Renard held up his right hand and took a look at it. Lady Zhou's claws covered them the same way a gauntlet would. They were a brilliant ivory under the moonlight, infused with a restorative power that he had some familiarity with. After all, he'd seen it in action many times and felt its healing flow within him twice already.
Even so, this wasn't a weapon he had ever used, and it wasn't like wielding Sovereign. He didn't feel an innate familiarity with it. Rather, the weapon itself felt odd. Clumsy and awkward around his fingers, holding in an energy that buzzed with a frequency he didn't quite mesh with.
But deep within, he could still sense the hope that had gone into creating the Anima used to forge it, and by virtue of his divine blood, he could will the weapon to do what he wanted not through any soul-bound connection, but through what felt like a natural extension of his own abilities. Just like he could will his Qi to flow through his body, he could will the Anima forming the weapon to bend to his wishes.
With a hint of hesitation, Renard took Lady Zhou's limp hand and pricked it with the claws. Pulses of white light flowed through her hand, travelling up her arm and throughout her body like an echo.
Almost immediately, she breathed in, hard.
Lady Zhou sat up, shaking at the exertion of even that basic motion. With trembling fingers, she brushed long, sweat-matted hair from her face and blinked. Her grey eyes seemed cloudy at first, disoriented, but as seconds passed, they recovered their original intense, focused stare.
"Renard?" she asked, almost in a whisper.
Renard dematerialized Sovereign and placed his left arm around her back, giving her some support. "It's me. You're going to be fine, Lady Zhou. I've gone ahead and healed you – hope this makes up for you having to bail me out so many times, hah."
"If you're alive…then you've Awakened." Lady Zhou rolled her shoulders and grimaced, trying to get some feeling back into her body. "Did you perhaps awaken a healing weapon art?"
"Not exactly. Here." Renard held up his right hand for her to see. Her eyes widened as she stared at her own Awakened weapon. "It's something I can do as a Sword Saint. If people place their hopes in me, I can use their Anima to forge their weapons. I'm not exactly too sure on the limits involved, but I still managed to patch you up, thank goodness."
Lady Zhou glanced at her claws and shuddered. With an almost violent reaction, she pushed herself away from Renard. However, weak as she was, she crumpled onto the garden grass in a trembling heap.
"Easy, easy," said Renard. He put his hand on her shoulder and gave her a comforting squeeze. "It's okay."
Lady Zhou sucked in a breath and mustered up her strength, managing to stand up without any help. "Forgive me." Her voice was a little shaky, fatigue draining away its normal resonance. "That was rude of me. I have to thank you for saving me."
Renard dematerialized his variant of White Lily and reached out towards Lady Zhou, offering his arms as support to help her walk. She shook her head, and he let her be. He thought himself more on the chivalrous side of things, but Lady Zhou was someone who did things on her own terms with as little help needed as possible, and he respected that.
"What got you all knocked out?" Renard frowned. "I'm assuming it's related to me, right?"
Lady Zhou smiled weakly. "Meditating to keep White Lily under control is a difficult task."
Renard sighed. She had kept her explanation short and simple, but there was so much more to it. She had been meditating for over twelve hours, a feat that was astounding just on its own, and on top of it, the gardens told of her monumental efforts. The plants around them had not withered on their own – Lady Zhou had drained them of their Qi to fuel her constant meditation, truly speaking volumes of the efforts she had put in.
"Lady Zhou, I don't mean to impose, but if you really do need it-," Renard manifested White Lily again. "I can help you recover. You're barely walking as it is."
"Renard, I understand that your heart yearns to help, but no." Lady Zhou clasped her hands together, her long sleeves overlapping together in an unbroken chain of crimson fabric. "It is a matter of principle."
"Principle? I don't understand." Renard didn't want Lady Zhou like this. Suffering for his sake and not even wanting to take his help because of her pride. He wanted to respect her dignity, but it was hard when she was hurting herself for it. "I can finally help you, Lady Zhou, after all this time getting helped."
"You saw White Lily, did you not?" Lady Zhou's voice had regained a semblance of its strength, its authoritative, firm projection. "We are polar opposites. If I can restore others and spur the growth of life to create great vines and branches, then she can heal herself and empower her own strength. My powers flowered from my desire to protect; hers are a result of my darker emotions. If I am pure Yin Qi, she is raw Yang Qi. In many ways, I consider her my greatest failure, and that is why I refuse to use my power to restore myself, for it calls upon burning emotions I have long since chained away."
Renard paused. From what little he'd heard from White Lily, he knew Lady Zhou had Awakened with a terrible wrath in her heart after her family's murder. He didn't want to pry into her personal life, but he also didn't want her to go down Li's path and let the vengeance burn her out from the inside.
"I understand," said Renard. He met Lady Zhou's eyes. "But it's not just your wounds I want to help. I don't know if I'm talking out of my place, but I can piece things together from White Lily. About the losses you've suffered."
Lady Zhou's voice softened. "Do you want to talk with me about it? Help me through it?"
"It that'll help."
With a sigh, she reached out and took Renard's hand in both of hers. "I truly, truly, appreciate the thought, Renard, I do. But trust me, I've moved on. Perhaps when I first Awakened I let my losses overwhelm me, but I quickly matured and realized I needed to put them behind me to keep this sect safe. In the five years since I have Awakened, I have never once allowed myself to fall to my anger."
She looked at Renard with a curt smile, her eyes firmly locked onto his without any waver, any self-doubt about what she had said. He couldn't sense any hint of struggle within her, so he reluctantly decided to let the matter pass.
"Alright. I just wanted to look out for you."
Lady Zhou let go of Renard's hand. "And for that, I am thankful. But do not pay much heed to me, Renard. There are others far more deserving of your help." She turned around and started to make her way out of the garden, waving him over. "Come. It is past midnight - we should rest."
The walk out of the garden was filled with silence. When they reached the outdoor hallway that flanked the gardens, Lady Zhou turned left, where the courtyard and her quarters were. Renard prepared to go right, where his room in the servant's quarters stood.
"Rest well, Renard," said Lady Zhou. "Tomorrow, your training as an Awakened will begin."
"Oh boy," commented Renard. "Looks like I'm going to get my ass kicked again."
"It will not nearly be as difficult as facing White Lily, so let your mind rest a little."
Renard yawned and stretched. "Way ahead of you. Going to sleep well for the first time since I got here, no getting knocked out or sedated with magical claws involved."
Lady Zhou nodded and made her way to the other end of the hallway. Renard did the same, going the opposite way to his room. He looked forward to finally getting some quality shut eye.
But before he left, Lady Zhou called out to him in a barely audible tone. "And Renard."
He stopped, turning his head around. Lady Zhou was still facing away, the backside of her red-wreathed body dimly illuminated by lantern lights.
"Thank you for letting me know how it feels to be helped. I'd almost forgotten." A sigh. "It was nice, in its own little way."
She walked away, her steps strong and swift now, back to her quarters. Renard smiled as he made his way to his room. When he opened the wooden sliding door to his humble home, he froze.
A man was standing there. Tall and lanky with gaunt, skeletal features. His hair was black and shaggy, his eyes thin and calculating. Distinctly Western – a sight that felt so strangely out of place. When he saw Renard, he presented such a forced, artificial smile that Renard shuddered.
The man stepped forward, his black, metal-studded boots somehow not making a single sound on the creaky floorboards. A leathery black cape concealed most of his body. Renard materialized Sovereign in an instant.
"Hold up, lad," said the man. "I'm just here for a little talk. You can spare a poor old rogue a little time of your day, aye?"