10 The Duel 1
Renard and Li started to square off, circling each other. Despite how hot-headed Li had been, the man was careful. He was still a soldier, after all, and his training was apparent. He didn't rush in immediately, believing his physical strength could overpower Renard. He kept his distance and scrutinized Renard with his guard up.
Renard gulped down a nervous knot that had started to form in his throat. It wasn't just his physical strength that had been strengthened – his intuition had sharpened too. That's why he could tell he was just around Li's level in terms of brute power. This meant that their skill and experiences would make all the difference, and in that area, they seemed too evenly matched.
Renard had more technical skill, more prowess with his rapier, but Li had been through the thick and thin of life-threatening battle many times already.
The tension between the two intensified, the charged atmosphere so thick that a knife could cut through it. The other villagers – the ones Li had been training – had stopped and come by to spectate, drawn in by the air of imminent battle. Yet despite how many people there now were, it was deathly silent.
The only thing Renard could hear was his breathing. He stayed in his fencing stance and sized Li up. Renard had a height and reach advantage for sure, but Li used two hands with a wide bladed saber, meaning he had much more power to go with his swings.
Renard made the first move: a feint. He advanced forward and thrust out his blade. They were far enough apart that Li had more than enough time to react, but Renard knew this. This was a low commitment attack where Renard could withdraw and retreat at any given moment's notice: he wanted mainly to see how Li would react.
Li tried to parry Renard's jab with a heavy-handed side swipe, aiming to leverage his strength to try and knock the rapier out of Renard's hands.
Renard saw this and took a single retreat back, no more, no less, easily avoiding Li's slower attack. However, there was no opportunity for Renard to counter: Li kicked off with his feet and drew back as soon as he sensed his parry failing, sword raised in cautious guard.
But Renard wouldn't give him a single moment of breathing space. He lunged forwards, arm thrusting straight and blade glinting as it soared straight like a missile towards Li's side: a non-lethal blow – Renard made sure of that – because this wasn't a death match, and Renard didn't want to kill Li. He wanted to respect Lady Zhou's wishes, but at the same time he wanted to force Li to take him seriously so that they could finally talk on even terms.
Even so, the lunge was ridiculously powerful. It wasn't anything Renard could have dreamed of performing as a regular man. His blade whistled as it sliced through the air and when he pushed off his back foot to lunge, the force actually shattered some of the earth beneath.
Li couldn't quite see the attack coming – he hadn't expected Renard to have suddenly gotten so much physically stronger. At the last moment, his shaggy brows widened as he twisted sideways, trying to evade the attack, but the rapier slid through his tunic, carving out a bloody streak where his left ribcage was.
Not a deep cut, but one that would hurt.
In an instant, Renard withdrew with a quick series of retreats, preventing any chance for a counter attack. Li released a hand from his sword and dabbed it in his wound, looking at the blood spreading on a callus on his finger.
"I see now." Li wiped the blood off on his pants, leaving a dark, cherry-red streak at the thigh. "Your physical strength has neared its mortal limit. You are almost Awakened, and yet you concealed this until now. Perhaps you were plotting to assassinate me all along?"
"Haven't been hiding anything." Renard pointed his rapier at Li. "Ever since we've met, you've been underestimating me, calling me a foreigner or westerner and not seeing me for who I am. I've always treated you seriously, and I figure now it's your turn to take things serious, because at this rate, you're going to lose."
Li did not lash out in anger. Instead, he grinned from ear to ear, a gesture that sent a small shiver up Renard's spine.
"You're right, foreigner." Li maintained his grin as he re-assumed his fighting stance, both hands tight around his saber handle. Then he pumped power into his muscles. His body seemed to expand twofold for a second, the musculature on his arms and legs straining against what had once been loose clothes. He exhaled, and his muscles seemed to settle, returning him to his regular size. The wound at his side had closed up through the sheer flexion of his muscle fibers. "I'm beginning to appreciate you. It has been a long, long time since I have ever been in a true battle."
Then Li dashed forwards. Renard had less than a second before Li was upon him, saber raised overhead. The saber cast a long shadow between Renard's eyes – a premonition that told him that if he didn't move out of the way, his head was going to split into two. Li was not playing any games here. He wasn't treating this as a no-kill duel.
He was fighting to kill.
Renard moved on raw instinct, but even when he resorted to his most basic, primal sense of self-preservation, all of his years training let him execute a neat parry. As Li's saber came down with concussive force, Renard flicked his rapier up at an angle, aiming to deflect the force from Li's swing as efficiently as possible.
Metal clashed against metal in a high-pitched scream.
Li's blow had been so outrageously powerful that it generated a shockwave that pushed Renard back. Renard felt his arm ringing, numbing from the impact. It was then that he realized that Li was no longer holding back and toying with him. And it was then that he also realized that this was no longer a duel in any conventional, reasonable, human sense.
They were two monsters beating at each other with swings powerful enough to split tree trunks in half.
Renard saw Li double down on his offense, not even taking a breath before attempting another overhead blow. This time, Renard was more prepared, and he planned to sidestep and cut into Li's arm and hopefully stop him from fighting.
However, Li had adapted. The overhead swing was a feint. When he saw Renard sidestepping, he didn't swing his blade down, instead, he kicked. Hard.
Renard felt Li's boot smash into his ribs. The kick sent him rolling a dozen or so meters across the ground, dust clouds rising up and trailing his painful exit. Adrenaline kicked in and dulled the pain, and he got up in a moment's notice.
Right on time, too, or else Li would have sliced Renard clean from side to side. Instead, Renard retreated, letting the dangerous edge of the saber whistle right in front of him. Li let his swing carry his momentum into a spinning roundhouse kick, but Renard wouldn't fall for a kick again.
Renard ducked and let Li sail over him. With his heightened reactions, he managed to reach up and grab Li by the collar with his non-sword arm. Using all his strength, he tried slamming Li into the ground. Li reacted by dropping his sword and thrusting his arms out, catching his fall and then pushing himself from his handstand stance and leaping back onto his feet.
"I will have to admit that your sword play is impressive," said Li. "But you have no martial arts to speak of."
Renard breathed in deeply, making sure he could still move properly. When he confirmed that his body was still functional, he kicked Li's saber back towards him. The saber stopped when it hit Li's boots.
"Are you sure?" Li picked his saber back up. "I am fighting as if I was on the battlefield. I am using everything I have except for my blade's Awakened abilities, and the amount of physical strength I have cultivated still exceeds yours. I would not have begrudged you if you had kicked my saber away."
"I trained with the rapier as a sport. My heart's that of a sportsman, and I still stick to basic sportsmanship. I wouldn't be able to fight with good conscience unless you had your sword with you."
Li grunted. "So be it. Your honor will be the end of you."
The two circled each other once more, returning to how they had sized each other up at the very start of the fight.
Renard blinked. He could FEEL the energy coursing into him. Strands of invisible warmth that he could follow through some kind of uncanny sixth sense, and when his eyes tracked it, he realized it was coming from all of the villagers that were looking on from the sidelines.
His disciples were rooting for him even if they weren't saying anything. And the other villagers, the ones that had endured Li's abuse for an entire year, wanted him to win. Their mouths weren't moving, but their hearts were cheering in unison.
Li noticed Renard looking away and capitalized on it, barreling forwards with his saber drawn back, ready to lop Renard's head off.
Renard heard Li's movements and reacted. A perfect parry – one that sent Li's blade clanging sideways, off balance, leaving him wide open for the riposte. Renard drew back his rapier and thrusted, aiming with pinpoint precision at one of Li's arms.
The rapier skewered straight through Li's burly arm, punching through both muscle and bone. With a flick of the wrist, Renard withdrew his rapier, a spray of blood following the curve of his rapier as it slid out of Li's flesh.
Li exhaled sharply as he retreated, blood streaming out of the puncture wound in his arm. It was like someone had taken an oversized hole-puncher and bitten a chunk out of his bicep.
"You parried my two-handed swing with one hand?" remarked Li. He looked at his injured arm, at how it dangled limp and useless at his side. "You're…you're getting stronger. Some kind of western magic, I presume, but I do not care." Li bared his teeth in a bloodthirsty smile. "No matter. You're worth beating into the ground now, foreigner."
Renard took in a calming breath, easing his stance. He needed to keep relaxed and cautious at the same time. Even if he was getting stronger by the second, he was going to hit his mortal limit for physical power, and that likely wasn't much higher than Li's personal power considering the fact that Li had already ascended to the Awakened stage. And despite the fact that Li now could only use one arm like Renard, there was the vast difference between the two that Li could use his feet as weapons.
Always fight as if you're losing. A fight isn't won until the buzzer goes off. Basic mantras that Renard's coach had told him many times over the years, and they came back to him now, in an entirely different world.
The fight wasn't over yet, but it was reaching a decisive point where one single moment would decide everything.