When Renard saw the disciples again minus Ling, in the parched courtyard where he had fought Li, it felt like he hadn't seen them in years. And by how Yun ran up to him and hugged him tight, it was evident that they felt the same way too.
"Elder brother Renard!" said Yun as she broke free from Renard, a bright smile wreathed on her face. "So much has happened in the village. We had no idea whether you were okay or not."
"We?" said Renard. He reached down and tousled Yun's hair. It was coarse and wiry – the complete opposite of the silky strands that fell from Lady Zhou's head. "Have all of you been sticking together?"
Chen stepped forward with a crossed arm and a smile. "Yun came here as an escaped slave. She didn't have a roof to live under and went around from house to house, finding a place to sleep when she could. Well, I decided that it was the least I could do as a fellow disciple and former father to make sure she had a permanent house."
"It's good to see my disciples looking out for each other." Renard reached out and squeezed Chen's shoulder. "Thank you, Chen."
Chen laughed. "No worries. And woah-" He tapped Renard's arm. "Seems like you've gotten stronger. Much stronger."
"Been working out a little," laughed Renard. He motioned for Chen and Yun to come closer. When they leaned forward, he called out for Sovereign. The blade manifested in his hand in a burst of bright green sparks, and the two were open-mouthed, equally surprised and in awe. "I Awakened. How about that, huh?"
"I had always heard that Awakening took decades," remarked Chun, stroking his beard with his thick, calloused fingers. "And required the finest talents. Yet it took you a mere few days to get here."
"Elder brother Renard truly is amazing," said Yun.
"I'm nobody special," said Renard. And it was true. It was his system that did most of the work. "So I should be an example of what the two of you can easily reach. Speaking of, where's disciple number three? Is Ling sick?"
Yun looked away. "Elder sister Ling is…alone."
Renard cocked his head, and Chen clarified.
"Ling has always been an outcast in this village," he said. "She appeared out of nowhere when her husband rescued her from the forests a few years back. When her husband fell to illness, she was left alone, and, considering her odd personality, has never managed to get along with the rest of the village." Chen shook his head. "And after yesterday's events, the villagers were afraid. Afraid that some Western influence had made its way here. And their most natural target was the outsider – Ling."
"How is she holding up?"
Chen ran his hand down the length of his beard and sighed. "It is hard to tell. Her face is as unchanging as the mountains. One cannot tell whether she is happy, sad, or angry. She is just…there."
Renard mulled over the situation in silence for a bit. Eventually, he flourished Sovereign with a resolute smile.
"Let's get to training. It'll be a short session today, because I want to go ahead and check up on Ling."
Chen and Yun picked a stick up from the ground and nodded.
Training went by as usual, and Renard quickly realized his enhanced ability to help others had stayed with him. Chen still improved by leaps and bounds, his movements becoming swifter and more efficient. He was starting to use his bigger muscles less and fine tune himself.
Yun was as talented as ever. She had a gymnast's agility, a cat's reflexes, and most importantly, the tenacity of a lion. Whenever she failed to do something or fell down, she got up and worked harder. By the end of the hour and a half training session consisting mostly of quick sparring and drills, Renard fully believed that Yun had actually surpassed his fencing skills from when he was a regular mortal.
The sun was at its highest when training ended. The courtyard was eerily empty – Li's training with the rest of the villagers had been postponed while he recovered. Yun and Chen sat panting on the ground, dust spattering their plain clothes.
Renard, however, felt fine. He had long ago sprinted past mortal limits, and his stamina, strength, and speed were totally incomparable to the average villagers. Seeing people like Yun and Chen, very physically fit people, but people nonetheless, lagging so far behind him made him acutely aware of how much stronger he had gotten.
It felt almost strange. Inhuman.
"To be young again," said Chen through labored breaths. He eyed Renard's sweat-less forehead with envy.
Yun shrugged. "It's not just youth. It's power. If only I was as strong as Elder brother Renard, then I wouldn't get tired so easily."
"It'll improve," said Renard. "Everything will. For now, though, the two of you should get some rest. That's the most important part to getting better at anything, and most of the time the part that most people ignore."
He targeted the words at Yun, as he fully believed she would burn herself out training. From the improvement she'd shown today, it was obvious that she had trained on her own time quite extensively, and he was worried she would push herself too much.
"Where will you go now?" asked Chen.
"My own training." Renard recalled a briefing Lady Zhou had given him early this morning, before he went to train his disciples. "It's going to be in the Fangwoods now."
"The Fangwoods," whispered Yun. "That's dangerous. Will you be okay?"
Renard swiped Sovereign across the ground and put a clean notch through the sun-dried, packed earth as cleanly as if he was slicing butter with a heated knife. "I think I'm safe enough."
"Well," Yun stopped, biting her lip. "If you say so."
Renard thought about what kind of training he'd face. Lady Zhou had been intentionally mysterious about it, telling him merely to be ready. If he was to face the lizard creatures that first assaulted him, he had no doubt he would annihilate them now. But what lay deeper?
"My back is telling me to get some rest," said Chen as he stood up, stretching. He waved at Yun. "Let's go - we shouldn't bother Renard anymore than we have."
Chen bowed to Renard and left, Yun trailing behind him with fidgeting steps. Every so often, she would glance nervously back, but Renard was busy thinking about what to do about Ling. He was going to meet her now, but he had no idea what she truly was like. She was a mystery – it was hard to empathize with her to comfort her.
But regardless, he would try.