It seems that Shu is late tonight; somehow, Song can’t help but feel relieved, even though he specifically came to his room to see him. The subtle scent of lavender hangs in the air, Shu’s favourite bath salt. In other words, Shu’s scent.
The sight of Shu’s bamboo flute catches his attention. Song makes his way towards the meter-long instrument at the far end of the room, placed on top of an intricately crafted cross stand. His sense of relief quickly returns to sorrow as memories of their past come rushing into him.
Many of Song’s brethren believe that he’s the crudest, most unrefined and uncultured Purger within the Blossom, and he can’t even blame them for thinking that way. Every Purger within the Blossom is proficient at an art form by the age of 13, be it visual, literary or musical… every Purger aside from Song. With Song’s lack of ability to properly express his emotions, it was easy to make fun of his dull nature.
Uncultured though? Although Song has seldom shown any interest in learning the three forms of art, he’s always loved listening to Shu whenever he plays the flute. Shu’s skill with the flute is extraordinary, unrivalled even within the Blossom, and it always finds a way to put him at ease.
It’s odd, but ever since Shu gave him the cold shoulder, Song’s first thoughts were his partner’s music. When was the last time he heard Shu play the flute? Song isn’t sure. It’s then when he realises he doesn’t know how much he’s had all this time until he’s lost them.
Will I ever hear him play again? Song muses dolefully as he gazes at the flute.
Someone knocks on the door, and Song looks back to see Mei eyeing at him with a woeful smile. “Don’t tell me you’re thinking of playing a tune right now.”
“I could, but your ears would bleed.”
Song casts one last look at the flute before walking to Mei. He closes the double doors behind him and strolls along the stone path with his friend. Their walk is filled with silence. Song’s mind wanders off again, this time bringing him back to Mei’s words before.
“You know you can’t win! Kiin is the one who gave us our powers! Why are you so intent on throwing your life away like this? Why?”
Nobody is truly ready to die, and Song is no exception to this. As the Festival of Moons draw closer, he can’t deny that he’s starting to feel afraid, so very afraid, and alone. His eyes drift to Mei, one of the only people in this world he can trust. His heart yearns for him to scream, to cry, to beg Mei to stop him from partaking in the suicidal duel… but he just can’t do it. This is what he lives for, his reason of existence— to fight for freedom from the Blossom. But what is freedom? What is peace? Is death the answer? Song isn’t so sure of anything anymore.
“You’re always like that,” Mei says softly. “It’s so hard to tell what’s on your mind.”
Song says nothing. He can’t. He’s afraid that if he opens his mouth, he’ll blurt out things that he’ll regret later.
“But you know, out of everyone I’ve met in my life, you have the saddest eyes,” Mei continues. “Sometimes angry, sometimes lonely, but always sad.”
Song still says nothing, but the wounds of his heart is starting to open again.
“I feel like… I’ve really failed you as a friend.” Mei huddles his arms against his chest. “I feel so helpless whenever I watch you.”
“You’re too caring of others,” Song finally says. “But that makes you a good person. You’re probably a better person than I could ever hope to be.”
Mei instinctively grabs Song’s hand, a little too roughly, but Song doesn’t mind. The two stand rooted to the ground for awhile, both knowing this might be one of their last moments together.
“If anyone asked me I’d say the two of you have something going on.”
Song and Mei turn to see Long walking towards them. Song snarls and storms towards the rival, sensing hatred roiling within him like always at the sight of that majestic golden hair.
“You,” he growls. “What do you want?”
“You’re losing your temper pretty often lately. Funny, I used to think you didn’t even know how to get angry, and look at you now.”
“You’re begging for it, aren’t you?” Song stretches his palm out, and Zhi materialises before him.
Long shakes his head, sighing. “I’d love to spar with you, but I can’t afford you to be weakened before your duel with Father.”
“How thoughtful of you.”
“Normally I’d dismiss a Purger with a shaken composure to be in his sub-optimal state but you… you might be a little different from the rest.” Long snorts and gives a tiny smile. “I came here to tell you something about your partner.”
At that, Song’s frown deepens. “What about Shu?”
“It seems that my partner isn’t very happy with some things I said, and now he’s having a duel with him.”
Song grits his teeth as his fury reaches its climax, and he presses the blade against Long’s neck, who appears completely unfazed by this. “Leave Shu out of this, you wretch.”
Mei steps forward and pulls Song by the arm. “Are you crazy? I mean, I know you are, but we don’t need you to cause any more problems than we already have.” He turns his attention to Long. “What did you say that ticked Zhou off?”
“That’s not something I can tell either of you now,” Long says, leisurely pushing Song’s blade away. “All you need to know is we’re not your enemies… for now.”
An explosion sounds in the distance, stealing Song and Mei’s attention from Long.
“There’s a change in the wind, and the Blossom will be shaken to its core. Everything that’s happening now is because of you, Song— you and your ridiculous pursuit for freedom,” Long says with a knowing tone, and for some reason Song detects a hint of respect. “You may not know this, but Kiin believes that you’re special, an anomaly, someone with a destiny too great to be confined within the walls of the palace. I don’t fully understand his prophecy, but you’re the most worthy rival I have in this lifetime, and I intend to see this through to the very end.”
Fate, destiny, prophecies— Song has never believed in all of that gibberish. If anything, just thinking about the meaning of those words is hurting his head. He’s not sure what Kiin is expecting of him, and he really doesn’t care. All he knows is that he has a dream, and he can’t make it come true unless he crushes Kiin’s heart.
“Do what you like,” Song says, barging past Long. “But get in my way, and I’ll kill you too.”
As Song and Mei rush out of the gate, Long smiles, relieved even though he’s been expecting those words from his rival right from the very start. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Song takes off in the direction of the southern courtyards, leaving Mei behind, traversing across passageways and courtyards alike as if he’s a living gust of wind. A second detonation gives Song the information he needs of the duel’s exact location. Within mere seconds, he arrives among the ranks of the Apprentices by the courtyard, and his entrance sends a blast of wind tearing through the battlefield. The startled Apprentices glare at Song, Lin included among the sea of shocked faces.
“You’re here,” Lin says.
A burst of hushed whispers simmer among the young boys. In the meantime, several full-fledged Purgers have arrived to watch the duel as well. Song ignores all of them; his attention is focused entirely on the battle ahead…
… and Shu is losing.
Five gems hover across the battlefield, each the size of a fist, all at Zhou’s command. Shu already has eight of his Faceless Soldiers on the field, three with shields, three with swords and two with bows. His uniform is in tatters, and red gashes line his body, though the wounds don’t look too serious.
The Faceless Swordsmen charge at Zhou, but the gems immediately fire beams of light at them. The Shieldsmen move in to guard them. The beams burn through their shields and armour as if they were paper, and they crumple to the ground. Within moments, the Swordsmen are pierced by the next salvo of beams. Meanwhile Shu is under fire by the two gems focused on him. The Archers open fire at Zhou, each arrow made up of pure Chi energy… only to have their projectiles intercepted by the gems’ lasers. The Bowmen are then promptly cut down as well.
Shu is doing his best to evade the beams from the gems, summoning as many Faceless Soldiers as he can while dodging, but they’re quickly demolished by Zhou’s relentless attacks. Shu dodges several beams, even manages to deflect a couple of shots with his sword, but ultimately one pierces his thigh, and he drops to a kneel.
“That bastard…” Song clenches his fists so tightly that his skin begins to break, and blood trickles from his hands.
“The duel has already been decided,” Mao says impassively. Song glances at the dispassionate Purger with greyish hair, blunt bangs with thick sidelocks tied by red ribbons at their ends, one of the more traditional-looking Purgers around. Though physically weaker than most Purgers, he’s considered one of the most mysterious and dangerous ones. After all, he wields the Death arcana.
“What was that?” Song fixes him with a flinty look.
“Shu is just too severely outclassed in his current condition,” Mao explains, folding his arms. “Range, speed, power— Zhou has him beaten in every way.”
“Guess The Emperor is useless on its own after all,” adds Ci, Mao’s partner, a Purger with shoulder-length red hair and two sides up. “You can’t really call this a duel now, can you?”
Although he hates hearing it, Song knows Shu’s abilities better than anyone in the Blossom. Right now, Shu’s options to counter-attack are virtually nil. True, he has the ability to teleport by substituting himself with one of his Soldiers’ positions, but to pull it off he needs a Soldier to get close to Zhou first. If only his Soldiers were stronger, or faster…
Why has it come down to this? Song thinks grudgingly to himself.
Shu’s last Soldiers are brought down by the next salvo of piercing light. Then, another beam grazes Shu’s thigh, and another detonates against his left arm. Shu’s screams of pain is driving Song insane with fury, clouding his mind with nothing but thoughts of murdering Zhou. Before he’s even aware of it, he’s storming towards the duelling grounds with his eyes blazing in brilliant gold, but Lin stops him.
“Trust in him,” Lin whispers. Song detects a hint of guilt in his tone. “Shu… he’s not someone that would fight a pointless battle.”
“He’s my partner,” Song fires back at his friend. “I can’t stand by and watch him get killed like this.”
“And yet, you’re making us do the same for you?”
Song freezes. Lin’s glare is now one of resentment.
“You really are a selfish one, aren’t you?” Lin mutters.
An icky, hollow feeling spreads within him, and it’s as if all the blood in his back is drained away. Is this the feeling of guilt? It’s Song’s first time feeling like something like this, and somehow, it’s enough to douse his anger.
I’m selfish, huh? he muses darkly. Shu has told him that many times before, but this is the first time he’s felt so awful about it.
Mei arrives at the scene just in time to see Song’s crestfallen state. He dashes over and places a comforting arm around his shoulder. Lin sighs, holding an envious gaze at them.
“I…” Song whispers. “Really am a terrible person, huh?”