Episode One: The Blue Dragon Soars! Awaken, Heroes!

The world was about to end.

Cure Seiryuu did not want to think of things in such grim terms. She was one of the members of Pretty Cure. The arbiters of hope. Wielders of levels of spirit power long lost to modern humans. The last vanguard between a peaceful life on Earth and the stormy and lifeless hellscape that was steadily blossoming around them. They were supposed to give everything they had, even in the face of despair, even in the face of that last setback until they had come out victorious.

And they had given it their all. Seiryuu, her four fellow Cures, and the prince of the Shade Kingdom, turned from his father's talk of soul-crushing despair towards a message of hope… the six of them had fought until their bodies refused to keep obeying them, until their power burned away to cinders. Even now, as she struggled futilely to lever herself off the ground, Seiryuu could see her transformation dissipating around her in flecks of blue light.

And it still hadn't been enough.

The warm ocean air of Kyoukai City had become stale and cold. Harsh winds battered at Seiryuu and her bruised and battered compatriots as a maelstrom brewed in the air above them. An immense network of black roots with massive thorns and rancid-smelling black blossoms had sprouted throughout the city. Gnarled, gray plant-like monstrosities meandered through Kyoukai, their massive presence further darkening the sky. There was no longer anyone left to stop them.

Even now, the people of the city still lived. But they were quiet and hollow, their inner flame of hope snuffed out by the soul-crushing despair that King Kagemera and his horde brought with them.

And it was all their fault.

Even now, Seiryuu could see the central sealing stone of Kyoukai City right out of the corner of her eye - an immense pillar with the likeness of a golden dragon carved upon it, still standing tall and pristine in the middle of the crater-ridden battlefield that had once been Kyoukai's central square. One of the pillars holding up the barrier between Earth and the Shade Kingdom.

It had been the only one the Cures hadn't been able to restore in time. Even with someone like Cure Ouryuu, a woman who happened to be one of the most powerful spirits from the Hallowed Wellspring, as their leader, even with Prince Tsukimera turning his back on his father, King Kagemera had remained a few steps ahead of them, shredding away at the barrier until their hands had been forced.

And yet even then, Seiryuu hadn't recognized the situation for what it was. No, she'd naively gone and-

"It's alright, Ouryuu!" Seiryuu had told the older woman, flashing her a bright smile. "We'll just take the fight over there, and then…" She knocked her fists together. "It'll work out! We've gotten this far, right?"

Genbu and Byakko had been taken in by her enthusiasm. Suzaku, on the other hand…

"We'd need a miracle at this rate." the red Cure had argued. "I'm sorry, Kimiko, but-"

"It's fine!" Seiryuu insisted. "Everyone… let's make the miracle happen!"

What a hollow sentiment that had been in the end. All the hope, all the self-belief in the world hadn't stopped Kagemera from crushing the team and sending his forces flooding into Kyoukai.

And now, Seiryuu no longer had the power to do anything past watch and wait futilely for the end. She couldn't protect her teammates, she couldn't save anyone in Kyoukai, she couldn't even hold her boyfriend's hand in the end, not when Tsukimera laid barely conscious and just out of her reach.

Only two parties remained standing now. Cure Ouryuu had planted herself defiantly in front of her fallen comrades, standing firm despite her own obvious exhaustion. Unlike Seiryuu, Genbu, and Byakko, who were steadily losing their transformations, and Suzaku, who was on the cusp of losing hers, the golden Cure's own transformation held steady… for now. It was clear Ouryuu did not have much time left.

And then there was him. King Kagemera, the immense regent of the Shade Kingdom stood a yard or so away from Ouryuu and her fallen companions. Kagemera had obviously taken a beating of his own - his red and black finery was in tatters, his whitish fur was matted and criss-crossed with wounds, a bit of his draconic tail was missing, and one of his coiled black horns had broken off. But it was not enough.

Kagemera's leonine features twisted into a grin of smug amusement. "Oh? Even now, you refuse to stand down? Why must you make this needlessly difficult for yourself, Cure Ouryuu?"

Ouryuu's blue eyes wordlessly flitted to the central sealing stone before she returned to staring down Kagemera. "I will not stand down. I cannot. As long as my spirit exists-"

"Enough of that. This-" Kagemera gestured to the steadily-growing hellscape around him with one massive paw "-is my divine right. I was always destined to attain it." The air around Kagemera began to crackle with power as six spheres of pulsing red and black energy formed in the air around him. "The last obstacle was eliminated long ago. There is nothing you insects could have done. You were doomed to failure from the start."

Seiryuu felt her stomach turn to ice as the maelstrom above Kyoukai grew in power and more spirit power gathered around Kagemera, resolving into six massive spears of pulsing black and red energy - one to personally skewer each of the parties before him.

"To delay the inevitable, to turn my own son against me, to defy me even now…" Kagemera grinned, exposing a row of pointed white teeth. "The six of you have more than earned your execution at my hands. Rejoice."

A bolt of violet lightning cut across the air, which crackled with energy as the lances pointed towards their six targets. This was it. This was how the world ended. First, they would be wiped out, and then Earth would be-

-Seiryuu and her companions had no time to mull over the implications of this, for in the rest split second, the lances homed in on their intended victims, Ouryuu raised a hand, and-

-when Seiryuu opened her eyes, she, her fellow Cures, and Prince Tsukimera were suspended in a void of golden light. She could faintly see the twisted remains of Kyoukai and the frozen figure of King Kagemera beyond the golden haze surrounding her, but that was not where her focus was drawn.

It was on Cure Ouryuu herself. The leader of Pretty Cure stood suspended in mid-air before the group, looking almost angelic as her form pulsed with a light as radiant as the shimmering veil that surrounded them.

"I'm so sorry, everyone." Ouryuu offered her allies a small, sad smile. "It seems this is as far as I go."

"Clio?" Cure Genbu stared uncomprehendingly at Pretty Cure's leader. "What are you-?"

Cure Ouryuu looked away for a moment, her gaze homing in on the central sealing stone. "The spirit power we gathered was not enough to complete the barrier. But… as a spirit myself, I am cut from the same cloth. And as a priestess of the Hallowed Wellspring, my life's energy should-"

"You can't!" Cure Byakko protested. "What about your husband, Clio-san? What about your little girl? You can't throw yourself away, just because we-!"

Ouryuu shook her head sadly, a tearful smile on her face. "Marina… Rie… it's okay."

Cure Genbu started towards her. "Don't you dare say it's-!"

Ouryuu stopped with a raised hand and a gentle shake of the head. "Sol and Muse will live to see a new tomorrow. As will you and everyone else on this beautiful planet. That is enough for me. Please, let that be enough for yourselves as well."

Seiryuu wanted to join Marina and Rie in protesting, but she knew it was a fool's errand. Cure Ouryuu… Clio of the Hallowed Wellspring had clearly made up her mind. And… this was the only option they had left at this point, wasn't it? Tsukimera, who just gave Seiryuu's hand a reassuring squeeze and shook his head sadly, and Suzaku, who simply looked away, her lips pressed into a thin line, seemed to recognize that as well.

It still felt awful. It still felt grotesquely selfish. It still felt like giving up. But if life, both on Earth and in the Hallowed Wellspring could go on as it had before, then-

Ouryuu closed her eyes, summoning every last drop of spirit power she had. Her form blazed brighter and brighter... and grew hazier and more indistinct by the moment. White spots began to dance at the corners of Seiryuu's vision, white noise rushed into her ears, and the aura of pure energy that surrounded everyone became so strong to be almost overwhelming. Seiryuu could barely feel her boyfriend's hand, let alone grasp a solid sense of her own body.

And then her vision flooded with white. Cure Seiryuu… Kimiko Yoshimoto saw nothing, felt nothing, and heard nothing, past the sound of a crystal shattering, a far-off, earth-shattering roar of utter despair and agony and then… one final plea from the woman she had once called leader, spoken directly into the minds of her remaining comrades.

"Everyone… please protect our shining future!"

Her new life was about to begin.

Hiroko Tsubasa stood outside a pair of ornate, gilded gates, school bag in hand. Beyond those gates laid the crown jewel of Kyoukai City – Mirai Academy, one of the most prestigious boarding schools in Japan. Once she stepped through these gates, she would be a member of its student body for the next year.

The thought made Hiroko's heart pound in her chest. Sure, she looked the part. Her appearance was immaculate, from her brownish-black hair, worn in its usual mid-length hime cut to her school uniform – white tights, brown dress shoes, a dark gray skirt, a white dress shirt, and a gold-accented gray blazer, topped off with the crimson neck ribbon available as an option for junior high school students.

But when it came to feeling that she belonged…

Marina Ishii had brought the idea to Hiroko. The austere green-haired young woman was a close family friend who had cheered on Hiroko's older sister, Chiaki, during her time at Mirai Academy. But when it came to Hiroko…

"I'm sorry, but I can't go." Hiroko told Marina over tea. "I'm not like Chiaki. I don't really have any long-term goals. Don't you need one to attend Mirai Academy?"

Marina quirked an eyebrow. "There's nothing you dream of doing, Hiroko-chan?"

Hiroko stared down into her teacup. "There's nothing I'm talented at."

"I don't believe that." Marina responded without hesitation. "No one in this world is completely talentless." She hummed thoughtfully, in between sips of tea. "Perhaps your goal could be to find a goal." She smiled wryly. "Even rough diamonds can look like mere stones at first. That's what I think."

Hiroko had opened her mouth to protest, to argue that the mere act of looking for a goal did not count as a goal, that she was the farthest thing from a rough diamond, but Marina had sounded so earnest, so sincere that it had been difficult to argue.

"I have to try." Hiroko said quietly as she took one hesitant step towards the gates of Mirai Academy, then another, then another.

That was what she had said back then too. It had seemed like such a long shot (and even now, some cynical part of her insisted she hadn't earned it, that her acceptance to Mirai had nothing to do with her own merits and everything to do with Marina being a teacher there), but Hiroko Tsubasa was now a student at Mirai Academy. Perhaps she would even find a place among the remarkable people here in time.

One year spent away from her family. One year to find a goal of her own. The possibility seemed far-off, unattainable, almost. But... she had to try.

Hiroko squared her shoulders, took a deep breath, and walked through the gates of Mirai Academy.

This was hardly Hiroko's first time on Mirai Academy's campus. She had visited it with her parents a few times, back when Chiaki was attending. But there was something about taking it in as a student that made the impression drastically different.

Hiroko took in everything around her with wide brown eyes as she wandered Mirai Academy's campus – the ornate white and gold buildings, complete with a towering clock tower in the distance, the beautiful gray sandstone path that wove throughout campus like a ribbon, the sea of emerald green trees that surrounded the school, the immaculately-maintained cherry blossom trees and beautiful hedges that provided beautiful bursts of color to the mostly-pristine surroundings…

…back then, it hadn't seemed that remarkable. But now Hiroko was seeing everything with new eyes. Really, it felt as if she had stepped into a storybook. (Her, protagonist material. Imagine!) The sheer romance of it all was almost enough to make her forget the nervousness that still gnawed at the pit of her stomach or the fact that even now, she had no idea where her dorm was.

There were many other Mirai Academy students out and about, even at this early hour. Everyone who attended Mirai had the option of pants or a skirt, along with a neck ribbon or necktie - crimson for the junior high division, royal blue for the high school division. Many students had clearly taken full advantage of that flexibility, from what Hiroko could tell.

None of the students seemed to pay Hiroko much notice, outside of a passing glance or a polite "good morning to you" (a gesture she readily returned), so she must not have been sticking out too badly so far.

"So far, so good." Hiroko told herself as she continued her trek across campus. "Once I settle in-"

And then she realized where her wandering had taken her, and all thoughts of locating her dorm vanished.

This must have been the central courtyard of Mirai Academy. Hiroko remembered this place as well, but it had never seemed quite this striking, let alone this positively immense. An large bronze fountain, which featured the likeness of the goddess Minerva, spear in hand, sat in the center, surrounded by a ring of tile decorated by roses of all colors, and beautiful rose vines grew around iron lattices here and there. Radiating out from the statue like rays of the sun was a vast sea of flowerbeds, with flowers of all shapes and colors - blue delphiniums, violet hyacinths, white moonflowers...

The ground around Hiroko was decorated with rose-shaped cobblestones, and still more cherry blossom trees dotted the landscape, along with several other flowering varieties. A winding garden path led to a koi pond, crossed by an elaborate bridge and then to an ornate gazebo on a small hill. There were several ornate iron tables and chairs for students to sit at, along with equally ornate benches.

Hiroko drank in the sights eagerly as she explored. "It's like a dream." she whispered rapturously.

An errant breeze blew towards her, carrying the soft scent of moonflowers and a few white petals her way. Hiroko blinked in surprise, idly plucking an errant moonflower petal out of her hair before she turned in the direction of the breeze. Her eyes widened at the sight before her.

A delicately built and fair-skinned girl was seated at one of the benches. Her reddish-violet eyes, framed by a pair of wire-framed spectacles were intensely trained on the sketchbook she was drawing in. The gentle breeze ruffled her bobbed, dark cerise hair as she worked. Everything about her movements and posture seemed the very picture of elegance and grace.

The uniform the girl wore only enhanced the effect. She wore the royal blue neck ribbon of a high schooler, but her blazer was pristine white, her skirt was cream-colored, and her shirt was sky blue. She seemed almost like a young noblewoman, an effect enhanced by the way the sunlight framed her form.

Something about the sight before her made Hiroko's heart skip a beat. She knew it was wrong to stare, especially at a complete stranger, but…

The girl suddenly looked up from her work. For a moment, she simply stared right back at Hiroko, her expression completely devoid of emotion, before she offered a soft, equally emotionless "Is everything alright?"

And Hiroko was snapped back to reality. "Ah, yes, sorry!" Hopefully, she hadn't offended by gawking like that. "I just… I happen to be new here, and I got a bit side-tracked looking for the dorms, and well…" Why was her face so warm? "I hope I wasn't distracting you."

"It's fine." the girl responded noncommittally. "If you follow the path beyond this courtyard's south entrance," Here, she indicated the entrance in question "and turn left when it diverges, you should arrive at the junior high dorms." That said, she returned to her artwork. "Will that be all?"

Hiroko nodded. Part of her wanted to hang around a bit longer, but something told her she was bothering this girl.

"Alright - I'll be off then." Hiroko started off towards the south courtyard entrance… before pausing in her tracks and looking back towards the girl. "And thank you very much, Miss-"

"Yasu." The girl did not look up from her sketchbook. "Yasu Fukuda."

Hiroko offered a quick bow. "It's very nice to meet you, Fukuda-san! I hope we're able to speak again soon." Hopefully, that wasn't too bothersome… "Thank you again!"

And with that said, Hiroko took off, trying not to look too hurried. Yasu stared after her, a perplexed expression briefly flitting across her otherwise stoic features.

"Why did she…?" Something seemed to occur to Yasu then and there. She shook her head sadly as she returned to her sketchbook. "She was clearly new here. That's why."

Of course that was it. Why else would any student here willingly speak to her?

It had been ten years.

Ten years since the final showdown between Pretty Cure and King Kagemera of the Shade Kingdom. Ten years since the barrier between worlds had been hastily repaired and the Shade Kingdom invaders had been banished to whence they came, in exchange for the life of Pretty Cure's leader, Clio. Ten years since a monster had attacked, or the legendary warriors Pretty Cure had been seen in action.

The people had not forgotten. Not completely.

Even now, half-remembered stories of Pretty Cure, of monstrous invaders from beyond the veil, of life as everyone knew it in Kyoukai City very nearly ending at the hands of those invaders circulated among its inhabitants. Such events sounded like outlandish fabrications. Many wrote them off as such. But even ten years on, there were some who still remembered how very real it was, or had at least felt.

Still… ten years was a long time. The world healed, and the people of Kyoukai moved on as best as they could.

They did not notice the subtle change in the air as the energy infused in the sealing stones began to ebb. They did not notice the hairline cracks that began to appear in the barrier between their world and that of the Shade Kingdom's. They did not notice the presences testing and straining those cracks.

And they did not notice the shadowy figure that slipped through a gap in the barrier and onto the campus of Mirai Academy.

Then, the figure in question was good at not being noticed. Her form changed effortlessly the moment she found a way from her world into the human world - first to the form of a female high school student as she slipped in among the crowd, then to maintenance staff as she searched for a worthy seat for the marvelous little gift she held, then to a faculty member as she slipped into the entrance hall, falling in among the Mirai staff planning for today's opening ceremony.

By the time the Mirai faculty realized one of them had grown a twin, the figure had vanished… but not without planting a pulsing black seed in the headmistress' podium. It burrowed and took root, ready to feed off any negative energy sent its way.

The strange figure from beyond the veil was not the only otherworldly visitor to Mirai Academy.

A cat with dark blue fur was also flitting around campus, trying desperately to track the unwelcome presence she had picked up on. She couldn't see them, but between the way her fur stood on end, the unpleasant tingle building in her whiskers, and the way the three crystals embedded in her golden collar pulsed steadily…

"It's starting again, isn't it?" the cat whispered, her blue eyes full of alarm. Her ears drooped slightly "And I haven't even found…" She caught herself there. "No, I can't give up! Wait for me, Pretty Cure!"

The blue cat took off further into campus, a look of purpose in her eyes.

According to the elaborate white and gold face plate hanging outside of her dorm room, Hiroko would be rooming with a 'Jun Inoue' for the coming year. She knew nothing about this person, but well… if Jun was willing to put up with a plain person with a silly goal like Hiroko, maybe it would work out. She had to try.

Still, Hiroko found herself hesitating for a moment before she finally knocked on the door. She waited a moment or two outside, hands gripping her school bag tightly. No response. A pause. A few more knocks and still no answer. Maybe Jun was busy, or perhaps she wasn't there at all. Either way…

"I'm coming in!"

And with that said, Hiroko opened the door to her dorm room and found her breath catching in her throat once more. The entire place was bedecked mostly in shades of white, gold, and cream, with stately cherry wood furniture.

The door opened up into a sitting room, complete with plush-looking chairs, a coffee table, and a wall-mounted flat-screen television, subdivided off into a dining room with a circular table and four seat cushions. And near the dining room was… could it be?

It was, Hiroko quickly discovered, a sparkle leaping to her eyes.

"A kitchen! We have our own kitchen!"

Oh, sure it was a small kitchen, one that would be terribly uncomfortable for more than one person at a time to use, but… but! Hiroko finally had a kitchen… well, partly to herself! The snacks she had packed were already in the cabinets, as were her dishes, as some eager poking around said kitchen quickly revealed, and there were even a few basic staples in the fridge!

Hiroko shut the fridge, tapping one finger idly against her temple as she rolled around numerous meal possibilities in her mind.

"I could easily make a good breakfast for Inoue-san and I tomorrow, or perhaps a cake, or…"

She caught herself there. Later, once she actually met Jun, toured the rest of Mirai's campus, and got the opening ceremony out of the way. Instead, Hiroko forced herself away from the kitchen and towards the bedroom she would share with Jun.

Two equally plush-looking beds sat side-by-side here, across from some soft-looking armchairs and an elaborate wardrobe. There was a spacious closet nearby, already stocked with all of Hiroko's outfits, shoes, and assorted belongings, and a door that opened into a luxurious-looking bathroom.

Everything about her dorm was wonderful. There was just one thing missing… her roommate.

Hiroko flopped back onto the bed, feeling herself sink a bit into the mattress. "Inoue-san's stuff wasn't here either, was it?" she asked the ceiling. All the belongings laid out had been hers. There was no trace of Jun here whatsoever, past her nameplate. "That's odd."

Maybe something had happened? Maybe Jun had requested a different roommate and Hiroko simply hadn't been informed? Or maybe…

...the sound of the clocktower bells chiming pulled Hiroko out of her thoughts. She sat up, staring out the immense window on the far side of the bedroom... in time to see the sky outside suddenly flash a strangely unsettling shade of violet, as a sense of wrongness suddenly crept up on her.

"What in the world…?"

The sky looked perfectly normal when Hiroko ventured back out onto Mirai's campus. None of the Mirai students around her seemed at all perturbed either. Hiroko bit back the urge to ask any of them about what she had seen - first impressions were everything, and she didn't want the student body thinking she was unremarkable and a fool. But… even so…

...she was certain her eyes hadn't played tricks on her. She stared up at the sky, frowning as the wind rustled about. No more changes, but the feeling of wrongness in the air still hadn't vanished-

"Look out!"

-and before Hiroko could finish that thought, she found herself hastily scrambling away, just in time to avoid a collision with a girl in black and pink exercise sweats. The girl in question brought herself to a stop just inches away from where Hiroko had been a moment ago… and continued jogging in place.

"I'm sorry, I was a bit distracted by-" Hiroko started.

The newcomer just grinned. "Don't worry about it! No harm, no foul!" She was a bit shorter than Hiroko, with tanned skin, freckles dusted across the bridge of her nose, light brown eyes, and long, dirty blond hair pulled into a high ponytail with a black scrunchie. She gave Hiroko a good, long stare (still jogging in place all the while) before adding "Huh. I don't think I've seen you around. You a transfer?

Hiroko nodded. "I'll be starting my third year of junior high here."

The newcomer's grin grew even wider. "Oh, hell yeah!" She gave an enthusiastic fist pump… still while jogging in place. "I hope we're in the same class - I'd love to get to know a cute girl like you!"

And with that said, the girl gave Hiroko a quick wave… before taking off running at full speed, narrowly avoiding bumping into at least two more people. Hiroko was left to stare after her in confusion.


No stranger had ever called her that before, especially not a girl. Maybe that girl was just trying to be nice. And maybe her face was warm again because of the weather. That… must have been it. Nothing to think too hard about. Just like that business with the sky. Hopefully.

And Hiroko resumed her exploration of Mirai's campus… only for someone carrying a stack of books to careen right into her as she rounded a corner. Stars exploded in the corners of her vision and books scattered everywhere as she stumbled backwards and fell hard on her rear end.

"I'm so sorry!"

The person Hiroko had collided with immediately hurried to her side. He was a boy a bit younger than her, with short and fluffy red-orange hair. His dark red eyes were wide with alarm, and his uniform… it was the exact same color scheme as Yasu's, although he wore the crimson necktie of a junior high student.

"Are you okay?" the boy asked, even as he offered a hand to Hiroko. She took it, allowing him to help her to her feet before he scrambled to start picking up books he'd dropped. "I'm sorry, I just- I was trying to take all the books I'd borrowed back to the library in one go, I thought I could manage okay, I didn't think-"

"I'm fine, I promise." Hiroko tried to sound as gentle and reassuring as possible. It seemed like this boy needed it. "Nothing is hurt." She moved to begin picking up some of the books the boy had dropped as well. All of them appeared to be volumes of fairy tales. "It looks like the books are unharmed as well. I'm glad."

"That is a relief." The boy and Hiroko moved in tandem, picking up all the books the latter had dropped. Indeed, all of them looked unscathed. "I wouldn't want to start the year damaging school property."

The boy gestured for Hiroko to hand over her share of the books. She shook her head.

"Um… if it's alright, could I take these back to the library with you? This is a little… much for anyone to carry by themselves, and I don't want you to get hurt."

The boy went slightly pink. "Ah… y-yeah, it is a bit… are you sure? I don't want to be a bother, especially after…"

Hiroko offered a reassuring smile. "It's okay, really. This is a good chance to find out where the library is anyway. I don't think I ever went near there when I was visiting campus."

Realization crossed the boy's features. "Oh! Um, if you want, I can give you a tour after we drop off these books!" he offered. "It's the least I can do, after… you know, um-"

"Hiroko Tsubasa. It's very nice to meet you."

"Tsubasa-san. Nice to meet you as well." The boy dropped into a polite bow. "I'm Haruki Fukuda, by the way. Just 'Haruki' is fine - my sister is also… it gets confusing if people both call us 'Fukuda-san, so…" He trailed off for a moment, visibly flustered, before adding "Um, anyway! Shall we go?"

Hiroko nodded, and the pair took off towards the library, Haruki leading the way. They did not notice the blue cat poking her head from a shrub and staring after them as they left, nor did they notice her taking off after them, not long after they had departed the area.

The library of Mirai Academy was, as Hiroko had expected, amazing beyond belief. It was an elaborate-looking, gold-domed building, with multiple stories. Fully-stocked bookshelves, interspersed with doors leading to study rooms ran around the perimeter of the ground floor, with a spiral staircase leading up to further levels.

Hiroko would have gladly lingered there longer, long after Haruki had dropped off his books and given her a quick whirlwind tour of the first floor of the library. But they had a campus to tour, and a few hours to spare before…

"What is the opening ceremony like, anyway?" Hiroko asked Haruki as they emerged from the library and continued on their way. "I heard it's done a bit differently in Mirai Academy, but…"

"I'm sure you'll like it, Tsubasa-san." Haruki said. "See, Mom- I mean, the headmistress wants to encourage the student body to build bonds with each other as early as possible. Everyone who attends Mirai has a goal, and we can't achieve our goals if we don't support each other, right?"

"Right…" Hiroko tried to hide how much her heart sank at the thought of her own goal, if you could call it that. "So... is there going to be an icebreaker afterward?"

Haruki nodded. "Yeah! With refreshments and everything! That's why the whole day is set aside for-" He abruptly trailed off into silence as something... or rather, someone caught his eye, drawing his attention in their direction. "Huh? Emi-san? What's wrong?"

Hiroko followed Haruki's gaze to find a girl with mid-length magenta hair, clearly engrossed in searching for… something, as she darted from place to place, even checking underneath vending machines, in the nearby foliage and around nearby benches for… whatever it was. The top parts of her hair were pulled into short pigtails, and she wore a crimson neck ribbon and white knee-length stockings with her skirt.

Emi froze where she was (in the middle of all but shoving her face into a nearby shrub) before turning around slowly to face Hiroko and Haruki. Her violet eyes (which were partly hidden by her overlong bangs) were wide with alarm, and she was shaking all over. For a moment, it seemed like the girl might bolt, but she finally got out a

"Oh! Um… um! Have you guys seen a kitty around here?"

"A cat?" Haruki exchanged glances with Hiroko, who shook her head. "Sorry, but I don't think I did. Is it your cat, Emi-san? You really shouldn't sneak pets into the dorms."

Emi nodded hesitantly. She looked like she might burst into tears at any moment. "Yeah… but I wasn't! I promise I didn't- she followed me to school, and I was trying to catch her before she got hurt, but then-!"

Emi burst into tears. Without thinking, Hiroko moved to give her a comforting pat on the shoulder.

"It's okay. It's okay, I promise. We're here now." Her words did seem to help a bit - Emi quickly stopped crying, absently wiping her eyes on her sleeve as Hiroko gave her shoulder another pat. "Haruki-san and I are touring Mirai Academy - do you want to come with? Maybe we'll find her along the way."

Hiroko gave Haruki a quick 'if that's okay?' glance. Haruki quickly nodded.

"You'd really do that for me?" Emi sniffled. "Really?"

"Of course. It wouldn't be fair to leave you alone like this." Hiroko said.

That seemed to be enough to get Emi to recover. "Alright…" She took a shaky breath and did her best to straighten up a bit. "Lead the way, everyone. Let's see Mirai… and find my kitty!"

Hiroko and Haruki did just that, and Emi fell right after them as the group continued on their tour of Mirai Academy. Her new companions didn't notice the odd smile that crossed her lips.

Slowly, the seed the strange figure had implanted in the headmistress' podium took root. It burrowed deep within said podium, a network of roots snaking throughout its insides as the seed at the center pulsed like a beating heart. As the seed pulsed, it fed on the negative emotions that buzzed in the air even now - worries about the coming semester, anxieties about schoolwork, fear of making a bad impression.

Somewhere beyond the veil that separated Kyoukai City and the Shade Kingdom, an immense, battle-scarred figure with a leonine face sat slumped, half-conscious in his equally immense black and gold throne. A sizable black goblet was gripped loosely in his large paw, slowly dripping a sickly green liquid, some of which was also smeared around his muzzle, onto the floor.

The figure stirred from his torpor, his golden, cat-like eyes opening half a crack as soft noises began to echo around the dimly-lit black, red, and gold audience chamber he resided in.

The source of the noise was a black, gnarled-looking, and incomprehensibly huge tree. The whole thing grew throughout the Shade Palace, its trunk sprouting up through every level and its roots running throughout the Shade Kingdom in a vast network. A portion of this tree took up half the audience chamber alone, boughs replete with reddish-black seed pods hanging over the throne.

The pods pulsed steadily and the branches rustled softly, sounding almost like whispers of torment.

And King Kagemera smiled, even in his barely-conscious haze. He knew full well what was about to happen. It was just as he had told those insects a decade ago. It didn't matter how hard they had fought. It didn't matter that one had suddenly pulled the rug out from under him, flinging him back to whence he had came and leaving him with wounds that refused to heal properly, even ten years later. It had been a Pyrrhic victory in the end. She was dead, they had lost their powers, had they not?

Yes... in the end, there was nothing that could keep him from his divine right.

He had seen to that long ago. Several times over, in fact. Every last obstacle, every last inconvenience. Eliminated. And now? Even in this state, he would not be denied. He could not be denied.

"It begins."

So far, Hiroko and the others had not had any luck finding Emi's cat. Or perhaps Emi's cat had not had any luck finding them. Hiroko could have sworn she saw something small and dark blue lurking just out of the corners of her vision as Haruki led her and Emi on a guided tour of Mirai Academy's campus, from the state of the art recreation center, to the absolutely gorgeous practice building, to the spacious study hall.

Surely, she hadn't imagined it, any more than she had imagined the sound of little paws pattering against the ground as their tour continued, or what sounded like that little "come here, please!" meow cats did. Emi, who had been disconcertingly silent during the entirety of their tour didn't seem to miss it either.

But none of them had any luck finding the cat. Every time Hiroko thought she had pinned down her location, every time Emi proposed they stop and search for her… nothing. This was a very evasive kitty.

"Perhaps one of us should run to the store and buy food?" Haruki proposed. He was currently showing Hiroko and Emi around one of the spacious classrooms that served third-year junior high school students. The room came complete with staggered rows of desks, white boards on all sides of one room, and large windows framed by golden curtains, which allowed the sun to gently filter in. "It always worked with our old cat."

"That could work." Even as she spoke, Hiroko continued to move about the room, absorbing the sights around her. This was less a classroom and more a state-of-the art lecture hall - everything about Mirai really was larger than life. "I don't know the area very well, so it would have to be-" She trailed off into silence as she noticed Emi standing towards the front of the classroom, laser-focused on the teacher's desk. "Hm? Nishimura-san?"

Emi did not respond. Instead, she stood motionless in front of the desk for a few moments, mouth moving wordlessly… before she dove towards said desk with unusual swiftness for a teenage girl.

And several things happened in rapid succession.

A cat with dark blue fur and a golden collar came leaping out from behind the desk… and right at Emi, fangs bared and claws extended.

Emi unflinchingly smacked the cat aside. The small animal gave a yowl of pain as she hit the ground a few feet away. Emi rounded on the cat, who was already struggling to get up. There was a look of pure malice on her face.

Something in Hiroko welled up within her and burst. Without thinking, she flew to the cat's side, scooped her up in her arms, and sidestepped Emi's assault, all in the space of seconds. She didn't know she was capable of such speed.

"Nishimura-san! What do you think you're doing?!" she demanded.

Emi responded by aiming a swinging kick at Hiroko's ribs. It was a miracle that Hiroko got out of the way in time.

Haruki dashed towards Emi. "Emi-san! Stop it!"

He reached out to grab Emi's arm in an attempt to restrain her. She responded by off-handedly elbowing him in the gut with enough force to send him reeling backward and leave him doubled over in pain. Haruki was left struggling to recover as Emi continued to lash out at Hiroko, who was only narrowly managing to dodge as she backed closer and closer to the staggered rows of desks on the other side of the classroom.

And then the door to the classroom burst open. An olive-skinned junior high school boy with short and spiky green hair and green eyes stumbled into the classroom, followed by… Emi Nishimura?

"There she is!" Emi… this Emi frantically pointed towards her doppelganger. "I told you! I told you! She has my face, Kou! She has my face !"

And Emi… the Emi who had been following Hiroko and Haruki around until now, suddenly stopped attacking. Her gaze slid to the floor, leaving her overlong bangs to fall over her face as she began to laugh… first in the actual Emi's voice and then in a contralto voice that would better suit a grown woman.

"Oh? That face? Was it… this sort of face?"

The girl slowly looked up. A scream of horror involuntarily left Hiroko's throat as she stumbled backward. Not-Emi's face was just. Gone. There was a blank, smooth sheet of skin where her facial features should have been.

Not-Emi continued to laugh as pale blue orbs of foxfire rose around her. The orbs took the shape of five vaguely-humanoid phantoms that launched themselves at the group. Three grabbed onto Haruki, Kou, and Emi, restraining them where they were, and the other two flew straight at Hiroko, clearly attempting to rip the cat from her arms.

Hiroko's blood turned to ice and she felt her heart pounding in her chest like a jackhammer. Of all things, why did it have to be ghosts ? Was Mirai Academy haunted ? Could Marina have mentioned that?!

Distantly, Hiroko realized she was hyperventilating, even as she summoned another burst of adrenaline and scrambled to keep the cat away from the phantoms… and tripped backward over the steps leading to the next row of desks falling flat on her back. She turned over so her back was facing the phantoms. She felt their icy grip digging into her sides and-


Hiroko felt something building up inside her. Not adrenaline this time. Another, indescribable energy. There was a flash of blue light, and the phantoms grabbing at Hiroko suddenly disappeared. Not-Emi remained where she was for a moment... before calling off the others with a sweep of one hand and bursting into sarcastic applause.

"Bravo. Bravo." she said flatly. "What a good show that was. To think, modern humans can still wield spirit power on their own." If she had a face, it would be smiling smugly. "Ah, but I must attend to other matters. Know that you have merely delayed your execution. I will be back for her. And you."

And with that, the faceless girl was gone in a burst of light blue foxfire, leaving four very confused Mirai Academy students and one cat in her wake.

Kou stared at where the faceless not-Emi had been. "That was…" He broke into a grin "...sick as hell! We saw ghosts, guys! Real ghosts! Oh my god, Marina is gonna flip!"

He looked from Haruki, who was clearly trying to process what had happened, to Emi, who was on the edge of bursting into tears, to Hiroko, who was only now pulling herself to a sitting position and making sure the cat was okay. (She didn't seem wounded in any way, but...) None of them shared his enthusiasm.

Haruki pointedly ignored Kou and hurried to Hiroko's side. "Are you okay, Tsubasa-san?"

It took Hiroko a few moments to respond. Frankly, her brain was thoroughly fried after what had just happened. "I'm-"

I'm fine was what she wanted to say. But… that would be a lie. She wasn't fine, she was scared out of her wits even now, worried sick over both Emi and the cat, pissed off at Kou for being so oblivious, ashamed she had fallen apart like a screaming coward in front of everyone, terrified and confused over everything that not-Emi had said, guilty for making Haruki feel bad again on top of that-

-but it wasn't right to dump her feelings on other people. So as usual, Hiroko swallowed down all the negativity that was building up within her and did her best to push it as far down as possible before hauling herself to her feet, still holding the cat to her chest. Said cat didn't seem wounded, but...

"I'm sorry, I need to head back to my dorm." Hiroko briefly glanced down at the cat. "I'll take care of her, don't worry." Before anyone could say anything more, she hurried to the exit of the classroom, turning briefly to offer Haruki a wave of farewell. "Bye, Haruki-san. I'm sorry we couldn't continue the tour."

And then Hiroko was off. She tried to ignore how badly her legs were shaking as she hurried home.

No one had noticed Hiroko awkwardly smuggling the cat to the dorms under her blazer, and if they had, they had been too polite to say anything. Hiroko tried not to think about it too hard.

Hiroko had made a makeshift nest for the cat out of one of the dining room cushions and the comforter from her bed. The cat had stirred a bit on the way home, but she had otherwise remained content to snuggle into Hiroko's chest. Right now, she was curled up in the nest Hiroko had made for her, her small chest rising and falling gently.

Hiroko knelt next to the cat, gently running her fingers through her soft fur. "Such a brave kitty." she said quietly. "Braver than I am. I can only imagine what Haruki-san and the others think of me."

She glanced quizzically at the cat's collar, noting the pretty blue, black, and white crystals inset within… and the conspicuous holes on each side, as if two more crystals were missing. Or perhaps it was a deliberate style choice? Who could really say? She frowned a bit, tracing the blue crystal with her finger. She felt a small rush of energy surge up within her as she did so. It was a feeling akin to... whatever had happened back there, when the ghosts were grabbing at her. Was it just her imagination?

"That's a really fancy collar you have." Hiroko could almost see a small tempest inside the blue crystal as she touched it. Maybe she could. Stranger things had already happened. "You must have a loving owner."

The cat made a quiet 'mrrp' noise and suddenly opened her eyes. They were a beautiful shade of blue, and there seemed to be a keen intelligence lurking behind them.

"Oh! You're awake!" What to do next? She should have asked for Haruki's cell number - hadn't he mentioned owning a cat before? "I'm sorry, I don't have cat food - yet - but... would you like a dish of water?" Oh, why was she asking the cat like she could answer that question? She was the human here! "I mean- please hold tight, kitty!"

Hiroko got up and turned towards the kitchen… and then something - or someone, rather, barreled towards her and knocked her flat onto her back. .

"Pretty Cure! I finally found you! I'm so glad!"

There was a petite teenage girl lying on top of Hiroko and cuddling up to her. She wore a Mirai Academy uniform, complete with crimson neck ribbon and black tights, and her dark blue hair was done up into twin buns that resembled cat ears. Her eyes, which were positively sparkling with happiness, were the exact same shade of blue as the cat's had been, and she wore the same golden, crystal-studded collar around her neck.

Hiroko found herself completely lost for words. This was turning into a very strange day.

At least buying cat food was no longer a concern. Hiroko instead found herself making tea and opening a tin of shortbread cookies for herself and the strange blue-haired cat... girl... cat girl who was now kneeling across from her at the dining room table, eagerly putting away another cookie in between talking to... or rather, rambling at Hiroko, who found a deluge of unfamiliar terms being dropped on her head.

Invasion. Spirits. Different dimensions. Barrier. Seals. Spirit power. Pretty Cure. The world almost ended. The world could end again. She had to stop it. Help stop it. Somehow. Hiroko tried to process everything the girl was dumping on her rapid-fire, but it was admittedly… more than a bit difficult. Frankly, her skull felt like it was about to run over with information. Maybe if she broke it down a bit...

"So… you're Inoue-san?" she asked. "And you're not… human. Or a cat. Or... from around here."

The girl bobbed her head up and down. "That's right! Well… kinda? 'Jun Inoue' is the human name I'm using, but my real name is Muse! I',m a spirit from the Hallowed Wellspring and priestess in training. Oh! And mentor to Pretty Cure! Can't forget that!" She eagerly went for another cookie - she had gone through quite a few of them - before adding "Sorry I didn't get here earlier! I was uh… kinda busy."

"Chasing after that faceless girl?" Hiroko frowned in concern as Jun… Muse… however she was supposed to think of this girl made an affirmative noise between bites of cookie. "Why did you do that? You could have gotten hurt!"

Jun looked aside, pressing her fingertips together. "I know. I wasn't… really thinking at the time. But! But! I couldn't let someone from the Shade Kingdom do whatever they wanted! So I kinda thought... since Pretty Cure hasn't awakened yet, I could try and stop her myself?" She sighed, deflating just a bit. "I guess it's a little late for that. Even if I had chased her off, a Nikuina is going to sprout soon. The two of us can feel it."

Hiroko raised an eyebrow. "Nikuina... you used that word before. What is a- wait, us?"

Hiroko was answered by the sound of quiet munching and contented squeaking coming from behind her teacup. She moved her teacup aside... and was met with a round, fluffy, and almost plush-looking white mouse the side of a softball. He was currently munching on a cookie easily half his size, even as he stared at Hiroko with curious dark pink eyes.


"Oh, right, I forgot to mention Kichu!" Jun chirped. "Kichu, meet Hironyan! Hironyan, meet Kichu!"

Hiroko was too perplexed by Kichu's existence to question the sudden nickname. "Is he your pet?"

"Kichu is my baby brother." Jun said matter-of-factly, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world.

"I... I see." Hiroko stared at Kichu for a moment longer before hesitantly reaching out to pet him. Kichu eagerly leaned in for attention as Hiroko gently scritched him behind his outsized ears. "It's very nice to meet you, Kichu."

Kichu was happily eating the sudden attention up. "Chu! Chu chuu!"

Jun beamed. "Isn't Hironyan great, Kichu? She'll make a wonderful Pretty Cure, I just know it!"

Hiroko's smile faltered and she abruptly stopped scritching Kichu behind the ears, despite the little mouse's squeaks of protest. "Pretty Cure... you said they're the warriors in charge of restoring this barrier, right? The vanguard between Earth and this Shade Kingdom..." Her eyes slid to her teacup. "Muse... what makes you think I could do something like that?"

"You saved me! You went up against a spirit from the Shade Kingdom like it was nothing - and you even used spirit power on your own! Not a lot of humans can do that these days!" Jun leaned forward a bit, her eyes sparkling. "And- and! You're brave and you're kind and you're smart... you'd be perfect as a Cure, Hironyan, I just know it!"

Hiroko did not tear her gaze from her teacup. "I'm sorry, but I can't."

"But-!" Jun started.

"It was a miracle that I was accepted into Mirai Academy." Hiroko said quietly. "I'm sure if I keep at it, I can find a goal and earn my place here. I have to try. But there's that, and there's saving the world."

She looked up… and immediately wished she hadn't. Jun looked utterly crushed and Kichu didn't look much better. Hiroko wordlessly reached out and put her hand on Muse's own. Kichu rested his head against Hiroko's hand. His ears were visibly drooping, and he made a few despondent little squeaks.

"I saved you because nobody else could. The... spirit power I used was just a fluke on my end." Hiroko tried to make her tone as gentle as possible, but she still felt horrible saying this. "But there are plenty of amazing people in Mirai Academy. You shouldn't have to settle for the first person to stand up for you. Especially if the stakes are as high as you say."

"I… I see." Jun tried to hide how crushed she was. She wasn't doing a good job of it. "I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to force anything on you, I just thought-!"

Hiroko gave the blue-haired girl's hand a squeeze. "It's okay." she said. "I can still help you look. The opening ceremony for the junior high school division is soon, and there's a party right after that. I'm sure there will be plenty of amazing people you could ask to be Pretty Cure."

Jun looked briefly troubled by Hiroko's talk of an opening ceremony, as did Kichu. Both quickly recovered, though. "Okay! I can try and manage that!" Hiroko did not miss the hint of strain in her voice, even as she grinned, exposing two unusually pointed canine teeth. "You're the best, Hironyan!"

Hiroko, who hardly felt that way at present, tried to manage her best smile.

The feeling of wrongness that had been settling in the air since Hiroko had arrived at the dorms had not gone away by the time she and Jun showed up at the opening ceremony. In fact, it seemed to hang particularly thick in the air here. Hopefully, it was just her imagination.

Hiroko was still sticking by what she had said earlier - Jun could do better when it came to finding people who could save the world, if that was what was going on here. Someone as plain and unremarkable as her had nothing to do with it, and the strange feelings of regret that gnawed at her stomach, even as she and Jun fell in with the throng of junior high students lined up in rows in the sizable white and gold entrance hall would not change that.

The entrance hall was as fancy and larger than life as everything else in Mirai - a cathedral-like building sporting immense windows that bathed the students lined up within, the faculty members sitting towards the front (Hiroko could almost see Marina from here if she squinted), and elevated platform the headmistress was meant to stand at in soft, golden light. Tapestries sporting the likenesses of various wisdom deities hung from the walls and around the platform, and the floor sported gilded rose-themed tiling.

Jun seemed a bit antsy. Hiroko would have loved to chalk it up to the same stage fright she was feeling at the moment (the icebreaker she was dreading came right after this, after all), but she knew far better. The blue-haired girl must have sensed the same feeling in the air she had.

Kichu must have picked up on it as well. The little mouse, who was supposed to be hiding in Jun's school bag, was making soft, distressed squeaks… and they kept getting louder."Huh? Did you say something, Tsubasa?" Kou, who was standing nearby, looked over at Hiroko.

"No… no, I'm fine." Hiroko hoped he didn't notice Jun moving to shush Kichu, or at least calm the distressed little mouse down with ear scritches. "Well, I guess I am a bit jittery."

"Ah, yeah, we both are!" Jun chimed in. "You know how it is! 'Chu chuu'."

"Chu chuu?" Emi, who was standing next to Kou, tilted her head in confusion. "I'm afraid I don't know how it is, Inoue-san…" She paused awkwardly before adding "Kou and I couldn't find where she got off to. The other 'me', I mean. I'm sorry…"

"Hey, no harm, no foul, Emichi. You did your best for a novice ghost hunter!." Kou gave Emi a pat on the shoulder before turning his attention to Hiroko and Jun. "By the way… what happened to the cat? Is she alright?"

Hiroko and Jun exchanged glances.

"She's… she's fine." Hiroko said. "Inoue-san helped me bring her home, didn't you, Inoue-san?"

Jun blinked. "Huh? Oh! Y-yeah, right, I did! The kitty is home free!" she chirped before flashing a peace sign. "Everything is o-kay!"

Everything did not seem okay with Jun, Hiroko noted. She looked antsier by the moment, especially as a hush fell over the crowd and the headmistress' arrival was announced. 'A Nikuina was about to sprout'. Hadn't Jun said something like that? Was that what this wrongness was?

"Hey…" Hiroko lowered her voice to where only Jun could hear her. "If… that happens, what do we do?"

"I'll do whatever I can." Jun was trying to keep a brave face, but she seemed more rattled by the moment. Kichu, who was starting to cry quietly again, didn't seem much better. "This room is full of remarkable people, right, Hironyan? One of them will definitely awaken, I think. It'll work out."

Hiroko doubted that. She didn't need Jun to tell her that she doubted it either.

The awful, stomach-churning feeling in the air only grew heavier as the headmistress of Mirai Academy, Yui Fukuda, made her appearance and took her place on the platform behind her podium. There was nothing wrong with Yui on the surface. Under normal circumstances, Hiroko would be impressed with her. She seemed the picture of power and confidence - a willowy figure with short, dusty cerise hair and confident violet eyes, who wore a white pantsuit and moved with the practiced ease of a lioness.

But something was not right. Kichu seemed to sense it keenly. His squeaking grew louder and more insistent despite Jun's frantic attempts to soothe him.

"First of all," Yui was saying "I would like to personally thank this year's new crop of students for joining us. We hope that, like the flowers in our gardens, each and every one of you is able to blossom beautifully in this coming year. After all-"

The temperature in the entrance hall dropped, and the lights dimmed.

"-your hope for the future must be cultivated-"

There was a flash of violet light and a loud click - the doors to the entrance hall had locked from the outside on their own.

"-for freshly-trampled hope is the most fertile soil for despair."

A wave of panicked whispering flowed through the room. Hiroko could hear Haruki yelling "What have you done with Mom?!" from elsewhere in the entrance hall. Kichu's squeaking grew too loud to downplay, and Jun was clearly ready to jump into action at the slightest notice. Hiroko could see Marina leaping to her feet as well before grabbing for… something on her person that was no longer there.

"Rejoice, humans!" Hiroko's heart dropped as Yui spoke in the same contralto voice she had heard coming from not-Emi earlier. "Today begins the final ascension of King Kagemera! Long may he reign!"

Not-Yui's facial features dissolved, eliciting a chorus of horrified screams from around the entrance hall and sending a number of students futilely scrambling for the exits. She laughed uproariously as her form shifted and warped. In the false headmistress' place stood a tall, pale-skinned, and faceless woman with raven black hair tied into an elaborate high bun. She wore a short red and black sleeveless robe, tied with a black waist ribbon, skin-tight black pants, red high-heeled boots, and red and black elbow-length gloves.

"I am Tamakushi, member of the Dark Triumvirate and faithful servant to King Kagemera!" Tamakushi raised one hand, which cracked with reddish-black energy to the sky. "May your sorrow light his path to eternal glory!" She clenched her hand into a fist, as the headmistress' podium began to glow with the same reddish-black light. "Appear! Nikuina! Cast the world into despair!"

There was a flash, and in the place of the podium was a massive snake-like creature with a gnarled, black, plant-like body, a sizable head that looked like warped parody of the podium it had been created from, and glowing red eyes.

"Nikuina!" the creature snarled before opening its mouth and roaring, loud enough to make the ground shake and the glass in the entrance hall windows simply dissolve into nothing. Ribbons of golden light flowed into its mouth as it roared, almost as if it was leeching something from the air.

Jun's head snapped up. "The barrier!" she cried. "I won't let you!"

Jun dashed towards the Nikuina at full speed. Hiroko wanted to stop her, but she... couldn't. Her body suddenly felt unbearably heavy. Every part of her did, she realized as she sank down onto her knees, distantly noting that she, like most everyone else in the vicinity was being sapped of her color as she sank to her knees. Her body, her mind, her heart… every last bit of her felt leaden.

Soon, Hiroko could barely move. That was fine. It was useless to get up. Utterly useless. Just like she was.

Jun pointed a hand glowing with golden energy at the Nikuina. "Leave everyone alone!"

A beam of golden light leapt from her hand and struck the Nikuina across the side. It hardly seemed to notice and responded by swiping at her with its massive tail. Jun dodged backward with catlike grace and nimbleness before sending another beam of gold light at her barely-fazed adversary.

"Oh?" Tamakushi watched from her perch on the entrance hall platform. "So, you've returned for more. You must really have a death wish, child." She laughed as the Nikuina advanced on Jun, who futilely battered it with more bursts of gold light. "This may be more fun than executing you personally."

"Shut up!" Jun hadn't backed down yet, but it was clear she was thoroughly outmatched. She couldn't hurt the Nikuina, and she was focusing more on keeping the monster from flattening her with swipes of its tail or crushing her with its massive head than she was fighting. "My spirit power is enough to hold the line!"

Hiroko watched the events ensuing before her with glazed eyes. Jun had been outmatched back then, and she was outmatched now. She was going to get hurt or killed, and this time, there was nothing…

"You saved me! You went against a spirit from the Shade Kingdom like it was nothing!"

...absolutely nothing someone as plain and unremarkable like her could have done...

"A brave and kind human like you must have a ton of spirit power, Hironyan!"

...to help... was there?

Tamakushi burst out laughing. "Hold the line? Until what? Pretty Cure saves you? They are no more, child. You, of all people, should know that full well."

Jun looked visibly rattled. "That's- that's not true!" She tried to recover, and get back to stalling the Nikuina, but Tamakushi's words had still made her lose valuable momentum and judging by the way the woman inclined her head, she had noticed it. "Pretty Cure will definitely- !"

The Nikuina seized on the opening Jun had given it and smacked her aside with its massive tail. She cried out in pain as she was sent flying, shifting back into her cat form as she hit the ground. Kichu scrambled to her side, squeaking frantically, as the Nikuina advanced on the pair.

That strange feeling from before built up in Hiroko, cutting through the despair-filled haze that kept her pinned where she was.

"Muse… no..." she whispered. "Leave her alone…!"

"But there are plenty of amazing people in Mirai Academy."

And as far as Hiroko was concerned, she was not been one of them. But… hadn't she wanted to become one? Had she not ultimately agreed to apply to Mirai Academy because she wanted to be there? Because she wanted to find her own goal? Because she wanted to become a better, stronger person?

"You shouldn't have to settle for the first person to stand up for you."

Maybe Muse hadn't been settling. Maybe she had seen something in Hiroko that Hiroko could not see in herself. And maybe… just maybe a part of Hiroko wanted this. To become a hero. To at least try. Saving the world... that was also a goal to aspire to, wasn't it?

The Nikuina reared up, gaze trained on the fallen Muse-

-and Hiroko slammed a fist onto the ground. The color flowed back into her form as she hauled herself to her feet. As she got back up, the strange feeling from before roared up inside her. This time it was more than a strange warmth or a blue flash of light. This time, Hiroko was surrounded by a visible aura of blue energy.

And for the second time since her arrival at Mirai Academy, Hiroko Tsubasa shocked herself with how quickly she moved to protect Muse. She darted with inhuman speed towards the cat and the mouse, scooping them up in her arms and narrowly leaping out of the way of the Nikuina's attack.

The Nikuina gave another roar and rounded on Hiroko. She stood firm. Right now, she felt as if she could do anything. Even if the sight of the monster before her was terrifying, even if the mere presence of the faceless woman coolly watching everything unfold made her blood run cold, even if some part of her wanted to run even now-

"I won't let you hurt them! I won't let you do… any of this!" The blue aura surrounding Hiroko grew more intense, and the wind kicked up around her form. "I'll make sure of that! I… have to try!"

The Nikuina struck… only for a sudden burst of blue energy to push it back. Hiroko stared wide-eyed as the blue crystal emerged from Muse's collar and hovered in front of her. As she watched, it glowed with a radiant light, transforming into a blue and silver cell phone-like device.

"That's your Puricell, Hironyan!" Muse said. "You need to infuse your spirit power into it and say 'Pretty Cure, Spirit Unleash!"

Hiroko nodded. She allowed Muse to leap from her arms and scramble for a safe place to hide with Kichu before she reached out and grabbed the Puricell that had appeared before her. Just touching it made her feel stronger than ever before.

"Pretty Cure!" She pushed the five front buttons in sequence - blue, black, white, red, and gold - as her form roared with blue energy and flowed into the Puricell. "Spirit Unleash!"

Hiroko was suspended in a sparkling blue void, her clothes replaced with a robe of sparkling blue light. A pair of luminous powder blue blue wings sprouted from her back before breaking apart into light blue feathers that swirled about her form as the robe of blue light resolved into a light blue dress with ruffled shoulder pads, dark blue edges, and silver lace trim, worn over dark blue shorts.

She crossed her arms in front of her as feathers swirled around them, forming light blue gloves with blue scale-print trim and silver heart-shaped ornaments on the backs of the hands. As she uncrossed her arms, she gained a blue vest with frilly, dark blue trim, a silver scale-print chest bow with a blue crystal brooch, and a dark blue ribbon in the back. More feathers swirled about her legs, resolving into dark blue shin-length lace up boots with silver tips.

A silver tiara inset with a blue gemstone and sporting draconic wings on both sides appeared above her. She placed it in her hair, which turned light silver and grew out past her waist, with her forelocks lengthening noticeably, as her eyes turned silver.

She gained blue heart-shaped earrings and a blue scale-print choker as a pink and white pouch holding her Puricell appeared at her waist. Finally, she touched down on the ground, a blue gale kicking up about her and blue delphinium petals swirling about her form as she posed.

"Soaring Blue Star! Cure Seiryuu!"

Seiryuu faced down the Nikuina, her silver eyes shining resolutely. Tamakushi stared at the blue Cure from her lofty perch, as well as someone without eyes could stare. She was trembling slightly and anyone close would have overheard her muttering something about this being impossible... before she quickly recovered.

"No matter." she snarled. "Nikuina! Eliminate her!"

The Nikuina gave another roar as it reared up and threw its weight towards Cure Seiryuu. She dodged backwards through one of the large, now-empty windowpanes, touching down gracefully on the ground a short distance from the entrance hall in a burst of blue wind energy. She had a half-second to get her bearings before the Nikuina came barreling out the window. It reared up, opened its gaping maw, and spat several large globs of red and black energy at Seiryuu.

Seiryuu dodged and wove around the blasts as she closed the distance between herself and the Nikuina. Without thinking, she leapt up and struck it with a flying kick. Her blow connected in a burst of blue wind energy, drawing a cry of pain from the monster as it was sent reeling backward. Emboldened, she dashed forward and landed a series of wind-infused punches and kicks on the Nikuina, driving it further and further back, its massive form tearing a massive gouge in the ground.

Muse watched the proceedings from her and Kichu's shared hiding spot beneath a nearby shrub.

"Cure Seiryuu is too amazing! It's just like Papa said - Pretty Cure is the best!"

Kichu seemed to be in full agreement. "Chu! Chu chuu!"

The Nikuina suddenly recovered and sprang forward, intending to flatten Cure Seiryuu with its massive head. Seiryuu instinctively jumped out of the way... and kept going. The blue Cure gave an alarmed squeak, flailing in the air a bit as she realized how high in the air she was (enough to get a very good view of this area of Mirai Academy...) before gravity caught up with her and she went plummeting towards the ground.

Something welled up within Seiryuu once more - perhaps the spirit power Muse had kept speaking of - and her form glowed blue as her momentum slowed, just enough for her to adjust her landing so she would end up on the entrance hall dome instead of a crater on the ground.

The Nikuina was waiting for her - the minute Seiryuu got close enough, it reared to its full height and struck at her. Without thinking, Seiryuu flung out a hand towards it. A blue gale leapt from her hand, knocking the monster in the air as she touched down on the entrance hall dome. Before it could recover, she launched herself off the dome. Blue spirit power infused her form as she dove towards the Nikuina feet first and smacked it out of the air.

The Nikuina slammed into the ground heavily, leaving an immense crater in its wake as Seiryuu touched down nearby.

"Ni… kui…" it muttered as it struggled to raise its head.

Muse came running towards Seiryuu. Kichu rode on her back, his tiny paws gripping onto her fur for dear life.

"It's weak, Hironyan! Finish it off!"

Seiryuu blinked, looking from the fallen monster to Muse and then back again. "Huh? How do I-" Before she could finish her question, the words floated into her head unbidden. Seriyuu nodded, focuing her attention on the Nikuina. "Right! I have it!"

The blue Cure's form glowed as she focused her spirit power once more. "Pretty Cure!" A strong wind kicked up around Seiryuu, and blue delphinium petals swirled around her form as she extended her palms, now glowing with blue light, towards the Nikuina. "Azure Tornado!"

An enormous tornado of blue spirit power leapt from Cure Seiryuu's palms and towards the Nikuina. It gave one last roar before it dissolved into a shower of light particles, which quickly dissipated. All that was left was the headmistress' podium, now lying abandoned on its side. As Seiryuu watched, a dried-up seed pod fell out of it before cracking in half, sending a puff of black smoke into the air.

Seiryuu collapsed to her knees from exhaustion a moment afterward. Her transformation dissolved in a burst of blue light as all the damage inflicted on the surroundings by her fight with the Nikuina healed itself. She looked over at Muse and Kichu and gave a tired smile. The cat looked positively jubilant, and the little mouse was... glowing? Hiroko would ask why, if only she could manage the energy.

"Hironyan!" Muse gave Hiroko a a gentle headbutt. "I'm so glad! Are you-"

"That's enough."

Hiroko looked up, and her blood turned to ice once more. Tamakushi, completely forgotten about in the course of her fight with the Nikuina, stood before her, pointing the business end of a naginata made of light blue energy at her throat.

"I don't know how Pretty Cure has returned. But I have seen enough. I will put a stop to-"

Before Tamakushi could finish that sentence, a bolt of dark violet water struck her across the side. The faceless woman arched her back in pain, letting out an irritated hiss... right as she noticed something. Not her hidden assailant, but the fact that her form was beginning to flicker ever so slightly. She let out a disdainful 'tch!'

"Out of time. How annoying." Tamakushi demanifested the naginata and stepped away from Hiroko, Muse, and Kichu. "Enjoy your stay of execution, Pretty Cure."

And with that, she vanished in a burst of blue foxfire. Hiroko was left to catch her breath as she cuddled Muse and Kichu to her chest… right as someone familiar stepped out from behind a nearby tree - a tall, bespectacled woman with dark olive skin and long, greenish-black hair, clad in a black skirt suit and heels.

Hiroko blinked in confusion. "Huh? Marina-san? What are you-" Her words died in her throat as she noticed how one of the older woman's hands still glowed softly with dark violet energy. "Wait, are you-?"

Marina just smiled before she headed to Hiroko's side, offering her a hand up. Hiroko took it, using her other free her to hold Muse and Kichu close.

"That can wait. Before anything else, let's find a place to rest. I'm sure you need it - the first few fights always took a lot out of me."

Hiroko just stared as she realized what Marina was implying. A gentle wind blew about them as Hiroko finally felt the weight of what she had chosen and what she had just done finally settling on her shoulders.

Just what had she become caught up in?