Those who weren’t cultivators were once again forgotten. Anton knew that from a military perspective they really didn’t matter, but that was more than just a little bit lacking. His efforts on Ceretos to allow everyone to cultivate to some extent raised people’s value in others’ minds and gave them a chance to compete to some extent. No solution was perfect, but at least everyone had a chance- and cultivating while involved with their work meant those who didn’t have free time could at least manage something.
Right now on Kuchion he was likely the only one considering those below a certain cultivation level, despite being a step ahead of everyone else. The good news was that the enemy likely felt the same. The Twin Soul Sect wouldn’t think to try to take a settlement hostage because they would assume he didn’t value it. And as long as he could keep them from thinking otherwise, he just had to be careful with what sorts of barriers he messed up. If a settlement began any significant distance under the surface they would have time to repair formations before much atmosphere was lost, if he had to do something like that. He just needed to keep that in mind and everything would… well, at least not get worse.
Now that he’d studied in the local library and learned details that weren’t available elsewhere, he was able to contribute to the larger plan with more than just fighting. He also had some ideas where he might find groups that could work alongside them, if they still survived. While the Twin Soul Sect could manage some individuals infiltrating most sects, if they or anyone willing to ally with them were fully in control there were certain things they couldn’t hide. Abuses of power that the common people would be aware of. Conversely, those who always treated them well would certainly not go along with the Twin Soul Sect.
Seeing so many tunnels was making them all blend together in Anton’s head, yet at the same time he was finally beginning to better distinguish them. Some had smooth walls, or even constructed surfaces, while others were still rough. In general, at least the floors were even. People still had to walk on that, and not everything could be moved around on foot or in a storage bag. People still needed carts, wagons, or anything like it, pulled by animals or powered by energy. Rutera’s ‘cars’ used different principles to generate motion but were quite widespread.
The easiest to recognize tunnels simply had markings indicating what they were, and who owned them. Any sect that wasn’t secret didn’t want people just traipsing onto their land, and this ‘Earthshaker Sect’ was no different. Anton approached from the only visible entrance. Meanwhile, others were stationed around every secret exit Anton had found. They went out to approximately a dozen kilometers, and he’d carefully checked twice that but found nothing connecting. So either there weren’t connections, they were hidden by formations he couldn’t sense, or the tunnels were hundreds of kilometers to finally get there. Any issues could be solved by Anton being efficient with his time so nobody was able to easily flee.
He would have liked to start with gathering allies, but this Earthshaker Sect dominated the region and dealing with them would provide more confidence to the rest. He had gotten in contact with some of the other groups, but only to instruct them to pay attention to what happened.
As Anton approached the entrance, he wondered if they knew he was coming. Or at least that someone would be coming for them. Unless they matched the current Order of One Hundred Stars in terms of Life Transformation cultivators or severely miscalculated the numbers that the reclaiming forces had brought along, they would have to work with someone else. And while Anton was sure that the outside records weren’t entirely accurate, twenty-something Life Transformation cultivators couldn’t turn into the fifty or one hundred they would need to make a good showing. And this is where their tunnels would become a problem. Because while the tight confines could stop an approaching army, one individual of sufficient power would only have to deal with a small number of those present at any time.
Anton was confident, but not careless. He made certain he wasn’t passing any entrapment formations that would slow him in case he needed to retreat. He kept his defenses strong as he approached, and most importantly he wouldn’t be getting too close. He just needed to be close enough to make a proper announcement.
That announcement started with shattering the outside barriers and the fortified doors behind them. It was the sort of thing that needed a coordinated attack from multiple Life Transformation cultivators, a large enough number to be spotted well in advance… but Anton was alone and moved a bit faster than they might have expected.
As everything fell apart, Anton took a deep breath. Then he projected his voice with enough force to cause the tunnels to tremble dangerously. “Earthshaker Sect. If you surrender now you will be given a fair chance to explain why you are working with those who would sacrifice your entire system for the sake of a personal benefits for a few. Some of you might survive that way. Otherwise… you can just die. Oh, and you can signal your surrender by dropping to your knees and holding your hands behind your heads. You have… three seconds to make your choice.”
Anton seriously doubted that anyone in the presence of others would immediately surrender. They’d be seen as a traitor and all that. But he could make a good showing with the group of guards just behind the door that were already attempting to kill him.
“That counts you guys too,” Anton said as he kicked someone waist deep into a wall. Two seconds.”
Three Life Transformation cultivators worked together, sending their energy into the corridor all around him. The ceiling dropped out- no, it was flung towards him, filling the corridor. The section of ceiling filled the corridor over a dozen meters in length in any direction, but only after the rear section was closed off. That gave Anton nowhere to go, in theory.
In truth, he didn’t have to go anywhere. Even with the additional force from several Life Transformation cultivators the ceiling simply couldn’t crush him. But it would use up more energy than he wanted to on a stunt, and would also slow him down for a few moments as he dug his way out. So he moved the one direction he still could, the sword-bow from the Million Sword Vault entering his hands. He held it horizontally, touching the necks of two of the guards, a man and a woman.
“One,” Anton’s voice rang out. He’d been a bit generous with the timing, but then again he had to inform this group that they didn’t have to die. And one of them accepted it- the woman. She dropped the heavy hammer she was carrying as her arms made their way up behind her head. Meanwhile, the man attempted to knock Anton’s weapon up away from his throat and strike into Anton’s ribcage.
Anton let his bow be tilted upward, but he stepped inwards, catching the man’s wrists and stopping his swing. With his other hand, the bladed bow stabbed into the man’s chest. The third guard that wasn’t currently stuck headfirst into a wall was turning to run, but unfortunately for him that wasn’t one of the acceptable options. A quick shot with the bow took him out. Anton looked at the woman who was still in the middle of dropping to the ground… then stepped past her. He would be keeping his senses on her, of course. If she chose to try to attack him from behind, that would be her problem.
Wide blades of energy came from Anton’s bow, and while he could do the same with any bow due to his practice, he simply wanted to be more efficient in these tightly packed areas. Even where it opened up into larger rooms nobody was spread too far out.
“Just a reminder. You’re out of time,” Anton called down the corridor. Then he continued his assault, beginning with those brandishing weapons to charge towards him. He didn’t like what he was doing at all, but there was sufficient evidence that this group worked with the Twin Soul Sect, both witnesses and remnants of battles. Those from Weos weren’t keen on forgiving them either.
In a few moments, the guard stuck in the wall managed to wriggle her way out. Anton turned to look towards her for only a brief moment. Fortunately, cultivators could rely on good memories and their instincts to kick in during combat. She also had an example, dropping into the surrender position like the other. Of course, it wasn’t only women who were surrendering- that just happened to be the split of the guards immediately at their entrance. Ultimately Anton thought he found more men making the right choice, but he wasn’t sure if that was because of a disparity in numbers or if he just seemed untrustworthy.
Anton wasn’t strict about the exact details either. Anyone who wasn’t running or fighting was ignored for the moment. He had to deal with additional formations going up and doors slammed in his way, many of which set him back a handful of shots. Which wasn’t very long, but enough for desperate cultivators to run towards various exits. Not that they’d do better there.
It wasn’t long before everything was over. Anton was glad neither of the two behind him had tried anything stupid, because it sure wouldn’t have taken him long to deal with them. “I just want to remind everyone I can tell where you are, in case you didn’t already understand that. So if you could slowly and orderly make your way out the front to be taken in, you’ll get your chance. I’d suggest thinking long and hard about which of your leaders to blame for this, and I promise to at least give you a fair chance.” In a sect of any reasonable size, at least some people would have by default been forced to go along with things even if they didn’t want to. Anyone else… well, the level of forgiveness would be up to the others. But those who were at least semi-innocent would have him fighting for them. “Also I thought I was quite clear with the surrender posture. Someone else might not have been as nice.” An arrow burrowed into the wall right next to the face of someone cowering in a corner. “That counts you too.”
The Earthshaker sect was unfortunate that they couldn’t be maximally effective fighting inside their own base. The guards had reacted with necessary decisiveness collapsing the corridor around Anton, but despite that being one of their main fighting tactics the others simply hadn’t been willing to do much of that. It would have prevented Anton from reaching some of them- though once more, there were others waiting outside to catch them regardless.
The next question was what to do with their treasury and their captives. The latter was actually quite easily- they would be questioned, but they would go free. As for the former…
“Are you sure you don’t want any of the spoils?” Oluchi asked. “By contribution, you’d be entitled to much of it.”
“I would not feel comfortable doing so. I am already feeling as if I were robbing another world.”
“You haven’t taken rewards from defeated sects before?” Oluchi frowned.
“I have. But this is more of a local problem that we’re concerned might bleed over to us if not resolved. It wouldn’t be right. However…” Anton was good enough at reading people to realize that it was better to give in to some extent. “If it would make you feel better, I will accept the same share as any other Life Transformation cultivator.”
“You’ll have to accept one of a leader, like myself,” Oluchi said.
Anton nodded. If that would make people more comfortable, he would do it. And it wasn’t as if he couldn’t do something positive with what he gained. He didn’t need cultivation resources for himself- few were terribly effective for him at this point- but maybe he could provide some basics to get this world moving in a direction he liked. The right direction. Anton was self aware enough to know that some people would not agree with his methods as being necessarily ‘right’, but he wouldn’t act as he did if he didn’t believe it. And if they wanted to just believe building a world up to be prosperous was roundabout selfishness, they could do so.