This time when Renard fell asleep, he found himself swimming through the void of what he could only presume to be his consciousness. He was weightless and formless in a sea of darkness, but this vast emptiness felt safe – at least there weren't going to be human sized lizards ready to pounce and tear him to pieces.
[Host is finding difficulties adjusting to the System. Expected.]
A voice echoed through this void. Renard tried to pay attention to where it came from, but it seemed to come from everywhere, every direction, equally.
"You're the voice I heard when I saw that light," said Renard.
"What happened to that person? The screaming one. I tried to help, but-"
[There was no such person. I conjured it merely to attract you.]
[Because it was the most effective way of drawing you in. You would not think twice before running towards a cry for help.]
"No, I meant why would you want me? Why take me from my world?"
[You were a suitable host. I had searched wide, through many worlds, before I found someone with qualities as fitting as yours. But that is the technical aspect of it. Your qualities would be wasted in your world, whereas this one sorely needs them. It is ravaged by war and destruction, nearing its end. I do not want that, and you, through this System, have the power to change it.]
"What if I don't want to?" Renard felt a twinge of anger when he recalled just how close he was to dying this night. How could this thing, this 'System', expect him to follow its whims and wishes? "You've taken me from a life I was enjoying, and you've almost killed me already. I want out."
[You cannot leave a person in need. You can never turn your back to the needy. It is inscribed in your character, your very soul. There are millions in need here.]
All of a sudden, Renard felt his mind invaded by visions. Visions of battlefields where men in strange armor and robes lay scattered, bloody and broken. Visions of forests where creatures far more twisted and terrifying than the lizards savaged helpless families. Visions of desperate men and women killing and stealing from others just as desperate as them to survive.
Then just as quickly as those visions had come, they ended, returning his sight to darkness once more.
[-And with this system, I have granted you the power to save them. You cannot turn your back on them in good faith, but if you so desire, I can return you to your life – you will wake up in that alleyway, memories gone, living your past life once more.]
"I…I do want to help," said Renard . He remembered those lizard-like creatures. How they had tossed and beaten him with utter ease. "But I don't have this power you tell me I have. I don't feel strong at all."
[You are strong. Strong inside, strong of character, and that is all you need. So long as you are strong within, the strength outside will come. Give it time.]
Before Renard could protest, his mind slipped out of the depths of his unconscious. He awoke to warmth, a wool blanket wrapped around his body. He was inside some kind of building, wooden, by the looks of it, with a low, flat ceiling. The smell of cedar wafted through the air and he felt the warmth of a hearth fire crackle nearby. He sat up, feeling a little groggy.
"You are awake."
Renard rubbed his eyes and noticed Lady Zhou sitting across from him, her hands placed atop each other on her lap. Her hair, normally long enough to reach to her hips, had been wrapped up in a bun, pinned with a streak of gold that glinted in the firelight.
She had noble features, sharp cheekbones and an angular face that lent her stare a sort of ferocity, but her eyes always remained gentle, gray and wise in the same way that silver streaks in hair speak of experience.
Behind her stood a much less pleasant sight. Li was there, dressed the same as before minus the boots. His sword lay in his hand, unsheathed. He had on a tight-lipped grimace, evidently displeased with Renard's presence.
"I have healed your wounds," said Lady Zhou. "For a non-cultivator, you did well to survive in the Fangwood."
Renard moved his arms and noticed that they were fine. In fact, he didn't have a single bruise on his body. He felt healthier than he had ever been his whole life. As an aside, he did notice they had taken off the clothes from his upper body, leaving him a little exposed. He shyly wrapped the blanket around himself.
If Lady Zhou noticed his nervousness, she didn't tell. Instead, she continued, "Foreigner, I urge you to tell us what you have come here for."
"I don't know," said Renard. He was tempted to tell her about what that thing, that System, had told him, about him being sent here to be a savior, but it sounded both preposterous and way too self-important. "I don't know where I am or what I'm doing here."
"A filthy lie," snarled Li. He stepped forwards with an aggressive step, but Lady Zhou compelled him to stop by raising her hand. "Please, Lady Zhou," he protested. "We are at war with the Dominion, and the emperor's laws are still in effect. This man is one of them, an obvious spy, and now he claims to have lost his memories. Such convenience does not exist in this world. We must hand him in."
"I have gazed into his soul and found it clean." She waved Li back, and he grumbled to himself before putting his weapon by his side again. "There are very few left with a soul as clean as that which this man holds. Perhaps it was dirtier in the past, but if so, he has since forgotten his sins, leaving him pure and trustworthy now."
"But-," Li said.
"You do not presume to challenge my judgement, do you?" Lady Zhou leered at Li. "I am still Patriarch of this Sect, however humble it may be. Let us not even begin on taking into account the difference in our cultivation."
"I do not mean to challenge you, my lady, I am just afraid that many do not share your generous heart. The Warlord of the South is coming within a week, and what will he do if he sees this spy, I mean, foreigner, here? A foreigner of an enemy state, at that?"
"I understand the risks I am taking, and I do not need you to remind me of them." Lady Zhou pointed towards the door. "Stand guard outside."
"I am just worried about you, my Lady," sighed Li as he left, closing the creaky wooden door behind him.
Renard watched Li leave and shook his head. "Tough crowd to please, huh," he said.
"Do not mind him," said Lady Zhou. "He has been wary of outsiders ever since the Dominion took over his village."
"I'm sorry to hear that," said Renard. "But at the same time, I'm not part of this Dominion or whatnot."
"We cannot be so sure." Lady Zhou tapped her forehead with a jade-white finger. "You have lost your memories. Who knows whether you were of the Dominion or not. You certainly look like a man from the West, but I do not hold the circumstances of your birth against you. You have a clean soul, and that is all I need to trust you."
"A clean soul, huh? How can you tell?"
"It is just one of many abilities I possess as a cultivator."
Renard cocked his head. "Cultivator?"
Lady Zhou smiled. "Please excuse me. Of course you would not know if you had lost your memories. Cultivation is, perhaps most simply put, what magic is to you Westerners."
Magic. Renard nodded. This world was one of fantasy. Magic and swords. Steel and spells.
"I would like to restore your memories somehow." Lady Zhou put a hand to her lip, thinking. "But though my Dao focuses on healing, I do not have anything for the mind. I did hear from an alchemist that talking about familiar things may bring out hidden memories, but unfortunately, I do not know you to speak of anything that may be familiar to you."
Renard had an idea. He wanted to know more about this incredible world of magic and monsters, not only for his future safety - it wouldn't do to be walking around knowing literally nothing about this world's history - but also to satisfy his wonder.
"Then could you tell me what's going on? Generally speaking? Like where we are, why your empire and the Dominion are at war, all of that? If you tell me everything from the beginning, I'm sure I can remember things along the way."
Lady Zhou gave a slight nod.
"Very well then. Though I do apologize in advance: this may take a while."