There’s a slight earthy scent in the air, accompanied by a breeze that makes his nose itch. Song can’t tell if it’s just him getting jumpy, or that autumn is arriving really early this year. Daybreak is just around the corner. For once, the cool morning air is actually refreshing despite his detest for waking up early.
“It’s about time we leave this place,” Shu says, walking towards Song.
Shu looks back at his quarters, then at everyone else’s house down the row. “I know you won’t miss this place, but I will.”
“I’ll miss the pork buns that Feng always makes though.”
“Is food the only thing your pea-sized brain knows…”
They share a nod before making their way through the lantern-lit walkways, taking the shortest path towards the front gate. The both of them have chosen not to bring anything to avoid suspicions from the guards. Besides, most of their money is with the local bank.
Upon arriving at the final set of castle walls, Song notices something unusual about the turrets on top of the gate. There are Apprentices positioned to face inside the Palace, rather than outside. Normally, the guards would only leave the Apprentices at ground level for this task. Why the change now?
“Careful,” Song mutters, nodding towards the turrets. “Something feels off.”
Shu nods, then takes a deep breath before walking alongside with his partner. As they approach the Apprentice pair, the one on the left steps forward and raises his hand towards them, palm outstretched.
“Halt! State your business!” the young boy says authoritatively.
“We’re heading to town to take a bounty,” Shu explains calmly. “We’ll be back by midday for sure. Just need a good stretch.”
The Apprentice pair exchange glances. The one on the left then says, “Sorry, we’re not allowed to let any Purgers through unless they’ve received special permission from Father.”
Shu’s face blanches. Song saw this coming a mile away though. Kiin is no fool. After last night’s duel between Shu and Zhou, it was easy to predict Shu’s interference. Song can only click his tongue tetchily and silently curse Kiin from the bottom of his heart.
“Come on, it won’t be long, I promise,” Shu says, forcing a smile. “Do you know we’ve been stuck in the Palace since our punishment? Even Song, that lazy good-for-nothing, is growing restless from seeing the Palace walls all the time.”
“I’m sorry Brother Shu, but our orders are absolute,” the other Apprentice says, bowing deeply. “Please understand that we’re only doing as we’re told.”
“Forget it.” Song sighs, stretching his arms behind him. “Guess this ‘lazy good-for-nothing’ will just sleep till the lockdown is lifted.”
Just looking at the poor boys, Song knows there’s little he can do about them. It’s not their fault, and he doesn’t want to put them in a spot for his own sake. If the boys were caught letting them through, they’ll be the ones serving the death sentence.
“Looks like the cornered rats are finally self-aware.”
Song and Shu whirl around to see Yan strolling towards them, along with Zhe who’s quietly pacing behind him. Song’s blood heats up a notch upon seeing his face.
“What’re you doing here?” Song growls.
“Father ordered us to take the morning shift for guard duty,” Yan explains while shooing the Apprentices away. “Ridiculous, isn’t it?”
Song gnashes his teeth, wondering if there’s an end to his streak of bad luck. Nothing has been going his way lately. Guard duty and patrols are normally the work of Apprentices, and it’s rare for full-fledged Purgers to take on such trivial tasks. After all, they’re supposed to be the ones out in the frontlines and taking on the most dangerous missions and hunts. Song wonders why Kiin would go through such lengths to keep them in the Palace. Did he think they’d make the asinine decision of breaking through by force? Or that they’d try sneaking through the gate? Most of all, is this duel supposed to be that important to him?
“You know, Father’s orders aren’t as inflexible as you think it is,” Yan adds smugly. “You may be banned from leaving the Palace, but that’s because of the duel. Shu, however, is free to leave.”
So that’s how it is… that old man sure knows how to play dirty. But despite knowing this, Song is also aware that his choices are limited. He glances at his partner and calls out, “Ah right, you can take on the bounty alone, can’t you? You can grab some pork buns on the way back for me.”
Shu gives Song a dagger gaze. “Uh, no. Don’t think I’m in the mood if you aren’t with me.”
“Oh.” Of course, why was I even expecting anything else from him?
By now, the Apprentices on the turrets have their attention focused on the Purgers below. Even the gate’s front guards are now gathering by the turrets’ rear, scrambling over to the railings for the show. They were promised drama today, and that’s exactly what’s unfolding before them right now.
“Come on, Song,” Shu mutters. “Let’s go.”
“Running is so unlike you.” Yan moves in to block Song’s path. The boy places a hand by his hip, contempt radiating from him. “Having second thoughts? I didn’t expect you to be so weak.”
“Hey, enough,” Zhe says, frowning. “They’re leaving already.”
“So they are, which is exactly why I find them so revolting.”
“You really love getting in my way, huh?” Song walks up to him, sharing the same glare of hatred that Yan is giving him. “How about we settle this with a duel? I’ll make sure it ends before you have a chance to feel pain.”
“Sure you won’t run away from this one too?”
“Stop it!” Zhe steps in the middle and shoves the two away from each other. “There’s no meaning in this quarrel.”
“Isn’t there?” Song snorts, turning back to Yan. “That wasn’t the first time you landed us in the Electric Chamber on purpose. Every moment of our lives here, you’re always trying to make it harder for us. What have we ever done to you, huh?”
Yan’s mask of cockiness peels into anger. “You have a lot of nerve to ask me that, trash.”
“So what is it? Care to tell us?”
Before Yan can say anything else, a blade is suddenly levelled to his throat. To everyone’s shock, it’s Shu who’s the wielder of the sword.
“Yan, if you really hate us this much, then kill me now,” Shu says coldly. “I won’t retaliate. On that night, what you told me about your past… it’s our fault that you’re like this. If you really want to kill me, I’ll let you have my life.”
“You…” Yan narrows his eyes.
“Shu…” Zhe mutters.
“You can do it, can’t you?” Shu presses on. “After all, I was the one who threatened you with this sword. If you killed me from where you stood, you won’t be punished since it’s purely for self-defence.”
“What the hell are you doing?” Song bursts out. “Have you lost your mind?” And what is he talking about? Yan’s past? Who the hell cares about that shit-eating backstabber anyway?
The Apprentices are starting to gather around the Purgers now, curious and worried about the development of events. One of them steps forward and stammers, “S-stop what you’re—”
“This doesn’t concern you!” Shu cuts him off, and the Apprentices freeze in their places.
A subtle but steady wave of Chi flows between them, and though invisible, Song can sense the energy taking the form of a blade being angled towards his partner. Panic sets in, and every fibre of his being is screaming to fire his fist at Yan’s guts. But the invisible blade is already too close to Shu’s heart. If he makes any sudden moves now…
Yan is trembling, his teeth clenched; the boy looks as if he’s fighting an internal war for something that should’ve been so easy to do. The blade edges closer to Shu’s body ever so slightly, until Song can see a slight crease on Shu’s uniform where his heart is.
“Don’t you dare…” Song hisses, his eyes burning gold with power, and his body so close to the edge of berserk that if he so much as twitches, Yan’s body would’ve been shattered faster than the eye can see.
And yet, Yan doesn’t even seem to be in the slightest bit concerned with Song’s threat. The boy is still trembling, struggling with something.
“Do the right thing, Yan,” Zhe whispers softly, his hand now in his partner’s. “This isn’t what she’d have wanted.”
Yan’s breathing grow heavier with each heave. With an agonised scream, he swipes his hand away from Shu, and the invisible blade carves through the stone tiles, kicking up a burst of dust and crumbs. Shu’s uniform is cut, but he’s unharmed. With tears streaming down his face, Yan storms away from them. Shu can only watch him with sympathy, as if he was expecting that reaction right from the start.
“I’m sorry you had to deal with that,” Zhe says softly. Song wonders when was the last time he’s seen him happy, just one time when he wasn’t fretting over his loathsome partner. “I’ll be taking my leave now.” With that, he hurries over to catch up with Yan.
“What’s with those two?” Song scratches his head exasperatedly before whining, “Ahhh whatever. Let’s go back already.”
Shu gives one last longing gaze at the massive gate before nodding.
“So what was that about?” Song flops onto the bed and puts his arms behind his head.
Shu takes a seat next to him, quiet and pensive.
“Yan isn’t as bad as we thought he was,” Shu says softly. “I know it’s hard to believe after all he’s done to us, but…”
“Back there, you said something about his past,” Song says. “I don’t know what he told you to make feel this much sympathy, but that slimy bastard was probably lying. Have you forgotten the kind of backstabbing scum he is?”
“I knew talking to you about it would be pointless…” Shu murmurs.
“Yeah, it is pointless. I’ll never forgive him, but I’m also looking out for you.” Song sits upright. With Shu’s beautiful flowing hair so close to him, he can’t resist stroking his fingers against it. “Have you also forgotten how he almost killed us? He’d sacrifice even his own life to see us dead. Someone like that… I can’t let him anywhere near you.”
Shu finally smiles. “You’ve grown a little.”
“Hah? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing, nothing…” Shu’s smile fades. “More importantly, we need to find another way out of the palace.”
“Now you’re starting to sound like me before all this.”
Song hops out of the bed and dawdles out of his quarters. The sun has risen, painting the lower parts of the sky in blistering orange. Birdsong serenades the air, their cheerful cries ignorant of his woes. Song can’t help but feel envious about them. If only he had their freedom.
“Remember the secret route at the back of the Palace?” Shu jogs up to him.
“Hah? You really want to risk using that?”
“Do you have a better plan?”
“I don’t even have a plan.”
“Why did I even ask…”
The secret route Shu is referring to is a tunnel located at the edge of the underground Electric Chamber. During their first days as Apprentices, they heard many ominous rumours of the torture chamber. Despite it being an off-limit area, Song has dragged Shu to explore the dungeon with him on numerous occasions out of curiosity and the need for a quick thrill. It was through sheer luck that they stumbled across the hollow slab of stone from Song’s clumsy waddling. The tunnel they found led to a well that shoots back to the surface, so deep that the sunlight from above was but a pinprick in their visions. By that age, Song was already more than capable of climbing the well with Shu on his back.
And the reward for their brazen adventure was finding themselves at the outskirts of the Palace.
“Kind of optimistic to think they haven’t found out about it yet,” Song says. “Well, I’m not going to use my brain either way, so I guess it’s worth a shot.”
“We only have one chance too,” Shu adds dismally. “If we’re caught now, it’s the end.”
At that, Song’s concern for his partner grows. “If we ever meet anyone in our way, do you think you can handle killing him, a Purger? Or worse, an Apprentice?”
Shu looks as if he’s about to say something, only to hold himself back. That hesitation is proof of Song’s worries.
“If you ask me, I have no problems with it. Like you said, we only have one chance at this. Should word get out of our escape, then we’re both as good as dead.”
“You’re asking me if I can kill someone I grew up with,” Shu whispers. “Or a young boy with so much to live for…”
After all these years, Shu hasn’t changed much; he’s always been soft, compassionate, and willing to give others a chance despite everything. Song admits that he doesn’t hate this part of him, but he knows in a place like the Shadow Palace, one cannot survive with such a mentality.
If I have to be the one with the heart of ice so that we can live, then so be it.
“Well, don’t worry about it,” Song says coolly as he makes his way to the gate. “If it ever comes down to it, I’ll do it myself. I’m the stronger one anyway.”
Shu looks sadly at his partner before following him.
Getting into the underground dungeon is a lot easier than Song had anticipated. After knocking out the guards by the double doors and hiding their bodies in some crates, the path into the Chambers is practically like a museum stroll. A museum with bloodstains on doors, and the occasional gasps of tortured boys from within.
Song navigates through the stone corridors with such confidence it’s as if he’s been through the dungeon system many times before. He has though, but only in his dreams of escape. The route has never left his mind since he first found it on that fateful day.
They eventually arrive at a dead end where the secret entrance is supposed to be. Song raps the stone walls to look for the hollow stone, and he quickly finds it. A moment after he pulls the brick out, the sound of stone grinding fills the corridor as the wall slides open. A pitch black tunnel greets them, easily wide enough to fit three Purgers standing shoulder to shoulder.
“Sure hope nobody heard that,” Shu mutters.
Song darts into the jaws of the abyss, with Shu following close behind. The wall raucously closes behind them, much to Song’s annoyance. The Purger duo conjure up their sunseeds before advancing deeper into the tunnel.
“So what’s the plan after we’re out?” Song asks.
“We’ll head to town and grab our money first,” Shu answers. “I suggest buying supplies only after we’ve distanced ourselves enough from the Palace, maybe once we’re at Hong Yu with Rei. Knowing the older Purgers, it won’t be long before they find out about our escape.”
The path gradually widens and slopes downwards, the air damp and cool. Despite the powerful light from their sunseeds, much of the tunnel ahead is still pitch black to them. Although everything has been going according to plan so far, Song’s gut feelings are constantly tormenting him with bad vibes, as if the worst is waiting right ahead, waiting to for them to let their guards down. Paranoia? Maybe. It’s been too easy thus far.
The tunnel seems never-ending, the sinister darkness continuing to fuel Song’s paranoia as time passes. He begins to wonder if the tunnel has always been this long. He occasionally glances at Shu to check if he’s still by his side, and he soon realises that his partner must also be sharing the same ominous vibe.
A flash of brilliant light suddenly fills the space around them.
Startled, Song and Shu instinctively leap back, squinting through the blinding light singeing their corneas.
“I expected more from you, Song.”
A wave of horror slithers into his guts, and for a moment he can’t think. There’s no mistaking that voice. It’s Kiin. When their eyes are finally adjusted to the light, the Purger duo watch with a sinking feeling as Kiin and about a dozen Apprentices and Purgers march towards them with swords and sunseeds in hand.
“H-how…” Shu stammers. “How did you know?”
“About the tunnel, or your escape?” Kiin raises his hand, and his squad immediately halt in their tracks. “There is nothing in the Blossom that escapes my knowledge. It insults me to think you could get away this easily.”
Song dashes forward before Shu can react, so fast that his body is nothing but a blur to his eyes. The Apprentices move in to intercept, only to be punched and kicked aside like rag dolls. The Purgers are already in position, fists at ready. Shu charges forward to support his partner, but before he’s even crossed half the distance, Song has already beaten the four experienced Purgers into submission with his monstrous speed and strength.
All that remains is Kiin.
“Shu!” Song shouts.
Six Faceless Archers by his sides materialise in the blink of an eye, along with a bow in his hand. In unison, they charge their Chi arrows and launch them at Kiin. They detonate violently against him, and Song dives straight into the smoke. His fist slams into something; the force is so powerful that the cloud of smoke is instantly blasted aside.
To Song’s disbelief, Kiin has his fist in his palm, and he seems to be completely unscathed. With a grunt, Kiin shoves him back. Song refuses to back down. Roaring, he dives back into the fray. The clashes from their brawl are so devastating that waves of residual Chi sweep across tunnel with each blow connected, battering Shu and the surrounding area.
Shu can only stand rooted to the ground, frozen stiff and petrified from the explosive duel. Watching them fight is like watching the end of the world erupting before him, two monsters of unfathomable power trading blindingly fast attacks with one another in a terrifying frenzy.
Eventually, a kick from Kiin connects to Song’s guts, and the boy is thrown clear from the ground. Snapped free from his state of trance, Shu leaps forward to catch his partner, only to be thrown back as well before tumbling onto the rocky floors. Before the two can get back on their feet, Kiin’s Purgers have already surrounded them.
“Weak,” Kiin says disapprovingly, a look of disappointment mixed with disgust on his face as he rubs his knuckles. “Your hatred is far too weak. I had thought you were special, but perhaps I was mistaken.”
“You damned—” One of the Purgers slugs Song in the stomach, forcing him to gag and drop to the ground.
“Don’t you dare!” Shu throws a punch at Song’s assailant, only to have his arm held back by a chain conjured by one of the Purgers. Another then slams his foot to the back of Shu’s knee and forces him to kneel.
With Kiin around, the Purgers and the Apprentices are awfully quiet, bearing none of the scoffs or sneers that the two have grown so accustomed to, but their determination to subdue or even murder them is undeniable. To them, Kiin is like a ruler— no, a god.
“Still defiant, I see.” Kiin lifts Song’s chin and studies his expression. “Such insolence… are you forgetting who I am?”
“Yeah, a horse crap eating little—” A palm whips across Song’s face before he can finish, and accompanying the sharp stinging sensation on his cheeks is the taste of iron.
“I’m not just your leader, or the so-called ‘Emperor’ that the people so enjoy calling me; I’m the one who gave you your powers. Your knowledge of martial arts came from your instructors, but those came from me. It sickens me that you have the audacity to pull such a petty trick to dishonour our duel.”
The emotion from Kiin’s eyes is something Song has never seen before— undiluted, animalistic anger. Although he’s seen the leader of the Blossom lose his temper many times before, his anger has always been shaped by a certain aura of icy dominance, a sense of control that veils him with an illusion of invincibility. Now for the first time, it looks as if he’s losing this control.
Song realises that he may perhaps never understand this man for as long as he lives.
“For your sins, the both of you deserve to be executed from where you stand.” Kiin steps past the kneeling duo, hands clasped behind him. “But from the way I see it, you are as good as dead regardless. Men, send them back to their rooms.”