The more he made use of the World Encompassing Chains, the more Devon became aware of its flaws. However, all of those flaws were inherent to himself and his own skill rather than the technique itself. Its limited ability to pierce through barriers was something he could work on, and his inability to process all of the information coming in was another. Each of these issues might be fixed by reaching the Enrichment stage… on the other hand, perhaps he would have to overcome the flaws to advance. There wasn’t always a clear line in the world of cultivation. He wasn’t even certain that Enrichment would be the next step for him- if he could achieve a next step. His path was different from his grandfather, after all.
The last few days, he had been involved with putting together a plan of attack where they would attempt to secure a route to the Runic Complex. They didn’t know how long they might need to study whatever they had there- immediate destruction and retreat might be possible, but if it were not they would need a secure route of retreat. Alternatively, they might wish to hold the area as a foothold inside enemy territory into the future.
“There are two general methods of approach,” Taalay said, reviewing information for those present. Specifically, the cultivators from the Lower Realms Alliance, the Supreme Silver Sect, and representatives of the Flaming Shore- as well as the leadership of some lesser sects in the area. “We have wide freedom to move on land or sea, potentially endless routes. But our movements will be exposed to the view of our enemies from mountaintops and airships. If we intend to bring a proper army, our speed of approach will be limited.”
Taalay looked around at those present, making certain they were all paying attention. Different people had been involved for different stages of their plans, so most wouldn’t have heard everything yet.
“The alternative is to proceed through the mines. We will be concealed until we make contact with the enemy, but there are only a handful of routes and thus they are easily predictable.”
Nobody interrupted him with comments, instead waiting for the rest of the explanation. Most already knew their own part of the plan, but they couldn’t be certain of everything.
Taalay’s impressively long beard fluttered back and forth with his head movements. “And so, we will be attempting both. The team on the surface will be acting not as a distraction, but as a tactical misdirection while still achieving relevant goals. The Flaming Shore will be the primary agent in this regard, carving out the Wavecallers from enemy territory. We will use the threat of their sect head’s life to keep the Wavecallers themselves subdued, with the intention to have Rui and the sect itself join us when they no longer feel pressured by the Trigold forces. The ultimate intent is to secure the local waterways, while our other forces sneak towards our other target, the Runic Complex. It is uncertain whether they will fight against us, but optimally we would secure their cooperation in carving out a path back towards the territory we secured overland. Otherwise, our intent is to take over the sect in secret, especially the secure areas.”
Devon was aware of another, unmentioned, prong of attack. It was impossible to say for certain if there were any spies among them, willing or unwilling. So keeping some level of secrecy even from the upper ranks. In this particular case, they were keeping in reserve the secondary ship. It would be able to descend upon either location- in theory, at least. They hadn’t tested their ability to circumvent the barrier for obvious reasons. If the enemy learned they could do it, they could work to counteract it. In the worst case, the three Assimilation cultivators could for their way through a small portion of the barrier, but the hope was not to need them at all.
Devon, Taalay, and Cai led the forces underground, bringing along with them the best formation experts available. Their force was smaller than twenty individuals, consisting of nobody below Life Transformation. They had a longer route to take, since they didn’t want to approach the tunnels that had most recently led attacks on the Supreme Silver Sect. There was no indication of anyone lingering in the area- they would have been hunted down otherwise- but it was still more cautious to approach from a different angle.
That meant going a significant distance out of their way, over a day of travel even at their speed. Devon could feel the power flowing through the tunnels, as they still remained part of the greater planetary barrier. It was tempting to destroy them… but that was not his call to make. Besides, it would certainly give them away. If they managed to occupy the region as they intended, they could go back later to carve apart pieces of the barrier. Eventually, the modified barrier would have to collapse… right?
Or perhaps not. But even if it turned into dozens of individual barriers over spread out sects, they would be weaker without the flow of energy from a wide area. But that would be determined in the future. For the moment, they were to follow along with the formation experts who were watching for spying formations.
Devon knew how simple it was to raise an alert when there was activity in an area, as long as it was not passed through frequently. The connected portions of the mines mostly didn’t have living things moving around, and picking out things above a certain energy level was likely valuable regardless of whether it was human or not.
The silence, except for their constant footfalls, made Devon want to initiate a conversation. But he also wanted the formation experts to be able to fully pay attention to what was ahead.
Every once in a while, they stopped. Sometimes, it was nothing. Other times, they would destroy some markings, sometimes prying out materials inlaid into the walls.
“The planetary barrier is at least powerful enough that they can’t place alterations frequently,” one of them known as Evgeni commented. “Otherwise approaching secretly might be impossible.”
Another day or two passed- without sunlight, it was simply a matter of resting enough that they weren’t fatigued. While Life Transformation cultivators might be able to move with speed for a week or more, it wouldn’t do to arrive somewhere below their full potential.
Information came in. The conflicts above had started, with the Flaming Shore leading the charge across a portion of the ocean above towards their goal. A few kilometers of rock and dirt wasn’t enough to overcome the abilities of the Alliance’s communicators- it was a bigger task to cover interstellar distances. Though certain phenomenon underground might make the signal less clear, they had sufficient ability to ensure that messages got through eventually.
“Enemies up ahead,” Devon warned. It was still a significant distance- multiple kilometers, in fact- but if he could sense them, it wouldn’t be long before the same was true in reverse. His ‘normal’ sensory range wasn’t as absurd as Anton, after all. “I don’t sense any routes around them.”
Cai finally began to look excited. “This is what I’m here for, right?”
Taalay nodded. “We will approach somewhat closer, just in case there are sensing formations that can be neutralized first. Then it is your job to take out the enemies expeditiously.”
“I’ll do my best to prevent escapes as well,” Devon said. He was not as quick as Cai, but not everyone focused on training their lower body exclusively. And his energy could move quickly enough, hopefully disrupting any attempts to communicate outside as well. The current cultivators belonged to a minor sect, but their ties to the enemy factions were sufficient that there was no point in going easy on them.
There weren’t enough Anchoring cultivators on the planet to have one in every tunnel. The presence of the six from the alliance were a serious unbalancing factor- to the point that perhaps if they had known about the hidden three the Trigold Cluster would have been more cautious. Then again, they might have hidden more than a few of their own over the centuries. One or two unfamiliar figures had popped up in the current duration of the war already. There was hope to be some that would oppose them as well, but so far none had shown their faces.
Ultimately, the tunnel guards were no match for what they had to face. Devon and Cai crept forward at the front of the group, until the point where they were likely close enough to detect. Then Cai sprang forward, bouncing off of tunnel walls around corners and covering the remaining distance in an instant. The unexpected attack allowed him to bring down several of their stronger members in the first moments, after which Devon’s chains joined the battle, cutting off their retreat.
Regardless of whether they got out any communications, they would be missed soon enough. Whether that was a shift change in an hour or a day, from that point on their infiltration group had to move with greater speed. Going deeper into enemy territory, they encountered more patrolling groups rapidly over the course of the next day, but they were able to keep ahead of whatever pursuit there was.
“Stop!” Evgeni warned. “Things change significantly here. This is certainly the work of the Runic Complex.”
“Any traps?” Taalay asked.
“Nothing deadly, as far as we can tell. Nothing to collapse the tunnels or the like. But they will certainly be apprised of our approach.”
“How long would it take to dismantle the formations?”
“A few minutes. Perhaps an hour. But that’s just this section. If there are more, or they have something triggered to sense the collapse of their formations…” Evgeni shook his head.
“Then we continue forward with speed. Focus only on physical dangers. The Runic Complex might be aware of our approach, but if that is an inevitability… perhaps we can hope they have some loyalty to the lower realms. If not, we most likely would have to fight our way through their barriers regardless, given their awareness of passage through these tunnels.”
“Indeed,” Evegeni nodded. “Given the taboo of modifying the formations in the mines, they must have been preparing for many years for things to end up like this.”
They approached forward cautiously, but they managed to reach the base of the sect without incident. Though how simple it was made Devon more concerned, and he made sure to watch the tunnels behind them for any signs of an ambush.
Until a relevant figure appeared above. Someone both familiar and unfamiliar. Devon had certainly noted her before, but he’d sensed her energy as Life Transformation. Now, she was clearly in Anchoring. Had she just advanced…? No, that didn’t feel correct. Instead, he determined her true power was likely hidden previously.
She stood at the top of a tunnel filled with many barriers, some of which Devon could sense blatant danger from. She was old and wrinkled, not terribly different from Taalay in that regard. The man stepped forward. “Ash.”
She grimaced. “I haven’t heard that name for a long time. It’s not even a correct diminutive of Ashildr.”
“Better than the alternative, though,” Taalay said. “You didn’t tell me you had advanced to Anchoring.”
“Maybe if you had come to visit. We’re practically neighbors here, you know.”
“We’ve passed by over a dozen sects affiliated with forces from the upper realms,” Taalay said. “And while I wasn’t aware of that full connection, I wasn’t on good terms with them before regardless. Why didn’t you visit instead, if you cared?”
“I wasn’t in the mood to travel,” Ashildr said. “I’d rather stay in and fiddle with my formations.”
A lie. Devon was certain of it. Though perhaps it wasn’t quite correct to say it that way. She wasn’t exactly hiding anything with her tone of voice. It was a falsity, enwrapped in a truth. If Devon unpackaged it correctly, she did love formations… but it wasn’t necessarily her choice.
“What are you hiding?” Taalay asked straightforwardly.
“It won’t do you any good to know,” Ashildr said.
“I think I would rather judge that myself,” Taalay said. “Will you show us, or do we have to do things the hard way?”
“You really intend to fight? You know their power. We aren’t enough.”
Taalay shook his head. “I don’t see that as a reason to capitulate. And that is assuming we fight alone. But we have help,” he gestured to Devon and Cai.
“A handful of outsiders?” Ashildr shook her head. “It’s not enough.”
“I’d tell you to wait a short time and find out,” Taalay said. “But I don’t feel like we can afford that. What’s happening here?”
Ashildr sighed. “Fine, I’ll show you. But I warn you, destroying this won’t help, and will only alert them that something is wrong.”
“Very well,” Taalay said. Then he waited. “Do you intend to lower these barriers?”
“I can’t believe you eat Heath’s food and don’t trust me.”
“Perhaps if we had stayed in contact more. Besides, you still haven’t done it.”
“Just come. I’ll lower them a few at a time.”