17 Understanding and Accepting
Renard spent an hour running before he got tired. This forest didn't seem to have an end, and with how dense it was, he had no idea where he was running, but he kept at it.
[Sufficient hope gained. Anima available for use when necessary.]
Renard internally thanked Lady Zhou and kept the fact that he had another burst of speed and strength in his tank in mind as he kept running. He could store this Anima, but seemingly not a lot of it. And the moment he tried to use it for something, it got unstable, and he couldn't use it for very long. It fizzled out like a match lit in the rain - a quick burst of power at best.
Because of that, it wasn't much use against White Lily – a relentless, merciless hunter.
What he needed to do was Awaken and have some way to put up a sustained fight.
Every so often, he would stop to catch his breath and try again to call his blade. He tried shouting out for his sword, he tried wanting it back. Then he tried to play around with what he'd been told: he needed to desire.
He tried to desire for victory. Desire for survival. Desire to get out.
Nothing seemed to work.
When it seemed that over twelve hours had passed, Renard slumped down on a tree, sitting on the soft, grassy forest floor. He felt miserable. His sweat had cooled, sticking up plenty of dirt and grime all around his body. His wounds had healed up, but the blood had dried all over his body, encasing most of his skin with crusty, disgusting layer that reeked of iron.
How long would he stay here? How long could he be kept here? Forever? He wondered if Lady Zhou had spent the past half day meditating in that garden, and he sighed. She had to have been.
Otherwise, White Lily would have gotten her strength back and caught up to him.
Renard bit his lip and tried to think. Lady Zhou was working so hard for him, but he still hadn't been able to figure anything out. He didn't know what he lacked. He was at the peak of his physical development, that was for sure.
He couldn't strengthen his body anymore than he already had. All that was left was Awakening, but why was it so damn hard? He finally understood what Lady Zhou had meant when said Awakening was the hardest bottleneck to pass.
White Lily' giggle resonated in his head, and Renard immediately bolted up, alert, his eyes darting from side to side.
'Relax, relax,' she said. Renard tried to pinpoint the voice's location, but he ended up realizing it was a mental thing, echoing in his head like his thoughts. 'I'm nowhere near you. You run fast. Reminds me of the time a western Rogue got sent here, haha.'
"How are you even doing this?" said Renard.
'Oh, this was bound to happen,' said White Lily with a matter of fact tone. 'This isn't a physical place, you know, it's a mental realm, and there aren't meant to be two minds in one. Sooner or later, the dominant mind's going to swallow up the lesser, and the fair lady's artifact makes sure you're the weaker one. What's happening right now is that I'm starting to get access to your head, going through your memories, picking them apart, eating the ones I like. Yum.'
Renard placed an alarmed hand to his temple. Lady Zhou's artifact truly was a deadly thing. If you were sent down here and you couldn't fight White Lily, then you ran, but if you ran, you were still dead eventually. It was a death sentence for anyone not suited to direct combat.
And it also put Renard on a timer. He had to break through this bottleneck soon. He didn't even want to imagine what kind of death he'd face if he just lost all his memories. Would he truly die? Or would he just be a blob of consciousness, alive and aware but unable to process anything, a literal shell of himself?
'What a boring life for an Otherworlder. Let's see. Hmmm.' White Lily sounded like she was staring at a menu, wondering what to order. 'Oh, I like this memory. You, a boy, crying over the fact that your parents wouldn't let you be an artist. How cute, and it has just enough suffering to be an appetizer.'
When White Lily finished her sentence, Renard felt a sense of alarm. The memory had faded. He knew he had that kind of memory, but for the life of him, he couldn't remember a single detail. Just trying to recall the scene, all the disappointment he'd felt when his dreams were rejected, brought up nothing.
Just blankness, like someone had whited the whole experience out.
Renard panicked as he felt various memories, minor ones all involving his pain in some way, disappearing.
'What's this?' White Lily suddenly said with excitement. 'This is incredible. So much potential. You're not even a child, but you're bawling into your girlfriend's arms. So much suffering, so much pain – oh, this will take a while to digest.'
Renard could hear White Lily licking her lips. She had found his most painful memory.
He gritted his teeth not at the pain of losing that memory, but of being made to remember it. It was such a terrible memory because it had so much of his life behind it, so much of who he was. And as White Lily tried to pick that memory apart, Renard felt all of those background memories resurfacing, as if she had plucked a weed by its roots.
He had grown up wealthy, but that hadn't been a blessing. His parents had tried to mold him to their own image from the moment he could walk and talk, training him to take up their impressive business. His entire childhood wasn't a tale of growing up, but an endless, torturous training session. Countless lessons in so many different subjects and sports all to try and be 'elite'.
He took those lessons because he loved his parents and wanted their respect, but it had never been enough. Whenever he found a passion for something like art, his parents would strike it down if it interfered with him taking up the business.
But eventually, there had been a breaking point. When he got into highschool, when his parents signed him up for fencing. He grew to love it. His teammates and his coach especially. His coach was the best man he had ever known, a man he would have been proud to call his father.
When he told his parents he would be a fencer and would not budge on it, he hoped they would finally accept him for who he was, but they disowned him. That night, when his coach took him into his own house, he had cried into his girlfriend's arms because he realized he had never been wanted, he had never been more than a tool, a neat accessory to pad up his parent's reputation like any old piece of jewelry or a new car.
And all those emotions had welled up in him gain, forcibly dredged up from deep within the scars of his heart by White Lily's feasting. Tears started to well up in his eyes again as he felt the warmth of his girlfriend's arms, her floral perfume, his coach's comforting hand on his back as he had cried out fifteen years of pent up neglect. And he felt so much pain as the memory started to fade away, because he knew how precious it was, and he gritted his teeth as he tried to hang onto it.
"I get it now," said White Lily.
This time, her voice wasn't in his head. She emerged from behind a tree trunk and strutted in Renard's view, a claw tapping at her chin in contemplative thought. Her injured leg dragged behind her a bit. Renard tried to stand up, but he felt weak, drained from being forced to remember so much.
How had she even caught up to him?
White Lily scoffed at Renard's shaking figure. "Time passes so quickly when you're remembering so much. You've probably been sitting there for a good hour like a, how did it go again? I heard it in one of your memories, some kind of Otherworlder proverb. Oh, like a deer in headlights."
Renard retreated, but his back pressed up against a tree trunk. He doubted he could fight right now. His body was shaking and weak from the strain of White Lily's mental attacks. However, White Lily did not advance. Instead, she looked down at him with scorn.
"I finally understand," said White Lily. "The fair lady loved how much you wanted to help. How it reminded her of her lovely little, dead brother. But now that I've gotten a good look at who you really are, it's obvious. You don't help for the good of it. You help because you want validation. You help because you want to be loved."
White Lily laughed. "That's truly, truly pathetic. Is that what the oh so almighty Sword Saint offers?"
"That's…" That's not true. Renard wanted to say that, but the words couldn't come out, because he could feel truth in them. She had seen through his memories after all, looked into them laid bare, all his most private and sensitive thoughts and secrets. What even was the point of lying?
"You wanted to Awaken with such a childish desire?" White Lily lunged and swiped at Renard, and he swerved sideways through sheer instinct. Her claws nicked his side, marking out three lacerations that oozed blood. "You wanted power just so people could like you a little more? To think the fair lady believed you some kind of savior."
White Lily's voice rose to an uncharacteristic anger. "You dare think to stand in front of the lady with such selfishness!?"
With a snarl, she slammed into Renard with the same tackle he'd given her. Renard felt himself barreling backwards, slamming into a tree and shattering the trunk wholesale in a shower of flying wood chips and bark.
Renard coughed up a gout of blood and found himself unable to move, his spine shattered. Until it healed, he couldn't do anything.
"The fair lady has sacrificed so much for her desire to protect, to keep the place she loves and calls home safe." White Lily bared her fangs. "So much so that she took all of her anger, all that burning desire to avenge her brother, her murdered family, and bottled it up to look pretty and presentable to lead and protect. And you think you're fit to Awaken and stand beside her? With that kind of pitiful desire?"
White Lily walked up to Renard and placed a crushing foot on his stomach. "It's a good thing all of the lady's ugly emotions made me, because at least I have the backbone to do what's right and end you for her sake. It wouldn't do to have such a weakling dragging her down."
Renard closed his eyes as White Lily raised her claws in the air. Maybe she was right.
Maybe he had helped his whole life just for his own, selfish sake. He had grown up without any love, and maybe by helping, he was desperately trying to feel like something or someone wanted him.
Maybe he didn't deserve to stand by Lady Zhou. Maybe he didn't deserve to help others.
But maybe not.
He could feel all his memories swirling in his head from White Lily's influence, the bits and pieces of his past all mixing together. He could remember every single time he had helped someone. Every little act of kindness he did ranging from helping a classmate with homework to hearing out people who had suffered so much pain from the world that they no longer wanted to be a part of it.
And in that great big mix of memories, he could make out some times when he helped because he wanted to be validated. He could make out some times he wanted to help because he wanted something, love, acceptance, understanding, anything.
But these were just a few pieces out of a whole collage of memories.
But now that he could see the whole patchwork of his memories all at once, he could make out one thread that held everything together.
He knew then that his desire was to help.
It wasn't to Awaken his sword or survive or be strong.
It was to help.
And he didn't want to help because he wanted to validate himself. He realized that now. Sure, there were times he helped because he enjoyed being loved and liked, but what person in the whole wide world didn't want to be loved and liked, understood and accepted for who they were?
He wanted to help because he wanted to give to others what he had never had. He wanted to make people feel loved and accepted because he knew what it was like to have neither, how painful it was, how lonely it made him, how utterly crushing it had been.
And that understanding Awoke him.