Tom left Hill city through the west gate and proceeded along the road at a trot.
He was going to entering the Tainted Forest which was about 70 miles to the west of Hill city but first he would be passing through the town of Acorn, just a stone's throw away from the forest boundary.
Thankfully, unlike the land directly north and south east of Hill city, which was hilly and mountainous respectively, the land to the west was mainly flat and rolling. This meant that the ride to Acorn could easily be handled in a day.
Although the horses Tom's group were riding weren't the best; strengthened by qi, travelling a 100 miles a day was no problem. However, since Tom's group also had a horse drawn wagon that they were bringing along, their pace was slowed considerably. By the time they would reach Acorn, the Town gates would already be shut and unlike with Hill city, the guards there wouldn't open the gates for them. Because of this, Tom was planning to stop in a village east of Acorn for the night and then continue on the next day.
While riding along, Tom saw many travellers along the road. There were people from regional villages and small towns that were walking back and forth to Hill city, conducting their own business, such as peddling goods. However, many people Tom saw consisted of warriors and mercenaries. People who made their business as escorts for those weaker than themselves and people that made a living by hunting in the Tainted Forest and selling the goods they procured.
Aside from the weaker and poorer people, who were walking along the road, there was also a fair share of people travelling on horseback. Generally these were the stronger warriors and cultivators who were able to make a better living for themselves or people from wealthier families, however, Tom also occasionally saw individual and groups of people wearing the grey tops of Iron fist sect disciples.
Although the majority of people to enter and hunt in the Tainted Forest were ordinary warriors, since the Iron fist sect was located in the mountainous region just south east of Hill city, many of their disciples would enter the forest by passing through the town of Acorn and then conduct their business in either Acorn or Hill city.
After several hours of travelling, Tom's group stopped to have a rest and eat some food.
While they were sitting down on the side of the road, Tom looked back on the path that he had just travelled along and saw a rider galloping quite fast towards them. At first, Tom just assumed this was an ordinary traveller that would pass them by, but, as the rider got closer and their features were easier to make out, Tom noticed the distinctive maroon coloured hair of the person riding the horse. As that person got closer still, it became easy to identify them as Rowan Cardinal, Tom's 18 year old cousin.
"Whoa!" Rowan shouted at the horse, telling it to stop and pulling up just in front of Tom.
"Hey there" she said cheerily, "It seems I've caught up"
Tom looked at Rowan in mild confusion while the guards that were accompanying him had started to fuss between themselves at her sudden appearance. He wasn't sure why she was here and he hadn't been told about anything like this before hand. All he knew was that unlike her brother and parents, she hadn't gone to see him off when he left the city.
[Is she here because she wanted to say goodbye to me? That's kind of weird isn't it? Maybe she regretted that she didn't get to say goodbye to me, but, isn't this going a bit over the top, we're already 25 miles from the city]
"Wha... what are you doing here?" Tom asked.
"Oh, I'm going with you" she replied brightly.
"Why?" Tom frowned and asked after a short pause.
It wasn't that he was against her being there; he was just suspicious over her sudden appearance.
"Hahaha" she laughed after hearing Tom.
"What's the matter, don't want a girl on your little trip?" she joked.
It just so happened that out of the personal guards Gerald selected to go with Tom, all of them were male.
"Eh,,, no, I was just wondering why you're here" Tom replied.
"Tom you're being rude" said Lance in a reprimanding tone to Tom, while stepping forward.
He then turned towards Rowan, extended his hand for a handshake and then said "Hi, I'm Lance", winking in the process.
Rowan bit her lower lip at Lance's attempt to flirt with her, until Avery came over and gave him a whack over the back the head, saying "Alright, that's enough out of you, Lover boy", to which Rowan started laughing to herself.
Once again, as the youngest in their group, lance was getting picked on again. The other guards who saw this scene started to laugh and Pike's hearty laugh was well heard among them.
"Anyway" Tom continued, "this was rather unexpected. What brought this about?"
"Haha" Rowan laughed again.
"Can't you tell?" she asked.
"Do you notice anything different about me?" she said, mirroring the words Tom had once spoken to her, while gesturing with her hand at her body.
[Has she gone mad? What on earth is she doing] Tom thought to himself.
She was enjoying herself thoroughly while seeing the look of confusion on Tom's face. This was very like what had happened just a few months back. She couldn't wait to see the look of shock on his face when he figured it out.
Off to the side, Avery and another guard member called Harrison had both realised what this was about and smirked. Towards Rowan, they gave an internal nod of approval and respect.
"Let me give you a little clue" she said while smiling.
She then extended her hand out and then a red light glowed from it.
"What do you think?"
She had a smug look on her face as she waited for Tom's reaction.
Seeing the glowing qi that was projecting from her hand, Tom finally understood what was different her. Shehad broken through from the 10th level of body strengthening intothe 1st level of qi expansion. However, contrary to her expectations, he didn't react in a shocked manner.
"Oh, ok. Well done" he said rather blandly.
Her smile and good mood had been broken by Tom's bored answer. She was trying to gloat and get him back after he shocked her over 3 months ago and yet he seemed thoroughly underwhelmed.
[What the hell man? Not being shocked is one thing but at least be excited or something. This is a big deal. Why are you looking at me like it doesn't matter? It matters Tom. What's wrong with you?]
"Is that all you have to say?" she said, shocked.
Rowan didn't know how to reply to Tom. Somehow, she had lost control of the conversation and was left on the losing end.
Rowan had thought that Tom would be both surprised and also excited for her. Unfortunately, what she didn't know was that this level of improvement and strength was nowhere near high enough to impress Tom, who was a god. From his perspective, she was nothing but a child with a stick.
Tom had been excited over his own improvement because that was important to him and he also respected Avery's strength, who was weaker than Rowan, but that was only because Avery frequently beat him in training and knocked him down, which led to Tom acknowledging him. As for others though, since his personal bonds with the people around him still weren't that strong, he felt no need to be hyped up over what he considered a puny increase in strength.
"I have to ask. Did you come all the way out here just to tell me that?" Tom asked.
"What? No!" Rowan hastily said back while feeling indignant.
"I'll have you know, I really have a reason to go to the Tainted Forest. Now that I've entered the realm of qi expansion I want to make some hard but light armour for myself, so I'm going there to hunt some blue devil beetles. They have really hard shells but aren't that strong. They can be found in the outer regions of the Tainted Forest so you'll probably encounter one anyway. I figured I'd go with you and even give you some help"
"Ah, I see now. So you wanted to tag along. That's fine" Tom said, coming to understand the situation but not Rowan's feelings.
"Well, breaks over" he said while climbing back onto his horse, "let's get a move on"
Rowan meanwhile was just left staring dumbfoundedly at him. A few of the guards let out sighs or laughs and then got on their own horses. They still had a long journey ahead of them and it seemed they weren't allowed to loiter any longer.
"Well come on then" Tom shouted back to Rowan as he led his horse at a trot down the road.
Still lost for words, Rowan had no choice but to begin riding after him.