Renard and Lady Zhou reached the end of the hallway. It snaked right to an open pathway that flanked a spacious, square shaped open-roof garden. Through the bars of sturdy oaken guardrails, Renard could make out a patchwork of bright colors that dotted the green of the garden – herbs and fruits of various different kinds and, considering their unearthly glow, potent magical power.
Lady Zhou made her way across the pathway, pointing at the glowing fruits.
"Cultivation is, as the name makes it apparent, the act of cultivating life essence – concentrating the sap of creation that originally fell from the tree of life. That is why ordinary fruit trees, when exposed to powerful levels of life essence in beast blood, produce mystical fruits."
Renard shivered as the early morning breeze wafted in from the open-roof. "Then cultivation is when people take in extra life essence to get stronger, I assume? Casting magic is their way of growing the metaphorical magical fruit, I guess?"
"A sound hypothesis, but somewhat incorrect. There is a limit to how much life essence the mortal body can handle – it is just like over watering a plant. And that limit is quite low, I am afraid. By consuming items infused with powerful life essence, the average man becomes stronger physically, but they do not truly cultivate."
Lady Zhuo stretched out her arm and touched the guardrail with a single finger. From the point of contact, a flower – a lily, white and fragile – sprouted, wilting when she withdrew her hand.
"True cultivation is creating where there is nothing. It is bringing life where there is none. That is where the 'magic' of it comes into play. That is where we can exceed the limits of our mortal bodies and truly wield the power that once belonged to the heavens."
Renard felt the wilted lily with wonder. It was real, his touch didn't lie, and had been alive just a second ago – a small but potent display of lady Zhou's cultivation.
"To cultivate past our physical limits, we must consistently impart some of our life essence into an inanimate conduit to give it life and power. For most, this conduit is a weapon. That is the very first step of cultivation. When enough essence has been transferred and a strong enough bond has been made between cultivator and weapon, the two are linked at the spiritual level, fundamentally altering the weapon. At this level-"
Lady Zhou flicked her wrist, and all of a sudden, a silver light wreathed her fingers, solidifying into lengthy, metallic claws that encased her fingers. They were sharp and curved, meant to cut in deep and leave the insides a bloody mess.
"The weapon can be manifested at will. It has become a magical item that takes on an unique shape depending on the nature of the wielder's soul. At this point, one has reached the first level of cultivation, becoming what is called an Awakened here and a Soulforged in the West. With further cultivating, one can ascend even beyond that-"
Lady Zhou once more touched the wooden guardrail, but this time, pricked it with her metallic claw. The effects were incredible: instead of a single weak lily, a monstrous vine, as thick as a man's arm and encased with razor sharp thorns, burst forwards, shaking like the tendril of some beast.
"And gain abilities that reflect one's soul. As every soul is different, it may seem that there would be an infinite variety of powers, but there are generally two categories that they fall under, and which category one falls under is determined by birth, or, more precisely, by one's Qi – our way of saying life essence. Should one have Yang Qi, one will have destructive powers. With Yin Qi, one will have restorative powers."
Renard rubbed his healed arm and glanced at the tendril, still twisting about. "You have Yin Qi, I presume."
Lady Zhou nodded and withdrew her finger from the guardrail. The tendril withered as quickly as the lily had, its great bulk crumpling and eventually fading into the wind.
"Indeed, but that is far beyond what this sect is capable of and what you are capable of teaching. I merely want you to help the sect's men achieve a better connection with their weapons – that way, they will hopefully make progress towards Awakening."
Renard mulled the thought over in his head. In any form of swordplay, you had to form some kind of connection with your weapon to get better. Obviously in his world, it didn't involve any of this magical cultivation, but the underlying principle was similar. Keep using your weapon, get a feel of it, understand it, then obviously you would do far better.
If that was what he had to teach, then he could do it.
"I'm sure I can do that much," said Renard.
Lady Zhou nodded. "Good. Then follow."
She upped her pace and reached the end of the pathway, exiting the garden and turned another right, this time down a spiraling stairwell. At the end of this stairwell, Renard found himself in what must have been the courtyard.
There were already several rows of men and a few women lined up on the barren dirt. They were mostly well-built and in shape, dressed in shabby, tattered garb. They all held regular sticks of varying sizes and shapes in their hands – the weapons they were cultivating with, Renard presumed. In front of them, Li, flanked by two servant girls, shouted.
"Line up, you dirty lowlives!" Li Shouted, the veins in his neck bulging as face went red with anger. He grunted as the villagers stumbled about trying to make a single file line. "Faster! Or else I'll personally beat you into position! In the Imperial Military, this backwoods incompetence would get you killed!"
When the villagers, bolstered by Li's threat, finally got into a long, horizontal line, Li nodded in satisfaction. He noticed Renard and Lady Zhou.
With a precise bow, Li said, "You look well, my Lady."
"Are preparations for Renard here ready?" said Lady Zhou.
Li pointed at one of the servants at his side. "You, tend to the foreigner."
The girl nodded meekly and went up to Renard, carrying a length of bound cloth. She gave a small bow as she handed it over with both hands. Renard took it, unbound it, and found his rapier and a brown sash. He took the rapier in hand, feeling its familiar weight, but he held the sash in his other hand with a look of curiosity.
"Congratulations on becoming a part of the Firefeather Sect," said Lady Zhou with a smile. "That sash symbolizes you joining our ranks. Wear it proudly."
Renard bound the sash at his waist. He turned to Lady Zhou and gave her an appreciative nod.
"Thank you so much. It means a lot to me."
Li shoved Renard's shoulder with considerable force. Renard stumbled but regained his balance before he could fall.
"You should learn to address the lady with more respect," said Li. "But I doubt you filthy foreigners have any sense of manners."
Renard gripped his rapier tight. He liked to be on peoples' good sides, but he did have some measure of self-respect. Li noticed Renard's knuckles whitening around the rapier and smirked, goading him to fight him so that he could have an excuse to beat Renard into the ground.
Lady Zhou raised a commanding hand. "That is enough. This sect faces too many struggles to have its training stunted by such stupid squabbles. You two must work together, and I hope to see results soon, as, frankly, I have been sorely disappointed by the progress that you have been making, Li."
Li frowned and bowed, deeper this time, at the waist. "I apologize, Lady Zhou."
"Less time apologizing and more time improving," sighed Lady Zhou. She turned around, starting her ascent back up the staircase. "I must tend to my own matters. When I return, I hope I will not have to reproach anyone."
"You will not," Li said.
When Lady Zhou was out of sight, Li stepped towards Renard.
"To think you would stand on equal ground with me – an imperial soldier – as an instructor." Li spat at the dirt beside Renard. "The mere thought makes me nauseous, but I have to respect the lady's wishes. Tell me, what are you planning to teach these imbeciles that I cannot?"
"A better connection with their weapons," said Renard. He breathed in deep, keeping himself calm. If he could just get Li to work with him together, then surely, he could work out their differences.
"What drivel." Li shook his head. "Forming a connection with a weapon by training with it physically is a lie told by the gifted to make the talentless feel like they have a chance. Either you have the talent to Awaken or you don't. No amount of sword training or stick swinging will change that."
Li grunted and turned on his heel, walking up to the line of villagers.
"All of you, listen up!" Li pointed to Renard. "Lady Zhou has entrusted this foreigner to teach you! However, he has nothing! No cultivation, no Western magic, nothing!"
The villagers looked among themselves, surprise and concern in their faces but their mouths too afraid to discuss it in front of Li.
"But Lady Zhou knows he can teach you! She is wise, and I believe I have figured out her intentions. Those of you without a single smidgen of talent, those of you who should not even be here –"
Li went down the line, pointing at certain individuals as he went along. He shoved them forwards, making them form their own line. They were noticeably weaker, thinner, and sicklier than the rest. When Li finished going down the whole line, he inspected this second-grade row of villagers with disdain.
"All of you talentless fools will go to the foreigner for instruction! The Westerner cannot teach you cultivation, but he can show you how to swing your sticks a little better. That will never in a thousand years allow you to be useful, but none of you had the talent to be useful anyway. And at the least, this foreigner must at least put up the illusion of doing work to earn the food that goes into his mouth."