From atop the modest cliff, Three Squeaks didn’t think the jackals looked all that big. Certainly not three times his own length. But as they got closer to Lowcliff Burrow, he began to be able to compare them to the others.
Too slow. He’d waited too long, and had to take a shot. The leader of the pack was too much for him to handle, but one of the small ones? They were perfect targets.
He condensed his natural energy, trying to match the density of power that Anton had. It was impossible, of course. Even on the tiny bow he had, Three Squeaks doubted he could make something with that much power fit his bow. But that was still the state he aimed for with his first shot.
Three Squeaks had been aiming for the spine, just behind the skull. He considered himself quite lucky to hit the ribcage halfway down his target’s back, because his hands were trembling and he wasn’t all that good of a shot to begin with. But at least the power was there, poking a hole two claws deep. The jackal cried out, stumbling to the side.
There was no time to rest. He took a deep breath, aiming for the next one. The burrow was in danger, every jackal that reached them likely to eat at least one of the inhabitants once they dug them out. His second arrow barely scratched the shoulder of a second target, but his third got that same one in the eye, flying deep into the brain. By the fifth arrow, Three Squeaks realized that the jackals were no longer charging towards the burrows, but instead running around the side of the cliff. Looking for a way to him.
Mission accomplished, he supposed. But he couldn’t exactly fight all of the remaining enemies. What could he do? He wasn’t much of a climber, and it was a long drop. Furthermore, if they just ran back down after him…
Three Squeaks looked at the dim light around, and realized he did have one more thing. He wasn’t all that good at it yet, but it should be effective. If it worked.
He called upon the power of fire, his remembrance of the sun. Heat filled his paws, forming into an arrow. He could sense the leader of the jackals halfway up the rise, about to come into view. The power grew hotter and more powerful, until he released it.
Three Squeaks honestly couldn’t tell if he hit. The bright fire clashed with the early darkness, and it quickly lost its shape, exploding across the cliff top. He wanted to turn and run, but he knew there was nowhere to go behind him. Fortunately, all of the jackals had the same idea, and they were more able to run. And tumble down the slopes, in some cases.
It took a while to rub the light out of his eyes, but Three Squeaks didn’t sense any more jackals nearby. He was barely able to catch sight of them scurrying off into the night. He looked down at his paws, feeling suddenly returning to them. They… hurt. Scorch marks went halfway up to his body, and a little bit of his fur was still on fire. He didn’t have enough control yet. But it was worth it. He just hoped the jackals wouldn’t come back again later in the night.
Anton lowered his bow. It seemed he wouldn’t need to interfere. He was glad for that, at least. His disciple seemed to be holding up well, and Anton would be able to leave for a short time without worrying about him- and the rest of those with him.
He was especially pleased at Three Squeaks choosing to help another burrow, even if he had to do it alone. It was the right thing to do, even if the positions of the chief and captain of the guard had some logic. Anton didn’t find that acting from a place of fear was usually the right response, but it was understandable at least.
Anton didn’t plan to be gone for long. He had to return before the Great Queen, at least. While he wasn’t concerned about her, he was concerned about anything that might try to eat her. And Anton would prefer to shape her initial impressions of the planet and its populace.
Some systems along the border simply existed, no different for their positions than others. Anton could feel the emptiness beyond, where natural energy ended and ascension energy began beyond. It wasn’t a straight line, but there was a clear path along which some systems were in the upper realms and others were not. And yet, Anton had the feeling that some were poised to drift between the two over the course of vast periods of time. Far more than a few centuries or even thousands of years, however. Nothing relevant to them at the current time.
After surveying a few systems, Anton came upon another of interest. It was a binary star system with two red dwarfs and a few planets. One of them had life… though if one was looking for more than lichens, mosses, and algae then they would be sorely disappointed.
But Anton picked out more than just what was currently living. While the vast majority of bodies had decayed to nothing, he picked out some skeletons in preserving environments as well as clear signs of human made structures. Another planet destroyed by the upper realms, or had something else happened? Unfortunately, unlike Jinrisa which was meant to be forgotten, the writings of this planet were not well preserved. A few old formations still barely held together, indicating that the destruction of all but the people had not been completely thorough. Anton couldn’t pick out any signs of still-living humans no matter where he looked, so unless they lived deep underground without any access to the surface he would have to say they were dead.
Among the few preserved writings he found a name for the planet. So’gill. And he also found if not a reason for their destruction at least some explanation of how it happened. The Exalted Quadrant, this time. It was a shame, really, as some of their disciples had lived peacefully on Ceretos until they saw an opportunity for greater gain. That proved that the Exalted Quadrant at least should have the capacity to live peacefully in actuality, and chose not to. The Trigold Cluster’s methods never really allowed that as a possibility, but Anton wasn’t really certain if they were worse.
He intended to come back to further survey So’gill, but first he wanted a better picture of the immediate neighborhood. He generally spent just a day passing through each system, picking out planets and other features that couldn’t be seen from afar.
Along his route Anton was a triple star system that he found somewhat interesting, three similarly sized red dwarfs with two circling around a center one on opposite ends. Before he could see the situation of the planets, however, he came across something at the edge of the system.
He almost missed it, because the system wasn’t contained within some sort of barrier formation. Instead, it was just a hunk of metal with a barely detectable energy signature. For the first two centuries of his life Anton would have been completely baffled by what it might be, but he knew things like this very well by now. Even if he didn’t understand all of the parts that made him work, he still understood satellites and technological parts. And just a bit of natural energy, more like what Rutere was involved with before they had come in contact with Ceretos and had sufficient natural energy to advance their cultivation as well.
After finding a single satellite, Anton found more orbiting at the ‘edge’ of the system. Such things were generally ill defined, but he figured whatever the people of a system chose for themselves had to count.
The satellites should have some sort of sensors, or there was no point in having all of them out so far. Anton did his best to pick one out and place himself ‘in front’ of it. He doubted it would have sound sensors, but he waved and did his best to transmit his voice. “Hello. I don’t know if you can understand me, but I would like to talk to you.”
Then Anton waited. And waited. While he did so, he swept his senses into the system trying to find their planets. That was about as much as he would be able to pick out at such a vast range, as well as the general existence of planetwide barriers or the like.
It took him some time, but he finally picked out a single planet within the habitable zone. It had a decent size, though Anton couldn’t pick out much more from the edge of the system.
He waited some more. And then longer. “Listen. It’s been several days now, and it should have only taken a few hours to reach you. And with technology like this, you have to be able to fly out here faster than this, right? In other words, I’m planning to come closer.”
If they responded in an unfriendly manner, Anton would leave. But he had an odd feeling. And over the course of the next several hours as he drew closer to the planet, he finally began to understand. There was no response because something was wrong with the planet. Once he got close enough to feel any details at all, it was obvious.
Anton had thought the planet had no moon, but he was wrong. In fact, it had about one third of a moon. This was not to say that it had a moon about a third as large as he would have expected, but rather that there was only a sort of bowl shape remaining of what should have once been a sphere.
The rest of the moon was strangely splayed out on one side of the planet. With his recent experience smashing large celestial bodies together, Anton was certain that it made no sense. The other two thirds of the moon were basically a pile of rubble on the surface of the planet, clearly deforming the original shape, but the moon was large enough that it should have completely torn apart the planet if they crashed together. Instead things were as they were, with a large lump on one side of things, though gravity had squashed the two disparate masses together to be more or less vaguely spherical once more.
The closer he got to the planet, the more certain he was that nobody was receiving anything from the satellites. There were no other planets in the system, and he didn’t notice any satellites orbiting the planet itself instead of the system as a whole. That was extremely difficult to believe. There should have been at least some. But perhaps that was related to the more obvious issue in some way.
When he finally arrived on the planet, he found life. Not as much as he would hope for, but some. Mostly on the side that seemed to contain most of the mass of the original planet. There were even people… though the cities that they inhabited were far too large for their small populations to have built. And the encroaching wilderness painted a picture of what could have happened.
Anton knew he would be spending much of his next few years both here and back on Akrys. Unless he was lucky and these people spoke a similar enough language, but Anton had some doubts. Given what he saw of their technology that incorporated little natural energy, they were likely more like Rutera. At least, before whatever disaster had befallen them. Either way, they were likely disconnected from the larger interactions of cultivators as a whole that seemed to drive language to remain in a similar state. So he would need to spend some time learning it… and of course, others would be interested in coming to this place as well.