Tai Mei was a young girl, living in a small village that was only notable due to it’s unfortunate proximity to the Cerulean Abyss. She was neither especially beautiful nor especially clever, and therefore did not differ from any of a thousand other young girls spread around the Balkiri Continent. Girls in peasant villages were seldom allowed to learn cultivation, and only boys were habitually taught to find their dantian by their fathers and elders. Tai Mei was no exception, and she did not have the slightest thread of Qi throughout her whole body. She was, in other words, a perfectly normal young village girl.
If one was to force themselves to find an aspect to compliment her on, it might be said that she had a strong filial respect for her parents, and always gave all her efforts to support her family. That this strength of hers was never directly acknowledged was an unfortunate, but understandable truth: Tai Mei was the third of five children, and since she was neither excellent nor difficult, she tended to be treated as part of the background by one and all.
The fates of those who lived in small villages across the Balkiri Continent tended to be similar. An ordinary fate for an average village girl, for example, would be thus: she would live in her parent’s house, learning how to maintain a household from her mother, until she grows old enough to be married, which was usually around fifteen years old. Then, she would be sent to a neighboring village to be the wife of some young man, to raise his children and maintain his household while he works to bring home food. Naturally, Tai Mei had always expected that her life would follow such a path. But sadly, the truth was quite different.
In the three realms, there were those who could discern the fates of others, from the strongest, the deities, to the weakest mortal fortunetellers. Fortunetellers were rare, and even their weak powers commanded a high price. But had a fortuneteller been present in Tai Mei’s village when she was born, and had her parents met his price, he could have told them one thing for certain: “This girl will never reach her fifteenth birthday.”
Being mortal, he would not have been able to tell them any more than that; this fate was the result of interactions far beyond his scope. But to any who could read fate, it was clear that this girl, Tai Mei, was fated to die young.
And so it happened that one day, not long after Tai Mei turned fourteen, her father came down with a dangerous illness, caused by a poisonous snake. Her mother and siblings were greatly distraught, and the family immediately started looking for medicine to help him recover. The most effective medicine for this particular illness was made from the sap of the Heartbloom flower, which grew wild in the forests surrounding the Cerulean Abyss.
However, even Tai Mei’s eldest brother, who had cultivated nearly to the second level of Qi Gathering, was afraid to go nearer to the Abyss. It was well known that monstrous beasts would occasionally creep out of the Abyss, and incautious lone cultivators would often be killed by the insidious monsters. There were many experts stationed near the entrance to the Abyss to prevent such occurrences, but incidents still occurred.
And so, Tai Mei’s brother initially wanted to gather some of the other village youths to go search for the Heartbloom flower. However, the village elders argued against allowing their sons, the future of the village, to put themselves in danger for the sake of one man. And so a major argument began between the village leaders and those who supported saving Tai Mei’s father.
But Tai Mei, whose filial piety was unusually deep, was afraid that any delay would result in her father’s death. And so, without telling anyone, she slipped out of the village and hurried toward the Cerulean Abyss, carefully looking for the distinctive red and orange bloom that was the Heartbloom flower.
But would a treasure such as the Heartbloom flower be simple to find? It was a valuable herb, and thus was a major target for those cultivators who flocked to the Abyss searching for treasures. And so, Tai Mei was forced to spend an entire day searching for a single flower. It was only towards twilight, as she investigated a suspicious area beneath a tall pine, that she found a small, solitary bloom. With a joyful heart, she carefully dug the flower up by its roots, and placed it in the simple pouch she carried.
It was then, as she turned her steps to return home, that her fate caught up with her.
A howl suddenly arose not far away, and Tai Mei paled. Needless to say, she could not recognize the howl of a Wolf-headed Bear, but she realized immediately that she was in grave danger. She started to run towards her village — but she was hours away from home. Her only hope was that the unknown beast was not pursuing her.
Sadly, her only hope was in vain. The Wolf-headed Bear had caught her scent an hour before, and had been secretly following the girl. Monstrous beasts could be very intelligent, and this particular Wolf-headed Bear had been living on the surface, outside the Abyss, for several years. It knew that humans could be very strong, and that if it picked the wrong target, it wouldn’t even have time to feel regret before its death.
But it also knew that humans were notoriously bad at concealing their strength; therefore, it could judge with reasonable certainty that the human it was following was not dangerous in the slightest. It only followed her for so long to be certain that there were no other humans in the vicinity, and now that it was certain that she was alone, it didn’t hesitate to begin hunting her openly.
It should be mentioned that, even though the Wolf-headed Bear was capable of making these judgements, its nature as a monstrous beast was not something it could suppress. And Wolf-headed Bears, by their nature, were cruel, violent creatures, that enjoyed the fear and despair of their prey before killing them. For this reason, although it could have simply killed Tai Mei before she even realized it was nearby, it instead howled out to frighten her into flight.
And so Tai Mei desperately fled, and the Wolf-headed Bear leisurely pursued. It could have ended the chase at any moment, and the girl would not have even the slightest chance to resist. But the beast was amusing itself, and it felt no threat to its life nearby, so it simply howled occasionally to keep the prey running, and made no attempt to finish it off. This characteristic was the same reason Gan Zhu had been able to flee from three such Wolf-headed Bears in the Cerulean Abyss for so long: the beasts had simply been enjoying the chase.
And as might be expected, Tai Mei’s flight ended much the same way Gan Zhu’s had. Fatigued and in despair, she tripped over a root, and tumbled down a hill, landing in a pile of brush beneath a tree which ended up completely concealing her. Unfortunately, the Wolf-headed Bear hunted by scent, and merely concealing her body would not hide her. Dazed and in despair, Tai Mei gazed up the hill at the monstrous figure that had pursued her, while the Wolf-headed Bear looked directly at her hiding spot. Without any hurry, it began to amble down the hill towards the girl, who could no longer bring herself to move.
This, then, was her fate: to be killed and eaten by a monstrous beast before she even reached fifteen years of age. Inevitable, unavoidable, written into the very fabric of the world: that is fate. Perhaps a powerful figure could have reshaped this fate, if Tai Mei had been worthy of carrying a destiny; but who would raise their hand to change the fate of a perfectly ordinary village girl?
Were you to ask one hundred people whether Tai Mei was fortunate or unfortunate, perhaps every single person would agree that Tai Mei was extremely unfortunate.
However, if the hundredth person was a certain fat man, he would probably say that Tai Mei — was extremely fortunate!
Because, before the Wolf-headed Bear could take three steps down the hill, something slammed into the ground in front of it, raising a huge cloud of dust. As both beast and girl stared in shock, the dust slowly settled, revealing the form of a young man.
This young man was, of course, Gan Zhu!
A few minutes earlier.
Gan Zhu had only just escaped from the deadly depths of the Cerulean Abyss by taking the shortcut suggested to him by the demon woman in his dream. Of course, he was disoriented, caught between amazement, worry, and a sense of discongruity that was the natural result of encountering a spatial transition effect for the first time. And then, before he could recover his mental equilibrium, that familiar howl had sent a chill down his spine. How could he fail to recognize the howl of the Wolf-headed Bear — he had been chased for hours by such howls!
In truth, his first instinct was to flee. He was healthy now, of course, but he didn’t have a weapon, or anything resembling armor. There was no actual correlation between the strengths of human cultivators and monstrous beasts, but the Wolf-headed Bear was generally considered the equivalent of at least a third level Qi Gathering cultivator. Gan Zhu wasn’t even at the first level of Qi Gathering — how could he possibly be the match of even a single Wolf-headed Bear?
But even as these logical thoughts passed through his mind, he found himself turning in the direction of the howl. His brow furrowed, he glared off into the distance as though he could see directly through the pine trees. He had an uncomfortable feeling in his heart, and it took him a moment to realize that he wanted to go chase down this strong opponent. Regardless of how powerful this beast was — he didn’t want to run away!
Gan Zhu felt aggrieved! A deep resentment was born in his heart. Those three monstrous beasts had driven him up until the very edge of death; had not some unknown force intervened, he believed that he would have died there, unresigned! And so, now that this beast was nearly in front of him, he wanted to confront it once more. Never mind that it was not one of the three from that time — he was going to punish it regardless.
Moved by this overpowering impulse, Gan Zhu began to sprint through the forest. The conflict between his logical thoughts and his strong feelings had left him confused, so he barely noticed how quickly and accurately he moved; the only thing he was conscious of was his own breathing, which continued slowly and calmly, as though he were simply walking down a street instead of darting between trees and across random crevices. At one point he reached the top of a small hill with some momentum, and instead of rushing down the other side, he pushed off the ground and leapt into the branches of the trees. He leapt from pine to pine, nearly bouncing off the trunks, and he was amazed at how simple it was for him. Finally, he realized just how quickly and easily he was moving; the changes in his body were far greater than he had expected.
And then he cleared a group of trees, and finally saw his target. Unbeknownst to Gan Zhu, Tai Mei had just finished rolling down the hill in front of him, to end up concealed in the underbrush, while the pursuing Wolf-headed Bear had just arrived at the top of the hill and began to descend. Glimpsing the familiar figure of the beast, Gan Zhu felt the anger and hate in his chest explode! With an expression on his face that could not be called a smile, but showed a lot of teeth, Gan Zhu kicked the trunk of the tree behind him. He flew down to intercept the path of the Wolf-headed Bear, inadvertently positioning himself between the beast and its intended meal, Tai Mei.
The Wolf-headed Bear was immediately wary. It had checked several times to make sure there were no humans in the vicinity to interrupt its meal, and yet just as the chase reached its climax, this human appeared between it and its prey, without the beast having felt his approach at all. In addition, its instincts felt a terrible danger from the figure in front of it. Gan Zhu didn’t have the Qi aura that human cultivators had, but his incredible movement speed warned the beast that he might indeed be a huge threat.
And then the beast caught Gan Zhu’s scent, and it became even more agitated. Despite his human appearance, this person didn’t smell anything like a human!
The Wolf-headed Bear was therefore extremely reluctant to attack Gan Zhu, and halted its steps forward. It snarled at the young man, and actually began considering whether to retreat.
But even if it wanted to retreat — it would first need Gan Zhu’s permission!
Gan Zhu sneered up at the beast. “I don’t know what kind of fortune caused you to appear before me,” he said coldly, “but since you’re here, don’t expect me to let you off without dispersing some of my anger!” He kicked the ground, and launched himself at the Wolf-headed Bear with the fastest speed he had yet achieved! The beast realized immediately that it wouldn’t be able to outrun Gan Zhu, and quickly rose to its hind legs to defend itself against the swift attack.
During the battle that followed, Gan Zhu quickly became depressed. Although his body was now fast enough to avoid the Wolf-headed Bear’s attacks, and strong enough to exchanges blows with the beast, he lacked any method to actually kill it. Gan Zhu had formerly been a sword fighter, trained by his father, and while he knew the basics of unarmed combat, he lacked training in the specific set of skills for fighting monstrous beasts without a weapon. After all, the body of the Wolf-headed Bear was more than twice as big as a man’s, and it had teeth and claws like steel daggers. Ordinary unarmed techniques were useless against such a huge physique.
Furthermore, Gan Zhu kept getting distracted by the sound of the beast’s breath. For some reason it caught his attention, and he kept missing the timing of his blows due to the changes in the beast’s breathing patterns. Indeed, he had to consciously stop himself from matching his own breath, which was level and calm even now, to that of his opponent.
And so, instead of having a good feeling about suppressing such a beast with his own strength, Gan Zhu felt embarrassment. In his heart, he was glad that no one was witnessing this sorry excuse for a fight…
On the other hand, as the one being suppressed, the Wolf-headed Bear was feeling quite desperate. While it was true that Gan Zhu couldn’t kill it immediately, it was entirely on the defensive, and couldn’t even spare a bit of attention to attempt an attack on its tormenter. For although the body of a Wolf-headed Bear was large, tough, and sturdy, the area on the top of its head and the back of its neck was comparatively weak. Were Gan Zhu to land a strong hit on either of these areas, it would become very difficult for the beast to continue to survive!
And how would Gan Zhu, who had survived a week in the first floors of the Cerulean Abyss, not know of this huge weakness? Indeed, he continually sought situations where he could attack its head directly, and while this weakness would normally be difficult for a human to attack while the beast was standing on its hind legs, Gan Zhu’s speed and strength allowed him to do so repeatedly, causing the Wolf-headed Bear become angry and fearful. It absolutely wanted to escape immediately!
And so the fight continued for a little while. In the eyes of a mid-level cultivator, it might like a ridiculous and humorous fight, with neither side able to harm the other; of course, once they realized that Gan Zhu had absolutely zero cultivation, they would immediately become shocked and suspicious. After all, fighting a Wolf-headed Bear as a powerless mortal was absolutely impossible, never mind the strength and speed that Gan Zhu was obviously able to achieve.
But Tai Mei, secretly watching from nearby, had none of these reactions. To begin with, she was not a cultivator herself, and had no way of judging another person’s level of cultivation. Additionally, she had no idea what kind of beast the Wolf-headed Bear was, simply that it was powerful and imposing. And so, she only had one impression of the fight in front of her:
Amazing! That man is too amazing!
In the end, the fight only lasted for about fifteen minutes, before coming to an inglorious conclusion. The Wolf-headed Bear had finally realized that it was losing the battle of attrition, as its opponent did not seem be losing stamina over the course of the fight, but actually seemed to be getting stronger. Knowing that delaying any further would only leave it in a worse condition, it immediately used its trump card.
Suddenly, the beast dropped to all fours, with the claws on each foot digging into the ground. Seeing the opportunity to attack the top of the head, Gan Zhu quickly lunged forward. However, this was a mistake, caused by a lack of experience; he had never fought a Wolf-headed Bear from a position of strength before, and so he had never seen their most powerful ability.
Suddenly, all the hair on the beast’s body stood on end, and began to vibrate. Gan Zhu’s expression only had a moment to change before the Wolf-headed Bear opened its mouth and roared, releasing an overwhelming shockwave in his direction!
This was the Wolf-headed Bear’s strongest ability, one that humans called the “Earth-shattering Snarl”!
Without a chance to react, Gan Zhu was smashed by an unseen force and sent flying back into the trees. If this had been an ordinary opponent, the Wolf-headed Bear might have pursued him for the kill; but its instincts were screaming that it was not Gan Zhu’s match, so it hurriedly turned and began to sprint away in the opposite direction. In just moments, it could no longer be seen; only the sound of its flight persisted into the distance.
Sure enough, only a few seconds after the beast had made its escape, Gan Zhu came flying back from the area he had been thrown to. His clothes were now a bit disheveled, and he seemed a bit bruised, but the martial light in his eyes hadn’t faded. He glared after the retreating Wolf-headed Bear, and gathered himself to begin chasing it.
However, after a moment, he let himself relax. He had managed to relieve his feelings a bit by beating on the beast, and in reality, he had no reason to actually kill it. No doubt it would be caught by some cultivator and killed for its hide eventually.
In truth, it would have been nice to gain a little money by bringing in the hide himself, and selling it to some random merchant. However, he had no tools for skinning the beast here, and the thought of dragging an entire dead carcass back to North Pine City felt depressing to him. Therefore, he decided to simply let the beast go.
Besides, when it came to targets for revenge, no number of Wolf-headed Bears could measure up to the true author of Gan Zhu’s suffering: the mad genius, Fan Bin! Gan Zhu no longer had potential for growth as a cultivator; but maybe, with this demonic Arte of Breath, he would be able to become strong enough to defy the world and fate itself, and kill the heir of the Fan clan for his revenge!
But in order to decide whether it would be possible, Gan Zhu would have to return to North Pine City, and look for an opportunity. The faces of Sun Tzi and Sun Lan passed through his mind, briefly; perhaps he would be able to borrow the help of the Fan clan’s rivals, depending on current circumstances. But of course, returning to North Pine City came first.
Having decided that, Gan Zhu took stock of his current location. He knew he was in the pine forests surrounding the entrance to the Cerulean Abyss, but… the forests were rather wide, and he had no idea on which side of the Abyss he was currently on. He sighed briefly to himself; he would simply have to explore the forest until he had a better idea of where he was.
Resigned, he prepared himself to leap away. But before he left, he shot a glance over his shoulder towards a certain location. He had noticed the sound of something breathing in the underbrush, and had guessed that this creature had been the prey that the Wolf-headed Bear had been pursuing. It was likely an ordinary animal, a fox or a jackal perhaps, that had been unfortunate enough to draw the attention of the monstrous beast. He felt a slight sympathy and fellow feeling for this poor creature, and decided not to disturb it further by investigating its identity.
Of course, had his experience with the Arte of Breath not been so shallow, he might have noticed that the breath he could hear was not that of a fox, but definitely that of a human…
Like a sudden wind, Gan Zhu launched himself into the air, and was gone in an instant.
It was several minutes before Tai Mei could recover enough to move.
Once the trembling in her limbs subsided, the first thing she checked was the pouch at her side. Luckily, despite her tumble down the hill, the Heartbloom flower was still intact and undamaged. Thus relieved in her heart, she pulled herself to her feet and began to hurry towards her home.
The green sun was setting, changing the dark blue sky to a matte black, and normally she would be fearful of what might be lurking in the dark forest. But for the current Tai Mei, the fear was entirely subsumed by the awe and wonder of the experience she had just been through. She remembered the figure of the young man, dueling the gigantic beast with nothing but his fists. He had actually driven such a terrible monster into running for its life!
And then, after it ran, he had not pursued it. Instead, he glanced over at her, before leaving in a different direction. To Tai Mei, this could only mean one thing: that unknown young expert had only intervened to save her life! A wordless gratitude arose in her heart, and for the first time she regretted that she would never cultivate Qi herself; not because she wanted to become strong, but so that she could someday repay this favor.
She sighed, and hurried on. The sun had finally set, and the yellow moon had risen, by the time she had finally arrived upon the road that would deliver her to her village. Encouraged, she began to walk faster, even though she was on the edge of exhaustion. She had been very fortunate, and no other danger had found her in the dark. But she had one last shocking encounter waiting for her this evening, and it suddenly made itself known to her.
“Out of curiosity, why didn’t you call out to him?”
When the voice suddenly spoke out right beside her, Tai Mei shrieked and staggered back in a sudden panic. She tripped over her own feet and landed on her butt, her eyes darting around in fear.
The person who had suddenly appeared next to her without any warning put his hand over his mouth and coughed, obviously trying to hold back his laughter. “My apologies, young lady. I certainly didn’t mean to startle you.”
The light of the yellow moon seemed to gather and fall solely upon this man, illuminating the kind and friendly expression on his face. He was taller than Tai Mei, but remarkably fat, so that it appeared that three of her could be hidden inside his body, and he was bald. Normally his great size would make him seem quite imposing, especially to a young girl like Tai Mei; but somehow he projected a gentle, reliable feeling, and she felt herself calming down instead.
Suddenly realizing how rudely she had acted, she quickly tucked her legs underneath her body and bowed to the man. “M-my apologies, Senior. P-please forgive my r-rudeness…”
“Not at all, not at all,” said the fat man, waving his hand magnanimously. “I understand you’ve had a hard day. Still, things have turned out fairly well for you, wouldn’t you say?”
Tai Mei looked at the man’s twinkling eyes, and slowly nodded. “Yes, I found the flower for my father,” she said quietly.
The man looked at her curiously. “You went a long way to pick flowers, young lady. I’m sure your father wouldn’t have wanted his cute young daughter to put herself in such danger… Well, I’m not interested in that. I just wanted to know why you didn’t call out to your savior at that time.”
“Senior saw that?” asked the girl, feeling a sudden excitement through her exhaustion. “Wasn’t he amazing? He was so strong!”
The fat man laughed, and nodded. “Quite so! He is amazing in a lot of ways.” Looking carefully at Tai Mei, he asked, “Tell me… were you scared of him? Did you find him frightening?”
Tai Mei looked at him blankly. “No, not really. The monster was scary, but that man just seemed strong. He… he saved me, after all,” she finished quietly.
“Hmmm,” hummed the fat man. “So why didn’t you call out to him?”
“That is…” Tai Mei hesitated. “He seemed to be in a hurry, and I didn’t want to bother him. He had already gone out of his way to save me, after all…”
“…Really?” asked the fat man, after a moment. Tai Mei didn’t understand why he seemed to doubt her, but she wasn’t rude enough to ask him why. Instead, she simply nodded her head. The fat man mumbled to himself, “Strange. I thought the rejection would be more overt…”
Tai Mei looked at him anxiously. “Is something wrong, Senior?”
The fat man blinked, then looked at her with a smile. “No, there’s no problem, young lady. May I ask you another question?”
“Of course, Senior,” she said politely.
“Ever since he saved you… have you felt lost? Disconnected? Do you feel like something important has disappeared?”
Tai Mei stared at him. “Y-yes. How did you know that? Although…”
“Although?” asked the fat man.
“…Right now, I only feel tired,” she finished, blushing.
“Of course. I apologize. You should get home,” said the fat man. He stepped back and gestured with his hand, inviting her to stand up. Tai Mei struggled to her feet, and bowed to the fat man once more. He looked at her approvingly. “I don’t expect we will meet again, young lady, but I certainly can’t be certain. Therefore… will you tell me your name?”
Her eyes widened. “Of course, Senior. This humble one is named Tai Mei,” she answered formally.
“Tai Mei, Tai Mei… a good name, indeed. Should we meet in the future, you can call me Old Man Zebu. For your sake, I hope we don’t meet again, but…” Old Man Zebu shrugged. “Things might be a little strange for you, in the future. It’s hard to say.”
“Senior Zebu?” asked Tai Mei, suddenly feeling uneasy.
“Ah, don’t mind it, Little Mei. Just be on your way now, before something unfortunate finds you. Sadly, even now I wouldn’t be able to lift a hand to help you. Not all rules can be broken,” he said, suddenly gloomy.
“I see… Thank you for your kind thoughts, Senior Zebu. Please have a good evening.” Tai Mei bowed her head once more, and turned towards home once more. But before she could take two steps, a thought occurred to her, and she turned back. “Senior Zebu, could you…”
But Old Man Zebu was already gone, as though he had never been there at all. Tai Mei shivered, and quickly started hurrying home. Slightly upset, she mumbled, “I just wanted to know that man’s name…”
To Tai Mei’s surprise, her mother was waiting for her when she finally returned to the village, pacing back and forth on the path. When she saw her daughter, she cried out with relief and anger, and she ran out to pull Tai Mei into a tight hug. She quickly dragged Tai Mei back home, where she scolded her for nearly an hour, before Tai Mei was even able to pull the Heartbloom flower out of her pouch.
Two weeks later, her father was back on his feet. Throughout the village, everyone’s view of Tai Mei had slightly changed, and she was the happiest she had ever been in her life.
- I got a little inspired in this one. Nearly 5000 words… Somehow, I managed to fit everything in though! 😉
- I like asymmetrical systems and outside context problems, incidentally. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, give it time. 😛
- If you enjoyed the first actual fight scene in the novel, good! It was supposed to be enjoyable. If you felt a little disappointed with the first actual fight scene in the novel, good! It was supposed to be a little disappointing. >.>
- Oh, hey! Have you been wondering what’s been happening in North Pine City in the last three years? I know I have…
- Tai Mei is a throwaway character whom we are never going to see again.
In this arc.😛