The forest that Tom had just entered, with its tall deciduous trees, loomed over him.
He could see strong and vibrant shades of green all around him; from the leaves of the trees, the grasses on the forest floor and the thick mosses that grew on the trees as well as the interspersed rocks spread about the forest floor.
Besides the different shades of green, there was also an assortment of other colours that had entered Tom's vison. To the side of the path, in-between the roots of the trees and on the forest floor, he could see red bells, white orchids, orange violas and multi-coloured pansies.
At this border part of the forest, the trees weren't as densely packed together, nor were they as big as the trees found further in. This resulted in a greater amount of light penetrating through the canopy, supporting the common flowering plants and grasses that Tom could currently see.
It also meant there was more room to move and consequently it was easy to take the horses off the beaten track. Unfortunately, even though they could take the horses off the road, it would be problematic to take the wagon off road as well.
The path that Tom and the group were currently traveling on was actually relatively wide. That was because it happened to be the main road that led to the lost city of Forestview, located about 70 miles west of their current position.
The current borders of the Tainted Forest were different than they had been in the past and had changed many times over the eons. At some point in the past, at least further back than 3000 years ago when the Mantal kingdom was formed, the forest was several hundred miles shorter and there had been human settlements built in this region. Because of this, there were a series of well-defined paths that were easy to travel along, which allowed for people to enter the forest with large carts and wagons.
However, even though it was easy to take horses along these old roadways, it was still unadvisable. Unless you were using a hardier breed of horse, like a swift horse or a dragon horse, they would be very vulnerable to the qi beasts within the forest. Typically, only people that weren't travelling far into the forest or were strong enough to guarantee the safety of their mount would take a horse into the forest. The horses that Tom and his group were using were all just regular horses but they were taking them in anyway because they didn't plan to go that far in.
Of course, aside from the old roadways that made travel in the outer part of the Tainted Forest easier, the old human settlements, which were now in ruins, also provided many benefits to warriors making a living from the forest or going in to develop their skills and aid their cultivation. The old towns and villages served as outposts and waypoints for the cultivators entering the forest. They were rest stops and gathering points. When cultivators were spending several days in the forest or were just unable to make it out before nightfall, they would sleep in these ruins much like how warriors would camp outside the town walls of Acorn. By staying together during the night, the various cultivators could find security and safety in numbers.
After entering the forest, the few members of Tom's group that had left their weapons in the back of the wagon for convenience sake went to go and get them. Pike grabbed his polearm, a glaive, from the wagon and hefted it up in his hand, followed by Lance who picked up his spear. Another member went and grabbed a battle axe and Tom went to grab the heavy ironwood shield he had left there.
"You know, I don't think that shield is going to do you much good here" Avery remarked.
"Fighting qi beasts isn't like fighting people. Their proportions and the way they attack is all different. Plus a lot of them are larger than us so your shield won't block as effectively. All in all, I don't think the shield will help much" said Avery, giving Tom his advice.
"Perhaps, but safety is key. If I'm not going to wear armour I should at least have this much" responded Tom.
Aside from this brief conversation between Tom and Avery, Pike and Lance had started chatting to the side.
"So baby face" Pike said to Lance, "it looks like you'll get to have your proper taste of blood too"
"Hah, I told you already. I've killed a qi beast before" responded Lance.
"Ha ha, yeah, a qi beast that gets farmed in some areas" said Pike while laughing.
"But this is the real stuff now. The things you find in here, you won't find on farms. This is what real danger is. It really gets your blood pumping, just wait and see"
Unlike the young, 21 year old Lance, who had never been to the Tainted Forest before, Pike had actually had several past experiences in it. Since he wasn't particularly strong, he had never been in very far, but the times he had come here, he had enjoyed the thrill of the hunt. There was nothing quite like man and beast battling it out and standing on the brink of death together until a victor emerged. Besides, since it was more dangerous work, he'd gotten paid more. Now too, accompanying Tom would result in more pay for him.
"You know, you're going to be mightily embarrassed when your slow arse is stuck behind me and I take down all the biggest qi beasts" Lance said cockily to Pike. He had made the decision, in order not be mocked and also to get back at Pike, that he would show him up by outperforming him while they were in the forest together.
"Ha, you really think a greenhorn like you can do better than me. You've got to be joking"
"Well you know if you continue to be as loud as you are, you'll probably scare off all the qi beasts before we can even find them" Harrison chimed in jokingly. Although both Lance and Pike weren't being particularly quiet, this remark was directed at the loud mouth Pike, whose voice always carried quite far.
"He makes a good point. You shouldn't be as loud as you are Pike. We might not be very far in yet but there are still qi beasts around and it'd be bad if we can't hear them because of you" said Avery seriously.
Even within just a few miles to the border of the forest, it was still good to stay vigilant. After all, even if the most powerful qi beasts were found deeper in the forest and the first 50 miles were considered safe for body strengthening experts, there would still be dangerous qi beasts that travelled to these outer areas and beyond. Plus, even the weaker qi beasts could be dangerous to their group. Weak qi beasts that were stealthy and quick, or travelled in groups could easily kill opponents more powerful than themselves. It was a situational thing. That was why even at the outermost edges of the forest you should still pay attention to your surroundings.
Pike consented to Avery's words and the group carried on for another 2 hours without incident. Because this was a well-travelled road anyway, there weren't as many qi beasts that popped up in its vicinity, nevertheless, the group had seen numerous different qi beasts. There were bronze nosed stags, fallow deer, yellow tip falcons and many more. They even saw some of the red skinned boars far in the distance, between the trees.
Most of the qi beasts Tom saw only attacked when challenged or when you got to close to them. Originally, it would have been fine to hunt and kill any one of these since Tom didn't have any particular purpose in the forest other than killing qi beasts for a while. He was just meant to stay here for a month or more to gain experience. However, Rowan did have a purpose in being there, so, Tom and company decided not to hunt after any of the beasts they saw and instead proceed to Rowan's objective. After all, Rowan's objective was to hunt a blue devil beetle, which would be the same as killing two birds with one stone. It didn't matter what qi beast Tom killed and this way Rowan would get the material for the new armour she wanted.
The place that Tom and company were heading to, was a place called Insect Gorge. It was where they would be able to find a blue devil beetle to hunt. It wasn't along the main road that they were travelling along but luckily there was another minor path that branched off from the main road that would take them very close to it. It was also lucky that it was just a 25 mile journey and that if they were quick they would be able to go there and then exit the forest before nightfall.
It was while they were travelling along, shortly after they had turned onto the branching off path, that they heard a sound in the distance.