The First Test: Can three young girls stop an implacable enemy with powers beyond human ken?

“It is rare that one can see in a little boy the promise of a man, but one can almost always see in a little girl the threat of a woman.” —Alexandre Dumas





On the desolate slope of a craggy mountain where no snow fell and no flowers grew, a high castle of black basalt stood resilient against the biting, howling wind. Deep in the castle’s bowels, the Dark Queen, mistress of all that is base and wicked, reclined upon her throne. Leaning an alabaster cheek on the palm of one hand while she slid the carefully manicured fingers of the other along the generous curve of her hip, she ran a forked tongue across her blood-red lips.

Her throne, cut from black obsidian, resembled an enormous, coiling dragon poised like a cobra ready to strike, its mouth spread wide to display sharp fangs. From somewhere deep in the dragon’s stone throat shone a weird violet light that made its teeth and eyes glitter as if alive, but did nothing to illumine the murky room. Surrounding the throne, carved into the heavy stone blocks of the floor, was a Druid’s Claw full of cracked, brown lumps of dried blood. At each point of this pentangle stood a pillar of black marble topped with a smoldering censer of black gold, from which rose languorous, curling streams of smoke that filled the room with the heavy, soporific scent of olibanum. The ceiling was so high as to be invisible in the darkness, but from somewhere above came the occasional squeak and titter of bats.

The Queen absently stroked the head of the pet cobra coiled in her lap. Around her, throughout the vast chamber, her many subjects crouched or slithered. Some resembled giant serpents. Others were great, gray trolls. Others were huge insects rubbing their forelimbs together as if contemplating prey. Some looked like bats or gargoyles and hung upside down from the arches lining the walls. Some were witches with long, warty noses, who peeped and muttered as they stirred pots of potions or chanted dark spells.

With eyelids half-lowered over ice-blue eyes, the Queen peered at these her servants—or squinted at them, rather, since she could barely see through the gloom.

“It’s too darn dark in here,” she murmured. “I know it’s got the ‘evil kingdom’ vibe going, but couldn’t we see about some recessed lighting, or maybe just a reading lamp? How do the other evil overlords do it? This can’t be good for my eyes—”

“Oh great Lady of Darkness,” simpered Chirops, her chief minion. He was a bat as large as a medium-sized dog, and he waddled on little legs as he dragged his wings across the floor. He pulled close to the dais on which stood her throne. “Oh great Lady of Darkness,” he said again, bowing low, “what will be your next move in the conquest of mankind’s last city?”

The Dark Queen drew her claw-like, blood red nails down one armrest of her throne. Chirops winced, and the cobra hissed.

“Let us test the strength of their protectresses,” the Queen said. Her forked tongue flicked across her needle-sharp teeth. “Send in a new monster … the monster Abraxas!”

Chirops’s furry ears drooped. “But … Your Darkness … sending in a monster is what you did last week. You shouldn’t keep trying the same thing, expecting a different result.”

The Queen rose from her throne and dropped her hissing cobra to the floor. She planted one of her six-inch stiletto heels directly before the cowering bat’s face. He gasped.

“No, little minion! You shouldn’t defy your Queen without expecting her majestic wrath! Now go! Call Abraxas! Your Queen demands blood!”



It was a peaceful night in downtown Urbanopolis. Autumn was just around the corner, but the night was warm even though it was clear. The shops of the Godai district, most of which sold antiques, trinkets, or pastries, were brightly lit, and their broad windows cast festive squares of light across the pavement. The air was full of the sweet and savory scents of treats grilling at the several food stalls. In the concrete pots lining the street, the orange cosmos were in bloom. In a few weeks, the Mexican fire bushes planted with them would turn red and give the impression that each pot was full of frozen fire. Teenagers traveled in chattering groups, and families with small children were out window-shopping and eating taiyaki or ice cream, enjoying their last few hours of freedom before the start of the new school session.

Then a monster attacked. Like all monsters, it had no apparent plan and no apparent purpose; it simply appeared in a bright flash and started killing. Its gray, knobby flesh reeked like a mixture of manure and industrial chemicals, and great tusks jutted from its thick, slobbery lips. It wore a bikini made from some kind of green-tinted metal—the only hint that it was female. Its callused hands were the size of rubbish bin lids. With them, it hurled men, women, and children into windows and brick walls, or else picked them up and crushed them, letting their blood and innards run between its meaty fingers.

The monster brought a club-like fist down onto the head of a young woman who had been out shopping with her five-year-old daughter. The blow broke her skull and pulverized the vertebrae of her neck. She tumbled to the ground like a rag doll, instantly dead. A moment before, her daughter had been licking an ice cream cone. Now the ice cream fell from her hand and splattered on the sidewalk, forgotten. She knelt over her mother, tiny fists bunched, and screamed. A middle-aged businessman jumped in front of the monster, dropped his briefcase, scooped up the girl, and ran.

Before, the monster had simply been out to kill anything and everything, but now it had a purpose: it would not stop until that little girl was dead. It picked up a parked car, raised it overhead, and threw. The car sailed through the air for fifty feet before its rear bumper hit the ground with an ear-piercing shriek, raising sparks and a hail of gravel. It lost little of its momentum, but slid down the road with its front end in the air. In less than a second, the man and girl would be nothing but a red smear on the asphalt—

A bright, girlish voice cried out, “Rainbow Shield!”

A shining wall, flowing with colors like the surface of a soap bubble, burst out of the ground. The car struck it with a crunch. Though it distended like rubber, the wall held: with the squeal of rending metal, the car bounced off and tipped over onto its roof. Then the shimmering wall popped and disappeared into the ether.

Out of the sky floated a young girl, probably fifteen years old, supported by tiny wings fluttering at the heels of her sneakers. Her yellow hair whipped in the wind beneath her beret. She wore a pink miniskirt puffed out by lace-hemmed petticoats. In one hand, she held a wand, also pink, topped with the emblem of a winged deck of playing cards. In her other hand, pinched between index and middle finger, she held a card with a picture of a rainbow-colored bubble on it.

Once her feet touched the ground, she spun her wand like a cheerleader’s baton. “By the power of the cards entrusted to me by the ancient Society of Wizards, I am Magical Girl Card Collector Kasumi!”

The people on the street halted in their panicked flight to clap and cheer.

“Look!” hollered an elderly woman with thick spectacles. “Up there! Another one!”

All eyes turned toward the flat rooftop of a three-story, low-rent hotel. Silhouetted against the full moon stood another girl, this one draped in a green gown that, at its hem, divided into tassels from which hung silver bells. In her hands, she held a sharpened pencil the size of a staff. “A girl robot infused with hopes and dreams and the power of imagination!” she shouted. “I am Magical Girl Grease Pencil Marionette!”

The people gasped as she leapt from the roof, twisted her body in the air like an expert diver, and landed lightly on the road next to Kasumi.

A sour note hovered on the air, as if struck from a guitar by inexpert fingers. Everyone looked around in confusion. With a shout, a little boy pointed to the top of a lamppost where yet another girl, possibly as young as twelve, balanced on her tippy toes. She wore white bellbottoms and a garish tailed jacket studded with rhinestones. “With the power of incredible songs that would make me a world-famous pop diva if only someone would recognize my talent!” she cried in a scratchy voice. “I am Magical Girl Tuneless Ramona!”

She swayed for a moment before falling gracelessly from the lamppost and planting her face in the pavement at Marionette’s feet. But then she jumped up, clenched a fist, grinned a toothy grin, and yelled, “Together, the three of us are—”

Kasumi and Marionette gave each other uncertain glances.

“We’re just three magical girls who happen to be in the same place to fight the same monster,” Marionette said.

“Yeah,” added Kasumi. “It’s not like we’re a team or anything.”

Ramona’s lip quivered. “You … you don’t wanna be a team?” Tears appeared in the corners of her eyes. “But I was hoping you’d join my idol group!”

Kasumi shrieked, but quickly slapped a velvet-gloved hand over her mouth.

Marionette ran her fingers through her short-cropped silver hair. “Oh, Ramona … heh heh heh … I don’t think we’re good enough to be in your group. I’m a robot—”

“That’s right!” Kasumi added. “And I’m only good at Go Fish and Old Maid … and predicting your death with my cursed Tarot deck, but I only do that to boys who dump me.”

Ramona crossed her arms and pouted. “Hmph. Revolutionary artists are never understood in their own time. Don’t you two know I’ve been on Urbanopolis’s Got Talent?”

Marionette leaned toward Kasumi and whispered, “She didn’t make it past the first round.”

“I heard half the audience had to be treated for PTSD,” Kasumi whispered back.

Dumbfounded, the monster silently watched this display. Like all monsters, it knew never to interrupt magical girls while they were talking, but once a lull appeared in the conversation, it flexed its muscular arms and uttered a deafening roar as thick globs of spittle rained from its gaping maw. The people in the crowd moaned and cowered.

“All right!” Ramona cried. “Time to get down to business!” She put her fingertips to her collarbones and spun in a pirouette. “I call on the power of Apollo and Euterpe to lend me aid!”

“Won’t do any good,” Marionette muttered.

Ramona made a flying leap into the middle of the road. When she raised her hands, a disco ball materialized in the air. She dropped her arms to her sides and, palms up, slowly lifted them as if picking up a heavy weight. Beneath her feet, the asphalt rumbled, cracked, and parted. A wooden stage grew out of the ground. The disco ball spun, washing the blood-soaked street with multicolored lights, and the sound of off-key electronica music came from nowhere.

During this display, the monster crossed its arms, tapped a thick foot against the ground, and checked its watch.

Ramona swayed her hips and snapped her fingers as she shuffled her feet. “C’mon, monster-chan!” she called with a wink. “Shake it like ya owe me some money!” She spun around, bent over, and wiggled her buttocks. The people gasped and covered their eyes.

“Dear sweet Princess,” Kasumi whispered. “What in the name of every sailor-suited schoolgirl in the history of humanity is she doing?”

“This is her power,” said Marionette grimly. “One night, she sang karaoke with her friends. She was terrible, so terrible that she produced a powerful field of negative musical energy, and thus Ramona Kawasaki became Tuneless Ramona, a magical girl armed with song and dance so awful, they’re actually weapons. She is the Destroyer, the Anti-Idol.”

Ramona stretched a hand into the air again. Above her head, in a burst of pink sparkles, appeared an oversized microphone decorated with green and red costume jewelry. It lowered until it came within her grasp. “And now,” she said, her amplified voice cracking, “I’ll perform my number one hit, ‘Beautiful Singing Ramona (Can Shake Her Moneymaker).’”

Marionette slammed her grease pencil into the ground, cracking the asphalt. “Kasumi! Quickly! We have to do something! The people—!”

“On it!” Kasumi reached into her pagoda sleeve, produced a new card, and tossed it into the air. She spun her wand in her hand and slapped it into the card’s surface. “Magical Earplugs!”

“Why do you even have a card like that?”

In a blaze of blue light, foam earplugs appeared in the ears of Kasumi, Marionette, and the gathered people. The magically enhanced plugs blotted out all noise, preventing an even greater tragedy than what had already occurred. Ramona pranced around the stage, occasionally delivered a high kick, and bobbed her head back and forth to make her pigtails bounce. She even performed an impromptu Moonwalk. But no one could say he heard the song she sang—and that was a good thing, because no one who heard it would have lived to tell.

The monster stood frozen as if turned to stone. Its slavering jaw hung open. Its left cheek twitched. But then it shook its massive head and ran full-bore toward the stage. Ramona stopped in the middle of her routine, shrieked, and curled into a ball.

Marionette yanked out her earplugs. “Impossible! Ramona’s song should have—!”

Then she saw the little pieces of foam sticking out of the monster’s pointy ears.

Marionette grabbed Kasumi by the shoulders and shook her. “Idiot! Baka! You weren’t supposed to give the monster earplugs too!”

“I’m sorry!” Kasumi shouted. “I can’t hear you! I’ve got earplugs in!”

Marionette spun her pencil in a whirlwind and brought it down as if making a low strike. She scribbled furiously on the pavement.

With a pop, Kasumi tugged out her plugs. “Is this really the time for that?”

“By the power of imagination!” Marionette said through clenched teeth. “From my mind, through my hands—to reality!”

After giving it a final twirl, Marionette slipped the pencil over her shoulder and into a sheath on her back. Then she reached down and touched the pavement. She tugged, and the object she had drawn became solid. It rose out of the ground and into her hands.

Kasumi gasped. “What is that?”

“An autocannon!” With a wide grin, staggering under the weight, Marionette turned and pointed the spinning barrels of the enormous machine gun at the monster.

“Marionette, you can’t fire one of those from the hip in real life!”

“It’s a magical autocannon! Cut me some slack here!” She opened fire. Roaring like thunder, the barrels blazed. The monster screeched and staggered backwards.

Kasumi bounced from one foot to the other. “But you’re only hitting it with globs of grease—”

“I drew it with a grease pencil!” Marionette shouted over the noise of the gun. “What do you want from me?”

Kasumi sighed. “I guess it’s up to me. She tucked her hands into her sleeves, pulled out several cards, and furiously flipped through them. “Let’s see—butterflies, flowers, ponies … why couldn’t those wizards give me any good spells? Like a fireball or lightning bolt or magic missile or—”

The attack of grease had caught the monster off guard, but now it hunched low and ran like a rugby player toward Ramona’s stage.

Ramona found her courage, gripped her microphone, and rose to her feet. She put the mike near her lips and sang a single note.

The monster paused and dropped to all fours in mid-run.

Marionette’s finger lifted from the trigger. She swayed. Kasumi dropped her cards. They fluttered to the ground, forgotten.

It had been a clear note, as pure as a sound struck from fine crystal, perhaps the first clear note Ramona had sung in her life.

“Amazing,” Marionette whispered. “Maybe … maybe Ramona really is—”

“Oops, that came out wrong,” said Ramona. “What I meant was—”

Kasumi and Marionette clapped their hands to their ears just in time. As Ramona released a high-pitched screech, the windows up and down the street blew out. People ducked under flying shards of glass. Children screamed. Marionette and Kasumi blocked enough of the sound to save their lives, but the noise still dropped them to the pavement.

The monster was unfazed, as it still wore earplugs. Ramona’s renewed attempt to sing had made it curious, but accomplished nothing else. It reached out, grabbed the would-be idol in its thick fist, and flung her through the air.

“Everyone’s a critic!” she cried as she disappeared over the rooftops.

Marionette and Kasumi lay paralyzed. Marionette struggled to move an arm: her fingers twitched, and her wrist flopped—just enough to bring her hand against Kasumi’s.

“I’m sorry,” Marionette whispered. “Looks like this is it.”

The monster loomed over them. Its moist, acrid breath fluttered their clothing.

“We did what we could,” Kasumi whispered back.

Marionette felt tears in her eyes, the first tears she had cried in over two hundred years. “I wanted to be a real girl. I wanted it so very much. Tell of me, Kasumi. Tell my story when the Moon Princess takes you to Paradise. I have no soul that can join you there.”

Tears poured from Kasumi’s eyes as well. “You live in my soul, Marionette, and you always will.”

The monster raised one thick fist. Its shadow, cast by the moonlight, stretched across the helpless magical girls.

Marionette gazed up into the night sky for what she was sure was the last time. The moon was so full, so bright. Glimmering in the Sea of Serenity were tiny points of light—the lights of the kingdom that Grease Pencil Marionette, no matter how faithfully she served the Princess, would never see.

A sparkling line of blue, like a shooting star made of glitter, streaked across the moon’s face.

Marionette’s mechanical heart surged with hope.

“She’s here. We’re saved.”

The monster, with a bewildered snort, looked up. Out of the clear air rose a young girl’s triumphant shout—

“Lightning Rod!”



In her poorly lit throne room, the Dark Queen watched the battle unfold in her crystal ball. With pleasure, she saw three magical girls fall. Then, with rage, she saw her beloved Abraxas tumble to the ground, dead. Once its dark soul had departed, the monster’s body quickly disintegrated into sand.

With a snarl of disgust, the Queen waved her hand over the ball, turning it black. She sat back in her throne and touched a hand to her chin.

“Every time,” she hissed. “Every single time—”

Chirops waddled to the side of her throne and peeked over the armrest. “Perhaps, Your Darkness, we should consider changing our tactic.”

In a flash, the Queen reached out and wrapped a hand around Chirops’s throat. The bat squealed and gasped as he struggled in her grip.

She brought his face close to hers and reveled in the sight of overwhelming fear in his wide, pale eyes. With one razor-sharp nail, she gently stroked the fur on his cheek. “Perhaps, my little servant.”

She dropped him. He fell to the floor with a squeak.

“Perhaps,” she said, voice booming to reach all the slavering minions who crouched in the darkness, “it is not the city against which we should send our monsters. Perhaps we should send them against my hated enemy herself. We will discover what she loves, what she cares for, and once we have destroyed that—”

She cackled. On one arm of her throne lay a photograph of a young, blue-haired girl sporting a cocky grin. The Queen dragged her nails across the photo, shredding it.

“I will pay you back a thousand times over for the humiliation you have done me … Magical Girl Pretty Dynamo!”