At the end of the day, Anton got away with no cultivators escaping the base, and Derpy having survived. He might have preferred that fewer individuals were eaten by sea beasts, as they didn’t always think through whether or not they were swallowing a storage bag. Then again, these particular creatures probably had no prior experience with that. It would be a fun surprise for them later, depending on what was inside. Anton kept track of a few higher ranking cultivator’s bags, as they might have something important like a key to a vault he would have to retrieve.
He was uncertain if the base was more or less destroyed due to the unexpected interference. Certainly the beasts smashed things up, but he might have had to do worse himself to accomplish the same goals. It was a shame he hadn’t been able to capture many people, but that was just how things had ended up. Ultimately, they were only being kept alive to find out if they knew where any more spies were.
After the first day of falling, Vari was fairly certain she wasn’t going to land at any point. It was interesting, because she could alway see and feel herself getting closer to the planet below. She could even control her lateral position above it. But she never got any closer. Nor did she seem to be able to get further away. In short, she was stuck there. Alone.
“I’m going to deck that jerk in the face when he shows up,” Vari grimaced.
“Who’s a jerk?” A familiar voice asked.
Swiveling in the air, she immediately kicked out towards the approximate location the sound came from. A hand reached up and grabbed her keep, holding her in place.
“You are,” Vari huffed. “Seriously, how long have you been watching me fall?”
“I just got here,” Everheart said defensively. “Do you think I’m so bored as to watch that for an entire day?”
“Maybe,” Vari said. “How did you know it was that long if you weren’t?”
“Obviously my traps are keyed with alarms. I was just here to deal with whoever came here.”
“You spatially locked this planet…” Vari said. “Can I assume it’s important?”
“Planet?” Everheart raised an eyebrow.
“Sonuva- is it all an illusion?”
“No reason it shouldn’t be. You know how much harder it is to make someone fall forever compared to convincing them that they’re falling forever?”
“… Why didn’t I fly out of the area?”
“You slowed yourself down to match the planet’s velocity so you didn’t smash yourself,” Everheart shrugged. “Then you didn’t commit hard enough to flying away.”
Vari folded her arms. “There has to be more to it than that.”
“Might be, who can say?”
“You could!” Vari yelled. “Ugh, this isn’t what I’m here for.” Well, yelling at Everheart was always its own reward. But she did have other purposes too. “I’m here as an envoy on behalf of the Scarlet Alliance.”
“I haven’t even declared war or anything,” Everheart said. “But I’ll gladly accept your surrender.”
Vari sighed. “That’s not it at all. We want you to help us.”
She kept talking while ignoring his objections. “In return, we will aid you on endeavors that work towards both of our goals. Like bringing down the Harmonious Citadel.”
“And why should I?”
“Because even with all of this,” Vari gestured broadly, “You’ll eventually just die alone when someone too powerful for you to deal with comes around.”
“I’ve died before, it’s not so bad.”
“Someone who can properly finish you off. Or you can work with us.”
“… And die with other people around to take my stuff?”
“Exactly!” Vari said. “No, wait uh… you might not die.”
“Hmm… nah. Too boring.” With a flick of his wrist he sent Vari spiraling away. Which at least broke her free of the illusion.
Rather than trying to approach him again, or look for another projection, Vari just pondered at the results. Sure, he’d flat out declined the offer. But for him, that was actually pretty good. At the very least, the seed had been planted and he would be thinking about it.
While In’istra figured out what they were going to do with the spies they had, Anton figured he would spend some time looking around the area. Specifically, he wanted to know if there were any neighbors they could eventually make contact with- or ones that they should specifically avoid.
They were a bit closer to the border with the upper realms, so if Anton found any systems with active cultivators he expected similar results to In’istra, trapped in the cycle that the Trigold Cluster was forcing upon them. Then again, he’d encountered more places outside of that cycle in one way or another. Weos and Ceretos had just recently eradicated the last of the upper realm spies- and won over their invaders in the second invasion after the shorter cycle. While that didn’t mean they were forever going to be able to resist the upper realms, the fact that they could defeat Augmentation cultivators and were only getting stronger didn’t say much for what the Trigold Cluster could try in five hundred years. But they weren’t going to get careless. Oh no, they would be ready.
Still, along with Rutera that had never been a target and the Sylanis Cluster that had also managed to clear them out with the advent of their Worldbinding cultivators, that was six systems free from their grasp. Ekict managed the same. The twin planets ultimately seemed to have lost that battle, but survived regardless. The hidden system of Doruma sealed themselves off so they couldn’t be found, and Xicil seemed to be doing fine for themselves, displaying nothing worth taking. Then there was Gnadus, which seemed to have nothing going for it beyond difficulty and ice. No invaders would be interested in them.
On the other hand, besides Rutera all of them seem to have had problems with the upper realms. The various systems shut themselves off for a reason. Perhaps there would be more like them. The lower realms might be undergoing a massive revolution. Or perhaps Anton would find more worlds caught in the cycle. But with the right push, he might let them get beyond. He did keep in mind Tenoun’a and Shrenn. The Trigold Cluster wasn’t above scouring a world if they met with too much resistance. Which just motivated Anton to do even better, and with more than five centuries he felt confident that he and others could be a catalyst that catapulted systems beyond what the Trigold Cluster would expect. And the more that were successful, the more they would harm their enemies in the upper realms as they did so.
Anton had already visited some of the nearby stars. With a few months of travel, he completed his initial survey. In all directions, including above and below relative to the galactic plane, the closest systems seemed to be uninhabited. That covered an area more than ten lightyears from them, and a few dozen star systems.
From that point if he were to try to expand out in a circle, he would quickly overwhelm himself with systems. Even if he took no time at all to explore a system- which wasn’t actually accurate- it would take days or weeks to reach each one. He could easily lose a year or two for just a slight increase in his explored radius. So he continued with his plan to focus on a narrow band to the ‘north’, towards the upper realms. He had some chance of identifying an occupied system from its neighbor, if they were powerful enough to create a large effect on the system’s natural energy.
Anton surveyed the different types of stars. At this point, he’d seen almost everything with relation to stars. No doubt that wasn’t actually true- there would always be interesting differences to discover, if he looked at similar things often enough. But at least as broad categories of stars went, he’d visited many kinds and bound as much variety as he could while keeping a few open for emergencies. Over the last few decades he’d attuned himself to a few stars of various sizes and temperaments, though most didn’t have anything he could consider unique properties beyond their star type.
The most notable exception to Anton’s list was a proper red supergiant. The twin planets had allowed him to bind to their blue supergiant- its radius more than a couple dozen times that of Ceretos’ star- but red supergiants could be even more astounding. Hundreds of times the radius, in fact. It was already hard to comprehend the size of any star- with the exception of a neutron star like Azun- so being even larger was just mind boggling, even if he was used to stars in a broad sense.
Then, of course, there were things that were no longer stars. Black holes, for example. Anton had no intent to seek them out, and the closest ones that seemed to have been detected were still several times the distance from Ceretos to In’istra. He would eventually make the trip, but considering they didn’t produce light or heat, he wasn’t willing to consider them a star. His cultivation essence was about growth, and he doubted that consuming power would help with that. Still, seeing one might prove interesting.
Anton had all of these thoughts during his long treks between systems. Other than that, he could only focus on his movement and cultivate the energy drawn from his bound suns, making sure he wouldn’t exhaust himself in the middle of nothing. As it turned out, space was mostly empty so the chances of just running into anything were relatively low. Which was why he was surprised to discover… well anything at all.
He first noticed it because of its energy, making it stand out starkly from the complete lack of it anywhere else. He was almost past it by the time he reacted, as its path crossed with his and his own speed was immense. He could have very easily missed it. No, he should have missed it. Because he was not even traveling in normal space. Anything less than a star should have hardly registered.
But he felt it, and because of that he immediately began to chase after it. Which is to say, he noted its trajectory as he hurtled past, and hoped that it wouldn’t change significantly in the time it took him to redirect his speed. Star Steps allowed for nearly instantaneous changes in momentum, but only when traveling in normal space and not nearly so severe.
It took him three days to catch it, during which time he should have already arrived at his destination planet. For the majority of that time, he was second guessing his senses. But there it was, just sitting there. Floating along almost casually, without a star. Anton knew that rogue planets existed, but he’d never visited one. This one was a step more odd, as he approached it in subspace.
He was careful in his approach, uncertain of why it radiated so much natural energy. He also didn’t want to risk drawing the attention of distortion beasts to it, should it actually be inhabited.
This time he knew he was going to encounter it and was already moving in the same direction as it so matching its speed was an easier task. Then he had to make only slight adjustments to his speed to slowly approach.
The first thing he noticed were lights. Many of them, standing out with comparison to the near lack of light Anton otherwise experienced. The light of stars was vaguely comprehensible within subspace, but this was more… real?
Anton orbited the small planet several times. It wasn’t tiny, but Anton couldn’t help but compare to Ceretos. By that metric, it was somewhat small. As for the lights, unless he was greatly mistaken he knew what they were. He would recognize those patterns anywhere, that of cities at night. They were nothing compared to Rutera with its pervasive technology, but even Ceretos before it developed such technology had energy lights at night. This was closer to that, Anton thought.
Cities. And the patterns of people. He approached, cautiously. This planet shouldn’t be here, and in a way neither should he. He didn’t want to end up on the wrong foot, or causing some sort of disaster. So he wasn’t going to just land somewhere. Instead, he needed to observe more.