Within the throne room of the palace, red paper lanterns struggle to repel the shadows of the high-ceilinged hall. Only three souls remain in the vast chamber; two boys in their Purger uniforms, each kneeling on one knee, their heads lowered as a sign of deep respect for their Emperor.
Before the pair is a flight of steps leading to an elevated platform, and in the centre is an ornately decorated throne with an equally beautiful slab behind, the golden dragon carvings from both structures flickering in the dim light.
Seated on the throne is a figure, though dressed in the same uniform as his subjects, wields an aura that almost seems divine in comparison to them. Although his appearances are just as youthful as the boys before him, the Purgers know better than to assume his real age through that alone.
“Ru didn’t make it,” the Purger on the left says solemnly. His name is Fong.
“Lang brought his corpse home,” the Purger on the right adds. Tien is his name, and he’s Fong’s partner. “He ripped his own heart out before we could stop him, right before our very eyes.”
The figure on the throne studies the Purger pair’s features. Fong is gritting his teeth as the horrific scene replays itself in his mind again. Tien is trying to hide his pain, but the way his facial muscles is tensing says it all.
“It took us all by surprise. A horde of Seekers so deep within the Twilight Sector is unheard of,” Tien says. “Father, please advise.”
The title has always amused him. Few in this realm have ever addressed him by his real name: Kiin. After all, he’s the one who took them from their biological parents since birth, just like all the other boys in the family. But as his title implies, the Purgers are like family to him, and it pains him deeply as well to know he’s lost two more of his ‘sons’.
“I’ll send two elite Purger pairs to investigate,” he says, leaning back on his throne. “I agree. For so many Seekers to be this far within human territory, it reeks of conspiracy.” Then, he swallows. “And of course, give Ru and Lang a proper burial. We’ll hold the funeral at the top of the Death Lotus Cliff tomorrow midnight. Let En handle the details.”
“Yes, Father.” With his head lowered, Fong peers at him. “Forgive my impudence, but may I know which pairs are the chosen ones?”
Kiin leans his face against his knuckles, picturing in his mind the reactions the pair is about to give him for his answer. “First, Yan and Zhe. Second, Song and Shu.”
Both Fong and Tien jolt their heads up in shock, glaring at their leader as if he’s gone mad. Well, he’s always been mad, but this is beyond acceptable levels for them.
“Yan’s team and Shu’s? B-but…” Fong stammers.
Kiin smiles amusedly. This was the exact reaction he was waiting for. “Is there a problem with my choice, Fong?” he challenges. “Do you think they’re not skilled enough?”
“N-no Father.” Fong drops his head back down. “They’re all extremely talented Purgers, some of the best we have.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“Those two pairs hate each other,” Fong says. “Everyone in the Palace knows that.”
Kiin twirls the ends of his blonde hair with an unimpressed expression.
Realising their leader is awaiting for more, Tien hastily adds for his partner, “This is a very delicate situation, Father. The Seekers within human territory are abnormal. Caution is advised; we need teams that can fully cooperate with one another to avoid further casualties… with all due respects, Father.”
Kiin shakes his head. “Ah, but that’s where you fail to understand your brothers. These four Purgers are the perfect candidates for the mission. Yan and Zhe are our best infiltrators. Song and Shu are some of our greatest fighters. They compliment each other very well.”
“And their rivalry is just what we need. Only then will they be pushed to their limits, and they know the consequences of abandoning one another, no matter their differences.” Kiin raises his voice, silencing Fong. He then leisurely gets off from the throne and strolls down the steps, his boots echoing against the marble tiles. To Fong and Tien, this sound terrifies them. They both know they’ve made a mistake. “Or are you questioning my judgement, my experience as the head of this family?”
“M-my deepest apolo－”
Fong is suddenly lifted from where he kneels, his throat held in Kiin’s firm grip. The boy chokes, instinctively reaching out to Kiin’s arm with both hands from fear. Upon touching his leader’s sleeve, he quickly retracts his hands away from him; even the fear for his own life pales to his fear of Kiin’s wrath.
As much as Tien wishes to help his partner, he can do nothing but keep his head bowed low. He knows the laws of the family. Respect for the Emperor comes above everything else.
Kiin watches Fong struggle for a little while longer, but soon sighs and releases him. Fong drops to the ground, gagging while clutching his throat.
“I’m… sorry…” Fong manages between coughs. “I’ll accept any punishment for my insolence.”
“Forget it,” Kiin says. “Get up, the both of you.”
The pair obeys, but with their heads still drooped.
Kiin takes them both by the chin and raises their heads to face him. He softens his gaze and says, “I know you both have the best interests of your brothers at heart, and you’re worried about them. For that, I can’t possible punish you. But lest you forget, my dearest sons, that I know what’s best for everyone. Ru and Lang’s deaths pain me greatly as well. I don’t want this to happen to any more of my family. I implore of you to trust me in my judgement.”
Both Fong and Tien lock gazes with their leader, the person who bears the title of ‘Emperor’ in their family. No matter how they look at it, this creature with his long flowing twintails and sidelocks has the appearances of a girl in her mid teens, one with a beauty unmatched by any being in this realm. Even his voice is of a young adolescent male’s. But the air he exudes is no different from a stern yet doting father. Nobody knows of his true age, except for maybe the Oracle. Rumours even have it that he’s not from this world.
“Now, get some rest,” Kiin says, smoothing his fingers over their cheeks affectionately. “You’ve both earned it.”
“Thank you, Father.” The Purger pair take a final bow before departing from the court.
Kiin watches them leave, with some lingering dark thoughts haunting him. Just how long can he keep these boys alive? He loves every single one of his sons, but the Blossom’s place in this world makes it difficult for him to predict what will happen in the future. From birth, his boys have been trained to stare at death in the eye and even spit back at it. But all the training and courage in the world might not be enough to avoid the ugly maws of death. Tonight is another proof of that.
“Maybe one day, the Blossom can finally wither in peace.”
Black Blossom is the name of their family, a clan of extraordinarily talented fighters chosen from birth by Kiin himself. None of the Purgers have any memories of their parents and were forced into a life of hardship and brutal training. Their purpose is simple: to cleanse the world of the Void Seekers, demonic beings from an outer dimension that only bring destruction to the realms they invade. The people of this world call that dimension the Crimson Void.
There are many species of Void Seekers. Some simply kill; some kill and consume flesh; others infect humans with their blood and turn them into monsters just like them, like the ones Song and Shu fought tonight. Most operate on pure instinct. Few have intelligence, but those that do possess unimaginable power. But all Void Seekers have one thing in common: they consume the souls of all living beings. It’s what they live for.
Plants, animals, humans－ the Seekers do not discriminate. Their ravenous appetite for souls cannot be sated. As their territories within this realm grow, hope among the human race dwindles. When a boy is selected by the Blossom’s Oracle, his parents would give him to the Black Blossom leader without complaint, knowing that they’re one of the only hopes left to resist the Seekers. To these families, it’s the highest form of honour. Kiin’s title of ‘Emperor’ was bestowed unto him by the citizens of Hong Zhou themselves out of respect and awe.
But that doesn’t mean these children would grow up with the same mentality, the same desperation the human race has to repel the Seekers. To bring out the full extent of their powers, a delicate balance between individualism and loyalty needs to be struck.
“Yan, Zhe. Song, Shu…” Kiin muses.
And that balance is about to be shattered for a certain Purger. Even without the Oracle’s guidance, Kiin can already sense the change in the air.
Unlike Initiates and Apprentices, full-fledged Purgers like Song and Shu have their own personal quarters within the Shadow Palace; each of these buildings has its own bedroom, bathroom and even a small central reception area. Purger pairs always have their quarters situated in adjacent positions, and Purgers are only allowed to enter their partner’s quarters. Trespassing into any other buildings would result in severe punishments given straight from Kiin himself, usually in the form of electrical torture or five times their training routine. Or both.
With towel in hand, Song peeks out of his quarter’s double doors. Though it’s mid-summer, the air is always chilly this late at night. Most of the other quarters still have their lantern lights on within, but nobody seems to be outside. An eager smile breaks from the corners of Song’s lips and with his heart pounding, Song darts towards Shu’s quarters.
“This’ll show you for making fun of me.”
Song opens the double doors, the wood squealing as if the building is protesting against his intrusion. Right as he steps into the reception area, he can already smell the fragrance of Shu’s favourite bath salt: Erios Lavender. Shu is always extremely particular about his bathing products, insisting that they must come from Erios, a country that’s literally a continent away but famous for the healing and beautifying properties of its herbs and flowers.
Song immediately strips from his uniform and tosses it aside. He tip-toes towards the right wing of the building, where the bathroom is. Just outside of the bathroom’s doors, he can hear Shu’s blissful humming.
Without restraint, Song shoves the doors open. Beyond, a startled Shu screams in his wooden tub. Just this reaction alone is enough to cause Song’s spirits to soar.
“What the hell are you doing here!” Shu screeches, covering his bare chest.
“What does it look like?” Song saunters towards the tub, tossing his towel by the racks.
“Don’t you have any shame?” Shu bellows again, his cheeks steadily reddening. “Idiot! At least close the door!”
“Hwoh! You’re right.”
Song does as he’s told before heading back to his partner’s side. He dips his foot into the steaming water, and the lavender petals cling onto his skin as if curious of the new presence. While the tub is more than spacious enough for two people, Song intentionally moves close enough to Shu so that their sides are brushing.
“Qhelios save me.” Shu sighs. Song frowns a little at that. He never liked the religious side of Shu, mostly because of his own atheism.
“You enjoying this?” Song asks.
“W-what? No! You’re the worst! Why are you doing this to me?”
“Seriously? Ugh, you’re so petty! I can’t stand you sometimes.” Shu lets out a frustrated groan, slumping his shoulders.
“Hoho, but you like this don’t you?”
“No I don’t.”
“You’re always so dishonest with your feelings.” Song closes his eyes and leans on his partner’s shoulder.
From Shu’s relaxed breathing, Song can tell he’s starting to accept his advances already. He’s always like this.
“Damn it. Yan is such a…” Shu mutters.
“What he said just now.” Shu looks away, grimacing. “What’s his problem?”
How do you maintain the first maxim of the Purger Code with a partner like that?
“Ah, that,” Song says. “I chased him away, didn’t I?”
Sensing that he’s still bothered by that, Song hugs Shu’s arm and adds with a teasing tone, “Are you telling me you trust some dork’s nonsense over your partner’s love for you? So little faith in me?”
“Would you cut it out?” Shu flusters, weakly trying to shake off Song’s koala-like embrace on his arm. But he quickly gives up and sighs. “Let’s be honest here, you only give a damn about the first half of the first maxim because it’s fun for you, right?”
Intimate as lovers, cold as professionals.
“Of course not,” Song answers, sensually rubbing his palm against Shu’s chest. Although his face is still flushed from embarrassment, Shu doesn’t resist this time. “If we bond deeper, we’ll fight even harder for each other on the field. This’ll fulfil the professional part too, won’t it?”
“You’re so full of crap.” Shu knows with Song’s carefree nature, it’s obvious he thinks he doesn’t mean what he said. And he’s right. To Song, professionalism can go to hell.
The two of them lay in the bath for awhile longer, basking in the silence of the room, relishing in the steamy waters and the tingly sensation of each other’s skin.
Song sneaks a glance at his partner to admire his toned physique. If it hadn’t been for their mastery of their life forces, the training that they’ve been going through since birth would’ve developed much bigger and uglier muscles for their bodies. Mastering one’s life force, or in Purger tongue ‘Chi’, allows the practitioner to modify his cells’ metabolism to his will, which in turn allows the Purger to shape his appearances and body build to his liking. Their leader, Kiin, is probably at least fifty years old, and yet he has all the physical traits of an adolescent male. It’s vital for Purgers to maintain their appearances as seduction is one of their greatest weapons. Most Seekers and demons have the intelligence to succumb to these tricks.
But thinking about all these, Song also can’t help but acknowledge the absurdity of the training they’ve been put through, against their own will.
“I know that look,” Shu murmurs.
“Then you know what I’m about to say.”
“And you know how I’ll answer you.” Shu pinches a lavender petal and places it in front of Song.
The silver-haired boy glares at the petal, as if it holds the answers to all his problems, the key to dispel his hatred and resentment for the Blossom.
“We’ll get out of this crap hole one of these days.”
“We have good pay, great bounties for grabs, respect from the peasants, a home fit for royalty,” Shu says.
“And you’re okay with giving Kiin your life for all that? Have you forgotten all the boys that died over the years from the training, the Ritual, and the missions? We’re just tools to Kiin for his war against the Seekers.”
“Well, we’re alive now, aren’t we?”
“And what if we meet a Seeker we can’t beat one of these days?” As Song speaks, a soft purple aura emanates from his being. “It’ll just be another order for Kiin, but we’re the ones that are dying for him.”
Shu chops the water in front of Song and sends a wave crashing onto him. Song squirms a little, gagging, and the purple aura surrounding him collapses instantly.
“How many times have I told you to stop tainting my bath with your negative Chi?” Shu scolds. “If my skin suffers because of that, I’ll kill you.”
“Sorry.” Song slumps his shoulders.
“Geez… why is it that every time you stare at my naked body, you get all these depressive thoughts?” Shu sighs, crosses his arms and looks away. “If you can’t even look at me nude without being depressed, we might be the worst pair ever.”
Song chuckles to that. Seeing that he’s successfully cheered up, Shu smiles. He then takes Song by his shoulders and hugs him close, much to his surprise. “Listen, you dumbass. It doesn’t matter what this place throws at us; as long as I’m here with you, we can get through anything. I’ll always be here for you, got it?”
Song can feel his heart fluttering from his partner’s bold declaration; Shu seldom ever says anything mushy. With their bare chests planted against one another, Song can feel Shu’s rapid heartbeat as well. He returns the embrace, wrapping his arms around his beloved partner.
“Yeah, got it.”