"Frankly," he told the red-haired delinquent that Nagi had brought to meet him, "I expected better."
Nao snorted rudely. "You and me both. What's the deal with —"
"Silence. Is this a trick? Are you here as part of some plan?"
"Yeah, your plan. What are you complaining about? Nagi laid it out for us: we kill each other's Childs, winner gets badass power. I'm the winner. Gimme."
"This is ridiculous," the Prince growled to Nagi. "Her? This low-class whelp defeated Kiyohime? Kagutsuchi? Miroku?"
Nagi shrugged. "I know, right? I had her pegged for sixth place or so. Funny old world."
"It is not amusing. This is to be my queen? This... brat?"
"Hey!" Nao objected. "I won your little contest fair and square. I should be the one complaining. Nagi didn't tell us the prize came with some guy attached."
The Prince saw a glimmer of hope. "Now that you know, I suppose you will refuse to —"
"Nice try. The power's worth it. Now first word give, second word me."
He sighed deeply. "A brat. A child."
"I'm a child? Compared to some of your other candidates, I'm Queen Victoria. Mikoto had the mind of a six-year-old in the body of a six-year-old. If she was in the running to be your wife, you should count your blessings for ending up with me."
The Obsidian Prince could feel a headache coming on. "Nagi, are you certain there's been no mistake? Is she really one of —"
Nao snorted. "God, you're such a whiner! I won, okay? Not Tokiha, not Kuga, not churchy girl or four-eyes or Jill of the Jungle — me!"
"Then tell me how you did it. You had opponents who were stronger, others who were smarter..."
She grinned. "But none who were sneakier."
#1: Midori Sugiura
"I... I just couldn't speak up earlier," said Nao, tears in her eyes. "I didn't want to look weak in front of everyone. I've been alone for so long..."
Midori put a hand on her shoulder. "There, there."
"But this — this is wrong! We can't fight each other! We just can't! Please, Midori — help me find another way!"
The teacher's eyes flashed with excitement. "You came to the right place! I've been researching so hard my eyes are falling out! Let's get the others together and —"
"No!" Nao cried. "They'll never trust me so soon. Tell me first so I can do something to help — then they'll know I'm sincere."
Midori was too deeply moved to hold back. She hugged Nao, startling her, and squeezed like a father hugging his long-lost prodigal son. "I knew there was good in you, Nao! We can do it! We'll beat our destiny together!"
"Th-thank you... not so tight, please..."
Three hours of thorough explanation later, Midori stood up and stretched. "Okay! Now you're filled in! Time to fight back!"
"Are you sure that's everything you've found out, Midori?"
"Yep! Every bit! Now let's get to work!"
"Sure," said Nao, opening the door. "After you."
As soon as Midori was through, Nao clobbered her from behind with a baseball bat.
"That wouldn't kill her."
"One hit wouldn't. So I kept at it until —"
The Obsidian Prince winced (as did Nagi) and held up a hand for her to stop. "What brutality! That's not how the Festival is supposed to work!"
"Hey, I didn't make the rules. Nagi was clear as a bell — killing the HiME counts as a win just like killing the Child. Know what's easier than beating magical super-monsters? Caving skulls in."
"But it's supposed to be a noble contest of... of..." The Prince's head sagged. "Never mind. Continue."
"So Midori may have been a sucker, but she knew her stuff. She knew how many HiMEs there were, and she had solid theories about who the unidentified ones were. She also had a pretty good idea of how we all ranked, power-wise. I decided I'd better go for the biggest threat first."
"Please. He was saddled with Tokiha. That girl is a pinball — she's got no plan, stuff just happens to her. Well, happened, I guess."
The Prince gritted his teeth.
"No, the real danger was the one running everything behind the scenes..."
#2: Fumi Himeno
"Hello. May I see the headmaster, please?"
"I'm sorry, she isn't taking visitors right now." The maid's face was politely neutral, but Nao could tell she had little sympathy. Her mistress had bigger things to deal with than some problem student, HiME or not.
"Please, ma'am! This is important!"
"I'm sorry. She simply can't —"
"Then please, can you at least deliver this message? It's HiME business! She's got to know!"
Nao prodded an envelope at Fumi. She looked uncertain, but put a hand out to take it.
A moment later, crumpled on the ground in agony, Fumi realized the envelope had looked suspiciously lumpy. That probably explained why, rather than handing it to her, Nao had stabbed her with it... or rather, with the needle inside. "Sorry!" said Nao, looking down at her and making an 'oopsie' face. "That's, like, super deadly. I meant it for my ex-boyfriend. Oh well, guess I'll go see the headmaster now!"
"And I did. She wasn't moving, though — turned out she was a robot or something. I don't really get it, but one of them was definitely a HiME, or I wouldn't be here, right?"
The Obsidian Prince sighed for the pathetic fate of his Crystal HiME. Ah well... if she had been a fitting bride, there would have been no need for a Festival now. "Who was next?"
"Mikoto. I liked the kid, but she definitely had to go. Her Child was so tough it could win fights just by starting to show up. Besides, she was the protective type — there were at least three other HiMEs I couldn't risk going after until she was down."
"I see. And how did you manage to defeat the dark Child Miroku, all-powerful defender of the Obsidian Prince's bloodline, with your big yellow spider?"
#3: Mikoto Minagi
"Hey Mikoto, I got you a bun."
"Mmmmm! You're great, Nao! This is the tastiest bun ev— MMPPPPHHH!"
"You can't be serious," said the Obsidian Prince, head in hands.
"Yep. I feel kinda bad about it, but what was I supposed to do, not kill her?"
"All those years of training... wasted. How could such a simple ruse have cost me my trusted secret weapon?"
"Your weapon? Wait, what was that about a bloodline?"
"Mikoto was my sister. Her role was to be —"
"Oh, so you're the famous brother! She thought it might be that Kanzaki guy."
"I am Reito Kanzaki."
Nao blinked. "No you're not. You're a teddy bear."
"Yes! Because I was Mikoto's most important person, and you killed her! My body dissolved! This is a substitute!"
Nao took a second to process this and then collapsed in a fit of laughter.
"It's not funny!"
"Hahaha! Th-that was the best body you could find? Hahahaha!"
"You will not laugh at me! I am the Obsidian Prince! I am the embodiment of darkness and terror!"
"But you're so fuzzy!"
Nagi snickered too. "Wasn't my idea," he said to Nao. "I made some other suggestions. I even found this robot armor thing that looked pretty rad, but —"
The Obsidian Prince glared. "Don't you have an errand to run, Nagi?"
"As you wish, milord." Smirking at his master's sensitivity, Nagi disappeared.
Nao finally recovered from her fit of giggles. She got back up and straightened her clothes. "Now, I warn you, we will have to have a serious talk about this later. I'm not performing any conjugal duties with that."
The Prince counted to ten in his head. "Resume your tale of butchery. After you poisoned my sister, who was next?"
"Poison? Not that time. I just used glue. Mouthful of that, pinch the ol' nose, and easy as you please —"
"Right. Well, next was Tokiha, obviously. Had to do her the same day, before she noticed Mikoto was missing. And with that beast of a Child she had, it wasn't gonna be easy. I had to use some serious strategy on her..."
#4: Mai Tokiha
"Hey Tokiha, I got you a bun."
"Mmmmm! You're great, Nao! This is —"
"NO! NO! That is NOT what happened!"
"Yeah, I'm just messing with you. Tokiha wouldn't have fallen for something so simple — not with our history. She'd be on guard around me, and I couldn't beat her in a fair fight. I had to kill her before she even knew I was there."
"Easier said than done. Mai was no fool."
"That's debatable, but I'll let it go. The important thing is that she had a big weakness: she was so passionate she had no multitasking ability at all. She would never see me coming if I gave her a good distraction. I thought it over and realized I had just the thing."
Mai had been doing her best all day to keep it together. It wasn't easy. On top of Takumi's health problems and the romantic mess she'd somehow gotten into, now there was this HiME Festival that Nagi had announced a few days ago. Mai knew she would never play along, but how many of the others felt the same way... and how long could that last?
Mai was especially worried about Mikoto. On her own, she was too nice to attack anyone, but she was all too easily influenced and tricked. At this dangerous time, Mai wanted to keep a close eye on her. Fortunately, that wouldn't be hard to do. Mikoto was still getting used to the idea of keeping a schedule, but some things she never missed — the most important being dinnertime.
Mai opened the door to their room, and sure enough, there was Mikoto already waiting at the table. She breathed a sigh of...
Wait. Something was wrong.
"Mikoto?" Before she even consciously processed the scene in front of her, Mai was running. Mikoto wasn't upright; she was slumped over on the table. And she wasn't moving. She wasn't bre—
Something stopped Mai. Something sharp. It happened so fast she couldn't tell what it was... or feel it... or feel anything, now...
"Sorry, Tokiha," said a vaguely familiar voice. "That was a dirty trick. I'll finish this up fast."
The Obsidian Prince sighed sadly. "My poor Mai... her heart was both her strength and her weakness..."
"Eh. She was a softie and it got her killed. Always does. I set fire to the place when I was done... seemed fitting, what with her power and all."
"Move on." He didn't want to dwell on it. Still too much Reito in him, he supposed.
"That was four. Higurashi was already down, so five. Next was..." She paused. "Huh. Who was next?"
"You don't know?"
"Dude, I killed ten people in a week! You'd lose track too!"
Being a supernatural god of evil, the Prince did not, in fact, have that problem, but he let Nao take her time. After a minute she decided, "The next was probably Kikukawa. I wasn't worried about a wimp like her, so I didn't make her a priority..."
"Then why was she next?"
"She came to me."
#5: Yukino Kikukawa
"I'll kill you," said Yukino. Her face was unrecognizable — a twisted mask of rage.
"With those?" asked Nao, waving a finger at the mirrors circling Yukino. "What are you gonna do, see me to death?"
She didn't answer. She acted. In the blink of an eye, her mirrors had moved to surround Nao instead — and something huge was appearing behind her. "Target locked," she said. "Destroy it."
Nao was squinting, trying to decide what the ugly thing was, when it moved. She dodged just in time. For something that was heavy enough to crush her, it was faster than she would have believed — and it was already turning.
"Julia!" shouted Nao. Her Child appeared, but before it could get close enough to help, it was bombarded with some kind of floating seeds. There were dozens of the things, moving unpredictably, ramming Julia's weak points. They were easy enough to destroy, as the spider-beast found out with one lucky tail-swipe, but getting clear of them would take time.
Nao might not have that time. The large creature was still after her, swinging its tentacle-like roots, and tracking her quickly each time she escaped. How was it doing that? How could it even see? It looked like a plant, for crying out —
The mirrors! Of course! Those damn things were still circling her, matching her movements. Nao summoned her claws, but they had little effect on the mirrors' metal frames... and the attempt cost her dearly. She'd given the plant just enough time to trip her up with its roots.
Nao hit the ground hard. Helpless, she watched the plant-monster charge toward her...
...and stop, speared directly through its body. As the Child vanished in a shower of green sparks, Nao saw Julia behind it. She had reached her master just in time.
Yukino fell to her knees. "Haruka... I'm sorry... I tried... I tried to a—"
"You failed," said Nao. "And you made us mad. That was a bad, bad idea. Julia?"
Nao's Child turned its many eyes on her.
"Make it hurt."
At least that one had been an actual Child battle, the Obsidian Prince mulled. Still... "Surprising. Yukino was a thinker, not a brute-force attacker. Why was she so angry with you?"
"Oh, I dunno, maybe all the murders? She was watching the whole school. I met Midori off-campus, but she probably saw the others. And hey, why is any of this news to a big shot like you, Mr. Oblivion Prince?"
"Obsidian, and in case you forgot, my body died on me. I've been busy. Go on to the next HiME."
"Sure. After a fight like that, I decided I'd earned a break. I went to follow up on something Kuga told us, just to be on the safe side."
#6: Akane Higurashi
"Hey, you. Still crazy?"
"Thought so. Just making sure. Y'know, it may not seem like it right now, but you actually lucked out. Your little accident made you the only HiME I don't have to kill."
"Just so you know, I'm still willing to. Don't let me catch you helping one of the others. Capiche?"
"Heh. Funny... you probably think I don't notice people like you, and I really try not to. But you and your boy got under my skin. You were so sickeningly in love I couldn't stand it. One of these days I was gonna have to seduce him just to teach you both what love is really worth. So that's another way you're lucky, Higurashi."
The defeated HiME was silent, but Nao could see something different in her eyes. She bore down and made fists that didn't quite close. Her brow creased with effort... but nothing happened, and after a few seconds, she stopped.
"Still no Element, huh? Good to know. See you around."
As Nao left, Higurashi dropped her face into her hands. "Kazu..."
The Obsidian Prince smiled. "What?" asked Nao. "Not an Akane fan either?"
"No, it's just a... private joke." He could tell that for all her cruelty, some part of Nao felt good about not killing Akane. She had no idea that the Obsidian Prince intended to destroy this corrupted world, top to bottom, and start the human race anew with —
Hmm. He might have to rethink that plan. Nao was no Mai, and this teddy bear was no Reito.
"Anyway," she continued, "I went for the nun next."
#7: Yukariko Sanada
"Already gone. Turned out she was Midori's important person. Who knew?"
"I tire of your attempts at humour."
Nao shrugged. "Oh, fine. Now with this one, the tricky part was getting close. She was pretty much always in the church now, praying for something or other —"
"Forgiveness. I have a certain... rival who was trying to corrupt her to his ends."
"Heh, big challenge. I could tell when we first met that chastity was never going to work out for her. Some people just naturally don't have much desire, but she had plllllenty." Nao licked her claws.
"Don't do that. It's crude."
She licked them again.
"Get back to the story!"
"Right. Anyway, with her in the middle of the church, she had lots of warning if anyone came in. And like Mai, she was gonna keep me at arm's length. But unlike Mai, she had a real calling that she believed in, and it would always take priority. I just needed to pull the right strings..."
"Sister..." came a faint voice at the main door of the church.
Yukariko turned — and drew her bow immediately when she saw who was there. "Yuuki! I won't allow you to enter this holy place!"
"Midori and Yukino are missing! Mai and Mikoto are dead! You were always hostile to the rest of us — I know you're responsible! Stay back!"
"Sister, please!" Nao stepped all the way inside. Yukariko, advancing, got a closer look — and gasped. The student was a wreck. Her face was bruised, her clothing was torn, and she looked like she'd been crying for hours.
Concerned, but still skeptical, the nun asked, "What happened to you?"
"It's... it's this guy I've been seeing. He's changed so much since the start..."
Yukariko nodded. It was a story she had heard all too many times, especially from "bad girls" like Nao.
"But this was the first time he hit me..."
"Does it have something to do with your being a HiME?"
"No! No, this is... different... I..."
"What is it, Yuuki?" she asked, lowering her bow.
Nao looked up at her. "I... I found out... I'm pregnant..."
In an instant, Yukariko's heart melted. The cautious HiME disappeared; only the compassionate holy woman remained. She ran to Nao and hugged her tightly.
"Everything is going to be all right," she said. "I promise, the Lord will help you through this, and so will I. You can stay as long as you n—"
Yukariko looked down. Something sharp was poking out the front of her robe. But what... what could...
Her body lost its strength, and she fell back against Nao's hand. The student extracted her vicious claws and let Yukariko drop to the floor.
"Don't take it personally," said Nao. "Remember karaoke night? I do this to everyone who hits on me."
More lies, thought the Obsidian Prince. More cheap tricks. This wasn't how the Festival was meant to be! Of course the HiME had to suffer, but that was why the penalty for defeat was so high. The winner was supposed to triumph through power and determination, not like... this.
"It's for the best anyway," said Nao. "She was sleeping with this rival guy, right? When the Pope found out, he would've burned her at the stake."
"Your ignorance of Christianity is as alarming as your ignorance on all other topics, particularly manners."
"You're a stuffed animal."
The Obsidian Prince sighed. "And after her?"
"Right. I was down to three opponents now —"
"Oh? Well, if I missed one I'll come back to it later, but I remember having three left at this point. One I was saving for last. I had pretty vague leads on the other two, so I went for the easier one first. Midori was convinced that there was a HiME in middle school... besides Mikoto, I mean. You used to be Reito, so you remember that stupid cooking contest, right?"
The memory hurt the Obsidian Prince's stomach. "Yes. I remember it well."
"There were several Orphan attacks at that time, not just the one at the contest. A couple were reported at the middle school. Mikoto was with us, so she couldn't have stopped them, but somebody did. There were also rumours of some ninja superhero; Midori figured that sounded like a HiME."
"Not much to go on."
"But better than nothing. Of course, I didn't know who it was, so I decided the best plan was to set a trap. I put on my middle school uniform, found an empty classroom, and told Julia what to do..."
#8: Akira Okuzaki
The school was a disaster area. Some kind of monster had simply barged in the front door and started smashing everything in sight. By the time Akira had suited up and arrived on the scene, there were already several injuries, and the monster was continuing its productive work upstairs.
For the first time, Akira felt lucky that Takumi — in the shock of his sister's death — had been sent home to his parents. Everything was going to hell at Fuuka. The farther away he was, the better.
Akira swiftly followed the monster's trail of damage. It led to a classroom where the monster had cornered a single female student. There was no room for stealth this time; she had to get its attention on her and off the student. Akira leapt through the open door and shouted, "I'll be your opponent!"
Then she noticed several things at once. First, there were strange red lines along the walls of the room. Second, the monster had vanished the instant Akira had announced herself. And third, the "innocent victim" was —
In less than a second, it was over. All Nao had to do was flick her fingers. The "red lines" flew across the room. The webbing on the floor held Akira in place just long enough for her to be sliced to ribbons.
"Another devious maneuver."
It hadn't been a compliment. "What next?"
"Well, I was really hoping to save the damn dog for last. But by now all hell was breaking loose. The school knew it was dealing with a murder spree, not just a few accidents. They declared a state of emergency, cancelled all the classes, and locked down the students in the dorms until they could be sent home. Police were everywhere, local troops were getting called in... and Kuga was after my throat."
"I suppose you didn't want to risk a direct battle with her."
"It wasn't like I didn't think I could win! I just wanted to be sure. I'd come too far to screw up now. So I got myself some insurance."
#9: Natsuki Kuga
"Hey, mutt. How've you been?"
The voice over the phone was furious. "Yuuki! You murdering —"
"Now now, is that any way to talk to a fellow HiME Ranger?"
"Show yourself, coward! Let's finish this!"
"Remember that old building I pulled down on you guys? That's my new hangout. C'mon over."
"Oh, you expect me to walk into a trap?"
Nao grinned. "I do when your most important person is on the line. Hey, speak up." She switched the phone to speaker and waved it at her hostage, wrapped up in Julia's webbing.
"Don't do it!" cried the captive. "I'll be all right! Save yourself!"
There was silence for a moment on the other end.
"...Takeda? Is that you?"
"...Okay, Takeda. I'll honour your wishes."
She hung up. Nao stared at the phone in disbelief. After a minute, she turned to look at her prisoner.
"You really aren't her most important person, are you?"
"That's what I TRIED TO TELL YOU!"
The Obsidian Prince snickered. Nao glared at him. "Look, I've seen a million of those love-hate relationships! He was definitely into her! I figured it was two-sided, and she was being all Tokiha and denying it!"
"Oh, I needed this," he said, still laughing.
"Anyway, since Takeda was no use, I let him go. Maybe she knew I would. I dunno. What I did know was that I had to find someone she couldn't take that chance with."
"You again? Ready to face me this time?"
"Nope. Just grabbed another hostage. Say hello."
"Hey, Natsuki," said Shizuru casually.
The cyclist swore and hung up. Nao grinned; this might or might not be Natsuki's most important person, but it was someone she couldn't leave in Nao's hands, not even for a second.
"How 'bout that?" she asked the student council president. "Looks like she's coming."
"Aww. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside," said Shizuru in that same easygoing tone.
Nao frowned, suspicious. Something about this girl didn't sit well with her. It was one thing to keep drinking tea through all the chaos that happened at the school, but staying calm in this situation? It was as if, in Shizuru's mind, she could leave any time and was just hanging around to see what would happen.
If she did think so, she was dead wrong. Nao sneered at Shizuru, who (of course) just smiled back.
Soon enough, they heard a motor shut down nearby. "Over here!" Nao called out. "Walk slow! Hands up! If I see or hear anything else, she dies!"
Natsuki appeared shortly, following instructions. She carefully held back any reaction to the sight of Shizuru bound in webbing with Julia's razor-sharp tail at her throat.
"Hey there, Kuga. Aren't you glad it's all over now? No more politeness, no more pretending to be allies?"
"It didn't have to end like this, Yuuki."
Nao laughed out loud. "Oh, are you going to try and talk me down? Bring me back into the —"
"No. I said it didn't have to end like this. It does now. For what you've done, I will kill you."
A smile came to Nao's lips. The dog still had a little bite left.
"Fight me, Yuuki. No Elements, no Childs, just you and me. If you have any honour, any pride, any last shred of a soul, then let her go and FIGHT ME!"
Nao thought it over. She'd come this far without caring about the rules... but dammit, it really did feel wrong to end this with a long-distance kill. She still had her hostage, so what was the harm? She dismissed her claws and stepped forward.
"I'm not letting her go, Kuga. But hey, you want me to smack you around a bit? You got it!"
They leapt for each other.
"It was a good fight. I'll give Kuga one thing, she could defend herself. I had fun."
The Obsidian Prince listened. Out the corner of his eye, he noticed Nagi reappearing; they traded a quick nod.
"And then something weird happened."
The fight had gone back and forth, but ultimately the outcome was never in doubt. Without their powers, Nao simply wasn't the fighter that Natsuki was. She was pinned to the ground, one arm behind her back, and Natsuki showed no sign of budging.
But she still had her trump card. "If you kill me, Julia kills her!"
The pressure didn't let up. In fact, Natsuki grabbed Nao's neck.
"I'm not bluffing, Kuga! The only thing holding Julia back is that I agreed to this! If I die, so does Shizuru!"
"That's an empty threat. When you die, your Child will disappear."
"Not instantly! She'll have time to do it!"
Nao could hear the gears turning in Natsuki's head. Could she afford to take this chance? Could the world afford for her not to?
It was just enough of a distraction for Nao to use.
She still had one hand free. She could bend her wrist and fingers enough. She materialized her claws, extended the red strings, and —
It wasn't Nao or Natsuki — it was Shizuru. A monster, some kind of giant hydra, had just appeared at her side. It moved to free her, but she insisted, "Save her! Save Natsuki!"
The monster turned to obey. Nao and Natsuki, taken utterly by surprise, could only stare.
And then, with a single lightning-fast stab, Julia followed her instructions.
Any interference was to be punished instantly. No Elements, no Childs. No one had ever said the Child had to be Natsuki's.
The cut was clean. Shizuru died instantly. Kiyohime sparkled in green and drifted away on the wind... as did Natsuki, a final look of horror on her vanishing face.
Nao was alone.
#10: Shizuru Fujino
"And that was the end of it. Apparently not only was Fujino a HiME, Kuga was her important person. Didn't see that coming."
"For reasons of her own, Shizuru held her cards very close to the chest. She did not want Natsuki or anyone else knowing she was a HiME. Even I never suspected anything when I was Reito, and I spent a great deal of time with her."
"Right, you two were on the Stu— oh!"
"I remember! I remember the one I missed before! It was Haruka. Stupid me."
A smile crept onto the Obsidian Prince's face.
"Morons! Idiots! Stupid people!" Haruka went down the line pulling ribbons off the railing. "Stop littering the school over some ridiculous turban legend!"
"It's urban, Haruka..."
"Shut up and go get another trash bag!"
Yukino obeyed. As soon as she was out of sight, Nao snuck around the corner. "Hey Suzushiro!"
"Huh? Oh, it's you. What do you waAAAAAAARGHHHH!"
Nao licked the blood off her claws. "Easiest kill ever." She snuck away before anyone could catch her.
"I get it now! That's what Kikukawa was so ticked at me for! She was watching the whole school, of course she knew I did it."
The Obsidian Prince didn't say anything. His smile just got wider.
"There, that's the eleventh one. Just me left. So where's my power, oh mighty Amphibian Lord?"
"Obsidian," he replied. "And oh-ho-ho... oh, that was satisfying. It's not every day you finally hear the punchline of a joke that took three hundred years to tell."
"At the end of pride is death, Nao Yuuki. I have been trying to figure out this whole time why, when you came to see Nagi, you told him you had already won the HiME Festival. You didn't know that Alyssa Searrs counted as a defeated HiME..."
"Exactly. But despite not knowing that, you somehow knew eleven HiMEs had been defeated. I finally understand now. You thought Haruka was one."
Nao blinked. "But she was so obvious! No one has ever acted more all-powerful than that girl! She kicked a tank! Nobody's that brave without power to back it up!"
"You seem to underestimate your species."
"And Midori said there had to be a HiME on the Student Council! The headmaster couldn't have collected all the HiMEs here without them knowing! There had to be..." She slapped her forehead. "Fujino. Fujino!"
The Obsidian Prince nodded. "Haruka would have made a fine HiME. She simply wasn't chosen."
"But then how did I get in here? Why were all the pillars up?"
"I told you. Alyssa Searrs, though only an artificial HiME, nonetheless qualified."
"But I killed ten people. Plus Higurashi makes eleven, minus Suzushiro makes ten again! Who did I miss?"
The Prince smiled at Nao like the Devil at a damned soul. "One whom Midori never suspected. One who never even suspected herself. Nagi, I think the time has come."
"You may enter, madam," said Nagi, bowing overdramatically.
Out of the darkness, a ghostly, hooded figure drifted forward. It seemed to be moving slowly, but somehow it was right in front of Nao in seconds.
"You killed Mai Tokiha," the figure said.
Nao couldn't move. She could hardly even breathe. The pressure she felt from this last HiME was incredible.
"You killed her," she said again. "Right?"
If nothing else, Nao still possessed defiance. "Yeah, I did. So? Does everyone's life revolve around that damn girl?"
The Obsidian Prince smirked. "Oh, it isn't about her. Not for this one."
"Brother," said the figure.
Nao stared. "Huh?"
As it screamed, the final HiME threw its head forward. The hood fell back. Nao saw — "Shiho?"
She saw nothing else, ever again.
#11: Nao Yuuki
"Pity," said Nagi. "She might still have won if she'd had her guard up. It's not like you to allow such a surprise attack on your own turf."
"No," the Obsidian Prince agreed. Shiho's Child had disintegrated Nao with a mighty blast from behind before she had any chance to defend herself. It wasn't how he liked to see a HiME die.
But in this particular case, it felt absolutely fitting.
"All over now but the afterglow, eh?" said Nagi with a wink.
The Prince understood his cheeky servant perfectly. This "bride" lacked Nao's problems, but she had problems of her own. She was insane, driven mad first by neglect and then by loss. Age and growth could heal those wounds... but as soon as she accepted her power, she would never age or grow again.
That didn't have to happen, though. She could still refuse him... or he could refuse her. He could crystallize her, use her to start the next cycle. This Festival could end like all the ones before it.
But perhaps someone who had lost her own humanity was just what was needed to create a new human race — a different one that would avoid the mistakes of the old. This girl was no brute like Nao. She had plenty of potential that he could draw out.
And he had waited so long. So very, very long...
"Do you wish to rule at my side, Shiho Munakata?" he asked. "Will you be my bride?"
"Power. I want power."
It wasn't a yes, not really. But it would do. He released the seal.
Shiho began to glow and float upward. It occurred to the Obsidian Prince that in all these many Festivals, he had never actually seen this happen before. He was disappointed to find it rather less visually impressive than he'd always pictured. Of course, he had also expected not to be a teddy bear at the time.
In a few minutes, the process was over. Shiho floated gracefully back to the ground. To the Prince's surprise, her face had completely changed. A moment ago, it had been emotionless, unreadable; now she seemed overcome with pure joy.
"I can feel it!" she said. "I feel the power! It's incredible! I can do anything!"
"We can do anything, my bride," he said. "What do you wish? In all this miserable world, what is your greatest desire?"
"I wish this never happened!" she said happily.
"I wish there had never been any HiMEs! No Festival! No losing Brother!"
He scowled; he'd thought she understood a bit better than this. "That is not possible. I created the HiME Festival for a rea—"
"Then I wish you'd never been born!" she said, clapping her hands.
The ground began to rumble.
"What? This is nonsense. You can't destroy me."
The ground shook harder.
He looked over at Nagi. "This is nonsense, right?"
"How should I know?" said Nagi, looking around for cover as rocks began to fall. "We've had winners who hated you before! We've never had one crazy enough to hate you and marry you anyway!"
"I have my wedding dress all ready!" Shiho added helpfully.
The room began to spin around the Prince. "This can't be! I'm the one who started this!"
"Then maybe you started something bigger than you!" shouted Nagi. "It happens, y'know!"
All the pain. All the suffering. The cycle of bloodshed, repeating over and over. All of it amassed in the HiME Star... and all of it now at the command of one poor, pathetic girl. Could the whole thing really have gone that far out of control? The Obsidian Prince was part of the star; if he had never existed, neither would it. Could he really have filled it with enough power to destroy itself, not just now but through all history?
He would have sworn it was impossible... but the rapidly spinning world around him begged to differ.
The Prince grabbed Shiho by the shoulders. "Do you understand what you've done?" he shouted. "I am Evil! The HiME Star and I — we are indelible parts of the fabric of creation! I am an essential part of the universe!"
In one last brief moment of clarity, Shiho stared at him and said, "But you're so fuzzy."
There was nothing left to do or say. The world spun faster and faster, swirling in a mad spiral around its new queen. Her command had used up the full power of the star, and now it was in its death throes. The Prince had no power left to change anything.
Shiho danced around, happily singing about how she would see her brother soon. Nagi cowered in the corner.
At the end of pride is death, thought the Obsidian Prince.
And in the final moments, he was quite sure he could hear Nao Yuuki laugh.