16 Hit and Run
Renard tried to call for his weapon. At first, by trying to beckon to it in his mind, asking his sword to come to his side. When that didn't work and as White Lily tensed into her lunge even further, he put every ounce of his will into calling for his sword to the point where he could feel his body shaking from the sheer mental strain of knowing that if he couldn't do this, he was going to end up as a pile of blood and bones.
But that didn't work either.
And White Lily lunged. She was a silver blur under the moonlight. Renard's eyes couldn't track her. It was only when White Lily licked her lips audibly that he turned around to face her.
She was on all fours, body near the ground. She looked up at Renard with a red spattered smile, tongue hungrily lapping up the fresh blood around her mouth.
"Oh, you're a tasty one," she said, shuddering in excitement.
Renard heard the pitter-patter of liquid dripping at his right side and realized then that his arm had been absolutely shredded. White Lily's claws had torn out five great chunks out of it, peeling back skin and muscle to reveal bone. He shuddered at how white it was, how under the moonlight, it gave off a ghastly glow.
His body was suppressing the pain using what he thought was prodigious quantities of adrenaline, numbing the horrific injury. But the sight of his arm – mangled absolutely beyond repair, long strips of raw, red muscle dangling from it and fluttering in the wind – made him nauseous, and he forced himself to look away.
White Lily was already preparing another lunge, her body waggling playfully, almost seductively. She could have lopped his head off or torn his heart out, but she was savoring this. Enjoying picking Renard apart piecemeal with all the glee of a curious child deconstructing a toy.
Renard turned and started to run, his injured arm flapping uselessly at his side. He heard White Lily's feet launching her, ploughing up sprays of dirt, but she screamed mid-leap, soaring over Renard and crashing into the ground in an ungraceful heap, shivering.
White Lily struggled to maintain her balance and get up, her whole body shaking out of control.
"Ahh," she said through chattering teeth. "The fair lady is meditating, weakening me. She likes you that much, huh. Makes me want to eat you even more."
White Lily slowly started limping towards Renard, claws and fangs bared.
[High density of energy in the atmosphere.]
Renard hoped his system would give him something useful, because he really did need it.
[Host in danger. However, Host already at the peak of Foundation Establishment. Cannot further strengthen body.]
But just as he felt disappointment welling up, the system continued –
[Thus, initiating self-defense protocol. Converting excess absorbed energy into regeneration.]
Renard glanced at his injured right arm and saw it reconstructing. The shredded strips of muscle were retracting back, sticking onto the bone. New flesh replaced the torn chunks, blood filling in and skin starting to seal the wounds shut. However, the healing, though painless, wasn't quick enough for him to consider any sort of fighting, especially considering the fact that White Lily was starting to regain more and more of her motor control.
That's why Renard ran, away from the clearing and into the thick of the forest. He sprinted with superhuman speed, raising his good arm up to block stray branches from hitting his face. Such was his speed that every so often, he could feel particularly thick branches splintering and cracking as they collided with him, and such was his newfound durability that he remained entirely uninjured.
Which alone spoke volumes of how deadly White Lily was. Her claws had torn apart Renard's dense, rock-like muscle like it was brittle paper.
Renard couldn't stand against that yet. He had to make some distance so that he could think. He needed to Awaken, but how?
Lady Zhou had told him it involved desire, but that was such a broad tip. Of course, he wanted to Awaken. He would die if he didn't for god's sake. But that wasn't desire enough, it seemed. Or maybe that wasn't the right type of desire.
But if not, what was?
But before he could reflect on that question further, Renard was slammed face first into the dirt. He felt the weight of White Lily – surprisingly light, but she had dropped onto him from the trees with incredible speed – perched atop his back.
"Caught you!" she said.
Renard gritted his teeth and pushed himself up hard. Even if White Lily was strong, she wasn't heavy, and she hadn't expected his resistance. She fell backwards but flipped mid-air to re-orient herself on her feet, much like how a cat would always land on its feet.
Back aching, Renard stumbled as he turned to face White Lily. His right arm had healed a decent chunk, enough to function, but much of it was still raw, uncovered by skin.
White Lily whistled to herself. "Wow, you're healing fast. I know cultivators recover from wounds pretty quickly, especially in this place so chock full of Qi, but this is incredible. Some kinda divine artifact?" She shrugged. "Meh. Just means I can keep taking chunks outta you." She licked her lips. "A never-ending meal. I like the sound of that."
With a snarl, White Lily leaped upwards, but she was slower this time. Whatever Lady Zhou had done had weakened her considerably, making her movements fast, but visible.
Visible enough that Renard could roll under the lunge, evading her claws as they sank into the forest floor. But she had an animal agility to her that he couldn't match. Before he could recover from rolling, she had already pounced again, this time landing square on Renard's chest, the claws on her feet digging into him, crushing his ribs.
Renard coughed up a chunk of blood, but he still had the presence of mind to keep fighting. He grabbed White Lily's ankle and tried to shove her into the ground. But as soon as she felt his grip on her, she twisted her body, painfully contorting Renard's wrist and forcing him to let her go.
White Lily landed a little ways in front of Renard, and he forced himself to stand, blood streaming from his lip.
"You're awfully persistent," said White Lily. She looked disappointed. "Don't you feel any pain? It's not fun if you don't scream."
Renard realized then that it wasn't just adrenaline numbing him. He'd felt regular adrenaline before, when he was just an ordinary man. Back when he fenced and got a nasty jab in his armpit. The adrenaline had dulled, but it didn't negate.
But the way the System was healing him – it was taking the pain straight out, and for that, he was grateful. If he had felt even a fraction of the pain he was supposed to, he would have already passed out.
"I consider myself the quiet type," said Renard. He backed away, looking for an opportunity to escape.
"So boring." White Lily sharpened her claws together, sparks trickling from her bladed nails. "I don't know what the fair lady sees in you." She noticed Renard inching away. "Don't bother. The fair lady might be weakening me, but that doesn't mean I can't beat you in a race. Such a pity, though. The fair lady is rooting for you so much. I can feel her hoping for you to survive even from down here."
[Hope received. Converting into Anima.]
Renard blinked. He could feel energy seeping into his body. But unlike regular energy that just healed him, this strengthened him. It was the same feeling he got when he hadn't been at Foundation Establishment level, when regular Qi could reinforce his body.
The divine power of Anima, far more potent than Qi, fused with his muscles and bones, but he could tell by how his body shivered and twitched with the unstable power that this was temporary. But he had to make use of it while he could, and that's why when White Lily lunged again, fully expecting him to run, he took the most suicidal option possible and charged forwards to tackle her.
White Lily's eyes widened in surprise – she had not expected him to make any sort of attack, and Renard understood why. Getting in her range would kill him, but he took the gamble anyway because he could heal himself. If he could get just one good hit on her, something like a broken ankle preferably, then he could outrun her and get time to recover.
Renard closed his eyes as he put everything into his tackle, aiming to hit White Lily straight in the midsection. White Lily, slowed down by surprise and Lady Zhou's meditations, couldn't recover quickly enough before he rammed straight into her with enough force to shatter a boulder. She did manage to dig her claws into his back, marking out ugly, deep scars, but he continued forwards, gritting his teeth through the pain as he slammed her into a tree.
A splitting sound echoed through the forest as the tree cracked in half. White Lily coughed as the wind knocked out of her, a dazed expression on her face. Renard took this moment to kick at her leg, taking inspiration from the way Li had moved, using the full rotation of his hips and strength of his core to push out a powerful hit.
The blow landed with a sharp crack, and Renard felt some give as White Lily's ankle broke.
With a savage, pained snarl, White Lily swiped at Renard with her claws, but he used the very last drops of Anima he'd been given to duck and dodge away.
White Lily fell onto the ground, a black bruise starting to swell at her left ankle.
"Finally starting to use Anima, huh?" said White Lily as she hobbled on one leg. "It's a shame you have no idea how to truly use it. You're using the energies of creation and destruction and the only thing you could come up with was to make your body stronger? Even the dumbest demons are more creative than you."
"It's a learning process," muttered Renard.
He tried to muster up more strength. He imagined that feeling of Anima flowing through his body again, but he couldn't cough anything up.
[Anima exhausted. Hope still present, however. Recharging.]
Well that was a bummer. Without Anima, he didn't have a hair's chance of surviving against White Lily, and that was just surviving. He wouldn't be able to beat White Lily like this unless he got incredibly lucky, and she had her guard up now.
He had to Awaken somehow.
So to make some more time for himself, he took the safest plan possible.
Renard glanced at White Lily's broken ankle and said, "Said you could beat me in a race, right? Let's see if that's still true."
And he ran again.