Princess Holy Aura – Chapter 24
“Both died a while back, honestly. Look, I know this is all crazy and you’re going to need a lot of time to adjust, but there’s one more big bomb we’ve got to drop on you.”
“Another?” Dave looked torn between amusement and outrage. “More than changing the whole world we’ve known and telling us Seika’s some kind of . . . magical soldier-girl?”
“Sorry, sir, but yes, and if we don’t tell you . . . it’s all about the willing sacrifice, right? I mean, you understood that part?”
“That it’s what the girls . . . and maybe us parents and people like Trayne . . . have to give up, and choose to give up, that gives you the power to fight the monsters? Yes, we understand, I think,” Lynn answered.
“Well, it’s also about doing the right thing. And constantly choosing kids to fight the war, Silvertail . . . I mean Trayne . . . he knew it was wrong and he finally decided he had to change something. He could choose anyone to be Holy Aura, the first Apocalypse Maiden.”
Lynn closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. “Then . . . Holly, are you . . . yes, you must be. You’re saying you’re not what you look like either?”
“Well . . . yes and no. I’m not like Dad — Trayne. This isn’t some phony form that’s being kept up, I’m really like this now. And I think of myself as Holly most of the time, and I feel like Holly, and . . . I am Holly Owen.” She swallowed and repeated the strange self-discovery she’d made when trying to explain to Seika. “I’ve been happier as Holly than I was . . . before, and that . . . kinda scares me. But that’s what the bargain was, like Silvertail said. Sacrifice. The more you give up — the more you willingly risk for the sake of the world, the more power you have as an Apocalypse Maiden.”
“So you’re . . . an adult, really?” Lynn said, studying her. “Transformed, but originally much older?”
“Someone who could truly understand what was being asked of them,” Silvertail confirmed. “I had grown heartsick and weary with having to choose half-children for a task they could hardly begin to grasp. And it finally — after far too long, but then I, too, was caught in the snare of assumptions and, as your modern world calls them, memes — finally dawned on me that I could, at the least, make the ethical choice with the first Maiden, even if there was no way to change what would play out — ”
“Shit.” David Cooper’s curse was quietly spoken, but he had risen from his seat and was staring hard at Holly. “You wanted someone who could be a fighter, and who’d be giving up as much as possible to become this warrior-girl.”
Lynn blinked, then her own incredulous gaze focused on Holly. “Oh, my God. Trayne . . . you aren’t saying . . .”
Holly swallowed. “You guessed the punchline, huh. Silvertail chose an adult man this time.”
Before the others could recover, Trayne Owen said, “An adult man who risked himself to protect others — a child and what he saw as a helpless animal — from a pack of unearthly monsters. A man who showed himself not merely willing to endure pain, and horror — ”
“Silvertail, don’t — ”
“It may offend your humility — another good point — but I need to emphasize this. As I said, not merely willing to endure physical pain and horror, but able to recover quickly from the shock of having his worldview shattered when there were other lives at stake. A man who, as well, showed himself willing to subject himself to privation in order to spare others. It was a fearsome test to which I subjected him, and one very, very few would have passed . . . but Stephen Russ passed it with flying colors. And then, even knowing what it would cost him, when others were in peril, he chose to take up the Star Nebula Brooch and become — irrevocably — Princess Holy Aura.”
Holly felt her face flaming red, the heat burning in her cheeks so intensely that she thought her whole head might melt. Seika looked at her. “Wait, you never told me about this test or whatever!”
“Seriously,” Mr. Cooper said, still staring, “you . . . Holly . . . you’re actually a . . .”
“I’m actually what you see.” Couldn’t hurt to emphasize that. “But I started as Stephen Russ, and yes, I can still go back to that . . . to him. To the old me. Crap, how do you even discuss this? Anyway,” — she braced herself, both for their possible reactions and for the old sensations that she was no longer looking forward to — “heeeere’s Stevie!”
It was a real jolt looking at the Coopers as he materialized. For a split second their eyes were still focused on where Holly’s eyes had been — which was somewhere on Steve’s chest. And while Mr. Cooper was still taller than Steve, the black eyes that rose in shock to meet his were very close to his own level, while Mrs. Cooper looked up from what felt like a very long way down.
“You . . . this is your real shape? You’re really . . . this is you?”
Unsurprisingly, David Cooper was having some trouble forming coherent sentences. Steve didn’t smile; there was nothing actually funny in this situation. “Well . . . no and yes, sir. I was born like this. Well, not grown up. But I was born Stephen Russ. Holly Owen’s just as real and — right now — she’s more real me than this is. This feels like I’m wearing a huge fat suit.”
The Coopers didn’t say anything immediately, so he went on. “But . . . I guess I’d end up feeling like this was normal again if I went back to it for a few months. The magic does make it feel more natural to be Holly or Holy Aura, though. There’s . . . traces, I guess, of the prior Holy Auras, and they help the new one learn the ropes faster. Which really freaked me out even while it was helping me.”
They were silent for a moment, and then Mr. Cooper said, “All right. Steve — I can call you Steve, right?”
Tone’s awfully calm. “When I’m like this — which I probably won’t be very often — sure.”
“Steve, would you come out back? I’d like to talk to you in private.” He glanced meaningfully at Trayne, who hesitated, then sat down.
“Dad — ”
“Stay put, Seika.”
“Do as your father says,” Lynn said.
Steve preceded Mr. Cooper through the door into the darkened backyard. The air was cool but not cold, and there were only a few clouds blocking out stars above; the moon was nearly new and had gone down pretty much with the sun.
“Is that story the whole truth, Steve?” David Cooper’s voice was hard and level. “Or is it that maybe you’re not sacrificing as much as . . . Trayne thinks you are?”
Even being prepared for the question and insinuation didn’t keep a spark of anger from flaring up. Steve damped it down hard. If Mr. Cooper hadn’t had this reaction, or some form of it, he’d have been irresponsible or clueless or both. At least it didn’t start out with a punch.
“You mean, am I actually a peeping tom or pedophile who hit some kind of magical jackpot?” Steve said. Technically, the geeky part of his brain noted, it’d be ephebophile. “No. I can’t prove that to you, of course. But if you believe anything at all that we’ve told you . . . choosing someone like that would be completely against everything Silvertail’s trying to accomplish. It would make Holy Aura weaker than she’s ever been, and who knows, might do worse. Corrupt her. Maybe make it possible for this Azathoth of the Nine Arms to use her rather than fight her, I dunno.”
“You’ve spent . . . a lot of time alone with my little girl,” Dave said. “How do I know –”
“You don’t.” He sighed, sat down on the steps of the deck, looking around. A high fence surrounded the backyard, which was large — most of an acre, he guessed. The Coopers had a nice setup. “Dave, it was my idea that we tell you guys everything. The . . . well, the memes that run this whole magical girl thing usually assume it’s kept secret from everyone but the girls and maybe a couple close friends. But that was wrong, and Silvertail’s whole reason for choosing me instead of some girl like Seika was to do the right thing, pick someone who, like you said, was sacrificing a lot for this, and who really understood what Silvertail was asking.”
He held up his hand, looking at the huge, broad expanse of the palm, the thick, powerful fingers, and found himself shuddering. Holy crap, in only a few months I’ve gotten myself an incredible case of body dysphoria. “Something else Silvertail didn’t detail is that this whole thing is . . . well, temporary.”
“What do you mean?” The voice hadn’t . . . changed, exactly, but the question showed that Mr. Cooper wasn’t just stewing in anger and building up to a punchfest.
“If we win — if we get all the Apocalypse Maidens together and beat Azathoth, seal the gateway or whatever again — the whole period of time when magic and monsters were rampaging through the world gets . . . run back, erased, like rewinding a tape. I won’t remember, you won’t, no one will.”
“Silvertail says so, and given that everything else he’s told me has checked out, I’m not going to doubt him on that. But it’s not like we risk this for no reward; he says that if we succeed, we get, well, blessed. Things will work out really good for all of us in the regular timeline, no matter how bad they were or might have gotten before. As long as,” he said, emphasizing the words, “as long as we’re still alive at the end. Because anyone who gets killed by our enemies will be dead in the new timeline, they’ll just be recorded as dying of some mundane cause.”
A long silence. Steve didn’t move or say anything more for a while, just stared up at the stars and remembered the vision he’d seen as Holy Aura of the cosmos and how it all connected.
“What do you want us to do?” David Cooper said finally.
“Just . . . know, for the most part. Realize that sometimes we’ll have to run off to do the superhero thing, and help cover for us. Otherwise just let us keep going as we were, perfectly normal.”
“Including my daughter spending time at your house?”
Steve sighed. He was so tempted to just turn back to Holly — he wanted to go back to being Holly to a frightening degree — but if he did that now it’d look like he was trying to manipulate Mr. Cooper. “We . . . Holly and Seika . . . are friends. That’s not a lie and it’s not a trick. So yes, I’d like that. She would too. She’s already learned the truth, we’ve gone over it, she’s accepted that that’s Holly’s past. And she knows that if I did try anything on her as Steve, she could kick my ass as Radiance Blaze.”
A blink, barely visible in the gloom. “She . . . she could?”
Steve gave a genuine laugh. “You still don’t quite get it, do you? That wasn’t just a light show in there, Dave. Your daughter’s a genuine, bona fide, one hundred percent superhero as Radiance Blaze, and as Steve Russ, I’m just a big ordinary guy. I can’t do anything superhuman in this shape. Radiance Blaze could probably lift your house off its foundations with her bare hands.” He recalled the various feats of speed and strength he’d done as Holy Aura, remembered the lightning-fast speed and power of Radiance Blaze. “She might be stronger than Holy Aura, though not more powerful overall.”
“Damnation.” Cooper was silent for a moment. “Don’t suppose I could get her to help me rebuild that stone fence next week.”
The sheer relief made the feeble joke a hundred times funnier than it really was, and Steve found himself laughing until his sides hurt; Dave chuckled alongside him.
“Can I change back, Dave? To Holly?”
“I . . . guess. Now.”
Being back in Holly’s body flooded him with energy, a young energy that was an astounding reminder of the difference. She felt so light and right again. Holy Jebus, I really am separating from my past. “You mean now that you don’t think you have to punch Steve’s lights out?”
“Don’t suppose I’d have been able to anyway; could’ve just turned into that Holy Aura and whipped me, right?”
“I could, but I wouldn’t. If you wanted to punch out me-as-Steve just on general principles I’d already decided I’d just stand there and take it. I wasn’t going to fight my best friend’s dad.”
“You mean that? The ‘best friend’ part.”
“So much it scares the hell out of the part of me that’s Steve. Yeah. The worst part of that attack on the school was knowing Seika was in danger . . . and realizing that if she became one of the Maidens she’d always be in danger. If there was some way for me to do this alone, I would. If there was a way for me to take that power away so that she’d be out of the firing line, I would, too. Though she’d probably hate me for it.” She looked up at the same stars Steve had, and realized she could see them twice as bright, twice as clear. “But at the same time I was so happy that I’d be able to finally share the secret with someone I cared about.”
“I guess your . . . old life had to be left behind.”
“Yeah. No more job at the bagel shop, no more of my bachelor pad nights. Just early bedtimes and homework.”
Cooper shook his head. “Well . . . Holly, this is going to take a lot of getting used to . . . but you’re going to be Holly, right?” He started back toward the house.
“Except when I have to do explanations like this, or if some emergency happened that required me to change, yes, sir. I’m Holly pretty much for good now, until we win this war.”
The living room seemed almost to have been in a time stop while they were gone; Seika, Trayne, and Lynn were in the same positions, sitting tense and silent, as they had been when the two left. Seika jumped to her feet. “Dad . . . ?”
“It’s all right,” David Cooper said, speaking more to his wife than Seika.
“Are you sure, Dave?”
“Pretty sure. We’ll talk on it tonight. Maybe tomorrow, too. But . . . I think it’s okay.”
Trayne stood. “Then I thank you for your patience and understanding, Mr. . . . no, David, Lynn. We will leave you to your own discussions, then. Of course, if you have any other questions I will be more than happy to answer them to the best of my ability.”
“Just tell me — to my face — that my daughter’s safe with . . . Holly. And you know exactly what I mean.”
Trayne’s face grew solemn. “Mr. Cooper, your daughter is safer with Holly, and myself, than almost anywhere else on Earth. In all ways, save only one: that she has the responsibilities of an Apocalypse Maiden, and that risk, alas, none can shield her from.”
“All right, then. We’ll call you if we have any questions.”
Holly and Trayne walked out the front door with normal, if slightly stilted, goodbyes from the family. Getting into the car, Holly let her breath out with a whoosh. “OhGodOhGodOhGod I was so terrified they’d freak out!”
“That did, indeed, go . . . excellently well,” Silvertail said. “Possibly the magic works for us in the sense that the Maidens must remain able to work together, and thus there cannot be too many internal forces working against us.” He put the car in gear. “But that is only the first.”
“Yeah,” Holly said as the car rumbled its way down the street. “One down, three to go.”