Down, down, down Anton dug, moving dirt and stone from below him to on top of him. It took some serious effort to loosen things up, enough that he was barely recovering any energy after his wild run around Kuchion. He could feel pursuers even through the ground. He intentionally avoided approaching any tunnels that they could find an easier path to him, but some cultivators had burrowing techniques. As predicted, they were catching up.
The surface of Kuchion was terribly cold, but as Anton burrowed kilometers deeper it began to warm up. Whatever heat was inside of it found few routes out. So far Anton hadn’t found anything exceptionally hot- no pockets of magma or anything like that. But things were moving in the right direction.
Judging his speed with those of his pursuers, Anton didn’t have long before they caught up. But he kept moving, not because he was actually trying to get away but to draw them ever further from the rest of their allies. Even if they could bring some people with them, it was nowhere near the hordes of cultivators that had sought him out on the surface.
When they were about a minute behind, Anton found a nice pocket of stone and began his next step of the plan. He stopped in place, reaching deep inside of himself and drawing upon it. He opened himself up to the power of the sun as it coursed through him and out. When he’d first connected to Ceretos’ sun, the power within him had gone wild, almost consuming his body. Fortunately, he had recovered. His control was much better now, especially with connecting to more stars. The energy he had now was a little bit heavy as Weos’ star had slightly different properties, but producing extreme heat was still simple.
The world began to melt and burn around Anton. Molten rock dripped around him, the space around him full except for tiny pockets that gave little room to maneuver. However, the heat of molten rock was nothing to Anton- and the fact that it was done by his own power made it barely unpleasant. The greater concern was the pressure of the earth around him, but as an Assimilation cultivator he could handle it.
By the time his pursuers caught up to him an area a hundred meters in diameter was molten. Even so, none of them hesitated to dive into the heat after him. Anton couldn’t even blame them, because while the One Hundred Stars allowed cultivators to practice fire techniques with proficiency, Anton wasn’t proficient in what he was doing. It was just improvised, and not terribly dangerous to Life Transformation cultivators.
But he didn’t do it to kill people. Instead, he did it to alter everyone’s mobility. Burrowing through solid rock and moving through molten rock were quite different, and while one seemed like it should be easier, the change in nature would alter the efficiency of techniques. For Anton’s sake, it provided just a bit more mobility than he would have had.
Firing a bow underground was just as difficult as Anton had imagined. Forcing apart an area around his bow so that he could draw it back and let the string snap forward was difficult, reducing his power by at least half with standard Spirit Arrows. He wasn’t able to instantly kill his target, taking a whole handful of shots before his first opponent was incapacitated. By that point the gap between him and the first wave of a dozen was halved.
He changed up his tactics. Ascension energy might push through the earth with greater power, but spectral energy shouldn’t care about it at all. His next arrow ignored the material, finding its way into the careless belly of an earth cultivator. The results were decent enough for the moment, though Anton knew he needed to increase his proficiency in that area.
Three opponents were down swiftly, but the remaining ones had the opportunity to encircle him, all around including above and below. He could feel their energy reaching towards him, attempting to infiltrate his mind. It wasn’t quite like the illusion techniques he recalled from before, but either way they were insufficient to affect him. This was his domain, and nobody could wrest control of it from him.
Everyone was quite surprised when bows appeared behind them, firing shots inward. The earth greatly hindered Anton’s distance, but twenty or thirty meters was easy enough. Using purely energy bows weakened his attacks once more, but he was still able to desynchronize the enemy attacks. Only two at a time reached him, the first being spear and hammer wielders. The molten earth practically swam along with the hammer, augmenting its motion. The spear slipped through it like water, striking for Anton’s heart.
He caught them both, and there was where ascension energy came into play. His legs kicked out, augmented with the heat of the sun- or at least a portion of it. Defenses and armor were shattered, then the two were tossed aside to make way for the next enemies.
In the end, Anton found he’d gone a bit overboard with the heat. He avoided harming himself, but when the cultivators had no more energy their bodies were instantly consumed- and their weapons and armor began to melt. More importantly, their storage bags were more vulnerable than the rest and several were lost in gouts of flame, broken formations spilling valuable scrolls into the world. They burst into flame before Anton could do much more, and he wished he’d thought to control what it burned besides himself. Anish had taught him the techniques, but he didn’t do such things without thinking.
He was ultimately able to save more than half of what he wanted, and that included burrowing techniques which he greedily read through. It only took a few moments each, and his mind was already processing them. By the time the following group was getting close, Anton slowly began to practice them. The One Hundred Stars wasn’t particularly affiliated with earth, but it didn’t make the practice more difficult either. Over a hundred years of experience coupled with a significant advantage in power allowed Anton to begin a pace that kept the others from catching up.
After twenty minutes, he found himself proficient enough that he could pull ahead if he wanted to. Instead, he continued to draw the group along with him, staying tantalizingly close. His energy senses dug into storage bags, reading through other techniques and finding information that would improve his ability to fight underground, if only marginally at first.
The second group fared worse than the first, but after Anton defeated them he was really beginning to feel the fatigue from the last days catching up to him. He increased his speed, pulling away from his pursuers and only returning to the surface once he was sure he was out of their encirclement. He looked up at the sky, feeling the way the barrier above trembled. So, he had been successful. Now all he had to do was return to the others.
While Anton provided a distraction, Oluchi and the others had made significant gains with their positioning. More reinforcements had shown up as well, to help secure their greater area of influence. They’d driven back some enemy sects, and even made contact with some of their potential allies. Anton was impressed, because even he’d had trouble finding the latter. Then again, some of them had been emboldened by what they saw happening and were the ones to make first contact. That made Anton more confident about what they were doing… but they were still on a time limit.
“… you look like you could use some rest,” Oluchi said. “Were you really fighting for two whole days?”
“More or less,” Anton shrugged. “Sometimes I was just moving and shooting barely protected targets, but there were pockets of greater resistance. And I do need some rest. On the other hand, we need to capitalize on our gains so… if you could be ready in four hours, I’d appreciate it.”
“Four hours?” Oluchi raised an eyebrow.
“I know you all have been active as well, but we need to make a move on one of the larger gatherings. Who knows how many people are dying every moment we wait.”
“We’ll be fine, Senior Anton. But you have to take care of yourself. Four hours is…”
“More than enough,” Anton said. He meant it too… though his habit of taking four hours to rest at night usually didn’t involve such extreme exertion as fighting his way around the planet. Then again, he didn’t even really need sleep anymore.
The fires inside Anton settled into a comfortable rhythm as he allowed himself some time to rest. Though he’d promised four hours, by the end of three he was getting antsy. He didn’t want to wait longer if he didn’t have to. His body would certainly complain, but it would have all the time in the world to do so, next week or the following month or year. Right now, he would prop it up, giving it a good pat on the back and letting the comfortable circulation of energy slowly replenish it.
He studied what information they had on the nearest proper base, an underground tunnel system loaded with crystals that resonated with natural energy. This was the sort of place any large sect would be envious of, and the Twin Soul Sect had gained control of it through the means of one of their cover sects. If only people had looked deeper than their surface hatred and jealousy they might have noticed the deeper scheming beneath and learned about the Twin Soul Sect earlier. But there was no time to argue about what might have been. Now was the time for action.
Anton moved with the rest of the army- those who weren’t staying to maintain defensive positions, of course. He had over a hundred Life Transformation cultivators with him, and while Kuchion had many more than that, not all of them were fully in the loop on what the Twin Soul Sect was up to, allies or not. Otherwise, they would have likely required more up front.
It wasn’t quite clear if they were planning something like Black Soul Valley, another ascension or even a few… but at the very least, they would be using people as sacrifices to boost their cultivation and fighting strength. It was unclear if that was already ongoing or if they were in the middle of preparations still, but either way Anton and the others had to act.
With the barrier destabilized, it would be easier for them to retreat if necessary, and for additional forces to join them. For the moment, the ships were staying out of things- but there were people ready in case they were required.
The first obstacle was, of course, a barrier formation protecting the entrance. Anton looked between Oluchi and the barrier. “Are we ready?”
“As much as we’ll ever get. We’ll charge the barrier to break through as quickly as possible.”
“I admire your courage,” he said. “But I feel like this is the sort that explodes when destroyed.”
“How would you know?”
“Just a hunch. And I can sense a massive pressure of natural energy behind it.”
Having picked up a couple new techniques, Anton almost thought about breaking into the tunnels from the side… but he could feel the barrier stretching deep into the area. It wouldn’t be weaker anywhere else, only his attacks would be affected.
“I’d like to request your help along with my third volley,” Anton said. “Unless I manage to break through before then, of course.”
“Gladly,” Oluchi nodded, clutching her spear tightly.
The first volley of arrows was just a little test. He wanted to see if anywhere was particularly weaker than anywhere else. Sometimes the edges were worse, corners… and sometimes, a formation had glaring holes in its midsection away from the formation runes surrounding it. Whatever formations masters set up this one in particular managed to minimize flaws, so Anton found little with his probing attacks.
Then he got more serious, focusing his attacks together. The barrier trembled, but held. For the third volley, he drew upon ascension energy, the dense power that didn’t fit into the lower realms screaming forward, tearing through the world while at the same time Oluchi’s spear flew forward with ever-increasing momentum.
Anton’s arrow struck first, piercing a hole in the barrier- but Oluchi’s spear widened it, and punctured through a few guards sheltering behind it and attempting to bolster it with their own energy. The rest of the army was already charging forward, anticipating the barrier’s opening.
The resulting explosion of energy sent Oluchi’s spear flying back at her in a manner that was almost too quick for her to catch- though she still had the control to direct it, so at worst she could have flung it over her.
The sudden release of pressure and the barrier allowed Anton to feel deep inside the tunnels, where he saw not only many members of the Twin Soul Sect, but hundreds of people in cages- and many more currently being distributed around various formations, slaughtered in whatever manner the Twin Soul Sect found most efficient.
Anton’s next shot would be finding its way deep inside, reminding them that they were not safe anymore. Hopefully, it would throw off their ritual as well.