A year of travel and Anton had widened the band that had been searched along the corridor they regularly traveled. If space was two dimensional it would have only taken a couple of months, but as it turned out systems didn’t quite lie in a flat plane around the greater galactic form. And those ‘small’ deviations led to many lightyears of distance on either side. Some estimates put the number close to a thousand, with Ceretos and its neighbors about three hundred lightyears from the somewhat arbitrary ‘top’. The path towards In’istra slanted ‘down’ slightly, but it was less than fifty lightyears of drop compared to four hundred lightyears of total distance.
But ultimately, the point was that studying a cylinder around the area grew large very quickly, so even just going a few systems over from the central line and vaguely passing by as many things as possible along the way took a long time to reveal not that much distance. Anton passed hundreds of systems, but during that time found nothing more occupied. It was too early to say whether there was any meaning to the cluster of systems that formed the Trifold Alliance.
The Sylanis Cluster’s origins were obvious, as they knew they settled from one system to another. And they might be looking to do it again- which was much preferred to the raiding and conquering thing they had attempted and been partially successful with.
While Anton was somewhat disappointed at the lack of more settled systems, he was also glad to know that there weren’t any immediate encroaching threats. Unless they were capable of jumping several systems at once, which was unfortunately quite possible. But worrying about every possibility of danger was pointless when there was one they were certain about.
Anton wanted to explore more, but it was a bit uncomfortable going away from his stars. More relevantly, he had to slow down so it would become less efficient the further he went. He wasn’t terribly concerned about danger- he was stronger now than he had been during prior explorations- but time was something he couldn’t just get back. And while perfect efficiency wasn’t important, he also didn’t need to do things that others could manage. There were many qualified individuals who would happily dedicate years of their time to searching and cataloging new systems. That was their passion, and Anton was glad to have them. But aside from the stars, Anton spent very little time viewing any celestial bodies outside of the practical necessity to search for life.
While they might still find some occupied systems not terribly far away from that route, Anton would most likely not be the one to discover them. Instead, he had the intention to head towards the border with the upper realms. He wanted to know the status of the closer systems. Would it be any different, with the tides of the world allowing the upper realms access to most everywhere? Would their proximity mean they were more ravaged, or never settled… or even permanently occupied by the upper realms? All these questions Anton had to answer.
It had been known for a long time that Ascension was a process that was unique. When it happened, it took only a few weeks for cultivators to arrive in the upper realms- some as far as or even beyond Xankeshan, over a thousand lightyears away from Ceretos. A few had gone even further, though it was unclear if they would have naturally. Gnadus was even further from Xankeshan, but the frozen planet had had a few extremely hardworking individuals clamber their way to ascension. But the formations on Xankeshan had been attuned to bring them in specifically, so that they didn’t have stray cultivators ending up in random parts of the Scarlet Midfields- or worse, somewhere in the territory of either of the greater powers.
Even at the equivalent of Augmentation, Anton couldn’t imagine matching the speed of ascending cultivators. If he had a string of bound stars the whole way he might manage to only be a few times slower than them, but that was a vast difference considering it was something that happened naturally to those with the ability to trigger the process, and before they were even truly in the Integration stage.
The reason Anton was thinking about this was because he was heading ‘north’, towards the center of the galaxy and the border between upper and lower realms. And he didn’t have any bound stars in that direction. He didn’t even have any potential stars, as he hadn’t yet reached his next level since reaching Enrichment. He estimated each star would take eight to ten years, though it could be even slower than that. If it was ten years and he only needed exactly one more prime to reach the Domination equivalent… it would only be three hundred and ten years.
Anton had the feeling that was only the halfway point of the stage, however. He would likely need to go from one hundred and twenty-nine to one hundred and sixty to one hundred and ninety-seven. A full sixty eight more stars in steps of thirty-one and thirty-seven. He might even manage that before six more centuries were up, if he was lucky. But even if that was on the shorter end, it shouldn’t happen until after the next cycle.
If it was even possible at all. Anton knew that every cultivator had a limit, either due to talent or drive or resources. He was quite fortunate to not have hit his limit yet. He was at a stage only the tiniest fraction of people could even dream of reaching.
So he couldn’t yet bind any more stars after Poriza’s star, and that meant the journey would be longer and slower as he would have to conserve energy. But he could still pick out his favorites for later.
Not every star had to be like Azun, an extreme rarity among great powers. Nor did Anton think it was a good idea to go around creating new stars as he pleased, though it might be beneficial to his cultivation. Sometimes, he just liked it. There was one star that had a pinkish hue to it that he found endearing. Another had a trio of gas giants in a triangular formation orbiting in the same ring as each other. And there were a few giants, comparable to the size of the twin planet’s blue star. Power was always attractive, though if that was always the key factor Anton wouldn’t have bound Poriza’s star that was barely large enough to be counted as a red dwarf.
Anton intentionally avoided approaching Nidec and Vrelt, since they didn’t need to have a powerful cultivator approaching and spying on them right now. And that is what it would be, regardless of his ultimate intentions. Whether his intentions would be to their benefit depended on who was involved. But Anton didn’t have plans to be involved there at the moment. There were plenty of other qualified individuals.
A few systems beyond what had already been explored, he found an interesting star system. Binary systems weren’t terribly rare, but this one hadn’t been thought to be a binary system. It had a yellow-white star… along with a tiny neutron star. And while measurements might have revealed the smaller star, it wasn’t oriented in the correct direction to pick up the easiest signs.
The system had a number of rocky and hot planets, exactly one of which had signs of life. The flow of natural energy, and now that he was closer Anton surmised there were cultivators. But while he was initially eager to approach, he also didn’t want to cause too much of a ruckus simply by showing up. And he didn’t have time to carefully blend into their society.
Thus, he had to make notes about it for later, while at the same time sending the relevant information back to the alliance. It was far enough that any interactions with them might come much later, but they could afford to wait a few decades.
His trail path brought him further north, closer to the border. At around two hundred lightyears, he stumbled upon another system of note.
The system had two red stars of little note for their particular qualities, and no planets that appeared to be in the habitable zone. In fact, Anton planned to pass it by without another look after refreshing himself in the glow of the stars. But his path happened to take him near the innermost planet, one that was frozen over because of its distance from the stars.
A casual sweep of his energy turned up more than he thought. It wasn’t just a rocky and icy planet. No, it was much more than that. Anton didn’t quite believe what he felt at first, so he descended through the planet’s thin atmosphere to confirm what he’d seen. But the more of the planet he felt, the clearer the picture became.
Atop a frozen hilltop, an icy fort. Not one constructed of ice, but one of stone that should have stood in lower temperatures. Parts of it were weathered away despite the covering of ice, but it was only one structure out of many. Others were clearly ravaged by time, but some… were clearly destroyed.
Anton found a city and walked the streets, slowly. The picture there was even more grim. Bodies. Not sufficient to populate the city, but the mass graves outside told their own tale. As did what Anton determined to be a few workers for those same graves, frozen on the ground next to them.
But not all deaths were from violence, and Anton thought the freezing wasn’t necessarily the direct cause of others. There were more than a few dead in their homes. Some lying in their own beds, some sitting around tables with the lingering stench of poison coming from them.
The freeze didn’t seem to have come all at once, but it wasn’t slow either. The states of decay that everything had stopped at varied widely, but one thing became clear to Anton. Most of the death and destruction had come before the cold.
He could only speculate on what might have caused the planet’s current state, but speculate he did. He could find a name for the city, but it took longer to find the name of the planet. His energy senses pored over every bit of text he could find until the name Jinrisa finally came up. The fact that he could read it meant that this place had been involved with the greater galactic community within the last handful of cycles at the longest. Language could drift faster or slower, but it was familiar enough.
His speculations were fairly simple. Someone had attacked to wipe them out. The destruction around the city- and every city- was not constrained to just one or two places. It was widespread and intentional. But after nearly everyone was killed, something else had happened.
Anton could still feel a distortion in the energy left over from a great event in the past. Someone had intentionally changed the planet’s motion to bring it far beyond the habitable zone, where even some of its atmosphere would begin to freeze. He might not have recognized the signs before, but having now put in the effort to move things on a large scale he picked up on some signs. They hadn’t used formations, but likely the combined energy of many cultivators. One particular side of the planet had strange markings that he attributed to the task.
The whole planet was frozen over, but it filled Anton with fire and fury. He was no stranger to death. Sometimes, it had to be enacted upon people. But following up with freezing their planet and the few survivors was clearly unnecessary. Anton had the feeling that whoever caused it wanted it to be slow, so those who lived would recognize their own deaths coming. Anton admired the dedication of the fallen gravediggers, though he also understood those who had died in their own beds and the others who most likely poisoned themselves.
Anton also had a vague idea of who would have done this. And even if he ended up unfairly adding this to the list of the upper realms, it would be but a drop in the bucket of their total crimes. But still one that must be tallied.