Beneath the sweltering sun, synchronised roars of young Apprentices ring across the courtyard as they continue with their martial art drills. Each move is accompanied by a shout, full of spirit and zeal, and it’s music to Kiin’s ears no matter how many times he hears it in a day.
A warm breeze caresses his navel, and Kiin wonders if he should design a new set of uniform for usage within the Palace. Probably not. The more accepting these young Purgers are of their bodies’ beauty, the more effective they will be on the field.
But just how many of them will live to see themselves as full-fledged Purgers?
“As the fangs of the cubs sharpen, so too will the maws of peril.”
While Kiin is admiring the young Apprentices, he can sense a Purger approaching him from the other side of the walkway. The newcomer’s Chi has a rather choppy flow, signifying distress. He calmly waits for him to arrive.
“Father.” The Purger bows. It’s En.
Kiin still has his eyes trained on the Apprentices. “Tell me, En. What determines an Apprentice to be worthy of being a real Purger?”
En frowns, hesitating. Kiin can sense his flow of Chi spiking; he’s annoyed by the question. “I… well, whether the Arcana Ritual accepts him or not, I think.”
“The Arcana Ritual…”
It’s a ritual that taps into the young Apprentice’s spirit and evokes a special power from its very essence. When an instructor deems an Apprentice pair to be ready－ usually by the age of 16 or 17－ he will propose for them to be selected. In fact, the purpose of the harsh training is solely to prepare them for this ritual.
There are two criteria that must be fulfilled in order for the ritual to succeed. One: the boy’s body, mind and soul must be strong. Two: his partner must survive the ordeal as well. If any of the pre-requisites are not met, the soul of the boy would be ripped apart… and since criterion two exists, both boys must be strong. Though the process is painful, the boys will gain an incredible power should they live through the ordeal. And this power is best known by the Purgers as an Arcana ability.
And in the ritual, it’s Kiin himself who’s forcing the powers out of them.
“Yes, quite right.” Kiin nods. “If it were simply up to their physical and mental strength, then our training would’ve been more than enough. But even then, only half of our boys are capable of surviving the ritual.”
“Their soul,” En says.
“Exactly. So, what do full-fledged Purgers possess in their soul that makes them special, different compared to those that don’t survive?”
By now, Kiin can sense En’s impatience growing. “I’m not sure, Father.”
“Reason,” Kiin says. “Their reason of existence, their imperishable will to achieve something. Survival is an afterthought at that point, and yet it makes their will to survive so much stronger. The ritual requires this. We can give our boys the best training this realm has to offer, but this reason is something they have to find on their own.” Kiin dips his head, a bitter smile cracking from his lips. “Which is why Purgers are designed to work like lovers. Love is an effective catalyst, despite its volatility; a double-edged sword, if you may.”
En stones for a moment, then gives a short bow. Yet another sign of frustration. Kiin chuckles before saying, “Sorry about that. So what was it that you wanted to tell me?”
En lowers his head even more. “It’s the sixth day of their punishment. I came to remind you as ordered.”
“Thanks.” Kiin knows he can be rather forgetful at times, which was why he asked for En’s help.
“Pardon me for asking, Father…”
“You want to know the reason behind the order.”
En hesitates. “Yes.”
Kiin turns back to the young Apprentices at the courtyard. “Tell me, En. Would you keep a Purger whose sole reason of existence is to kill you?”
“You’re talking about Song.”
Kiin nods with a dry smile. It’s no secret to the Blossom that the boy is hell-bent on murdering His Majesty and all of his holiness. “A wondrous boy, isn’t he?”
“If I may be so bold, Father,” En says. “No, I wouldn’t keep a Purger around like that. Even with all of his talents, he poses a threat to the other Purgers, and myself.”
“You’re hard-headed as always.” Kiin strolls down the walkway, with En following close behind. “But you know I can’t be killed by normal means.”
En doesn’t respond to that.
“And it’s unlikely he’ll hurt any of the other Purgers. If truly wishes to kill me, then he has to play by my house rules. Assassinating me would be a lot easier when the whole of the Blossom isn’t out for your blood, don’t you think?”
The both of them turn away from the courtyard, making their way towards the eastern area of the Palace, where the Electric Chamber is at.
“I want to congratulate them for surviving this long. But more importantly, I want to see him.”
En raises his brow. “Song? Why?”
“You don’t sound pleased.”
Kiin chuckles. Everyone has enemies and friends within the Palace; Song is just the kind to have more enemies, and En isn’t the type to get along with him anyway. “Because I don’t want to see his potential wasted. If you want someone to grow, don’t tie him down with you. Let him be free to do what he’s meant to do.”
En drops his jaws. “You don’t mean…”
Kiin knows what he’s getting at. No, he hasn’t lost his mind. Despite Song’s motivations, Kiin has always been awed by his talents, and how far he can go with it. A prodigy Purger, without a doubt. Keeping Song behind the protection of the Blossom and the Palace walls will only inhibit his growth. If one truly wishes to grow, one has to step out of his comfort zone. And Song’s motivations are perfectly aligned with this philosophy.
The walkway leads past the Hall of Peerless Grace, one of the smaller buildings in the Palace. Kiin spots an Apprentice pair making their way down the vast steps. The boy on the left says something. His partner giggles, then reaches over to kiss him on the cheek. The two look like newly-weds, or childhood lovers dating. Apprentices tend to be more open about their relationships compared to full-fledged Purgers. Seeing their innocence fills Kiin with sorrow. Many of these young boys have died over the years since he started this so-called ‘family’. Although he feels that they deserve to be happy, sacrifices must be made because of the war.
Kiin begins to wonder if the decision he’s about to make will kill Song… and if Song dies, so will Shu.
“This war…” Kiin sighs, not taking his eyes off the Apprentice pair. “It will be long before we see its end.”
The boy that received the kiss is laughing now. He whirls his partner towards him, and they both touch noses. Such bliss… such naivety.
“Is something wrong, Father?” En asks, sounding concerned.
The Apprentice pair then takes off towards the west, hand in hand. The bond between a Purger pair transcend beyond even lovers. Kiin sometimes doubt the rationale behind cultivating such a tight bond between Purgers. But without this bond, the Arcana Ritual wouldn’t work for many of these young boys. It’s complicated. Emotions play a huge factor in the ritual, and love is one of the safest possible key catalysts when it comes to strengthening the boys’ spirit to survive it. But is it worth it? Imagine the anguish of losing someone so important in your life－ quite literally your only family and lover at the same time; which is usually why when a Purger dies, so does his partner.
“Petals carried by the arms of Autumn, know not of the leaves she’s touched.”
“Open the doors,” Kiin orders.
“Yes, Father,” the two Apprentices answer in unison and proceed to slide the thick bar out of the double doors.
Located twenty meters underground, the prison-like system hosts ten Electric Chambers, and the labyrinthine complex is designed to be both impenetrable and inescapable. Of course, nobody would be foolish enough to do either in a place like this.
“Take me to the cell where Song and Shu are in,” Kiin says.
The two Apprentices lead the way. Sunseeds line the walls at regular intervals, usually maintained by the Apprentices on duty. Still, it’s rather dim, reminding Kiin of the filthy dungeons that the military used from ages past, in times of war. Without furnishings or any man-made equipment though, the tunnels look uncomfortably bare and… well, inhuman to him, which he also finds rather creepy.
The four of them arrive at the furthest end of the west wing, and there lies the door they’ve been looking for. While the Apprentice pair scurries to remove the bar, Kiin glances back at En, who’s been uncomfortably silent throughout the walk.
“Brings back memories?” Kiin prompts cheekily, remembering the first time he sentenced En and Yi to a day of electrical torture. It was about five years ago, if memory serves right.
“Those are memories I’d prefer to lose,” En answers, avoiding eye contact. “But to me, one day of torture was almost enough to break my sanity. These boys have gone through six days already…”
Even though he doesn’t like Song, En can still sympathise for him. No, anyone would. Seven days of electrical torture, with no food, is basically a death sentence to most Purgers, truly one of the most terrible ways to die in this realm. Perhaps if he was younger, within mortal age, Kiin would’ve felt that sort of sympathy as well.
The boys eventually manage to unlock the bar and slide it open. En and the Apprentices take their leave. The metal door opens with a squeal, and within the sunseed-lit room are the boys he’s been looking for. Their bodies are limp, stark naked.
To put it simply, both of them look like a mess. Dried blood, the metal digging into their flesh, the oil on their faces and skin, and their clearly malnourished and bruised bodies－ it’s quite heartbreaking to see. Bloodstains paint the stone floors in a hue of rusty brown, their own mixed with those from the previous inmates. Shu’s eyes are half closed, and only the whites can be seen－ unconscious perhaps, and probably at death’s door. Song, on the other hand…
“You wretch…” the silver-haired boy spits.
“Seems like you still have a lot of fight in you,” Kiin says, sauntering towards him.
Song looks as if he’s about to curse again, but he holds it back. Instead, with the same hatred burning in his eyes, he says, “Let Shu go.”
Kiin stops, a little surprised by what he just heard.
“Let… Shu go,” Song repeats, this time a little softer. The boy forces his exhausted body to look at his partner. “He’s not going to last for another day. I’ll take the remainder of his sentence for him.”
Unlike the other Purgers, Song’s greatest weapon is his hatred, which quite literally fuels his arcana power. For him to put that aside to save his friend is an interesting discovery for Kiin. Perhaps he’s misjudged him; perhaps he’s more like the rest of the Purgers than he thought.
“Tell me, Song,” Kiin says. “What made you choose to protect the creature you found in that cave?”
“Huh?” Song grunts, trying to get his head in order. Kiin can tell that despite his tough words, he’s almost at his limit as well. “I’m not obliged to tell you that, trash.”
“Even if I’ll let Shu go if you do?”
Song swears, the fury in his eyes flaring. If looks could kill, then Kiin’s body would’ve been ripped and grounded to fine pieces by now. This is what he wanted to see. Song’s hatred separates him from the rest of the Purgers, and it’ll push him to do things most Purgers wouldn’t do. It looks like the Oracle might be right after all.
“Relax,” Kiin says. “Shu’s sentence will not change even if you tell me, so you can keep that to yourself.”
“He’ll live, I can assure you that. But more importantly…” Kiin takes Song by his chin. “Once your sentence is over, I’ll let you have a chance to kill me, if you can, that is. After that, you’re free to leave the Blossom with Shu if you wish.”
The silver-haired boy widens his eyes, completely taken aback by Kiin’s words. It’s everything Song has wanted since he first stepped into the Palace, and Kiin knows that. But he soon regains his composure. “The… the only thing important to me right now is Shu’s safety,” Song growls. “Nothing else matters.”
“You say that now, but I’m sure you’ll come back to it later.” Kiin chuckles, turning away from the crucified boys. He’s done what he came here for. “Think about what I said. En will tell you the rest once you’re out.”
Kiin shuts the door behind him. Even with the meter-thick slab of metal between them, Kiin can still picture Song’s expression of undiluted rancour. Song will take his offer, there’s no questioning that. And when that happens, the next phase of his plan will finally begin.