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AC 3000, 8th month, 10th day, 3 days after the Cardinal assault on the bandit residence in Acorn, inside a partially trashed meeting room in the bandit hideout located approximately 30 miles north of Hill City in the area known as the northern hills.

“So” said Francis, a greyish-blond haired man in his late fifties, the boss of the bandit organisation and also its most powerful member.

“What are our losses?”

Ahem, well” began a green robed old man, clearing out his throat.

“As you well know, three days ago, the Cardinals attacked our site in Acorn. Naturally, the forces there have already been eliminated, though some of the personnel weren’t present at the time and were thus able to escape unscathed” he said, stopping as Francis waved his hand to cut him off.

“The Acorn site is of little consequence. Its two strongest members were only at the 7th level of qi expansion and it only had a smattering of mid and low level expansionists. The only person of true note from there was Duncan, but even then, a dead genius is no genius at all”

“Ah, actually, Duncan is in the Forest at the moment, tempering himself and improving his arts” said the green robed old man.

“Oh. I see. Good. Then we can at least salvage the most valuable asset we had there. Make sure to recall him. I want to bring him into the fold”

“Into the core of our group?” asked the green robed old man.

“Yes” replied the boss.

“Is that really wise? Someone of such common birth and no prior affiliation with us” said a silver haired man, voicing his discontent.

“It would not be the first time it’s happened. Besides, there’s no point wasting his talent by keeping him on the fringe of our operation, especially since he’ll probably reach qi condensation in a few years anyway. When that happens, it’ll be better if he already has a place in our core”

 “Still” began the silver haired man before being cut off.

 “Are you displeased with my decision Morgan?” questioned Francis in a raised voice, staring him down.

Morgan met Francis’ gaze for a few moments before deciding to back down.

“No. Never mind” he said.

“Good. Now back to my question” said Francis, turning his gaze back the green robed old man.

“What are our losses? And never mind about the Acorn site. As we all know already, the Cardinal’s left Hill City with their forces after it was hit. They clearly weren’t doing this to attack the same place twice”

“Yes, quite” answered the green robed old man.

“Now then, where would you like me to begin?” he asked.

“Well, since you informed me when I first arrived that our main base of operations in the area, Grenple, has gone dark, start there; then give me an overview of our total losses" said Francis.

 “Yes, of course” replied the green robed man, collecting his thoughts before speaking to the room.

“Now, considering the strength of the force that left Hill City three days, under the leadership of the Cardinal Clan’s patriarch himself no less, as well as a story which has started making the rounds in Acorn, I believe it’s safe to assume that Grenple base has suffered the same fate as Acorn, with all hands lost, not counting the few lucky survivors who may not have been there at the time. This would put our losses in personnel from Grenple at 2 Qi Condensation Warriors, over 100 Qi Expansionists and nearly 2000 Body Strengthening Cultivators” he said, causing a few of the people in the room to wince and have ugly looks on their faces. These were no small losses and although body strengthening cultivators could be easily replaced, the same could not be said for those of higher cultivation levels, especially those 2 Qi Condensation Warriors.

“Continue” commanded the boss.

“If I then take into account the reports of other locations hit, as well as places that are suspected to have been hit, I project our total losses in personnel to be at 3 Qi Condensation Warriors, around 180 Qi Expansionists and perhaps around 2800 Body Strengthening Cultivators” continued the green robed man.

“I see” said the boss, not showing any emotion.

“The condensation warriors?”

“They would be the two in Grenple, Old man Harry and our southern friend, as well as bastard axe Axel from a different site, confirmed dead by Fast Feet Fenrick over there who decided to flee from battle” said the old man, indicating towards a man in orange garments.

“It was an unwinnable battle. We were assaulted by the 1st elder of the Aurelius clan as well as another early level Qi Condensation warrior and numerous high level Expansionist warriors. I barely got away myself and if Axel had any sense he would have fled too” said Fenrick, angered by the accusatory words. His words however, did not stop the others in the room from looking down on him with mocking, scorn and displeasure.

“Tell me, was it just because of your lack of skill that you fled or could it be that you were too scared to meet the enemy in battle?” said a grey haired woman mockingly.

“No, he made the correct decision. There’s no point in offering yourselves to slaughter when there’s no need and no chance of victory. All that does is weaken our position” said Francis, understanding and agreeing with Fenrick’s actions, though not happy at the outcome of the events that had transpired.

“But if you fought with them directly, can I take it to mean your identity was exposed?” he said in a harsher tone.

“Yes, they recognised me” admitted Fenrick.

“Damn fool” chastised Francis.

“Does no one hide their identity when out on the job anymore?” he asked angrily.

“Well” began another in an unconcerned voice before he too experienced being cut off by Francis.

“Oh shut up. Judging from how all of you are reacting to this it’s clear you don’t take it seriously” grumbled Francis.

“Don’t worry Francis” said the grey haired woman from before.

“Some of us still do follow protocol”

“Yes” agreed the green robed old man.

“Though it would seem some of us have become complacent” he said casting his gaze towards Fenrick.

“Yes. It’s just good that the person in question isn’t significant enough to tie back to the rest of us, at least not by his identity alone. I don’t think I have to say what the repercussions would be if one of our core members was caught and questioned, and if his willingness to run away is any indication, how can we expect him not to run his mouth off as well?” said the grey haired woman.

“Then rest assured Petunia, I have no intention of getting caught” replied Fenrick to the grey haired woman curtly.

“Though it’ll probably be impossible for me to go through the Cardinal’s clans land now” he added afterwards, speaking more to himself than anyone else and letting out an exasperated sigh at the end.

“Undoubtedly” spoke the green robed man.

“And perhaps throughout much of the North-West as well. The Cardinals have men in many places and if you’re seen they’ll send news back to their clan. Barring that, they’ll no doubt inform the other major clans as well and may even put up your capture or death as a mission in the Iron Fist Sect”

“Yes, which makes your being seen problematic for the rest of us. From now on you’re to remain out of sight. Don’t go the cities, don’t go the towns, don’t even go to the villages. Heck, don’t even travel. Just stay here until I tell you otherwise” ordered Francis sternly.

“Yes… very well” replied a subdued Fenrick, displeased but with no other alternative than to accept Francis’ order.

“Good. Now then, we’ve digressed. I was asking about our losses. You’ve covered personnel, what about our more physical losses? What resources has this foray of the Cardinal’s into the western territory cost us?” asked Francis towards the green robed man again.

Clearing his throat, the green robed old man spoke once more to sum up the losses they’d incurred.

Ahem, well unfortunately, our physical losses have been fairly high as well; most of them stemming from Grenple and the site presided over by Axel and Fenrick. The problem being that not only did Grenple have a fairly large stockpile as our western operating base but both it and Fenrick’s site were both being used to train prospective cultivators”

“Adding everything up, I would estimate our total losses at perhaps about one ton of qi stone scraps, 400 low quality qi stones, 2 mid quality qi stones, a small scale qi furnace, over 1000 steel weapons, a couple hundred steel armours, several skysteel blades and a few miscellaneous defensive treasures and gems. I should also say that that’s not including iron weapons and armour but since the markets are flooded with cheap pig iron I didn’t think they were of any consequence” concluded the green robed old man.

“I see” said Francis in a monotone voice.

“So we’ve lost about a 5th of our total forces and that many resources. That is… unfortunate” he said, his face darkening as he let the numbers sink in. An unfortunate side effect of this however was that hearing his words and seeing his face, no one else dared to speak and the room plunged into silence.

Taking a few moments to think things over, Francis sat in silence while collecting his thoughts before finally speaking again and breaking the tension that seemed to be permeating the air of the room.

“Our losses in the west” he began, “are not small”

“And the deaths of 3, Qi Condensation warriors, are most regrettable, but, we cannot simply dwell on this alone. This meeting was planned before the events that have just transpired in the west. There are other matters to be discussed. I want to hear reports from all of you on what gains we’ve made and if any other problems have arisen, if there are any concerns that should be addressed now lest they fester into something else”

“Sebastian” said Francis to the green robed old man.

“You can start, but first, I want to know why this place is such a mess” he said, his eyes glancing over several holes and slashes on the walls as well as a few broken bits of wood next to the wall that used to be a chair.

“And I don’t just mean this room either; other parts of the base have also suffered damage, even if it is only cosmetic in nature” said Francis, clearly unimpressed with the state of things.

“Ah, that” replied Sebastian.

“That was caused by Samuel here” he said, gesturing to a man sitting beside him who’d had his hands clenched into fists and an angry look on his face from the beginning.

“I’m afraid his son Dug was the messenger we used for the site in Acorn and is now… well… dead. He didn’t react well when he found out” explained Sebastian.

“Is that so” muttered Francis, pondering for a moment before ordering Sebastian to start.

“Thank you. In fact, there is a matter I consider quite pressing that I’d like to discuss. It’s about the safety of this base. I’m not sure we can keep it hidden much longer” said Sebastian.

“You seem to have managed so far” remarked Francis.

“Yes, but I’m afraid it’s not been without its difficulties” said Sebastian.

“The Cardinal clan’s 7th elder has been combing the northern hills with a vengeance ever since we killed his two sons. Even now there are hundreds of men from the Cardinal clan, the City Guard and even independent cultivators making their way through the hills looking for us and all our hideouts”

“Now the independent cultivators aren’t really a problem because even if they do manage to find us we can usually convince them with the village outside that we’re with a Hunters Guild and even if they don’t believe us we can just kill them no problem. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy with the Cardinal’s forces. They’re more organised and they know where their men are meant to be searching. We’ve killed a few of them before that have chanced upon us but each time we do, the Cardinal’s 7th elder is able to close in on us a bit more. Even if don’t just hide the bodies but dump them someplace else, it still doesn’t help. The only thing we can do is run the illusory Hills and Valleys formation whenever they get close”

“Unfortunately though, without you here we can’t run it properly without using a significant amount of resources”

“Your cousin Bill” he said, indicating to the weakest person in the room, a mid-level qi expansionist who bore some resemblance to the boss but was younger and had brown hair instead of Francis’ greying dirty blond colour, “has helped mitigate this somewhat, however, his cultivation level is just too low, which limits his effectiveness. I was hopeful your son might be of greater help in the matter since he has a higher cultivation, however, be it his level of attainment in the formation or his temperament, he proved wholly unsuited for the task. Besides, although he was told to stay out of Hill City he’s decided to spend none of his time here. Instead he’s been off in the Fischer clan’s territory”

“Sebastian, you’re going off topic” said Francis.

“Ah, yes, sorry. Where was I again? Ah yes, the formation. As I was saying, we can’t run it properly without you. It’s such that without either you, Bill or a painful amount of resources we can’t even give it any substance, it remaining wholly illusory in nature. During one such time a guardsman from the Cardinal clan actually fell through it. Needless to say, we killed him and his group but the end result was that the Cardinal’s 7th elder started to focus his attention away from some of our other hideouts he was closing in on and onto us instead” explained Sebastian.

“Yes, I suppose that is problematic” said Francis contemplatively.

“Very” chimed in Morgan, who, like Sebastian and Samuel, was also stationed at this particular hideout and was frequently involved in operating its formation.

“Over the past 5 months we’ve used a considerable amount of resources to keep the formation running and the more the 7th elder narrows his search on us, the more often we have to run it”

“Perhaps if you were to reveal more of the hidden technique behind its operation we won’t have to worry about anymore… difficulties” said Morgan slyly, words which caused Francis’ face to darken once more.

“Morgan, you’re overstepping your bounds again. Do you really think you have the right to act this way?” questioned Petunia assertively.

“Yes Morgan, you’re overstepping your bounds. But you’ll be glad to know that there’s a solution to this little problem. Now that Fenrick has nowhere else to be, you’ll have another Qi Condensation Cultivator to assist in handling the formation, helping to give it more… substance” said Francis threateningly.

“Well then” he said, his threatening tone and demeanour completely disappearing.

“Now that that’s been cleared up, does anyone else have any concerns they would like to address?”

“Yes. I would like to raise an issue” spoke a scar-faced man, “and it’s much along the same line as has already been discussed”

“Sebastian and Morgan have spoken about the difficulties this base has keeping hidden from the search parties roaming through the hills, but, they pose more of a problem than just the possibility of them discovering our base. What I mean is that it’s been getting harder and harder to get here without being seen. And if it’s harder for us, it must be considerably more difficult for our qi expansionist and body strengthening cultivators. I question just how much longer we can practically continue to use this base?” he said, voicing his thoughts.

“I find I have to agree with him on that point” said Bill.

“Our messengers are still able slip through the Cardinal’s patrols but it’s becoming increasingly harder for larger groups to move to and fro. As a result we can no longer transport food here and instead have to rely on our stockpiles and what little we’re able to grow in the valley. If things continue to go the way they are then after a while we’ll exhaust not just the cultivating resources we have stored here but also our food, while at the same time being unable to carry out our normal activities. Given these conditions, resolving the formation issue is only a stop gap measure and not a permanent solution, not unless the Cardinal’s decide to stop searching the hills for us, which considering they know we’re here are unlikely to do”

[It’s just one thing after another isn’t it] thought Francis, getting a bit of a headache from all this.

“Then what do you suggest, we just abandon the base and hold all of our meetings in the city?” questioned Morgan.

“It’s an idea” said the scar-faced man.

“It’s not like the Cardinal’s know we’re the ones running this operation, nor would they be able to keep us under constant surveillance even if they suspected we were. They can’t exactly see behind closed doors”

“No” said Francis, flat out rejecting the scar-faced man’s idea.

“I won’t risk all of us meeting in the city, nor will I abandon this base, even if our lower levelled cultivators can no longer launch offensive operations from it. As for food, there’s easily a year’s worth of dried food here and if need be I can bring more in myself. As for whether or not we assign a new meeting place however, I will take it into consideration”

“Now. Anyone else?” Francis asked.

“YES!” shouted Samuel, slamming his fist on the table.

“What are you going to do about the Cardinal’s!? They’ve uprooted our western bases and they’ve killed my son, do you plan to do nothing like last time?” he said, highly aggravated.

“Samuel!” shouted Petunia, angry at his outburst.

“You dare to shout like that”

“Yes! Yes I do! My son’s dead and I want revenge, but we’ve been through this before 5 months ago and he had us do nothing” said Samuel.

“Regardless” said a frosty toned Sebastian beside him, “that is no way to speak to our leader. However, I do agree that this is a very serious matter and that our course of action must be discussed”

“There is no need for any particular change” answered Francis in response to Samuel.

“Our approach last time was working, and, although what has happened this time is unfortunate, our other measures have helped limit the damage to the western territory whilst keeping our core safe”

“Indeed” agreed Sebastian.

“Which would suggest that we carry on the way we have been”

“Yes, but our losses this time are not the same as last time. Given that, would you still have us do nothing? At least let me go out and kill that bloody 7th elder of theirs” argued Samuel.

Sigh, we have discussed this before. You are not to kill the Cardinal clan’s 7th elder. If one of their elders is killed they’ll recall their top elders, who are away at the moment. If that happens, this base and the core of our operation will be at a much greater risk of being discovered and destroyed. Need I remind you that of the perhaps 5 people in the entirety of the North-West that can best me in single combat, 2 of them belong to the Cardinal Clan?” said Francis.

“Is that it then? We do nothing? Will we ever do anything? Will we ever strike back at the Cardinal’s and claim this land for ourselves?” asked Samuel.

“Once again, we have discussed this before” said Francis, losing a bit of patience.

“The 1st and 2nd elders of their clan are the only ones amongst them that pose any threat to me and both of them are in their 90’s. So long as we wait 10 years, both of them will be dead, at which time, the North-West will be in the palm of my hand” he explained.

“Yes, but we might not have 10 years, might me? You yourself have seen to that. For so long you have told us that we must not expose ourselves too soon, that we must keep ourselves hidden, only performing select attacks on trade convoys or travellers, never directly attacking any of the great clans so as not to unduly draw their attention, yet it was your own son who did exactly that, attacking the Cardinal’s directly and thus attracting their attention in way we’d never done before. Then, just so your son could go frolicking in the city without chance of discovery, you ordered our forces to look out for the one who could expose him, exposing ourselves in the process and leading to our current losses in the West, my son included, and the funny thing is, with the way things have progressed, I have no doubt that this, Tom Cardinal, is still alive. Yet, after all this, you still sit there and say we should do nothing when it is your own wishy-washy attitude of neither fully committing to secrecy, nor to open and aggressive conflict, that has led to our current predicament, us getting weaker while the Cardinal’s remain untouched” said Samuel in anger.

Listening to this rant, there were some in the room, such as Petunia, who glared at Samuel hatefully or with displeasure, however, there were also some in the room who were moved by his words, falling into contemplation and shifting their gazes between him and their leader. Samuel himself found that his mind swayed as the anger he felt towards the Cardinal’s over the death of his son actually started to shift towards Francis, blaming him and his leadership as the cause.

No one had much time to think too deeply about these things however because Francis also became angry at this moment, losing his patience and slamming his fist on the table, startling everyone and pulling them out of their thoughts.

“Enough” snapped Francis.

“I said there was no particular need for change, not that there would be none at all. Our losses won’t go unanswered. We will increase our attacks on trade and you can begin attacking the forces of the Cardinal Clan directly, both their guards and their blood members, however, my previous point still stands, none of their elders are to be killed and no one, No One, is to do anything rash” he said, with particular emphasis while looking at Samuel.

“Quite right” agreed Sebastian.

“Yes, however, Samuel did raise some important points. For instance, you may not have those 10 years you desire and not just because of the effort the Cardinals are putting in to finding us. Our southern friends are not like to wait that long and we’ll be dragged in when they make their move, regardless of how much time has passed. Furthermore, they have started to show a bit of discontent on our side, voicing their displeasure at what they perceive to be a lack of action on our part. We may have to face the possibility that they’ll expose us just to force us into action” said Bill.

A few of the people in the room scoffed at these words of Bill’s, Francis included, and a few mutterings of ‘southerners’ could be heard.

“They can be as displeased as they like, I don’t care” said Francis.

“And as for purposefully exposing us, they know better than to do that. After all it goes against both of our shared interests” he explained.

“Perhaps, but we should still be prepared to take action should they decide to reconsider the nature of our relationship. After all, they want this land too and may not always consider us necessary for holding influence here” said Bill.

Hah” scoffed Petunia.

“You worry too much. If they were so sure of themselves, they never would have approached us in the first place. They need us and they know it” she said.

“Yes, and they know there would be consequences to pay were they to betray us” added Francis.

“No argument there” spoke the scar-faced man.

“But before we continue, I’d like to address another point brought up by Samuel, namely, Tom Cardinal and what to do about him. Assuming he’s still alive, which at this point it seems rather obvious that he is, what with our western bases falling because the site manager of Acorn was apprehended whilst in pursuit of him, are we still going to pursue the matter of killing him?”

“No” said Francis with a sour look on his face.

“Not only is it clear that he’s being watched by someone high ranked, meaning we’d probably have to send someone in the realm of Qi Condensation to deal with him but he’s no longer our highest priority. Our current objective is to hit back at the Cardinal’s, which will require us being more careful than normal. Pursuing the matter of Tom Cardinal would only distract our forces and leave us open to exposure. Therefore, I hereby rescind the order for our forces to seek out and kill him. Make sure those orders are passed along” he said, though through grated teeth at the last part.

[That ungrateful son of mine can just keep his distance a while longer]

“You know, one of us could just go and kill him” suggested Morgan, re-joining the conversation.

“For the site manager of Acorn to have been subdued, they clearly didn’t send someone weak to watch over the boy, but I hardly think they’d have sent someone of our calibre”

[So you’re suggesting that one of us, venerated Qi Condensation Warriors, must be forced to stoop to the level of assassinating some body strengthening runt? Have you lost all your pride?]

“No” rejected Francis.

“In this time when we’re about to step up our actions against the Cardinals and the other major clans, I’ll have to rely on all of you to make sure our operations are conducted with speed and surgical precision, leaving no room for mishaps and no loose ends”

“Very well, it was just a suggestion” said Morgan.

“A somewhat pointless one given that you’re not free to do it anyway” chided Petunia.

Morgan chuckled in response to this.

“Well my apologies if my work is more vital than yours, taking up more of my time, but this doesn’t preclude others from taking action now, does it?” he replied, giving tit for tat.

“Stop with the bickering” said an unimpressed Francis, cutting through their nonsense.

“We’ve talked about the most pressing issues there are to talk about, now we can get back to the original purpose of our meeting. Who will speak next?” he asked.

“I shall” said Petunia, steeping up to the plate.

“Good, and I hope what you have to say will be better than what we’ve discussed so far” said Francis.

“Don’t worry, I can assure you, there have been no unforeseen or unfortunate circumstances on my end” she said arrogantly as she started her report.

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