While Adam and Tom were talking in one room of the Cardinal estate and the elders were talking in another, a man, in his mid-twenties, with a dirty blond hair colour was making his way through the hilly countryside 30 miles to the north of Hill city. This was the man that had killed the original Tom Cardinal and whom the bandit underlings were calling boss.
He had left the city in the early hours of the morning, soon after the city gates were opened and proceeded with haste.
The current area he was in was off the beaten path.
His horse was churning up the wet ground as it galloped forward. Patches of wet soil and grass were thrown into the air.
He should have been more careful about not leaving a trail, but, no one was following him and he wanted to reach his destination quickly. Besides, he was already far away from any of the distinguished paths and these parts weren't as well travelled anyway.
He soon entered a well hidden valley and could see wooden constructions, a palisade, storage hut and a couple of houses built against the side of a very steep hill face.
As he rode closer, some men that had been loitering about saw him riding over and immediately came to attention, grabbing swords and spears at their sides. However, as the blond haired man rode closer and they saw his appearance, all of these men relaxed, putting back their weapons and returning to their idle chatter.
These men had been idling about in the valley, outside of the small settlement that had been built there. As the blond haired man drew closer, a couple of them went to open the gate that was only partially open.
[The fools. Do they really think that a measly 3m high wall could stop me on my way?]
The blond haired man sped through the gateway almost knocking down the men that had gotten up to open the gate. He scoffed at them in his mind. If the gate had remained closed he would have just jumped over it and continued on foot.
[Ha, serves them right. I don't know why they even built this stupid wall in the first place]
The blond haired man was a dick.
Also, contrary to beliefs of the blond man, the wall did actually serve a purpose. It was built to disguise the settlement as some simple village should it ever be chanced upon and also to hide the entrance to an expansive underground cave system that was artificially carved into hillside.
Approaching the cave entrance, the blond man dismounted in a swift movement while the horse still galloping. He then walked towards the cave letting one of the surrounding men get the horse under control.
As he passed into the cave, he saw many familiar faces, fellow warriors in the realm of qi expansion. Seeing them, he was internally displeased. This den was one of the hideaways of his family, run by his father, but, it was also one that he rarely frequented and had little influence in. The warriors he passed by were his father's men, not his. He'd be hard pressed to get them to follow him. Although he had a very high position in the bandit group, with many underlings, he wasn't actually the top boss. That position belonged to his father.
Making his way into the bowels of the cave system that was lit with numerous lamps and even some glowing crystals, he passed through a couple of large rooms until he finally happened upon a certain closed door. Without knocking, he entered the room and saw his father, a man in his fifties with long dirty blond hair that had begun to grey and clear signs of aging on his face, sitting at a table with some confidantes, looking over a detailed map of the North West.
Upon his entry, everyone turned their heads to look at him. Some were visibly displeased at his attitude and some were just generally displeased to see him. However, there were also others that didn't care or weren't in a high enough position to be able to display this emotions at him.
"What are you doing here?" the man's father questioned.
"I have some things to talk to you about father" the blond haired man answered.
"Very well, out with it" said the man's father with impatience.
"I'd rather discuss this privately"
This particular trip was not one the blond haired man had wanted to make, but, his better judgement had prevailed and he decided he ought to let his father know the current situation. Nevertheless, he anticipated that his father wouldn't be happy to receive this news and would probably blame him for it. If he was going to have rough words with his father he certainly wasn't going to let these other people listen in.
[These confidantes of father are all sly and scheming. They're worth nothing but will no doubt take this opportunity to try and mock me and put me down. They're just jealous of my power. They have no right to look at me like that] thought the blond haired man fiercely.
After looking into his son's eyes for a moment, the father looked at his attendants and then nodded at the door, indicating for them to leave. Obeying his orders, they all filed their way out of the room and took the opportunity to go get some fresh air. That was the other reason they had built things out in the valley. If they had left it as purely the cave system it would have been less conspicuous, but, it could easily get stuffy living underground and the people wanted somewhere they could go and relax.
Once the last person left the room, the blond haired man closed the door and then turned back to look at his father.
"Ok, everyone has left now. What was so urgent that you had to come here and then interrupt my meeting to speak to me in private?"
"It's about 3 months ago" said the blond haired man a bit tentatively, a sour expression on his face.
Just those words alone made his father's face sink.
"It turns out that one of the men I killed, one who is a direct descendant of the Cardinal clan, is still alive"
Hearing those words, the blond haired man's father was furious. He clenched his fists tightly and started shaking slightly from his anger. Blood rushed to his face, turning it red, and the veins on it started sticking out. With his face contorted in anger, he slammed his hand on the table, breaking part of it off, and then stood up, staring down his son.
"GODDAMNIT JOSHUA!" he shouted.
"WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU!?"
The blond haired man, whose name was Joshua, flinched slightly at his father's outburst and turned his head away.
"You already did such a foolish thing 3 months ago, which I had to deal with the fallout from, but it turns out that even when you do something wrong, you can't even do it right!"
"It's ok, he obviously didn't recognise me. Otherwise, they would have got to us already" Joshua said, trying to calm his father's anger.
"That's not the point! I told you not to make any direct moves against them and you did it anyway"
"I was doing it for us" Joshua spoke up, using the break in his father's speech to defend himself.
"Doing it for us? Don't try and kid me Joshua, you can't pull the wool over my eyes. You were doing it for yourself" Joshua's father scoffed in anger.
"They have no right to sit on their high horses in Hill city, acting all righteous and pompous. I was showing them they're not in charge anymore, that this is our land. I was taking the fight to them" said Joshua heatedly.
"AND I TOLD YOU, that we're not ready for that yet!" said Joshua's father, trying to keep his anger under control.
"We will make our move against them when the time is right, but that time isn't now. We aren't strong enough at the moment. I've told you this already"
After these last words were spoken, both Joshua and his father took a moment to calm down and cool their heads. After doing so, Joshua's father finally came around to asking his son some important questions that needed answering.
"This person that you failed to kill, who is he?" he asked in a calmer voice than before but with a mocking tone.
"He's just some low level member of their clan who got lucky" Joshua said through gritted teeth.
This was why he wanted the others out of the room. He knew they would have some scathing remarks to make over the fact that someone he'd killed, against the express orders of his father, and then gloated over, was actually still alive. What's more, it seems that only through sheer luck this person wasn't able to expose his identity and ruin their whole operation.
"His name is Tom Cardinal. I've investigated; he's the son of the Cardinal clan's 10th elder"
"And why did you just discover that he's still alive now and not 3 months ago?"
"He must have stayed in their estate to recover from his wounds and only came out recently when he had fully recovered" answered Joshua.
After thinking for a short while, an important thought popped into the head of Joshua's father.
"Wait, you said he didn't recognise you. Does that mean to say he actually saw your face?" said Joshua's father seriously, concern in his voice.
Joshua inhaled a sharp breath of cold air. They'd finally gotten to the crux of the matter.
"Technically... yes" Joshua admitted.
"It was dark at the time and he wasn't a cultivator so he wouldn't have been able to see that well, but I stabbed him in the chest personally and I didn't have anything covering my face"
"But like I said earlier, he obviously didn't recognise me. It's been 3 months now and there hasn't been so much as inkling of that coming back on us. We've both been in the city since then and had they known, they would have taken us out when they had the chance" Joshua explained confidently.
Joshua's father grumbled with discontent but also knew his son's words were the truth. Had his son been identified, they would probably both be dead already, with their entire operation dismantled.
"For good measure you'll need to stay out of the city for now. He hasn't recognised you so far. We'll just have to make sure it stays that way permanently" said Joshua's father decisively.
"And of course, there's more than one way of making that permanent" the hostile intent in his words clear.
To Joshua's father, making sure his son wasn't walking around Hill city was just a temporary measure. Even though this Tom person hadn't seemed to recognise him, that didn't mean that the possibility of it happening in the future was nil. It was better to be safe than sorry and eliminate the boy. Thinking along these lines, Joshua's father picked up on something from his son's words.
"I just realised. You said, 'wasn't a cultivator'. What did you mean by that?" he asked.
"Well you see, that's the strange thing. 3 months ago, he wasn't a cultivator. He definitely wasn't. I'd stake my life on it. But something unexpected happened yesterday when we found out he was still alive" said Joshua as he began to tell his tale.
"Two of my men, low level people, not really worth mentioning, saw him, late at night when they were drinking in a pub. One of them came to inform me while the other stayed to keep his eye on him. I didn't believe it at first; I mean, I stabbed him in the chest, I saw him go down. He shouldn't have survived it, but... I went to the pub anyway"
"Neither my man or the Cardinal man were there, however, what I did find was a commotion in the streets, people running about and shouting. I went to see what was happening and saw my man, dead in a back alley. It seems he must have followed and tried to kill the Cardinal man in the backstreets. I assumed one of the Cardinal man's guards must have saved him, after all, my man was just an uneducated idiot, it's no wonder he'd get caught in the act. However, on closer inspection, I saw that this Tom Cardinal had already reached the 4th level of body strengthening, the same as my guy"
"Hmm, I see" said Joshua's father after hearing that story.
"Although it is surprising that someone who started so late suddenly became a cultivator and advanced so fast, that's just it, it's surprising. He's still just an ant. Besides, with the resources that the Cardinal clan has and with this person's father being one of their elders, it's not too surprising he was able to advance this fast after breaking through from preliminary cultivation"
"All this means, is that the weakest of our people won't be able to kill him. It's of no consequence"
Joshua nodded in agreement at his father's words.
"Oh and you'll need to deal with your other man that was at the pub. We can't afford any loose ends that can trace back to us"
"Don't worry father, I know the rules. I already killed him. No one will find the body" Joshua said and smirked gleefully. It was the first thing he'd felt happy about something during the entirety of this conversation.
"Good, Good. Well anyway, I'll just tell everyone to look out for an opportunity. This Tom Cardinal won't stay alive for much longer"