“As you probably have guessed, when I said I was giving you a chance to kill me, it’s a duel to the death.” Kiin looks as confident as ever, as if he doesn’t even see Song as worthy of posing as a threat to him. Seeing this only makes Song’s blood boil even more.
As promised, Kiin has invited Song to the Hall of Final Transcendence to further discuss on the challenge. Within the massive throne room are ten of the Blossom’s most experienced Purgers serving as an informal court to witness the process. Each Purger pair is kneeling at opposite sides, the five pairs forming a spacious isle for Song. None of them look particularly worried or sorry for him, and that’s fine. Song expected as much anyway.
“There are three conditions you need to comply with if you wish to have an uninterrupted duel with me,” Kiin says. “First, is that Shu does not interfere. Should that happen at any time in the fight, the other Purgers will deem you both as traitors and carry out judgement accordingly.”
“Fine by me.”
“Second: once the duel is accepted, you are not allowed to withdraw from it. Should you attempt to escape from the Palace before that date, or be absent on the day of the duel, you will be deemed as a traitor and be hunted down.”
No turning back, huh? Song nods. “Fine.”
“The final condition,” Kiin continues, the authority never wavering from his tone. “Should you lose the duel, your partner will be deemed as a traitor regardless.”
“What?” The word tumbles out of Song’s lips. Kiin’s words were like filthy fingers jamming down his throat, infecting his insides with the mucky feeling of horror. But almost immediately, anger burns the despair away. “You wretch! Shu knows nothing about this! Why must be held responsible for my actions?”
“Have you forgotten what it means to be part of a Purger pair already?” Kiin sighs. “If you don’t wish for your partner to be involved, then show me you’re more than just talk. Win, and the both of you can walk free.”
Despicable. But… I don’t have a choice. “Fine by me,” Song says. “The Festival of Moons, that’s when we’ll do this.”
“Poetic. It’s rare, coming from you.”
Song whirls around and storms towards the exit. The Festival of Moons… this was where it all began, and this will be where it ends.
As Song strolls along the walkway, the distant roars of the young Apprentices from the courtyard catches his attention. Under the sweltering hot sun, the young boys are in the midst of their martial arts drills. Seeing them reminds Song of his younger self, during his days as an Apprentice with Shu. Life was much tougher back then when they were thrown out of the Palace every night, and their schedules were much more strictly dictated by their instructors.
Do these boys even know what lies ahead of them? How many of them are going to die in the ritual? How many more are going to die in the missions assigned by Kiin? These boys are just like him－ forced into a life of war against their will, with a partner they can’t live without. How is this fair for any of them?
Song lets out a sharp exhale of frustration, clenches his fist and storms down the pathway once more. But that’s when he notices a Purger heading towards him from the other side. And it’s the last person in the world he’d want to meet at a time like this.
“Maybe I underestimated you.” Long, the boy with luscious, flowing golden hair walks towards him. His hair reminds Song a lot about Kiin, which only deepens his hate for him. “To think you’d have the guts to betray Father for a worthless Seeker. And even after that hellish torture, you still want to declare war with him?”
“And what about you?” Song counters. “At least I’m doing something. If you’re the Long I know, then you and I both share the same goals. You want to get out of here too, don’t you?”
Long smiles, raising his chin. Out of everyone in the Palace, Long is the only person who shares his hatred for the Blossom, as well as his dreams of leading a better life outside of the Palace. Even their powers are extremely similar. But despite all that, the two could never see eye to eye.
“Power,” Long says. “Power is needed to realise your dreams, to shape the world to your liking. Without power, you can only watch as the world shapes you to its whims instead.” Long saunters towards Song, his aura swelling as if to challenge him. “I can only guess that you’re doing this because you believe you’ve grown strong enough to overcome Father.”
“Who knows.” Song takes a step forward to meet his rival head on. “But he’s given me the best opportunity to kill him, the one chance I needed. I’ll gladly take it.”
“So you’re betting your life away even though you don’t know if you’re strong enough?”
Long smirks, nodding slightly. “Spoken like the only person who deserves to be my rival. In that case, I’m guessing you won’t mind that I test your strength?”
Long’s fist blurs. Song barely has time to raise his hand and instantly, a pulverizing force drives against his palm, the shock shredding through his nerves and shoving his entire body back.
“You damned…” Song seethes.
“At least your reflexes are still decent.” Long says, his fist frozen in the air. “So which do you think is stronger right now? Your Chariot, or my Star?”
“You’re going to have to work for that answer.” Song crouches into tiger stance, his palms postured defensively in front of him.
Long possesses the Star arcana. Like Song’s Chariot, Long’s arcana ability grants him incredible speed and strength. The one major difference is that Song’s ability takes the form of the sword, Zhi, while Long only ever fights with his bare fists. Since the day he stepped into the Palace, Long has been Song’s rival. That single punch from Long took all of Song’s strength to resist. As expected of the only Purger in the blossom who can match him in physical combat.
“But it looks like your wounds aren’t completely healed yet,” Long says with a sigh, pulling his fist back. “There’s no meaning in defeating you like this.”
Song calms his temper before it could get to him. After being rivals for such a long time, he knows better than to let Long have the upper hand in the mental war. “Don’t get cocky. You’ve never beaten me before.”
“Neither have you. But soon, our stalemate will come to an end. Tell me, how comfortable are you with your Yin?”
Song’s blood turns to ice. Yin－ the true nature of a Purger’s arcana ability, the ultimate form of the power bestowed upon them from the accursed ritual. In that otherworldly tongue, Yin is the word for ‘limit’. However, to unleash Yin from their arcana powers, the user’s literal soul must have the strength to fuel this form of power and wield it for himself. The conditions to unleash this power is entirely dependent on the Purger himself, but to Song’s knowledge, there isn’t a single Purger he knows that has completely mastered this power. Unless Long is telling him…
“The look on your face says it all,” Long says.
“You expect me to believe you’ve mastered your Yin?”
“I wouldn’t say ‘mastered’, but I’m starting to enjoy the taste of it.” Suddenly, the icy flames in Long’s eyes soften to something that resembles pity. “A word of advice: without Yin, you don’t stand a chance against Father. And even with it, a fighting chance is the best you can hope for.”
“Oh? You talk as if you’ve fought him before.”
“Who knows.” Long shrugs. He makes his way forward, now shoulder to shoulder with his rival. “You and I－ we’re both very different, yet so very alike too. I wouldn’t like you to die to Father. No, that pleasure belongs to me, and only me. Best you remember that, Song.”
“I don’t plan to die to him, and definitely not to you.”
“Good.” Long proceeds to take his leave. “When the time is right, I’ll make my move too.”
His move? Song glances back at him, wondering if he really means what he’s thinking right now. But if that’s the Long that he knows, then the answer is obvious.