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There were many ways Meiling expected her day to go. Watching over the children, collecting herbs, making medicine, tending to whoever got hurt.

She was not expecting… this.

She was reading a medical scroll when the scent came to her, seemingly carried on the breeze. The boy. He had the stench of qi about him, thicker and headier than she had ever smelled before. He was even more powerful than last time she had laid eyes on him, when he had shared a meal with her father in good spirits, after asking about how they grew their rice.

When the children’s ball struck the tall, broad-shouldered boy pulling a loaded wagon with more ease than an ox, her heart had leapt to her throat. Mud now coated his clothes. All knew that cultivators did not suffer such things. She still remembered many years ago, when she and her father had travelled to the city, and the contemptuous ease with which a cultivator had slain a beggar child for having the gall to get in his way.

When little Xian had rushed to retrieve his ball, she rushed with him, desperate to beg for her little brother’s life.

Instead, the young man had started laughing.

He gave back their ball… and then joined the children in the mud pit.

Now, the cultivator, for that is only what the young man could be, cackled as he danced through the mud, dodging the children of the village throwing themselves at him in an attempt to knock him into the wallow with grace and skill. He gently diverted them into the muck with wet splats, or picked them up and carried them around the pit, tickling all the while.

He had steadily drawn an audience, and more children. At first, the adults too were weary, but now most had wandered off, or sat around the edges and smiled at the silly boy and the kids.

“Haha! You’re a thousand years too early to defeat me!” He laughed at them, hands on his hips. “My chicken is mightier than all of you!”

The children shreiked in outrage, and her dear little brother turned to her.

“Meimei! Meimei! Help us Big sister Meimei!” he pleaded.

And sealed her doom.

Not in the traditional sense of a girl being doomed by a cultivator, for she was no beauty, thin and freckly as she was.

Instead, a massive, gleeful grin spread across the cultivator’s face, and he approached her.

“Oho?” he asked, leering down at her, “Another challenger?”

“So what if I am?” She demanded of him, unable to back down under the pleading gazes of the children.

He scooped her up, one hand going under her legs, and the other cradling her back. There was no effort to his movement, it was if she weighed nothing at all.

She flushed, as she was bought into strong, firm arms… and then the boy unceremoniously jumped into the mud pit with her held securely in his arms.

In her clean clothes. After she had just had a bath yesterday.

She had no idea what “Ca Wa Bun Ga” meant, but as she felt the mud slop into her clothes, she saw red.

“You wretched, pig-headed shitmonkey!” she howled, ignoring the fact that she was surrounded by children, and launched herself at the boy who was laughing so hard he had doubled over. Her tackle shoved him over backwards, and into the mud fully. The adults, including her own father, found the entire thing hilarious.

The children cheered for their champion, and the boy dashed around the mud pit, and she threw herself after him.

/////

“Meiling the hellion!” her father teased her as she prepared dinner. She stuck her nose up in the air contemptuously, and refused to rise to the ribbing.

They were to have dinner with that bastard, and she was mightily displeased. Well, most of the village was going to be having dinner with him, but they, as the chiefs of this small village, would have to have that bastard in their home.

At least that bastard had provided two deer and several rabbits for them.

Gods, she hated the cultivator and his strong arms and his chiseled jaw….

Geh! No! She shook her head to clear away the treacherous images her mind provided for her.

And nobody believed her that he was powerful, either. “Sure your nose isn’t off, Meimei?” They had asked, for no cultivator got into a mud fight with children, or went and made friends with peasants.

Even she was starting to doubt herself, but her ability to smell qi had never steered her wrong before.

He would expose his wicked nature soon enough.

The rest of the preparation was fortunately uneventful. There were tables set up in the middle of the village, and a great amount of food would be there for everyone to enjoy. They too would be setting out on their visit to Verdant Hill, that they did once every two months.

Meiling kept a close eye on him, but the cultivator spent most of the time playing go with the men, and losing spectacularly.

She had felt uneasy when her best friend, Meihua, had bought them tea. Meihua was everything she wasn’t. She was the classical beauty, with flawless pale skin and full red lips. The few times they went to Verdant Hill, men stopped and stared, struck dumb by her lovliness. She had received marriage proposals from over fifty men, but was determined to marry the clerk Tingfeng.

Surely, the cultivator would accost her. In all the stories, they were as beasts upon beautiful women!

“Oh? You’re getting married soon? Congratulations! Wait-- here. I don’t know If I can make the wedding, but thats no excuse not to give a gift!”

Instead, he gave Meihua the most vibrant fox pelt she had ever seen, congratulated her on her upcoming marriage--

And then turned back to the Go table, laughing as he lost again.

…..maybe her nose was playing tricks on her.

/////////

Man, that Meimei girl was glaring really hard at me, like an offended cat. It was pretty cute, the way her freckly nose scrunched up.

The look on her face was hilarious when I dumped her in the mud, though.

Totally worth it.

////////

It was the dead of night when she woke up, drenched in cold sweat.

There was something out there. It stunk of blood and death. Of hate and malice. The terror was nearly overwhelming, sending shakes down her back as the wicked qi invaded the village.

And then, it was suppressed. The cultivator’s qi shoved the bestial qi backwards, repelling the blood and rot with the scent of freshly tilled soil and harvested rice. The fear and dread was repulsed.

The cultivator rose from his room, and went to confront the beast.

Meiling, her legs shaking, followed.

She had to know.

/////////

I woke up with an itching feeling crawling down my spine. I could feel some sort of predator nearby, but without Big D to sound the alarm, I hadn’t acted. Groggily, I rolled myself off the futon and stretched.

Eh, might as well take care of it. I grabbed my shovel from my possessions, and wandered out of the house. The fires were still smouldering a little, and I smiled at them. Today had been fun. Childish as hell, but fun. And those dumplings Meimei made were really good.

Though when I told her that, she scrunched up her nose at me. That girl was too fun to tease.

I ambled into the forest, following my gut feeling, until I found the wolf.

Oh, man, hes a biggun, isn't he? Needs his toenails trimmed too.

It snarled, and pounced.

///////////////

She followed the cultivator through the winding forest, the scent of blood battling against the smell of earth. She could barely hear, for how hard her heart was pounding, but the cultivator didn’t seem to notice her foot falls.

At last they came to the source of the horrific qi, and her blood turned to ice.

A Reaper Wolf. The Reaper Wolf, The Wicked Blade. It had been around these parts for nearly three hundred years, and had even killed a cultivator!

What was it doing here?! Were they all to die tonight?

She cowered behind the tree, and prayed for Jin’s soul, to face such a monster.

The Reaper Wolf moved faster than her eyes could see, pouncing on him in a storm of bladed claws.

The shovel met it. Klang! It went, striking the fell beast in the center of the head, and slaying it

She gaped stupidly at the scene. The cultivator yawned. “Bad Dog.” he muttered, and rubbed at his eye.

He took no blood, nor it’s teeth, nor the Wicked Blade’s core. Instead, his shovel went to work, digging a hole big enough for the beast, and burying it in moments.

“No hard feelings, buddy?” he muttered to the soil, and pressed some of his qi into it. She thought she could hear a wail for a brief moment in her head, and then the lingering scent of blood vanished.

She was still standing there in shock when he started walking back to the village. The cultivator squinted at her crouched form.

“Need a ride back?” he asked her, and her mouth moved before she thought it through..

“The last time you gave me a ride you threw me into a mud pit.” She said, sounding more annoyed than she felt.

Jin chuffed in amusement, and then gestured forwards.

“Well come on, dangerous wildlife out here.” he said. “You can make me some dumplings again, as thanks for escorting you home.”

She scoffed as if she found the idea distasteful, much to Jin’s amusement, and stood on shaking legs as they left.

She turned one last time to look at the overturned dirt.

There were grass shoots growing out of it.

Her father was waiting for them, when they got back to her house, worried about her safety and virtue. "What happened?" he asked. "All of the animals kicked up such a fuss!"

"Eh, just a wolf." Jin said sounding unconcerned.

"Yeah," Meiling agreed, "Just a wolf, father."

Just a wolf indeed.

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