11 The Duel 2
The issue was that Renard didn't want this fight to reach that decisive point where everything would end. When it did, one of them was going to die.
Because this fight had gone way past being a bout or friendly duel.
Renard had enough adrenaline buzzing in his veins that his senses had been dialed far past eleven. Li had a hole in his arm that you could literally see through. Renard had an ugly dark patch at his left side where Li had kicked him and probably shattered a rib or two.
This was life or death, and Renard didn't like that. At all. He didn't want anyone to die today. Hell, if he could help it, he didn't want anyone to die ever.
"Li, haven't you had enough?" said Renard, motioning at Li's wounded arm with his rapier. "We're both not looking great, and I know you want my guts to spill, but I personally don't want to see you dead."
Li got into stance with his saber, the blade shining by his shoulder. "You do not have the leeway to respect Lady Zhou's orders right now, foreigner. Doing so will lead to your death, not mine. I suggest you put all your efforts into surviving."
"Look, it's not what Lady Zhou said," sighed Renard. "Get this straight. I – me, personally - do not want to kill you regardless of what anyone's told me or ordered me to do. You did save my life back in the forest, and you were concerned about me before you realized I was a foreigner. And I'm thankful for that, and from that, I know you're not the killing type either. You bruise, but you don't kill."
Li scoffed at Renard. "There are many western heads from my time on the battlefield that would disagree with you."
"That's war. Right now, here in this village, we're not at war. We're both trying to help this sect. Lady Zhou is right – this fight is just plain stupid. We can end this fight right now and settle our differences and teach together. It would help the sect so much more."
"Foreigner." A pause. "No, Renard, was it? I understand where you are coming from. I understand that you are right." Li raised his saber. He had a thin-lipped stare on him, the rage in his eyes cooling over into steely resignation. "But I have lost too much and hated for too long. So long that even now, even when I know you are right, hate is all I can feel."
Li poised his blade at Renard. "Hate is irrational, I know, but I willingly let it control me. Because moving on is too painful."
Li charged and swung like a madman, his blows raining fierce and fast. Renard parried and parried, and through the flurry of blows, he saw Li's expression. His brows, thick and expressive as they were, lay still, his eyes listless and jaw clenched tight, as if he was remembering a painful memory, letting that pain draw into a deep, primal, irrational part of his brain. Li was channeling all the pain he had felt into a cold rage, one that didn't listen to any kind of reason, and despite how deadly that was, Renard pitied him.
Because without that rage to keep him going, Li was an empty man. It wasn't right for a man to keep hate in his system for so long. Anger was like a fire – even if you tried to control the heat, it still burned, and after years and years of hating, Li had burned out everything inside him. Despite how strong he was, despite how tough he looked, he was broken.
Renard parried and countered, forcing Li back with a swift jab aimed at his one remaining good arm. Renard wouldn't give up on Li. He didn't like seeing a man broken like this – he wanted to help. But right now, consumed with hate as he was, Li would never, ever accept help. Renard would have to knock him out for a while for him to cool down.
Renard didn't want to hurt Li, but if that was what it took to bring Li to reason, he would do it.
The duel raged on. Li still had an upper hand for a good minute, using his years of martial arts to dodge Renard's strikes and attack from unpredictable angles with solid kicks. However, as time went on, the system kept feeding hope into Renard, and his movements grew stronger and faster. On top of that, he also started to get used to his newfound strength, letting him truly use his swordplay to its fullest.
Renard parried Li once more and shoved him backwards. They had a standoff, their blade tips almost touching. Renard, his strength under fine control now, started feinting. He drew a circle around Li's blade, aiming to change his angle of attack. Li reacted to this and shifted his guard, but Renard merely rotated his blade counter-clockwise, back to his original angle of attack, and thrusted, gouging out a hole in Li's good shoulder.
Li stepped back, cursing under his breath. He rolled his shoulder a bit – his arm was still usable. With a burst of energy, Li charged and swung at the same time, putting all of his weight and power behind his blow. This way, he evaded having to contest Renard in a game of feints where Renard's rapier and superior skill easily outmatched him.
Now, though, Renard was faster than Li. Maybe not as strong, but definitely faster. He backstepped and dodged Li's wide swing and slashed upwards, cutting up from Li's waist to his chest. Li tightened his abdominal muscles at the last moment, forming a dense barrier of musculature that prevented the rapier from cutting him too deep in the vitals, but the strike still left a debilitating wound on him.
Blood flowed freely from the hole in Li's arm and the massive gash on his front. Renard didn't realize just how much blood was in a person until now. The blood poured out of Li in several spirts, staining all of his tunic and most of his pants red. Renard hoped Li would collapse peacefully, but Li had a ferocious tenacity to him, a sort of animalistic drive that, fueled by the hate he harbored, made him relentless.
Renard narrowed his eyes as he saw Li stab his blade into the ground. An instant later, Li heaved up, sending a shower of blinding dust and debris pelting against Renard. Renard sucked in a breath and tensed his muscles. He remembered the shockwave Li had been able to pump out with sheer force.
Exhaling, Renard swung hard, letting loose a squall of wind from his rapier that cut through the dust cloud and parted it, revealing Li who had put his guard down to try and sneak through the dust cloud. Renard took the chance he got and lunged, skewering Li's good arm at the elbow joint. Bone, muscle, and ligaments severed as the rapier disabled his arm with surgical precision.
Li barreled backwards with an agonized groan. Miraculously, he kept his grip on his blade, but it was obvious by the way both his arms swung limp that he had zero control over them.
Renard walked towards Li, flicking the blood off his rapier. "It's over, Li. Both your arms are shot, and come on, look at us. Covered in dust, sweat and blood. We shouldn't be like this. We could be so much better than this."
"Could be...could be…" Renard saw Li, prideful as he was, look down. Li's blood poured into the ground, slaking the parched earth's thirst. "Awaken – Fire Plume."
A sudden, intense heat rose up in the atmosphere. Sweat started to pour from Renard's forehead, and he strained his eyes as he noticed heat waves welling up all around Li, obscuring his figure. Li's saber wreathed itself in fire completely, melting away the metal and leaving a flittering blade of pure fire.
The ground at Li's feet softened and melted into a putty of superheated clay. When Li took shaky steps forward, his feet sunk into the earth, steam sizzling off with each step. It was then that Renard realized Li had lost too much blood.
He was delirious, and Renard tried to reach out to stop Li from hurting himself.
Li saw Renard's arm and lashed out with a roar. His arms were still useless, but his blade of fire moved according to Li's will, snaking towards Renard and shooting off into a comet of fire meant to melt Renard's entire upper body off.
Renard dove sideways, evading the flames, but he could still feel the intense heat they gave off, so strong that it melted his clothes into his skin. He gritted his teeth in pain and got up. Screams emanating from behind him told him that those flames had been dangerously close to reaching the watching villagers.
"Li!" Renard shouted, trying to break through Li's hazy mind. "Stop! You're going to kill the villagers!"
Li didn't listen, or rather, couldn't listen. He stared at Renard with a glazed over eyes and whispered, "Westerner. Westerner. Kill him, Fire Plume, before he kills us."
The fiery blade undulated, shooting out pellets of fire shaped like feathers.
"Shit." Renard focused all his efforts on running, strafing left and right to dodge as many feathers as he could. He took a path that circled around Li, trying to find an opening to knock Li out, but it was useless: the closer Renard got to Li, the hotter it got to the point where within a few meters of Li, it became impossible to approach him.
And it wasn't like he was running unscathed. Some feathers did hit him, and they weren't just raw fire – they were solid. Like little daggers coated in lava, they stuck into Renard's back, his arms, everywhere, and melted his skin.
But before Renard figured it was time to say his last prayers, Lady Zhou arrived with her Awakened bladed claws prepared. She was riding a great plant stalk, and it twisted around Renard, protecting him from the barrage of fire feathers.
Through gaps in the stalk, Renard saw as Lady Zhou hopped off the stalk and inspected Li. They were about ten meters apart, and Li hadn't noticed her yet, dull as his mind was with blood loss and unbridled hatred. She shook her head and knelt down, stabbing into the ground with her claws.
Vines sprouted from the area of impact and crawled towards Li. Before they reached a point where they burned away, they stopped and sprouted bright red bulbs that flowered, releasing clouds of black spores. Li, his senses shot, breathed in the spores without much reaction, and in the next moment, fell flat on his face.
His flaming sword retracted, solidifying back into its regular metal blade.
Lady Zhou clicked two fingers of her claws together, and all the plants she had conjured withered and faded away, including the great stalk that had protected Renard.
Renard slumped to the ground on one knee, breathing heavily. The struggles of the fight were catching up to him and the adrenaline was starting to drain out, leaving him pained and tired. But even so, he was happy that the fight had ended without either of them dying.