Why? Why am I so weak…
Shu thrusts his blade into the ground, panting heavily. If he hadn’t intercepted the last few beams with the evaporating wisps of Chi from his dead Soldiers, his body would’ve been riddled with holes by now. The explosion hurt, but it’s infinitely better than being crippled. But it seems like he’s at his limit now.
“Pathetic,” Zhou spits. “How? How can you be this worthless?” Shu doesn’t understand why, but for the first time, he can detect anger from him.
“You think I don’t know that?” Tears patter onto the stone tiles, mixing with his blood and sweat. All of the fear, all of the doubts, all of the self-loathe that he’s been holding back all these years are now hitting him in full force. “You think I don’t know how weak I am?” he screams.
“I know that, better than Song, better than anyone else!” Shu lets out a choking sob. “Even though I’ve always had these nagging doubts that I can’t keep up with Song, that I’m too weak to support him… I never wanted to admit it to anyone, not even to myself. I though that maybe if I trained harder than everyone else, I could make up for the difference in talent. But now, in the cruellest possible way when I have to fight to protect my partner, I’m shown the cold, hard truth that I’m just too weak.”
Although everything Shu said was true, he knows the reality that Song’s life is in danger still hasn’t changed. Pity and self-loathe will get him nowhere in the Blossom, because that’s how the Purgers have been raised since the day they’ve joined the family. No matter what, he has to keep fighting, and he has to win.
“For Song, I will do anything.”
Several Faceless Soldiers materialise by Shu’s sides.
All of these years, Song has been the only light of his life. Even at death’s door, when he was in the Electric Chamber, the only thing he was able to dream about was his past where Song has always been there to protect him. Song’s deadpan expression, Song’s laughter, Song’s anger, Song’s stupid smile— all of them are precious to him. And last of all, he could never forget the first time they met, the box of rice he gave him when he was starving, the first time he felt like he was cared for in this world.
The first time he fell in love with him.
“I’ll give anything, even my life, if it means to protect him.”
The only thing on his mind right now is his love for Song, and his burning desire to save him. His emotions begin pouring into his life force, a spiritual fuel stripping away the pain and fatigue from his body.
“His life isn’t for you to decide!”
As the final word leaves his breath, his Chi erupts, so much of it radiating in the air around him that it’s as if he’s bathed in a sea of white light. In turn, his life force pours into the Faceless Soldiers as well; the trimmings of their armour flash, changing to gold, their bodies now overflowing with Shu’s newfound power.
“What is this?” Zhou mutters. “Yin? No… not quite.” He shakes his head, ignoring those thoughts. “So you’re finally starting to get serious?”
One of the Faceless Soldiers tosses Shu his glaive. He throws his sword aside and catches his trusty glaive, twirling it to a comfortable stance.
The Soldiers collectively take a step forward, brandishing their swords, reinvigorated and ready to die for their Emperor.
Shu bursts forth, his empowered Soldiers sprinting alongside with him.
“I’ll put you in your place!” Zhou roars, raising his palm forward, and at his command five beams of light streak towards the incoming forces.
Right as the beams are about to connect with Shu and his Soldiers, a second squad of Shieldsmen materialise, taking their positions in front of each vulnerable target. The beams are deflected by the shields, some detonating onto the ground while others diverted into the night sky.
Every single one of the Purgers watching stare in shock and awe— nobody even saw how quickly the Soldiers were created, not even Zhou.
Clicking his tongue, Zhou summons a sword made of solid light and guards himself from the Soldier’s initial attack. Shu, along with the rest of his Soldiers, quickly take up positions, surrounding him before pressing home their attacks. Zhou desperately fends off the onslaught of impeccably coordinated attacks. One of the Soldiers manages to find a break in his defence, thrusting its blade forward and nicking Zhou in the arm. Shu swings his glaive at him; Zhou leans back, but a little too late as the blade cuts through his uniform and gashes his chest.
But the opening was a feint— Zhou seizes the pause after Shu’s score on him and backflips into the air. The gems move in to assist him, raining beams of light down at Shu.
The Soldiers immediately gather around their master, absorbing the shots for him. Right as their bodies hit the ground, more materialise out of thin air to take their places. Swearing, Zhou sends his gems blasting their beams at Shu’s forces as he retreats…
Only to be greeted by another squad of Soldiers on the other side of the field. Zhou curses as he parries the first blow from the closest advancing Soldier. He never noticed that Shu had summoned Soldiers from this side of the battlefield as well.
As Zhou is about to cleave the Soldier in half, he catches sight of Shu’s glaive from the corner of his eye. He angles his blade just in time to guard against the blow.
“How did you—”
Shu shoves Zhou’s blade aside and kicks him square in the guts. As Zhou reels from the blow, his gems are already in position, surrounding Shu. They open fire— only to have their deadly beams pierce a lone Faceless Soldier.
“What?” Zhou bellows bewilderedly. His spine tingles, and trusting in his senses, he brings his sword behind him, barely guarding the next strike from Shu.
The gems move in once more, focusing their fire at Shu. But yet again, another Faceless Soldier takes his place, and yet again, Shu has teleported himself to another position.
“Stop messing with me!” Zhou bellows again, his frustration palpable.
The two continue to exchange blow after blow, and every time the beams appear to find their mark on Shu, his body is instantly replaced by a Soldier’s. When Zhou focuses the beams on the Soldiers’ instead, Shu is able to freely close in and cross blades with him.
His beams’ coverage is getting sloppy. Now!
With his Archers backing him, Shu sends his surviving vanguards to charge forth, before leaping into the air himself. Within moments, the Soldiers have Zhou surrounded. Zhou recalls his gems, and the orbs of light circle around him and open fire, decimating the troops in the blink of an eye. Meanwhile, Shu is already plummeting back to earth, glaive at ready to cut his rival down.
Zhou’s gems angle towards Shu and open fire. Shu’s Archers fire. The Chi arrows intercept the beams, detonating them in a blinding flash of white light. Zhou raises his blade up to defend against Shu…
But nothing emerges from the light. Instead, Zhou can feel the touch of cold metal against his neck. He looks back to see that somehow, Shu has managed to find a way to creep up on his rear and now has him at blade point. The duel is over.
“How…” Zhou mutters.
“While I was in the air, I summoned one more Soldier behind you,” Shu explains. “The Chi used to make that soldier was minimal, and since you focused all of your attention on my aerial attack, you weren’t able to detect it.”
“Then you teleported to it,” Zhou finishes for him, and his sword of light begins to evaporate from his hands. “Fine, I take back what I said about you being weak.”
“No, you were right.” Shu lowers his glaive and recalls his weapon as well. “Now, tell me about Song.”
Cheers erupt from the Apprentices, the young boys roused to a frenzy by the performance. Shu can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable from the attention; Zhou however, has his chin held high despite his defeat, and surveys the audience with those frigid eyes of his. By now, there are about eight Purgers watching them, with Song among their ranks.
“Your love for him is a tragic one,” Zhou says.
“Isn’t that so for all Purgers?” Shu counters.
Zhou snorts, gently closing his eyes. A bitter smile lifts from the corners of his lips. “I suppose so.” He looks up to the stars broodingly. Shu gives him the time he needs.
Lately, there’s been a change in the winds within the Blossom, and it feels like a lot of the Purgers, including himself, are having doubts about something. Just what exactly is going on?
“What does it mean to be a Purger?” Shu whispers to himself. Puppets of Kiin? Powerful, wealthy mercenaries? Saviours of the world? Or just blinded boys sent to the slaughterhouse of fate?
Zhou eyes at him with genuine sympathy this time. With a sigh, he says, “I’ll tell you what you want to know. After that, your path is yours to decide.”
“Are you really fine with this?” The Blossom’s Oracle can’t help but feel concerned about his master’s lax attitude. “Was it not your wish for Song to fight you without restraint? What if Shu is able to dampen his fighting spirit?”
“Then Song isn’t the chosen one, and his fate is sealed,” Kiin says, leaning back against his bathtub.
Kiin watches as his Oracle and personal aide dips his head respectfully, his calmness evidence that he’s already far too accustomed to his outbursts. His name is Xin, a Purger in his early thirties but like everyone else, bears the appearance of a teen boy thanks to his mastery of his Chi. His name in that otherworldly tongue means dawn, and his hair is the perfect reflection of this— long, flowing black hair with a mix of blazing orange and purple highlights at its ends. The Manifestation of Dawn is what Kiin believes him to be ever since he sensed the Wheel of Fortune arcana within him. While there are many who wield this arcana, only one soul from each dimension is allowed awaken it as an ability and survive, and the vessel of this soul would have the ability to see into the future.
“I have watched countless worlds fall to those creatures, countless souls lost to those temporal parasites. If one more soul has proven to be unworthy of being the Dimensional Outlier, then so it shall be.”
Xin’s eyes twinkle knowingly at his master, which only annoys Kiin even more. It annoys him because even among the others of his kind, he’s always been known as one of the softer ones.
“You seem quite confident in your knowledge of me, Xin,” Kiin says. “Are you sure you’re not overstepping your boundaries as my aide?”
“I wouldn’t dare dream of it.”
Though he’s only been by Kiin’s side for thirty years, Xin is probably the vessel he trusts most out of all the others he’s met from the other realms. Because of that, Xin is the only person that knows what he truly is— a Reshak. Many beings who’re ignorant of his role in the space-time continuum call him a god, which amuses him greatly. They couldn’t be further from the truth. If he truly was one (from these mortals’ definition of a god), then the Void Seekers would’ve been vanquished aeons ago.
“Would you care to enter the bath with me?” Kiin yawns before leaning over the edge of the tub.
“If that is your wish, master.”
Xin bows. He undoes his buttons before slipping his uniform off gracefully. The Oracle then gently pushes the silk curtains aside and steps into the steamy bath. With a sigh, he moves over to squeeze Kiin’s shoulders, proceeding with his massage.
“Master, forgive me for being so bold, but I’m afraid I don’t understand your plans with Song,” Xin says.
“Hmm? About my objective to make him the Dimensional Outlier?”
Kiin lets out a soft moan of relief as Xin begins to work on his back with his thumbs. “It’s a bit complicated for a lesser being such as yourself to understand, I suppose. Well, you are familiar with what the Library is, aren’t you?”
“I’m still a little uncertain…”
“It is the compendium of all lesser dimensional living beings’ events, emotions, thoughts, words and intent to have ever occurred in the past, present or future. There have been many theories and names for it given by the lesser beings— the Abyss, the Centre of the World, the Akashic Records, the Fautium Biblionesise, so many names… but us, the governors of the space-time continuum, the keepers of these sacred books, we call it the Library.
“You know what happened to the parts of the world captured by the Void Seekers, right? How the lands are twisted and distorted with malicious dark energy and the skies a permanent crimson twilight. It is impossible to tell the ultimate motive of these Seekers, but we know in the short-term it sates their hunger for living souls.”
“If the Library records everything, why can’t you find out about the Seekers through that?” Xin asks.
“Because I can’t.” Kiin sighs as Xin continues with his massage. In this realm, nobody knows Kiin’s body better than Xin. “The Library can only record events from living beings bound by the Astral Laws of Existence. You see, travelling across dimensions should not be possible for any being in any world. Most beings would have their very existence destroyed should they attempt it.”
“So that means the Void Seekers…”
“Are exceptions to this,” Kiin finishes for him. “Should any beings survive interdimensional travel, it will displace them from the laws of space and time and thus, can no longer be recorded by the Library. These beings are then called Dimensional Outliers.”
Xin nods in understanding. “So you’re trying to get Song to be one as well… but why?”
“Because all of your fates have already been written by the Library.” Kiin turns around and gently takes Xin by his chin. The Oracle’s cheeks flush as his master studies him with a loving gaze. Xin may be used to his temper, but he’s always had a soft spot for his affection. For a Purger of his age, he’s ludicrously innocent. “This world, along with everyone in it, is destined to die. The only way to escape this fate is to escape from the records itself” Kiin lowers his hand to Xin’s slender waist and moves closer to him. “Only then will he be of use to me in this war.”
“I… I see…” Xin bashfully hides his lips with a hand and looks away. “That is fine, but I think you’re being too close to me again. Are all Reshaks as sinful as you?”
Kiin chuckles at his aide’s reaction. “Who says Reshaks are supposed to be saints? I’m allowed to have fun in these lesser realms, am I not?”
“You’re the worst.”
With a laugh, the erratic leader of the Blossoms settles back at his side of the tub. “Well, you don’t have to be too concerned. I have my reasons for believing in that boy. That creature they found in that mine is the key to everything. After all, it’s from the Crimson Void as well.”
Xin still doesn’t seem convinced by his words. “I do not doubt your judgement, but may I ask… wouldn’t a being from an upper dimension, an Astral like you, have the power to stop the Seekers yourself?”
“You’re overestimating my powers, dear Oracle.” Kiin ushers for Xin to come closer to him, and the Oracle reluctantly obeys. He gently presses against his master for a soft embrace. “A Reshak may be as what you humans call an Astral, but we do not have the power to rewrite fate. Only a Dimensional Outlier can do that, and infuriating as it is, only beings from the lesser dimensions are allowed to be Dimensional Outliers.”
Kiin wonders if the Oracle even understands a fraction of everything he told him tonight. As he looks at Xin snuggling up to him, he’s reminded once more how attached he’s grown to this realm. For an Astral to have such feelings for a lesser world is against the laws of his kind.
“Maybe that boy isn’t so ridiculous after all.”
Shu’s hand cracks against Song’s face, and the force causes the room’s candle flame to quiver. After having his wounds bandaged by the Blossom’s doctor, the two travelled back to Shu’s quarters in cold silence.
“What were you thinking?” Shu says shakily, his eyes red from tears of despair and anger. “Is this how much our partnership means to you?”
Song closes his eyes and basks in the sting of his partner’s slap. It hurts, but the pain is nothing compared to the sickening lurch in his stomach. He succumbs to his guilt-induced agony and drops to his knees, dipping his head before Shu.
“I know nothing I say will make you forgive me,” Song whispers. “But… I’m really sorry.”
Shu slams his fist down on the table with an anguished cry. For what seems to be an eternity, the room is silent save for Shu’s heaving.
“I don’t deserve to be your partner,” Song says softly, pushing himself back to his feet. His legs have never felt so weak before. He’d never thought guilt would be such a terrible, soul-crushing emotion. Never mind the duel with Kiin— Song feels as if he’s already been killed on the inside a dozen times whenever he sees Shu’s distraught features. “I’ll leave you alone for now.”
As Song prepares to leave the room, Shu scrambles over and grabs him by the arm, whirling him around.
“You idiot!” Shu screams before sealing his lips with Song’s.
Stupefied, Song can only watch goldfish-eyed as his partner continues to hold the kiss with him. When Shu finally lets go, a thin bridge of saliva stretches between their tongues. Shu, with his tears still running, glares at him with a strange mixture of emotions— anger, sorrow, but most of all, love.
“There’s no one in this world that deserves to be my partner more than you,” Shu says, taking both of Song’s hands now. “It’s also partly my fault that I never took your dreams seriously enough before.”
“It’s not your—”
“It is, and I won’t let your stupid mouth tell me otherwise.” Shu sighs, pulling his partner closer to him. “You can’t back out from the duel now, can you?” he whispers.
“One of the rules was that I couldn’t, or we’ll both be hunted by the Blossom.”
“Then we’ll leave the Palace tomorrow, run away together.” Shu closes his eyes, half of him not quite believing what he’s saying. “We can tell the guards that we’re going to take on a quick bounty for some extra coin. Oh, then we’ll set off to find Rei if that’s what you want too. It doesn’t matter where we go now, does it? The Blossom can’t hunt us down forever, right? Right?”
Song’s sorrow only grows heavier when he sees his partner like this, but despite everything, Shu has a point; the only option they have is to brave forward. It seems that no matter what, a conflict with the Blossom is inevitable.
“Yeah,” Song whispers, pressing his forehead against Shu’s. “I’ll make sure you’re safe, I promise.”
“What’re you talking about, moron. I’m the one who’s going to protect you this time.”
“So you’re gonna do all the heavy-lifting from now on? Fine by me.”
The two share a soft chuckle before kissing again. The love of a Purger pair is tragic, but laced in its bitterness is a fleeting tang of sweetness that one will never forget. Perhaps one day, the hopes and dreams of these boys may bloom in the barren wasteland that is their fate.