7 The System Emerges
Li took the group of individuals he deemed hopeless – a meager crowd of ten – and led them towards Renard. They stood in a meek line in front of Renard, their heads down and staring at the dirt, their wills thoroughly beaten by Li.
"With this useless lot, I doubt you can damage the sect with plots of betrayal or rebellion." Li stepped forward aggressively, his face stuck into a permanent scowl. "Do what you want with these incompetent mongrels, foreigner, and let me handle the real training."
Renard shook his head and said, "My god, what is wrong with you? What do you have against me? I just want to work with you, Li, and I'm sure Lady Zhou wants the same as well."
Li unsheathed his blade, a glint of wrathful fire starting to line the steel. "Do not use the lady's name for your personal interests, foreigner. I know your kind. Deceitful and opportunistic like vultures. Always wearing smiles while holding daggers behind your backs."
"Can you really generalize like that?" protested Renard.
"No, no, I cannot." Li said coolly, surprising Renard with the level-headed response. "Logically, I should not. Not all of you foreigners are the same. And yet, I cannot take the risks – you foreigners have wrought much misery upon the Xia empire. I cannot risk trusting a single one of you. The last time that happened, my village burned. No more."
Renard reached out to tap Li's shoulder. "I'm sorry for your village, I truly am. But-"
Li swatted away Renard's hand. A crack reverberated in the air as Li's impressive strength batted away Renard's wholly mortal flesh and blood hand, leaving a dull red mark on his palm that would soon swell and bruise over black.
"Do not try to pity me, foreigner," said Li through his teeth. "I do not need it, especially not from the likes of you." Li's scowl grew deeper, his brows furrowing harder, the creases of his frown deepening. "I would cut you down where you stand for daring to patronize me, but I must respect Lady Zhou's wishes."
Renard rubbed his sore hand, but kept his stare trained at Li's eyes. They were black like coal but burned bright, the bushy brows adding strong accents to his fierce expression. Considering the fact that the man could kill Renard with a single swing, Renard should have felt more fear, but he didn't stand down.
"You would respect her wishes even more if you actually tried to work with me. Look, I know you don't like me, and you probably never will, but for the good of this sect, shouldn't we at least try and cooperate?"
"We already have." Li jabbed a finger towards the group of rejects he had assembled from the villagers. "I am giving you these fools to train. That is as much cooperation as I am willing to give. There is nothing more to add to this conversation."
Li swiveled on his boot heel and stomped away, back towards the main line of villagers. "Get in pairs again! The same as yesterday: repeated dueling. I want blood on all of your faces by the end of this training session, whether it be yours or another's!"
Renard let out a deep sigh that slumped his shoulders. Li was a very tough cookie to work with, to say the least. The man had a reasonable side to him, and once upon a time, Renard thought that maybe Li had been much more open-minded, more willing to trust and work with others. But Li had seen his village burn, presumably because he had trusted a westerner. He had touched the stove and gotten burned as the proverbs said, and now he wouldn't risk ever getting burned again.
Renard couldn't break through that kind of prejudice by just talking. It wasn't the type of discrimination that came from ignorance; it was one built up through bad experiences. To break through that, Renard would have to speak with his actions.
To that end, Renard sized up the villagers he'd been given. Which was then that he noticed that not only were they thinner, paler, and sicklier than the others, but they were also bruised in many areas. They did not look at him, but instead stared at the ground still.
"Come on everybody, heads up, we've got work to do," said Renard. He looked at the sticks in their hand. Many of them held their sticks weakly with grips that were loose, dripping with hesitance and lack of self-confidence. "I'm assuming Li's taught you basic footwork and drills if he's making you duel each other, right?"
One of the villagers stepped forwards. He was a large man with big, brawny hands. Solid of build and with ruddy complexion, but it was apparent from first glance that he was not a fighter. He had a gentle face with a big mouth that was meant to smile, not frown as it did now.
"We don't know what those are," the man said. "Li's only thrown us into duels, and he makes sure they're as close to life or death as possible."
"Christ," said Renard. "Without any idea how to defend yourselves? I can't even begin to imagine the injuries."
"Yes." The man sighed, his big frame heaving up and down. "Li always told us that the duels were the fastest way to get us Awakened, but now I know he was lying to us. None of us have the talent to get there. We were just punching bags all along."
The man bowed deeply and cupped his hands in front of Renard. "I am sorry, sir foreigner, but I cannot train any longer. I know Lady Zhou entrusted you this task, but Li has already told us that you cannot teach cultivation. I am sacrificing time with my family and the fields to train, and if there is no hope for me, then I cannot afford to be here."
Before Renard could reassure the man, he turned and left, a limp in his gait. It was as if the floodgates had opened.
"I, too, have little time to spend here," said a man.
"My elderly father needs me," said a boy.
"My children need me," said a woman.
And so on, until just three were left. Renard bit his lip. It seemed that Li had broken their spirits thoroughly, and it was no surprise. His idea of training was absolutely barbaric, a fact that Renard could easily verify by looking over to the other side of the courtyard, where the healthier villagers were beating each other wildly with zero idea of how to safely defend themselves.
But Renard couldn't dwell on those who had left. He would have to work with who was left and show the rest that what he did hopefully worked.
"You three, do you want to stay?"
The three nodded in unison.
They were a strange crowd. One was an older, heavily muscled man who, for all intents and purposes, would have belonged with the healthier villagers had he not been missing an arm. The other was a young girl, darker in complexion than the villagers, with a determined glint sparkling from her striking green eyes. The last was a tall, pale woman, far paler than even Lady Zhou, who looked so thin that it felt like a breeze would knock her over. She stared at Renard with an emptiness in her eyes, a stare that did not seem so much to look at him so as to look past him.
"Thanks for sticking with me, all of you," said Renard. He gave them a small bow. "I can't even begin to tell you how much I appreciate it. Li is right in that I don't know how to use magic or cultivate, but I sure as hell do know how to use a sword, and I swear that I'll teach you guys the best I can."
"Any training I can get, I'll take," said the muscled man with a toothy grin. "And if these young misses are staying with you even after Li's shouting and beatings, then I'm sure they got some belief in you too."
It was then that Renard felt it. A pinprick pain within him, deep within, right where his heart beat. It was a dull pain that didn't hurt enough to be uncomfortable, but was strong enough to be noticeable. He clutched his chest as he felt the pain flower throughout him, spreading as if his heart had pumped it throughout all his blood vessels.
[Host has received the hope of others. Converting…]
That voice – the same one that Renard had talked to in his subconscious. The voice that had called itself a 'system.' But before he could wonder about what was happening, he felt the pain in his body intensify, coalescing into one blinding instance of agony that passed as quickly as it came.
[Energy harvest from hope successfully converted. However, body is incompatible with the energy. Initializing true rebirth-]
Renard breathed in deep, sweat starting to trickle from his neck.
"Are you alright?" The muscled man approached Renard with concern.
"I can call for Lady Zhou," the darker skinned girl said. "She will heal you, I'm sure."
"No, no, it's fine," Renard gasped. Really, though, he had no idea what was going on.
[True rebirth completed. Host's body has been successfully altered to receive all types of energy.]
All of a sudden, Renard felt fine. In fact, he felt better than ever before. His limbs felt lighter and his muscles felt tighter, more coordinated and maybe even slightly bigger. When he breathed in, it felt like he could hold in his breath for hours.
"I'm fine," confirmed Renard, perhaps more to himself than to his new disciples. He knew something extremely important had happened, but he pushed it to the back of his head instead of going back to Lady Zhou to ask about it.
His disciples were waiting for him, after all, and he couldn't just stand there and leave them hanging.
"Just didn't sleep well, but it'll take way worse than that to stop me from teaching." Renard smiled and stuck his rapier into the ground. To his surprise, he had far more strength than he thought, digging the blade in almost halfway to its blade with a single casual thrust. "To start off, I want to get to know each of you."
Renard acknowledged his new disciples' confused glances with an even wider, more welcoming smile. They had expected to dive straight into fighting once more, but Renard would not teach like Li. He would not belittle his disciples, nor would he consider himself their superior. His fencing coach had taught him with respect and understanding, and that was how Renard would teach now.
And to that end, he needed to know what each person here was like.