The Eight Queens' Lands. The core of a world with bright skies and beautiful expanses of flowers, mazelike cities and castles with secret rooms. True to the name, there were eight lands, each ruled by one of the Eight Queens: Aqua, Electra, Azar, Nanami, Calixa, Gri, Shyama, and Bianca. Yet while the queens and their lands were ostensibly at peace, each had her eye on the lands held by the others, and so it was an uneasy rest.
Since the Metamasters came, it had been a different story.
A small, pink rail car rattled down a guarded monorail track above the expanse of trees and flowers. When the rail car stopped and the doors opened, two girls exited to a high platform. They looked close in age, with the same marine blue hair, bright blue eyes, and coin brown skin, though one had short hair and a formal blue dress on, while the other had a long high ponytail and was wearing a sparkling yellow gown. The first of the two stepped forward in her blue dress, looking up at the sky.
"It doesn't get less exciting, does it?"
The other, slightly older, gave a smile. "Of course." She turned back at the closing doors. "Are you coming, Nono?"
A white fluffy creature with yellow ears and a shiny collar leapt out of the car before the doors shut. She tumbled to the ground, sprung up, and jumped up on her shoulder. "I'm here, Miu, you see!"
Miu petted Nono, who nuzzled into her touch. "All right. Rei, let's go. Queen Bianca is waiting."
Sparkling in front of them was a white bridge with an ornamental fence on each side reaching two storeys – not nearly as high as a Precure could jump, but then, not everyone was a Precure. At the other end, they approached a woman in a glittering black and white dress with high-piled white hair. Her eyes were a narrow dark violet. Miu said that it always looked like she was thinking seriously, but it couldn't be helped. She had to. She gave a small wave and the guards beside her nodded solemnly.
"There you are. Everything's ready for the meeting."
They curtseyed to her, even Nono, who jumped off of Miu's shoulder for the ease of everyone.
"Queen Bianca," Miu greeted. "Are we going to be granting the Pre-Cubes to Queen Shyama herself, or did she choose her own Precure yet?"
"We'll get to that later," the Queen said, ushering them in. "I want to be there when she chooses. After all, the Pre-Cubes are still ours. There's just this mess with the Metamasters to deal with." She lightly pushed them forward down the hallway. "Go ahead! I've got business to attend to, but you two can get down to the east courtyard. You know the way by now."
They thanked her and obliged. Once the queen was out of sight and earshot, Miu shook her head and gave a small sigh.
"She must be busy again," she said, raising an arm to block the light from the large stained glass windows. "Her majesty really seems to be dedicated to fighting the Metamaster invasion. She'd never entrust her Pre-Cubes to another land's queen otherwise."
Rei looked up at the dancing light. The pictures on the glass made a checkered pattern with some sort of bridges connecting them, leaving two of the corners empty.
"Do you think we'll actually be needed?" she asked.
"Maybe." Miu gave a smile. "But if the Metamasters do attack Queen Bianca's castle, we'll take care of them in no time. We've always won before. That's the benefit of having two Precure who are sisters. We already work well together. Don't we, Nono?"
"Absolutely, you see." Nono's ears twitched. "Precure who fit together work best, and Queen Bianca's Precure are the strongest and most capable of any of the Queens', you see!"
Rei relaxed a bit at that. "That's true. I don't think I could do this with anyone else."
Puzzle Hunt Precure
Episode 1: "The Metamasters Appear! Precure Come to Earth!"
They made their way down and opened the door to the east courtyard. The decorative array of flowers was almost like a maze, leading up to the large centrepiece, a topiary of a chess board standing up with dark and bright squares. Underneath stood another fairy like Nono, but with downward-pointing blue ears. It - he? She? They? blinked up from the gleaming puzzle cubes they were guarding and flailed a little.
"Y-you're the real Precure, I think!" The fairy bowed and rolled up their little paws, breathing in and out to calm down. "My name is Edel! It's nice to meet you, I think!"
Nono hopped off of Miu's shoulder and walked over with a happy wave. "Hello! I'm Nono, the Precure's fairy, and these are them, you see!"
Miu stepped forward. "I'm Takaraike Miu, and this is my younger sister, Rei. So those are the Pre-Cubes we'll be giving to Queen Shyama?"
"Not exactly," rang another voice behind them.
Miu and Rei spun around, hands immediately going to the Pre-Cubes clipped to their waists. In front of them stood a young blond man who must have been a few years older. He wore a strange but simple uniform - dress shoes and dress pants with a red hooded cape and a baggy black shirt emblazoned with a red maze design, and everything linked together with gold rings. He crossed his arms and threw back his head to toss his spiked hair back.
"Stile." Miu gritted her teeth.
"This is Queen Bianca's castle! It's guarded!" Rei glared up. "How did you Metamasters get into the east courtyard?"
"How indeed?" He raised an eyebrow and looked past them. "Three Pre-Cubes, huh… I'm not sure why we need to take these, but hey, Lady Cryptalla's orders." Out of his sleeve, he drew a small silver ball that quickly flashed writing they couldn't read. He leapt up and tossed it down at the giant topiary. "Go, Hanjir!"
The chessboard topiary absorbed the ball and took on a deep, pulsing glow before it started to change, shifting and growing. When the glow broke off in a sharp flash, it was now taller, with arms and legs sticking out and eyes and a mouth on the top. It wasn't a topiary anymore, save for some leaves still around the edges. The sides were now a solid frame, the squares on the board now tiles wiggling from their sliding spots, with one corner empty. The tiles were numbered, one to fifteen, in a disorderly jumble.
"Oh, no!" Edel covered their head and quivered. "It's a real Hanjir, I think!"
"A fifteen puzzle…" Miu unlatched her Pre-Cube from her waist and looked over at Rei, who did the same. "We can handle this!"
Rei took a deep breath and nodded. "Absolutely!"
The two of them brought their Pre-Cubes out - one blue, one yellow - and put one hand on each side.
"Link! Precure Solution!"
They twisted the two sides of their Pre-Cubes and popped them open in unison. What came next was a simple and quick flash of light on the outside, but to them, they'd entered a bright pastel void of yellow and blue with sparkles flying past. The two of them faced each other and let the pieces of their Pre-Cubes float apart, revealing a two-piece brooch in each: a blue circle for Rei and a yellow keyhole shape for Miu. They took the jewels and pulled apart the two pieces, breaking the shapes in half, not even noticing that their clothes had become simple white dresses giving off light. Rei snapped the right half of her circle into the left half of Miu's yellow symbol, and Miu did the same. They then took their new mixed-together brooches and pinned them on their chests. Light burst out of them and the girls floated and twirled through the void, their dresses being replaced by sleeveless dresses with wrap-like flaring skirts and shorts underneath. Three bows appeared under each brooch. Rei flew past, petal sleeves attaching to the dress by her shoulders, boots appearing with round jewels on the front, and petal-like wristbands on her wrists. Her hair got a brighter blue and flared out, and when her eyes opened, they were green instead of blue. Miu burst in and her hair grew out, longer and curled at the ends, the same blue that Rei's was now. She crossed her hands over for the fingerless gloves to appear, clicked her heels for the high boots with keyhole-shaped jewels, and swept her arms out for the puffed sleeves. The two of them opened their eyes and smiled at each other, with jewels in their symbol and colour appearing in their hair - Rei's as a clip, Miu's as a ponytail holder - and sashes around their waists. Their Pre-Cubes clipped back together, slid back into their pouches, and attached around their sashes.
The flash of light ended for the outside, and the duo, the Precure, posed between the monster and the enemy who created it.
"Securing the future!" Miu clapped her hands together, brushed them past each other, and made an X with her arms. "Cure Lock!"
"A secret protector!" Rei hid half of her face with one hand, then swept it out to the side. "Cure Cipher!"
"Bringing your problem to its solution!" They spoke and moved in unison, linking inner hands and pointing outwards with the others. "Puzzle Hunt Precure!"
Stile jumped up on top of a railing and crouched, looking down at the Precure from above. "Heh. You have fun with that. Try solving this one!"
The Hanjir lumbered forward and lunged, tilting its flat surface. Its fist smashed into a planter, scattering dirt and flowers everywhere.
"This is terrible, I think!" Edel scrambled to gather the three Pre-Cubes into a bag. "He's going to take them, I think!"
The Hanjir took a ground-cracking step and toppled forward. Before it could crush them, Lock leapt and kicked the monster back hard enough that it whipped backwards and nearly fell over the other way. The tile she kicked slid into the empty space with an audible click.
"Nono! Get Edel someplace safe!" She turned her attention to her sister. "If you can keep the Hanjir down long enough for me to solve it and get the Clue Key, we might be able to get Stile out of the way, too."
"Leave it to me!" Cipher ran up to the monster and began to punch it rapidly. When it swung at her, she jumped up at it and kicked with one leg, then the other, then the first again, climbing up the Hanjir as she started to bring it down. With one final two-leg kick, she sprung off the unbalanced Hanjir into a backflip and shot her hands out.
"Precure!" Squiggles of illegible old code appeared in light in front of her and made rings around her hands. "Cipher Encrypt!" The light shot out as beams at the enemy, which toppled over, crushing a flower bed. Cure Cipher landed on her feet, standing in the blue mist left behind after her attack. "I'll knock it back down whenever it starts to get up!"
"That's what I like to hear!" Cure Lock cut through the mist and jump-kicked the Hanjir deeper into the ground. She scanned the arrangement of the tiles and smirked. Running up to tile thirteen above the empty space, she knelt and pushed it down. Then three beside it went in its spot. Then four in its. Always get the top row in order first, Miu had always said. She always solved. Rei? Rei fought.
"Leaving your sister to do the work again, huh?" Stile's voice came from behind Cipher.
She spun around and swung a punch that he dodged. He blocked the next one and threw one at her that she similarly deflected. Cipher's heels dug into the soft ground as she started trading blows and pushing him back.
"This is work, too!" She ducked a punch and dealt an uppercut in return that sent him flying back. "You should know that!"
"Cipher!" Lock called out, trying to stay on the rising Hanjir. "A little help here!"
"Okay!" The blue Precure abandoned her opponent and dashed back to the monster. She sprung onto its surface and punched it hard enough to press it into the dirt.
"Cover me! Move the ten to where the seven was!" Lock jumped high enough to make another aerial attack like Cipher had before. She clasped her hands and points of light appeared around her. "Precure Lock Engage!" They flew down like needles, puncturing the edges of the puzzle. Watching to not land on Cipher, she cried out and aimed a landing kick right between the Hanjir's eyes. The next tile slid right into its place.
Out of their sight, a figure looked on from behind a pillar.
"Good going!" Cipher beamed. "Just a few moves left, right?"
"Almost!" Lock got up and ran over to slide the next one. "Nono, the thirteen!"
Nono had run over on her stubby little legs and clambered up onto the fallen Hanjir. "Ah, into its place, you see!" She tumbled over and shoved it as hard as she could while Lock analyzed the board and Cipher attacked the Hanjir whenever it started to move.
"I kind of feel sorry for it." Stile shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. "Now, where'd that fairy with the Pre-Cubes go?"
"Gak!" Edel bolted from their hiding place in the ruined planter, dragging the bag behind them. "Not here, I think!"
"Gotcha." Stile dashed towards Edel and lunged.
Cipher spared Lock a quick glance. No need. Lock herself kicked a tile into place and sprinted to the edge of the Hanjir, planted a hand on it, and used that to push herself at Stile, landing a flying kick that sent them both rolling in a dirty heap. Edel froze for a split second, gaped, and flailed a little.
"Th-thank you, Precure! But the Hanjir, I think-!"
"Don't worry!" Cure Lock picked herself up. "Cipher! Take it from here, there's one move left!"
"Ah- right!" Cure Cipher nodded and turned back to the puzzle. "Uh, um… there!" She ran over to the fifteen tile, knelt down, and clicked it into place.
The monster glowed. Cipher and Nono dropped off its side and Lock whisked over to them. Its shape turned to light and started to fluctuate, then it shrank and popped. The original topiary appeared where it had been and everything that had been destroyed faded back to normal. Where there had been a monster, now only a shining white key floated down into Lock's hand.
"A white one this time." She gave a reassuring smile to Cipher. "See? I told you, there was nothing to worry about."
Cipher hesitated before giving a wide smile back. "Yeah."
Lock turned her attention to Stile, who was getting up from the ground. "This has gone on long enough! You and your group have been attacking all of the Eight Queens' Lands, making us fight your monsters and solve your puzzles. Why? When does it end?"
"I can't just tell you like that." Stile shook potting soil out of his hair. "But if you think, it'll be obvious. Why else would we?"
"Wait!" Nono squeaked out. "Something's wrong, you see!"
A shadow fluttered on the balcony and flickered out. The next second, the figure appeared closer, a step or two behind Stile. Someone in a billowing cloak marked with black and white rings like an optical illusion, meant to throw you if you stared at it, flying out wide over what must have been a wide dress. Under the hood was a blank mask of gleaming porcelain, the top half obscured by the hood. The person reached out a hand, revealing silky gloves with clawlike nails attached to them, and grabbed Stile's shoulder.
He stiffened and didn't look back. He didn't need to. "Lady Cryptalla-!"
Cipher's head shot up. "What?"
Lock tensed. "The leader of the Metamasters? Here?"
"Indeed." Cryptalla laughed. Her voice sounded distorted, maybe by the mask, but maybe by the aura of pulsing orchid purple that was growing around her. "Don't be so surprised. Where else would I go but exactly where I need to be? Did you get the Pre-Cubes, Stile?"
A shiver ran across him. "I was going to get them from the fairy, Lady…"
"Don't worry." She airily lifted her hand off and swished forward past him, raising her arm halfway. "It doesn't really matter if we have them, just as long as we get them out of the way. And as for the two of you…" She coldly faced the two Precure. "I think it's the same."
"Come on!" Cure Lock rushed forward at her, Cipher at her heels. "Let's stop this!"
Cryptalla flicked her wrist. There wasn't a floor anymore. Beneath the Precure's feet, the ground turned into a dark portal, sucking them in in a snap.
"I don't care where you go," her voice echoed, "as long as it's not here..."
They plunged backwards into a blue abyss. Cipher screamed, shot her hand up, but the portal fell out of reach - no, she was falling - and it shut before her just after something flew in.
"No!" Cipher cried out. She fought the force of falling to turn her head. "Lock! Nono!"
"We're still here!" Lock managed. If she had wanted to scream like her sister, it was bitten back as she fell. "But-"
"Watch out, you see!" Nono cut in, clinging to Lock for dear life. Cipher was yanked back and swung to the side.
"Wha-?" She saw nothing, felt not much more before something else tugged her another way and she screamed again. Lock flew up, struggled in the grasp of nothing, and pushed forward only to plummet again. What is this place?
Cure Lock cringed and wrested her arm from gravity's pull long enough to yank her Pre-Cube out of its pouch at her waist. "Cipher! We need to disengage!"
Cipher stared. "Wha- aah!?" She started to fall again. Lock leapt after her, fighting the juggling void.
"Disengage! We can't make it together at this rate! You need to be safe!" Lock fell after Cipher, before her eyes, and brought her other hand up to her chest. She pressed on either edge of her combined gem and pulled the blue half-circle piece, Cipher's piece, off. Her Precure outfit melted into the glowing white dress with only half of a yellow keyhole gem.
"Lock! Cipher!" Nono still held tightly to Lock's shoulder.
Lock flung Cipher's half gem at her. "Go!"
Cipher trembled. She shut her eyes, took a deep breath, and opened them. She forced one hand to retrieve her Pre-Cube and the other to unclip Lock's yellow gem half from hers. Instantly, her uniform reverted to the white half-transformation dress.
The current swept her to the side. She gasped. Pelted the gem in the direction of her sister. Lock caught it. She kept falling.
"Lock!" Cipher cried out. "Lock! Miu!"
The current let her go and she dropped, screaming her sister's name, until finally she plunged through another portal.
"Good morning, Emi-chan! Wake up!"
The cheery white cat alarm clock chirped in its digital voice. A head of wavy black hair poked out from under pastel pink covers. The girl snuggled into her bed and brought up her arm to shield her eyes from the daylight coming in past her blinds.
"Good morning, Emi-chan! Wake up! Good morning, Emi-chan! Wake up! Good morning, Emi-chan! Wake up!" The cat repeated its morning greeting as the girl rolled over and reached out in the vague direction of her nightstand, feeling around to turn it off. Her hand finally dropped onto the "off" button and the cat stopped mid-sentence. Her phone beside the desk blinked a message, "Alarm shut off. Wake up, [Shinobu Emi]."
Emi dragged herself up to a sitting position and yawned. She rubbed her eyes and ran a hand through her hair, tugging out the tangles.
"Oh, right…" She blinked a few times and pulled herself out of bed. "School."
Getting ready for school went as one would expect in the year 2034. She opened the blinds with a swipe of her phone, showered until the holographic message popped up that she was about to run over the recommended water use, brushed her teeth, and emerged from the bathroom with her hair in a towel and wearing her school uniform. It was kind of dowdy, she had to admit, consisting of a navy blue top with loose-fitting long sleeves and a long pleated skirt. But hey, she hadn't decided on Kuromasu Middle School for the uniforms. Rubbing her eyes again, she sprung down the hall to the breakfast table.
A boy a few years older was already there, laying out freshly cooked fish. He had the same pale pink eyes and black wavy hair that Emi did, though his was much shorter. He waved with a laugh.
"Good morning, Keisuke-nii!" Emi sat down at the table and bowed her head before starting in on her breakfast. "Did the paper come yet?"
"Already got it." He plunked the folded newspaper next to her place at the table and set a mechanical pencil beside it. Even now, there were still some people reading the printed one. They sold copies from their bookshop, along with digital subscriptions if you wanted one. "Here you go. Just don't get so caught up in it again that you forget to eat. I worked hard on breakfast, you know."
Emi swallowed a bite of fish and got to leafing through the paper. "Thank you! Don't worry, I won't. I'll just read the articles now and take the puzzle page to school. That'll save time."
"You always love the puzzles…" Keisuke sighed and ran a hand through his hair before plopping down in his seat. "Anyway, Mom and Dad are down in the shop already. Who knows why they'd open a bookshop early on a weekday, but I guess sometimes people come in…"
"Neighbourhood seniors, deal-hunters, and students who want to make a quick stop before school," Emi recited with a smile as she read the headlines. "Although it's never really a quick stop, is it? Oh, here's an article about this year's winter festival!"
"Isn't that in, like, a month?" Keisuke raised an eyebrow. "Man, they prepare for this stuff early."
"They've probably been preparing since last year's," Emi laughed. "Besides, you're one to talk. You do everything in advance."
"I'm going to be a doctor," he said between shovelled-in bites of fish. "You have to plan for that your whole life. Are you gonna have enough time to do your hair, or are you gonna go to school with it up in that towel?"
Emi nearly choked on her breakfast. She turned pink and swallowed, checked the kitchen clock, and pouted. "All right! I'll hurry up!"
She finished her breakfast, fixed her hair up so that it fell in waves around her shoulders, and grabbed her school bag with her books already inside. With a quick detour to grab the pencil and carefully tear the puzzle page out of the newspaper, Emi waved goodbye to her older brother and ran down the stairs and out through the small, musty bookshop.
"See you, Mom, Dad!" Emi waved.
"Have a good day at school today!" Her father lifted his head up from behind the counter and waved.
"Good luck!" her mother added, sorting books onto shelves.
Emi ran out from under the old "Shinobu Bookshop" sign and down the street, waving to passersby who waved back. For a second, on her way to the train station, she thought she could see a dark flash high in the sky.
Falling for so long had stunned Cure Cipher when she flew out of the portal. Even unable to fight, in this half-transformed form, she hadn't succumbed to the shock, and so she fell out of a dark, violent void into a comparatively calm grey sky and tumbled down. A Precure could normally land on her feet, but Cipher's bruised and aching form had barely blinked back to reality when she fell nine-point-eight metres per second into a colossal, leafless deciduous tree, crashing down through the branches and breaking them off before she landed flat on the ground so hard there was a small crater under her.
Her fingers twitched and ran across her Pre-Cube and the loose half of her pin to make sure they were still there. She breathed in slowly and sighed. Shakily, she clipped the two halves together. In a flash of light she was as she had been, the dark-haired girl in the blue dress, holding a blue two-piece gem pin in her hand. Rei shut the pin back up in the Pre-Cube and returned it to its pouch.
"Miu," she whispered.
It occurred to her to look around. Rei forced herself up, cringing at the ache in her skin and her bones, and brushed off some of the dirt. The ground was hard, the smell of frost in the air, and the grass was drying. Outside of the expanse - was it some kind of garden, or… a park? - she could see strange vehicles, flat buildings, and tall ones further out. And people, dressed nothing like she would be even on a normal day.
"What is this place?"
A twig fell out of Rei's hair.
The Nazonazo Town train ran on time and Emi easily made it to class. She sat down in her desk in the middle of the classroom, hung her school bag on the side of the desk, and opened up the folded piece of newspaper. Crossword, jumble, sudoku, kakuro… After slight deliberation, she went for Fences. That was easy. She just needed to make a complete loop that complied with the numbers in the dotted grid. Hmm, that one was next to the edge, so…
Emi stopped and looked up at the girl beside her. A brown-haired girl with sparkling red eyes clasped her hands and squealed.
"Emi-chan, did you see it? This morning!"
"See what, Hideko-chan?" She laughed good-naturedly. "Is it another mystery?"
"Uh-huh, and it's way more important than that one time with the principal's missing tie!" Hideko could very easily be imagined to have a pink sparkling flower border around her at this point. "There was a weird flash in the sky this morning! Some dark… thing, did you see it?"
Emi blinked and thought back to her commute. "I think so. It was before I got on the train."
"Right!" Hideko let go of Emi's hands and brought her own hands up to her face, shaking with delight. "Something fell from the sky afterwards! Maybe even a few things! Do you think it's a weird uncharted meteorite? Or maybe a mysterious artifact from a spy plane from another country!"
"I'm not really sure what it is." Emi blinked a few times. "It does sound strange, though."
"I'm going to check it out after school, okay?" Hideko said. "I mean, they'll probably have cleaned it up afterwards if it's really something big, but there are still sure to be clues! And if I find out what's going on with this, then nothing will stop me from solving other mysteries! I'll be a world-famous detective before I even leave middle school!"
Emi smiled. "Good luck, Hideko! I'll help if you want. I know this is important to you." She put down her pencil. "I mean, you've already got somewhere you belong and a dream for where you want to end up."
Hideko blinked and sat down in the desk beside Emi's. "Huh? You have somewhere you belong, too, you know. You fit in great here at Kuromasu. You're the smartest kid in Class 3, you're the girl who singlehandedly revived the geography club last year-"
"That's not exactly how it happened…" Emi rubbed the back of her head.
"It totally counts," Hideko countered. "You joined it and they were going to fold otherwise because they had, what, three or four people? Aside from that, you get love letters all the time from all over the school. Guys and girls."
Emi sighed. "But I've answered all those love letters and gone out at least once with most of the people who sent them, and nothing ever really worked out."
Hideko shook her index finger at Emi. "We're in middle school, Emi-chan! It's not supposed to work out. I mean, some people find their true love in middle school, but for most people, it's just a testing ground! Same with high school, even."
Emi nodded and gave another quiet sigh before turning back to her puzzles. "Yes, but it seems like everyone else already has their lives figured out."
"I have no idea what I'm doing."
Rei shook her head at herself. Wandering the streets of whatever this city was hadn't been ending up so well. For one thing, people were staring. At first, she'd thought they recognized her. She ran up to the first few, holding up her Pre-Cube.
"Hello? Oh, don't worry! I'm a Precure, you see, and I was just wondering…"
She hadn't gotten further than that before the businesswoman politely excused herself and walked away quickly. Rei had taken this in, wide-eyed, but resolved to try again. Maybe there had been some reason for that. The next person would help her for sure.
"Hello? Sir, you know me, right? I've got to get back to Queen Bianca, could you tell me…"
"Hello! Yes, I'm Cure Cipher. Something terrible has happened, and…"
"Hello? Have you seen my sister? We were separated by a dark portal…"
After the fifth polite avoidance and quick retreat, Rei had concluded two things. The first was that either she was in one of the other queens' lands (though surely they wouldn't be that cold to foreign Precure, not with the Metamasters about!), or that she was somehow somewhere else entirely, although it didn't look like how she imagined the Metamasters' lair, which was the other obvious solution. The second was that being approached by a girl in a formal gown with dirt across her back, twigs in her hair, and bruises all over her body was probably scaring people.
She kept walking down the road for lack of any other options. Some kind of market district? Rei examined a store window. Lovely Piece, the sign read, and in the display window were mannequins with clothes in strange patterns with short pants and cuts that looked like they'd come from another era. Behind them were panoramic screens with scenes of people walking down streets. Rei's eyes went to the prices posted in the window. Twenty thousand… yen? How much was that in gold? Wait, what kind of place didn't use gold? She turned away from the window and looked back up at the cold grey sky she'd fallen out of.
"I don't care where you go, as long as it's not here," Cryptalla had said. She wanted them out of the way. Out of the way of what she wanted. Queen Bianca's castle, for sure, and her land, but… wasn't she attacking everybody?
"Am I…" Rei shivered at a winter breeze coming through the street. "...Am I not in the Eight Queens' Lands at all?"
The lunch bell rang and everyone in Class 3 got up or dug into their bags for their lunch boxes. Emi rose from her seat and started sorting her things.
"Want to go for lunch?" Hideko was already getting up and putting her winter jacket on over her uniform. "It might help you feel better."
"Sure!" Emi smiled. "I didn't bring anything today, so that's good. The cafe down the street again?"
It was almost a formality. They rarely went anywhere else on a school day if they didn't bring their own lunches. There were a few restaurants in the area, but this one was close and not very busy, and they had a lot of things that the two of them were willing to eat. Emi especially liked to just get a sandwich and eat it while studying, and Hideko didn't mind, since she needed to read over the material too, or at least use the time to work through notes on whatever 'big mystery' she happened to find.
They made their way down to the cafe and put in their orders, then took a seat by the window. As their sandwiches and soup came, they settled in.
"Are you feeling any better?" Hideko asked, leaning over her bowl of cream of mushroom.
Emi nodded. "A little. School's been easy, at least. I've just been thinking about how I haven't really found something I want to do with my life left. I could run the bookshop with my parents, and I like doing it, but maybe there are other options out there, like what my brother's doing. It's like I'm a jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece, or an extra piece that was mis-sorted into the box."
Edel struggled to a standing position and shook off dirt clods. How long had they been falling, Edel and the Pre-Cubes? The Cubes were still right there in the bag, but this world was… definitely colder than where they'd been before.
The little fairy jumped up out of the ground and began to drag the Pre-Cubes down the street. Time to get someplace warm.
Hideko took a big bite of her sandwich. Emi wasn't sure why anybody would eat egg salad, but her friend liked it, so hey, fair enough. She took a swig of water and grinned at Emi. "Don't worry! You'll end up fine. ...Hey, what's that?"
Emi looked out the window to where she was pointing. There was a girl shambling down the street, shivering, blue hair and dark skin and… a big formal dress? As she got closer, they saw twigs in her hair and a pained expression on her face, and dirt clods were falling off her back as she walked.
"She doesn't even have a jacket," Emi whispered softly. "What do you think happened to her?"
Hideko already had a pen and paper out and was scribbling things down. "Maybe she came from a really wild fancy party. But at noon? And it looks like she's our age, too!"
Emi pushed back her chair and stood up. "We need to see if she's alright! Let's go, Hideko-chan!" She rushed out of the front door.
Hideko grinned and put her notepad back in her bag. She stood up and ran after, calling back to the cafe owner, "It's okay! We'll be right back!"
Rei forced herself to keep moving, cringing at the cold and the pain she was in. Being a Precure had protected her to a point, but had she been a normal person, she'd have been dead multiple times over from the fight and that gravity void from the shock of the falls and sudden stops. A couple of bruises - okay, a lot - was nothing. But it hurt. It hurt a lot. Being in the middle of a frozen city where everyone was just staring at her wasn't helping at all.
"Hey! Are you okay?"
Her head shot back and she looked forward. Two girls around her age were running up to her, calling out. They stopped right before her with concerned looks.
"Who…?" She blinked. "Do you know me?"
"Are you alright?" The one with wavy black hair reached out gently and brushed her fingers over a bruise on Rei's arm. Rei cringed, and she pulled away. "I'm sorry! You're really hurt, aren't you? Come on inside, it's cold."
"Yeah, come eat with us!" The other girl cheered, with brown braids, round red eyes, and wide eyebrows. "You're probably freezing. Besides, your story's got to be interesting! Did you fall out of a tree?"
Rei reached up into her hair and pulled out a twig. She grimaced and tossed it into a trash can without even checking her aim. "...Sort of." She looked at them. "Why are you being nice to me? Everyone else has just been walking away."
"Because you're hurt, you're probably lost, and it's February," Hideko said, holding up her index finger. "Not to mention you're a mystery! But mostly because Emi-chan's a really nice girl."
"You're nice, too, you know," Emi laughed. She bowed at the confused new girl. "My name is Shinobu Emi, and this is my friend, Kaji Hideko-chan. We're students at Kuromasu Middle School down the road. What's your name?"
"...Rei," she said, slowly blinking. "Takaraike Rei. Actually, I'm looking for someone…"
"You can tell us all about it inside!" Hideko gestured for them to come in. "Come on. You're probably getting frostbite or something."
With the others' help, Rei brushed the dirt off of her back and pulled the twigs out of her hair before they reentered Arrow Ring Cafe. Hideko yanked a chair from an empty table and set it at theirs and Emi called over the server before they all sat down.
"So what do you want to order, Takaraike-san?" Emi smiled as the server gave Rei an extra menu and walked back to the kitchen to let her decide.
Rei frowned and looked over the menu. "I'm not sure what a lot of these things are, to be honest. And I don't have any… yen," she confessed, thinking back to the sign in the clothing store window.
Hideko was already digging back into her cream of mushroom soup. "That's okay!" She gave a V sign. "I can pay for it. So what's your story?" Her pen and paper pad were back on the table. Emi read upside down easily enough to stifle a giggle at the inscription. "Rich diplomat's daughter dissatisfied with life? Escaped formal party out window via tree? Ask."
Rei hesitated. "I'm not sure how much you two would believe, to be honest… even if you have been nice to me." She looked down. "I'm looking for my sister. We were separated."
"Your sister? That's awful," Emi said. "Maybe we can help! Hideko-chan wants to become a detective, so she's always looking for things to solve."
"And Emi-chan's pretty smart," Hideko added. "Do you know where your sister could be at all? Does she look like you?"
"Sort of," Rei answered, lost in the menu. "Her hair is longer and she's a little taller. She usually wears a ponytail. And I… I have no idea where she is."
"That's okay!" Hideko said. "You're with us now. We can help you solve this!"
Emi nodded. "Of course! But… don't we have to get back to school, Hideko-chan? And we don't know what school Takaraike-san goes to…"
Rei tugged at the end of her hair. "School? I always had that in the Queen's- wait a second." She stared out the window. There, struggling to lug the bag of Pre-Cubes down the sidewalk, was a fluffy little fairy with droopy blue ears.
"Edel…" Rei whispered.
"Huh?" Hideko asked. "Edel?"
"Like the puzzle where you fill in the numbers with colours?" Emi brightened. "You like puzzles too, Takaraike-san?"
Rei tensed, started to rise, and winced from the pain. "Look. Look out the window."
The two did and stared. Emi's mouth dropped open.
"Is it somebody's robot toy? It looks real…"
Rei scratched her head. "What? No, that's a fairy! Haven't you seen them? I only pointed out that one because we met earlier, and… Why are you staring like that?"
Emi looked at Rei. Then out the window at Edel. Then at Hideko, who was scribbling something akin to "fancy diplomat's daughter from government fairyland conspiracy?" in her notepad. Then at Edel. Then at Rei.
"W-well, if the fairy is cold, we should bring it in!" she stammered. "Before it freezes! Or gets caught and oh, nobody ever tells you what to do in these situations…"
"What's going on?" Rei asked. "I know I only saw humans before, but does this place really…"
Hideko looked cautiously around the cafe. Thankfully, almost empty. She capped her pen emphatically, leaned forward, and whispered. "I have no idea where you came from, Takaraike-san, but we don't really have fairies here."
Emi was already getting up out of her chair and putting on her jacket, eyes still on the window. She stopped. "Takaraike-san, do you know what that is?"
Rei looked up again. She went grey. A dark portal appeared on the street.
"Yes." She pushed her chair out, gritted her teeth, and forced her aching bones to move. She rushed out the front door, Emi calling "hey, wait!" and rushing after her. Hideko called the server over, left a pile of money on the table, and ran out afterward with her half-eaten sandwich in one hand and her jacket and bag in the other.
Edel stopped, trembling, in the middle of the sidewalk. "M-Metamasters, I think!?"
Out of the portal stepped a woman in a black bodysuit with high, chunky-heeled boots. Behind her trailed a blue opera cape that flared out widely at the top, and her belt bore a silver ring. On her chest was the same maze emblem Stile had on his, and her silver hair was pulled back, braided, and pinned into the shape of a cube.
"Well," she said, her cape billowing out in the wind. "Isn't this a twist. Hello there, Bianca's fairy."
Edel shook and clung onto the bag. "You're never getting these Pre-Cubes, I think!"
"You're not sure of anything, are you?" She flipped back the edge of her cape. "Well, we got you out of the way, but now you're back in the way. That didn't take too long. I guess Lady Cryptalla will want me to deal with you."
"Stop right there!"
The woman turned her head. Rei, goosebumped and bruised and still in a blue satin gown, was pointing at her, flanked by two visibly confused civilian girls who were actually dressed for winter.
"Cubia of the Metamasters!" Rei declared. "You won't be getting Edel or those Pre-Cubes! Now tell me where Cryptalla sent my sister to!"
Hideko grabbed Emi's arm. "Do you think this is connected to this morning?"
"I don't know," Emi replied, eyes not leaving the scene in front of them. "I don't know, but…"
Cubia rested a hand on her hip and turned to face them. "Hello to you too, Cure Cipher. This won't take too long, even with you here."
Rei stepped forward. "I said-"
"Look at you." Cubia laughed like frozen bells. "You're cut up and bruised and freezing and you don't know where you are. Your sister's still gone, so you have no partner. A Precure who's all alone is hardly a Precure at all, is she?"
Rei's hand hovered over the pouch where she kept her Pre-Cube. "Even if I can't transform without somebody else… I still can't let you threaten people! Because Miu wouldn't allow it either! I'm going to find her again!"
"Nice sentiment." Cubia reached up and drew a small silver ball out of her hair. It quickly flashed more runes and she rolled it between her fingers. "But I don't think it'll hold up to reality!" She flipped the Hanjir ball forward. It spun in the air and landed on top of the large twig on the ground that had come out of Rei's hair.
The stick absorbed the ball just like Queen Bianca's topiary had before. It shone with a terrible blow and grew, shifted, and broke. The glow snapped off with a flash. Before them was a course of sticks taking up the street, standing up straight, each taller than a person and each glaring with bugging-out eyes. A very long ribbon attached to one of the poles and whipped around in the air.
"A Hanjir," Rei explained before the girls behind her could ask. "Stay back!"
"What's-" Hideko's question was cut off by a scream. The ribbon whipped at them and they scattered. It hit the ground, gashing the pavement before rising up again.
Cubia leapt up onto one of the pegs of her Hanjir and laughed again. "Come on! You think you're any better off than the civilians now?"
Edel ran over to them, dragging the bag behind. "Cure Cipher! She's right, I think! We have to get out of here!"
Emi watched the scene with wide eyes. "Takaraike-san? What are we going to do?"
We? Rei turned back to her, wordless. She'd always been a Precure, a protector. But this was a world without Precure or fairies. Did that mean…
The ribbon lashed at them again. Hideko hurled herself in front of Rei and Emi. It snapped her square on. She skidded across the pavement and hit the side of the building before falling to the ground cold.
"Hideko-chan!" Emi cried out. She ran to her friend's side and checked her over, breathing to try and calm herself down. Okay. Okay. Hideko-chan was alive. Out cold, but she'd be alright. If that was all. If…
"You won't end up much better!" Cubia declared, still perched on top of the stick. "You can't fight without Lock. You can't even solve this, can you?"
Wait. Solve? Emi looked up and shakily, gently, put Hideko down. She slowly stood up. "Takaraike-san?"
Rei didn't look back. She clenched her fist. "Metamasters…"
Edel ran behind Rei and looked up between her and Emi. "We're in major trouble, I think! We need at least two Precure, and I don't even know what kind of puzzle this is, I think!"
"Puzzle?" Emi hesitated. She looked over Rei's shoulder. An array of sticks… points. And what was on the ground? Were those… numbers? A three on the side. Another three between the points next to it. A one in the corner. Her mind flashed back to the morning's paper.
"It's Fences," she whispered.
Rei looked back over her shoulder. "What?"
"This monster horde thing," Emi said. "They're all one monster, right? Look at it from above. The sticks are points, there are numbers on the ground - that ribbon's probably the line you make with your pencil! It's a giant Fences puzzle!"
Rei hesitated. She thought back to Miu in the halls.
"Do you know how to solve it?"
"Yes!" Emi didn't pause before answering this time. "It looks like an easy one, but… Wait, you don't mean?"
"Hanjir have to be fought until they're solved," Rei explained. "I know we just met, and this might not work. But if you trust me and I trust you, we might have a chance. Edel, you have the Pre-Cubes in that bag, right?"
Edel nodded and opened up the bag. Three Pre-Cubes sat there, one orange, one green, and one pink. "She means you should take one, I think!"
"Me?" Emi shuddered. She took in a deep breath and looked around at Rei, at Edel, at the school down the road, at Cubia and the Hanjir. At the downed Hideko, her friend.
"I'll do it!"
She crouched down, reached in, and pulled out the pink one before standing up.
Still dividing her attention between Emi behind her and the Hanjir in front of her, Rei pulled her own Pre-Cube out of its pouch. "All right. Now get beside me, then follow what I do."
Emi stepped over to Rei's side. Following Rei's movements, she put one hand on each side of her Pre-Cube and got ready to twist the cube open.
Three, two, one… "Link! Precure Solution!"
They appeared in white dresses in a sparkling pastel world of pink and blue. Transformation really was the same with a new partner as it was with Miu. When they twisted open their Pre-Cubes, Emi's two-piece gem brooch was in the shape of a jigsaw puzzle piece. With Rei's prompting, they exchanged pieces and put the mixed and matched pieces together, making their uniforms appear on them. Rei's was still blue with petal sleeves and knee-high boots. Emi's was pink, with short bell sleeves and pink Mary-Janes over kneesocks with puzzle piece jewels on the straps of the shoes. Her hair got longer, save for two pigtails tied with ribbons accented by puzzle pieces, and went from black to very dark purple. When Rei's eyes turned blue, Emi's only got slightly darker pink. They returned to the normal world and time and automatically posed.
Rei covered half of her face and then uncovered it by sweeping her hand to the side. "A secret protector, Cure Cipher!"
Emi put one hand to the side and made a fist with the other, pumping it slightly. "Creating a new image, Cure Jigsaw!"
She paused. Looked Rei, no, Cipher over. Looked herself over. Then looked back at the Hanjir.
"I might not know what to do, but… let's stop this, Takaraike-san!"
Cipher took it in for a second before nodding. "All right!"
Rei: Now it's time for…
Everyone: Puzzle Hunt Comment Corner! (All mascots add their respective sentence enders.)
Emi: This feature is back?
Edel: It's a very informative out-of-universe special, I think!
Stile: This episode featured three Precure and three villains. Don't worry, you'll be seeing more of everyone here.
Cubia: Everybody in this series is named for a type of puzzle. Can you guess them all?
Hideko: Today's featured Hanjir is a fifteen puzzle, also known as a sliding puzzle. They traditionally have fifteen numbers on the tiles that you have to put in order, but a lot of the time, they have pictures on them instead!
Emi: They're really popular in puzzle video games, too! There's also an unsolvable variant where only the fourteen and fifteen tiles are swapped. Good thing the Precure didn't have to fight that one!
Rei: Hopefully this next Hanjir isn't impossible, too. See you all next time!