The giant bat flapped his wings as he circled overhead. Lightning cracked, so for a moment he appeared as an ominous silhouette against a sky full of white fire. “We have you right where we want you, Barfing Boy,” he cried in a squeaky voice, “and your magical girlfriend can’t save you!” He laughed. “Where is your Princess now?”

The bystanders in the street cowered. An elderly lady lifted her umbrella cane and pointed it at Jake with a shaky hand. “Look! It is him! It’s Barfing Boy!”

Next to the old woman stood a young man with a big potbelly hanging over his sweatpants. Under his chin, his upper neck was hairy, as if he’d forgotten to shave that part. His T-shirt was too small to cover the last few inches of his enormous stomach, and in pink letters it proclaimed, “Magical girls do it in fancy outfits on live TV.”

“And look!” he cried as he pointed at Dana. “Barfing Boy is two-timing Pretty Dynamo! Woo-hoo!”

The onlookers gasped. Jake slapped a hand to his forehead.

The demoniac tipped his head back and laughed maniacally at the swirling storm. Like a puppet pulled by invisible strings, he lifted into the air and floated down to the pavement. Screaming in terror, people scrambled over one another to escape him. A little boy fell on his face on the sidewalk and sobbed. A frantic woman scooped him up and disappeared in the press.

The demoniac flexed his clawed fingers. His head spun on his neck while his joints crackled like an overexcited breakfast cereal. “Inch by delectable inch,” he said in an eerily mellifluous voice as sharp fangs peeked out from behind his cracked lips, “I will shred your skin, guiding my talons to avoid the major veins and arteries. Then I will dig into the muscles and sinews. Then twist until the bones crack. I will at last tear deeper, shredding organ after organ, moving from the most expendable to the most vital—and once you have lost your mind from the exquisite agony, I will rip away your soul, drag you down into the darkness, and drown you in the lake of fire where you shall be my plaything for all eternity.”

A cold sweat broke out on Jake’s back.

The demoniac bent his elbows backwards and then forwards again with sharp pops. He licked his lips with a bloated, purple tongue.

“My communicator pen rang,” Dana whispered, her voice trembling, “so Sentinel knows he’s here. The Temple must be sending a miko, but still—”

“What do we do?” Jake whispered back.

“I don’t know! I can’t … I can’t transform—!”

She clutched his arm. Her big eyes were plaintive.

“Run,” he hissed through clenched teeth. “Run. I’ll hold him off.”

“What? You can’t—!”

“Just go! Hurry!”

She hesitated a moment, but then turned and, with sneakers clomping and arms flailing, sprinted up the street. No one moved out of her way, but she was small: she ducked under arms, dodged between legs, and soon disappeared.

The demoniac stopped spinning his head. One by one, he bent the clawed fingers of each hand, producing more pops. Greenish saliva dripped from between his jagged teeth. “Seems your new little tart can’t take the heat. Should have stuck with the magical girl, eh?”

Jake’s pulse pounded hard in his temples. He flexed his fingers and clenched them into fists. “Okay, pal—”

The demoniac released a deafening peal of mad laughter. “What? Are you going to fight me? Me? Your mother eats chalk in hell!” He pointed one curved talon at the monitor on Jake’s wrist. “How can you fight against me, boy … when you’re already mine?”

Jake’s ankle throbbed, sending a stab of pain straight up his leg and deep into his hip. He stumbled and sucked his breath between his teeth.

The monitor uttered a loud, angry buzz.

The gathered people shrieked in terror. The fat guy in the T-shirt fell to his knees and raised two thick, flabby arms toward the sky. “Princess have mercy!” he cried.

Sweat poured down Jake’s face. No. No! It can’t be … !

“What’s the matter?” the demoniac hissed, his drool now dripping off the end of his chin. He bent his knees backwards like a satyr’s and stepped forward. “Are your joints growing stiff? Is your flesh growing cold? Are you getting hungry? Hungry, perhaps … for brains?”

Breathing hard, now drenched in sweat, Jake sank to the ground. At once, his mouth moistened at the thought: brains. Yes, brains. Creamy, sweet, delicious brains. Good anytime, hot or cold. Brain curry, brain tacos, fried brains, stewed brains, brains with scrambled eggs, brain sandwiches, brain meatballs! So many delicious, succulent, mouthwatering ways to eat brains—!

“Brains,” Jake whispered, his whole body shuddering.

A woman screamed.

“Yes,” the demoniac hissed as he drew closer. “Yes, brains. Good … good. Give in to your hunger. With each passing moment, you make yourself more my servant. Let the haggis flow through you—”

The throbbing in his ankle suddenly ceased. Jake looked up and frowned. “Haggis? Hold on, that’s not made with brains—”

The demoniac stopped in his tracks and scratched his head. “Are you sure? I could’ve sworn—”

“No, I’m sure. It’s a sheep’s heart, lungs and liver. You mix it with onions and oatmeal, and you cook it in the sheep’s stomach. I tried it once in Little Europe. It sounds disgusting, but it’s actually—”

“You could make it with brains, you know.”

“Well, okay, I guess you could, but that wouldn’t be traditional—”

“Fine, fine! Then let’s just say haggis with brains. Let the haggis with brains flow—”

“Look, man, you can mix brains into anything, but that doesn’t mean you should.”

“Why not?”

“Well, would you eat, like, brain-flavored candy or something?”

A moment passed as they stared at each other.

“I would, yeah.”

“That’s gross, dude.”

“Oh, for the love of … do you want to eat brains or not?”

Jake patted his stomach. He blinked a few times. “I did a moment ago, but … hey, wait a second, how can I talk to you like this if I’m turning into a zombie?”

His wrist monitor immediately stopped buzzing, and the demoniac reeled back as if struck across the face. “Curses! How can he see through my trickery and illusions?” He looked up to the bat still circling overhead and shrieked, “This seemingly normal boy does indeed possess great power!”

“Not really,” said Jake as he dusted himself off and rose to his feet. “You’re just an idiot. And now that I think about it, I don’t even like brains.”

“I’ll brain you!” With a snarl, the demoniac leapt, claws extended. Jake scrambled backwards to dodge the murderous swipe, which missed his face but snagged his jacket and cut three shallow gashes into the denim. He landed hard on his bad ankle, which responded with a fresh, burning throb. Sucking his breath between his teeth, he staggered—but he didn’t quite fall.

The demoniac again ran his corpselike tongue across his lips. “You are mine, boy! Your mother ducks blocks in hell, and now so will you!”

Jake swallowed. The demoniac raised his hand overhead, and again the lightning flashed. The gawking bystanders shrank down as the thunder roared like a cannon blast, rattling windows. The noise bounced between the skyscrapers in a crazy echo.

But as the sound of thunder faded, a clear voice said—

“Hold it right there, tough guy.”

A girl’s voice.

The demoniac paused, claws sill pointed skyward. His mouth twitched with the beginnings of a fresh smile.

A murmur swept through the crowd. People whispered and waved wildly. They peered over one another’s shoulders, trying to find the source of that voice.

“She’s here!” yelled the fat guy, still on his knees. “Thank the Princess, we’re saved!”

Pretty Dynamo shouldered aside a couple of young women and stepped out into the street, fists on hips and a cocky grin on her face. On her shoulder sat Tesla, who happily munched a steamed pork bun as if he had no other cares in the world.

The fat guy slumped. “Oh, it’s her. I was expecting … oh, well. Hey, Dynamo!” he shouted. “I just saw your boyfriend on a date with some emo redhead chick!”

Dynamo rolled her eyes.

The bat soared down out of the air and landed heavily. Once he was on the ground, balanced on his stubby legs with his long wings looking like misplaced tarps fluttering against the asphalt, he was decidedly unimpressive. His wet, pig-like snout twitched, and he bunched up his claws in a fist and shook them. “Accursed Pretty Dynamo! My mistress will have her revenge for what you’ve done to her!”

Dynamo raised one blue eyebrow. “What the zap are you talking about?”

“Ha! Don’t feign ignorance with me! As if any human being could be unaware of your ultimate nemesis, the bringer of your destruction, the one who will at last cleanse the earth of your accursed race—the Dark Queen!”

The people muttered and whispered to one another. A few scratched their heads. The fat guy belched. Dynamo glanced at Jake with a bemused frown, and he merely shrugged.

“Sorry,” said Dynamo. “The dark what now?”

The bat stamped his feet. “The Queen! The Dark Queen!” He looked back and forth from Jake to Dynamo. “You know … mistress of all that is base and wicked?”

Jake and Dynamo shook their heads.

“Um … lady of all that is grotesque and perverse?”

“Nope,” said Dynamo. “Sorry.”

“How about sovereign ruler of the especially ill-tempered?”

“Never heard of her,” said Jake.

“Come on!” the bat shouted. “You have to have—”

“Look, whatever,” said Dynamo. “Enough talk. Let’s kill each other.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” hissed the demoniac as he twisted all of his fingers backwards.

Wincing from the pain in his ankle, Jake stepped shakily to Dynamo’s side. “I thought you can’t fight this guy.”

“The boss wants me to distract him until an exorcist gets here,” she replied through clenched teeth.

“Can you do that?”

“We’ll find out.” She pulled her wand from her belt. “Lightning Rod!”

Once her wand expanded into a spear, she spun it in her hands.

The demoniac snorted. “You come against me with mere toys? Mortal weapons are useless against me, Magical Girl Pretty Dynamo! If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly—”

“Put a sock in it.” With a whoop, Dynamo leapt in and, two handed, swiped the blade of her spear toward his neck, cutting savagely from left to right in a quarter circle. He nimbly dived backwards onto his hands to dodge, but instead of flipping over again onto his feet, curled his body up into a writhing ball of distorted limbs.

Dynamo bent her knees, directed her spear tip to the ground, and then lifted, aiming to scoop the blade up into his body. But before she could impale him, he shot upright like a coiled spring, slid out of her reach, and landed lithely on his backward-bending legs.

Tucking the shaft under her right arm, Dynamo planted the butt of her spear on the ground. “Not bad,” she said. “You’re quick.”

“You’re dead.” With a series of rapid spin kicks, he forced himself forward and then, still spinning, stretched out his arms to shred her with his claws. She deflected with her left forearm, and her vambrace screeched as his talons clattered across it. She kicked up the butt of her spear with her right foot, bent low, and thrust one-handed toward his twirling torso. Again, like some maniacal contraption of hinges and springs, he turned and contorted and moved beyond her reach.

Spinning the spear to deflect any fresh attacks, Dynamo stepped forward, slid her left foot out, bent her right knee hard, and dropped low. Again she thrust, this time toward his legs. He leapt high, turned in a semicircle in midair, and bent his body over backwards like an expert diver leaving the board. He aimed his claws for the unprotected top of her head.

Dynamo flattened the spear to the ground and barrel-rolled along its length. Once she was out from under the plummeting demoniac, she returned to her feet, but remained in a low crouch. She made a two-handed thrust toward his face.

He bent his neck hard and brought the back of his skull down between his shoulder blades. The spear missed him by a hairsbreadth as he landed in a crouch of his own.

With an angry buzz, electricity arced from the blade and struck his throat. Shrieking loudly enough to make Jake’s ears ring, he reeled back, windmilled his arms, and landed hard on his rump.

Dynamo snapped upright, again tucked the spear under her arm with its butt on the ground, and gave a sarcastic salute.

“Enough,” he said, wiping his mouth as he climbed to his feet. He raked a claw down one cheek, producing a thick stream of red blood. “Now I will show you my true power!”

He rose into the air and spread his arms wide. The huge bat flew up and hovered above him.

The ground shook. Women screamed. Mothers grabbed their children and tried to shield them with their arms, though they didn’t know from what. A second-story window blew out and pelted the people with shards of glass. Several food stalls fell over with the ear-piercing crash of metal dishware and the staccato bang of breaking pottery. Deep-fried foods scattered across the pavement. A crack appeared in the façade of an office building, and fresh lightning flashed across the sky.

In the center of the street, directly beneath the demoniac’s hovering dress shoes, a circle three feet wide glowed bright red. The air above it waved and shimmered like the air above a furnace.

“Behold!” he shouted. “Soon, you shall all give talks in hell! Just like your mothers!”

Within the red circle, the road cracked, and a depression formed. Then it caved in, and bright red flames licked out of the hole. Pavement around the rim of the hole glistened and then crumbled away like ice falling from the side of a melting glacier. Steadily, the hole grew: it was five feet wide, then ten, then fifteen. The heat grew as well until the asphalt no longer crumbled, but liquefied. It poured into the pit.

The flames shot higher and roared like a typhoon. Heat pressed against Jake’s face and stung his eyes and nose as if he had drawn too close to a hot stove. With the heat came the stink of tar and sulfur mixed with the gag-inducing stench of sewage and burning flesh, a stench that shot straight into his sinuses and sent him into a violent fit of coughing.

The demoniac shrieked, “All of New Beijing will become an outpost of hell!”

With screams of sheer terror, the people turned and ran. They shoved one another, scrambled over one another. Children and the elderly stumbled and fell while others tripped on them, stomped on them. It was the shelter all over again, but on a larger scale. Somewhere, under the screams and curses and tramping feet, Jake heard the forlorn bawling of a small child—

More lightning cracked, and the heat knocked Jake back as if he’d struck a wall. He put up an arm to protect his face.

“What do we do?” he shouted over the roar of the flames and the groans of the crowd.

Even Pretty Dynamo, with her enhanced body, had sweat pouring from her face and a hand raised in a vain attempt to protect herself. Tesla crawled around behind her head.

“I don’t know!” she shouted back.

“We don’t have the proper magic to reverse his spell!” Tesla yelled as he adjusted his glasses. “We need an exorcist!”

The demoniac raised a hand and pointed one long, razor-sharp talon toward a knot of writhing, panicking people. The fat guy in the T-shirt, who was trying to push past a couple of old women, fell to the ground with a loud whump and slid backwards as if an invisible rope pulled him. He scrabbled at the pavement, scattering pebbles as he dug his nails into the asphalt. He tore her fingertips to bloody shreds and left red streaks across the ground as he drew nearer to the lip of the fiery pit.

“No!” he screamed. “No! No! Not that! Anything but that!”

Jake ran to him, grabbed his wrists, and leaned back, pulling as hard as he could. The man’s blood ran down Jake’s forearms and mingled with the sweat as his ruined fingers twitched and writhed like landed fish. Jake felt the man’s arms go limp as his shoulders left their sockets, but still he slid toward the mouth of hell.

Jake’s feet slipped against the pavement. He leaned farther, fell hard on his backside, and then slid along the ground as well.

“Let him go!” Dynamo shouted.

The demoniac merely laughed.

“Ball Lightning!”

A white sphere shot from Dynamo’s hand, but it dissipated in the air before it reached its target.

“You are powerless!” he sneered. “You can do nothing but watch as I drag these people one by one into hell!”

Jake felt an invisible rope seize his own ankle.

The rough pavement tore his pants and jacket. Pebbles dug into his skin. He met Dynamo’s eyes for a moment: she stared at him, mouth hanging open, with that same familiar look—the look of a deer in the headlights, the look of intense fear.

He finally realized what that look meant.

He didn’t claw uselessly at the pavement. Instead, he crossed his arms over his chest, closed his eyes, and let his mind go blank.

So this is it, the fate of a sidekick. I can’t say they didn’t warn me—

From the air, amplified even over the screams of despair and the howl of the fire, he heard a confident, calm voice:

“No, no. I no tink so. Ain’t nobody allowed to raise hell ’round here ’cept me.”

At once, the magical rope on Jake’s leg released, and the flames shrank out of sight. The opening in the pavement still glowed like smoldering coals, but it ceased to roar. Jake took to his feet, grabbed the fat man under his arms in spite of his weak protests and struggles, and dragged him back from the edge of the pit.

He looked up. Hovering in the air was a teenage girl with spiky pink hair sticking out from under her bike helmet. She wore a sports bra made from what looked like white plastic, along with a white wraparound skirt over black bicycle shorts. Tied at her lower back was a big, pink bow. Huge boots of white plastic, jointed to allow her to bend her ankles, stretched almost up to her knees. From the back of her bra extended four white panels vaguely shaped like an airplane’s wings, and the underside of each wing glowed with green lights. She had her fists on her hips and wore a broad, confident smile. Perched on her shoulder, gripping her with its claws for dear life, was a red tanuki, the raccoon dog of Japan.

Shouts of joy and hope rose from the crowd. People stopped crawling over one another in mindless panic. Instead, those who were still whole lifted the injured and pulled them back from danger. Mothers gathered up their sobbing children.

“Magical Girl Sukeban Tsubasa!” the demoniac cried.

“Dat’s right.”

Both she and the demoniac dropped to the ground a mere twenty feet from Jake. Strangling a groan, he heaved again to drag the injured man farther back.

The wings folded into Tsubasa’s shoulders, and her tanuki leapt nimbly to the pavement. Her jaw worked rhythmically, and she made a curious snapping sound. Then she blew a pink bubble out of her mouth.

“Fool!” the demoniac snarled. “You think a magical girl like you can fight me? Your mother takes walks in hell!”

Her bubble popped. “Oh ho!” she said as she sucked her gum back in. “Sick burn, dude!”

“You are the one who will burn, Tsubasa!” He flexed his claws.

She waved a hand back and forth. “No, no, no. Don’t change da subjec’. I tink we keep talkin’ ’bout da mamas … like how de call yo mama AM radio cuz she easy t’ pick up at night.”

The demoniac’s mouth fell open. His face turned red. He shook. “What … what did you just say about my mother?”

She put her hands behind her head, stretched her back, and blew another bubble. “Nuttin’. Nuttin’ a-tall. Hey, where you come from, ain’t dere some guy dey call ‘lord o’ da flies’?”

His eyes narrowed. “Yes … Beelzebub. He’s a very good friend of mine—”

“Well, yo mama so nasty, he had ta give up ’is title!”

The demoniac snarled in rage and ripped clumps of hair out of his head, leaving behind bloody patches of torn flesh. “What? Why you … ! Your mother … !”

“Yeah? Yeah?” Eyes wide, Tsubasa jumped up and down and clapped her hands together. “C’mon, zap me back! Zap me back!”

His face turned bright purple. His mouth opened impossibly wide, and green drool ran in rivulets down his chin and neck. He writhed and drew his claws down his chest, shredding his suit and bringing up more blood. “Your mother … your mother … is so fat … !”

“Yeah? C’mon, hit me wit’ it!”

He clenched his fists and shook as sweat poured down his forehead. Finally, he cried, “… That she darns socks in hell!”

Tsubasa slumped. “Aw, is dat all you got? She only darnin’ dem socks cuz yo mama needs ’em for her combat boots.”

The demoniac dropped to his knees, opened his mouth to the sky, and released a high-pitched, incoherent scream.

Jake knelt by the man he’d pulled back from the pit. The man stared at the pavement and breathed in shallow gasps. His skin was clammy and pale.

Dynamo stepped to Tsubasa’s side and put a hand on her shoulder. “C’mon, Tsubasa, magical girls like you an’ me can’t fight this guy. We gotta wait for a miko—”

Tsubasa laughed. “What? Dyna-wyna, you can’t handle dis guy? He not so tough.”

“You don’t get it. He’s a demon. That’s just his host body—”

Tsubasa clucked her tongue and waved a finger in Dynamo’s face.

“Tsubasa,” said the tanuki in a squeaky voice as he twiddled his little claws together, “y-you should use t-the Aetheric Disruptor Cannon!”

“Ah yeah,” said Tsubasa as she pumped a fist. “Da Ghoster Toaster! Comin’ right up!”

Tears ran from the tanuki’s eyes. He sniffled. Wiping a furry wrist against his nose, he cried, “It’s c-called an Aetheric Disruptor Cannon! S-s-stop ch-changing the names of all your w-weapons!” He fell back on his haunches, put his bunched forepaws to his eyes, and sobbed.

Ignoring him, Tsubasa extended her right arm. Her thick bracelet split in half, and one half shot up to her elbow. Tubes, wires, plates, and other mechanical components unfolded themselves as if growing out of her arm or appearing from thin air. A control panel full of buttons, switches, and blinking lights sprouted on the inside of her wrist. A huge tube encased her hand and then expanded until it was three feet long.

The demoniac snorted. “Weapons like yours are powerless against me.”

“Oh? You no mind if I do dis, den?” With a loud whomp, the cannon fired, and Tusbasa’s shoulder jerked backwards. A sphere of blue gel struck the demoniac in the chest, knocking him to the ground. The gel drenched his torso and splattered across the pavement.

Shaking his head, he sat up and lifted one hand. Goo dribbled from it. “You … you slimed me.”

“Ah yeah. Dat just a stabilizin’ solution for da nanoprobes.”

“Nanoprobes?” He rose to his feet. “You think you can defeat me with nanoprobes?”

The tanuki wiped his eyes and sniffed. “Th-these n-nanoprobes release ultrasonic v-vibrations capable of disrupting spiritual energies w-within a half-meter radius! Right now, they’re analyzing y-your specific wavelength!”

The demoniac’s sneer collapsed, and his strangely elastic jaw sagged. “You can’t possibly—”

A green light blinked at Tsubasa’s enclosed wrist. “Oh look,” she said. “Dey done.”

The demoniac arched his back, threw his arms out to either side, and screamed. He staggered backwards and then fell to the ground with a wet splat. He rolled back and forth, scrabbling at his body as if slapping stinging insects. He dragged his claws down his chest and across his stomach, shredding what remained of his suit and raising more blood.

“Tsubasa!” the tanuki cried. “S-stop him or he’ll k-kill his host!”

Tsubasa raised her left arm. With a whir, a spinning disc grew out of her bracelet. It made a muffled thud as it shot two bolas. Each bola was a pair of balls with a thin length of rope between: they enwrapped the demoniac’s wrists, and then the balls fired tiny hooks into the pavement. Attached to the hooks were lengths of wire, which wound into the bolas and pinned his wrists to the ground.

“No!” he shrieked. “Stop! Make it stop!”

“Da powah o’ nanotechnology compels you!” Tsubasa shouted. She pressed a button on the side of her cannon, apparently to increase the strength of the probes’ vibrations, as the demoniac redoubled his screaming.

“You,” he cried, “you … your mother sucks at betting on cockfights in hell!”

Tsubasa chuckled. “My mama prefers dogfightin’!”

She pressed another button, and the demoniac released one final scream that went on and on until it grew shrill and distant like the mournful cry of the red-tailed hawk. Then it grew higher still until it became a whine, just on the edge of the audible range, that set Jake’s teeth on edge.

With a final thrash, he at last lay still, his face ashen. His fingers twitched feebly as the claws at their tips shrank like icicles in the sun until they disappeared. His joints, too, returned to normal. There was no obvious shifting, and there were no more pops and cracks of straining bones and aggravated sinews: instead, his body melted into a normal shape, as if its bizarre contortions had been some optical trick that was now fading.

Overhead, the storm clouds broke up, and the stars shone through clear and cold. The bat, who had been circling all this time, paused and flapped his wings furiously as he shouted, “You may have won this round, but we’ll get you next time! We’ll get you next time, Magical Girl Pretty Dynamo!”

With those words, he disappeared in a flash of white light.

Jake ran forward, and Tsubasa turned toward him. For a moment, her eyes went wide, and she skipped backwards out of his way.

Dynamo stepped in his path, put a hand to his chest, and stopped him in his tracks. With a firm shove, she forced him to step back.

“Wait,” she said.

The gigantic cannon whirred and clattered as it folded back into Tsubasa’s bracelet. She gave Jake and Dynamo a wide berth as she walked to the demoniac. Staying a few feet from him, she went up on her toes and leaned over.

“He breedin’,” she said.

It took Jake a moment to realize she meant breathing.

The former demoniac stirred. Slowly, waving his hands feebly as if trying to sense his surroundings with his fingertips, he sat up. Sucking in her breath, Tsubasa skittered away from him.

With a series of clicks, Dynamo’s spear turned back into a wand, and she returned it to her belt. She walked to the man and knelt over him.

“P-Pretty Dynamo?” he croaked. He turned his head back and forth, eyes glassy.

“Lie down,” she said. “You’ve been through a lot. There’ll be an ambulance here soon.”

Jaw slack and brow wrinkled, he obeyed. He didn’t resist as Dynamo gently lowered his shoulders back to the pavement.

She nodded her chin toward Jake. “Gimme your jacket.”

He walked toward her. Tsubasa took several more steps backwards to stay away from him.

He frowned.

Dynamo took his denim jacket and draped it over the man’s shoulders. Then she turned to the man in the ridiculous T-shirt, spoke to him for half a minute, and convinced him to lie down as well. Dynamo borrowed a few articles of clothing from the bystanders to cover him and elevate his feet. Then she moved on to the trampling victims. Someone had enough presence of mind to raid the nearby shops for first aid kits, so gauze, bandages, and splints soon appeared. Jake helped with the first aid treatment: it was comforting to do something so familiar, something schoolteachers had made him practice over and over for all of his life.

The gaping hole in the center of the street was cooling. Smoke puffed from it, but the gate to hell had apparently closed. People chattered. Some sat in exhaustion. Some stood and animatedly waved their hands as they whispered to one another. Others, more curious and bent on causing problems, surged forward to where the former demoniac lay. Tsubasa shrank back and looked around in apparent desperation, but Dynamo hauled her spear out again, spun it once, and pointed it threateningly. “Back! Everybody back! Give us some room here!”

They obeyed.

Several minutes passed. Ambulances, firetrucks, and police cars, lights flashing and sirens blaring, soon arrived. The police told anyone who wasn’t looking for missing family or helping the injured to move along or risk arrest. The ambulances gathered the victims. Firemen assisted the EMTs, and a few of them examined the hole in the street.

Reporters arrived soon after. They set up cameras, grabbed anyone they could for an interview, shoved microphones into random faces, and generally made a nuisance of themselves.

After the reporters had set up, a magical miko, clad in haori and hakama and straddling a motorbike, arrived from the Temple. She spoke to Tsubasa briefly and looked chagrined that she had missed her chance to perform an exorcism. Nonetheless, she set about reciting chants and slapping strips of paper onto the façades of nearby buildings to purify the area.

Several pressmen shouted questions at Tsubasa and ran toward her. With her tanuki again perched on her shoulder, she nimbly dipped and dodged and slid out of the reporters’ grasp like oil running through a man’s fingers. She made it look effortless, almost accidental.

At first, Jake thought that she simply didn’t want to talk to the press, but then he noticed that she somehow, in her dodging, managed always to keep a woman between herself and any of the men trying to talk to her. First it was a woman running a camera, then an elderly woman with an umbrella cane who was still in the street in spite of the cops’ orders to clear out, then Pretty Dynamo, then a female medic setting the broken bones in a woman’s leg.

Once, in this clever game of keep-away, she came within twenty feet of Jake, so he decided to experiment. He walked toward her and said, “Hey, Tsubasa—”

Without even looking in his direction, she slipped away from him as easily as she slipped from the reporters, and he soon found a knot of middle school girls, sobbing into handkerchiefs and hugging one another, between him and her.


Finally, a young woman, clad in a trench coat and with blond hair probably held in place by a whole can of hairspray, put an arm around Tsubasa’s shoulders and a microphone to her mouth.  Another, frumpier woman eagerly ogled them with a camera.

Jake realized that this reporter was Barbara, the same who had interviewed Tsubasa on television the night before. Tsubasa’s shoulders visibly relaxed.

“Sukeban Tsubasa,” Barbara said in a motherly tone, “how did you do it?”

Tsubasa reaffixed her confident grin and crossed her arms over her chest. “T’weren’t nuttin’. A bit o’ da bing an’ a bit o’ da bang—an’ den boom.”

“Of course. But it appears that you’re not on the Threat Assessment Board’s registered list of exorcists. How do you account—?”

“Oh, yeah, dat’s right.” Tsubasa seized the microphone and took a step forward as she pointed a finger toward Pretty Dynamo.

“Dyna-wyna,” she shouted loudly.

Medics, police, and bystanders stopped what they were doing and looked her way.

“Dyna-wyna,” she shouted again, “your day’s ovah. Dere’s a new champion in Urbanopolis, an’ dat champion is dis girl!” She pointed a thumb at herself for emphasis. “I got da powah, I got da guns, I got da looks, an’ I got da ’tude. All you got is Jack, an’ I’ma take him, too!”

She nodded and winked toward Jake. “Hey, Jack.”

“My name’s not Jack!” He walked toward her, and her grin slipped. Before he could reach her, the woman with the camera casually, as if merely adjusting for a better angle, got in his path.

Tsubasa’s grin returned in full force. “You hear dat, Pretty Dynamo?” she yelled. “I’ma stealin’ your boyfriend!”

Several people cheered and clapped. A couple of teenage boys gave each other a high-five. Pretty Dynamo scowled.

“You hear dat? You hear dat?” Tsubasa turned to the people behind her. “Pretty Dynamo? More like Pretty Dyna-NO!”

The cheers grew louder. A young man put his hands to his mouth and hollered something incoherent.

“More like Pretty dumb Dynamo! More like Pretty lame Dynamo!” She danced back and forth, swinging one arm to whip up the crowd. The people burst into applause.

Dynamo clenched her fists and ground her teeth as her ears turned red. Finally, she pointed a finger at Tsubasa and shouted, “Big talk for a girl whose name starts with suck!”

At once, the onlookers quieted.

“Oh ho!” said Tsubasa, turning back toward her. “Sick burn!”

Dynamo stomped forward. She jerked a thumb at her chest. “Nine point oh, Tsubasa! Nine point oh! Highest competency rating in Urbanopolis! What have you got?”

Tsubasa waved a hand in airy dismissal. “I just startin’ out, Dyna-wyna, but Magical Girl Sukeban Tsubasa’s gonna be a perfect ten!”

Tense murmurs ran through the crowd.

“You think you’re better’n me?” snarled Dynamo. “Prove it!”

Tsubasa’s toothy grin grew wider. “You wanna go?”

“You bet I do!”

“You an’ me, Dyna-wyna. You an’ me! One on one, no holds barred!”

The murmurs grew louder.

Dynamo hesitated, taking a couple of deep breaths. But then she said, “You name the time and place, Tsubasa. I’ll be there.”

Tesla scrambled up onto her shoulder and patted a claw against her cheek. “Dyna, I don’t think that’s—”

“Shut up, Tesla.”

The tanuki slapped a paw repeatedly against Tsubasa’s helmet. “Tsubasa!” he cried as tears ran down his face. “You sh-shouldn’t fight with other m-m-magical girls!”

Tsubasa merely patted him on the head, and he burst into fresh sobs. “It’s a deal, Dyna-wyna. We two have it out—an’ da prize is dat guy.”

She pointed at Jake. He swallowed hard.

She stretched her arms behind her head and flexed the taut muscles of her stomach while flashing him her smile. “But I tink your boy dere knows he don’ need none o’ dat when he can get him some o’ dis.”

Dang, thought Jake, she really does have a great body—

“Him an’ me,” she continued, “we gonna do all kinds o’ bad stuff t’gedder. We gonna hang out behind da mall, we gonna wear trench coats, we gonna sneak inta R-rated movies widdout tellin’ our parents—”

Everyone nearby gasped and drew back. Old men solemnly shook their heads. Police officers scowled and fingered their sidearms. A woman put her wrist to her forehead and fainted into the arms of a fireman.

“Please,” Barbara pleaded as she tried in vain to take her microphone back, “Tsubasa, we’re live! You can’t say things like that on TV!”

“It’s moral degeneracy!” an old lady shouted as she shook her umbrella. “What example is Sukeban Tsubasa setting for the youth of our city?”

Sheesh, they’re really eating this up.

The tanuki on Tsubasa’s shoulder, with tears streaming down his face, reached out and, fumbling with his tiny paws, grabbed hold of the mike. He spun around and handed it to Barbara with obvious relief.

Once she had it back, Barbara turned to the camera, patted her hair, cleared her throat, and restored her fake smile. “There you have it!” she announced. “The first one-on-one magical girl grudge match in almost twenty years! Urbanopolis hasn’t seen a conflict like this since Antidote White and Antidote Black leveled half of Northside while arguing over whose puppy was cutest. Who will win in this battle of the ages? Will it be Sukeban Tsubasa, the bad girl of magical girls? Or perhaps Pretty Dynamo, the electrical spectacle? And I’m sure some of the younger males in the audience are wondering: will mud or Jell-O be involved?”

“Ew!” said Dynamo.

“Awesome!” said Tsubasa.

The crowd, hooting and hollering, surged forward. Men, women and children shouted questions, heedless of the police who bellowed at them to stay back. The grin disappeared from Tsubasa’s face. She snapped her head back and forth, but, seeing no exit, extended the glowing wings from her back and rose into the air.

“See ya later, alligators!” she shouted. She made the sign of the Moon Princess and gave Jake another wink before she sped off.

Then it was all Jake could do to keep from being crushed as people pressed in on him from every side, yelling incoherently. Reporters demanded answers. Someone slammed the edge of a shoe into his bruised ankle, making him wince.



It was well after midnight when Jake headed home. Unable to fly, Dynamo couldn’t get away to change back into Dana. In the end, she told him to go home by himself. Then she grew cross when he tried to argue. Before he left, he counted out her share of the bus fare from his paltry remaining credits and entrusted it to Tesla.

Well aware that he was in trouble, he made no effort to sneak in. He simply stepped over the threshold and met his parents’ solemn gaze when they silently turned toward him. They sat on the couch in front of the television, which displayed news coverage of Tsubasa’s challenge to Pretty Dynamo. Jake was onscreen, looking battered and bewildered.

The lights were off, and the television’s funereal light cast a pallor over his parents’ faces. His father’s glasses were opaque, his expression unreadable. His mother’s eyes were puffy and red.

They didn’t say anything, so Jake simply sighed, walked upstairs, brushed his teeth, climbed into his pajamas, and fell into bed. Only then did he realize that he hadn’t called Chelsea today. Guiltily, he got up, dialed her voice mail from the hall phone, and left her a message before crawling back under his covers.

He was exhausted, but wide-awake. He stared at the ceiling. There were glow-in-the-dark star stickers up there. Those had really excited him when he’d got them, back when he was eight years old: back then, he had thought that, once he had those stickers, the bed would be like a spaceship, and he would go on a wild adventure every night.

It never really worked out that way.

His mother walked in. She sat down on the edge of the bed and placed a hand on his shoulder.

She was silent for a full minute.

“I wanted a son,” she said at last. “I wanted a son because I didn’t want my children involved in …”

Her voice cracked.

He swallowed twice to find his own voice before he said, “I’m sorry, Mom.”

“Why were you downtown again?”


He stopped. He couldn’t think of a simple way to end the sentence. Because I wanted Pretty Dynamo to get a full meal for once.

“Just because.”


“I’m sorry, Mom. I don’t understand what’s happening. I really don’t.”

She sighed and rubbed her temples. “But you were there with Pretty Dynamo? You were there because of her, weren’t you?”

He thought that over for a minute. Finally, he said, “Yes.”

“Then maybe I understand what’s happening.”

He turned his face to look at her. All he could see in the darkness was her silhouette, black and unreadable like a paper cutout.

“Jake, do you remember, when you were younger, how you used to go over to Ralph’s all the time to play? Of course, Ralph has all those sisters. By the time he was ten, that boy could change a diaper or sling a baby on his hip … when you came home, do you remember what you always said to me?”

He ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth. “What?”

“You said, ‘Mom, how come I don’t have a little sister to take care of?’”

He turned his head and stared at the glow-in-the-dark stars again. They were fading quickly. They hadn’t absorbed much light. “I said that?”

“Yes. Several times.” She squeezed his shoulder. “You know your father and I wanted more children. I didn’t want daughters, I admit, but—”

“You don’t have to explain, Mom.”

“Jake, are you still looking for a sister?”

“I don’t know what I’m doing, Mom. I really don’t.”

She squeezed his shoulder again before she rose. He could hear the fabric of her dress swish as she walked to the door.

“You better figure it out, kid. You better figure it out soon.”

“I know.”

The door clicked and creaked as it opened and closed. He was alone.

He touched his face and was surprised to find that his cheeks were wet.