Her sword crashed against Makoto's, ice on light, and each time it did, frozen shards fell from the blade onto the sand. Whenever Reika thought she saw an opening, Makoto blocked her lunge, once, then twice, then again, again, again, until nothing remained of Reika's sword but misshapen chunks of frost. And then Makoto easily knocked her to the ground, raising dust as she collapsed, her hands wet and cold.
"Again?" Makoto asked, offered Reika her hand. Beauty shook her head. This had been enough. Soon they'd have to get moving again, and it was best for her to not wear herself out before she had to continue the journey. Makoto had no such worries. This was so easy for her that it felt as if it took her no effort to knock Reika down. Then again, Makoto had always been restrained while fighting. Thinking of that brought Reika some comfort.
She took Makoto's hand, and forced herself up. Her back was sore, her legs bruised. For a second she was startled, wondering if perhaps she might be bleeding, but thankfully she was not. She was fine. They were careful, especially now that they were using real blades, not just sparring swords. Not the best conditions, certainly not ones that made Reika comfortable, considering the secret she kept. But she had never said no to sparring with Sword, so if she refused her now, that would look suspicious as well. She sighed. All she could do was be careful, and try not to get trounced too hard. That was the best she could do.
"I'll never be as good as you are, will I?"
"Probably not," Makoto said it so casually that Reika couldn't actually be offended. "You expected that answer."
"I'm not a fool to think I can best you so easily," Reika said. They began to walk back towards the camp, where the other girls were finishing their lunch. "But I did hope I'd at least give you a challenge."
"You do," Makoto said. "I just never show it," she confirmed Reika's suspicions. "You never want your foes to know anything. You don't want to give them a tell."
"Or your song," Reika said. Makoto nodded. "I remember that lesson well. Everyone has a song. I never figured out yours."
"I was a songstress, once, not only a soldier," she said. "I have more songs than the ordinary person."
"So singers make for the best fencers?"
"That could be true. Singers don't usually pick up swords, so maybe that's why we don't know for sure. You never know. Maybe you could field the greatest army the world has ever known if you recruit from the opera halls of Majorland."
"That sure would be something," she said, and something else came to mind. "Joker didn't have a song, you know. Not one I could discern. There was no rhythm in his actions, only dissonance. And it was like he made that his strength."
"Some do that," Makoto shrugged. "Much of fencing is understanding all the moves your opponents have at their disposal. Not mere reaction, but knowledge. Understanding how your foe has to move to get to you, if they stand at a certain distance, knowing in advance how their bodies will move. Skilled fighters will pick the best moves. Gifted ones will expect it, and will counter those. But the incompetent often cannot be predicted. They simply don't know what the best moves even are. They will parry when you expect them to lunge, and will stab when they should slash."
"There was skill in what Joker did, though," Reika insisted. "He was no fool, no idiot who didn't know how to wield a blade. He knew. He was just…"
"Unexpected?" Reika nodded. "I only fought in tournaments to honor my princess, but I often watched them for the sake of learning. Sometimes you saw people who came unprepared, swinging their swords like it was a mace, moving in a wild frenzy that made it look as if they had fleas over their whole bodies. They got some cheap wins, sometimes, by catching their opponents so off-guard by their sheer stupidity that they got a lucky hit in."
"Was it a tactic that got them very far?"
"Not usually, no. One time, though, I saw a man beat three opponents with that tactic. Three swordsmen of great skill, who were all caught off-guard by their foe's absurdity."
"That's impressive. A true achievement in ignorance. What happened after that?"
Makoto laughed, then looked up to the sky, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hands.
"He stopped going against great fighters. He was pitted against truly gifted ones, then. I reckon it was Cure Matador he faced as his fourth and final opponent. He tried his usual tactic of moving around like a buffoon."
"I'm guessing that didn't end well."
"The poor fool was smacked so hard that I thought he died. When someone picked him up, they were afraid his body would fall apart when they lifted him. Damn near lost his hand. It was a blade without an edge, else he'd be dead, but it appears Elena was so offended by him that she aimed for his wrists."
"It was pretty disrespectful of him, yeah, but not worth almost crippling him over. That was… Poorly-done. Last I heard of him, he was said to have sold all his swords and started his own business, a small bakery downtown."
"Was he successful?"
"I wouldn't know. That was shortly before the Selfish attacked. I suppose it doesn't matter. Just empty reminiscing."
"Sometimes reminiscing is all that keeps us going, in the difficult days. Sometimes all we need is to remember that which was dear to us."
"But we never forget that, do we?"
Reika looked down at her own arms, at her veins, while Makoto was looking away. She squeezed her pale wrist with a hand, and saw that there the black was unmistakable. Had no else seen it, really? After all, who else but Reika would care about something like her veins?
"No," she said. She remembered the last time she saw Akane. She felt her blood burn. "Never."
They joined the rest of the Precure, then, and they had finished eating, and were ready to get moving again. Before they left, though, Hime asked her about their supplies, to ensure they were enough to last them the whole way, and Yuko asked her to please prepare some more ice, while Nozomi and Iona said that they, too, would like to spar the next time. Reika promised they would do just that, if they could.
Nile, Yuko and Kanade were chosen to pull the carts this time. Setsuna offered to take Kanade's place, but Rhythm said it was fine. Setsuna was terrible at keeping her affections discreet.
By then the dead, windswept plains had turned to sand, twisting dunes made white under the harsh, blazing sun. Where behind them had been barren lands, dry and cracked, a ground like shattered porcelain, there now was just the emptiness going forever onwards. Reika had read plenty of books that always described deserts as treacherous, places where vultures grew fat on the meat of travellers, where the weak were culled by fiercer beasts, but she saw none of those, save for the occasional shadow of a serpent, slithering in the night. The emptiness somehow seemed more unnerving than any dangerous creature could be.
When they were on the move again, Makoto approached her, putting a hand on her shoulder, quietly asking to have a word.
"There was something on my mind," she said. "You complained about not being able to figure out Joker's song, but you defeated him anyway, did you not?"
"Are you sure, then, that you did not understand him?"
"I cannot possibly understand that vile clown," Reika said, and noticed she raised her voice, almost lashed out. She felt ashamed, uncomfortable, but this was not a topic she wished to discuss. She was still afraid. She hadn't changed, she thought, but she still feared. "He made a mistake. I got lucky, and you taught me how to exploit mistakes well."
She referred, of course, to the only times she had actually managed to beat Makoto, though she could not actually use the word beat. Sword demonstrated to her the mistakes that she often noticed even the greatest of duelists making. She let Reika win, that was the truth, to show her how to exploit those mistakes. But otherwise she wouldn't stand a chance, of course. Makoto was beyond gifted.
I could beat her, if only I used the tainted blood.
She thought that for only a moment, but it was enough to make her freeze. She should not be thinking that. She should not even consider the possibility. But she already had. And now she wondered if she was right.
This is for Akane, she told herself. Nothing more. She believed it, too, though she noticed then that her blood seemed to boil under the sun. Had it always felt like this, and she had simply not noticed? Reika didn't understand. She hadn't felt like this before, not until she thought about the tainted blood. This was too much for her. She shook her head, and offered to scout ahead, to try and distract herself from these problems.
Nozomi accompanied her, and Reika was thankful beyond words for that. Dream could always make her feel at ease. Her presence made Reika feel like everything was alright. The two of them, together, moved on ahead, sure to take note of any movement they saw. There wasn't much to be seen in the desert, that was the truth of it, but Reika did not want to get complacent, so she kept her eyes wide open, even if usually all she saw was sand shifting with the wind.
The worst part, Reika thought, was breathing in the bitter aridness. It almost hurt. The heat was bad, of course, but she had grown used to it in the Trump Kingdom. But here there was a cruel dryness in the air, one that was difficult to even bear. It made Reika tire easily, but she knew she had to keep going.
Nozomi handled it as well as she could, and unlike Reika she had the good sense to wear a hat. She said that though it looked positively hideous, it was pretty helpful in shielding her eyes from the sun. Reika envied her: it felt to her that, whenever she closed her eyes, she could still see the mark the sun left behind. Her pale skin when she touched it, and quickly it had gotten red. That only made it feel even more unpleasant. She drank from her waterskin, then handed it to Nozomi, too. Dream smiled, and drank deep of it.
"I wanted to ask something," Reika said. Nozomi looked straight into her, and Reika felt a bit self-conscious. It was sort of an embarrassing question. "So, uh… It doesn't feel weird to drink the water from the ice I make, right?"
Nozomi clearly tried to hold it in, but she guffawed. It was not a mocking sort of laughter, but Reika didn't understand what she found so funny.
"I thought you were gonna ask something serious," Nozomi said. "Like, something big. I always get nervous when people come to me and say," she changed her voice into one with exaggerated pomp, deep and arrogant, "excuse me, I want to ask a question, or we need to talk! Yeah, it's fine. It's just… Magic water, I guess. I don't even think about it. Why was that on your mind?"
"It just was," said Reika. It was a sudden worry, nothing of great importance. Reika just found herself concerned, for whatever reason. Whenever she saw the friends she loved, she questioned how they felt about her. She wondered if they knew. She wondered if they imagined anything happened to her.
She drank the rest of the water in one gulp, and hung her head low. It wasn't that she was trying to hide an unpleasant secret, it wasn't that she didn't trust her friends. She just didn't want to worry anyone. Kotoha had already worried enough when she left. You still need my help, she had told Reika by the gates of Last Light, near the wagon with all the relics. Kotoha had been vague about it, yes, but now that Reika learned that Iona had been hiding there, she could only wonder if she might have heard. She made no mention of it, but the worry remained.
Reika looked at Nozomi again, saw her easy, casual smile at her. She smiled back, and breathed at ease again, because she remembered that she didn't have to fear Nozomi and Iona. They would still love her even if they knew. They would understand. They would not hate her…
"Nozomi," Reika took hold of her wrist. She did not often do things on a whim, but now she wanted to. She held Nozomi, but she did not look back. She continued to stare on ahead, squinting her eyes, even as Reika walked up to her side. "What's the matter?"
"Wait," Nozomi whispered, crouched closer to the sand. Reika did the same, but she couldn't see what it was that caught Nozomi's attention. She pointed to something in the far distance, and Reika waited. It was dust, it seemed. Something moving.
The two said nothing, and remained unmoving. With her right hand, Nozomi signaled for the Precure behind them to stop and wait. The dust continued to rise, far away, spinning on the wind. Reika focused, and she saw figures moving amidst the dirt. People, many of them. Reika drew her sword.
"You don't think…?"
"They might be," Reika told Nozomi. She drew her Fleuret as well. "If the Desertrians we purified did not come back, the Apostles will know we defeated them. They'll send more to hinder us. But those aren't Desertrians, but people… Are they sending soldiers now?"
"If Desertrians and a Kowaina couldn't beat us, then why would they think regular soldiers might?"
"I don't know," said Reika. "Stay careful."
She looked back. The Precure were far away, little more than dots in the far distance, but they waited, perfectly still, as the wind blew flurries of sand everywhere. Reika closed her eyes, and when she opened them, she had lost track of the figures roaming the dusty veil. She tried to find them again, and saw that they were close, approaching, but there was no rush in their movements, no desperate hurry, no aggression. They just moved slowly, in single line. When they passed by, Reika saw that it was nothing but a caravan, not an enemy army. They just walked past the Precure, looking to their sides as they passed by, but they did nothing but stare. Reika and Nozomi got up, swords in hand, but the caravan did not react to them. Led by a blue-haired man whose face was wrapped in a white scarf, none of them even glanced at the Precure. Only the man himself gazed into Reika's eyes, and blinked curiously, but never stopped. It was as if he realized that there was no threat here.
They continued to move forward even as they passed by the rest of the Precure. Reika signaled for them to approach, that it was fine. But still she worried. When everyone had come, and the caravan had disappeared into the distance, Iona was the first to speak:
"Will this be alright?" She asked, worried. "They saw us. A lot of people just saw us."
"The Apostles know we're here anyways," Yuko dismissed her concern. "They've learned nothing new. What I don't get is where they were going. If it's a trading caravan, then why go to those abandoned lands?"
"This feels wrong," said Makoto. "It is wrong. We should have stayed further away from the well-trodden paths. That way we would not have been seen. We should have questioned them, stopped them, should not have let-"
"What would we have done, cut them all down?" Kanade asked. "We can only keep moving forward now."
"That's what we always do, isn't it?" Makoto frowned. "Move forward and hope for the best. I suppose it's worked well enough so far."
"Then let's go," said Reika. "No point in worrying about this."
She was the first to get on the move again. And she had lied, of course. She was not someone who could stop worrying. It's just that, since Morgenluft, she had found that she'd become quite adept at avoiding her problems.
All around, Kaoru heard the sound of footsteps, deafening, overwhelming, Dark Fall's great keep more crowded than it had ever been before. When she walked its corridors, she saw strangers, she saw evil smiles and dark eyes, she saw blades and axes and claws. She saw everything, but no one paid her any mind. She walked past them untroubled, as if they were entirely unaware of her existence. She liked it that way.
She was just a servant, and servants stayed out of sight easily. Goyan taught her as much, and she always learned her lessons. That, she understood, was why Goyan was so unassuming, so meek-looking, especially when compared to great warriors like Kintolesky, to fierce and remorseless agents like Poisony, or to the generals who had arrived for this great meeting. Goyan was not like any of them, no one would look at him and be terrified, and yet it was he who held supreme power over Dark Fall.
Kaoru looked for her sister, and found that all of the fortress was in disarray, too crowded for comfort. Kaoru asked around if anyone had seen a red-haired girl, but she was completely ignored. She looked for her in the quarters, she looked for them in the prison, she even looked for her in the kitchens, but her sister was nowhere to be found, lost in this madness. Kaoru sighed. She knew this would happen.
When the two woke to the sound of the bells tolling to announce the arrival of Baldez and his troops, Michiru looked out the window with great interest. She wanted to see, she wanted to know what was happening, so as soon as she was properly dressed she ran down the stairs before Kaoru could tell her to wait, to take care. Kaoru didn't see her sister all day after that.
It wasn't just Baldez that arrived, but Belzei as well, returned from the Silent Valley bringing with him an advisor, a dark mage he found in the ruins of Dysdark, a man named Elisio. Kaoru didn't get to see any of them, but she heard Pissard talk about them with great admiration. Karehan laughed at him, and bitterly remarked that they had come to take command, that now that these great generals had come to Dark Fall, the bit players like Karehan or Pissard would no longer have a place or power.
"Not that Pissard ever had any in the first place," Poisony had commented as she passed by, and laughed. Pissard almost looked like he was going to challenge her, for the sake of his honor, but in the end he relented, and just took the insult and the laughter. Kaoru felt sorry for him, for a second, but when she remembered what a vile and profoundly unpleasant creature he was, she was tempted to join the laughter.
But she didn't, and instead she looked for her sister, to no avail. She saw only new faces around - when there were faces to be seen, of course. Dark Fall was packed so fully that there were places where Kaoru could see sweat dripping from the very walls.
Someone put a hand on her shoulder, and Kaoru felt an unpleasant heat. Moerumba. She turned back, annoyed, but concealed her displeasure with a neutral expression, the one that Goyan taught her. It allowed her to despise every single person in here without ever being noticed.
"Goyan wants to see you," Moerumba said. "His office, by the meeting room."
I know where is office is, she wanted to say.
"I understand," she said, wanting only to be away from him.
She made her way around the gathered crowds. Most of the people there were lost, Kaoru understood. She heard some ask for directions, and saw soldiers walking aimlessly. She found it odd that they had been invited inside instead of seeing up camp outside, but she figured that none of Dark Fall's leaders would feel safe meeting with the others without bringing loyal soldiers with them. Considering the sort of creature that Goyan was, Kaoru found that quite reasonable.
Michiru awaited for her with Goyan, looking out the window with childlike curiosity. Kaoru thought she should not feel as surprised about it as she did. Her sister shrugged off Kaoru's annoyance with an awkward smile, but Goyan, for once, didn't seem smugly satisfied with things, but displeased, worried. He told the sisters to sit down.
"How bad is it out there?" He asked Kaoru.
"It's impossible to walk if you're not like me, easy to disregard and ignore. I know how to make my way through people, but the corridors were like clotted veins. There's too many people. And more outside, I take it?"
"Everyone has brought their retainers," said Goyan. "All to appear the strongest. It's all saber-rattling, and some of those sabers are actually quite dangerous. They were summoned so that we can discuss our plans, but really they've come to make demands. Baldez will want help with his invasion of the Garden of Light. Belzei wants to raid the lands in this continent that remain free, and then sail across the sea to take the fight to the Precure."
"They'll demand you change your plans?"
"They think they're strong enough to make demands," he said. "They might be, if they have support from within. For their ambitions, they'd throw away my best-laid plans."
"And what are your plans?" Kaoru asked. Goyan didn't discuss strategy very much with what were essentially glorified secretaries, but she asked all the same.
"Patience. A word that tastes like poison to Belzei. And this advisor of him, this man I've never heard of, who lived in the ruins of Dysdark… Belzei only listens to advice that pleases him, of course. And Baldez has his eyes on only one prize. They are fools. We only need to strengthen our position, train our troops, ensure our power can last. All the while, let the mainland devour itself. We can destroy the weakened remains. But there is no glory in that."
Glory, he called it, but the whispers that Kaoru heard in the corridor were less about seeking glory and more about Goyan being a coward, about him missing his opportunity. His eyes widened, and he asked Kaoru to say what she had in mind. She did just that. She told him all that she had heard while she was looking for her sister.
Kaoru had learned to listen to those whispers, the ones people thought were discreet, the ones they thought no one would hear, if only because they had entirely disregarded those who could hear. Those like Kaoru. She had always been better at it than her sister, though Goyan had tried to teach Michiru too, of course. But her sister was not as subtle as Kaoru. She was better with words, where Kaoru failed. Michiru was just a girl, a foolish weak girl, so few felt the need to keep secrets from her. Few thought she was dangerous, and so their whispers reached Goyan, one way or another.
"Hm," Goyan leaned back against his chair, after Kaoru had told him of all the whispers. Few of them were especially valuable, little more than idle gossip, but she told them anyways. "Missing my opportunity, is that what they think?"
"I don't know what Belzei and his advisor think, or Baldez. I could not reach them. I wasn't looking for them in the first place, only for my sister," she glared at her, and Michiru made an empty gesture that probably was meant to be apologetic. "I only heard their soldiers. And that's what they said. That we are holed up in our fortress while our enemies grow in strength."
"Our enemies?" Michiru asked. "Shouldn't it be just our enemy, singular? The Precure? Officially, we remain allies of all our fellow conspirators."
"Officially, we were also allied with the Dusk Zone," Goyan said. "Ask the Dark King's husk if the alliance meant anything. Ask his only loyal retainer, that bald prick Ilkubo," he said, then laughed, stroking the few patches of white hair that remained on his head. "I'm sure I've kept his head around here somewhere. Ah, well. Though I'd like to avoid war with all of them at once, Belzei is a hasty sort of man. He thinks he can take them all on. The Selfish, Nightmare, Eternal, Labyrinth, the Apostles, the traitors of the Bad End Kingdom, our friends in Majorland… And the Red Rose, of course. We are stronger than all of them separately, but not together. Belzei is the best soldier I know, but he can't be everywhere, and if our armies were to scatter, we'd surely lose. Patience is the key. We have waited so long for our opportunity to extinguish the Starlight Flames. We cannot squander the advantages we have gained, for the sake of misguided haste."
"Do you expect they will listen to you?" Kaoru asked. Goyan chortled, then spat.
"You're their leader," said Michiru. "They should listen to you, right?"
"They will only obey so long as I have the power to make them obey. Leadership is an empty word. It's not a word that made me ruler of Dark Fall, it's the support I had gotten from the rest of it. It's Kintolesky and Shitataare, and their soldiers, it's Juna backing me instead of Belzei, it's Regine having her own ambitions instead of joining forces with someone stronger. I may tell Belzei and Baldez to obey me, but how can I make them obey? If they are stronger than I am, then they won't fear me and I won't be able to stop them. They may very well let me keep my position, because if I hold no power over them, then my leadership stops being power, and becomes just a word."
"And do you think they are stronger than you are?" Kaoru asked. He scratched at his chin, and got up, asking Michiru to move aside so that he could look out the window. Small as he was, he carried himself magnanimously, and all that he had told Kaoru and Michiru about lies and the importance of not bringing attention to oneself made Kaoru wonder if this, too, was not another of his lies.
"This is why I called you," he said. "I sat here waiting for a long time, you see, until Moerumba reached you and you came. I see you learned your lessons well on how to disappear," he smirked.
"I learned them thanks to you."
He seemed rather impressed with himself. Of course, Kaoru had learned to get away from his loathsome presence, and she had learned, from her sister, how to say one thing and mean another. Michiru didn't smile, but she put her hands together, her own fingers entwined, the gesture she often made when she was pleased with something. No one in Dark Fall, not even Goyan, had ever bothered learning how the two sisters communicated with one another, so they felt free to share their thoughts like this, through gestures, through small signs, even in public, without fear. Only Poisony had questioned them once, but Michiru had easily answered the question by saying it was merely the understanding between siblings. You understand it well, too, don't you, Poisony? That was a good enough answer for her to ease her aggression and doubts.
"Belzei and Baldez are likely to stay here a while," Goyan said. "Belzei has returned north from a successful campaign against the last resistance in the Silent Valley, mostly Dusk Zone loyalists, and his men would like to rest. Baldez has taken the Pumpkin Kingdom, but has made little meaningful progress against the Garden of Light, and will probably try to gather support here. And there are news of resistance stirring in the Garden, from my agent there in Lucentower…"
"Your agent?" Kaoru asked. "How did you manage to sneak someone into Lucentower?"
"It appears there are ways to reach it," he smiled, and Kaoru felt a chill. "The same way that one Cure March has seemingly found… Yes, I knew," he said, looking outside the window, not even turning back to face Kaoru and Michiru.
The sisters looked at one another. Michiru's eyes were wide with horror, and Kaoru herself felt her legs weaken, as if she stood on uncertain, shaky ground. And all the while, Goyan sustained his smirk, standing against the window, the winds blowing against him… Michiru took a step towards him. She looked to her sister, and wordlessly, she asked a simple question. Should I? Kaoru didn't have a response. She didn't doubt that her sister could shove Goyan through the window, his back turned against her, but he was no fool, so why would he so blatantly put himself in such a dangerous position? Kaoru just stared, and waited, but Michiru seemed about to do it.
"You have no reason to kill me," he said. "Nothing to gain. I don't expect Baldez to thank you for it, and only I would protect you… And if you are not under my protection, then how can you extend it to your sweet little friend, rotting in a cell?" Michiru stood still, and Kaoru couldn't help but let out a gasp, an undesirable sigh. "You can keep her safe all you want. You can be her friends, I won't deny you that. I don't care, and unlike the rest of the idiots here, I have ambitions that are greater than killing a few Precure. I did consider having you killed in your sleep after you let Cure March go free, but not because I have great need of her, but because of your disobedience. But, though unwilling, you gave me a good opportunity, one I would not have gotten if not thanks to your actions. Because of your kind-hearted good deeds, I've managed to get an agent into Lucentower. You've saved no one, in truth, merely changed where they'll die. So…" He turned back, finally, and Michiru was right before him, looking down at him, sweating. "If you meant to kill me, you would have done it while I was talking. I'll consider this your payment for the mercy I showed you."
He walked past Michiru, and sat down again. Kaoru came to her sister's side, and from up close she saw the way she was choking, her eyes getting red. She held her hand, so that her warmth might help her remain calm.
"You'll identify any threats," said Goyan. "See what Belzei's soldiers are saying, see what appear to be the plans of Baldez. Even idle gossip may reveal much. I want to know if there are any plots against me, if anyone I thought was loyal to me means to betray me. Start with Poisony and Regine. Pissard is disgruntled enough to take the side of anyone who promises something better than a life of humiliation. Poisony and Regine are valuable, so if they are turncoats, then simply tell me and I'll deal with them. If Pissard is disloyal, you're free to kill him, I don't expect anyone to care."
"And Belzei's new advisor?"
"See what you can learn about him," Goyan commanded. "I know very little about the nature of this Elisio. The ruins of Dysdark have been home to despair witches and dark mages for years beyond count, but I've never heard of him, and I try to learn of all dark mages whose names mean anything," he opened the book in front of him, and pointed at the door. As Kaoru and Michiru turned back, he said: "And one more thing. I said that the death of one Precure wouldn't do me any good, but neither does her life mean anything to me. If you ever betray me again, your dear Cure Bloom may meet a fate that is grisly beyond words."
Kaoru quickened her steps, and when she closed the door behind her, she was glad to be away from Goyan, as even the cramped and chaotic corridors where people bumped against her and tossed her against the walls seemed like relief. She nodded at her sister, as neither said a word.
They made their way back to their quarters, back to its cold, dull emptiness. Fit for mere servants, Goyan had told them so long ago. Kaoru sat down on her bed, clutching at her skirt with her nails. Michiru reached down her bed, and dragged a chest from underneath it. A heavy, clunky thing, one that she only opened when her sister locked the door. Inside were their daggers, their poisons stolen from Regine and Kiriya.
"If he ever meant to kill us," Michiru said, "he should have done it before, when he could. It appears, dear sister, that he has, like all the others, become convinced that we are just his servants, and he forgot the lesson he taught us, that threats will only spur people into action."
"What will we do, then, sister?" Kaoru asked. "Whatever it takes to keep Saki safe, as well as the two of us, of course… Should we do what Goyan expects?"
"For now, yeah," her sister said. "We may not be able to stay here long, depending on what happens… Goyan is right that things have gotten very unstable, what with all the arrivals, all these ambitions coming together… Things are more dangerous than they were before. I don't enjoy danger."
"Neither do I. We should contact Erika. We may need her, and sooner rather than later. And, depending on what Baldez plans, and if he accomplishes anything with Belzei, then Erika and the Garden may very well need what we know, as well."
Mai awoke to find the streets of Last Light crowded, as all the village gathered before Hosshiwa's manor, guided there by Choiarks. From behind the crowds, Mai could see very little of what was going on, but she looked up and could just barely see Hosshiwa, Oresky, and Namakelder, all standing atop a balcony. The sight made her stomach turn.
"What's happening?" She asked the man in front of her, but all he could say was that the Choiarks had asked everyone to gather for an important announcement. No one around seemed to understand, either, but Mai had her own fears.
Almost all of the Precure gone from Last Light, and just some weeks after they left, Oresky and Hosshiwa were already giving orders. Mai didn't know what it meant, but she understood it could not be good. Even worse was that she could do nothing but be a passive observer here. So she only watched as Namakelder stepped up to the balcony's railing and approached the crowd:
"We are so very sorry for disturbing your sleep and for making such a mess of what should have been a normal morning. I assure you that, like you all, I would have preferred to be asleep right now. But Mirage needed me to relay a message to you all."
Mirage, he said… Mai turned to Ayumi, her eyes narrowed. She was scanning her surroundings, counting the Choiarks around the crowd. Mai tried to count them too, and saw that they were far too many for her to feel comfortable. And now it seemed Cure Mirage had something to do with all this.
"The enemies of the Red Rose are closing in on us," Namakelder continued. "Though we are not Precure, or at least most us are not, this is still our world, this is still our fight, and as such we too are in danger. Now, more than ever, we need to be strong."
"My Choiarks will keep Last Light safe," said Oresky. "I understand it's not a pleasant situation, but this is not martial law. They will only stand at the gates, to prevent anyone dangerous from coming in, and to accompany any of you who needs to leave. The Precure hunter has been seen again. Phantom, roaming the nearby roads. We don't know if those of us who aren't Precure are safe from him, and Mirage will not have the lives of her subjects put at risk when she is sworn to defend them, and neither will I."
Did he say… Her subjects? Ayumi and Orina had taken notice of it as well, and they shuddered. Mai heard mumbles amidst the crowd, but soon they were silenced by Oresky's booming cries.
"Mirage has seen fit to restore the Precure Dominion of old," he said. Mai heard more mumbling, but she also saw some smiles, she saw eyes lighten up. "With the support of Cures Black and White, Mirage has taken the Crown of Roses and worn it after it had spent thousands of years lost, forgotten. There was much deliberation between the three of them, and Mirage felt that White was the best to be the first Rose Queen in ages, Honoka Yukishiro graciously declined it."
Mai felt a shortness of breath. Honoka would have never accepted that. She would sooner die than see the restoration of the Precure Dominion, that old relic of a time when the Roses strangled the world and littered all lands with dead. She wanted to ask what happened of Black and White, but she thought of all the Choiarks around her, and remembered that she could not transform, that few Precure remained in Last Light, and few of them were great fighters… She realized that speaking up right now was dangerous, foolish. She swallowed her words and nearly choked on them.
"Nothing will change for you," said Hosshiwa. "I will continue to support you all, always, so you can depend on me. On Queen Mirage's orders, I have lifted this village up from squalor and misery, and never once asked for anything in return. We will continue to work for your sake."
"Sorry for taking your time," Namakelder said, at last. "I acknowledge that this is sudden, that the Phoenix Tower has not properly communicated its intentions in advance. I will be sure to relay all of Queen Mirage's messages to you from now on. And, I promise, this is for the best," after that, Oresky made a signal, and the Choiarks all dispersed, and some of the villagers with them. As they left, Mai heard some of them praise Mirage's decisiveness, or say that it was wise in these dangerous times.
Mai stood next to Ayumi and Orina when everyone else was gone, and tried to process what had happened. Yayoi and Miyuki approached them soon enough, though, with Kanae and Mika close behind them. Seika had to go to the communal building, though, it was her turn to cook this morning, and Megumi was seen heading straight into Hosshiwa's manor, fuming.
"So," Ayumi was the first to speak to the gathered Precure. "What does this all mean?"
"It means nothing good, I'm sure," said Mai. "Honoka, supporting Mirage? There is no sense in that. She would not do it, right?"
"Definitely not," said Miyuki. "I've only been close to her for a while, but, uh… She was very enthusiastic about criticizing Mirage, and everything she did. So why would she change her mind?"
"I hope nothing bad happened to them," said Yayoi. "We should check up on them, visit the Phoenix Tower…"
"Is that smart?" Kanae asked. "There are Choiarks at the gate. They won't let us leave. If we force our way out, then that means we stand against our own Rose. Against the Dominion now, against… Queen Mirage. That's so odd to say."
"Even weirder to write," said Mika. "I was one of the first to get here, you see, I always wake up early, and I met with Namakelder. He said that it would be definitely in my interest to write a very positive report about this announcement."
"I don't get it," said Mai. "What's the point of putting this in your newspaper? It's not like anyone missed it! And from the looks of it, everyone already seems pretty okay with it, not that they have a choice…"
"Beats me," said Mika. "But he insisted on it. Hosshiwa offered to pay me, too. I told her that I'd consider it, just so she'd get off my back. Payment is kind of useless right now, but I guess that's the only way she can get people to do things…"
"What would that accomplish? Why does it matter so much to them?" Mai still didn't understand. "Or Mirage, for that matter? What has she done? This is the main issue, is it not? Is that what she's trying to cover up?"
"Why would she ever harm Nagisa or Honoka?" Orina asked. "That's what you're implying, right? What would she gain from it? And I mean, if she did, then she'd not be able to hide it in the first place."
Mai felt her gaze cloud, her eyes turning to Hosshiwa's manor. Megumi had gone there to ask questions. We have questions, too, pressing ones. That was the only way they'd be able to pierce through these contradictions and doubts.
"Let's ask them," she declared. "Let's ask those three. They can't hide the truth from us. We are Precure. This concerns us, we should not be kept in the dark about our own damn Rosehearted thinking it's a fine idea to bring back something we don't need anymore, something the Precure overcame. The last time a Precure tried to do that, she was brought down by the other Cures."
"Yes," Miyuki agreed, "so it certainly is convenient that Mirage had so many Precure sent away on a mission to the Desert Lands, wouldn't you think?"
Miyuki had the right of it. This was not a sudden plan. It could not be. For how long had Mirage intended to do this? Ever since Hosshiwa had arrived, she had to guess. She walked towards Hosshiwa's great manor, its gardens trampled over by all the people who had just gathered there, red petals scattered over the brownish green ground.
Inside the manor there were Choiark guarding each door, but they simply let the Precure past untroubled. The place seemed different from what it looked like the last time Mai had been there. It was rather startling to find out that Hosshiwa apparently changed her hideous and tacky decorations from time to time, that she had enough of garbage to be able to choose which brand of ugliness she preferred. Mai would have found that funny before, but now she was too angry for that. Now she felt lied to. The last time she had been there, she had watched the stars with Ayumi, with Orina, with Setsuna and Kanade.
Both Kanade and Setsuna were in the Desert Lands now, though. Mirage must have seen them as threats, and sent them away accordingly. The curiosity turned to fear into Mai, and she needed to know what had happened in the Phoenix Tower, else she would not rest easy. She wanted to see it for herself. Neither Namakelder or Hosshiwa or Oresky could prevent her. She was still a Precure. She was still Cure Egret, even when she could no longer transform. She still felt the fire of the Precure burning within her.
Megumi's voice came from Hosshiwa's spacious living room. She sounded angrier than she had ever been before, so much that Mai almost didn't recognize her voice. Namakelder spoke softly, so she could not hear what he said in response.
"- should have warned me in advance," she heard Megumi said. Namakelder mumbled something in response. "I should have been there…" Mai didn't hear the rest of her sentence, as both Hosshiwa and Oresky said something at the same time, which only intensified the frustration in Megumi's words. "- not just Riko."
"Her orders…" Mai heard Oresky say, now that she was closer. Hosshiwa, Oresky and Namakelder were all sitting on a long couch, slouched all over it, while Megumi was standing on the ugly, fuzzy pink carpet.
"Let me talk to her," Megumi said, but stopped talking when she looked back and saw the Precure who had just arrived. She scowled. Mai meant to ask what the matter was, but Megumi spoke first. "You're here to ask what happened too, right?" Ayumi nodded. "You're wasting your time. They're not going to tell you anything. They'll just feed you lies, I'm sure."
"Now, if you just wait a minute-"
Megumi ignored Namakelder. She stormed off, glaring, her face red, bumping against Yayoi on her way out. Peace apologized, but Lovely just walked away, ignoring everyone else, huffing loudly and grimly.
"Well," Namakelder sighed, and adjusted his hat. "That was productive! For a second there I thought she was actually going to beat me up. She had such angry eyes, and a scowl that could scare a wolf."
"Why was she so mad?" Mai asked. Namakelder looked away, and Oresky told them to sit down. When no answer came from them, Hosshiwa grimaced and tugged at her skirt.
"Some people are just mad," she shrugged. "No deep reason behind it. Megumi was mad we didn't tell her earlier, but the truth is that we only learned of it last night. What a presumptuous little girl! Thinking that she has the right to hear from Queen Mirage before anyone else…"
Yes, how presumptuous of her to not enjoy being kept in the dark about something of such importance. It felt to Mai that these three did not fully appreciate the importance of this. Of course they didn't, they were not Precure. They could not understand why the Red Rose meant so much, and why it was such a shift for the Dominion to be restored, all to fight the Blue Rose. This was regression, and to sell it as something Nagisa and Honoka supported…
"Sit," Namakelder repeated Oresky's instructions. Everyone remained standing. He shook his head. "There is no discussion in this world that is not worth having while sat comfortably upon a very cushy seat. Sofas, so they say, are the invention that separated us humans from mere beasts."
"Who says that?" Hosshiwa scoffed. "I bet it's some idiot. I bet it's you. Let the girls talk," she turned to face them. "What do you want to know?"
"I want to know why you think we're so stupid that we'd believe that Nagisa and Honoka willingly sided with this," Mai didn't mince words. It must have caught Hosshiwa off-guard, because she stuttered when trying to answer. She looked nervously at Oresky and Namakelder, but they weren't much help either.
"W-Why would you doubt that it's the truth? Yes, we all know that Queen Mirage didn't really have the easiest of relationships with Black and White, but they've always respected each other, and constantly engaged in debates about their beliefs. Is it so shocking that they'd also discuss these matters of the Red Rose's future and how to protect the world from the Blue Rose and all of our enemies, and that they'd reach an agreement, after all?"
"Yes," said Miyuki. "It actually is so shocking. Black and White have always made their thoughts clear on what they thought was appropriate for the Red Rose. They'd never accept this return to the Dominion. It represents something that is just wrong to them. It represents the tyranny of the Red Rose, so long ago."
"Careful," said Oresky, "you can trust us, but for you be talking about the Red Rose's tyranny is very close to treason-"
"But didn't Hosshiwa just tell us that Mirage gives great value to these discussions?" Ayumi asked. Oresky flinched. "We want actual answers. Not this evasion. Not lies. When you say these patently false things, you're disrespecting our intelligence. Some of us have not been Precure for long, that is true, but that doesn't mean we're idiots. That doesn't mean Mirage can tell us whatever she wants and expect us to believe it. Please. It's not fair."
The three were silent for the longest time, avoiding all eye contact, until Hosshiwa exhaled for a long time, and looked up at the Precure before her.
"Fine," she said. "If you want the truth, then you can have it. The lie would have been better. We only wanted to be kind, since you seem to idolize both Black and White so much… You're right, this isn't their ideal. But it was the best way they found to achieve their goals. Honoka always wanted to lead the Red Rose."
"You'll remember how she campaigned during the elections," Namakelder reminded them. "Though she lost, her ambitions were not quelled, but she knew she'd not get another chance soon."
"She made a deal with Queen Mirage," Hosshiwa continued. "She would support her coronation in exchange of being made the Rosehearted. She argued that if Mirage were to be crowned Rose Queen, then her former position would be free, and Honoka would claim it. It, and the control of the libraries that came with it. She always wanted to uncover the secrets of the Red Rose, after all. This, she figured, was her best opportunity."
"I don't believe you," said Mai. "Honoka would not sell out the Red Rose like this."
"Sell out?" Hosshiwa laughed. "I think you're being too dramatic. This is not a matter of personal ambition for Queen Mirage. It is simply what she has decreed to be the best way to strengthen the Red Rose in the coming years. Cure White agreed to that, but she also saw an opportunity for personal gain. We figured that saying that she did it without asking for anything, just because she agreed with Mirage's reasoning, would be better. That way she would not appear ambitious, greedy."
"If we seemed to disrespect your intelligence by contradicting your assumptions of Honoka's nature, then we apologize," said Namakelder, "but that's the truth. Ideals only go so far, and this is where Nagisa and Honoka drew their lines."
Mai just shook her head. Honoka didn't care enough about being Rosehearted to do this, but the library, the books hidden there… Though she didn't want to think that about Cure White, she had to admit it was somewhat plausible. If only a little. And why would they lie about this? If Honoka had indeed been made the Rosehearted of the Red Rose, then nothing could have happened to he. They would not lie so blatantly, would they? Mai figured there was only one way to tell.
"Let me see them," she demanded. "Let me visit the Phoenix Tower so that I can see it for myself, and ask them."
"Of course," Hosshiwa said, so plainly and quickly that Mai was taken aback. It didn't fail to make Hosshiwa smirk. "What? Why are you shocked? Did you think we were going to keep you locked away in here? You really are quite suspicious of us, are you not? You're free to go out. The Choiarks aren't there to hold you prisoner. Why would you ever think that? What have any of us ever done to make you suspicious?"
Mai could think of at least a dozen things, the first of which was Namakelder having kept her prisoner, once, a fact which he seemed eager to forget and disregard, given his easy, carefree smiles. But Mai said nothing. All she needed was to see Nagisa and Honoka with her own eyes, not to antagonize these three any further. She even considered apologizing for her mistrust, but instead she just said:
"Fine. I'll go then. When I'm back, if all is well, then I'll trust you. But until I go to the Phoenix Tower and I talk to Black and White and clarify everything, you'll have to understand just why we are so doubtful."
"I'm going with you," said Miyuki. "I want to know, too… And I wanna see Kotoha, Honoka, and Nagisa. There was stuff I wanted to ask Kotoha about the Pumpkin Kingdom, for a story I want to write, but I couldn't, because I thought she was going to stay here in Last Light with us…"
"M-Miyuki, I think this is a bit of a serious matter, compared to a story…" Yayoi said, and Happy laughed, embarrassed.
While the Precure talked, Mai just stared at Hosshiwa, who glared back. Though the woman had done little that was outright wrong, Mai could not find it in her to trust her, and everything she learned only made her more and more suspicious. Her sudden appearance had been strange enough, but now that she admitted that she had come on Mirage's orders, Mai found that even more concerning. They were working together, but had hidden it until now. Why would Hosshiwa bother concealing that, if their intentions were good?
Mai was the first to leave, only slightly more delicately than Megumi before her, stomping on the fuzzy, ticklish carpet, and rushing past the Choiarks that guarded the manor. She didn't want to see them, not ever again, yet now they were part of life at Last Light. She walked back into the village, under the gentle sunlight of the early morning, a breeze moving past the trees, blowing down leaves and flowers. But now it seemed more wrong than beautiful. Now it felt as if there was something off about everything. It was Mirage's idea to create Last Light, Mai remembered, and Hosshiwa who helped make it what it is now… But what did it mean?
She wanted to scream. She could do nothing about it all, that was the truth of it, and she felt like an idiot for ever expecting otherwise. If she could, then she would not be allowed into the Phoenix Tower in the first place. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Not just stupid, but powerless as well. Ever since she was separated from Saki, she had been unable to do anything but to helplessly watch events unfold around her. She reached deep into her heart, as she had done that day in the Thornwood, and there she sought Saki again, she tried to find her, to see her, to touch her again, but she felt only a cold wind.
Capricious, the harsh sunlight stabbed at Nozomi only from time to time, sporadically enough for her to get used to the moments of relief, only so that the heat could soon crush her spirits again. Respite never lasted long enough to make a difference, only to make it hurt more.
"It has never been this bad before," Cure Nile told her. "Of course, I lived further east, closer to the border, where the climate was milder, but I've travelled across the Desert Lands plenty of times. Admittedly, it was much easier when you could travel the roads, in a car…"
"That does seem like paradise," Nozomi said. "I've gotten used to this, to a point, but-"
"Do you really get used to this?"
"No," she had to admit. "But you do resign yourself to it. What choice do we have, anyways?"
They were not too far from Miwar now, or at least they shouldn't be. Hime and Reika kept track of their progress on a map, accurately enough, and it seemed that they'd get to the city in a week, give or take a couple of days. Probably give. At the end of the day, the fact was that, even with Iona unexpectedly joining them, they were in no great hurry by virtue of hunger or thirst. So long as they were well-fed, Reika was strong enough to use her magic, and Yuko and Hime had been very careful to bring far more food than what was necessary. The true danger here was not getting to Miwar, but what would happen once they got there. They'd been attacked once, after all. Nozomi found some optimism in reminding herself that the same had happened in Märchenland, near the Fairy Lights.
But Nightmare was not the Bad End Kingdom. Nightmare was far worse. Whereas the Bad End Kingdom had a cause, though Nozomi felt they took it to extreme means, Nightmare's only goal seemed to be a spiteful sort of ambition and greed, pillage for no purpose other than the sadism of theft and destruction. Nozomi remembered Frosting, and how there was nothing there for Nightmare to gain, nothing they could not find elsewhere, nothing they could not get through other means. When she stepped through the gates of Miwar, would she find another city like that, destitute and filthy, lost?
First, though, they'd need to get there. The days went by slowly, uneventful, which was better than being attacked, but still maddening. Whenever Nozomi looked up, she'd see skies that rarely changed, and all around her were sceneries that were always the same. It was easy to feel lost, to feel like they were making no progress at all, even though by the end of the day Reika would show them the map and remind Nozomi that, yes, they had moved forward.
All we can do is move forward. Lately something about that felt wrong to Nozomi, but she could not quite tell why. They had to move forward, of course, what else would they do, where else could they go? No, that was not it, that was not what troubled Nozomi. She looked back on the days she spent at Last Light, always knowing that she was soon headed to the Desert Lands. Before that, she knew she was going to Märchenland on Reika's plans, even without Mirage's permission. In Märchenland, too, after they'd defeated Pierrot, there was always this certainty that there was something else yet to come. It weighed the heaviest upon Reika's shoulders, of course, who had to leave her home, but now that Nozomi gave it some thought, it was hard for her, too. She just tried not to think about it. She looked aside, at Yuko. It's difficult to be so strong all the time. She had the right of it. It's difficult to always smile and be everyone else's strength. More than anything else, it's difficult to pretend to be free of self-doubt.
We only move forward now, she thought. That's all they did. Staying holed up in Last Light was no good, of course, that's not what bothered Nozomi. She just found herself full of doubts, now, that this could work out. Where would the road ahead lead them, in the end? Only to more fighting, Nozomi was certain of it. There'd be no end to it. There'd always be something wrong, always another battle to fight. After these past months, Nozomi found herself finally understanding why Nagisa and Honoka had started working at Verone, why they could no longer bear to fight for the Red Rose. Nozomi always thought that it'd not happen to her, that she'd be able to keep going forever, that she could dedicate her life to this, but the more she thought, the more uncertain she felt, and in this emptiness, this unending journey, she had too much time to think. Nothing good came out of it.
"I'm going to go scout ahead," Nozomi told Hime, who just nodded. Scouting was not the sort of exhausting work that moving the carts was, but it kept her on the move and forced her to keep her eyes open, even if she'd see nothing. It was an excuse to stop thinking, if nothing else.
Ahead of the caravan she found Reika and Iona. Beauty, like her, had been keeping watch all too often these past few days. She wanted to ask if something was wrong, she could tell Reika was troubled, but she could rarely approach her to ask, and when she did, Beauty would avoid the question. Leading the mission at Märchenland had stressed her greatly, but now it was on Hime's hands, so it could not be that, right?
Iona smiled at Nozomi when she joined them. Despite herself, Nozomi smiled back. She shouldn't so easily excuse Iona's treachery… But damn it, she was glad that Fortune was by her side. She could no longer imagine her life without Reika and Iona, nor did she want to.
I had never imagined my life without Rin, though, and it happened anyway.
It was a foolish thought. Nozomi shrugged it off. Neither past or future had any sway on her, they didn't matter to her. If she didn't think of what she lost, she'd not have to feel any sadness, and if she did not think about the road ahead, she'd never have to feel fear or doubt. All would be well. She was not a thinker, anyways. She was just a dumb little girl, so of course she only felt pain when she thought too hard. She disregarded everything and hugged both Reika and Iona, a sudden gesture, coming from behind them, pulling them close, nearly knocking Fortune down on the sand.
"What's this all about?" Iona asked, her face burning. She freed herself of Nozomi, and stopped right in front of her. "Feeling sentimental or something?"
"I'm always sentimental," Nozomi laughed. "By now you should have gotten used to it."
"It's not that easy to get used to you," Iona said, grumpy. She adjusted her white shirt, all messy where Nozomi's arms had wrapped themselves around. "A-Anyways, you're only going to make us late with these foolish antics, and we have no time to waste."
"Oh? So spending time with me is a waste, is that what you're saying? Oh, Iona, you wound me…"
Frustrated, she bumped against Nozomi, who just laughed. Iona huffed and puffed and said she didn't meant it that way, and also that she was absolutely not annoyed. Nozomi found it all extremely entertaining, but Reika was unusually quiet. It made Dream feel uncomfortable, annoying. She called out to Reika, tried to get her attention, but something had taken her focus. She stared into the distance, trying to see something far away.
"Again?" Nozomi asked. She put a hand on her forehead, and squinted to see what Reika found so important, but there was nothing there but emptiness and dust. "What is it now?"
"I don't see anything either," Iona remarked. "Most likely it's nothing. The wind, could be."
"Just because it's best for us if it proves to be nothing, it doesn't mean that it is nothing. Look," she pointed behind them, at faraway dunes, north of the Precure's caravan. "Pay attention to it."
Nozomi was as attentive as she could be. She saw nothing, just the dunes, and couldn't understand what it was that Reika had noticed. She was ready to dismiss it as nothing when she finally noticed something cresting the dune. Or rather, someone. From so far, whoever it was looked only like a dot, but there was no doubt they were a person. And others followed behind them, headed towards the Precure… But something was wrong here.
"They've come from the same direction as we did," Nozomi pointed out. "But there should be no Apostles behind her, right? We've seen no trace of life, found only abandoned villages, no fortresses or anything. Other than those people that passed us by, there was nothing, there should be no one behind us."
"Look again," Reika said. Nozomi wondered how the hell she had noticed anything so unusual from that distance. Reika never ceased to impress, truly.
"Ah!" Iona seemed to realize it before Nozomi did, but the realization grew on Dream as the people began to approach. And the man who led them was familiar. The closer he drew, the more obvious the resemblance became, the same white scarf and long blue locks that swayed with the wind.
The man rose a hand, and all those behind him stopped immediately. He approached the Precure, and Nozomi reached for her Fleuret, but he signaled that he was unarmed, and that he meant no harm, both of his hands high in the air. It was a moot gesture, of course, because if he happened to be a mage, he'd not need weapons anyway, but if he at least showed an interest in peace, Nozomi's worries were eased, if only slightly.
He stopped before the Precure, waiting. Reika told him to come slowly, and he promptly did so, taking lengthened steps to approach the Precure. He removed his scarf, and revealed a confident smile. He had a delicate face, which Nozomi found pleasing to the eye, but something in his eyes seemed quite untrustworthy to Nozomi.
"Greetings," he said, the very portrait of courtesy. "This is not the finest of meetings, far from my ideal, but it's the best I could manage. My name is Cobraja. I'm one of the Desert Apostles."
"Cobraja," Reika repeated the name. "I know you. You were at Dune's side when he threatened to destroy the Heart Tree. You'll remember me, I expect."
"Cure Beauty. Of course I remember you, though we did not face one another, thankfully… Wise of you to avoid the roads. I had to go through quite the measure of trouble to find you, but luckily it's not too difficult to find a group of a dozen Precure in the desert."
"Not too difficult," Iona said, "just easy enough to send Desertrians at us, right?"
"That was very unfortunate," said Cobraja, "but not my doing. I am one of the Desert Apostles, but not all of them. I did not send the Desertrians against you. That was Nightmare's doing," he said. Nozomi opened her mouth, but Cobraja continued. "From your face I can tell that you went up against a Kowaina, am I right?" They nodded. "I did get the news of your presence in the Desert Lands, though, and that's what led me to seek you."
"Hence the caravan," Reika said. Nozomi looked back, and saw that the Precure behind them were drawing closer, and Reika signaled for them to wait. "But why did you not simply approach us the first time? Why move past us and then turn back?"
"Because of Nightmare," he said plainly. Nozomi didn't understand how he could say it so casually, as if it were an evident truth. "You appear familiar with them."
"All too familiar," Nozomi lamented. "Have they taken over the Desert Lands as well?"
"It's a complicated situation," he said. Iona insisted he clarify. "Our sovereign has been enslaved by Despariah's machinations. Nightmare is the true power behind us now, though we are not, strictly speaking, powerless… Only limited. I answer to Nightmare, so if I simply left Miwar to seek these rumors of Precure in our lands, that'd be quite suspicious, you see, but if I had an excuse… The caravan, as you already figured out. Nominally, it's headed towards the abandoned villages to the east, to reclaim them. But of course, that doesn't matter. The true purpose was allowing me to seek you without arousing Nightmare's suspicions."
"And why are you so concerned about their suspicions?" Iona was still doubtful. "Why would you need to seek Precure?"
"Because you might be able to help us," Cobraja said. So it was just as Nozomi had expected. They were not happy about Nightmare's presence, and how could they ever be? Nightmare had only ever found an equal partner in Eternal. All else it only used, saw as nothing but tools and slaves. "And you are not the first Precure we have found. Others have helped us as well, before. Cure Sunshine, Cure Berry, Cure Matador. Are you familiar with them?"
"Only in passing," said Reika. "I've fought by Sunshine's side, briefly. It's good to hear she is well."
"I didn't say she's well," said Cobraja. "She left on a dangerous mission, along with the others, and has not yet returned. They were our first hope of fighting back against Nightmare, but it's been some time. We don't know if we can expect their return, but with each passing day, Nightmare's grip on Miwar grows stronger."
"So we are your last hope?" Nozomi asked. "We did not come to fight, you know. We came to negotiate. I'm sure you heard that from the soldiers we warned."
"You can try to negotiate with Nightmare," Cobraja said, "for all the good that will do you. It won't be much. You cannot sway them. Hadenya will not listen to you. And something has to be done. The Doughnut Kingdom was freed from Nightmare, but soon enough it just fell back into their hands, because the victory there was not decisive. They will stop at nothing to-"
"I was there," Nozomi said. She felt oddly numb hearing the news about the Doughnut Kingdom. It had been so long ago that she didn't pay it much thought. It had been their first triumph. But it had fallen again, already…? "Reika and I. It can't be. Nightmare has nothing to gain from retaking Frosting."
"Spite will lead Nightmare to anything," Cobraja responded. "Talking will do no good, I tell you, but you don't want to listen to me, you seem to believe you can avoid it."
"What do you propose, then?" Iona asked. Cobraja was starting to lose his calm. He was truly desperate, Nozomi realized. "Take the fight to Nightmare, in the middle of Miwar?"
"We did not come to fight," Reika repeated Nozomi's words, decisive. "We did not come to shed blood. We heard that Salamander has risen as sovereign of these lands. We need an audience with him. Nothing else, certainly not outright war."
"We have brought strife with us when we were at Morgenluft," Nozomi said. She was uncertain of her own words. She wanted to take the fight to Nightmare, she wanted that since the Precure were attacked by that Kowaina, but she hadn't expected that the fight would take them to the capital. "When we fought the Bad End Kingdom. We can't go to Miwar simply for battle. We must talk to Salamander, reach terms of friendship."
"You will not be able to reach him without my help," said Salamander. "You will find the gates closed to you. I could open them. I can get you to Salamander. There might not even be a need to fight, should Cure Sunshine return, but I will need help. We will need help. I will take you to Salamander," he said, "if you promise to keep your eyes open when you meet with him. Please. If you do, you will understand why you must fight."
Reika nodded slowly. He wasn't asking for that much. Beauty called for Cure Princess to approach, because the decision was hers, in the end. Hime was hesitant, intimidated, her fingers gripping her pants. She heard Cobraja's call for help, and the offer he made. He could get them into Miwar, but made no promises that they'd leave safely. It was risky, Reika told the princess. But the alternative was turning back. Hime would not do it, Nozomi saw it in her eyes, a determination brought about by the fear of shame. So she agreed. The Precure would follow Cobraja into Miwar, blending into his own caravan.
And though Nozomi had her own doubts, she followed onward. She offered to relieve Kanade of her duties, and pulled a heavy cart behind her. She didn't want to avoid her thoughts now. As the cart swayed and bounced up and down on the shifting sands, Nozomi looked only to the horizon ahead. Though the Precure knew that Nightmare was involved with the Desert Apostles, Nozomi hadn't even imagined that they controlled them, as Cobraja said. That changed everything.
She still remembered Morgenluft, and she still remembered Trump. Of Morgenluft she remembered the cold and the darkness, of Trump she remembered the stench of rot and death, the horror of those before Regina. Miwar was as great a city as any of those. She didn't want to fight there. She understood what it meant, and she saw what Nightmare did to Palmier, to Frosting. She felt her chest hurt. Was this what it meant to keep fighting, to always move forward? Was it inevitable for this sort of horror to follow the Precure wherever they went, and was this where the road led them, from disaster to disaster. Frosting had just fallen again. The Precure would have to take it back again. If they freed Miwar, it could easily fall once they left. Was Morgenluft even safe now, what with the Selfish so close…?
Her head began to hurt. As she walked, she stomped so forcefully onto the ground that her footprints ran deep, and she felt the sand inside her own boots. She looked around, and saw Nile talking to Komachi, both her visage and her words confident, certain that they'd drive back Nightmare. Nozomi felt distant from everyone and everything, and soon she couldn't even hear Nile's words. She could only hear the screaming and the wailing she heard while fighting before. She couldn't make the sounds go away, try as she might to silence them. She didn't want that to happen again. When Mirage told them their new mission was simply diplomatic, Nozomi felt a great relief, but she should have known it to be just a lie. There was no relief, and she finally understood what it meant to keep moving forward, to never stop, to never look back. It meant the numbness she was feeling now. She lowered her head and continued to walk, her mind blank, and she silenced all of her fears, her thoughts, her heart, until she felt nothing.
She wondered how long this could last, but then she stopped wondering at all and followed everyone else, silent, and never looked back.