By the time the Purger pair penetrate through the last line of thicket surrounding the Shadow Palace, it’s already late evening. Warm blades of light pierce through the canopy, cutting through the cold and bathing the forest in a fuzzy screen that almost feels dreamlike to Shu.
“Something doesn’t feel right,” Song suddenly says.
“Huh?” Shu doesn’t sense anything. He focuses again, trying to pick out any human-sized hostile or even friendly Ki forces nearby. Nothing. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” Song answers darkly. “It just feels… too calm. Keep your guard up.”
Shu nods. Song’s senses are far more sharper than his, and to top it off, his uncanny instincts have a way with foretelling events so accurately it scares him sometimes.
“Think it’s too late to turn back? Going back to the Palace…” Song mutters.
“If we aren’t home by midnight, they’ll have the entire Blossom hunt us down like animals. It’s as good as a death sentence,” Shu answers. “Even if your hunch is right, we should at least scope out the situation. We don’t know anything yet.”
Shu can tell Song still seems uneasy, but there’s little they can do now. Many Apprentices and even Purgers have tried running from the Blossom before, but none have lived to tell the tale. And if Yan somehow chooses to betray them, then the penalty should probably be something he can handle too. Even he can’t possibly be that stupid.
The two arrive at the bridge of the Shadow Palace. By now, Shu’s worries are starting to recede. Song has never been wrong before, but maybe, just maybe, just this once, he might be paranoid. It’s undeniable that the mission has been exhausting, even for the likes of them. Maybe Song is just on edge right now.
But after crossing the bridge, Shu realises immediately that something is indeed off. The Purger Apprentices standing by the turrets look unusually stiff. They watch as the boys approach the gate, neither of them batting an eye, not even a single wave to welcome them home.
The gigantic double doors part, and the metal creaks noisily against the stone. Shu clenches his fists and storms into the Palace with Song. The two make their way across the empty southern courtyard, which once again causes Shu’s insides to churn with anxiety. Normally at this hour, there should still be a company of Apprentices training here. Why is it empty now?
One word from Song and Shu’s combat senses flare. Dozens of Purger Apprentices swarm from both sides of the courtyard, several more pairs even leaping from the turrets to join their ranks. The Purgers encircle the pair in the blink of an eye, like shadows rushing into an unilluminated spot, each with a sabre in hand. Shu curses. Song remains cool as ice, observing the ranks calmly.
“What’s this about?” Shu demands.
Several of the Apprentices part, and two Purgers walk into the circle. En and Yi. Unlike the black uniforms of full-fledged Purgers, Apprentices don grey uniforms. Like most Apprentices, these boys are all extremely young too－ none of them look older than thirteen. But even without the difference in uniforms and age, En and Yi stand out from the other Purgers in every way possible－ confidence, aura, and a subtle stroke of hatred cultivated through years of hardships and abuse, like all full-fledged Purgers.
“To think you’d have the nerve to strut home like that and even question us, after how you botched that mission up,” En says coldly, piercing them with a glare that’s better saved for violent Seekers.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” As he speaks, Shu’s mind is already analysing the options they have.
En said something them botching the mission up― he must be talking about Anza, or Rei. Just as he thought― Yan had ratted out on them. Still, he can’t help but feel confused about it. Wouldn’t Yan be punished as well since they were on the same mission?
“You’re getting riled up, Shu.” Yi giggles. “Don’t tell me… you’re actually thinking about resisting?”
Shu clicks his tongue tetchily, tightening his fists.
“If so, then please, by all means, come at us with everything you’ve got!” Yi’s pitch rises with his excitement. Shu knows that he’s dying to vent his sadist frustrations on them.
“If you keep playing dumb, then we’ll just have to give you a heavier punishment,” En says.
“Then what about Yan and Zhe?” Shu asks. “This is their mission too.”
“They’ll be receiving the same punishment as well.”
“And what would the sentence be?” Song asks with a steely voice.
“A week in the Electric Chamber with no food to start off,” En says, not a trace of sympathy in his tone. “It’s up to Father to decide what he wants to do with you after that.”
Shu’s face blanches. Even Song looks anxious now. While they’ve been through electrical torture many times before, none of those sessions exceeded a day. Plus, without food, they won’t have the strength to resist the pain and shock. And it’s for a week. There’s no possible way they can survive this.
“Of course, you will be fed before the sentence begins.” En looks away, reading his mind. “The four of you will start at the same time.”
So to sabotage us, Yan was willing to sacrifice not just himself, but his own partner as well? Shu has never felt such disgust and disdain for anybody before. Just when he thought his opinion of him couldn’t be any worse, Yan somehow manages to find a way to sink into even lower depths. And Zhe was supposed to be the so-called benevolent one of the two; how could he let his partner do something like this?
Then, Shu remembers what Zhe said about Yan, about them not understanding him. At this point in time, Shu cannot and will not understand someone like him.
“Stop it!” someone shouts.
Shu recognises that desperate voice, and a rush of relief washes through him. A Purger budges through the formation, despite the Apprentices’ earnest efforts in trying to maintain their positions. His hair is pink in colour, with a side ponytail, a little like Yi’s but much less fluffy and much longer. The fury burns hot in his amethyst purple eyes as he storms into the scene.
“Can’t you even give them a chance to explain themselves?” the newcomer bellows.
“Mei!” Shu exclaims in joy.
The pink-haired boy embraces him, and Shu indulges in his warmth. In the Black Blossom family, there are few people that he and Song can trust. Mei is one of them. And if Mei is around…
“Please remember that Shu has his own partner already,” another voice calls out from the crowd, this one much cooler than Mei’s entrance. Another full-fledged Purger pushes through the formation of Apprentices, this one with medium-length dark blue hair. It’s Lin. “And you are with me. Remember that.” Despite his words, the boy wears a warm smile on his face.
“It’s just a hug, sheesh.” Mei lets go of Shu and sticks his tongue out playfully at his partner. “If you’re that easily jealous, then we’ll never have a healthy relationship.”
Song rolls his eyes. Mei must’ve caught that, because he quickly jumps over to arrest him in his embrace as well.
“Cool as always, huh?” Mei rubs his face in Song’s neck joyfully. “Are the both of you okay? I saw your wounds, though they’re healing already. Did those old bums En and Yi hurt you?”
En, who’s been standing there stunned by the scene, finally breaks free from his state of stupefaction. “Hey! You two! We’re in the middle of an arrest right now. Stop interfering, or we will deliver the appropriate punishments to you as well!” He then looks towards his partner. “Yi! Why didn’t you say anything about it?”
“Because it’d be rude to interrupt them,” Yi says, tilting his head, as if the answer was obvious from the start. “The boys just came back from a long and hard mission. Can’t you give them a bit of time together?”
“T-this… this isn’t the time for that! Where’s our professionalism?”
“Professionalism? But we’re family…”
Shu knows that the real reason for En freezing there was because he was thinking the same way as Yi did. Deep down, he’s quite a soft person as well.
“Either way, shouldn’t you give the both of them a chance to explain themselves?” Mei says. “They’re some of our most capable Purgers we have in the family. I’m sure they’ve had their reasons.”
“Mei is right,” Lin adds. “And knowing Song and how he kills everything in front of him like a machine, there has to be something important that stopped him from murdering that Seeker.”
“Am I really that emotionless…” Song sounds a little hurt, for the first time in perhaps years.
You guys are the best… Shu silently thanks them in his heart.
“No matter the reason, the fact remains that they let an extremely high level Seeker go on purpose,” En explains. “Not killing it might have or might not have been a huge mistake, but think of the worst case scenario: if the both of you really made a mistake in letting him go, how many innocent lives would have been lost because of that? How many of our own Purgers would we lose just to hunt it down again?”
Shu grinds his teeth, remembering Rei’s petulant and almost adorable demeanour. They don’t know him at all… but then again, does he really know Rei’s true nature himself? What if En is right? What if they really did make a mistake?
“And what if this problem keeps happening in the future? If you keep letting Seekers go because they seem harmless on the outside, you’re bound to let your guard down, overlook a few bad ones and carelessly lose lives in the process. We can’t have that happening.” En steps forward, raising his fist up. At the same time, all the Apprentices raise their swords towards the four Purgers in unison. “Our sole duty as Purgers is to wipe out every Seeker in this world, no exceptions, for the sake of protecting mankind. This was what Father chose us, trained us and raised us for. To go against this code is to go against our Father’s will, and I will not have that standing as long as I’m alive.”
Song nods. He then taps Mei on the shoulder. “You should go, leave us be.”
“Huh?” The bubbly boy looks at Song in shock. “What’re you talking about? Why don’t you just explain－”
“Because he has a point.” Song narrows his eyes at En. “Besides, this is Kiin’s decision, and nothing will change his mind anyway.”
“You have a lot of nerve to address Father by his name,” En says, the venom oozing from his tone.
“We should whip him a couple of times before throwing him in the Chamber.” Yi licks his lips.
“Listen to Song,” Shu says. “We don’t want you to get involved for nothing.”
“But seven days in the Electric Chamber…” Lin mutters.
“We can handle this.” Song closes his eyes. “We’ve been through worse, haven’t we?”
“Uh, no, we haven’t,” Shu says, taking Song’s hand. It’s warm, and his presence alone makes him feel like they can go through anything together.
Song gives his partner one last look. The emotion in his eyes― Song hasn’t looked this sad in a long time. He’s worried about him. He always is. Shu returns a resolute nod. The least he could do is to look brave in front of his partner.
The Apprentices move in to apprehend them. Shu’s hold on Song’s hand lingers for a moment longer. As their hands part, the world suddenly seems a lot bleaker than before.
I love you too much to die here, Song. I promise, no matter what happens, we'll get through this together.