Tom was pleased with having passed the 3rd stage of preliminary cultivation. He was planning to continue straight onto tackling the 4th stage but at this moment there was a knock at his door.

"I'm coming in" came a gentle voice from outside the door.

It had been many hours since Tom had begun starting to cultivate and it was now approaching the time that people would eat their evening meal. Because of this, Sarah had come back to check in on her son again and ask if he would be joining her to eat. After knocking on his door she entered to find Tom sitting on his bed drenched in sweat.

"My God, Tom, look at you. Why are you all covered in sweat? You stink. What on earth were you doing in here?"

Looking at Tom, Sarah had first thought that her son had taken ill with a fever but quickly saw that that didn't appear to be the case. He was a bit red in the face but he didn't look like he was ill. Thinking it through a bit more, she believed she'd come to a realisation. She thought about the things men sometimes did when they were alone and said to Tom, "Never mind, you don't have to tell. Actually, I'd prefer it if you didn't".

One had to say; if Tom felt indignant at having to experience his vessel's pain, that was nothing compared to how incensed he was now. First, this woman had come in and chastised him for how he looked and smelled, then, she had made baseless insinuations about what he had been doing.

He could understand and bare the criticisms over his appearance. After all, he truly was drenched in sweat right now and would have to change his clothes, but, he didn't feel like the smell was particularly noticeable and he most certainly did not appreciate her insinuations. He was a god and considered the accusations she'd made against him an insult to his very character and majesty. Like HE would ever try to get his jollies off in a human body!

Despite being angered by her words, he didn't show this on his face. He decided to calm himself and not lash out over it. He was a majestic celestial being and it would make no sense for him to get so angry over some hairless ape, no offense to Jacob and Methis of course.

"What brings you here?" Tom asked in a flat voice.

"Don't get snarky with me young man. I came here to ask if you'd be joining me for tea"

Tom thought about it for a moment. He didn't particularly care to spend time with these people, but, now that he thought about, he was beginning to feel hungry. He was sure he would be able to get food delivered to his room but decided to join the woman.

[I suppose if I join her I'll be able to get a better run of the place]

"Yes, I'll join you"

"Good. Join me at mine and your father's dining room in half an hour. Oh, and change before you come"

With that, Sarah left the room, leaving Tom alone again. Tom had some time to spare so he went out of his room to find a pail of water. After he procured one, he went back to his room. He changed out of his dirty clothes, wet a cloth with the water and used that to wipe himself down. He then changed into a set of fresh clothes and made his way over to the room Sarah had indicated.

When he arrived he found several other people already there, gathered around a mahogany table. Aside from Sarah, there was also Rowan and two new faces Tom hadn't seen before. These two people were Emery and Evelyn Cardinal, the parents of Adam and Rowan Cardinal. They were also, respectively, the 9th and 11th elders of the Cardinal clan.

The clan had 12 elders in total and included not only the direct blood descendants of the clan, but also people who had married into it. Hence why Evelyn held her position as a clan elder. Sarah however, who had also married into the clan, was not an elder, because she wasn't strong enough to be qualified as one and because there were no more positions available.

The number of elders in the clan was fixed at 12 and to become an elder a certain amount of strength was required, usually the 6th level of qi expansion, however, because the number was fixed, it meant that the strength of the elders fluctuated over time as the strength of the clan members changed. It meant that sometimes there would be a series of weaker elders that came in to fill in the empty positions; however, this was not one of those times. Unlike Gerald, Emery and Evelyn who were all at the late stages of qi expansion, Sarah had only reached the 8th stage of Body strengthening and was still far off from being qualified to join the ranks of the clan elders.

Actually, the fixed number of elders also meant that some clan members that became stronger than the current elders wouldn't be recognised as an elder themselves, but in these situations the weakest clan elders were expected to abdicate from their positions.

Considering how the elders were ranked, one might expect Gerald, Emery and Evelyn to be on the weaker side amongst the elders, but, everyone from the 7th elder and above actually had fairly similar strength. The 6th elder and above though had a more noticeable gap in strength as they were all in the 3rd realm of cultivation.

Another interesting thing to note was that Emery and Gerald the cousins of the current clan patriarch. Though this didn't actually matter too much because the next patriarch or matriarch of the clan was always decided by a majority vote amongst the elders.

"Hi" Rowan said to Tom upon seeing him enter the room.

Tom looked at Rowan and gave her an affirmative nod, acknowledging her greeting and implying it back. He then took the closest empty seat and sat down.

Sarah, who was moving around the room, popped her head round a doorway and spoke a few words to a servant that was out of sight. Then she turned back into the room and proceeded to sit down at the head of the table.

"Nearly ready" she spoke to everyone, then directed her attention towards Emery and Evelyn.

"Is Adam going to be joining us?" she inquired.

"No, he's still out with the patrol teams, because of the... you know what"

As Emery spoke the last part of his sentence; he'd glanced over at Tom, an action Tom caught sight of. Tom obviously knew that he was talking about the search for the bandits and realised he was trying to avoid directly mentioning last night's incident, perhaps out of concern for his nephew. Emery was in fact slightly concerned. He thought that it might have been a touchy subject, what with his nephew almost being killed and all, so thought it best to skirt around the issue.

"I see. A pity. Gerald's also still out, he might not be back tonight" said Sarah.

In the family there were several close knit groups. This group consisted of the brothers, Emery and Gerald, their respective wives and their children. They would often eat together but today their family meal was short a few members because of the manhunt that the clan was conducting. Actually, save for Sarah and Tom, the rest of the people at the table had all been out today attached to different search parties. Emery and Evelyn had travelled out in the early hours of the morning and Rowan had joined a local patrol after she'd visited Tom at lunchtime. However, none of them had any luck in finding any bandits.

After a minute or two, a couple of servants began bringing food through. Tom spent the next hour at the table engaged in eating and light conversation, the latter of which he did not take the initiative to add to. He considered the food good and enjoyed eating it, but, the conversation seemed trivial to him and he didn't hold much interest in it.

After all was said and done, he left the dining room with a full stomach. Although he didn't care much about the conversation, he was satisfied with the meal he'd just had. He made his way back to his room and sat back on the bed. It was still far from midnight and Tom was planning on using the rest of the night to break through the remaining stages of preliminary cultivation.

"Alright then, time for the 4th stage" Tom said to himself.


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