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After Rowan caught up and joined Tom's group, the rest of Tom's journey west was uneventful.

They made relatively good progress and in the end they reached a village 10 miles east of the town of Acorn, just as it was getting darker. Since Acorn town had a strict policy on their gate closures and Tom's group wouldn't be able to make it in time before the gates shut, they stopped where they were and slept at an inn for the night.

Actually, even though Acorn town was so close to the forest boundary, it wasn't that dangerous to sleep under the city walls at night. Many warriors would enter the forest from Acorn and also return to Acorn after they finished. Since hunts would take an indeterminate amount of time, this led to a situation where many warriors ended up camping outside the city walls. So long as one camped on the east side of the town, where all these late night warriors gathered, the danger would be reduced. It was a safety in numbers thing. By relying on each other, they could easily fend off the attacks of roaming qi beasts that travelled beyond the bounds of the forest.

The only real danger emerged when particularly fast or stealthy qi beasts roamed outside the forest and could pick people off under the cover of darkness. There was also the case where there were qi beast waves, where many qi beasts would charge out of the forest at once, but, such situations were uncommon.

After a good night's rest and a morning breakfast, the gang was all ready to go again. Since none of them had any particularly bulky equipment and their weapons could be put straight into the back of the wagon, along with food they had stored for the journey, they could leave straight away. There was no hassle where they had to wait for someone to put on armour or where someone needed help putting on their armour on.

Like this, they got an early start and proceeded along their way to Acorn town.

Finally reaching the town, Tom was impressed by the sight of it. It was larger than he had imagined.

Large, 20m high walls, the same as Hill city, surrounded the entire town and the 80,000 people inside. Tom could see many men patrolling on the top of those walls and at the bottom of them he also saw a large campsite with many warriors moving around.

Passing along the road and by the numerous warriors off to the side of it that were tending to their gear, Tom breathed in the sweet aroma of meat. Evidently some of the warriors were preparing a mid-morning meal. Tom couldn't help but salivate in his mouth. Since coming to this world, he had gotten to enjoy a whole new eating experience but at his core he was still a meat eater, a carnivore. It was a good thing that they were passing through the town first in order to get some fresh food instead of just going around it. Actually, because the main street was so wide and basically a straight line running from the east to west gate, it took about the same amount of time to go straight through the town as it would to go around it.

As Tom passed through the eastern gate and entered the town, the first thing that hit him was the noise. He hadn't realised it before he entered because the walls blocked most of the noise but the main street was very loud. Straight after entering the town, Tom was buffeted by the shouts of stall owners, peddlers and other small business owners.

The second thing that hit Tom when he entered the town was the smell. The previous sweet smell of meat was replaced by a whole litany of other smells, some good and some bad.

Clearly a lot of the people in the local vicinity were selling food and some of that was being cooked right on the side of the street. The fragrances, steams and smokes released from the various people's cooking all wafted up and intermingled with each other. The suddenly changing cooking aromas weren't particularly bad, just jarring to the senses, but, these were not the only smells on the street.

The cooking aromas, while competing against themselves, were only partially masking the underlying stench in this town. The business, the trade of this town, its lifeblood, was based on cultivators and the hunting that took place in the forest outside of its walls. This meant that the pleasant smells of freshly cooked foods also had to contend with the many carcasses of qi beasts, sometimes days old and oftentimes not cleaned, that passed through and were sold in the town.

It tickled Tom's nose and he found it unpleasant. Thankfully, Hill city didn't have such a severe problem as this, though that might also be attributed to the fact that Hill city covers a large area of land and the people aren't as jammed together as they are in Acorn town.

"Augh" Lance commented, voicing his displeasure whilst also wrinkling his nose.

"I take it you've never been in Acorn town before?" said Rowan to the side, seemingly unfazed by it all. She had been here before and the smell no longer bothered her.

"No, he hasn't. He's a complete greenhorn. Never even killed a qi beast before" laughed Pike to the side.

His loud voice easily carried to the nearby people on the street, who looked up at Lance and shook their heads at him. The guards too, could be heard tutting behind him.

Unlike other times, when everyone was joking around and Lance would just take this kind of humour and work with it, this comment actually caused his face to burn red. Tom was surprised at this because he had never seen Lance react this way before.

"I have too!" he responded angrily.

"It was a roaming beast that came near my village and I killed it to protect a couple of kids"

"Hahaha, Lance, that was a cow" Pike laughed again and also got a wave of laughter from the other guards.

Still with his face burning red, Lance sucked in a cold breath of air to calm himself and then turned to face Rowan to defend himself.

"First of all, it wasn't an ordinary cow; it was a black maned cow which had strength equivalent to 3,500 jin, second of all, I was only at the 3rd level of body strengthening at the time and thirdly" Lance emphasised while turning to face Pike, "You know that my village is close to Hill city and that we rarely see roaming qi beasts there"

Turning back to face Rowan, Lance continued.

"Ever since I moved to Hill city and found work with the Cardinal clan, I hadn't left. This is my first time coming this far" he explained.

Listening to his story you might expect people to feel sorry for him because of the way Pike was making fun of him and in fact, Rowan did feel some sympathy for the bullying he was experiencing and so, smiled kindly at him. However, to that, Pike and the rest of the guards started whistling at Lance, the implication and mocking behind it obvious. The reason they were doing this and in general made fun of Lance over everyone else was that he was notorious for hitting on women. This usually would have only gotten him mocked slightly, only the thing was, because he was good looking, he proved to rather lucky and well-liked by women and so he had gotten the resentment of the rest of the guards.

During this whole time, Tom had chosen to remain as a silent observer, contemplating on the nature of humans.

[They're his comrades and friends, his pack so to say, and yet they mock him so. How odd. But at the end of the day, they will still fight together. Remarkable. I never realised just how intricate and confusing human relationships could be]

Bringing his attention back to the world around him, Tom located a food stall that enticed his fancy. By going over to it, he killed the fuss that Lance was making with the others and they quieted down as they prepared to buy something for themselves.

Tom bought two sticks of skewered meat. Eating them, he relished the taste of the juices that the meat released.

[This is it. This is what food is]

After he and the others had finished, they were ready to leave Acorn town and make their way over to the Tainted Forest for Tom's very first expedition.

It didn't take long for them to make their way over towards the west gate and exit the town. The hustle and bustle of the west gate was much the same as the east, with many people buying and selling on the street and many people passing through the gate, venturing out towards the Tainted Forest or returning from it. The only difference Tom observed was that there were no tents of people camped outside the west gate.

Since Acorn town was so close to the forest, Tom was able to see the edge of the forest at the end of the flat plain that extended out in front of him.

[So that's it huh] he thought to himself, before stirring on his horse and moving forward.

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jmj1011995

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