The street glittered gold and black, and the misty asphalt hissed with passing cars. Like dew-laden spider webs the city lights shimmered in the night, the metropolis a cobalt queen bejeweled.
A train whistle sounded up against the clouds somewhere. Cherry pictured whales swimming over the skyline.
She walked down the street, hands tucked into the pockets of her hoodie, breath trailing behind her in white puffs. Everything ached. She longed for bed.
A whimper nearby informed her that sleep remained far off.
The average citizen would not have heard, but she'd become sensitive to even the smallest sounds of distress. The moment a hitched breath left a disturbed throat, Cherry's body, magnetized, turned toward it, every nerve alert.
A sudden, desperate cry broke out. She broke into a run.
Rounding the corner into the alley between two brick buildings, she saw a young woman, dressed in layered gray rags, pressed against the wall in fear. A huge beast hunched over her, spiny fur shining like an oil slick from the rain.
It turned toward Cherry and bared its impossibly long teeth in a hideous smile. "One for me and one for the Master," it gurgled in its voice like a clogged brook.
"Do you know who I am?" she said, pushing back her hood. Her pale pink hair fell out; her tourmaline eyes caught the glint of a street light.
"A bag of blood," the monster said with a laugh.
"Cherry Kirschbaum. And you're going to die tonight." She stood unmoving on the sidewalk.
The creature laughed again. "What an arrogant little lamb. I'll save the dirty one for the Master. Your blood is mine." It lumbered toward her. Its mouth hung open, drooling, panting its wet, rattling breaths.
Cherry calmly raised her hand to the air and called out in a clear voice, "Clypeum Caritas!"
Her words resounded against the world, plucked at a tune on the air, slowed time, and called upon the leylines. She watched the rain drops slow to a near-stop around her. A swell of energy pulled her up by the heart, lifting her feet off the ground. Specks of light built in a sphere around her, like condensation on a glass, growing and merging into orbs, then streaking in toward and coalescing brilliantly against her skin. Her clothing slipped away into the air like smoke blown off by a stiff wind, and the light energy took its place, the pressure and heat building to a blinding apex until solidifying into new vestments with a small shockwave.
Just as her lungs burned with starvation - the time-slowed air unable to fill them - the ritual ended and she sucked in a grateful breath. Her white Hessian boots hit the pavement and she took an immediate battle stance.
Her costume resembled a highly stylized templar's, stiff white cloth with pink heart-shaped trim, a large magenta ribbon around the waist calling to mind a sword belt, a round collar like a knight's coif, and a circlet set with a heart-shaped gem. In her right hand she held a pale hammer. On her left arm she wore a small shield, emblazoned, again, with a heart.
The creature flinched at what appeared as nothing more than a sudden, blinding flash of light. It growled, narrowing its eyes at her, taking in her new appearance. "One of them," it said disdainfully, "the heroes."
"I'm on the payroll," she said matter-of-factly.
"It's a small one, isn't it? Heroes get a pittance, a little incentive from the city not to be bad, right?"
"Our expenses are covered so we can focus on heroism rather than mundane careers."
"Hahah! Why not use those nice powers to rob a bank? Or hold a CEO hostage for ransom?"
"Or spill blood on the Master's altar?" She raised a brow.
"Yes! The Gifts are much better. You'd never know real pleasure without them. I pity what you are. I gave it up a long time ago. Only an idiot clings to their human skin. It's just a pathetic wet cocoon, and you're the wiggling grub trapped inside it!"
Cherry raised herself up, pink eyes staring, burning and fierce. She had heard their fanatical rhetoric many times. "I've become something much greater than a stinking, ugly beast driven only by its selfish passions. True joy is found in selfless action! The warmth of aiding mankind is warmer than the blood of the hunt!"
The monster laughed as it approached. "You're the one calling herself a 'magical girl'," it said. "Let me guess, you run on the power of love?"
"That's right," she said, unfazed by its mocking tone.
"What good is love here? You have a boyfriend in the rafters to save you? Hah! Just another dumb youth who thinks their happiness exists in another person. They all leave you in the end!"
"I serve in the name of charitable love," she said. Even as the beast towered over her, blotting out the alley with its bulk, she remained focused, and dignified in stature, dwarfed as she was. "That expressed in verbs, in self-sacrifice. I act not for whimsy, but retribution!"
"You're just another commissioned vigilante. Guess you're real eager to sacrifice yourself for some homeless whore." Its jaws stretched taller and taller, revealing its black gullet behind dagger-teeth.
"I'm eager to bring justice down on any who abuse another! I do what they can't do for themselves, what the police can't do for them!" She raised her hammer, uncowed.
Its voice rattled out of its gaping throat. "What's the point of your filibuster - " Its maw moved forward to encircle her head. "- if you just stand there and get killed?"
Lightning ripped the air in half and slammed it shut behind it as an arrow smashed violently through the monster's face. The creature's disassembled visage splattered like black tar on Cherry's dress.
"Letting my friend line up the shot."