Listening to the conversation going on on the next table over, Tom couldn’t help but smile slightly, while the likes of Avery, Pike and Lance chuckled softly to themselves and Harrison raised his eyebrows in amusement.

Tom had to admit, no matter how foolish humans could be, they were far better at telling stories than his own race and for someone who had lived as long as he had, the ability to tell a good story was something he greatly appreciated, a sentiment that seemed to be shared by his chuckling companions, as well as people from several other tables, however, not everyone was laughing. There were some, Adam included, who were thinking seriously about the events that the man, Jake, was describing.

To Adam, Jake’s seemingly foolish and extraordinary ramblings brought about a clarity of knowledge and understanding that he had been seeking all day and although he assumed that Jake was in fact exaggerating to a certain degree, the story told had several pieces of key information in it that helped unmuddy the waters and fill in the blanks of his inquiries earlier in the day.

Jake’s fantastical description of the fight taking place already let him know that the fight wasn’t one between demons and dragons and such the like, but, as  Jake’s friend Sully and just about everyone else had surmised, one between cultivators. Adam however, unlike many others, was in the unique position of knowing from scene described and his knowledge of the actions of the clan, that this wasn’t a mere fight between a couple of qi expansionist cultivators, but was in fact a far more serious conflict involving several qi condensation realm warriors, the patriarch of the Cardinal clan included.

[Grenple village. So that’s the place the bandits were hiding, the place that Jeffrey and Lucian went to attack, and from the sounds of it, their forces there weren’t meagre either. From what was described, they must have had at least two qi condensation realm warriors present.

I guess the reports I heard of Lucian uprooting them in the west weren’t exaggerated at all. After all, with warriors of that calibre stationed there, Grenple village must have been a major stronghold for them. It was probably a hub for their activity in the west. With any luck, Lucian really will be able to uproot them.

Plus, thankfully, with Grenple being their main base of operations in the area, the other hideouts being targeted shouldn’t prove too difficult for our forces. After all, even though the bandit forces are far greater than we previously imagined, the two qi condensation warriors a testament to that, their strength is still limited.

If their strength was such that Grenple village still wasn’t their biggest stronghold in the west or they had comparable forces in each of their western hideouts, then their strength would be at a level where they could openly contend with us. Thinking logically, this just can’t be the case. After all, after the Tom incident, when we started pursuing them with a purpose and fervour we hadn’t shown before, they retreated away and hid in their shells, avoiding us at all cost. If I’m misjudging the situation and the strength of their forces in the west, underestimating them, then there should have been no reason for the actions they have taken in the past.

In fact, it’s much more likely that the Tom incident, where they seemed to be openly challenging us, was actually the result of some internal divisions within their organization, between those who have thus far kept a low profile, operating carefully so as not to get caught and those who no longer believe they have a need to hold back on their actions. It would seem however that the latter of those two factions have exposed them far more than they ever could have anticipated and now, the genie can’t be put back in the bottle.

Well, whatever the case is inside their organization, one thing is for sure, after today, their overall strength and the scale of their operation should both have diminished by no small amount. The clan has truly made significant progress in this matter]

Aside from Adam, who had begun deeply pondering on the things Jake had said and what it meant as part of the wider goings on of the North-West, there were a few others who also had a little bit of knowledge of what was being talked about and now took this time to start discussing it amongst themselves.

On a third table, located beside Tom’s and Jake’s, two people, Nate and Kat, were listening on intently as well, Kat with a sense of earnest interest and Nate with a sense of smug superiority.

Ha, what an idiot. Dragons, demons, how stupid. I’ll tell you now Kat, the real people responsible for that battle were the Cardinal clan, they’re the ones who attacked Grenple” said Nate, putting on an air of all knowing.

“The Cardinal clan? Are you sure?” asked Kat in confusion.

“Yeah, it was them. I know a guy who works for them, got it from him, but then again it’s easy enough to figure out” said Nate.

Huh. The Cardinal clan. They’ve been really active lately, haven’t they? First they attacked some people in the town and now they’re going around attacking villages, isn’t that really bad? I didn’t think they were like that” said Kat.

“They aren’t attacking innocent people Kat. The place they raided in town the other day was home to some criminal organization and didn’t you hear the story that was told. Clearly the village had some powerful cultivators there. Don’t you think that’s a little bit suspicious? I mean, why would some little village have people as strong as that?” explained Nate.

“Ah, I guess that does make some sense, but are you sure what you heard was right? I mean, you did just say you heard it all from someone who works for the clan. He’s hardly going to tell you if they’re doing bad things” questioned Kat.

“I… it… its common knowledge Kat” stuttered Nate, not quite sure how to respond.

“Everyone knows what’s happening with the Cardinal clan, they’re going after the bandits. It all started a couple of months ago remember, when a member of their clan was killed just a couple miles from Hill City, then they went in uproar and had thousands of troops scouring over the countryside, only they couldn’t find anything and even lost some more of their people”

“Yeah, but can we be sure that wasn’t just a ploy on their part. After all, ever since they took over from the Hill family, the king said they could only rule a certain amount of land instead of the whole North-West, yet now, they’ve expanded their forces and are even attacking people outside of their territory. Are they not just making excuses to expand their rule while ignoring the royal decree?” said Kat.

“That, what, what?” Nate said incredulously, the volume of his voice rising.

“Kat, how out of touch with reality are? You’re worse than that Jake person” said Nate heatedly, exasperated beyond belief that his companion would show such incomprehensible ineptitude and most importantly that after thinking she would be impressed with his inside information, she instead didn’t think any of it was true.

“Hey!” came a shout from Jake on the next table over, followed by guffawing laughter from Sully.

“Just leave it be” said Bert, patting him on the shoulder.

“The royal decree was set 100 years ago Kat and the Cardinal clan have never broken it. Plus, you can’t dismiss everything as unfounded gossip Kat. I mean, the 7th elder of their clan lost his two sons, literally everyone was talking about and they took a hit to their reputation because of it. Are you really going to say that that’s a ploy too? Do you really think they would let something like that happen?” said Nate.

“Well I don’t know. I was just thinking out loud Nate. The big clans do stuff like that” said Kat angrily.

“Yeah, in the South! But we’re not in the South Kat, the northern clans aren’t that conniving” argued Nate.

“Oh, so are you calling me stupid?” said Kat confrontationally.

“What? No, that’s not what I was saying, but the things you’re saying right now are stupid”

“Oh, so you are calling me stupid then”

“That’s, argh, why are you being like this Kat” said Nate to an angry Kat as their conversation started to devolve more into a domestic dispute than anything else, the people on the surrounding tables soon losing interest and beginning to talk amongst themselves again.

“Wow, that woman doesn’t seem very smart” said Jake.

“Like you’re one to talk” said Sully.

“But I’ll tell you what, the man’s right. She is worse than you. The Cardinals hunting the bandits really is common knowledge. I wonder how she could have such stupid views?”

“Probably an idiot” said Bert.

“Mind you, there are some towns and villages out there that are biased against the Cardinals and think some crazy stuff about them”

“Yeah, I’ve been to a few places of those places. It’s a bit weird actually. I’m surprised anyone can think that way since the clan has always had a good reputation” said Jake.

“I guess it all has to do with how they rose to power as the governors of Hill City” said Sully.

“Well, the whole area did used to be ruled by the Hill family and they ruled for 3000 years at that. It’s hardly surprising that there are some biased people out there” said Bert.

“Yeah, it seems like it’s mostly minor families from small towns and villages that think that way, people that supported the Hill Clan then suffered when they fell. Still though, after what they did, I can’t believe anyone could still have good feelings about them” said Jake.

“Well, like I say, 3000 years of history doesn’t go away just like that. Besides, it’s as you said, it’s the former supporters of the Hill Clan, the ones that were involved in the conflict 100 years ago that think like that. Many of them suffered foundation shaking losses and even if they no longer view the Hill family of old in a good light, they’re all resentful over what happened, remaining focused on past glory and blaming the Cardinal Clan for their downfall instead of accepting it as the natural punishment for their crimes, even ignoring that it was by royal decree that the Cardinal Clan acted the way they did and were then made the new governors of Hill City” said Bert.

“You know, you’d think they’d get over it already. None of them were alive when it happened. It was their ancestors that did the crime and it was their ancestors that were punished for it. I don’t see why they should be upset about it either; they were hardly born beggars on the street. If they care so much about how powerful or wealthy their families used to be they should just go out and earn some money”

“Yeah, amen to that. Hard work, it’s what I do every day” said Jake.

“Every day?” questioned Sully.

“It’s what I do almost every day” corrected Jake.

“But I have to say, those two said some pretty interesting stuff. So the Cardinals are behind it, and they raided some place in town yesterday as well, is that true?”

“Yeah, it caused a fair bit of commotion. The town guard even came and blocked off the street so everyone knew something serious was going down”

“That’s a surprise. The town guard rarely does anything”

“Exactly, though I suppose they have been fairly active recently, what with the mimic situation an all”

“Wait, there’s a mimic?”

“Yep” replied Bert.

“Shit. How long?”

“Bout a month”

“How many dead?”

“9, I think. It might be 10”

“Damn. I’m glad I’m not stopping for long then. I’ll be back on the road in another couple of days, guess I’ll have to be careful while I’m here. I sure as hell don’t want to be killed by one of those freaks” said Jake.

“Yes, you should be careful” said Ray quietly as he sat on Tom’s table and listened to Jake and Sully’s conversation.

“What was that?” asked Harrison, curious because Ray had been quiet all night.

“Oh, nothing. Nothing important” he said as his eyes tightened.


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