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Book 3, Chapter 112 - Verdic

 The Temple was more than just the heart of Skycloud city.

Were one's eyes sharp enough, they would discover that the Temple was situated in the center of the entire domain. In fact, it was precise down to the smallest unit, far beyond mankind's construction capabilities. There was no way to describe it other than a miracle from the gods themselves.

Every morning and every evening, the citizens of Skycloud knelt in prayer before the Temple. People in other cities shared the tradition, always facing the distant center of their faith. Every church and place of worship in the domain was built with its faade in the direction of the Temple.

Cloudhawk's nerves were on edge, so he hardly noticed the grandiose and opulent interior. However, there were some things that struck him even if he didn't see them directly.

From the outside the Temple was a towering structure, but in some way he could not explain it seemed like the inside was several times larger. It defied logic, like walking into a three-meter room only to find its ceiling was six meters high. But that was exactly what it was like in this place.

Phain brought Cloudhawk and the others toward an expansive audience hall, suspended in air. It was spotless, immaculately kept, and without blemish. All around was sky, and as the clouds wafted by they adopted all different hues.

A dozen metal-forged depictions of the gods were arranged all around, with the hanging audience hall situated in the middle. Walking through, it felt like the gods were watching, making it hard to breathe.

Cloudhawk was sure this was no illusion, the interior had to be bigger than it looked from the outside.

Some method in the way they constructed the Temple was the culprit, certainly. Somehow both fixed in volume and expansive within, turning a structure of a dozen meters into a palatial expanse that measured a hundred cubic meters or more.

It went against the laws of physics, but who could fathom the mystical powers of the gods? Humans said it was impossible because humans were too ignorant.

Cloudhawk was led down a long bridge, enveloped in colorful clouds. Walking through it lent the illusion that they were traipsing through the heavens. Eventually they reached the magnificent hanging hall.

The Templars fanned out to the left and right. Taking up station, weapons in hand, they looked like a cadre of holy effigies standing in mute supplication.

Cloudhawk's eyes trailed up the terraced stairs toward the apex, where he could make out a group of figures. Seated in the center was a figure all in white, ancient and kind of countenance with the soothing presence of an immortal being.

Two platforms were arrayed below the old man to his left and right, each with their own occupant. One was wrapped in red, solemnly bearing a black scepter. The other wore robes of aquamarine, and carried a volume that poured irradiant light.

An old man in white. Another in red, scepter held forth. One in blue, bearing a brilliant tome. This was the High Priest of the Temple and his two Cardinals.

Phain was reverential in their presence. As Grand Prior he was not inferior in rank to the Cardinals, but they did have the authority to direct the Templars. There was also the High Priest, who stood above them all.

Cloudhawk noted that he couldn't see them very clearly. It wasn't because they were far away, or because of the clouds that surrounded them. His eyes were keener than his namesake, especially after the continuous improvements his body had undergone. He could even see through cloud cover and mist, to an extent.

No, there was something blocking his vision, making their images vague and indistinguishable aside from general details. He couldn't pick out their faces.

After a few minutes the multicolored clouds gradually dispersed. Skycloud's highest authorities were revealed through the haze.

They had to be on some sort of moving platform, but the clouds made it look like they were magically floating through the heavens. Governor Arcturus Cloude was among them, looking down over the crowd from his lofty vantage.

"There is no need to go over the events of the past few days."

Arcturus occupied the platform closest to the High Priest. Both were equal in height and respect; one the spiritual leader of the realm, and the other its highest governmental authority. The governor, speaking first, paused as his calm voice reverberated through the hall. Every syllable was clear.

"Today, before the High Priest, we will determine how this matter shall be put to rest. Illustrious colleagues, what say you?"

"The charges against them are without contestation. Obvious are the maleficent consequences of their actions, and we can proceed directly to sentencing. Atlas Umbra was performing his duties in defense of the law, but failed in those duties. In this failure, he allowed for great harm to come to the people of Skycloud, and should be punished appropriately. Dawn Polaris was aware of Cloudhawk's fugitive status, and yet still she chose to follow him toward catastrophe. She is also culpable and should be stripped of her title of Templar, along with all the rights and duties it entails. As for Cloudhawk, the instigator of dubious background and unclear motives. There is still much about this that remains unclear, and serious punishments shall be levied once the truth has come to light."

"I wholeheartedly agree with this verdict!"

"As do I!"

The judgment was fair, and the responsibility of all parties involved appeared clear. The gathered ministers and clergy raised their voice in agreement.

"I do not accept your verdict!" A sharp voice answered them from the platform below. Despite her heavy chains, Dawn shot to her feet in defiance. "High Priest, Cloudhawk is being treated unjustly. He is guilty of nothing other than wanting to save our city. The fact that you are willing to lay the responsibility at his feet is a travesty! What about the Dark Atom agents that were allowed to thrive below our very feet? Do you accept no responsibility for that?"

Her accusatory words drew ire from the authorities passing judgment. While they knew this daughter of the Polaris family was unruly, her willingness to sling mud even in the face of such dire circumstances was untenable. She was inviting her own destruction by openly warring with Skycloud's masters.

"Kneel!" Phain roughly kicked the back of her knees, forcing her back onto the ground. He glared at her and growled in low tones. "Keep your mouth shut."

Pain and rage wracked her, and the sweat that soaked through her robes dripped onto the stones beneath her. But defiance still raged inside her. Dawn grit her teeth, ready to rise again. She knew that if this farce were allowed to continue Cloudhawk was as good as dead. No one would be able to save him.

Phain glanced at the Templars nearby. A pair of them approached and held Dawn firmly on her knees.

Cloudhawk glanced her way and saw that Dawn was preparing to say more. With a shake of his head and a smirk, he flicked his finger. A small field of silence fell over her, to make sure she didn't dig that hole any deeper.

Cloudhawk was no fool. Now that he was here, there was no going back. If Dawn kept up as she was the only thing she'd accomplish was putting her neck in the noose beside his.

His remarkable act of using a relic's power without a relic wasn't easily detected, so no one noticed.

Yet, all of a sudden the old High Priest - who had been sitting in silence with his eyes closed - suddenly opened his eyes and fixed them on Cloudhawk, but did not speak.

The Governor waited for things to settle down. "Does Cloudhawk have anything to say in his defense?

"Dawn has nothing to do with any of this. She didn't know I'd escaped from the Skyden, and I was the one who convinced her to go with me to the underground. The consequences are mine to bear, so if you need to punish someone then punish me and leave Dawn out of it. This was one person's doing, and should be one person's responsibility."

Cloudhawk wasn't the least bit cowed by this high and mighty crowd.

He was under no illusions that anything he said would be heard here. They would do whatever they wanted, regardless of what a small voice like his had to say. Trying to escape repercussions was pointless, it only made them more determined to make Cloudhawk an example.

But Dawn had been implicated in all this, and that was his fault. It was a bitter pill to swallow, a result of youthful ignorance. He lacked the experience to know, but now he did. There were consequences for acting rashly, and he would be more careful next time... well, if there was a next time.

Under the circumstances there was nothing more he could do. He was nobody, and there was nothing about him or his station to take pride in. But he was brave, principled, and stubborn.

You wanna make me your whipping boy, eh? Fuck it, bring it on. I can take it!

The least he could do was make sure his friends weren't caught in the blast.

When Dawn heard him, her eyes went wide. "Cloudhawk, you bastard, are you crazy? This isn't the time for your nonsense!"

But Cloudhawk had stolen her voice, so no sound could be heard.

He rose to his feet, facing his accusers with his back straight. He stood before the realm's most powerful men and women, before its spiritual leader, before the eyes of the gods, and though he was an ant before them he was still defiant. When he spoke, his voice rang through the hall.

"We all know by now there is nothing I can say that will justify my actions in your eyes, but there is something I want to say to you self-righteous people. You spit on wastelanders, but those weak outsiders are survivors. They've fought tooth and nail over the last thousand years just for the right to live. They have more worth and potential than you in your blessed bounty can ever imagine."

"My only aim is to do everything in my power to stop the fighting, stop the greed and ambition that causes it. I only want there to be fewer innocent victims. So while my actions may not be in line with your values, there are in line with mine. My conscience is clear. I don't believe I've done anything wrong. You can punish me however you like, but I will not accept fault!"

Dawn's face hardened at his declaration.

He took her by surprise. All of a sudden, she felt like she never really knew him at all. His innermost self, his ideals, his conviction. Maybe even Cloudhawk didn't fully know what was buried deep inside, but it was coming to the surface now to influence his actions.

Atlas raised his head and regarded the fugitive. For a moment, there was a glimmer of respect in those black eyes. In the face of this overwhelming circumstance, he wasn't going to defend his actions? His humble appearance hid a more tenacious truth inside. There was a dignity deep in his bones that was unmatched.

Arcturus spent no more time asking questions. His eyes swept across those gathered, and for a short time they discussed in private. Soon, they were in agreement. The punishments proposed were seen as fair and just.

"Cloudhawk will be consigned to the stake! His sentence will be carried out by the acting Grand Prior of the Templar Order, Phain Mist!"

Dawn and Atlas would be given their sentence was more was uncovered.

Arcturus, the High Priest, and the cardinals did not oppose the judgment. The matter was settled.

Tears that had been gathering in Dawn's eyes finally began to fall. She raised her head and looked at Cloudhawk, her only friend, and couldn't help but ask. "Do you think it was worth it?"

What was she asking? Whether it was worth it to blindly come rushing back to save Skycloud, only to be unfairly branded a criminal and sentenced to death? Or if it was worth it to shoulder all the responsibility and refuse to defend himself so he didn't drag a friend down with him?

Maybe both.

"No." His offered a curt reply, but there was a flash of mirth in his dark eyes. "But I'm happy. This was my decision, and I stayed true to who I am. Don't feel bad. Take care... bye."

Cloudhawk was dragged away by a pair of Templars.

He looked so alone as they carried him away.

Dawn raised her head once again to that lofty dais and glared with hatred. It was the first time she saw something so ugly and grotesque and unreasonable in their holy city. If the gods were real and cared for justice, why would they let this happen to Cloudhawk?

She hated that there wasn't anything she could do about it.

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