Princess Holy Aura – Chapter 27
Silvertail wriggled harder, and managed to get his furry shoulders through the small hole near the foundation of the school. That accomplished, he could easily drag the rest of himself through. It is fortunate that rats can fit through any hole their heads can go through.
He had parked the car at a nearby restaurant. Making his way to the school from there, mostly in rat form, was the real challenge. Proportionately, rats were faster than humans — but proportional speed meant nothing when you were up against absolutes like the land velocity of a car or truck. It had taken him almost ten minutes to find an appropriate window of time to cross in.
I could have found a different parking spot that wouldn’t require me to cross here, he mused as he made his way through the damaged insulation and into the school’s interior, but unfortunately that would involve more streets, though smaller ones, or going through yards with alert dogs. Which, while not a danger to him, would potentially attract attention. Naturally he also could have used a subtle spell to ensure a gap that would be sufficient . . . but given the errand he was on, using any magic at all would be foolish, unless he was already discovered.
Of course, if he was discovered, it might well be far too late already.
From a rat’s-eye view, the hallway was a shadowed cavern to equal fictional Khazad-Dûm from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; immense stretches of glossy, dim-lit passageways suited for giants, cyclopean doors — some closed, others yawning half-open with nothing but eerie shadows hinting at mysteries within. It was so silent that even the faint, faint sounds of his passage echoed, sent a scratching whisper of sound out into the unfathomable distance, to return as an echo of sibilance.
Let’s see. The bathroom she mentioned would be in this direction; second floor, B-Wing.
As he began to negotiate the stairs, a rumbling, muttering sound reached his ears, and then rose with startling swiftness to a low, resonant roar. Silvertail froze. What in the name of Lemuria . . .
A thread of warm air coursed from a grate set near the stairs, and Silvertail chided himself for overreacting. Just the sound of the heating system activating. I must keep a clear and level head. I must react only to real threats, not perceived ones.
Each step was seven inches high, not much less than his whole body length, so climbing the staircase was something like an adult man having to climb up a succession of twenty separate five-foot-high walls. In this case proportionality worked in his favor; he was proportionately much stronger than a human for his size, so he didn’t simply collapse in exhaustion at the top. Still, I would much rather not have to do that very often.
He kept to one side of the hallway as he continued the seemingly miles-long trek; as a rat or a human, the comfort of a solid wall on at least one side was not to be ignored. At last he thought he was approaching his destination; he smelled a faint odor of other rodents, wood shavings, possibly a touch of formaldehyde. She said it was across from the upstairs biology lab.
The bathroom door loomed before him; shut, of course. However, there was a large gap at the bottom — large for a rat, anyway — sealed only by some rubbery weatherstripping. It was the work of a few minutes with the sharp, chisel-shaped teeth to cut away enough to allow him to squeeze inside.
Windowless, the bathroom was as dark as a cave; motion-cued lighting did not notice something the size of a rat. Even if Silvertail hadn’t been a very unusual rat, this wouldn’t have been a terrible handicap; rats normally have poor vision by human standards, but make up for it with excellent hearing, smell, and touch senses, using the vibrissae, or “whiskers,” to touch and evaluate objects around them. But he had at least been allowed to retain his enhanced wizard’s sight when he was transformed, so to him the bathroom was clearly visible. He tried to ignore the smells; it wasn’t bad by the standards of other public bathrooms, but it was of course nowhere near his own standards of cleanliness.
It took only moments to climb up to the countertop; finally he had reached his destination.
The mirrors showed the usual reflections, seeming to be mere low chrome barriers between this and another, identical bathroom — one with another white rat peering in at him. Faint smears on the glass showed that this, at least, was not the case. Attuning himself to the faintest magical traces, Silvertail reached out and touched the surface of the nearest mirror.
The flare of lingering malevolence and hunger stung, burned like placing an unwary hand on a cooling ingot of metal, and Silvertail’s squeak of pain echoed two or three times around the empty room. Oh, no doubt of it at all. A powerful manifestation happened here, very powerful, much more so than I had expected.
Worse, he thought he recognized the signature. A Reflecter of Desire, a tyrpiglynt in the old tongue. This Cordy must have been strong-willed indeed to reject it after having partially accepted it before. But this manifestation . . . there is something —
It was only the gut-level instinct of one who had survived millennia that saved him. Without an instant’s thought he found himself diving off the counter, falling to the floor and pressing himself up against the floor ducts. Though the mirror remained unmarred, there was a green-blue flash and a ringing hiss, and a thousand shards of glass exploded outward, ripping through the air he had just occupied.
“Still you have the speed of light itself, Varatraine Aylnell,” came a voice with the deceptive, toxic warmth of a poisoned cookie straight from the oven.
“Queen Nyarla,” he said, bowing his head the smallest fraction of an inch. “I see you expected me to visit.”
Queen Nyarla stepped from the darkness at the far end of the room. Her form was still veiled in shadow even to his sight, and what could be seen of her was nearly as dark as the pitch-black room itself; only the faintest, eerie phosphorescence outlined her form, but gave away no details that would allow Silvertail to recognize her current human guise. “Expected might be too strong a word, sweet sorcerer. Hoped would be a better one. It has been so long since we have spoken, Varatraine; can you blame me for such a hope?”
“It is even longer since we had any words for each other that were not mere cloaks for the duel to come,” Silvertail replied. He judged the distance to the door, the angle he would have to take.
He was under no illusions; this was a very, very bad situation. Nyarla might not choose to kill him — no one, not even he, knew what might happen to the binding enchantment then — but if she captured him, or even badly wounded him, the consequences could be immense.
Worse, he dared not take on human form. They must not figure out who he was in the mortal world. While his magical powers were considerably greater in rat form, not being able to assume human form drastically limited his physical options.
“You could still reconsider, old friend,” she said quietly. “Your knowledge and skill at our disposal? She of the Nine Arms would reward you beyond the dreams of mortals. And” — another smile, this one private, warm — “you would no longer need walk alone in eternity, Varatraine.”
Silvertail slowly kept backing toward the door, one tiny rat step at a time, trying to keep her words and voice from distracting him. “You could do the same, Nyarla. You need not serve Azathoth Nine-Armed. Remember who you truly are, who you claimed once to be, and admit to yourself the truth of Her drive to conquer this place: she fears us . . . Halei.”
Was there a flicker, a shadow of memory, a hint of regret, a softness that momentarily veiled the contemptuous manipulator? He could not be sure; perhaps it was only that he hoped and desired to see it so much. But it was gone even as he wondered, and she threw back her head and laughed. “Fear you? Oh, Varatraine, you silly man. There is no fear, save for those in the lower orders. You cannot destroy us — one of your precious Holy Auras tried, you remember? The seal didn’t last nearly so long that time, did it? But you can be destroyed, and all that need happen, as I told my servants but a short time agone, is that we win once.”
“Yet you are now the second in command. Whence the others, Nyarla? How many of her powerful servants have not yet returned from the shadows of the Beyond?” He bared his front teeth in a rodent grin. “You were supposed to remain at her side, yet here you are, trying to open the way instead of watching from safety. Either you’re not in true favor any more, and need to prove yourself . . . or she’s running out of those who can be Openers of the Way.”
The smile faded for an instant — but it definitely faded. I’m right! We have been wearing them down over the centuries!
Then her smile returned. “Perhaps, my sweet sorcerer . . . but in this cycle, Yog-Sothoth will bear a new brood. I will have new sisters to train and to take up the cause. How many more sorcerers of Lemuria have you trained lately, Varatraine?”
He felt his tail touching the door, moved the pink appendage until he could feel exactly where the hole was.
Either Nyarla finally noticed something, or she was simply finished with taunting him. “But enough; you won’t take our offer, so . . . I think it’s time you were removed from play. Let your little girls try to finish this task without you!”
She pointed at the darkest corner of the room, high above the floor, and voiced an eerie, inhuman call.
And distant, reverberating howls answered her.
Silvertail spun and squirmed desperately through the hole under the door, and gestured upward as he did so. He heard the lock bolt slide out and engage with a metallic sound. That might slow Nyarla up if she maintains her current form . . . but . . .
But the Hounds were coming, and no place of corners or angles was safe within the range of the Calling.
He popped out into the corridor, but despair was already close on him. The eldritch howls were closer now, and echoing from every facet and angled join of the walls. I must get out of this building! In outdoor settings I have the sky to call upon, but within a building, all right angles? This is their territory, this is the center of the Call.
But they would be here in minutes, perhaps less; already he thought he saw dark wisps of smoke and vapor beginning to emanate from the corners of the hallway, felt the cold miasma of the Hounds’ approach. I cannot outrun them. I cannot transform to human, either; Nyarla may still be watching, scrying through their monstrous eyes.
Even less-sensitive creatures could tell something was terribly wrong; he could hear scuttlings and squeaking panic in the biology lab . . .
A desperate hope galvanized him into motion, loping at top speed across the floor; the lab door was closed, but unlike the bathroom it had no weatherstripping to speak of, so Silvertail squeezed under with barely a pause. Looking up, he saw several cages, sensed the motions of trapped fear — and watched the smoke beginning to flicker, show signs of the flames that always accompanied the dreaded monsters.
But he also saw, gleaming faintly in the light from the windows, a curved shape of promise.
Silvertail lunged up, caught a drawer handle, pulled himself up, even as hungry, alien growls grew more distinct, more real, with every passing second. Another handle above me. A third. The ledge of the lab counter — must it jut out so? Surely a mere inch would have been sufficient! This polished granite is almost impossible to grip!
As he gained the counter, a bubbling, moist-warm growl shook the room, and he saw one of the Hounds of Tindalos.
Just seeing one of the Hounds was perilous; his eyes and brain, steeped as they were in sorceries and rituals of a hundred civilizations, refused to accept what they saw, for it was something not merely monstrous, not merely alien, but impossible. It had a head, emerging from the coiling darkness and green-hot flame . . . but what was it like? There was no dimension or shape to it, nor did it lack those qualities — it had a clear structure yet not one Silvertail could grasp, or ever wanted to grasp, and yet he could see it, all of it, inside and out, front and back, all at the same instantaneous moment; there were jagged, angular teeth and twitching rectangular eyes and a long, grasping, zigzag tongue with a rectangular, sucking, hooked orifice . . . but even that was only what it looked like for this moment, not what it was.
Silvertail gave a squeak of horror and denial and tore his gaze from the emerging abomination, scrabbling across the black granite and leaping the last foot and a half as something massive and repellent landed on the counter, stinking worse than the grave or the infernal realms.
But Silvertail had reached his goal and dove through the circular opening, casting a sealing spell even as he did so; the hamster ball closed itself instantly, a perfect, polished sphere of plastic that shimmered to absolute, sealed perfection a moment later; even the air holes were gone.
Not much time, but there’s air enough in here for a few minutes.
The Hounds instantly stopped, and their not-heads tilted, very doglike, in puzzlement.
Angles. They can only manifest from angles. They cannot manifest — nor even truly perceive — curves.
And a sphere is nothing but pure curvature.
He began moving forward, and the ball moved with him. Despite his effective undetectability, he was far from safe. They would feel it if he bumped any of them, and there were now four, five, six of the unspeakable things in this room alone. And of course he had to get out of here fast, before he ran out of air — or risk making holes that might have enough of an edge to see.
But I am on the second floor, and any of the doors is many, many yards of corridor away. More of the Hounds will be stalking the hallways until I am far away from the place of Calling.
He had to get out, and get out fast. And his magical power was starting to feel its limits. He had one or two more decent spells left in him . . . but after that, there would be nothing.
Silvertail sighed. “This . . . may hurt.”
Then he turned around and started running as fast as he could.
The ball began a cheerful, speedy roll down the dark-granite countertop. The first Hound crouched — or was it standing tall? — on the counter, but it was big, and with a leap and a turn Silvertail sent the sphere careening between the bent, angled legs with the raggedly-bent claws, past it —
An instant too late, Silvertail saw the spike-furred tail twitching, and the hamster ball brushed against it.
Immediately the Hound whirled, snarling, puzzled, trying to understand what had touched it. It made a swipe through empty air that missed the ball by the width of one of Silvertail’s hairs.
But ahead was the glow of streetlights, and Silvertail called out one more invocation. Every window in the laboratory flew open as one, and as the Hounds rushed toward the various windows, the plastic ball shot outward, straight through the window, and plummeted to the ground below.
The Hounds tried to follow, but they could not see the ball. Even though the air inside was beginning to grow foul, Silvertail laughed squeakily. Survived! I have survived!
But as the ball kept rolling farther and farther from the school (and thus closer to safety), the elation began to fade.
Nyarla herself has greeted me, and there is a tyrpiglynt loose upon the world.
The war is joined in earnest.