alone, you would eventually fall.”

Seika looked searchingly into Holly’s eyes. “You . . . you’re really my friend, right? I mean, I said you were my BFF before, but — ”

“No but!” Holly heard her voice come out sharp, tearful, pleading. “Seika, yes, you’re my friend. What Steve . . . was, is, whatever, it scares me but he’s not really me anymore. I’m not him. I’m Holly Owen. And I’m your friend, I’ve . . .” — the truth slowly dawned on her in wonder — “I’ve been happier the last few weeks since we’ve been friends than I think Steve was in like years. I’d . . . I’d miss you totally if you left.”

Seika stared at Holly for a long, long moment . . . and then without warning her bright smile flashed out again. “I’d really miss you too.”

Holly was suddenly crying, feeling a fear she’d barely understood seeping away, relief bursting through her, as Seika gave her a hug and she returned it fiercely.

Seika pulled back and looked at Silvertail. “I’ve seen weirder stuff in some of the things I like reading, you know. But you think this was a hard thing to tell me? Let me tell you, if we can’t figure out how to do this just right — my dad’s gonna kill you!”