12 Systems and Suspicion
Renard slumped his shoulders and fell to the ground, exhausted. He watched Lady Zhou inspect Li. She ran her eyes over Li's limp frame, lingering her gaze on the wounds on his arms that leaked blood. With a graceful movement, her crimson robed figure bent down over Li. A bladed finger jabbed into Li's chest, piercing just deep enough to draw blood.
"Restore him, White Lily," said Lady Zhou.
Her claws grew a bright white, emanating sparkles of ethereal light that looked vaguely like flowers before they dispersed. That same white energy spread through Li's body, highlighting Li's nerves and blood vessels through his skin.
Li's wounds – the holes in his arms and the cut across his chest – closed up, the blood flow staunching. Renard sighed in relief when Lady Zhou started to come towards him. The pain of his wounds had started to come on strong, the scorched scars on his back throbbing from where the feathers hit and his side aching from Li's kick.
"You fought against Li equally?" said Lady Zhou. She inspected Renard with her grey eyes, taking note of his wounds and how awful he looked – the sweat, dirt, and blood that had clumped up his blonde hair and dirtied his face. "I should leave my questions for later. You are in need of healing."
"I don't feel too bad." Renard definitely couldn't move around, but he could keep conscious since most of his wounds had been caused by Li's awakened blade, and that had cauterized his scars so that they did not bleed. "Definitely need a break from teaching, though. And about Li, well, I surprised myself too. I didn't know I had it in me to take him on."
Lady Zhou knelt down, her eyes level with Renard's. "Neither did I. When I first healed you, I divined your talent and strength. You had no capacity to cultivate, and I confirmed this when I fed you the Goldlemon and you did not grow any more powerful."
"That fruit was meant to make me stronger?"
"It held a clump of Qi, one that I often give to talented villagers to aid in their cultivation, but your body could not process it – a trait that those without any ability possess." Lady Zhou narrowed her eyes, scrutinizing Renard's face. "It is highly improbable that you grew so powerful within a day. Renard, are you hiding something from me? Perhaps using western magic to conceal your strength? I know your soul is pure, so I want you to be honest with me."
"I-well, I can't explain it." Renard wanted to shrug, but his body was too tired and pained to listen to him. He tried to think of some way to tell her everything, but it was just way too much. He tried to find the words to explain his world to world transportation, the system, and everything the system had done for him, but he was just too tired. "I don't know how."
With a movement that Renard couldn't even perceive, Lady Zhou pierced Renard's arm with her claws. A skin-deep stab, just like the one she'd given Li.
"Forgive me, Renard, but I need to know how you came upon your strength or whether you were concealing it." Lady Zhou withdrew her claws, and Renard felt his wounds healing, which was nice, but there was another feeling, a heavy, numbing one that made his eyes droop heavy. "I will have to search your soul once more. Please do not begrudge this invasion of privacy, perhaps I may even be able to explain to you your situation. Now sleep."
And sleep Renard did – it wasn't like he had a choice.
Renard found himself in the void of his mental world again. The same calming darkness everywhere. Except there was one difference – a little ball of light. It stuck out sorely in the dark, a star of radiance that, despite its humble size, seemed to carry an abundance of strength.
"Welcome to your inner world, Renard," said a voice. It was distinctly feminine, soothing and gentle and heavy, each of its words pronounced with a somber heaviness, as if it was speaking about deeply personal matters.
Renard traced the voice to the light and found himself with too many questions to count.
"I am your system," the light said. "And because of the hope you have received, I have finally been able to scrape up some semblance of a visible form. I must say that I am quite proud of you. You have already begun to shoulder the hopes of others as a true saint."
"Why can't you talk in compete sentences when I'm awake? Most of the time, you sound like a robot rattling off pre-programmed words that I have no idea what to make of."
"Because I can only fully manifest here, in your inner world, where we are bound at a deeply spiritual level. The extent of my influence when you are awake, is, well, sending lines of pre-programmed text to you to indicate essential information such as the intake of energy or progress with your abilities."
"So this isn't just my head?" said Renard, looking at the great, infinite expanse of void around him. "This is a real place?"
"Not one that exists on the physical plane, but one that exists nonetheless." The light shimmered, and for a second, Renard thought he could make out a face in there.
"What are you?" asked Renard.
"A goddess. I am known as the keeper of life, the one who forged the blade of creation and brought this world into peace and prosperity."
Renard remembered Lady Zhou's stories about the gods of this world, how they had built everything up and yet had fallen nonetheless. "Wait, didn't all of you die when that big tree got cut down?"
"Our physical forms perished, yes, but we are fundamentally beings of higher existence. Our avatars are mere extensions of a far, far greater form. The tree of life simply served as an anchor to root our physical forms to the world in a permanent manner."
"Then all of you gods are still alive in some kind of spiritual limbo? If that's true, why even bother bringing me to this world to save it? Don't all of you have the power to do it yourselves?"
"Those of us who fell by the same weapon that struck down the tree of life - the blade of ruin – have been vanquished permanently, and many of us did suffer that fate. Among the few of us that have retreated to different planes of existence, there are even fewer who have the power to influence any aspect of the physical world."
"But you're one of them. You're literally force feeding me powers, after all, and I can feel them making me stronger, faster, and better."
"At a heavy cost, and there are no other gods as powerful as myself. I spent a vast amount of power to bring you to this world, and then even more to craft a system within you that works to grant you benefits that are measurable and visible in the real world. Now I am reduced to this dull light, a flicker of my past self, but seeing you grow, I can say that it has been worth the sacrifice."
"I didn't realize you had to lose so much for me."
"It was my choice: you do not have to feel bad for me. If anything, I must be grateful to you for accepting my call to save this world. I planted the seeds for all its life, and it pained me so very much to see it warring and dying over the past century. To see that you are already restoring hope livens my heart."
"I aim to please." If Renard could have smiled, he would have, but alas he didn't seem to exactly have a physical body here. He wondered if he appeared as a blob of shadow to the goddess. "But I do want to get a better idea of what this system does."
"It is essentially the blueprints of my powers packaged into an operating system that guides you towards building it. You see, I did not nearly have the ability to simply transfer all my powers to you. At best, I could only give you a foundation specialized for evolving and growing, one that would eventually reach or even exceed my original strength."
"That's why the Sword power lets me be compatible with all energy, huh? To make it easier for me to absorb enough juice to unlock more of your power. That being said, what exactly were your powers? What can I look forward to?"
"I was both a saint and a swordswoman, helping life grow and wielding the blade of creation. When I interacted with the mortals through a physical avatar, they came to call me a Sword Saint, and that is what you are to become. Thus there are two parts to your system. The Saint part, which reflects my nature as a goddess of positive emotions, and the Sword part, which symbolizes my authority over creation."
Renard nodded to himself mentally. "About the creation part, does that mean I can start making things all willy nilly? With just a mere thought and all that?"
"Not quite. You are still mortal and have mortal limitations, meaning my creation will be limited in some way. To be honest, I do not know how my creation abilities will manifest in you. All I know is that as long as you keep developing your strength, your abilities will reflect mine in some capacity. Perhaps you will be able to conjure up any of the elements. Perhaps you may be able to create weapons. It is up for you to explore and find out."
"Well, that's exciting."
"I do wish for you to bear in mind that your powers are fundamentally tied to being a saint. Should you stray from that path, there will be consequences. However, I chose you to bear this system because I know you had the perfect strength of character to always be there for the needy, to always bear the burdens of the weak."
"Aw, you're making me blush," said Renard. He felt something tug at him, and the sudden physical sensation startled him in a world where he didn't seem to have any physical body.
"You are being pulled out of this world, back into consciousness." The light dimmed until it was just a faint flicker. "Know that I am always supporting you from here, Renard. Good luck."
"Am I going to see you again?" said Renard. "Or do I have to knock myself out every now and then to get back here."
"You will learn to enter your inner world soon, I presume, if the cultivation methods I taught the people of Xia are still in use. Until then, farewell, my chosen one."
The void around Renard sucked away as his eyes opened, filling in with the familiar scenery of his room. Lady Zhou was seated beside him, and he felt a distinct sense of déjà vu.
This was a nearly one for one recreation of when he'd woken up the first day when the Salamanders had attacked him, except the only difference now was that instead of looking at Renard with gentle concern, Lady Zhou gave him a suspicion-laden stare.