Information gained from the Earthshaker Sect left Anton wondering how difficult it would be to destroy a planet… or a significant portion thereof. More reasonably, he was wondering if he could shoot through kilometers of earth and stone and still take out cultivators. Neither of those would actually achieve the results he desired, not in time at least.
Anton was actually quite glad that common folk had been ignored this time. Sure, it wasn’t because of anything good… but the Twin Soul Sect needed decent cultivators for whatever they were doing. He hated the fact that they were so ready to set up some sort of massive sacrificial ritual, and though he didn’t have the details it had to be something like that. Otherwise, it was a lot of work to capture so many people rather than killing them.
He tried to take a deep breath, but he was outside of the tunnels so only thin air found its way into his lungs. So he kicked apart a small hill to make himself feel better. It didn’t, but thinking that it might was something.
This explained why there hadn’t been an organized response to their arrival, though. Everyone important was probably involved with that, whatever it was. At least they had some idea of location, but they really needed the incoming reinforcements. More than what they’d already gotten.
Anton really wished Everheart was around. In a general sense he didn’t trust the guy, but he really wanted someone strong and competent that would be willing to almost suicidally rush into danger with him. Not actually suicidally, of course. Anton knew if he didn’t survive he also wouldn’t succeed with doing what he wanted… though if he were able to trade his life to deal with Kuchion’s problems? He probably would. There was a lot he could do with his life if it continued, but not as much as so many others could accomplish.
But things didn’t work like that. Even if someone came up to him with an offer for the Twin Soul Sect to all commit suicide with him, he wouldn’t believe it. Real solutions required fighting, and if possible living to fight again.
Oluchi was approaching. Anton wondered if he should let her, but decided there was really no point in avoiding it. One would imagine that a centuries old cultivator might be beyond emotions, but in truth they were just better at hiding it. And while Anton would properly deal with his thoughts eventually, it wasn’t instantaneous.
“One would imagine, watching you, that you were concerned for the lives of your own people,” Oluchi said. “Unless… you think this will somehow spread to your system?”
“I hadn’t been thinking about that,” Anton admitted. “But now I am.” That meant he had to be even more careful, not because he needed to live but because he couldn’t properly judge if trying extreme measures was correct until things had progressed further.
“What do you need?” Oluchi asked.
“The rest of our damned army,” Anton said. “I know people were worried about defenses, and logistics suck but… Ugh.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Oluchi shook her head. “What do you actually need. Like, additional ranged attackers, blockers, assassins, formation masters…”
“Formation masters and… blockers I guess? Anyone who can limit enemy mobility and slightly drag out the rate at which enemies pour onto us.”
“Will that matter?” Oluchi questioned. “You’ll still tire.”
“If we can drag a battle on a few minutes longer, the amount of energy I’ll have recovered will greatly increase.”
“Is it really so fast?” she asked.
“That improved more than my maximum attacking power or anything like that, yes,” Anton explained. “But if I ever did run out of energy, I’d be as defenseless as anyone else.”
“Sounds like you would do well with hit-and-run tactics,” Oluchi replied. “I can’t imagine anyone would catch you unless you overdid it. Don’t worry about settling a battle. Just do what you can, and leave.”
“I’m worried that would cause them to accelerate their plans,” Anton frowned.
“If they could safely do it, they would have days ago when we first attacked. Or weeks ago when this whole thing began. Perhaps you might precipitate some action on their part… or perhaps your attack will delay them as they turtle up… or chase after you. How long would it take you to travel around the planet?”
“Not long,” Anton admitted. Getting up to extremely high speeds in thinner atmosphere was simple. “Except for the barrier.”
“Then you might start with that. Consult with our formation experts on where to hit.”
“I’m a bit concerned about your ships,” Anton said. “I can’t really outrun those.”
“I believe you are overestimating them. Not all of them are so capable, and the speeds that threaten someone like you aren’t possible in atmosphere. Besides, if you have to break into a fighting retreat and take out a ship or two on the way, that’s also a victory for us. So… we’ll set up assault plans for a few locations in case you draw away key forces. We’ll be ready to move in whenever.”
“That’s… risky,” Anton said.
“It’s war,” she pointed out. “We’re not conscripts. We care about this too. Don’t think that all solutions involve you alone.”
He didn’t but… Anton had to admit he’d encountered a pitfall any powerful cultivator did. Except instead of not caring about the lives of his allies, he’d perhaps cared too much and ignored their own power. “…Yes. I’ll speak to the formation masters. If we can manage to deal with the planetary barrier to some extent, I’ll feel much more comfortable moving as I please. And then we can coordinate further from there.”
After speaking to the formation experts they had, Anton discovered it was actually quite easy to majorly disrupt the planetary barrier. All he had to do was carve out a ring around the planet, and either half would be barely functional. Of course, they didn’t say it like that. Instead, they talked about theoretically accomplishing such a thing would provide the best results, then they began suggesting more long-term options for clearing things out.
But after confirming with them the effects it would have, Anton took off. Flying was much more energy intensive, only useful for long distances where he could go outside the atmosphere and really build up speed. Any techniques he had would function just as well as he ran along the ground, so it wasn’t faster until the point he would be running into conflict with the barrier. The proximity around their base was under their control, but that was only a small portion.
So Anton ran, keeping himself at the most comfortable speed, well below the sound barrier. Pushing faster and faster would simply tire him out, and he should be able to circumnavigate the planet within a day if all went well. Which was why he had allowed three days for this particular excursion.
Arrows flew from his location, not en masse but precision and with concentrated power. He was aiming for formations and relays. If energy couldn’t jump from point to point or coordinate with neighboring regions, the barriers could not hold stable. He didn’t even need to break everything, just enough of what he passed. He no doubt missed some, concealed by the natural terrain or other formations… but it was enough.
He mostly ignored the enemy cultivators. Few were able to stage a counterattack of any sort, so only those who stubbornly attempted to defend something he wanted to destroy were worth expending energy on. Nobody could keep up with him, but they did coordinate to head him off. When they gathered together, even if they couldn’t attack him, a large enough group of cultivators was able to hold together a barrier he couldn’t penetrate. So… he wouldn’t. Instead, when he sensed something like that he would make a sharp turn in another direction, zig zagging his way across Kuchion’s barren surface.
At the end of the first day, he was beginning to feel his limits. Even if he could recover his energy continuously, it still wore down on his body. His energy channeled through him, from his dantians out through his meridians… and no amount of tempering could make up for the fact that his body was old. Not that he’d let that stop him before. He’d been out hunting in a blizzard when he was a hundred years old, now that he was a cultivator he wasn’t going to let a little bit of fatigue hold him back. And… he happened to receive a message.
“Keep going.” That was all it said, but it gave Anton a second wind. Had Oluchi somehow sensed his mental state? Unlikely. Her abilities were nothing like that, and they had no connection that should allow for that over any distance.
But as Anton was currently sheltered by some mountains around him, he could take a few moments to respond. “Of course. Why say that?”
“You’re an excellent distraction, even if we can’t tell for sure if you’re having any success out there.”
A fair point. With some people busy with whatever rituals they were planning, there really weren’t that many people that could defend these all important nodes for their formations. And though Anton was no longer near the rest of his allies, he’d drawn many people away from the region they controlled. And… soon enough, he would be pulling people in the other direction. He mentioned that, then continued onward.
He did have a few encounters with enemy ships, but staying low to the ground even those that could briefly keep up with him could only harass him from above, their handful to several dozen active attackers trying to predict his movements. Bursts of energy to dodge attacks left him more fatigued, but inside of the atmosphere the ring-ships couldn’t even do as much of their most desirable feature. Without the space being bent around them, piercing through important structures was easy.
It seemed the enemy recognized that, because it had been hours since he encountered any ships. Unless they were hanging out well above the atmosphere above, they weren’t gathering together for some sort of surprise either. That was Anton’s biggest advantage. The enemy could only guess where he would go, and if they got it right he could change his mind before he was even close.
As he reached the end of his circumnavigation, Anton began to sense significantly increased numbers of enemies. They were doing their best to conceal themselves, but stealthy groups were only as hidden as their least stealthy member. Natural energy always leaked out from people holding it in, and formations to hide it always left traces. They could even be more obvious from a distinct lack of energy, if they were set up wrong.
In front of Anton, a great half circle of cultivators stretched out across hundreds of kilometers. It wasn’t densely packed, of course. That would take more than five thousand cultivators even if they had a hundred or more meters on each side of them. But it was still a good number, with dozens ready to head Anton off at any particular point. They might not be able to match him in speed, but if they could get close there would be a few moments of vulnerability.
No doubt there were more closing in from behind, moving to complete the encirclement. Upon taking the effort, Anton did notice them- further back, outside of where he had bothered sensing. Though to be fair, he kept track of a hundred kilometer arc behind himself so it wasn’t as if he had been careless.
Then, above, a whole fleet of ships began gathering. They really had it out for him, huh? How unfortunate. There was nowhere for him to run.
If he was an idiot, anyway. Kuchion was choc full of tunnels. He could just go down. And if his thoughts stopped there, he probably would have fallen into the actual trap. No doubt a sufficient number of them were trapped.
But he didn’t need to do that. All he needed to do was dig down. Even if he were generous with their speeds the closest cultivators wouldn’t reach him for fifteen minutes. Anton didn’t have anything remotely resembling a burrowing technique, but he did have a shovel. By the time he was a single body lengths deep it would have seemed like he shouldn’t be able to move his arms, but all he had to do was shift around a few tons of dirt with every motion. No problem.
He wasn’t leaving a tunnel behind him, so it wouldn’t be easy to follow him. Anton had no doubt that some of the locals had burrowing techniques that would be able to surpass his speed- and when they caught up to him, he would deal with them and take it from them.
Anton stopped for a moment. Not because he felt something was wrong, exactly. Except… that this situation probably shouldn’t feel good. But it did. No wonder Everheart was the way he was. At least, he’d figured out part of it.