"Ninety-nine... one... hundred..." With a strained breath, Shu pushes the barbell back up and hooks it onto the rack. With his muscles screaming, he lays on the bench to collect his breath. "Damn, that's going to feel sore tomorrow."
Shu then looks to where Song is. The silver-haired boy is still going strong, easily breezing through his 800-kilogram barbell as if it's nothing. The sight of how smoothly he's lifting those massive weights looks ludicrous. Despite how it looks, it must be his cool down; otherwise, he'd be lifting over one ton instead.
Shu's barbell only weighs half of Song's during endurance training. Seeing his partner's strength and endurance often causes a tinge of envy to bloom within him, but also admiration. Although it's his Arcana ability that makes him so, it's still undeniable that Song is one of the fastest and strongest Purgers in the Blossom.
Eventually, Song casually places the barbell back onto the rack. After several huffs, he gets up from the bench, takes his towel and wipes the sweat from his bare top.
"Hurry up," he says, sighing. "Let's just get the second run over and done with."
"Do I look like I'm ready for a thirty-mile run right now?"
Song offers his hand to Shu, and with a groan of reluctance, he accepts it.
"And just last night you were complaining about the training," Shu mutters, rubbing his sore arms. "It's like you're mocking me."
"I'm tired too, y'know?"
"That made me feel so much better," Shu replies sarcastically.
As the pair is bickering, a Purger in uniform strolls towards them from the entrance. His name is En, a boy with dark green hair done up in a bob cut, though the most notable point about his hair is his really long left sidelock.
"Are the both you quite done?" En shoots coldly.
Shu can feel the familiar prick of irritation upon hearing their instructor's voice. Song doesn't look too bothered though.
"We're just about to do our second thirty-mile run for the day," Shu says. "Is there something you want to tell us?"
En puts his hands by his hips. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't. It's about the incident at Twilight Sector. Father has decided that you'll be one of the two pairs that'll investigate the scene."
"One of the two pairs?" Shu raises a brow. "And who're we gonna work with?"
En hesitates. "Yan and Zhe."
"What!" Shu bellows.
Song narrows his eyes.
En nods. "I know, you all have history, but this is Father's decision, not mine. I'm only here to oversee the details of the operation and relay the info to you."
"Could you relay to him that his plan is full of crap?"
"Tell him yourself." En shrugs. "Anyway, once you're done with your little run, get bathed and meet us at the Hall of Attainment. I'll brief you on the details before we head for the funeral."
Song takes a step forward, and Shu can sense his partner's hostility. As always, the anger never shows on his features, but the pressure and tension he's exerting is palpable. "I have a question."
"Hmm?" En eyes at him.
"Do we have a say in this? Forcing us to risk our lives is one thing, but forcing us to work with them in a life-and-death situation?" Song snorts. "I don't feel like listening to your orders."
"These aren't my orders; they're Father's." En proceeds to leave the gym, giving the pair a backward wave. "If you want to defy him, feel free to do so. I've got front row seats to watch your rebellion."
Shu hisses. Song balls his fists. As much as they dislike En, they know he's not the one to be blamed for these arrangements.
"We'll have to talk Father out of it," Shu says.
"That old geezer?" Song scoffs. "Good luck trying to convince that stubborn fossil. I don't know about you, but I'm not attending the briefing."
"You and I both know that's not going to end well for us."
"We have to go, Song."
Shu crosses his arms, like how a mother would to her sulking child. "What's it going to take for me to drag you there?"
Song gazes up as he considers his partner's offer. Just from the look in his eyes, Shu already knows he's about to deliver an unreasonable demand.
"You know what, never mind. I'll go with you."
"Hah? No way I can do that. You'll have to think of something－ eh?" Shu staggers away from Song, completely taken aback by his answer. "Did you actually just say you'd come?"
"Yeah." Song grabs his pear-like bottle and downs the remaining water with relish. "On one condition."
Song turns to his partner, and that's when Shu notices a shift in the air. "If that scum tries anything on us, I'll kill him." His grey eyes blaze golden with power as he utters those words, his demeanour infinitely colder than En's. "Don't you dare hold me back."
The Hall of Attainment is similar to the the Hall of Final Transcendence where the Lord and his subjects usually gather for official business, but like all the other minor halls, the decorations aren't nearly as loft.
A Purger stands next to En. His name is Yi, En's partner. They're known as the family's parents since their main role in the Black Blossom is to serve as the full-fledged Purgers' instructors. Like En, Yi has a bob cut, but much puffier in shape, purple in colour and has a fluffy side ponytail to finish. However, everyone also knows that his fluffy demeanour is merely a trap. On the inside, Yi is a complete sadist when it comes training, even more so than En.
"They're late." En grumbles.
"Give them some time," Yi says with a beam. "We should be more understanding of their plight as adults."
Hearing that, En raises a brow in suspicion. "Who's taking them for their next training session?"
"That'd be me!"
En snickers. "I see. Do what you like; just know that I'm not responsible for whatever happens."
Both Song and Shu don't need any further prompts to understand what they're getting at. Song suddenly looks up, his lethargic expression sharpening in an instant.
"Sorry about the wait," calls a familiar voice from behind, one that causes Shu's blood to curl.
Shu looks back to see Yan standing within touching distance of him and Song. Even though it's still early in the evening, Yan was still able to completely evade his senses as if it's night time. But Song noticed him, he thinks to himself, and that's what worries him the most. The fact that he could detect Yan's presence means that his senses have been on hyper-alert since the start. Song is still pissed.
"Where's Zhe?" En nods towards the assassin.
"He'll be here in a moment." Yan flashes his usual poisonous smile. "Father wanted to have a word with him, like he did with me."
"Ah, so that means I can't play with the both of you next training." Yi pouts petulantly.
"Too bad." Yan playfully sticks his tongue out at his instructor.
Moments later, Zhe arrives through the entrance of the court. Shu has always found his appearances to be the most elegant out of anyone else in the Blossom. Like Song, Zhe has beautiful silver hair, but done up in twintails curling in beautiful drills.
"Zhe." Shu nods. Song merely tosses him sidewards look.
"Hey." Zhe doesn't have the sweet exterior that Yan has, but at least he's genuine. "Sorry, Father called."
"So we've been told." En crosses his arms. "All right, now that everyone's here, let's begin with the briefing."
At six in the morning, both Purger pairs depart from the front gate of the Shadow Palace. According to En, the Purger Apprentices met with the horde of Class-B Void Seekers approximately 300 miles north-east of their base, at the outskirts of a village named Zhu Zhen. Despite taking several opportunities to rest up at towns along the way, they manage to arrive at Zhu Zhen in under 10 hours on foot.
However, what greets them isn't the mining village that they've been expecting. Dozens of clay huts have been razed to the ground; those that are still left standing are left in eerily good conditions. Just standing by the edge of the village, the four Purgers can already pick up the overwhelming stench of decay.
"Shit, what the hell!" Shu raises his sleeve over to his nose. "Has nobody ever came to check on this village or something?"
"Doesn't look like it," Zhe answers grimly, nodding towards the rotting corpses scattered on the dirt tracks ahead of them. "Lots of these bodies aren't whole. As in, parts of them have been completely ripped apart."
"And the buildings too," Yan says. "No burns, residual magic, nothing. The clay walls were completely shattered by brute force."
"But some of these buildings are still in good condition," Shu mutters before hurrying over to one of them. More corpses greet him from the clay hut that he's chosen, with dried blood smearing the walls and floor. "This one is more deliberate. It broke through the door and murdered the people here with a more controlled force, a blade. We're probably facing multiple species of Seekers here."
"Right." Yan nods towards the next hut, which shares the same gruesome scene as the one Shu checked. "Looks like this must've been the work of a pretty organised pack too."
Zhe looks at Song, who's spacing out while perched on top of the roof of a surviving hut. "I'm guessing you've got no input?"
Song yawns and takes a seat on the roof, clearly uninterested in the investigation phase like always. Zhe sighs with a smile, and so does Shu. Everyone in the Blossom knows of Song's tendencies. He prefers to skip straight to the fighting. Nobody complains about it because he's the best at what he does.
"Anyway, their tracks are obvious." Yan kneels at the centre of the dirt road, studying the prints embedded in the earth. "Come on, shouldn't be far now."
The other Purgers agree, following Yan's lead out of the village and heading back into the woods. Upon emerging from the thicket, they arrive at a massive man-made pit with layered slopes diving towards the centre. The mines, it seems.
Shu can feel the tension in the air. Yan and Zhe both have their eyes trained on the entrance of the mines below. Even Song, who's usually sloppy to a fault about everything, is at full attention.
"A Dan mine, huh?" Zhe says. "Watch yourselves in there, that whole place is a minefield to Chi energy."
"You didn't have to tell them that." Yan smirks.
Shu and Song fix the assassin with dirty looks. While Song is probably clueless about it, Shu knows what Dan is. It's generally used as fuel for magical weapons employed by the military, and its ores are mixed with minerals that have an extremely violent reaction to non-neutral Chi energy.
"Both of you are the close-combat specialists, right?" Yan says. "Why don't the both of you take the lead? We'll support."
"Hah?" Shu can feel his blood boiling now. He isn't sure how much longer he can stand the assassin's smug and so-very-punchable face. "Out of the four of us, you're the least trustworthy one around here. Why the hell should we－"
"Fine. We'll go," Song cuts in.
Shu whirls to face his partner with a more bewildered 'hah?' this time. "Have you lost your mind? You are listening to him?"
Song moves towards the edge of the pit, fixing the cave with a flinty stare. "I don't care. Just want to get this crap over and done with. Was never really counting on Yan's help anyway."
"Sometimes I feel a little left out in all of your drama." Zhe rolls his eyes.
Shu studies his partner for another moment. Yes, Song is the type who loves cutting corners and slacking off, but in the face of real combat, he's by far the most stubborn and headstrong person he knows. Once Song sets his mind on a target, nothing can break him out of that state.
A roar suddenly explodes from the cave, screechy and completely other-worldly in nature, so loud that Shu can swear his eardrums are being pierced by invisible needles. It sounds more like a metal slab squealing from pressure than an actual living thing. At the same time, the air around them thickens. All four Purgers can feel the pressure of the aura flooding from the hole and hitting them like a tidal wave, the undeniable bloodlust of something. And that something is aware of their presence.
"This aura..." Zhe grits his teeth.
"So much for the element of surprise," Shu mutters.
"Doesn't change anything. Let's go." With that, Song leaps ahead, landing in the belly of the pit with an audible crunch beneath his boots.
As much as Shu hates how the situation is looking, Song's heedless behaviour never fails to fill him with awe. With a snort of amusement, he follows suit, landing behind his partner in a similar fashion.
"You're always such a pain."