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Lucian stood, in the dark hours of the early morning, at the edge of a grassy field in the western territory, looking out towards a village in the distance. Beside him he was accompanied by several elites of the clan and although he couldn’t see them in the darkness, he knew that there were yet more dotted around the surrounding area, hidden and waiting.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Absolutely” replied Jeffrey with certainty.

“This is it. Not only was the woman I questioned quite forthcoming after a while but I also found more evidence in their residence at Acorn that pointed towards it as well”

“And the whole village is a fake?” questioned Lucian.

“Yes. I have no idea how long it’s been like that, but at some point, the bandits cleared everyone out of the village and have been using it as a hidden base ever since. No one ever realised because of how out of the way it is”

[Tsk tsk] thought Lucian.

[To think that they were able to get away with something this brazen. Our eyes have been too confined these past few decades. Isolationism may have helped us build our strength but it has left us blind to the goings on around us. It certainly doesn’t help that other matters have drawn our focus away too. I’ll have to send out reliable people to get a better handle on things. This is not the time to have hidden threats in our own backyard]

“Not even the larger border towns? Surely they would notice something was up when it came time to collect the tax?” said the 8th elder incredulously.

It wasn’t exactly farfetched for the Cardinal clan to be unaware of the situation here as it was outside the Cardinal clan’s zone of control and it truly was just a small, out of the way village, not falling on any of the major roadways in the area, but still, it would have to be a mind bogglingly large oversight for the town the village payed tax to, to not realise that there was something amiss here.

“Well, you know what the border towns are like. The governors there don’t exactly govern. So long as they get the tax on time they probably wouldn’t ever send anyone out here to check on things. That or they knew and just didn’t care” explained Jeffrey.

“Their complacency or ignorance isn’t important right now. Even if they were in collusion, it can be addressed at another time. Right now, the only thing that matters is the village. Jeffrey, tell me, do you know what kind of forces they have there?” said Lucian.

“Apparently this is one of their major bases in the western territory so it has a qi condensation warrior in it, though at what level I have no idea. It’s also meant to house a few hundred body strengthening cultivators and a couple dozen qi expansionists” Jeffrey replied.

“Hmm, I see” said Lucian, pondering over the situation with mixed feelings.

[It’s a pity. I’d have liked a clearer picture of their forces beforehand but news of what happened in Acorn will quickly spread and we can’t risk them bolting. If we don’t strike while the iron’s hot, we may miss our greatest chance yet]

As someone who liked to plan and prepare long in advance whenever he made a move, the current situation caused Lucian to feel a bit ambivalent. He was happy that his efforts had finally payed off and that the clan had uncovered their greatest lead yet on the bandit organization operating in the North, however, the time constraints with which he had to move and the lack of clarity on the situation made him unhappy.

Despite this, right from the get go, he was aware that should the plan to use Tom as bait pay off it would likely require fast action on the part of the clan. It was why instead of chastising Jeffrey for leading forces of the Cardinal clan to raid the bandit residence in Acorn in broad daylight, he actually agreed with the move. He knew that from the very moment Jeffrey had saved Tom from a group of the bandits within the Tainted Forest, the timer had already started.

Moving from the assassins in the forest to the bandit cell in Acorn to the rest of the hideouts in the western territory, time was of the essence. Should they be to slow to act at any of these stages, it’d be like letting the goose go when it’s already in your grasp. If this happened, the hard work and patience put in by Jeffrey would have gone to waste and ended in another dead end for the clan. This couldn’t be allowed to happen.

Jeffrey had to act as he did, raiding the bandit cell in Acorn, because the people he killed would undoubtedly be expected back. If they had never returned after going off to assassinate a member of the Cardinal clan, the rest of the members of their cell would be alerted and react to cover their tracks and avoid suspicion, very possibly leaving their hideout in Acorn and destroying any evidence that would connect to their larger network in the process.

Likewise, this was why, when Lucian received news of what was happening from a messenger Jeffrey had sent over from Acorn, he immediately went to work gathering the elites of the clan, the governor’s office and the town guard, forming a taskforce to travel out with him to the west.

It was also why, after assembling all the personnel he believed necessary for this particular mission, he had even authorised the use of the clan’s swift horses in order to get everyone over to the west as quickly as possible, without them having to expend their own qi in the process.

Just like how Jeffrey had to act fast so that the bandits present in Acorn wouldn’t become aware of the situation and flee, Lucian had to do the same thing. He needed to be able to act fast enough so that the bandits in the rest of the western hideouts wouldn’t hear of what had happened in Acorn and start to escape, fading into the shadows and hiding away.

If the bandits were able to do this, not only would they be able to save a larger part of their organization and prevent information leaking, but, they would also then have the opportunity to return later on and set up new hideouts.

This sort of thing had happened in the Cardinal clan’s territory and throughout the rest of the North plenty of times already, causing many people no end of bother. A prime example of that being when the clan upped its efforts and started an extensive search after the Tom incident several months ago yet was unable to turn up anything substantial. This was something that Lucian and the other elders of the clan absolutely didn’t want to happen.

Of course, even with Lucian’s fast actions and speed in travelling to Acorn to meet up with Jeffrey, it was still a good five hours after Jeffrey had conducted his raid in the town that Lucian had arrived, by which point it was already dark and the town gates were closed.

Lucian then had to spend some time discussing things with Jeffrey outside the town gates, learning all that he had done and found out before he could make his next move. After all, if he didn’t do this, Lucian and his men would just be a bunch of idiots running around the western territory with no clear goal in mind.

Indeed, from his talk with Jeffrey, Lucian had learned of several hideouts that were operating in the western region, something which both pleased him and caused him to frown. After all, it was just recently that Lucian had finally understood the true scale of this particular bandit organization and knew that these few hideouts in the western territory would be but a fraction of their operation and power.

Anyway, learning of these several hideouts, their size, their distances from Acorn and their approximate importance to the bandit organization, Lucian split up his taskforce into several smaller groups, taking the bulk of the force himself as he was planning the assault the largest of the bandit hideouts that Jeffrey had learned of.

Unfortunately, adding on the time it took to do all this, as well as actually travelling out to the various bandit hideouts in the area, Lucian knew that the news of what had happened in Acorn may very well have already reached their ears of several of the closer western hideouts, this village included.

This was a cause of concern for Lucian, not because he was particularly worried about the bandits being able to prepare a proper defence against him and his men, but because he was worried that they might be able to get away or destroy any evidence of their dealings.

Like pulling on a loose thread, he wanted to be able to unravel as much of the bandit organization from this operation as possible.

As for the bandits being prepared for their arrival and putting up a defence, he wasn’t particularly concerned at that at all. Although he would certainly have preferred to get a clearer picture of their forces in this village and the other western hideouts that were going to be hit tonight, especially since he had finally begun to understand just how strong they were, their having a permanently placed qi condensation warrior in a regional base being a testament to that, he had the utmost confidence in his forces and own personal strength to deal with the situation, an opinion shared not just by him.

“Well that shouldn’t be too difficult” said the 8th elder in response to Jeffrey’s words.

“The body strengthening cultivators are nothing more than fodder for our forces and we’ve brought plenty of mid-peak level qi expansionists along to deal with theirs. As for the qi condensation warrior, well, we’ve got you for that. I highly doubt they’d have someone who could match up to you. If they did then this is a much bigger problem than we initially thought”

“Yes, that would indeed be a big problem, but highly unlikely” said Lucian.

“I suppose a bigger concern would be if they have more than one qi condensation warrior there, but then again, so do we” said the 8th elder.

If the bandits had more than one qi condensation warrior present, so long as one of them could hold down Lucian for a little bit, the other might be able to escape or inflict heavy casualties on the rest of their forces. Thankfully though, this operation they were leading wasn’t a half assed one. Although the most powerful members of the Cardinal clan weren’t present in Hill city at the time, Hill city was the powerhouse of the North West and held many qi condensation warriors for its size. Because of this, Lucian was still able to get several qi condensation warriors on short notice, without compromising the city’s safety or working operation. As such, besides himself, there were also two other qi condensation warriors in the force preparing to attack the village and a further four leading the groups that would be assaulting the other hideouts they had discovered.

At this moment, while the three of them were discussing these things, two people, a man and a woman, quickly made their way over to them. Lucian immediately recognised them as two of the most senior figures within the city guard, qi condensation warriors of the 4th and 2nd level respectively.

“Max Powers, Tula Max” he said, giving them a nod of recognition.

“Is the encirclement complete?”

“Yes sir” replied Tula.

“Good. Did you make sure to leave an opening?” he asked.

“Yes, as you ordered”

“Excellent” said Lucian with a smile.

“We’ll let a few of them slip through our lines and have the shadow team follow them. That way they’ll be able to lead us to more of their hideouts”

“It’ll probably only work this once, but with it, we should be able to completely uproot them in the west. Perhaps, before they wizen up to what’s going on and take measures against it, we’ll even be able to find clues to their bases elsewhere”

“Aye. It’s about time these bandits learn that their time’s running out” said Max, a man who was devoutly loyal to Hill City and had a strong sense of duty and responsibility.

“All right, if everyone’s in position, it’s time we make our move” said Lucian after looking over everyone and checking they were all set.

With that, he drew his sword and took to the skies, the pulsing red light on the soles of his feet visible to those beneath him as he flew forward in the air towards the bandit village.

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A note from jmj1011995

I'll be honest, i struggled with the prose and wording of this one. I also wasn't sure if i should actually write the attack on the village or just mention it in a later chapter. I feel like some things are better left unseen. Also, most importantly, was the joke with the names too corny?


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jmj1011995

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