Featured image”Magical Girl Punkin Spice” by Roffles Lowell.
This night was unlike any other. A tension, a frisson of excitement hung in the air like that melancholy tingle of expectation before a thunderstorm. The entire city of Urbanopolis, that last refuge of beleaguered humanity, glowed with multicolored lights and resounded with music and chatter. On every stoop grinned a fiery Jack-o’-Lantern eerily flickering with candlelight. Children laughed and ran pell-mell down sidewalks, their boots or sandals slapping against the concrete. Or they gathered in timid clusters, clinging to the hands of longsuffering parents. They wore garish costumes, like fairy creatures arisen from some dark corner of a half-forgotten world: Here was a ghost, there a goblin, there a ballerina in pink lace. Hastily made outfits of cardboard and brown paper crackled and crinkled as their wearers clumsily walked. A few children shivered with cold. Others had, at the behest of nervous mothers, forced themselves into parkas before climbing into their costumes, so they were plump and round as pumpkins under their elaborate dress. The clear sky was black, a hint of frost clung to the air, and the last remaining leaves hung brown and blood red on the trees.
This was Halloween, the night of nights.
In the liturgical calendar of the Temple of the Moon Princess, there were two great feasts: The lesser, Walpurgisnacht, fell in the spring, but the greater, Halloween, fell in October, when the harvest moon—heavy, full, and tinged with red—hung like a ripened fruit in the cold autumn sky. On this night, at midnight, all the bells of the Temple would peal at once, and the magical girls who protected mankind’s last remnants from the malice of an entire universe would pledge themselves anew to their familiars, and with fresh blood they would sign again the contracts through which they’d sold their souls.
Jake Blatowski hated Halloween.
There was a festival downtown and, against his will, he was a part of it. All around him, men and magical girls hastily set up booths, opened coolers of goodies, laid out sweetmeats for display, wrestled with folding chairs, arranged hay bales, and lit the tea candles in the hundreds of Jack-o’-Lanterns that lined every walk and adorned every stall. Before a rickety card table, Jake shivered with cold as he poured spiced cider into a black cauldron. After donning thick gloves, he pulled a block of dry ice from a Styrofoam cooler and dropped it in to make the cauldron bubble and hiss.
Satisfied with his work, he stepped back, shivered again, and rubbed his shoulders. Why couldn’t they move Halloween to the summer?
He had never cared for this holiday, even when he was little. He didn’t take much pleasure in dressing up, he didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, and he had no interest in celebrating the magical girls. Most of his friends had been excited for Halloween when he was in elementary school, but in junior high, they had stopped dressing up or trick-or-treating. He had assumed that, when he reached high school, he could leave this obnoxious and pointless celebration behind entirely.
But, of course, he wasn’t in high school: though he was fourteen years old, a freak computer glitch had sent him back to fifth grade, and his mother’s heroic efforts at the school system’s district office had failed to change that fact. So now, despite his anticipation of leaving it behind, he was once again mired in Halloween’s festivities.
The school day had been aggravating and pointless. Children had attended class in costumes instead of their uniforms. Jake’s teacher, Miss Percy, had passed out candy apples, which turned his classmates into a rowdy, sticky, and thoroughly disgusting mess. Jake had tried to slip out of the school as soon as the last bell rang, but Miss Percy had cornered him: As the oldest member of the class, she told him, it was his duty to volunteer and chaperone at the festival that night, where the city’s youngest citizens would run around and scream and get sugared up before being sent back to their parents.
And that was why he now stood in the middle of a broad street, wearing a hastily cobbled-together wizard costume consisting of robe and pointy hat, and overseeing a cauldron of cider that he would soon be doling out to children.
He sighed. Fifth grade sucked, and it sucked even harder the second time around.
People buzzed all around him. A lot of magical girls were here and were already either fending off fans or laughing boisterously in groups. It was noisy enough to be painful to the ear, and they hadn’t even let the little children in yet.
His only pleasure this night would come from his well-insulated travel mug full of coffee. Having finished with the cider, he picked up his mug from the table and gratefully popped it open to inhale its bold aroma. He took a small sip—sharp, bitter, and scalding hot, just the way he liked it.
He sighed again, this time from pleasure. The world was a cruel and unforgiving place, but no world could be wholly evil as long as there was coffee in it.
“Coffee,” he said aloud, “is proof that the Moon Princess loves us and wants us to be happy.”
“Whatever,” growled a young girl behind him. “Shut up.”
This girl was none other than Magical Girl Pretty Dynamo. Dynamo was a cyborg with the powers of electricity, one of the most effective fighters in the city. Jake, however, knew her as Dana Volt, the sullen eleven-year-old redhead who sat next to him in class. She had recently, for complicated reasons, moved with her mother into his house.
It was no consolation to Jake that Dynamo was more miserable than he was. Several of the magical girls would be at the Temple tonight, assisting the High Priestess in whatever elaborate, esoteric rituals she performed at the Witching Hour. Others were no doubt patrolling the city—though they would likely meet little trouble, as monsters were rarely foolish enough to attack Urbanopolis when the girls’ power was at its apex. Many girls, however, were here at the festival to mingle with the normal humans. In addition to battling the monsters bent on mankind’s destruction, it was the duty of every magical girl to serve as an example of virtue and hygiene to the city’s impressionable youth, and thus the magical girls would be on hand at this festival both to inspire the children and to bask in their admiration. Grease Pencil Marionette, the girls’ commander, randomly selected fifty of them every year for this purpose. This year, she had, among others, selected Dynamo.
Behind the card table, Dynamo alternately crossed her arms over her gold and silver cuirass or fidgeted with her electric blue powder puff tutu. She tapped a heavy silver boot on the asphalt and scowled, mumbling to herself. Nestled in her blue hair, her familiar—a lightning bug the size of a cat—opened his shell briefly and fluttered his wings.
“Relax,” Jake told her.
“I can’t relax,” Dynamo muttered, “not while she’s here.” She pointed across the way, where Magical Girl Sword Seamstress, wearing a severe Gothic minidress, was setting up a booth to sell the elaborate homemade magical girl dolls she’d sewn herself. Occasionally, at some private joke, Sword Seamstress lifted a pinky to her mouth and released a loud cackle.
“I hate that chick,” Dynamo hissed under her breath.
“Why don’t you two just learn to get along?” Jake asked. “It’d be better if—”
“She started it!”
“I don’t care who started it.”
Dynamo’s green eyes flashed as she glared at him. “Don’t you care,” she said through clenched teeth, “that she nearly got us killed when she hit me with that sweater—and those nanoprobes?”
Jake laughed. “Yeah, I remember that. And I remember that you wet yourself when you—”
“Shut up, Jake!” Dynamo’s pale face turned pink, and she tugged nervously on her pigtails. Her familiar, Tesla, fluttered his wings again.
“Ah, relax,” said Jake. “Look, I can handle the punch when they let the kids in. You go, um, mingle or something. Make friends.”
“Don’t wanna.” She crossed her arms and stuck her lip out. Dynamo was an expert at pouting—she had years of experience.
Jake picked up his ladle and poured out a cup of cold cider, which he thrust into her hands. “Then here. Taste test.”
She passed it up to Tesla, who took a polite sip, and then she swallowed the rest herself in one gulp. “It’s fine,” she mumbled. Then she threw the cup over her shoulder.
“Now, now, Dynamo,” cried a twangy voice. “Litterin’ ain’t ladylike an’ such.”
Magical Girl Rifle Maiden, her long duster fluttering in the breeze, moseyed up, spinning Dynamo’s disposed cup in her fingers. She leaned on Jake’s shoulder and pushed her Stetson back to reveal a lock of flaxen hair. “Howdy, pardners. Y’all ready for this here hoe-down?”
“I think me an’ Dynamo are both looking forward to it ending,” Jake replied.
Rifle Maiden slapped him hard on the back, and he winced. “Ah, now, ya can’t be a spoilsport! Come with me, Jakey-pie!”
She grabbed his arm.
“Hey, wait! I gotta watch the—!”
“Purty Dynamo can watch it! C’mon, now!”
She hauled him up the street, and there was no resisting: She had superpowers, after all, and her grip on his arm was like a band of steel.
She hauled him in front of a booth flanked by cardboard tombstones, above which hung the sign, “Fortunes told. Sandwiches served.”
Behind the booth sat Rifle Maiden’s close friend, Magical Girl Voodoo Queen Natasha. Her black top hat sat high on her dreadlocks, and her face was painted like a skull. She waved long, bony fingers over a glowing crystal ball, and her bangles jingled.
“Greetings, young Jake,” she intoned, flashing her gleaming white teeth. “On this darkest of nights, my power waxes, the Loa whisper their secrets, and the future becomes clear to me. Shall I call up for you the moment of your death?”
Jake swallowed. “Um—”
“Or would you like that I channel the spirit of some dead ancestor?” She cocked one eyebrow, and her eyes glowed like coals. “Or perhaps you would prefer a love charm to bring some unsuspecting wench into your power?”
“Uh, Natasha, I don’t really—”
“Ah, never mind th’ spooky stuff, Queenie,” Rifle Maiden said as she hopped into the booth. “Jake don’ care for that kind o’ ballyhoo. He’s here for my home-cookin’!”
She ducked under the counter, but quickly reappeared with a large tray of finger sandwiches. “Ya gotta try these an’ tell me what ya think! I’m makin’ ’em themed this year! Ever’ sandwich represents a different magical girl!”
“I see,” said Jake as he rubbed his chin and frowned at the tray. “So which witch ’wich is which?”
With a wide, bucktoothed grin, Rifle Maiden pointed one out. “That thar is Pretty Dynamo’s! Try it.”
Tremulously, he picked up the slice of sandwich and popped it into his mouth.
A moment later, his teeth cracked down on something hard and metallic, and he jerked as an electric shock numbed his skull. Nearly choking, he spat a joy buzzer onto the pavement.
“Whadda ya think?” Rifle Maiden asked with that same wide grin.
He rubbed his temples as he felt a headache shoot behind his eyes. “I think your recipe needs work.”
“Wanna try Sword Seamstress’s? I made it with real sewing needles!”
“Well,” she said as she put the tray away, “if those ain’t to yer tastes, y’all should mosey on down to Margherita’s booth.”
Jake raised an eyebrow. “Margherita? She’s here?”
“Sure as shootin’, and she’s servin’ ’er world-famous pizza!”
She didn’t have to tell him twice. His eyes scanned the street until they alighted on Margherita Della Mozzarella, the former Magical Girl Pizza Margherita, now retired, who ran a pizzeria in Little Italy. She was looking prim and cute in an apron and a red-and-white checkered dress. She stood beside a large booth, painted all over with bright orange, that proclaimed, “Spooky pizza!” Behind the counter, he could spy several pizza boxes stacked high in their insulating sleeves.
He ran over. “Margherita!” he called with a wave.
She replied with a warm smile. “Oh, Jake! Hello!”
“You’re serving pizza tonight?”
“Sure am! I just hope I’ve brought enough!”
“Looks like you’ve got a lot—”
She puffed her chest out. “Twenty-five varieties!”
“Wow! I didn’t even know there were that many pizzas!” He leaned on her counter and inhaled eagerly. The smell of cheese and pepperoni tinged the cold night air.
Her eyes narrowed, and she leaned close as she hissed, “I just hope you’re not looking for a Hawaiian—”
He jumped back. “Oh, no! Never!”
“Good.” Her pleasant smile returned. “In that case, first slice is on the house.”
“You got some kind of combination?”
“Yes I do!”
“I’ll have one.”
“Coming right up!”
She ran into the booth and bustled with her boxes until she brought out a piping hot slice loaded with peppers and sausage. She slapped it onto a paper plate, which he took gratefully. Margherita’s pizza was undeniably the best in the city; maybe this night wouldn’t be so awful after all.
But with his slice half eaten and mozzarella cheese dangling from his lips, he felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck. Something tingled down his spine.
He had spent too much time with magical girls, and had narrowly escaped too many monsters, not to recognize that feeling.
“Oh no,” he whispered. His eyes scanned the sky. Thanks to the brightly lit buildings, the stars were invisible, and only the orange moon hung overhead. There were no clouds, and no flashes or sparks to suggest a burst of magic. But still, his gut tightened. Something was coming. It had to be—
A shape flitted across the moon, too quickly for him to make it out. It could have been a bird, or perhaps a flying magical girl …
“Margherita,” he whispered. He turned to her, but she was scanning the sky herself. Several others in the street had stopped their work and were now looking up, their faces full of anxiety.
At last, there was a white flash and a boom like a firecracker. Following it was a loud burst of wild, raucous, yet unmistakably girlish laughter. People yelled. Some ducked. Some ran for cover into stalls or nearby doorways. The magical girls were now all on their feet, their faces grim. A few fingered their weapons.
“Monster,” Jake hissed through clenched teeth as he dropped his half-eaten pizza to the counter top.
“No,” Margherita whispered as she shook her head and pointed. “Look!”
Out of the sky, sitting sideways on a rough-cut broomstick, was a skinny girl of perhaps thirteen years. She wore a black cape and a black tailcoat of crushed velvet accented with a silken ascot. Below that, she wore a black skirt hemmed with white lace, and below that, she wore high, striped stockings. On her plaited red hair sat a tall, pointed hat with a ridiculously wide brim. On her hat, at her waist, and on her square-toed shoes, she sported large, squarish brass buckles. A glowing Jack-o’-Lantern dangled on a golden chain from the end of her broom. Sitting above it, precariously balanced, was a black cat.
The girl cackled again as she hovered a few feet above the pavement. Red leaves rustled as they swirled around her. “Foolish magical girls,” she cried, “you think this unholiest of nights belongs to you? No! This night is mine, and mine alone, for within my breast lives the very spirit of Halloween!” From under her cape she produced a wand topped with a golden star. “Tonight, I shall reveal my awesome power, and you will all bow before me, for I am Magical Girl Punkin Spice!”
The gathered people gasped.
Rolling his eyes, Jake picked up the remainder of his pizza with the intent of finishing it off, but found that it had now gone cold.
“Great,” he muttered. “I just knew this was gonna be a lousy night.”
To be continued …