The approach back to Kuchion was met with no resistance from enemy ships. Perhaps they figured they had driven off this group, or perhaps they simply didn’t want to risk further losses. Either way, the planetary shield was still functioning at their intended destination. Breaking part of it would help destabilize it, but they’d only damaged a small section out of many.
The mountain they intended to claim had defensive emplacements atop it, but no others within any reasonable distance. These defenses were designed to fling bolts of natural energy, the emplacements powered by five cultivators together.
Anton’s job was not to break through the barrier, but instead more defensive. Not every ship they had was as well defended as the one carrying Anton and Oluchi. Some simply didn’t have the ability to respond quickly enough, while others were limited by their range.
As bolts of natural energy shot in a scattered pattern towards their ships, Anton responded to each of them, arrows piercing into them and destabilizing them, causing them to explode away from their small fleet. It didn’t even take that much power, since the individuals working together only had a basic level of synergy now. Enough to not disrupt each other too much, but it was clear none of them were specialized with these weapons. Anton presumed it was likely they had simply been assigned to the duty.
When Oluchi and the others broke through the barrier, Anton returned fire upon the defenders. They had smaller barriers around them, but such things could only hold up to so much… especially since defensive fortifications like this were spotted around the world and could only be so expensive before it was a waste. He started with those who appeared to have the most control of the weapons, piercing into their hearts… but as high level cultivators, something like that on its own wasn’t enough to kill them. He didn’t detonate his energy inside them, but instead held back to the point that they simply had to withdraw. Those who didn’t found the follow-up attacks would finish them off. It was likely all of the individuals below would end up dying anyway, but interrogating some about details of the situation might prove fruitful.
By the time the defenders were fully certain they were outmatched and intending to flee, melee combatants from the incoming ships were there to head them off, completing the job. Meanwhile, Oluchi and the others had spent much of their energy keeping the barrier open for their entry, since destroying the formations keeping it in place would be worse for them in the end. Some were sent to secure the local pieces of the formation with the intent to reattune them, while others were tasked with uncovering the base they were looking for.
That part wasn’t terribly difficult, as Anton could feel something through the layers of rock. The only difficulty was finding a proper entrance. His senses circled the base of the mountain, pulling inward around the mountain to search every nook and cranny. He found it, but the entrance was a bit small to fit the modern ships. They would have to deal with that, if they wanted them to actually have shelter.
Hearing it directly from the mouths of those present pretty much confirmed the worst case scenario about Kuchion. The Twin Soul Sect had complete control of the area, having slowly infiltrated or allied with all of the local sects. The gradual process and conflicts involved with it hadn’t drawn undue attention, and their dominant presence meant when the announcement of the Twin Soul Sect’s presence happened they quickly took control of the situation. Most resistance had been quickly quashed, while an unknown quantity of resisting sects remained in conflict- though mostly hiding instead of fighting. At least according to the particular individuals that had just been snagged.
“What do you think?” Oluchi asked. “Should we seek out these remnants? And if we do, now or later?”
“We shouldn’t wait,” Anton said. “If we rely on reinforcements, even a few days or weeks could greatly worsen the situation here. And while we can’t take on the entire planet with just us…” Anton trailed off because he wasn’t quite sure what to say… and because he sort of could. Just not directly. Picking people off a few dozen at a time would be quite possible for him, though he supposed that was not swift enough. Then again, it would only take a few weeks of that for the local planet to run out of Life Transformation cultivators. There would have to be a remarkable number of Essence Collection cultivators gathered together to give Anton trouble even if he didn’t move from a single position. “Well, I doubt that the Twin Soul Sect will just be sitting around waiting for us to make a move. Not when they know they’ve been uncovered.”
Dealing with the Twin Soul Sect in this straightforward manner was like ripping a bandage off of a wound. Quick, but painful. Being less open about it would likely have resulted in a longer conflict and more deaths… specifically of anyone else. Anton couldn’t bring himself to care about the lives of the Twin Soul Sect, with their main goals being what they were.
“What should we do then?” Oluchi asked. “Wander down random tunnels until we find someone?” She wasn’t serious, of course, but…
“That’s not unreasonable,” Anton said. “Except I shouldn’t need to enter the tunnels. If we just drop by the entrances, I can gain quite a bit of information. Unless the paths are so long and winding that they surpass the hundred kilometer mark.”
“… It’s hard to believe that you actually developed sensory techniques like that,” Oluchi replied.
“It was only partly my own doing… and entirely necessary for Horizon Shot. Frankly, I think it’s stranger that you didn’t develop something like that.”
“It was just easier to only attack things I could see,” Oluchi shrugged. “And my spear throwing technique doesn’t exactly make smooth turns.”
Though Anton believed her when she said that, he had seen her spears turn a full one-hundred and eighty degrees instantly. But perhaps it was just that much more difficult to do anything in between.
“Well, I suppose it’s a decent plan,” Oluchi said. “Though most entrances will likely be sealed by formations.”
“If they’re weak enough I can just squeeze my way through or around. If we have to, I can just pop them open and take a quick peek.”
“That sounds like it would be followed by quite a bit of trouble, and perhaps running.”
Anton nodded, “Perhaps it would be better if you and the others kept some distance. I could avoid leading people back here easily enough. And I’ve learned more about the turning capabilities of your ships.” The extremely quick turning he’d first seen was actually more of a product of the gravity of the planet instead of a feature of the ship, though the spatial distortion leaned into it. If any local ships came they couldn’t quite do the same thing, since they would be in at least a little bit of atmosphere. And outside it, Anton could still change directions as he pleased. He’d even practiced some of that hooking technique Everheart had used… and their ship-catching net. At lower speeds, he could actually manage that… though he’d yet to use it in active combat. Perhaps it would be destroyed or muddle up the ring ships. Or maybe it would do nothing unless he pulled himself along with it, in which case he was effectively consigning himself to melee combat.
“Well, you can certainly handle a few ships on your own,” Oluchi admitted. “How about three groups? Some of us following you at a distance in case you need reinforcements, one securing here, and another off scouting on their own?”
“Reasonable enough,” Anton said. “We’ll ask if anyone else has other plans as well.”
Nothing the others said significantly changed the larger plan. Those who preferred waiting for reinforcements were in the minority, and they could remain behind to secure the base. If it was necessary Oluchi could have pulled some sort of rank, even if military matters were less straightforward for cultivators. And of course, Anton could always attempt to influence things with his cultivation, but he preferred to do so with his words. He didn’t want people to go along with his ideas because he was strong, but because he was right.
As Anton crossed the landscape full of scraggly trees and thin, cold atmosphere he found that there were significantly more tunnel entrances than expected. He’d heard there were complex networks of tunnels, but experiencing it for himself was different.
His senses expanded to fill nearby areas, consolidating different branches into one cohesive picture- but that could only go so far. He had to snake his energy down different corridors beyond a certain distance, and it was harder to match up with other locations. Anton did find people, though. Civilians, even- those with low or no cultivation, basically ignored as part of the larger conflict. He also found many cultivators. Even if it was more secure, nobody wanted to live tens or more kilometers underground through winding paths, so he found many sealed entrances and a few with smaller groups uninvolved in the conflict, trying to keep their heads down. Though ultimately Anton thought that counted as leaning towards the Twin Soul Sect, if they didn’t willingly support them he could let them off the hook.
The untapped resource of ‘normal’ people drew Anton closer, and it wasn’t long before Anton found himself in an underground library. What were they going to do, refuse a powerful cultivator entrance? Their formations barely maintained the barrier keeping their denser internal atmosphere in place, they certainly couldn’t resist Anton. And while he was being polite, nobody wanted to anger him. It probably helped that he wasn’t asking for anything unreasonable, either.
“Where’s your history section?” Anton asked of the nearby librarian. “And lists of local sects and the like. Anything like that.”
“Over here, great senior,” the younger man directed him. “Anything in particular you are looking for?”
Anton began pulling things off of shelves, flipping open books or rapidly rolling scrolls. “Not really. I just plan to read everything.”
“I see. Then… should I bring them to the reading tables for you?”
“It’s easier like this,” Anton said, finishing the first row. “Otherwise you’d just have to keep flinging them over at me.” Parsing simple information like names, dates, and numbers was a thousand times easier than learning the complexities of combat techniques. Ten Thousand Scrolls had made even the latter simple, so this was trivial. “Know anything about the Twin Soul Sect?”
“… Only what I have heard recently,” the librarian said cautiously. Anton believed him, but could understand the hesitancy. He could easily be working for either side.
The information available wasn’t as thorough- and likely not as accurate- as something compiled by a sect or a large clan would be, but it gave him a better understanding of what the locals perceived- and the locations of various things. Maps were rather complex when dealing with tunnel systems, but they had pretty decent methods of tracking those. There was plenty of information that hadn’t been available on Weos, so it was worth Anton’s time.
As for what he was going to do next… his usual meddling with things was the answer. “Do you have issues with low levels of natural energy here?” Anton asked.
The librarian shrugged. “It’s no worse than anywhere else. Tolerable, except for those who strive to improve in cultivation. Some are fortunate enough to be picked up by the sects.”
Anton didn’t have a thorough understanding of the local ecosystem, but he could pick up on things easily. The sparse plants on the surface couldn’t really be farmed, and with little atmosphere it would require people of sufficient cultivation to work them even if they could find something that would survive. But inside the tunnels, everything was consistent. “If you want a word of advice, I would suggest that people tend to some of the moss growing down below.” He produced one of his farming guides. “This doesn’t have information on those particular things, but it will explain how to grow the local natural energy. It’s a pain to put in so much, but the eventual returns will be worth it.” Anton looked at the librarian. “If you don’t intend to do it yourself, find someone who will. Or any cultivator vaguely interested. You can lure them in with some new cultivation techniques.”
“But we don’t have-”
Anton dumped a small pile of books and scrolls on a nearby table. They were mostly things he had written himself that he didn’t mind being widely known. Useful for growing, but not dangerous. Well, not more dangerous than anything cultivation related.