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Kiin sends the last of his Purgers away, weary after a day of sorting out the reports given by his boys. His words to Song and Shu that day weren’t merely to boast, about him being an ‘Emperor’ of these lands; the truth is while his title is something that the citizens informally gave him, his role is extremely similar to rulers of nations from the worlds he’s been to. The Black Blossom’s Purgers not only rid the nation of invading Void Seekers, but they deal with economic issues as well such as rebuilding cities, mitigating drought effects to protect crops and so on. With their Arcana abilities, they can do what many normal humans can’t in order to protect their way of life.

 

There are times where he grows tired of dealing with these matters. After all, his ultimate goal is to rid the world of the Seekers, but he knows things would be much more difficult without the support of the people. To raise an army of Purgers he needs food and resources, and to obtain these resources he needs the help of the common folk.

 

“Thank you for your hard work again, Father.” Xin takes his place before the throne’s flight of steps and bows. “I must remind you that it’s time to prepare for your duel.”

 

Kiin takes a moment to soak in the peacefulness of the empty court. “So it is.”

 

“Would you like to have a bath before that?”

 

“No, it’s fine.”

 

“Very well. Then I shall take my leave.” Xin bows once more before turning towards the entrance.

 

“Wait,” Kiin calls out, stopping the Oracle in his tracks. “There’s something I have to ask you.”

 

“What is it, Father?”

 

Kiin hesitates, wondering if he’s going to look vulnerable for asking. “What kind of results are you expecting Song to achieve?”

 

Xin ponders for a moment. “Well… he does not need the power of a god to change his fate. I’m sure Father will come to understand this in due time.”

 

Kiin catches a knowing twinkle in Xin’s eyes, but his cryptic answer leaves him with a sense of assurance nonetheless. Although he’s met more powerful users of the Wheel of Fortune arcana before, for some reason he can’t help but trust Xin more than anyone else. Perhaps it’s his loyalty, perhaps it’s the bond they share, but to him Xin is special.

 

And if Xin is right, there might be hope for this realm after all.

 

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When Song finally opens his eyes, the sun is already glowering in a hue of magma orange, bathing the Garden of Resolution in its glaring light. He can feel the heat of the blazing rays fighting against his chilled features; seems like autumn is really coming early this year. Funny how this is his first and only time that he’s able to meditate properly, when he’s in the face of death, but Shu was right: meditation does bring peace to the soul.

 

Song senses someone approaching him from the side of the gazebo. Even without looking, he already knows who it is.

 

“Rare to see you meditating,” Long says. “I’m guessing Shu isn’t in the Palace anymore.”

 

“What do you want?”

 

“Came to check on my rival before his duel,” Long answers. “When I first heard about your attempt at escape, I have to admit that I lost faith in you.”

 

“And why do you care?”

 

“Are you forgetting that we share the same goals?” Long folds his arms and leans against the pillar of the gazebo. “I want to see you break free from the cursed cycle as well. I would help you, but I need to be sure you’re deserving of it.”

 

To Long, strength is everything that defines a person’s worth in this world. While Song’s view of strength isn’t as extreme as his rival’s, he can empathise with his point of view. Most Purgers would. That said, it does make Song feel a little weak whenever he thinks about his attempt at escape. Hatred has been Song’s source of power for as long as he can remember, but by running away, does this mean that his hatred has waned? Is Long right about him being weaker now?

 

“Well, we’ll see what you can do later.” Long pushes himself from the pillar and takes his leave. “Good luck on your duel, Song.”

 

Song clenches his fists until his knuckles turn white, as if to crush his doubts about his strength.

 

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When Song finally arrives at the throne room, Kiin can feel a rush of adrenaline awakening his mind and body. The boy stands alone, composed as always, but with an air of quiet fury radiating from him.

 

“I should commend you for not trying to escape a second time,” Kiin says. “I suppose I don’t need to ask where Shu is right now.”

 

“You won’t be seeing him any time soon,” Song answers coldly.

 

“My guards notified me about him leaving the Palace, as well as your friends that helped him.” Kiin leans forward, resting an elbow by his knee. “You realise that once the duel is over, Lin and Mei will be hunted down by the Blossom, right?”

 

Song’s arm shoots up, summoning his blade in an instant and points it at him. “Let’s start this duel before I lose my patience.”

 

The leader of the Black Blossom leans back on his throne, with a composure that dissimulates his true emotions. On the inside, Kiin is studying Song with an obsession that’s kindred to starvation. The resentment in his eyes, the determination apparent from his steady flow of aura, the psychological state he’s in that defies all common sense and logic, and the beast within that thrives in all of this absurdity that drives the boy forward- he’s waited so long for a boy like this to appear, a Purger driven by pure hate rather than love. And no matter how much he feasts his eyes upon the wondrous specimen before him, it’s not enough. If only he could marvel at the boy’s glorious physique and psyche for all eternity.

 

“Since you’re so eager to die, I suppose I have to oblige.”

 

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The cawing of evening crows cut through the fog in his mind. As Shu’s eyelids flicker open, the first thing he sees are a pair of boots trudging through a field of grass, legs that do not belong to him moving on their own.

 

“You’re awake,” the person carrying him says, but the throbbing in Shu’s head is making it hard for him to recognise the voice.

 

“Shu? Are you okay? Do we need to stop for a break?” another voice says from the side, this time obviously more emotional than his partner’s.

 

The person carrying him doesn’t answer, but stops by a tree and sets him down anyway. Shu clutches his head and shift his blurred vision to his captors.

 

It’s Lin and Mei.

 

“What… what happened?” Shu groans and struggles to stand, only to realise that his body is still weak.

 

“Don’t push yourself,” Lin says, holding Shu by the arm to support him. “The drugs haven’t completely worn off yet.”

 

“Drugs?” Shu glances around. “Where’s Song?” But as soon as he says that, he already knows the answer, and he can feel his heart drop to his toes. “No… don’t tell me…”

 

Mei comes forward, an apologetic expression written on his face. “I’m sorry it has to be like this, but this is what Song asked us to do… and we agreed to it.”

 

Shu surveys the area around him. They’re in a forest, and judging by the blazing orange rays shining piercing through the canopy it has to be around early-evening. Since it took hours before the drugs finally kicked in, Song must’ve used them in solid foods before giving it to him.

 

The pork bun…

 

Shu can feel his blood boiling as he realises how foolish he’d been to underestimate his partner like that. At least the anger is clearing his mind.

 

“I have to go back,” Shu says, pushing past of Lin. “Don’t have much time before—”

 

“No, you can’t,” Lin cuts him brusquely. “We’re fugitives now. If we go back—”

 

“I never agreed to this!” Shu shouts at him. “Lin, how could you! First you hid the details of Song’s duel from me, and now you’re telling me it’s okay to leave him to die? How am I supposed to trust you anymore?”

 

“I can’t just let you throw your life away like that!”

 

“But you’re okay with letting Song die? We’re supposed to escape the Palace together, but what the three of us are doing right now is abandoning him!”

 

“You don’t have to die! You have every chance to escape, but why’re you so hell-bent on dying with him?” Lin has never looked this emotional, this furious before. “It’s not like you can change his fate by staying in the Palace. Why? Why can’t you see that everyone just wants to protect you? Song wants to protect you! Do you have to be so foolish, so selfish about this?”

 

Shu shakes his head, staggering away from Lin. “You don’t understand, do you? What if Mei was the one that you have to abandon? Would you have been okay walking out on him too?”

 

Lin is about to argue, but no words leave his mouth. Mei rubs his own elbow and looks away, fully aware of Lin’s answer without even asking; they’re both Purgers as well. A Purger’s bond is even stronger than that of lovers, and common sense is irrelevant here. They’ve protected each other since they were children, cared for each other, relied on each other for emotional support and affection— from a Purger’s perspective, the only person he can trust and love in this world is his partner.

 

A Purger’s life without his partner is a fate worse than death.

 

“I appreciate the both of you doing all this to protect me, but please understand…” Shu whispers, grabbing hold of Lin’s shoulders. “He’s everything to me.”

 

Lin gnashes his teeth and droops his head, visibly conflicted. Mei softly takes his hand and gives him a nod.

 

“Fine,” Lin whispers, the anguish from him so great that it looks as if the pain is going to split his face open. “You just… why… why does it have to be like this?”

 

“Lin, what’re you gonna do now?” Mei asks, holding his partner’s face with a hand. “Will you run? Or…” He then looks at Shu, and Lin knows what he’s trying to get at.

 

“The both of you should leave,” Shu answers for him. “This is my problem— my problem and Song’s. I don’t want you to throw your lives away for us.”

 

“So Lin?” Mei prompts once more. “What is it going to be?”

 

Looking at his friend like this, Shu realises that Lin has been forced to make a lot of difficult choices as of late because of the both of them. He’s a good person, but that usually becomes his undoing. Although he wishes that Lin would leave him be, he knows his friend far too well to believe so.

 

Lin closes his eyes. “I’m sorry, Mei…”

 

Mei smiles and kisses his partner on the cheek. “Now that’s more like you.”

 

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The Hall of Final Transcendence, or the throne room, is the largest building within the Shadow Palace, and so is the courtyard before it. Hundreds of Purgers gather on the walls surrounding the courtyard, some on the turrets, others even on the steps to the Hall, all waiting for the duel while chattering excitedly among one another. From where Song is standing, their black uniforms remind him of vultures circling their dying prey, eagerly but patiently waiting for its time to come.

 

From the gates and surrounding turrets of the courtyard, Apprentices can be seen rushing to the scene. News of the duel must’ve spread among their ranks in the last minute, and naturally they can’t resist the show either. Their grey uniforms now give Song the imagery of rodents cramming themselves between the ranks of the vultures, less intimidating but sharing the same carnivorous vibe.

 

In the entire history of the Black Blossom, not a single Purger has ever been foolish enough to challenge Kiin to a death duel. It’s no exaggeration to call this day a historical moment. With Shu out of the way, Song can finally focus on the hatred that’s been ravaging his consciousness since the day he saw Kiin. How many times have they risked their lives to hunt the Seekers for Kiin? How many trials have they gone through to survive their days as Initiates? How much pain did they have to endure because Kiin treated life-threatening torture devices as disciplinary tools? Everything will end today, one way or another.

 

As Kiin makes his way down the steps from the Hall with his Oracle Xin, the Purgers and Apprentices surrounding the courtyard explode in frenzied cheers. The crowd’s favouritism irks Song to the bone, but it’s not unexpected. Many of the Purgers hold Kiin in high regard, and these boys don’t exactly like him since he doesn’t share their fanaticism for him.

 

While Kiin takes his place on the opposite side of the courtyard, Xin stands between them to serve as referee.

 

The Oracle’s beauty is breathtaking, and Song can’t help but be spellbound by his appearances. And he isn’t the only one either— every single Purger in the courtyard is now completely silent, awed by the Oracle’s presence. There are many elegant boys within the Blossom, but none as striking as Xin. Every step, every movement of his hair, every bat of an eye— Song has never seen anyone radiate such purity and grace before. It’s as if he’s the manifestation of everything divine in this world.

 

But his appearance is merely another sign of the importance of this day, this duel. It’s rare for Xin to appear before the average Purger due to the divine nature of his role, as well as his intimate and unique link with Kiin. For him to actually serve as referee for the duel— is there supposed to be some deeper meaning to this fight than Song knows?

 

“Brothers,” Xin speaks, cutting through the seemingly eternal silence, his voice bewitchingly mellow, but mysteriously loud enough to carry across the vast space. “There are no winds that spirits can predict, no seasons that man can change; the Blossom is no exception to the laws of nature, and yet it is no stranger to change. However harsh the coming days may be, the spirit of the Blossom is eternal, and we will persevere and prevail.”

 

It’s incredible how the audience of perhaps over a thousand boys with such different values and personalities can remain so disciplined before the Oracle’s speech; Song wonders if it’s because of the Oracle’s arcana power at work. Aside from the rumours that the Oracle has the ability to see into the future, very little is known about him.

 

“Today, we are gathered here to witness a tremble in the wheel of fate, the new spark of a fire in an oblivion that no soul has ventured to. However the outcome of this battle, know that while nothing will ever be the same again. But even so, please do not waver in your path and your faith in the Blossom. I pray, pray that each and every single one of you will find the courage and strength to grasp at your destinies, and live like how a Purger of the Black Blossom should.”

 

The Oracle takes a deep bow. Like the pop of a bubble, the tension holding the boys explodes, and the entire courtyard erupts in claps and cheers.

 

As the Oracle steps away from the centre of the field, Song notices that Kiin has his eyes closed throughout the speech. When the Oracle is far enough, the leader of the Black Blossom gently opens his eyes and glances at the elegant man. There’s a rather sharp, piercing feel about his glare. Song briefly wonders if there’s any meaning to that look he’s giving to the Oracle, but quickly shakes his head to clear that thought.

 

“There’s little left for me to say. As Emperor of this country, leader of the Black Blossom, I will show you what true power is, as well as the burden I shoulder for this world.” Kiin turns his attention back at Song, taking a step forward. He casually raises his hand towards him, a look of ice cool determination steeled on his features. “Come, child! Show me your reason of existence, the drive that’s been pushing you to this very moment!”

 

Song slowly raises his arms, dropping to his most comfortable stance and sharpening his focus, his senses. He can feel the essence of his arcana powers flowing in his veins. From his perspective, time slows. The cool evening winds graze his skin, like a slab of cold steel; the sounds from the world around him grow distant, like he’s underwater; the movements of Kiin’s long, golden hair flutters in the air, too slow to be natural, like they’re pulled by a puppeteer’s invisible strings. This feels right. Song has never felt better, more eager to fight in his life than he does now. After all, he has nothing and everything to lose.

 

The Oracle raises his hand. At once, the clamours of the audience dies once more.

 

Another moment of unnatural silence.

 

Nothing moves.

 

Then, he swipes his hand down, as if it were a sword. A strange, spine-chilling chiming of bells serenades the air, and a powerful gust of wind sweeps across the courtyard.

 

The battle has begun.

 

Clenching his fists, Song twists his footing and springs forward, racing towards the person who sentenced him and his beloved partner to a life of war. Fifteen years of suffering, fifteen years of despair, fifteen years of fear, fifteen years of hatred― all of these emotions converge into his fist, and he fires it at the man who started it all for them.

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About the author

Miuu

Bio: Pen name: Han Sung Chul

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