Shu has never ran faster in his life before. He blasts through the undergrowths, zips through the trees and races through the terrain as if he were a bolt of lightning, his body fuelled by strength he never knew he had. Even the effects of the drug seem to have worn off minutes after he started running.
Eventually, past the last stretch of trees, the outskirts of Bai Hu loom in sight. Shu pauses to catch his breath, wishing he had Song’s speed and stamina for the billionth time.
“You could at least look back once.” Mei pants heavily, trudging towards Shu. “Is this how Song treats you on missions?”
Lin looks winded as well, but he remains tight-lipped.
“We don’t have time,” Shu mutters. “The duel must’ve started already.”
“And what’re you going to do once you’re there?” Lin asks. “Fight Father with Song? Or take on the entire Blossom on your own? We’re fugitives now!”
“I’ll think of something.”
Lin still doesn’t look convinced in the slightest, but he nods anyway. The trio speed towards their destination once more. They leap from roof to roof, making quick work through the lively city and plunge into the final stretch of vegetation. Only a few miles left to the Palace.
“They’re expecting us,” Lin says.
Mei and Shu choose not to argue with his statement. Like Song, Lin’s hunches are reliable to a fault. They burst through the last wall of trees and race across the bridge towards the Palace. Before they’ve even crossed half the distance, whistling noises pierce the air.
“Form up!” Shu bellows, and several Faceless Soldiers with tower shields materialise in an instant. The Soldiers raise their shields just in time to block the Chi darts for the trio. The shields cave in from the devastating impact, but the Soldiers hold on. Barely.
“Lin!” Mei roars.
“On it!” Lin melts into the Palace walls and immediately, the entire structure begins to trembles violently, kicking up dozens of Apprentices into the air.
Mei springs into a somersault over the Palace walls and fires a wave of crimson strings from his fingertips, piercing the Apprentices. Once the young boys land back onto solid ground, Shu knows the battle is already over. The Apprentices drop their bamboo pipes, take their respective partners into their arms… and begin kissing.
“It’s fine, they’ll be safe,” Mei says with a wink. “The Devil works especially well on people that already have established bonds.”
Shu watches as the boys feel and make out their respective partners, oblivious of the trio’s presence now. What a terrifying power.
More Apprentices swarm into the courtyard from the flanking gates, numbering in the hundreds. Before they can even make it to the centre of the battlefield, pillars of rock burst from the ground, forcing the boys to hesitate. One final pillar punches through the ground at the centre of the courtyard, this one much larger than the rest. A greyish human-like figure peels itself from the wall and hangs there. The greyish liquid encasing it solidifies quickly, giving it colour, until finally Shu can make out Lin’s features.
“I’ll never get used to that ability,” Shu mutters, slightly disturbed by the sight.
“I’ll take it from here!” Lin shouts. “Mei, go with Shu!”
“Roger that!” Mei winks, then gestures for Shu to hurry.
The both of them sprint forward. Just as the Apprentices are about to intercept them again, the earth trembles, and concrete walls sprout from the ground, forging a path for Shu and Mei while locking the Apprentices away in a maze.
“I’ll be your opponent.” Lin sinks back into the massive pillar, his voice now reverberating from the very walls and earth of the courtyard. “None of you will leave unless I say so.”
Even as Shu steps past the next gate, he can still hear the screams and swords ringing from the man-made labyrinth behind. Hopefully Lin remembers their promise to not kill anyone.
As they step into the building known as the Gate of Changing Fates, the boys notice that the towering doors are locked. Shu suddenly stops dead in his tracks. Mei skids to a halt and glances back. “What?”
Shu senses something. “Get back!” he screams.
A clash of steel rends the air. Suddenly, standing in front of Mei is a Faceless Soldier… with its sword guarding against Yi’s massive glaive.
“Oh my, your summoning speed has gotten much faster!” The psychotic Purger giggles, twisting the glaive and throwing the Soldier’s blade into the air. In one swift motion, it cuts the Soldiers down as if its armour is made of paper.
Mei leaps back to Shu’s side, looking slightly shaken. “I… got careless. Sorry.”
“Apologise or thank me later.” Shu swipes his hand to a side, and a squad of Faceless Soldiers assemble before him. “That is, if we’re both still alive then.”
“You’re giving us too little credit. How mean!” Yi says, feverishly licking the blade of his glaive. “We’re not barbarians. We’ll kill you slowly, painfully, and that means you’ll have time to say your thanks in the meantime!”
Shu senses another being close by, and he doesn’t need even need to focus to know who it is. The newcomer drops from the air, landing next to Yi― it’s En, and a brutal looking sabre gleams in his hand.
“To think it’s come to this,” En says, a trace of regret betraying his tone. “Why is it that young Purgers must always choose the most painful path?”
“It’s the one we believe is right,” Shu answers.
“That’s why so few of you ever make it to adulthood. You need to do more than just listening to your heart.” En slowly raises his blade and points it at Shu. “Well, none of that will matter to you soon enough. At least you can rest easy knowing you’re not the first Purger I’ve killed for treason.”
Shu is about to take his trusty glaive from his Soldier, but Mei stops him.
“I’ll deal with the both of them,” Mei says. “Go. Song needs you.”
“What?” Shu shakes his head. “Are you stupid? They’re way too strong for you to handle alone!”
“Song is fighting right now as we argue here. Lin is fighting right now too, for us.” Pinkish Chi energy flows at Mei’s fingertips, taking the form of an elegant straight sword. “We don’t have time for this. If Song dies now, then all our sacrifices would’ve been for naught.”
Before Shu can object to him again, En sprints forward, his sabre scraping against the floor and kicking up sparks. Mei steps up and parries the blow, and the sound of metal clashing splits through Shu’s doubts.
“Go!” Mei steps back, guarding against En’s next barrage of blows. “Please!”
Biting his lip, Shu can only heed his friend’s call with a bleeding heart. As he dashes past the duelling Purgers, Yi leaps towards him with his glaive by his side. Shu’s Soldiers move in to intercept him, but are all quickly cut down in the graceful arcs of the massive blade. Shu swears, dodging the blade, along with the next combination of swings with somersaults.
“It’s rude to treat us as mere sideshow, you know?” Yi squeals feverishly, all the while hacking and slashing away. “You will die before Song does!”
Shu summons a Soldier, and the next blow smashes through its helmet. Shu then grabs the Soldier’s sword and cleaves through its disintegrating body, but Yi nimbly twists his glaive back to guard against the counter.
“Finally fighting back? Great! But you of all people should know…” Yi shoves Shu’s blade aside and swings his glaive at him. Shu twirls his blade back to defend himself, but the force is like a warhammer smashing against his puny sword, throwing him back. “That few Purgers in the Blossom can compare to my strength.”
“Damn it!” Shu grits his teeth, desperately fighting to stay calm. Fighting Yi head on like this is a nightmare. Not only does he sorely outclass him in physical power, his fighting style is piece of art honed by his insane nature.
Yi laughs again, flourishing his glaive and saunters towards Shu. “Come come come COME COME COME! LET ME RIP THROUGH YOUR SPLEEN! COIL YOUR INTESTINES AROUND MY BLADE AND―”
Red strings coil around Yi’s glaive, pulling him back. And the strings are from Mei.
En slashes against Mei’s arm, splattering blood onto the floors, but he stands firm on his ground.
Thank you… Shu sprints past Yi, towards the final courtyard without looking back; he can’t, for he knows he’ll never leave these gates if he does.
“Come on!” Shu bellows, and a squad of Archers materialise by his flanks. A volley of Chi arrows then streak towards the massive doors, blasting them open.
Ahead lies the courtyard before the Hall of Final Transcendence, and even though it’s an outcome that’s been decided long before this moment, Shu still can’t believe the sight before him.
Song is losing.
Explosions of Chi energy detonate each time their fists connect, and despite the raging typhoon, not a single onlooker is willing to withdraw from the spectacle. To the young Apprentices, their movements are but a blurry mess of explosions; even majority of the Purgers can barely keep up with the duel.
Song is covered in cuts and bruises, and his outfit is in tatters. No matter how hard he tries, he just can’t seem score a single hit on him. The next blow from Kiin collides against Song’s fist head on, and the devastating force shoves him back, sending him skidding across the floor. Kiin moves in, firing another onslaught of blows at him, pushing Song further and further back.
Kiin twists his body, taking a blind spot and delivers a brutal kick to Song’s stomach, throwing him into the air. He then somersaults above Song and delivers a hammer kick down on him. Despite guarding against it, the force drives Song back onto the ground, shattering the stone tiles and pumping out a fistful of blood from his gasping lips.
“To think you had the audacity to believe you could pose a threat to me.” Kiin snorts, sauntering towards Song. “Is this all your hatred amounts to?”
Song punches his fist into the ground, shattering through the stone, pushing himself back onto his feet, panting heavily. “What do you know about me anyway?” Zhi materialises in his hand, and Song twirls it into a comfortable grip. “All we are to you are tools, weapons that you use to purge the world of the Seekers. My fight for freedom isn’t something you’re willing to understand.” With a roar, he charges towards Kiin.
Wisps of Chi energy form in Kiin’s hand, taking the form of a beautiful straight sword. With an amused snort, he charges forward, locking himself in another blade storm with Song.
The two engage in a deadly waltz of blades, excess Chi energy slicing the earth around them, the ringing and howling of their swords so ludicrously fast it’s like the climax of a guzheng piece. Suddenly, Kiin leans back, narrowly avoiding Zhi from beheading him. He then raises his unarmed fist, Chi powers spiking from it. Song leaps back. Kiin’s fist drives into the ground, and an eruption of white-blue energy blasts through the stone, forming a massive crater scorched in residual Chi.
What the hell is he! Song has never been this pressured in a fight before; there just doesn’t seem to be a way to win. Worse, it feels like he’s losing, slowly but surely, with no way of halting it.
“At your limit already? That’s a shame.” Kiin turns his head to the entrance of the courtyard, the Gate of Changing Fates. “It looks like your partner is here to watch your pathetic grovelling too.”
Song can feel the blood drain from his body as he looks to the Gate as well. Standing by the smouldering giant double doors is Shu, tears welling up in his eyes.
“After all you’ve done to keep him away from us, he still chooses to die with you. No surprise, considering this is how you were raised to be.” Kiin leaps over the crater, sword raised.
Shu… why… Song falls on the defensive, desperately dodging and guarding against Kiin’s attacks once more. But after seeing Shu, the fight has all but left him. Kiin’s blade nicks him in the arm, then the leg, then his torso, more and more wounds marking him as the fight continues. Eventually, a failed counter from Song leaves him wide open, and Kiin slugs him in the stomach. Song reels over and gags, only to be kicked in the face from Kiin and skidding against the ground again.
Even in his dazed state, Shu’s voice is still clear as glass. He tries to get up again, but the pain and fatigue is starting to make themselves at home in his body.
“Just because… we share the same arcana… and you’re older…” Song spits, trying to revive the fight in him. “Doesn’t mean you’ll win.”
“Same arcana? Ah, you must mean this.” Kiin flaunts at his beautiful straight sword as if he were a child showing his friend a new toy. “If that were the case, then you might actually have been right.
“I’ll let you in on something interesting.” Kiin snaps his fingers, summoning luminous blue wisps of Chi to swirl between them, taking the form of a card. The Chariot. And in his other hand, another card forms― the Star.
Two arcana in one being? But that’s impossible!
Kiin must’ve noticed the shock from Song’s face, because his smile twists into a more malevolent one. “You children may have been born with your arcana, but don’t forget that I was the one who awakened the powers for you. What I give, I can also use.” Another card appears before him, then another, until all twenty-one cards are in the air like a picture album.
“All of the arcana… but that means—”
“Yes,” Kiin says, reading his mind. “I’m not a lowly human like you.
I’m a being from beyond this level of dimensions, something that you couldn’t possibly comprehend with that primitive mind of yours. A god, if you will.”
Kiin walks up to Song, hands raised by his sides as if he’s inviting him to go over. “Do you know that Shu isn’t the only person risking everything to save you?”
“What… are you talking about?”
Kiin raises his palm towards him. When he does, Song isn’t sure anymore if he wants the answer to his question.
“Get away from him!” Shu screams, and a squad of Faceless Archers materialise by his flanks. They unleash a volley of explosive arrows at Kiin… only to detonate against a phalanx of Faceless Shieldsmen― Kiin’s Emperor card. Dozens of Apprentices move in to surround Shu’s Soldiers.
“Shu!” Song screams, staggering forward, only to be halted by Kiin’s stern gaze.
“Does neither of you remember the rules of this duel?” Kiin says. “Should Shu interfere, you will automatically lose. I will overlook that foolish outburst just this once, but more importantly…”
The symbol of the Wheel of Fortune arcana flashes between them for a brief instant, and suddenly the world around Song changes. Before him is Lin, altering the terrain of the courtyard and knocking the Apprentices about as if they were toys. But he’s moving on foot, and not within the terrain itself― that means he’s exhausted most of his powers. Several of the Apprentices move in to flank him, and he realises it too late; one of the boys cleaves his back, cutting through fabric and flesh alike, and another slams his foot behind his knee and knocks him down. The surrounding Apprentices hurry over and move in, locking their blades around his neck to restrain him.
“The Wheel of Fortune’s power, showing you what’s happening to your friends as we speak,” says Kiin’s disembodied voice. “Take a good look; it’ll be the last time you see them.”
The scenery blurs, and now Song is looking at Shu. He summons more Faceless Soldiers, throwing himself into a skirmish with the Blossom’s army surrounding him. For a moment, it looks as if he’s holding out against their ranks decently, until a jet of flame plumes towards him. Shu summons a Shieldsman to guard against the fire, but another Purger flanks him, knocking him out with the pommel of his sword. The others quickly move in to apprehend him.
“I… I didn’t want any of this…” Song whispers, his heart tearing at the sight of his friends falling to the Blossom’s overwhelming ranks. “I sent them away from the Palace…”
“And yet, here they are, throwing their lives away for you.”
The scenery shifts once more, and this time it’s Mei, fighting against En and Yi. Song’s heart is at his throat now. En and Yi aren’t like the other Purgers; they can, and they will kill Mei.
“Mei… no, stop!”
His friend is wounded all over, yet he’s still standing his ground, fighting valiantly and desperately. The veteran duo alternately and simultaneously exchange blows with Mei with impeccable coordination, as if they’re psychic twins. Even with Mei’s Devil threads serving as obstacles, the duo’s attacks are still relentless, scoring a slash on Mei every now and then and splattering blood onto the floors. But the fight never fades from his eyes.
The sight is too much for Song to bear. Right now, he wishes he’s dead, so that the fighting would stop, so that they’d stop hurting Mei.
Eventually, Yi slaps Mei’s blade aside with his glaive. Mei is wide open. En moves in and thrusts his sabre into his chest, and the boy gasps with a look of surprise and horror. En then heartlessly unsheathes his blade from Mei’s body, and he drops to the ground. Mei no longer moves, and he lays there with those lifeless eyes of his, the look of horror frozen on his face.
When Song’s vision returns to his world, he realises his eyes are now covered by a veil of tears. It’s the first time he’s cried in over a decade. Mei, the person who’s always fought his pessimism with that cheerful smile of his, the person who’s always there to tend to the fragile side he locks away from everyone else, especially Shu, and the person who never stopped caring for him until the very end… is now gone.
Song drops to his knees, all of his strength evaporated to nothing. Of all the things to strip him of his will to live, he had never expected it to be Mei.
“A shame― he was such a promising Purger in the making too,” Kiin says without even a shred of remorse or sympathy in his tone. A cold, heartless tyrant. “Lin and Shu will soon follow, after your death. Or would you prefer to watch them die as well?”
Something about hearing Kiin’s voice again after watching Mei’s death sparks a burst of insanity within him, an emotion with a darkness so profound that he can no longer think. It smothers every thought in his mind, and the darkness pours into his blood, fuelling his body with a strength matching this terrifying emotion of his.
Despair. Sorrow. Murder. Hatred. The only thing left in Song’s mind and soul is the primal desire to see Kiin’s blood spill.
“Give Mei back…”
Song can’t even hear his own voice anymore, but if he could, he wouldn’t have recognised it. Bolts of purplish electrical sparks crackle around his body, and the entire Palace is mysteriously bathed in a thin mist. Many of the Apprentices begin to panic as they notice it’s becoming more difficult to breathe. The mist is unnatural, and every single soul in the Palace can sense its foul, malicious aura.
“GIVE MEI BACK!”
With a scream of pure rage, Song slams both of his palms into the ground, splitting it and blasting streams of purple lightning into the skies. The ground quakes, but Kiin has his attention focused above; he watches in fascination as the plasma pierces the clouds, staining them red as if they’re bleeding. Lightning and thunder soon follow with the darkening skies.
“So you’ve finally awakened your Yin,” Kiin exclaims with pride before laughing. “Yes, this is the power I’ve been looking for. There’s no doubt; you can be a―”
Lightning strikes the roof of the Gate’s turret, tearing chunks of it apart. Powerful gales slash the courtyard, chipping stone tiles and buildings alike. Even the earthquake is starting to grow dire. The young Apprentices are now screaming, with the Purgers desperately trying to calm them down, leading them to cover.
As his captors begin to scramble for shelter in the Gate, Shu watches in horror as the world collapses around his beloved partner. Even Kiin’s smile has worn off; the leader of the Blossoms, for once in his life, looks genuinely fretful.
So much power is flowing through his body that Song feels as if he could shatter a mountain in one punch. Tearing down the Palace would be child’s play.
But right now, he only desires the destruction of the wretched being before him.
Zhi materialises in his hand, but this time Song’s black Chi energy swarms around the slender blade, taking the form of a massive sabre. Its creation gives birth to a ghastly scream of winds, ripping off the buttons from his top. Song spreads his footing, leans the sabre on his shoulders and places his palm on the ground, and purplish lightning tears at the stone beneath him.
The winds, earthquake and thunderstorms are loud, but Song’s voice hammers into every single soul as if he’s talking in the dead of night.
“I’ve always wanted to kill a god.” Song’s golden eyes blaze with newfound power. “You’re going to be my first.”