Princess Holy Aura – Chapter 11
Holly dove reflexively to the side, rolling and pushing herself up against the wall, and saw Silvertail — Mr. Owen — already in the corner.
The black mass flowed, an avalanche of night, and abruptly red and blue and yellow eyes appeared along the shapeless flanks, uncountable mouths opened, and a gibbering laughter echoed from them all, in voices from ear-piercingly high to basso profundo growls that shuddered through the air. The tide of obscene black slime split around tables and patrons frozen in midflight, rose up around them, staring with mocking, chilling hunger at each person caught in this flash-flood abomination.
What the hell is that?
The thing continued to run, a river of living tar, glistening and with a foul, sulfurous odor, out the doorway. This has got to be one of our enemies! I have to —
Even as she started to rise, she felt Silvertail’s hand on her shoulder. “Not yet,” he said, and she could hear the leashed fury and tension, the desire to say instead Yes, now.
But she understood, now that he’d stopped her from just acting on impulse. We have to be able to hide from our enemies. If I change here, in front of both human and monstrous witnesses, they’ll know who I am in both guises. They’ll be able to trace us. And we can’t keep making new identities.
The wave of leering, mad-eyed corruption passed out the doorway, leaving the floor blackened and warped by its passage. Screams and curses echoed back from the rest of the mall, but the remaining patrons in Hearty’s first cautiously, then with terrified speed, began to flee. Judging by the direction they’re all turning, the thing flowed off to the left; everyone’s running to the right. That direction will take it straight to the center of the mall.
“Why isn’t it killing anyone?” she murmured, hearing her voice shaking. I’m terrified, she realized with a strange, breathless abstraction. Absolutely sweaty-palmed shaking terrified. I know that thing’s evil. I know it wants to kill. Why isn’t it?
Silvertail’s answer held no comfort. “Oh, it shall,” he said grimly. “But first it will sow panic and terror. And it has in all likelihood already sealed the doors of the mall; there is no escape from it, so it can kill at leisure.”
The last of the mob disappeared out the door; Silvertail glanced around, then made a subtle gesture and whispered words that Holly couldn’t quit catch. The security cameras suddenly sparked and smoked. “Now,” he said.
Holly took a breath. “To avert the Apocalypse, and shield the innocent from evil, and stand against the powers of destruction, I offer myself as wielder and weapon, as symbol and sword!” The words came easily, naturally, and despite her fear her voice had steadied, rang out with an echoing power beyond that of mere speech. “Mistress of the spirit, ruler of the stars beyond, Mystic Galaxy Defender, Princess Holy Aura!”
The silver light exploded about her again, renewing and rebuilding, summoning forth the armor and weapon that were hers, funneling into her a nigh-limitless strength and certainty that helped drive back the fear of that immense amorphous thing that waited outside. “What is that creature, Silvertail?” she asked as she sprinted through the doorway.
His answer — as before — reached her easily, even though the screams were louder and incoherent, panicked announcements were now booming from the speakers above, accompanied by the many-voiced chorus of mad laughter. “A shoggoth, Princess.”
A shoggoth? Holy shit. “That’s a lot scarier than I thought they’d be.”
“Alas, most of these beings shall be; Lovecraft and his peers, for all their mastery of language, were limited by their perceptions and their own beliefs. You do not face a mindless mass of protoplasm, but a hostile and malign intellect with vast control over a body made to consume and destroy.”
The shoggoth’s black mass glinted with a gelid, wintry sheen, as though it were both molten and frozen; the surface heaved and flexed and pulsed, and the huge, glowingly inhuman eyes flickered with malice. It nearly filled the three-story rotunda at the center of the mall, flowing around the escalators and elevator, a whirlpool that rose rather than fell; dozens of people were trapped on both levels, surrounded by walls of oozing, malodorous chaos. Holy Aura could see men and women, teenagers backed against a wall, a family with a baby stroller in the center of a slowly shrinking circle of vileness.
“Iiii fffeeeel yyoooouuu, chchchaaaaammmpiiiiooon,” it said, a hundred voices speaking in a terrifying chorus, just enough out of synch to be eerie and repellent. “Ssshooowwww yyourssellff . . . oorrrr Iiii wwiiill FFEEED!”
The flowing ebony about the family heaved up, transformed to a mouth filled with fangs of polished night, a mouth that lunged and cut the stroller in half; Holly was struck speechless for a moment with horror, until she saw the mother, holding her child in a deathgrip; somehow she had snatched her baby literally from the jaws of death.
With a burst of silver speed, Holy Aura leapt to the top of the second-floor railing. “Then here I am, monster!” she shouted, trying not to show any sign of the panic that was beginning to rise within her; the template of her predecessors helped, encouraging her, supporting her actions and words, and for the first time she was grateful for that wordless yet powerful semipresence. “Mystic Galaxy Defender, Apocalypse Maiden the First, Princess Holy Aura, reborn as sword and shield, weapon and wielder, mistress of souls and stars! You have threatened innocents and brought fear to this world, and for that, this Apocalypse Maiden says that you are going down!”
Hey, it even let me get through that whole speech, she thought, Steve’s analytical attitude also helping to distance herself from the terror the shoggoth’s nearness brought forth. If they’re influenced by memes, I guess they have to take the whole package, not just the parts they want.
The mouths coalesced into a single gigantic maw, and the thing’s voice was thunder. “And now I will feed!”
Princess Holy Aura leapt backward, a spurt of pure fright powering that jump as a fanged night-dark mouth the size of a garage door squirted forward on a column of ebony hatred. But the fanged lunge missed, carving a fifteen-foot chunk of floor out instead, and with her mouth dry but her grip firm, Holy Aura spun the Silverlight Bisento around and sliced completely through the column of blackness.
Smoke burst from the cut and the thing hissed from a dozen new mouths. But the hisses were also laughs, as the severed part was swallowed by and rejoined the main body. “Dammit, Silvertail, what do I do now?”
“I told you that such a simple approach would not work on many of your enemies. To kill a shoggoth even with that weapon? If it could be done, it would be a work of hours, carving it apart again and again until finally even its reformed parts were all sufficiently injured by your holy power. You must channel your power, find its expression within you and unleash it. Unfortunately this was not something we could practice before.”
She bounded from point to point, evading the thing’s increasingly vicious jabs and slashes and grabs as Silvertail spoke. “Yeah. If I have a power that could wipe out something that powerful, I’d probably have taken our house down.”
“That is not the issue; the issue is that only adversaries of true corruption will allow you to call the power forth, recognize how it works. The power is vastly less effective against ordinary beings and structures of mere matter — which is a good thing in such a crowded building as this.”
“What?” She parried two more lightning-fast jabs and skidded around the corner of the second wing of the mall, still running. “So I have to call it up only in battle and ‘recognize how it works’ while something tries to kill me for real? Your training plan sucks!”
She heard a distant, rueful chuckle. “I cannot entirely disagree. But that is what you must do.”
“The coronet is your Apocalypse Seal — the channel and control for the power that is Holy Aura’s, and that will connect you to the others. You felt it seal to you, in pain and power, in your first transformation. Now reach out to it, call to it.”
“That’s hard to do when something’s trying to kill me!” she retorted. She whirled the bisento like a propeller, and three writhing segments of tarry hunger fell just short of her and wriggled, smoking, away to rejoin the pursuing red-eyed ebony tsunami.
“I know, but you must. Holly — Holy Aura — if you do not begin to battle in earnest, and soon, it will turn its attention back to the people trapped here!”
She bit back another protest. He’s right. This monster can do more than one thing at a time, and if I don’t keep it focused on me, it’ll be more than happy to keep chasing me around the mall while it eats everyone I’m supposed to protect!
She flipped around, bounced off the thick glass of the local Apple store, and caromed between support pillars, leaping straight past the thing as it tried to adjust its flow. “Ginhikari no Bisento!”
The silver-shining blade laid the shoggoth open, a cut sixty feet long, and Princess Holy Aura felt a grim smile on her own face at the multivoiced howl of pain and rage. Maybe that doesn’t really hurt it, but that stung enough that it’ll stay with me for a little longer.
If I can only figure this out . . .
She remembered that first transformation, twin crescents of light that burned themselves with pure-ice chill across her brows, and felt that pain and comfort echo as she thought of it. Please, Apocalypse Seal, open, unseal, whatever, at least show me what I can do —
There was a flash of light within her head, and for an instant she leapt, not above a crowd of terrified people, but into the limitless depths of space. She soared through a void dusted with numberless points and smudges of light; below her, a mighty whirlpool of stars and dust, turning with a motion so ponderously grandiose that even the rise and fall of the dinosaurs took less than a single turn to complete, and yet she could see it turning, could sense the majesty and power of that cosmic pinwheel, of the hundred billion stars encompassed in its light, see how it and its surrounding brethren dwarfed her world and all its people to utter insignificance, of less import than the loss or gain of a single grain of sand in the Sahara.
Yet . . .
Yet . . .
We are not insignificant, she thought to herself. We can’t be.
The vision flickered, and she cannonballed into the railing, slipped, plummeted to the ground floor. Before she could rise, ebony hunger swirled around her, caught at her legs, fought to prevent her from rising. She felt the nauseating pressure combined with a vicious, gnawing pain rising up her calves. Desperately, she tore away, whirled the bisento‘s blade and crushing ball around and over and through, leapt away, not even a tenth of a second separating her from onyx, burning hunger. Her legs screamed silently, the flesh red and raw, and though she sensed her silver power trying to counter it, that dark malevolence clung to the wounds, contesting bitterly with any cleansing or healing power that dared try to reclaim what it had touched.
The Apocalypse Seal is still the key! But how is insignificance the point?
The monster was barely a breath behind. She knew if she entered that vision again, the shoggoth would have her.
But if I don’t . . . For a moment she wasn’t Holy Aura; she was Stephen Russ, someone older, someone used to accepting bitter, mundane truths, and yet, somehow, refusing to let it take him down, make him bitter and angry. . . . if I don’t understand what my power means, what it can do, if I can’t figure out how to tap it — I’ll fail anyway. It’ll catch me sooner or later, and everyone here will die, and that will be the end.
If I’m insignificant, fine. Just show me what the answer is for this insignificant mote.
The vision returned, redoubled in force; almost instantly, Princess Holy Aura felt her body — seeming so distant it lay beyond the horizon of the universe — stumble, be caught up.
But now she saw beyond the galaxies, beyond the void itself, and her universe itself was puny, less than the merest atom adrift between the stars, and things waited there, in the spaces beyond and between universes, things that hungered for form and power, for the chance to reshape a reality to their incomprehensible and malevolent desires. The places between pushed and probed at the boundaries of all universes, seeking an entrance, a foothold, a beachhead, and all too often found it, encircling and crushing what lay within.
Far, far away she thought she heard a shout of fear, of her name cried by Silvertail, a cry cut off as even her head was enveloped and distant burning hunger began to crush in on her.
She was alone, and both of her were enveloped in alien hunger and malice. There was no light, there was no hope, there was no escape for her or the world, for they meant nothing, and never had. That which waited beyond the paper-thin veil of their puny reality was infinitely more vast than all the dust-mote worlds that deluded themselves into thinking they were anything other than just that, dust beneath the feet of beings more ancient than their universe.
It was a simple, visceral, primal thought, a denial.
But what point the denial? She had seen how microscopically trivial, how utterly insignificant not only she, but her entire world, her galaxy, her universe was. What was this but a refusal to accept truth, a comforting and threadbare lie?
No. We are not insignificant.
A glint of light. A sense of presence.
She seized upon that tiny dot of luminance, even as she felt in the far remoteness of reality her breath cut off, an acid flame scorching away her breath.
And now she saw herself, a single point of thought, of consciousness on that puny speck, that drifting dot of nothingness, but she was not alone. There were billions of other points, each one almost imperceptible, but together a brilliant luminance that shone through the boundaries of reality — calling the darkness to it, yes, but also resonating, not with the spaces beyond, but with something above and below and around all of it.
We are not insignificant. Those things sought our world, and were cast out, and have been cast out before. They have been defeated again and again by this microscopic dot within the cosmos.
The cold-metal crescents were warm now, warm and comforting, and she understood. Matter has resisted them here, and elsewhere, and it does so because it also has spirit, has will, to resist. The limitless universe was the power of spirit, the magic she was bound to — as were, in their own way, her adversaries — was the foundation of all reality, and she was the first, the living representative of that spark: the power of the spirit that underlay the existence of the cosmic all, of the other mythic elements that made up the world, earth, air, fire, and water. They all were part of, and partook of, the spirit, the will of humanity — in both creation and destruction.
And now Holy Aura — and Stephen Russ — understood what it meant to be an Apocalypse Maiden.
A detonation of pure argent light burst from her body as Princess Holy Aura’s consciousness returned. The shoggoth’s viscous form was blown away from her, water before a depth charge, and scattered, smoking, reforming but painfully, as her acid-burned, eaten flesh renewed itself; she felt the pain ebbing away, driven away by her understanding of what the power of the Apocalypse Maiden meant.
“Almost you caught me,” she said, standing unmoved in midair atop nothing but an aura of light. “Almost.”
Spirit. That’s why I’m the first, why he said I had to be the first. “Your shape, your terror, you touch both mind and soul. It was you guiding me to my insignificance. But that was a lie, all a lie.”
“A lie?” it echoed in a voice that made the mall shudder. “Truth, truth, truth,” it said, now with a dozen voices, laughing, mocking. “Ph’iagnik, insignificant, a speck of refuse within a –”
“Bullshit!” she said, feeling that she was both Holly Owen and Stephen Russ. “Why keep coming here, then? We kicked your asses off our planet, and we’ve done it again and again, and that’s why you’re afraid of us, that’s why you can’t ignore us, can’t leave us to grow again. Because we have the power to beat you.”
With the certainty came the thrill of the power, the light, gathering into her hands, charging the Silverlight Bisento so it glowed, casting shadows away from her, eradicating any sign of darkness about her. She remembered the vision of the galaxy, of the numberless stars, and the one Sun that was theirs, out of all in the universe. “I am the Apocalypse Maiden, cataclysm and creation in one, and you — you’re getting the cataclysm right now!”
The shoggoth gave an inarticulate scream and lunged for her, an attack from all directions, a thousand needles of lethal darkness.
She reached out, yet in, within and behind and above herself, to the symbol of the spirit — the stars themselves — and chose destruction.
Warm, exhilarating fire burned through her veins. gold-white starflame coalesced upon the blade of the Silverlight Bisento, and the living tar of the shoggoth shrank back, the red and green and yellow points of eyes wide and afraid, but it was too late. “Light of Apocalypse — Solar FLARE!”
The auric-argent luminance blasted from her, driven by her will and certainty, and fountained on and across the shoggoth. The hard-driven ebony needles of the thing’s substance dissipated, some mere inches from her skin. Its mouths froze in motion and crumbled before the intolerable light, its eyes were blinded and then blown away, dust in a star-wind. The light expanded outward, mercilessly seeking out the dark-flowing thing as it tried to flee, to escape the burning, destroying light, but it had sealed the mall itself. There was no place to run to, and the light pierced wall and door and floor like glass. There was a thin, horrified scream, a shriek of disbelieving agony that echoed from the entirety of the world about . . . and then silence.
The light faded, and only a trace of coal-black dust sifted down, to fall on the faces of the people throughout the building, whose expressions were slowly changing from terror to hope and relief.
Thank God. I thought that the light wouldn’t touch other human beings . . . but I couldn’t be sure.
Suddenly realizing that all were staring at her, she recovered herself and bowed.
Can’t show how scared I was. How scared I still am, even after winning. My knees want to give way, but I’ve got to get out of sight!
She leapt through the air, forcing her shaking legs to obey, and ducked through the doors which were now open. Three more gigantic steps and a bound and she was in the narrow belt of forest preserve that surrounded the mall on two sides.
Now I can be Holly again.
Even as she changed back, the shock, fear, agony, and elation caught up with her in a startlingly nauseating fashion.
And so she found herself, in the middle of her triumph, on her knees in the forest, wondering if she was about to lose both of those triple cheeseburgers.
Not exactly what I expected after the heroine’s victory!