One by one the stars went out, snuffed out by a darkness so thick that it seemed so close to smothering even the lights beneath the starless sky, and Nozomi could do nothing but watch. The Palmier Kingdom was all aflame, its burning houses a thousand torches in the dark, but even those fires seemed too dim as the utter blackness of the sky drank all the colors from the world. They too faded away one by one as the buildings began to collapse, leaving only ruins behind.
A sickening smell of ash and smoke went deep into Nozomi's nose when she breathed, until she could feel nothing else. Far away, she still heard the fire crackling, mocking her for her failure. The exhaustion made the fairy on her hands seem so heavy, but she could not leave Coco behind. He was the only fairy she had found in the ruins of the kingdom. Unconscious, hurt, but alive.
She looked up again, hoping to see a flimsy sparkle, a star that dared defy the darkness, but the sky was now only a canvas where too much black ink had spilled, nothing to do but watch it engulf everything in its path. With nothing else to do, Cure Dream turned the other way, and began to run.
From what, she did not know, but she could hear something chasing after her. Heavy footsteps, booming behind her, following her endlessly. She ran across the barren land, through clouds of brown dust. Under her feet was only dry, fissured stone, without the slightest sign that there had ever been a living thing there. But Nozomi knew that just one day ago, this place had been a forest of lush greens, of all sorts of plants that Nozomi never thought existed. Just one week before, she and Komachi had walked there together, on their way to the Palmier Kingdom. The others could not come; Rin was needed at the Trump Kingdom, Lemonade at Majorland, and Aqua had been given a secret mission from Cure Mirage. She wondered where they were now, and hoped they had better luck than Komachi.
Mint had stayed behind so that Dream could escape with the prince of the Palmier Kingdom. Reluctantly, Nozomi left her behind, but now she wished she hadn't. She should have stayed there to fight. But now, she knew, it was too late to turn back. She had to find the other Precure, wherever they were. If there were any of them left.
Nozomi didn't dare to look behind her, to see what horrors pursued her. Nightmare was behind her, she knew, but it wasn't only Nightmare that attacked the Palmier Kingdom this time. Under the night's veil, someone had opened the gates for Nightmare, for Eternal, for the Desert Apostles. Whey they were suddenly working together, no one could tell, but it seemed to be like this all over the world. They had gotten messages from Cures Marine, Sword, White and Muse, all of them asking for help, all of them attacked by many enemies all at once. As the hours passed by and Dream and Mint tried to keep the invaders at bay, the news they got from other lands became worse.
The Heart Tree has burned down. Verone Academy has fallen. We lost contact with Cure Tender. The Trump Kingdom lies in ruins. Send help, please. Please…
There was no help coming, even Nozomi could tell, not for her, and not for anyone. One by one the stars went out as one by one the Starlight Flames were extinguished. One by one the realms fell.
Nozomi ran through the night with no stars to guide her. She did not know where she was going, and only followed the wind. Soon, she could not hear her pursuers anymore, and silence fell over the world. Coco hadn't awakened yet, and the little strength she had left was beginning to fail her, and she could barely hold on to him. Still, Nozomi did not give up, and kept him close until the night was over.
The sun rose red, a bleeding wound in the sky. It brought no comfort nor solace, burning so brightly that it hurt Nozomi's eyes. Hungry and weary, she sat down, for a moment, to rest, gently placing the unconscious fairy on the ground next to her. Hours before, her legs hurt, but now she didn't even feel them anymore. Her belly rumbled and ached, its emptiness almost too uncomfortable to bear. Her mouth was dry and her lips were cracked, painful to the touch. On instinct, she reached for her bag, but she didn't have it.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. In her haste she had forgotten to take it with her. Her waterskin was there, and some food as well. Why did she always forget things like this? Usually Rin would call her empty-headed then give her some of her food, but Rin wasn't here. Instead, she would starve. How lucky, she thought, to escape the destruction of the Palmier Kingdom, only to die anyways, a slow death, because of her foolishness. Her fist hit the ground in anger, making a cracking sound. It didn't help at all; it only made her body hurt more.
Nozomi poked at the fairy's furry belly, but Coco didn't react at all. She could feel his heart beating quick, but otherwise he showed no sign of life. He too would hunger when he woke up, Nozomi realized. Well, if he woke up. There was no guarantee of that at all. Still, if he did, Nozomi had no idea how she would feed him, when she had no idea how to find any food for herself.
She looked around, and saw little but lifeless rock, cliffs like spears pointing at the empty skies. It seemed like the earth itself had been torn apart, its surface cut to shreds and rearranged randomly. Far away, she saw mountains rising high, then suddenly disappearing. The landscape was cut by the course of empty rivers where nothing flowed, sinkholes that lead to nowhere and did not seem to have an end, everything colored a dull grey.
By far the worst blight in the world, however, was that huge tower looming over everything. It seemed taller than any mountain, almost cutting the sky. From atop it, Nozomi had no doubt that you could see for countless miles. From where she stood, she could see hundreds of little black dots on the walls, windows to Nightmare's office. And the worst thing is that this building wasn't there just yesterday.
She hadn't forgotten her CureMo, at least. She turned it on and looked at its white screen. She touched a button to try to contact the other Precure, but none answered her calls. Rouge was the first she phoned, but all Nozomi got in response was silence. That too was the answer she got from Lemonade, from Aqua. The Cures from Majorland didn't answer either, or the ones from the Phoenix Tower, and the Land of Fountains was silent was well. Had they too been conquered? Nozomi didn't want to think so, but what else could she believe?
Sighing, she picked up Coco's limp body again. She could feel his breath when she put him close to her face, but no matter how much she tried to awaken him, he didn't. But she could not abandon him, so she went on her way, not knowing where to go, but knowing she couldn't stop moving.
Warm winds blew as the ardent sun scorched her back. Nozomi glimpsed at it for a second, but the light blinded her. Quickly she learned to avoid the red sun, to walk in the shadow. That did not make it any less hot, but at least she could still see.
Dream wondered where she was. She couldn't tell by looking at her surroundings; this land was broken beyond recognition. She was going north, she thought, but had no way to be sure. If she really was headed north, then she was probably at the Montblanc Kingdom's borders now, though they did not look at all like it. No, she thought, it wasn't right. There would be many towns along the way if I really was headed north. Unless they were all gone…
Then again, that would be completely unlike Nightmare. They didn't destroy, they dominated, enslaving those who lived on lands they controlled. This couldn't be the road north, Nozomi decided. South, then, to the Bavarois Kingdom? Did it even matter anymore? Everything was gone, it seemed. Even the stars had been robbed of them.
She kept walking, even when the pain returned. She had to find someone, she could not give up. So long as she tried to look for survivors, for other Precure, they hadn't lost yet. If she gave in to exhaustion, to despair, and let herself fall and wait for hunger to take her, then the Precure were truly defeated. As far as Nozomi knew, she could very well be the last of the Pretty Cure, the last light still shining, so she had to fight even harder.
Nozomi walked through narrow paths between the rocks, through pitch black caves that she had no way of knowing would lead her anywhere. The world was buried in mournful silence broken only by the sound of her footsteps on the lifeless earth and, sometimes, when it was very quiet, Coco's pained breathing. His chest rose and lowered slowly, his strained body trying its best to stay alive. He wouldn't last much longer. He was close to her chest now as she gave him all her warmth, and she could feel his wheezing, his effort to breathe, but Nozomi did not know what to do. Inori was the one who always took care of sick fairies, and Karen could also always nurse them to good health when they fell ill, but Nozomi couldn't even begin to imagine what to do. If this poor fairy died in her arms… Just the thought made her want to cry, but somehow she didn't. Maybe she didn't have any tears left now that she couldn't even remember how water felt like.
When the sun set, Nozomi almost missed it, blinding as it was. At least during the day she could still see. The last night she had her magic's light to help her know where she walked, but now even that that was too much of a strain on her body. She hardly had the energy to keep moving, where would she find power to use magic? It was a miracle that she hadn't been found by any enemies, because if she had, she knew she wouldn't be able to fight back. Did they know she was still alive? Even if they did, maybe they decided it was too much effort to hunt her down. She would succumb to thirst soon enough, after all. Why waste your time on the dead?
No, not dead, never dead. That would mean she gave up, and that was just unacceptable. This would not be the first time the Precure found themselves in a dire, hopeless situation, but if they had ever given up, then Nozomi wouldn't even be there, she wouldn't even have the chance to fight. Time and time again the Precure found hope where it seemed like there wasn't any. Nozomi would just have to do the same, somehow. Somehow…
In the dark, all she had to guide her was the wind blowing against stone, and even that wasn't much help. Nozomi extended her hand to feel the rocks around her, walking slowly and carefully, always making sure that there was solid ground under her before she put her foot down. To fall on a hole she didn't see would be too humiliating, and she didn't think she had the strength to get up if that happened.
Far away, she heard a sound, she thought. Nozomi focused on it, to try and tell what it was, but it was too distant. It might not even be there, actually. Maybe her hearing was beginning to go, maybe she was mad from thirst and hunger… But what choice did she have? She couldn't think of any better options, so she followed the faint noise until she could hear more clearly.
It sounded like water flowing. In truth, there was no way of knowing if it was water, but it was the first thing that came to Nozomi's mind. She prayed she was right, and kept going, stone brushing against her face as her path narrowed more and more, until she had to squeeze between the rocks to get past. The sound was louder now, and for once, Nozomi felt some relief. She might just survive after all. The fairy in her arms, though… Well, no use worrying about that just now. First she had to reach the water.
Light, she thought, and a small pink star shone on the tip of her finger. It was not much, but it was enough for her to see what was just in front of her. Tall and thick trunks, leaves that would cover the stars in the sky, if there were any. It felt as if there was still life in this place. Now it was not dry rock that touched her face, but big leaves caressing her as she walked. Nozomi tried to remember what forest this could be, but she was too weak to recall.
Nozomi felt as if her last strengths were leaving her, the light in her heart growing dimmer by the second. Her vision was getting blurry, and her body felt as if it was being torn apart from every side. Pain grabbed her legs, her arms, her head, and pulled them all at the same time. Dream knew she had no energy but the one she was using now, so if she was wrong, if her last hope failed her and she couldn't find any water, that would be the end. But no, it couldn't be the end, the sound was so close now, she could hear it, she could almost smell fresh water in the air. That made her even thirstier, even though she thought her craving couldn't possibly be any greater.
When the lake appeared in front of her, Nozomi fell to her knees, and almost threw herself on its waters. Instead she put Coco atop a pile of soft leaves, and scooped out as much water as her hands could hold, and buried her face in it. Most of the water she didn't even drink, and instead Nozomi just felt it against her dry skin. She had almost forgotten how it felt. The water was warm, but not unpleasantly so. On the surface of the lake were leaves that had fallen from the canopy, but Nozomi easily avoided them. She drank until she was satisfied, and then drank even more. She still hungered, but it was easier to survive on an empty stomach then on a dehydrated body. Karen had taught her that, and Nozomi never forgot the things that Karen said.
Nozomi splashed some drops of water on Coco's face, hoping that might awaken him, but it was in vain. She opened his tiny mouth and gently gave him some to drink. She feared he might choke, but he didn't. His breathing relaxed, too, and he didn't look like he was at death's door anymore. Nozomi smiled again, finally. At least something didn't go wrong.
She laid down next to him, resting her head on fallen foliage. After everything she had been through, it felt more comfortable than any pillow she had ever known. The light that shone on her hand went out, and she closed her eyes. Odd, she thought for a moment before the darkness of sleep took her. It felt so cold.
The night was dark, but Reika's eyes had gotten used to it. Not enough that she could see her path clearly, of course, but at least she wasn't tripping on vines. It had been one day since the stars went out, closer to two days now, yet it felt like a lifetime had passed since they last shone.
She hadn't found anyone yet, though perhaps that was for the best. When she escaped Märchenland's capital, both Nightmare and the Bad End Kingdom gave chase, putting some of their best hunters on her trail. So far Beauty had managed to outrun them, even find a temporary shelter, but if they found her, she did not know if she'd be able to fight them off.
Most importantly, though, was finding another living Cure. Reika knew there was no way she'd be the only survivor. No, that made no sense. Moonlight still lived, she was sure of that, and Mirage as well. They always seemed unbeatable, and Reika could just not believe that they'd be caught unaware. They would never let the Precure fall. They were still there, Reika only had to find them.
And find herself as well, of course. She had fled to the west, to the other fairy kingdoms. Most likely, she was in the Doughnut Kingdom now, or, at least, close to it. She had found a village on her way, but when she tried to talk to its inhabitants, she saw their faces hidden by masks, and they simply ignored her. They were fairies, most of them, but some humans lived there as well, but they too were masked, silent. At once Reika recognized it as Nightmare's work, and that was when she understood that it was not just Märchenland that had fallen. It was the whole world. Only that could explain the death of the stars, too; they shone because of the Starlight Flames, sacred relics of an era long gone by. So long as the Starlight Flames were alight, the stars would burn as well.
But now the skies were dark, and the stars were all dead. Darkness had fallen over the world, and Reika could just barely see her surroundings. A forest, large and dense. There were supposed to be all sorts of critters here, she had read about the fauna of the Doughnut Kingdom, but all she saw were spiders. There was no sound of life, no chirping of birds, nothing but water calmly flowing in the distance. Reika's waterskin was almost empty, she remembered. She should fill it.
Oddly, she felt at peace when she sat next to the lake. Tiny leaves were blown against her face, but Reika only brushed them away. The scent of water filled the air, a pleasant smell. She touched the surface of the lake with the tip of her fingers, and suddenly felt cold. Where she touched, the water began to freeze. She took out her fingers, and the ice melted immediately, but the breeze grew colder. She felt a strange presence; someone was nearby.
"Who is it?" She tried not to sound scared, but it was hard to; she was too used to fighting with her companions, and though she did not doubt her own skills, Reika did not want to fight alone.
There was no answer, no sound but the water, the flowing river that fed this lake. Maybe it was just her imagination… No, she knew, there was someone here. Reika looked around, and saw no one. She took careful steps, scanning her surroundings, until she stumbled on something on the ground. Before she looked at it, Reika poked it with the tip of her boot, and heard whining. It was a girl's voice.
"Who are you?" She asked, then approached to take a better look. In the dark, it was hard to tell her face, but it was definitely a girl, sleeping atop leaves. Reika asked again, but she didn't answer. She didn't know who she was, and for some reason she had a fairy with her. Reika tried to wake it up, but the fairy seemed unconscious. Why? Reika knew that Nightmare's employees were interested in fairies, and even before the kingdoms fell, they frequently kidnapped its denizens, so often that she could not help but suspect a person with an unconscious fairy.
But she didn't seem like a threat. She seemed almost like a Precure in the dark. This girl seemed exhausted, and her fairy seemed hurt. They needed help. Reika had little food for herself, and she didn't even know who this girl was, but if she was a Precure, then she definitely had to help her.
Reika picked her up, then the fairy, and carried them home. It was a bit heavy, but in the dark, she walked slowly anyways, so it made no matter. What mattered was that there were more Precure, that their hopes were not yet dead. Yes, that mattered more than anything else. That made all the pain and burdens go away.
Nozomi opened her eyes, and could not recognize where she was. She jumped out of bed, startled, hands closed into fists, certain that someone had kidnapped her, and was going to hurt her and Coco. Instead she saw a blue-haired girl sitting on a chair next to her bed, smiling gently, and she felt so embarrassed, and sat down again.
"Thank goodness," the girl said, her eyes meeting Nozomi's. They were a dark blue, and looked almost cold, but her smile was so warm. She felt trustworthy. "I thought you weren't going to wake up. You must have been really tired, no?"
"Y-Yes," Nozomi said, still confused. She looked around, and saw a small room with a single bed. Suddenly she felt guilty; this girl must not have slept so that she could take care of Nozomi. "Thank you for helping me and my… My friend."
"You're quite welcome," she said, eyes like winter, lips like summer. Not a harsh winter, mind you, but a pleasant one where you make yourself cozy under heavy blankets, and have hot chocolate with friends. Ah, even that seemed like such a distant memory to Nozomi now.
There was a small oven on a corner of the room, some wood right next to it. It wasn't just a room, Nozomi understood. This was the entire house. Awfully small… She wondered where she was. A painting hung on the wall, too small for Nozomi to tell what it was.
"I'm sorry if I'm being rude," Nozomi said, "but who are you?"
"I'm Reika Aoki," she said, and didn't seem to take any offense. "Cure Beauty."
Nozomi jumped up again, in shock. Reika was taken aback by that, and moved a little bit away from Nozomi.
"Sorry!" Nozomi said. "Didn't mean to startle you. It's just… You're a Precure! Like me! I didn't know if I'd be able to find any, I was almost thinking I was the last Precure, but… I'm not! You're here!"
"Calm down, please," she said, and Nozomi obeyed with difficulty. This was too good. "So you are a Precure, like I thought… Who are you, though?"
"I'm Nozomi Yumehara, Cure Dream. And you're Cure Beauty! I heard about you! You fought with Moonlight, didn't you?"
"I did, once."
"What a honor… You must be so strong if you fought by her side…"
"She did most of the fighting," Reika gestured as if asking to drop the subject. "Anyways, I found you two passed out near the lake, and I brought you here. I found this house abandoned two nights ago, so I thought it'd be alright if I took shelter here. You're looking a little bit skinny, but you're fine, I think. You fairy, however, hasn't awakened yet."
"Coco…" Nozomi had promised to protect him when she was sent to the Palmier Kingdom for duty, but clearly she failed. Nuts was gone as well, and knowing what Nightmare did to any fairies it captured, she couldn't imagine his fate was very kind.
"It's odd, though," Reika said. "I put some food in his mouth, and he ate it normally. He drank water, too. He's breathing normally, but still he won't open his eyes. Whatever ails him is likely something of magical nature. I don't know what to do."
"I don't know either," Nozomi admitted. "But at least he's not in danger, is he?"
"I think not. That's really fortunate. Still, we'll need to take care of him to make sure nothing happens. And I have no idea how to wake him up."
Reika pointed at a small wooden table, where Coco rested. It didn't seem like there was anything wrong with him now. He just looked like he was asleep.
"Beauty," Nozomi approached her, whispering, though she did not know why, "what about the other Precure? Is there any word of them?"
"My companions were at Märchenland when it was attacked," she said. "Well, most of them. Happy, Sunny and March were there with me, but Peace's presence was requested at Verone Academy just one week ago. I don't know if she ever reached it, though."
"W-Where are they now?" Nozomi asked, dreading the answer.
"I don't know," Reika said, pained. "I hope they managed to flee as well. Prince Pop helped us escape the palace, but we were separated from one another in the aftermath. Happy had princess Candy with her, too, and I pray they are safe. But other than that, I do not know."
"And the Cures from other lands?"
"I was hoping to find them," Reika said. "But I didn't have the time to search yet."
"I tried to contact them, but no one answered. The Heart Tree burned down, and Verone Academy was destroyed," when she said that, Reika let out a gasp. "The Trump Kingdom was attacked as well. That's all I know, as I heard nothing after that."
"So I was right, then… The entire world was attacked," she said, and sat down next to Nozomi. Her eyes were dull, but she seemed about to break down. "What do we do? Can we even do anything?"
"Of course we can!" Nozomi declared as she grabbed Reika's hands. "We're Precure, aren't we? We can't give up. Not now, nor ever."
"We are still alive, aren't we? We're weak, we're hurt, we're broken, but we're alive, and I'm sure the other Cures are alive as well. Maybe we can't talk to them yet, because their lights have gone out, like the stars in the sky, but I know they're there. They're not gone, they're just not shining right now."
"You're probably right," Reika sighed. "I'm sorry. I did not mean to be so pessimistic. It's just been hard on me. I'm still not sure about what I should do."
"It's alright," Nozomi smiled. "I don't know either. So we can figure it out together."
Reika nodded, and got up, thoughtful. She opened the door and walked outside, and Nozomi followed her.
"This is still our world, isn't it?" Reika said, looking in the distance. "Broken, but not gone... " Suddenly, she turned to Nozomi, and looked deep into her eyes. "More than any time before, we the Precure will need to stick together. I don't know where the others are, but maybe the two of us can find them. I don't like to ask for help, but I can't do it on my own, so I need you to fight with me."
"There's no shame in that," Nozomi said. "I can't do it on my own either. That's why the Precure all fight together, no?"
"You're right," she giggled.
"Well, then, it's decided!" Nozomi declared. "Let's fight together, and find the other Precure, until we can fix our world. I don't know how, but we'll think of something, right?"
"We will," she said, determined. "Somehow we'll make the stars shine again."