From the west gate of Acorn town to the start of the forest, there was still about 1.5 miles that had to be covered and because all the land between the town and the forest was flat, Tom and anyone from Acorn's town walls could see the people moving about in this open area.
This buffer zone was actually vital to the town's safety as it provided an early detection capability to the town's inhabitants for when particularly dangerous qi beasts ventured out of the forest. Though of course, the forest stretched for hundreds of miles along the western border of the kingdom and it wasn't like qi beasts would only exit the forest where Acorn town was. They could easily exit the forest further north or south of the town and then turn their sights on it.
Actually, it was only ever during the night or during beast waves that qi beasts would exit the forest directly west of the town. After all, of all the border towns in the North West, Acorn by far had the most traffic running through it and no qi beast would be stupid enough to charge along the north's most well-travelled road into the forest during the daytime, while countless warriors were also walking the path.
Even when qi beasts did exit the forest near Acorn, or further afield and the made their way over to the town, since the town had a gathering of a great many strong warriors, who had come to the town trying to find gains in the forest, it could defend itself fairly easily.
Despite this, roaming qi beasts were actually quite a problem. It wasn't uncommon for qi beasts to exit the forest and wreak havoc on the countryside and the roads, killing weak country folk who weren't able to defend themselves. After all, whereas Acorn and the rest of the border towns were on the frontline and closest to the danger, since they all had high stone walls and a fair number of strong warriors, they were also poor targets for qi beasts.
Roaming qi beasts would generally bypass the border towns and move deeper into human territory, threatening smaller and weaker settlements. Because of this, not all the warriors that could be seen residing or passing through the border towns were doing so with the intention of entering the Tainted Forest. Warriors consisting of the less accomplished, less courageous but also of the honour bound, would travel the rural roads and to the rural villages, making sure they stayed safe and also looking for their own opportunities.
It was unfortunate, but this situation only came about because unlike further in the country where noble families, clans and local government had strong control over their own territory and populace, the local governments of the border towns did not have strong control. In the territory controlled by the Cardinal clan, which extended beyond Hill city to many villages and a couple towns, the strong forces that were subordinate to the local governor's office could easily be deployed as stationary guards in the small villages, thus protecting them from any roaming qi beasts, or other threats. However, the areas immediately adjacent to the forest didn't have a particularly strong local government or force subordinate to them.
When these patrols from ordinary warriors didn't do the trick and dangerous qi beasts roamed the countryside that was when bounty's ended up being posted, enticing greater interest from stronger warriors and the disciples from martial institutions.
As Tom was moving along the road towards the Tainted Forest, there were numerous people passing him by, making their way back to Acorn. Since it was still midday, these were mostly weaker warriors who had gotten lucky quick kills shortly after entering the forest or stronger warriors who had stayed in the forest overnight at one of the various outposts that could be found inside.
Tom could see the bodies of dead qi beasts that the groups of people were either carrying in hand or had on the back of wagons and carts. Having been forced to study up on qi beasts before he came here, he was able to identify quite a few of them.
Two warriors walked by with a red skinned boar supported on a wooden pole between them. It was large, over a meter tall, but such a creature was only moderately powerful. They typically had tyrannical physical strength, equivalent to late stage body strengthening experts and beyond and they would kill enemies by charging at them, then either trampling them or impaling them with its tusks. However, despite its size and physical ability, like many weak qi beasts, red skinned boars were unable to gather large amounts of qi or use any qi techniques. Such a beast was easy to kill by those that had stepped into the realm of qi expansion.
For qi beasts, it was an unfortunate situation in life that although humans were born as one of the weakest creatures on this planet, they also had the most potential for advancement. Most of the rest of the animals of this planet had varying degrees of natural strength and ability but generally had less potential than humankind. As such, you would often find all manner of beasts that developed towards a certain level of strength and then got stuck there while humans eclipsed them.
Continuing on, a group of people wearing navy blue clothes passed by. They were disciples of the Flowing Water sect, one of the most powerful martial institutions in the country, located in the North East of the kingdom on the south bank of Lake Yendel.
Unlike most of the people Tom saw, they were on horseback rather than on foot and in the back of wagon they were pulling behind them, there were several dead bodies that looked similar to horses. However, these were not horses. They were kelpie's, a type of water qi beast that could shapeshift and change their form to a certain degree. Compared to the red skinned boar Tom had seen just moments before, they were much stronger and considerably harder to deal with. Although their physical strength was only in the same range as the red skinned boar, they had a much greater ability to gather qi and used some unique and peculiar qi techniques. Coupled with their shapeshifting abilities and the fact that they lived in water, they were harder to deal with than other qi beasts that rivalled their strength.
Tom passed these people by and continued advancing towards the forest. He and the rest of his group were rather close now.
By coincidence, just as they had approached within 30m of the treeline, they saw a group of people exiting the forest with the insignia of the Cardinal clan on their clothes.
The Cardinal clan had many members and they would often travel to the tainted Forest to hunt qi beasts for themselves and for the family. For themselves, because, due to the rationing of resources in the clan, it was hard for any one clan member to have a lot resources set aside for them, and for the clan, because, it was seen as a kind of duty to contribute back and help raise the clan's strength.
It was a happy surprise to those present, running into this other group. For Tom and Rowan, they got to see a family member, and for the guards escorting Tom, they got to see some of their friends and acquaintances.
"Daniel" Rowan shouted to a young man in his twenties who had just emerged from the forest.
This man was a distant relation to Tom and Rowan and a direct blood descendant of the clan. He had come to the Tainted Forest in order to hone his skills and make some gains. However, Daniel was 20 years old but was only at the 7th level of body strengthening and as such, didn't show nearly as much cultivating talent as Adam and Rowan, who were both considered to be very talented among the young generation of the clan. Nevertheless, he still showed a decent amount of potential and was still well on track to advance further. It was suspected that he would be able to reach the realm of qi expansion while he was still in his early twenties.
"Rowan" he said, slightly shocked, but he soon recovered himself and a merry smile grew on his face.
"I didn't expect to see you here"
"Yeah, well, I didn't expect to be here either, but I just had a breakthrough and wanted to test out my new power. I also wanted to get some goods in the process" responded Rowan.
Hearing this, Daniel went wide eyed in shock. He knew perfectly well that Rowan had been at the peak of body strengthening. If she had a breakthrough then that could only mean that she had stepped into the realm of qi expansion.
"What? A breakthrough, that's amazing" he said, though internally he was thinking 'shit, first Adam and now her. Their side of the family are like monsters, how the hell am I meant to compete with them'.
"I know right!" Rowan burst out, happy that at least one of her family members had acknowledged her achievement.
Tom's underwhelmed reaction the other day had dampened her mood but Daniel's words had they opposite effect. Her spirits had been raised again as she pressured Daniel for confirmation that her achievement was in fact noteworthy and something to celebrate about. That it was something to be shocked and also excited about.
"Ah, yeah" he said, taken aback by Rowan's sudden shout.
"It's impressive; you've done it even faster than Adam. I'm sure you're going to rub that it his face" he said and then chuckled.
[Well I guess I'm not the only one who'll have worries. I can only imagine Adam's face right now]
"Hmm, I'm not sure about that yet. After all, Adam got stuck at the peak of body strengthening for a while and then after he broke through, he breezed through the early stages of qi expansion" said Rowan.
As much as she wanted to lord it over her brother that she'd beaten him to the 1st level of qi expansion, she knew that she wouldn't necessarily show more talent than him while in the realm of qi expansion. She also knew that her brother would feel sincerely happy for her and that any gloating or showing off she attempted in front of him would just make her seem vain and egotistical.
But rather than rubbing her success in another's face to put them down, what she really wanted was for someone she was close with to look up at her with deep praise in her ability and since her brother was stronger than her, with similar talent, she couldn't get that feeling from him. Therefore, after she had broken through to the 1st level of qi expansion the previous day, she chose to forgo telling her immediate family and instead accompany Tom into the Tainted Forest so she could hunt a Blue Devil Beetle. Of course, she had her own friends she could have gone to, but, this way she could kill two birds with one stone by acquiring the materials for a new armour, as well as being able to bask in Tom's awe at her success.
It was against her expectations that Tom would be so underwhelmed by her news and wouldn't even do the slightest to stroke her ego. The best praise she had gotten was from Lance but since she didn't know him well, it just didn't create the feeling she was looking for.
This was why she was so happy and animated now that Daniel had given his acknowledgement. It was also why she didn't have many thoughts about trying to rub it in her brother's face.
Hearing Rowan's reply, the smirk on Daniel's face disappeared. He was reminded again that he wasn't in the same calibre as Adam and Rowan. While thinking this, his eyes finally fell upon Tom.
"Tom? Wha-what are you doing here?" he said in shock.
Daniel had heard about how Tom had broken through and become a true cultivator but he was still shocked at his appearance here. He thought that he would still be at the 1st level of body strengthening and had no idea that he'd made it all the way up to the 5th level.
"Tom, you can't possibly be thinking of going in the forest? If you do that, you'll die"
"Worry not" said Tom with a wave of his hand, dismissing Daniel's words.
"I have more than enough strength"
"That right" said Rowan.
"You haven't been around lately but Tom's at the 5th level of body strengthening now. He's come to hunt his first qi beast"
"Fif-fifth level!" he shouted, wide eyed in shock.
[Fuck. What the hell? Tom too? And he's already nearly caught up to me. This is a fucking joke. It can't be real. But shit, it is] thought Daniel as he checked out Tom's cultivation level.
"Yeah. Looks like you've got some new competition during the family meet" said Rowan with a smile on her face.
"Ahh, right. Well, Tom, well done" said Daniel, though without much enthusiasm in his voice, then he added "You're finally joining the ranks of the strong".
"No, merely this much isn't strong at all" Tom matter-of-factly replied.
This further caused Daniel's mood to drop. This chance meeting with his family should have been a happy coincidence, but instead, Rowan and Tom's words were causing his spirits to tank.
"Well, anyway, good luck in the forest" Daniel said, changing the subject. He no longer felt much like staying around to chat.
"Oh and by the way, I don't know if it's because of a surge in their population or because they got forced out of their territory, but there's a ton of red eyed wolves running about, so look after your horses" he said, leaving them with a last piece of advice before dismissing himself to make his way over to Acorn town.
"Ok then, better get going. We've still got things to do" Rowan said to Tom and the group enthusiastically. Whereas Daniel's spirits had dropped from their encounter, hers had risen. She was positively merry.
With that, Tom, Rowan and the accompanying guards all rode forward, passing the treeline and entering the forest.