15 The White Lily
When Renard stepped into the gardens once more, he began to truly appreciate its grandeur the deeper he went within it. It must have been as large as the courtyard, easily capable of comfortably holding a large crowd of people. The garden's ground consisted solely of smooth, grey pebbles that formed a thick layer of shifting rock much like sand. It was hard to move around here, with each of his steps sinking into the rocks and shifting away his balance.
Little circular patches of dirt stood out in this sea of stone, vibrant green stalks sprouting from their centers. There were plants of all shapes and sizes, colors and smells, thorns and barks. It was almost overwhelming, taking in the raw sensory wonder – the reds and blues and yellows of the flowers, their sweet fragrance mixing with the earthy scent of bark, everything.
[Taking in energy…]
[Taking in energy…]
His system was telling him it was absorbing energy, but this was almost too much. Renard clutched at his chest. It felt tight. Each of his breaths felt like it was being pushed through a straw. He even started to get light headed.
"Compose yourself, Renard." Lady Zhou stood at the center of a large clearing, a fiery figure of red amidst a background of muted gray stone. "The Qi here is extraordinarily thick and condensed. These mystical plants give off Qi when they flower, spread their seeds, and wither. Over the hundreds of years the Zhou family has held this estate, this garden has been constantly condensing Qi to the point that the average villager would die were they to step in as deep as you have."
"You're looking fine," said Renard through strained breaths.
"I am strong enough to withstand the garden's atmosphere. That you are struggling is a sign that you must become stronger." Lady Zhou flicked her left wrist, and a sword materialized. Not her usual claws, but a regular blade that Renard recognized as a katana. It had a guard of gold and a handle lacquered with crimson, a burnt red tassel hanging off its end. "And that is why we are here, in the greatest treasure the Zhou clan has to offer: the Garden of Sacrifice, the perfect environment to cultivate in."
"If I remember you correctly," said Renard. "Then if I'm a black level cultivator-"
"Foundation Establishment level," Lady Zhou corrected. "You have established a powerful physical body, a foundation upon which to cultivate your mystical abilities. The black standard is merely an indicator of your level, not the actual title."
Renard nodded. "Foundation Establishment level. Then the next step is to Awaken, right?"
"Indeed. However, I will tell you that Awakening is not a simple process. It is far more than merely absorbing Qi and strengthening one's body. That is easy and as natural as breathing. Simply absorb Qi and let it flow through the body, strengthening it just as eating food would nourish you.
Awakening, however, is a process tied to the soul, and every soul is different."
Renard cocked his head. "Then how does anyone know how to Awaken? If every soul's different, then everyone's going to have a different way to Awakening, yeah?"
"Correct. That is why Awakening is considered the very first, and often the last bottleneck that most cultivators encounter. Nobody understands what dictates Awakening. Some have Awoken under intense mental strain. Some merely trained and woke up Awakened. But it is known that it is extremely difficult - Of a hundred cultivators, only ten will likely Awaken, if even that. "
Lady Zhou raised a finger to the open sky. "However, there is one universal rule for Awakening. Desire – every single warrior that has ever Awakened desired it beyond anything else."
Renard wanted to Awaken, that was for sure. He wanted to get stronger, and Awakening seemed like the natural next step. He was a little confused as to why desire was so important, because he figured everyone that went into this harsh life of training to cultivate wanted, at some level, to Awaken and be strong.
"I think I understand," said Renard.
"You do not understand it as well as you think you do." Lady Zhou took in a breath. "Renard, this is your last chance to back out. Knowing you, I figure you will say you want this training, but I will tell you. You may need it, but you will NOT want it."
Lady Zhou didn't talk about any details. About how much the training would hurt, how long he'd have to train, nothing. And for some reason, that scared Renard much, much more than any detailed training regimen. The way she looked at him with those solemn grey eyes, as if she was asking him literally if he wanted to die – it wracked his nerves, and for a faint second, he did hesitate.
But he had people to save, and for that, he needed to get stronger.
"I've never been a sucker for pain," said Renard. "So I'm sure I won't want this training, but like you said, I do need it. And for that, I'm willing to do whatever it takes. People are going to be counting on me, and I don't want to disappoint them before I even start helping."
Lady Zhou nodded slowly, her eyes closing with the motion. She held her katana to her sternum, its moonlight white blade rising up and dividing her face with an eerie symmetry. "So be it."
She seemed to focus, her thin brows furrowing over her closed eyes. Renard took a moment to appreciate how graceful she looked. How she stood atop the sea of loose pebbles with perfect balance, not even making an impression in the ground. How her midnight black hair framed her snow-white face, a specter of almost ghostly beauty that contrasted with the menacing blade that wavered in front of her.
Then the world changed.
Renard found himself standing on firm, packed dirt. He was still in a clearing about the same size as the one he stood on in the garden, but everything else had altered. The strong, earthy smell of plant matter assaulted his nose, but it had none of the sweet fragrance in the garden. He found it even harder to breathe here than he did before, like he was standing atop the peak of a towering mountain.
The gardens, their orderly rows of trees and plants with their pretty flowers and fruits, had disappeared.
Instead, a wild forest grew wild all around him, the trees towering and tall, blocking out any visibility outside the clearing. The way they grew, their gnarled, twisted forms, reminded Renard of the night he was almost killed in the Fangwoods, and he shuddered.
It was bright, but not because of the sun. A lonesome, pale moon stood in the heavens, casting an ethereal glow that glazed the clearing around Renard in a snowy sheen.
And where Lady Zhou had stood, there was something else.
A woman similar to Lady Zhou in height and frame, tall and slender, but that was where the similarities ended. Renard could tell from an instant that the woman wasn't fully human. Fur, a dirty, mottled silver, covered her, almost giving the illusion of clothing were it not for the fact that her hands and feet ended in bestial paws tipped with thick, diadem claws, making it very much apparent that the fur was a natural part of her.
The woman cocked her head in the same way a curious dog would, her hair, long and white, spilling to her side like a stream of light as it reflected the moonlight above. Her face was human enough, pretty, even, in the same, noble way Lady Zhou's was. But her eyes were a sinister blood-red, pupils centered with slits.
"Looks like the fair lady has sent me another morsel," she said, the 'fair lady' part dripping with sarcasm. Her voice was sweet and resonant like Lady Zhou's, but there was a throaty rattle in it that clearly indicated that she didn't have human vocal chords. "The last one was a bore. Flesh was old and rotten. Couldn't even chew the bones - they snapped like twigs."
She smiled, baring rows of needle-sharp teeth.
Renard stepped back unconsciously. It was his instinct telling him that there was danger. Danger right in front of him, the most danger he'd ever felt, far more than any from Li, and Li had been out to kill him with a fury backed by years of hatred.
This woman, this creature, just looked at him with a curious, sidelong glance, but that was enough to tell Renard's instincts that he was going to die. Her disinterested gaze, her casual smile – they held more threat than all the years of vengeful anger that Li had targeted at him.
But Renard tried hard to steel himself, shoving his growing fear down deep within himself. He gulped and stood his ground and said, "Who are you?"
The woman spread her hands wide, splaying her fingers out. With a click, her claws fully extended into curved, sickle-like blades. Renard had seen these before. The same kind of claws that Lady Zhou's Awakened weapon was.
"You've seen me before, yeah? I think I've saved you more than a few times." The woman giggled. "Call me White Lily."
"Oh, the fair lady hasn't educated you yet?" White Lily clicked her claws together. "Does she expect me to fill you in? How funny. I thought she knew me better."
White Lily lowered her claws, and Renard let out an involuntary sigh.
"But the lady does like you, so I'll do some of her job for her," said White Lily. "When a cultivator reaches the final stages of Foundation Establishment, their physical bodies aren't capable of holding onto more Qi, so they train with weapons and shunt off the excess into them."
White Lily continued with a droning voice, boredom apparent on her face. It was like she was reciting facts that she had memorized but didn't care about. "That Qi, colored by their soul, dyes the weapon, eventually giving it a spirit and strength of its own."
White Lily pointed to herself. "Leading to something like me." She waved her arms around and twirled. "And allllll of this, this big forest, is where I live. The fair lady's inner world."
Renard's inner world had been a black, desolate void, and yet this one seemed so full, like a legitimate, physical place. He had a gut feeling that was because of a difference in cultivation between himself and Lady Zhou.
"How did I even get here, though?" asked Renard. He was still tense, but White Lily didn't seem to be aggressive for now.
"You know how those dumb farmers train with sticks? Well, they're actually trying to imprint onto those blocks of wood. When they Awaken, those sticks will transform into legitimate weapons, but it's too bad none of them have the talent to Awaken." White Lily laughed. "But people like the fair lady aren't like those poor, miserable dirt-diggers. She started off with a divine artifact - a sword that had the power to draw people into the fair lady's inner world."
White Lily narrowed her eyes and smirked, a fang or two glinting. "For a one on one duel with me."
She stepped forwards, her hind claws digging into the dirt. She raised her arms, claws extended and bared like scythes ready to reap Renard's blood.
Renard clutched at his side, but he realized he didn't have his rapier. He had never been given it back.
"Aw, poor thing," said White Lily with mock pity. "You don't have your little stick, do you? Don't worry. A non-Awakened stick wouldn't even scratch me. And if you were Awakened, well, you could call your weapon at will, sooooooo-"
White Lily crouched down, her back arching as she reared up for a lunge.
"Either you Awaken soon and call your weapon, or you die."