Though without a name, the south-east corner of the Palace is often used by full-fledged Purgers to hold their duels. With the Hall of Grand Secretary’s complex taking up half of the area, the field is only a third of the Palace’s outer courtyard in size. Nonetheless, it remains as one of the Purgers’ favourite locations to duel since it’s more secluded than the other hot spots within the Palace.
Shu and Zhou both stand at opposite sides of the open courtyard, with dozens of Apprentices watching by the sidelines. With only the ivory-white moon in the sky to serve as lighting, it’s difficult for Shu to make out Zhou’s features from this distance… or any of the boys, for that matter. Lin, who has volunteered to be referee for the duel, stands at the centre of the field.
Zhou－ dubbed as the Angel of Hong Zhou, wielder of the Sun arcana, is renowned for his ability to manipulate light as his tools of destruction. Shu has never seen him in action before, but he’s not sure if the reverse is true for him. How much does Zhou know about my power?
Crisp nocturnal winds sweep the battlefield, fluttering in Shu’s ears. Despite the distance, Shu can feel his eyes connect with Zhou’s in the most intense exchange ever. There’s something about Zhou’s animosity that he believes there’s more than it meets the eye. How long has Zhou held this resentment for him? And why is he going so far as to challenge him to a duel tonight?
The clamours of the young Apprentices cease the moment Lin raises his arm up. The signal for the preparation of the duel. Shu crouches into combat stance, steadying his breath and sharpening his focus.
Need to play defensive, analyse his fighting style. The power of light… I have to be careful.
As he holds his stance, time seems to stop. Nothing moves; not Lin’s arm, not Zhou, not the audience, not even himself. The tension in the air has every single living being on the courtyard at its chokehold.
Lin’s arm dips.
Blood rushes into Shu’s thighs, the sudden flux of power readying them to pounce.
Lin’s arm slices down.
Before Lin has even taken his third step in retreat, Shu and Zhou have both crossed the halfway mark of the field. In the next blink of an eye, their knuckles collide explosively, throwing up a gust of wind filled with Chi energy.
The two Purgers throw themselves into a storm of clashing limbs; a fist is met with a palm; a chop is guarded by an arm; a kick is met with another kick; a never-ending series of blows and blocks erupt between them, neither side showing restraint or mercy. It was as if Shu’s body was possessed－ each muscle has a will of its own, throwing themselves to catch Zhou’s sharp movements, slamming against his limbs over and over again in a desperate attempt to find an opening.
Zhou’s rhythm breaks.
Shu’s palm strike meets thin air. Suddenly, a crushing force detonates from the side of his ribs. Shu is thrown free from the ground, and through a grimace, he manages to shift his arms to his unguarded spot in the air… just in time to intercept another powerful blow from Zhou. Shu’s feet touches solid earth again, skidding several meters back.
Now that he’s had time to breathe properly again, Shu is starting to feel the pain from his ribs.
“Is that it?” Zhou scoffs. “This is the partner of the Blossom’s legendary Demon Blade?”
Shu’s suppressed rage finally breaks free from its cage. “You asked for it!” Roaring, he springs forward once more.
“Naive,” Zhou mutters.
At the last moment, shy of two steps from Zhou, Shu halts abruptly and throws an uppercut with his foot. Zhou leans back, evading it. But Shu doesn’t stop there; twisting his body, he soars into the air for spinning kick, forcing Zhou to lean back yet again.
Got him to my rhythm.
Shu presses home his attacks, launching a barrage of blindingly fast punches. Zhou meets each and every single one of the blows with his own fists, gritting his teeth as he’s pushed back, on the defensive. The sound of fabric and skin cracking rings in their ears, accompanied by a dull aching sensation creeping on their limbs. Their lightning fast exchanges are fleeting, and soon their strikes become slower, longer, like the flow of water.
Meanwhile, the Apprentices are marvelling at the electrifying duel. It’s rare for them to witness such refined and beautiful display of martial arts. This is the power of a true Purger; this is how a true Purger fights. The ferocity, the focus, the sharpness of their moves, the speed and the strength－ all of these qualities the exemplary reflection of a Purger’s deadliness in battle, the true beauty of their nature.
The duel drags on, but their blows still do not falter in speed or power. The more they clash, the more Shu can sense Zhou’s resentment for him, as if it’s manifesting from his attacks.
Why does he have so much hatred? Why… must there be so much hate within the Blossom?
A lapse in Shu’s focus causes his next palm strike to be easily caught. Zhou seizes the chance, twisting their locked arms and with his free hand, fires a jab into Shu’s right eye. It was as if a blade is run through his skull; the pain forces him to stagger back.
But through sheer willpower, he dispels both the shock and pain instantly, angling his ear towards Zhou, diverting his focus into his hearing. Shu can sense it－ Zhou’s fist is thrusting towards his skull. He leans back to avoid it, then the next, and the next, the force from each blow caressing his nape, each missing his head by a hair’s breadth.
And that’s when he senses the opening in his seemingly flawless rhythm.
Shu’s elbow shoots up, diverting Zhou’s arm and throwing his balance off. He follows up with a quick slam of his palm against his chest, and an explosive punch to his stomach.
Zhou reels from the impact of Shu’s counter-attack. He drops to a knee and lets out a choking gasp. “Heh… I guess your abs aren’t just for show after all.”
Shu pants, pressing a palm against his tearing eye and drops to his knee as well. Like all full-fledged Purgers, Zhou’s martial arts and physical prowess are top-notch, but even then, at his level he wouldn’t be able to lay a finger on either Long or Song.
“I think it’s about time we got serious.” Zhou slowly rises to his feet, stabilising his breathing.
As if reading each other’s minds, both Purgers reveal their arcana at the same time－ a luminous card materialises between their fingers, each with their respective arcana symbols engraved within the frames.
The real battle starts now, and Shu knows he has too much at stake to lose here. For Song, he will do anything.