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Book 5, Chapter 106 – The Final Battle

 Settlers to Stony Plains were surprised to learn that these mechanical creatures were not exceptions in this barren place, but the rule. As the Wendigo King and Coal continued to explore their new home they discovered many more metal monsters prowling the ruins.

Birds, reptiles, fish, bigger game... everything they found was mechanical. The strangest thing about this planet was that these machines had their own clear ecology. Different 'species' of machines occupied various strata as predator or prey.

The good news was the robots appeared to have no interest in living things. Settlers stumbled on beasts from time to time, but so long as they didn't draw too close none of the robots displayed any hostile intent. These surprising discoveries quickly made their way back to Greenland, along with a sample for Hellflower to pour over.

"What is the situation?"

When Cloudhawk heard the news his first stop was Hellflower's lab. It was his first time seeing such a thing when he entered and spied it lying on her examination table, so even he was surprised.

This one was a lizard, roughly five meters of hard metal alloy. Much of it was rusted and weeds had begun to grow in cracks in its hide. Upon closer inspection they noted that it wasn't homogeneously crafted, either. Some of the metal was different in places that looked to have been repaired. The legs in particular were completely different from the rest of its body.

While it was clearly a highly complex machine, elements of its exterior gave the crude impression of wasteland improvisation they were all used to seeing. By the time Cloudhawk arrived they'd already started to deconstruct the lizard. Its central processor was laid open, revealing a complex structure. Obviously the level of sophistication far outstripped anything the wastelands could produce. Only a highly advanced and well-developed civilization could have crafted something like this.

Hellflower readjusted her goggled. "The situation is precisely what you see here! There is nothing biological about this construct. It is one hundred percent machine. Its level of sophistical is far superior to anything we could find in Sandspire, by a hundred years at least. But what's most peculiar is its energy source."

Hellflower slipped on examination gloves as she spoke. She reached into the lizard's body and extracted a small crystal orb. It was still humming with energy.

She placed the item to the side and continued. "This is the heart of these robotic creatures. We see that it has structures necessary for collecting solar power, however solar power alone is crude and inefficient. In order to supplement this, it appears these creatures seek out and devour sources of energy that they come across. Most of their inner working are designed to transfer and transform the energy they ingest and store it here in this energy crystal. We only have a rough estimate, but from what we gather there's a hundred years worth of energy gathering in this one crystal - enough condensed power to blow up a warship!"

Cloudhawk was understandably surprised. "The animals attack one another to devour this energy?"

Hellflower nodded. "We haven't yet been able to reverse engineer their internal chips and neural networks to better understand them, however some logical program of behaviors is what has allowed them to exist on that planet for so long. Judging by the remolding we found in this specimen, we can surmise that it has undergone several significant transformations."

His brows furrowed. "So there must be some sort of intelligence out there."

The reports he'd received described robots that displayed logic and instinct, but were not intelligent enough to make changes to their own bodies like this or build others like themselves. They were merely robots acting out the lives of normal creatures. The only way they could exist was if there was someone or something hiding away that was building them.

Stony Plains was turning out to be more complicated than it first appeared. What other secrets was it hiding? Was there really an intelligent race hiding somewhere out there? If there was, why hadn't they transformed that blasted landscape to be more hospitable in the thousands of years they've had to develop? Instead they spent their time building... these.

What was the secret they weren't seeing?

"The planet might be more dangerous than we thought," Cloudhawk mused. "Maybe we should call the settlers back."

Hellflower did not agree. "Call them back? Why? Do you have any idea how much we can learn from the body of this lizard? Do you know how many other powerful robots like it have been seen wandering Stony Plains, or what other precious relics are waiting to be discovered? That planet is more valuable than any treasure vault you could pry open!"

She wasn't wrong, but that didn't answer the question of whether the world was safe or hostile.

Hellflower tried another way. "Haven't you always wanted to know what really happened to our world? If there are survivors out there they might have the answers. Imagine what that could mean for our future! Think about what we could accomplish if we turn this extraterrestrial power to our cause? It may be just the tool we need to turn the tide in our favor at this critical moment!"

Whatever Hellflower's other talents, she sure knew how to argue her case. Her passion and persuasion tickled at Cloudhawk's heart. He did want to know what happened to turn his world into the hellscape it was today.

He also wanted to know how these distinct planets were connected by his dimensional powers and whether the catastrophe that erased human civilization could happen again. If there was an intelligent species hiding somewhere out there, perhaps they held the answers. So he agreed to wait and see, perhaps they would know more soon.

Of the four dimensional layers Cloudhawk had access to, the first was a worthless asteroid field where a planet had once been. The remaining three appeared to have some use. The Spore World, for instance, had turned out to be integral to his people. The third layer was turning out to be an important place for technological development. The fourth layer Cloudhawk had only visited once and knew it to be filled with dangerous critters. Sooner or later he would assemble a crew to scour it for something useful.

So far, nothing in the Demon King's inherited memories revealed how many dimensions or other worlds there were to explore. Each one held some sort of meaning, though, and as far as he could tell there was infinite room for more.

Hellflower continued picking apart the lizard, learning all she could. Cloudhawk had no more reason to hang around so he left. Once he exited the laboratory he was met with a messenger with another report. Dawn had won a series of important victories out on campaign. Much of the territory she'd lost before Cloudhawk came back had been retaken. She was currently engaged against the Conclave's long-range forces and if she could beat them back, the conclave would be cast out of the southern wilds entirely.

It had been less than a month since Cloudhawk had returned to Greenland. Already the dire circumstance he'd come back to appeared to be turning in their favor. Such was the benefit of having support from the Dark Atom and Nox.

He also learned more about how things were fairing in Imperia. Reports described a city well on its way to recovery. After taking control the Shepherd God made a point of performing several highly visible miracles. These acts helped her establish a reputation and solidified her leadership. While her power did not yet compare to that of the late Silverwing Monarch, Meadow was her domain. The former king could never do what she was capable of from the heart of her Temple.

It didn't matter where, people valued and respected strength.

The Shepherd God's strength was enough to keep the people of Imperia impressed and in line. The feats Autumn performed defied their imaginations. What's more, upon her return the Shepherd God revealed the true history of the realm they occupied. That alone made her words more persuasive.

Imperia was the most populated territory under Cloudhawk's control. Even once they clawed back the rest of the southern wilds, Imperia - or Oakstead as the Shepherd God had originally named it - would still be home to half of all his people. Having it take a turn toward stability was very good news for Cloudhawk.

"Now is the time to cast out the Conclave of Judgment."

Cloudhawk looked over a map of the southern wilds. Now he knew that Dawn's main force had engaged with the Conclave's, and the result of that battle would determine the fate of his territory. He would participate himself, and not only him but the Khan and Abaddon as well.

It'd been more than twenty days since Dawn led her coalition off to battle. With her string of victories there was no question that she'd earned respect and prestige among her troops. What the south needed now was a suitably grandiose victory to boost morale and rekindle faith. Cloudhawk summoned his two lieutenants and teleported directly from the city. It took them less than an hour to reach the battlefield with the help of his powers. It was taking place in an abandoned wasteland city. Dawn had already arrived and occupied it to have a more defensible position when the enemy arrived.

"What are you doing here?" Dawn had been looking over maps and crafting her strategy when she heard Cloudhawk had arrived. She'd gone immediately to find him.

Cloudhawk looked on the young woman and smiled. "Things back in Greenland are all under control. We're here to help you fight the final battle for the southern wilds."

Indeed it was the final battle. If they stopped the Conclave here they would have no choice but to retreat back to the north with their tail between their legs. Interest in harassing the south would sharply decrease or stop entirely once the Conclave focused on licking its wounds. Their enemies would certainly be taking this fight seriously.

Just then a dark wind blew and an ominous shadow appeared on the horizon.

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