With some of their opponents unable to properly fight in the pressure of the tower and a few already defeated, the tides of battle continued to sway in the favor of those from the Order- with the help of Chikere, of course. Though her help was balanced out by the fact that they probably wouldn’t have gotten into conflict with the Eternal Sword Hall. Though in that case, they might have instead had other opponents.
With Slusser divested of his halberd, Catarina was able to finish him off in a few attacks, and the last few members of the Heavenly Lion Sect were defeated.
Most people were just barely able to stand at the end of the battle. Anton was somewhat impressed with how together some of their defeated opponents were. If nothing else, their body tempering had been sufficient to keep them from collapsing entirely. Though the splotches appearing all over their skin showed they wouldn’t last forever.
“I’ll be right back!” Chikere said, walking with haste down the stairs.
“What are you doing?” Anton asked as she passed.
Her only answer was a single word. “Swords! Go ahead and start going up without me!”
Anton looked down at those lying around them. “That does bring to mind that we need to disarm the rest of them.” The value of the equipment their opponents were each likely worth almost as much as their own- or possibly more. That didn’t necessarily count the equipment from Everheart’s tomb and certainly not the Vessel of Insights, but it was easy to see why many cultivators preyed on others. “It’s not too late to just toss everyone down the stairs,” Anton commented as they returned to a more steady formation and started making sure none of the unconscious or dead figures had access to weapons. “But I suppose the conflict will escalate regardless.”
Devon nodded. “This is our best chance to pin something on them. They just tried to kill us after all. Even if it’s just our word against theirs…” he gestured to Van Hassel and Slusser, “These two are wanted criminals in Graotan and officially expelled from the Heavenly Lion Sect, yet clearly still working with them. We won’t get a better chance than that. And she,” Devon grabbed the wrist of Tonina and started dragging her up the stairs, “Is proof of reneging on legal agreements.”
“You’ve been talking to Kohar, hmm?” Anton smiled.
“It’s pretty clear it’s not effective to deal with people one at a time.”
“I agree,” Anton said. “Her working with the Flying Blood Sect might also help, though they have no official location to cause trouble with. But with them all working together…” Anton looked back down the stairs. “Perhaps we shouldn’t bring up the Eternal Sword Hall. They’re vaguely within reason, though they still broke the truce here.”
Everyone started moving up the stairs, several of them dragging a body. Zvonko’s bleeding stump was bound to potentially keep him alive. Tonina was in poor shape but still alive. Van Hassel was just barely still breathing, though Slusser was dead. They would all be dead soon enough if things happened properly, but bringing those who were still alive was the most appropriate. They might lie about what happened, but everyone who was honest would be able to confirm their deceptions. Not every cultivation technique trained Insight in the same way, but everyone had some ability to read others. Direct lies were easiest to detect. And the most important thing was what the Order thought.
Throwing bodies into magic bags was unpleasant, but having some representative samples should help their case. And while Anton seriously doubted the conflicts would be resolved in a court of law, it was the principle of the thing. Just saying they were right with swords, spears, and bows was no better than anyone else.
Chikere caught back up with the rest of them before they reached the surface. Her own cultivation was higher, so even though she wasn’t able to work as part of a formation to lessen the burden on her, she was able to store more energy and replenish it more quickly. She wasn’t exactly looking pristine as they climbed, but she still radiated a strong aura.
As they reached the surface, Anton didn’t even bother to wait for people to notice what happened and begin crowding around before he pulled out a long tube and stabbed it into the ground outside the tower. It only took a spark of his own energy to ignite it, sending a blast of energy into the air. There were various forms of communication cultivators might use, but the most widely obvious was a signal flare. The particular properties of the ones Anton and the others had would make it obvious that members of the Order were in distress. While that might attract others as well, the situation was likely to escalate quickly regardless. Catarina and Devon added their own flares to the mix. More than a few wouldn’t make anyone come faster, but it was important to indicate it wasn’t just a small incident.
Many cultivators were at their camps outside for their rest periods- with no day or night, it just ended up being a constant cycle. Most looked curiously as a few half-dead people were dragged outside. Few were brave enough to approach, though Anton saw Lowell and waved him closer. “Might be best to cut ties with the Heavenly Lion Sect. They egregiously violated the pact.”
Lowell looked down at Zvonko, shaking his head. “Stupid bastard.” He raised his eyes to Anton. “Can you…?”
“I could vouch for you, but siding with us might bring you into more danger. You’d be welcome later…”
Lowell shook his head, “If I’m going to cut ties, I’d rather do so openly. Though I’d first like to hear about this… I can guess, but I’d like to hear what you have to say.”
“Yes, there are a lot of curious people about.” Anton took a deep breath. It was important to have confidence. He was going to be telling the truth, but it was important to look like it. “Zvonko of the Heavenly Lion Sect, as well as other disciples of the same, joined forces with wanted criminals and exiles of their own sect to ambush us, disciples of the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars!” Yelling an explanation at people wasn’t going to make all the details clear, but he had to start somewhere. More people were gathering and clearly forming into different groups. Other members of the Order and their allies, people clearly trying to stay out of everything, and some of the members of the Heavenly Lion Sect and their allies. Like the tomb, though the elders weren’t currently around.
Ironically enough, without Zvonko nobody in the Heavenly Lion Sect was willing to make any accusations- they all looked around as if expecting someone else to do it. Eventually someone did- from a significant distance away. “Under what justification do you hold one of our elite disciples?”
“I already explained, but I can add more details if you want.” So Anton explained. Again, and again. More people arrived, climbing down the tower to see what was going on- and some came up out of the depths. The ambush was explained in its entirety- including the involvement of the Eternal Sword Hall. Even if they had some justifications for their conflict with Chikere, it was still against the pact to attack anyone, including independent cultivators. The others added helpful details, like how they mercifully left people alive, and how Tonina was still supposed to be confined.
The number and strengths of cultivators on both sides were balanced enough that nobody was willing to start an attack- or get into a very public conflict. That gave some opportunity for Anton and the others to begin recovering energy as quickly as they could. If there was to be a conflict, they wanted to be able to fight.
After about half of an hour, Anish of the Glorious Flame Palace emerged from below. “Explain,” his voice boomed out.
“It’s simple,” Chikere was the one who spoke first. “Eternal Sword Hall wanted revenge on me for taking what they owed me, and they grouped up with these others to try to murder me and members of the Order, for various reasons. And besides every member of the Flying Blood Sect, they had three more criminals linking the Heavenly Lion Sect to a big illegal slaving conspiracy. So pretty much the usual for them.” Members of the Heavenly Lion Sect were appropriately outraged at her words, but none were willing to say anything against an Essence Collection cultivator with at least two dozen swords floating around her, stabbed in the ground, and held casually in her hand.
Anish folded his arms in front of him, gouts of flame erupting from his nostrils as he breathed. “Given previous circumstances, I will give proper consideration to your words. But Glorious Flame Palace will work to make sure there is a full accounting of what has happened.” For a sect not known for its measured and rational behavior, that was about the best they were going to get. But he wasn’t the only one that had to be worried about.
Boats were approaching the tower island from all directions. The strange nature of the Luminous Ocean Society’s Secret Realm made it difficult to tell exactly how far some people were, yet relatively easy to feel people approaching. That included a significant number of Heavenly Lion Sect elders and senior disciples- though Nowell and his group did nothing, the other members had their own signals to send. And with those signals came some from other factions, until people from all over were approaching. Anton had hoped that he would feel more members of the Order closer, but while they were certainly approaching, others seemed closer.
The first Essence Collection disciple of the Heavenly Lion Sect to bounded into the middle of the island in just a few jumps. He was relatively young- perhaps somewhere in his forties though he of course looked younger as all cultivators did. He held in his hand a punching dagger- the small weapon being quite atypical for many cultivators who preferred flashier and larger weapons. “You will immediately unhand our disciples.”
“Does that count these criminal exiles?” Anton gestured to the prone body of Van Hassel with his foot.
The disciple was apparently savvy enough not to answer directly and somehow admit some sort of wrongdoing. “You must immediately release all of your unlawful captives. You won’t get another chance.”
“Alright,” Anton said. “Done. No more unlawful captives. This is where I must inform you that any assault on us will be an additional violation of the treaties. Think carefully.”
The senior disciple glared at Anton, his eyes shifting to the unceremoniously placed bodies. Though they were barely breathing and tied up in chains, their wounds had been bound and their bleeding stopped with ointments. “That was your one chance for mercy,” he said- but he didn’t make any move to attack.
Anton had all sorts of ways he could provoke the man to attack, but he really didn’t want to be a driving force of a bloodbath. While the current conflict was going to inevitably result in more deaths, he was actually interested in minimizing those to his side. After all, if the battle was even the Order would only lose out. Killing one enemy for losing one disciple was not a fair trade.
It seemed the Heavenly Lion Sect had been arranged in such a way that their late Essence Collection cultivators were somewhat closer than that of the Order. Members trickled in on both sides, but the Heavenly Lion Sect’s numbers were swelling with more powerful cultivators. Then an old man in Life Transformation came ashore.
“Master,” said the disciple who had challenged them before. “They refused to free Zvonko and the others.”
“Very well,” said the old man. “Then their sentence is death.”
Death. That was something Anton was familiar with, yet somehow still hadn’t encountered. But as a blade came at him, he felt it. The elder wielded a punching dagger, the same as his disciple. He crossed the distance of a hundred meters between them in an instant, his strike aimed right at Anton’s heart. Chikere moved to counter, but she was too slow. Except that his attack was suddenly moving only half the speed as it hit the barrier Catarina had set up. She wasn’t just going to sit around waiting for an hour as a potential battle brewed. She created a defensive formation to protect them. And it helped, because Anton managed to only get stabbed halfway into his heart instead of all the way through it. Technically the blade hadn’t even touched him, it was only the extension of energy sticking out from it that did. Of course, the follow up attack would kill him regardless. But halfway through, the man leapt backwards. Not only that, he continued to flee until he was on the other side of the tower.
Five arrows landed where he had been standing, and six more flew after him, three striking the tower and the final three barely being deflected by the man. Anton smiled. He hadn’t even sensed elder Kseniya until after she shot- but he could just make her out in the distance extremely far away on the sea. Anton smiled, even as he was using all of his energy to keep his blood inside his body. That elder must have thought he could finish them off before any of the Order’s powerful elders arrived, but he was wrong. Though his actions reminded Anton there were still several tiers of power he needed to climb. Still, surviving a single attack was something to be proud of- even as a group. He’d have to thank Catarina for her practicality later. When he could speak without blood shooting out of his chest.