Tom, Adam and the others, all made their way through the west gate of the town and exited Acorn. Their aim, of course, like all the other cultivators travelling along this same path, was to enter into the Tainted Forest.
Much like the previous time Tom had journeyed out, everyone in the group was riding a horse and they also had a horse drawn wagon along with them. This time, like the previous hunt Tom had been on, the aim was to both train Tom and also secure some qi beast bodies for the clan.
Actually, Adam especially, was anticipating this particular hunt and wanted to outdo the previous performance of Tom and Rowan. He was happy when Tom had finally become a cultivator and had wanted to journey out with him some time, though was a bit annoyed that Rowan took that opportunity first. Now that he was here instead of Rowan, together with Tom, he wanted to hunt something more impressive than she had.
Though he felt that way, he also knew that he couldn't take Tom anywhere too dangerous. After all, even if he wanted the experience to be more exciting and to outdo Rowan, Tom was still only at the 6th level of body strengthening. Adam would certainly be able to protect him from more dangerous qi beasts, but, that didn't mean Tom would be able to bring them down. There was no point in dragging Tom somewhere that he couldn't do anything. That would defeat the purpose of this trip.
"So are we going to Insect Gorge again?" Tom asked Adam.
"No, there's not much point if you just go to the same place over and over again. I was thinking we'd go about the same distance in and just go off road a bit. That way, there are still qi beasts you can handle, but, there'll also more powerful qi beasts, ones that you'd need to work with the others to bring down as a group" said Adam.
With those words, Tom's group trotted forward on their horses, going at a faster pace than the first time he had entered the forest, and entered the forest, sharing a bit of friendly chatter along the way.
Unbeknownst to Tom and company, in the west side of Acorn, a group of 11 people, led by a woman with auburn hair, were gathered and about to exit the town. All these people were in the realm of qi expansion and were about to leave and enter the Tainted Forest too, but, unlike other cultivators who went in to hunt qi beasts, they were going in to hunt people, more specifically, a man by the name of Tom Cardinal.
"It turns out they actually have two mid-level qi expansionists. I suppose it's a good thing so many of us gathered" said one the weakest of the group, a man who was still only in the early levels of qi expansion.
"Don't be ridiculous" Rosaline scolded him scornfully.
"I could do this by myself. I don't even know why I decided to bring you lot along"
"No, he makes a good point. If only one of us went, it isn't unreasonable that at least one of them would be able to escape. Heck, if their two strongest worked together and with a bit of good luck, even the person we came to kill might be able to get away" said Dug, much to the displeasure of Rosaline.
"Are you saying I can't kill two measly 4th level qi expansionists and a couple of body strengthening runts by myself" Rosaline said hatefully to Dug.
She was at the 7th level of qi expansion, the strongest one among them. As far as she was concerned, it would pose her no trouble whatsoever to kill Tom and those he was travelling with. Honestly, she considered this task beneath her. The only reason she was going personally and bringing along others to boot was because Dug had said that this was important to the higher ups and because she had become angered when he suggested they get Duncan to do it.
She felt insulted by Dug's words just now. A possibility of failure? Of even Tom Cardinal getting away? He was essentially disregarding her and insinuating that if she went alone, she wouldn't get the job done.
This infuriated her. She was seething in her mind just thinking about it but contained her rage. They were still only at the west gate of the town and it wouldn't do to do anything that would draw attention to themselves.
In fact, several others present were also angered by Dug and their junior's words. Although Rosaline was the strongest person present, at the 7th level of qi expansion, and the only person in their group that was in the later levels of qi expansion, most of the others in the group were at various levels in the mid-levels of qi expansion.
Each of these people all had their own pride. Many of them believed that they too would be able to complete this assignment by themselves, with ease at that. They weren't pleased by the insinuation that their ability was so unsubstantial, nor did they believe that their opponents were much to be worried about. They couldn't help but look at Dug and their junior member with scorn and condescension.
"I'm saying that unexpected things always happen and we don't want any mistakes. This is important to the big boss and he doesn't want it done sloppily. Tom Cardinal must die today" said Dug.
[I don't know why you're being so anal about it anyway. You obviously agree with me, otherwise you wouldn't be here yourself, nor would there be so many others with us] thought Dug.
"Humph!" scoffed Rosaline haughtily.
"Let's just get on with it. This Tom Cardinal has been making me wait so long that I actually want to kill him now" she said, her eyes tightening into a fierce look full of murderous intent.
Finished speaking, Rosaline, Dug and the others in their group left the town and started travelling along the path into the Tainted Forest. Unlike Tom and his group though, they were not on horseback.
They were not, however, concerned about not being able to keep up with Tom's group. They were cultivators in the realm of qi expansion and they each knew movement arts that could increase their speed and allow them to travel with ease.
It would be a bit harder for the weaker members of the group, such as Dug, who were in the early levels of qi expansion and still had a fairly small store of qi, to continuously use their movement arts; however, since Tom's group were travelling with a wagon, it was obvious that their pace wouldn't be particularly high. Certainly not anything they would be unable to keep up with. Heck, it would be easy to keep up just by running, using their bodies which were at the peak of body strengthening.
Rosaline, Dug and company followed behind Tom and his group for almost 2 hours along the main road leading to the lost city. They were maintaining a sizeable distance from them, staying out of site and only sending one person forward to periodically keep proper track of them.
Although they didn't want to waste so much of their own time just following behind them for so long, Dug had insisted that they do this. He said that there were still far too many people, both weak and strong, who were travelling along the path for them to make their move. He was adamant that they had to wait until Tom's group was further in, saying that they shouldn't be seen and shouldn't leave the possibility of anything unexpected happening and ruining things.
If they were too close to other people when they made their move, Tom Cardinal or one of his group could escape and possibly get help from someone even stronger than themselves. Alternatively, if someone they couldn't deal with saw what happened, that person could potentially sell that information on to the Cardinal clan. These were both scenarios they didn't want happening. Therefore, although they were loath to do it, for the time being, they quietly and obediently followed behind Tom Cardinal's group.
Although Rosaline's group, with the exception of Dug, all felt dislike for their current situation, having to follow Tom's group at an arm's length, they didn't have to feel this for much longer.
Contrary to the last time Tom had entered the forest, he was going at a relatively faster pace. With Marcus at the forefront dealing with any and all qi beasts that chose to disturb them on their journey through the forest, they had no reason to slow down or stop and were making quick progress.
There was just the continuous clip clop of hooves on the ground, as the horses trotted forward and occasionally broke into a canter, and the spinning of the wagon's wooden wheels, interspaced by the occasional small bang as it went over uneven parts of the path and had its wheels lifted into the air, only to come crashing down again.
Within 2 hours, even with the wagon, Tom's group had already managed to cover over 20 miles. Reaching this point the amount of people on the path had already clearly thinned out and the groups of people travelling along it were much more sparsely spaced out. Having come this far, Adam finally felt it was time to slow their pace and get down to business.
"Alright, I think this is far enough. If we go off the path here, we should start to see some more powerful qi beasts"
"There should be some around about the same strength as you" he said, looking at Tom.
"For the most part, I'll just hang back, Marcus too. As we go deeper and further away from the road though, the qi beasts will start getting stronger and more dangerous. There might even be something we can take down together" he said with a smile on his face.
"OK then, let's turn off here. Luckily the wagon isn't too wide so we can still take it through the trees" said Tom, agreeing with Adam's proposition.
Behind them, out of site, one of the bandits returned back to his group.
"They're finally turning off" he reported.
"Good. We should let them get a little farther from the road before we strike" said Dug.
Rosaline begrudgingly agreed with Dug's words, though she didn't voice that agreement outwardly. After all, as they were travelling, they had just passed a couple of Flowing Water sect disciples who were in the late levels of qi expansion, proving that there were still powerful people around here.
Rosaline ended up following behind Tom's group for another 30 minutes before deciding to make her move. She had chosen to wait this long because, as they were traveling off the beaten path with a wagon in tow, Tom's group was moving at a much slower pace than before and had only travelled about 2 miles. Nevertheless, she was sick of waiting and wanted to kill the bastard.
At this moment, the person she had sent forward to check on the position of Tom's group returned.
"And?" she said impatiently.
"I've done a quick skirt of the area. There's no one else around, we're good to go" said the man.
"Finally" said Rosaline, the anger and annoyance in her voice clear.
With that, Rosaline and company began to move forward at a faster pace. They were about to engage in combat Tom Cardinal's group and conduct a slaughter, something they were all eager for after spending the last 2 and a half hours docilely trailing them. The best thing about it was that Tom Cardinal's group was completely unaware.
They couldn't hide the excitement on their faces as they moved forward. Many of them considered nothing more thrilling than having someone they attacked understand the complete and utter despair they were in.
However, unbeknownst to Rosaline, Dug and the rest of the bandits, there was another man in the vicinity who also had a smile on his face.
"So the fish has finally taken the bait eh" he muttered under his breath, before he too started to make his move.
As they started to move forward, Dug suddenly raised his hand and loudly said "Stop" before coming to a stop himself.
The others stopped their forward movement as well and looked at him, rather annoyed.
"What it is it now, not far enough away for you yet?" Rosaline said scathingly.
"I didn't realise you were this much of a coward" she said mockingly.
"It's not that. I thought I heard something" Dug replied professionally, ignoring the tone of her voice and looks he was getting from the others.
"Oh, you heard something did you? Maybe it was your own shadow" said Rosaline, laughing at him. The others too began to laugh. They were all looking down on him.
"No, I really can hear something. It sounds like footsteps. I think there's someone else around here" said Dug seriously.
"I just checked around us" said one of the other men present.
"There's no one else here" he said with disdain.
"I'm not going to wait any longer because of your cowardice, DUG" said Rosaline.
"It's not cowardice Rosaline" replied Dug, inwardly looking down at her.
"It's called cau–"
Before he finished his sentence however, a blur suddenly descended from the trees above and fell behind him.
Rosaline hadn't seen what had just fallen from above. What she did see however, was the end of a blade sticking into the ground between Dug's legs and a faint red line appear vertically down his face.
"-tion" he managed to finish as he fell forward, his body separating into two equal halves, blood and guts spilling out of him and onto the ground.