Tom stood, contemplating things like his own strength and cultivation level; however, he was pulled back out of his thoughts by the situation around him. He and his group had just killed the blue devil beetle before them and now they needed to decide what to do with it.
Tom grabbed the hilt of his sword that could be seen sticking out of the blue devil beetle mouth and pulled. As he pulled out his sword, a dark, blue-green blood trickled down from its mouth and started pooling on the ground. His sword too was covered in the stuff and he had to wipe it clean before putting it back in its sheath.
Tom could hear chatter spring up beside him as the guards started talking about the battle they had just had. A few of them gave their congratulations to Tom and praised him for his ingenuity, first for using the slime of the giant velvet worm to stopper the blue devil beetle's wings and then again for his idea to simply grab the beetle's legs and wrestle it, instead of trying to cut through its hard exoskeleton.
As they were all just standing around the corpse of the qi beasts they had just killed, Harrison spoke up and raised a rather important issue.
"Ok, so how are we going to do this?" he asked. He had looked at both the size of beetle and the space left on the wagon, identifying a major issue.
"Rowan you said you wanted the shell for making armour, right. Do you just want to cut off its front wings or do you want to take its whole body?"
"I'd like to take the whole thing. The front wings are the one of the thickest and hardest parts of it, but, the rest is also good for making armour and blue devil beetles aren't that common, especially not ones this big" said Rowan, explaining her position on the issue.
Out of everything they had hunted that day, nothing could equal the blue devil beetle in value. The only thing that came close was the giant velvet worm and that was only because of its qi core, which would aid people in their cultivation and could help people learn how to make their qi sticky.
"Alright then, but, if we do that we'll either have to carry it ourselves or take some stuff off the wagon. We're already pushing the weight limit that the horses can pull along and if we add this too, they won't be able to move it" said Harrison.
"Considering two horses died and another two ran off, half of us'll be walking anyway. We might as well just drag it behind us" chimed in Avery.
"Good point. It'll probably be slow going from now on anyway; dragging it behind us won't make much difference. Pity about the horses though" said Rowan, though as she said this, her own horse came running back from wherever it had been scared off to.
"Hmm, we better get a move on as quickly as we can. I don't see us making it to town before the gates close but we should at least get there. After all, I doubt any of us would relish the opportunity to sleep in the forest at night" said Harrison, reminding them that they were working against the clock.
Since it was the summer, the days were longer, but, it was fast approaching 6 O'clock and now that some of them had to walk and carry the corpse of the blue devil beetle to boot, it would undoubtedly take at least 5 hours to make their way back. This meant that it would undoubtedly be dark before they made it out of the forest.
"Ok then, I guess we better get going" said Rowan as she mounted her horse.
Those that still had horses began to mount them, while Avery, Ray and Bartholomew, each grabbed a part of the blue devil beetle's corpse and raised it above their heads. Even with their level of strength the beetle was heavy and they wouldn't be able to carry it all the way. That's why as they set off, Harrison and the others, with the exception of Tom, offered to switch positions with them and take turns carrying it. Actually, Rowan didn't have to offer either; after all, the guards all worked for the Cardinal clan. Nevertheless, since she was the one who brought them all the way out here for it in the first place, she felt an obligation to bear some of the load.
Coincidentally, just a short while after they had set off, while they were still walking along the top of the gorge, back towards the path they had come from, they encountered the two Iron Fist sect disciples they had seen practicing in the gorge earlier, as they were climbing out of it. Since these disciples had only been there to practice their martial skills and not actually to hunt anything, they hadn't brought up the bodies of any qi beasts. After all, aside from a rare few, the qi beasts found in insect gorge weren't that valuable to them.
The two Iron Fist sect disciples, after many bouts down in insect gorge, were finally calling it a day and were preparing to make their way back to their resting place. Neither of them had any horses and since they had just tired themselves out in the gorge, they weren't planning to travel at a fast pace. Not being in any particular hurry, they decided to walk back with Tom and his group, a decision that made a fair amount of sense given that they were headed in the same direction.
As they walked along, the two sect disciples occupied their time by talking with Rowan. They obviously saw that she was at the 1st level of qi expansion and also a member of the Cardinal clan due to the clan insignia she had on her clothes, which was a more complex and intricate version of the one that the guards had. This being the case, they thought they would have a lot to talk about when it came to qi techniques and martial skills.
Unfortunately for them, Rowan had only just entered her level and didn't have any personal knowledge or experience with which to talk to them about, however, this provided them with the opportunity to show off and talk up their own abilities, something they were glad to do since they were both only at the 3rd level of qi expansion and weren't considered overly strong in their sect.
As they travelled along, the group occasionally encountered a few qi beasts and the two sect disciples would jump forward to continue their practice. Each time they did so, Tom was able to see them employ the martial skills of their sect.
The older of the two sect disciples was a masculine blond haired man in his thirties. He would always employ a skill which turned his hands a dark metallic grey in colour and then run forward to engage qi beasts in close combat. It seemed that the technique made all of his punches more powerful. Tom recognized it as the first stage of both the iron body and iron fist techniques of the Iron Fist sect, each core skills of their sect, which many in the North West would recognize.
On the other hand, the younger of the two disciples, a 25 year old man who had light brown hair, always employed a skill that turned his entire body a copper colour. Similar to his fellow disciple, this skill seemed to make his blows more powerful.
The two sect disciples, always running forward to deal with qi beasts that came across their path, helped Tom and the group to move forward more quickly. If they hadn't been there, then whenever they encountered aggressive qi beasts, Tom and the group would have had to stop in order to fight them. Not having to do this, they were able to continue on with relative ease, save the large blue devil beetle they were dragging along. Dragging now because their arms had gotten tired holding it above their heads.
Unfortunately, although the presence of the two sect disciples was making their journey back smoother, the two sect disciples were not going back to Acorn. They were in the forest in order to train their martial skills, not to hunt for money. As such, they were planning to stay in the forest overnight, as they had been doing for the past week, at the ruins of a small village.
The path that Tom's group was travelling along went through this particular village and after a bit over 2hrs of travelling with the sect disciples, they finally reached it.
"I guess we'll see you guys around" said the older disciple.
"You're not done seeing us now" said Pike as he let go the blue devil beetle and started stretching his arms.
"Fuck me, that's tiring" he exclaimed.
"Alright, I think its best if we stop here for a break" said Harrison.
"Agreed" replied Rowan. She herself had had a turn at carrying the beetle corpse but since she was stronger than Pike, she was less worn out. Nevertheless, a short rest would be good for all of them.
Looking around, Tom could see the familiar dilapidated stone buildings, missing doors, windows and roofs that he had passed by earlier on his way to the gorge. They were all only single story buildings and there were only a couple of them at that. He assumed there must have been more when it was an actual functioning village but that the homes built with wood or other such materials hadn't survived over time due to decay and collapse. Of course, there may have been other sturdier buildings that were lost over the years, due to forest reclamation, rampaging qi beasts or perhaps just people who had fought in the vicinity.
"God Damn!" came a shout from one of the buildings. It was one that the younger of the two disciples had just gone into.
This shout drew everyone's attention and they started to make their way over to it, Tom included.
Upon entering the building, Tom saw what had caused the man to shout. There were three shrivelled and dried up corpses on the ground that seemed to have a blue discolouration all over their skin.
"What the hell did this?" the younger sect disciple asked the older, who had entered at the same time as Tom and the others.
"A mimic" said Harrison sourly before the older sect disciple had a chance to speak.
"What's that?" asked the younger disciple.
"It's a unique qi beast with shapeshifting and illusionary skills. They're quite rare or at least we think they are and every so often they'll go through active periods where they start attacking humans. The last notable time was 20 years ago when one or maybe more infiltrated Acorn town and there were a string of deaths similar to this. Unfortunately their shapeshifting and illusionary skills are so good that they can copy almost any animal, even down to their voices, hence the name mimic" explained Harrison.
"Hmm, I read about them in the clan's records. There wasn't a lot of information on them. Only that their true forms are that of a bipedal creature partially humanoid in nature, they have a wrist spike with which they can suck the qi out of living beings and that they are astoundingly good climbers" said Tom.
He was little surprised when he first read about such creatures in the clan's records but ultimately it didn't shock him too much. He himself had plenty of experience with shifting abilities given that after he ascended he could make his body whichever shape he wanted.
"Yeah, I've read that too. Luckily their physical strength peaks just below that of peak level body strengthening humans and other than their illusionary and shifting skills they can't use qi in any other way" said Rowan.
"Still, even some rather powerful people died last time. There was even a qi condensation level expert found dead in his bed. They think it mimicked his wife and got him while he was asleep. If they're active again then we'll have to let people know" said Harrison.
"You're right. I think its best if we leave this place as soon as possible, it's starting to give me the creeps" said Rowan.
"Hmm, I think it's best if we leave too. This place just got a lot less safe" said the older Iron Fist sect disciple to the younger.
"We'll stick with you guys back to Acorn" he said to Rowan.
With that, they all exited the stone building and prepared to set off again. Those that were going to be carrying the blue devil beetle went over to it and those that were going to be riding horses went over and mounted them.
"Where's Ray" Harrison suddenly said.
"Ah, I'm here" said Ray as came around the corner of a building.
"I was taking a leak"
"I didn't need to know that. Just get on your horse and prepare to set off, we're going" said Harrison seriously.
"Ok" said Ray as he mounted his horse.