19 Blade and Goddess
Renard found himself in a wholly unexpected scene.
He was standing on a bridge. A modern one made with concrete and held up with metal supports and pillars. It was a narrow bridge that didn't have room for cars – it was meant for people to stroll through so they could enjoy the view of a sprawling, deep-blue lake beneath them. The guardrails were painted a garish green that had been chipped with wear, but somehow, they brought out the sun-kissed waters over the bridge even more.
"What in the world?" whispered Renard. He knew this place. He'd been here. A neat bridge on the outskirts of town that most people didn't know about. Where he went to have some quiet time for himself. Where he had loved and lost.
"A world indeed."
There was a young woman standing behind him. She held herself with ramrod straight posture and a confident smile, surer of herself than anything in the world. Her green robes were royal, for sure, with their delicate stitching and beautiful floral patterning, but they were short and comfortable, meant for a woman who spent more of her time outside than in the holds of some palace.
And that showed on her face. It wasn't pale with a doll-like, pristine beauty like Lady Zhou's. It was slightly tanned with a few faded scars here and there. Her hair did not flow like an elegant brush stroke of ink, but stopped short above her jaw, pushed a little back so that she could move around without stray stands getting in her eyes.
She seemed like the type of woman that anybody could relate to and get along with, as human as it got.
And yet the way her eyes, the way the black pupils, speckled with a cosmic, star-spattered pattern, swirled like two miniature galaxies made it clear that she was not a mere mortal.
"Hello, Renard," she said. "It's nice to talk to you as something more than just a ball of light, eh?"
"Nuwa? The goddess of creation and all that important stuff?" Renard found himself drawn into her eyes. It was like watching an alluring lightshow or two miniature night skies – the raw, natural wonder they exuded felt impossible to escape, as if they held a gravity of their own.
"That would be correct." Nuwa shaded her eyes with her hand. "I'm sorry about these eyes. They're distracting, I know. When I made a human body for myself, I tried to make it as human as possible, but no matter how hard I tried, some little speck of my divine self still came through."
Renard shook his head. "I think they're beautiful."
"Be that as it may," she said, looking shyly away. "They're still a nuisance when you're trying to live like a human. Real hard to tell people you're just like them when your eyes look like someone put a handful of stardust into them."
"Well." Renard took a glance at the green guardrails in front of him and grimaced. "Maybe that's a good thing. There's a lot of pain in being a regular old human."
Nuwa stepped up to the guardrails and stood beside Renard, looking over at the water. "Yes. Yes, there is." She gave Renard a sideways glance. "But that's why we help, isn't it? To ease the pain?"
Renard gave her a curt nod and ripped his stare from the waters below. Bad memories. He turned around. "Did you call me for something? Or is this all a part of the whole Awakening process?"
"A little bit of both." Nuwa rested her arms on the guardrail. "You don't know how to to get into your inner world yet, so I thought it might be helpful for me to show you around, let you see how much has changed since you've Awakened."
Renard looked at the concrete around his shoes. Sun-bleached and webbed with tiny cracks of neglect. Exactly the same as he'd remembered it. "Wonder why this place, though? Of all the places I've known for my inner world to turn into, this had to be it, huh."
"This is the place where you've experienced the most. The most love, the most loss, your highest highs, and your lowest lows. A place you'd remember all the way to your grave." Nuwa pushed herself off the guardrail and spun towards Renard. "And so it's natural your inner world would take its shape once you Awoke."
Renard sighed and shook his head sadly. "I think I might prefer the whole empty void thing." He looked at Nuwa with a pleasant smile. "But it looks like you've gotten an improvement. Last I saw you, you were just a floating ball."
Nuwa puffed her chest out proudly, placing a hand on her hip. "A natural improvement for the oh so majestic goddess of creation, no?" She giggled. "But honestly, it's all thanks to you. It's only because you managed to Awaken that the system thought your body was strong enough to handle divine symbiosis, and with more divine power in your body, the more you can start perceiving me."
"Divine symbiosis, huh. So the more I cultivate, the more the system will make me divine. First the golden meridians, and now this." Renard put a hand to his chest, feeling how solid it had become now that divine strength flowed through him. He doubted a regular sword could pierce his skin now. "This whole time, I thought the Sword Saint system made me a good guy with a sword. Didn't know it made me a god."
Nuwa raised a finger in objection. "Not quite. Remember, I said the system was a blueprint of my original power. You are essentially becoming more and more like me as you progress. It just so happens that I happened to be a goddess, so you're going to get more divine blood, but that doesn't mean you won't stop being a 'good guy with a sword', because that's what I was. Minus the guy part, but trust me, you won't be turning into a woman anytime soon."
Renard held up his left hand and called for Sovereign. When it materialized, he grabbed it and said, "So this is still Sword." He held up his right hand and called for Lady Zhou's weapon. When he felt the claws enveloping his hand, he said, "And this is still Saint. Together, I'm still a sword saint."
"Yes." Nuwa nodded her approval. "And I do have to say it's quite wonderful how your abilities have developed. Sword saints have always used hope as their main source of Anima to manifest incredible abilities. There was one who, with enough hope, could create natural disasters, and another that could temporarily make his physical strength unmatched under the heavens, and so on. But never before has there been one that could inherit the powers of others."
"As to be expected of my Soulsworn!"
Renard raised his brow. The voice had come from his blade. And before he could process what had happened, his rapier broke apart into a shower of blue sparks that swirled in front of him in a humanoid cloud. When it materialized again, it had turned into a knight armored completely in white, a blue cape trailing off his shoulder pauldrons.
The knight placed a gauntleted hand to his breastplate and bowed. "Pleasure to meet you, Renard," he said with a booming, bass-laden voice. "I believe you know me as Sovereign."
"I was wondering whether I'd also have a sword spirit," said Renard. He tapped the knight on the shoulder. "Don't have to bow or anything – not my style. Anyways, it's great to see you."
Sovereign arose, his armor clacking with his movements. "I hope I will be able to meet your expectations as your blade."
"You already have," said Renard. "You saved me out there against White Lily."
Sovereign lowered his head. "If only I could have come to your side sooner."
Nuwa approached Renard and stood side by side with Sovereign. She patted Sovereign's arm. "Nothing to beat yourself up over." Sovereign raised his head and gave her a respectful nod. "Sovereign here is just as polite and considerate as you. Not a surprise, considering the positive emotions you Awoke with."
The memory of White Lily staring at Renard came into his head. How she had ogled him like he was a piece of meat to tear apart and feast on. She had nothing but disdain for him, hunting him with all the primal wrath of a jungle predator. He couldn't imagine what kind of emotion Lady Zhou had gone through to Awaken a spirit like White Lily.
It was sad. That someone as kind and caring as Lady Zhou had suffered so much. It made him even more determined to put his powers to use. He would make a world where nobody had to suffer like that.
"Looks like you're thinking about something important," said Nuwa. "Well, you do have things to do. Like being a sword saint. I shouldn't keep you from your duties."
Sovereign pumped his fist in the air. "I can sense the determination flowing from you, Renard! I am thankful that I can be a blade that leads the way for hope, peace, and justice!"
Renard smiled. "Guess it's time to get back to work." He extended an open hand to Sovereign. "Right, partner?"
Sovereign practically crushed Renard's hand in an iron grip of enthusiasm. "Indeed! Just know that it is always a pleasure to be by your side."
"You've got a great weapon," said Nuwa. She waved her hand, and the same void started to appear around Renard's feet again. "But don't forget you've got a great goddess cheering you on, too."
Renard gave the two of them a thumbs up as his feet sunk into the darkness. "I won't."
Nuwa stepped forward and gave Renard a parting hug. "Renard, I won't lie. The road ahead of you will be hard. Awakening is just the beginning, and I know how hard it can be to help but never be helped. Whenever you're feeling down, whenever you feel like you don't know what to do, try and clear your head and envision this place. We'll be here to comfort you or give our advice, okay?"
"Appreciate it, both of you." Renard gave a double thumbs up this time. "Swear I won't let you two down."
As the darkness swallowed Renard up, he felt more confident than he had ever before. He had gained new powers, new companions, and new purpose. Awakening had truly made him a new man. But when he emerged back into the real world, his confidence quickly faded into concern.
The moon shone high above, illuminating a disturbing scene. All around him, the gardens had withered and rotted, their majestic green stalks wilting into shriveled, blackened messes. And in front of him, Lady Zhou lay at her side, still as a corpse. Her face was even paler than usual, and when he knelt by her side and put a hand to her forehead, he felt the clammy coldness of near-death.
He had to act fast.