Chapter 497: Trail of Light
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Chapter 497: Trail of Light

 

  Drip… Drip… Drip…

  Drops of water dripped down between the old wooden planks of the ceiling. A storm had begun to brew outside. Flashes of green lightning flickered across the dark clouds every few seconds. Powerful winds howled out and shook the rickety windows. The sound of rain pelting above them drowned out the whispers and painful moans of the wounded soldiers.

  The barracks Cedric had led them to was old and had seen better days, perhaps a century ago. After retreating from the Northern Gate their goal had been to reach the medical encampment several neighborhoods away, but the streets were filled with monstrous golems and undead sentinels fighting with abandon. 

  To make matters worse, the Northern Gate had fallen and Valley tribal warriors had rushed into the city, cutting down any soldier too slow to escape. The Goldelm forces had been scattered. Lord Atlas’ and his small elite group of battle mages had stayed behind to give their allies time to escape, a few precious moments.

  How little it seemed to matter now. The valley warriors had ripped through Goldelm's army and the soldiers had scattered across the streets into the darkness. What little forces Cedric and Commander Randall had managed to save, they led to this small abandoned barracks.

  Perhaps there had been some soldiers stationed at the barracks, but there were none here now. The scouts Cedric had sent out to assess the situation hadn’t returned. Nor had anyone spotted Lord Atlas after the gate fell.

  Drip… Drip… Drip…

  Freya sat crouched in the corner of the room, knees to her chest, arms wrapped around her legs. She stared numbly at the small puddle forming at her feet. Water droplets fell in a quiet expected rhythm.

  Her father’s body lay on a cot the next room over. One of the soldiers had found a spare blanket in one of the closets and had carefully covered Lord Zorn Goldelm. Freya had stayed with her father’s body until his blood began to bloom across the sheet. Feeling sick to her stomach she had left and found herself a corner where no one would bother her.

  Cedric stood alone at the other end of the room, pacing back and forth while holding Oginum in a white knuckle grip. He hadn’t let go of the golden hammer since the moment their father had entrusted it to him. 

  A faint knock rasped on the door. 

  The rusty hinges turned with a creek and Commander Randall walked into the room. The old dwarf glanced at Freya and smiled sympathetically. She didn’t respond and kept staring at the puddle on the ground.

  “Commander! Any news?” Cedric asked impatiently.

  Randall’s smile fell and his face contorted into a painful expression. “A scout just returned, but I’m afraid she only carries bad news, young master.”

  “Tell me,” he said resolutely.

  “Most of our forces are lost, dispersed among the various surrounding streets. Small skirmishes are occurring across the entire northern half of the district. Our soldiers don’t know where we are and we have no way of communicating with them without risking alerting the enemy of our location.”

  “So you’re saying our army is scattered with no hope of regrouping?” Cedric asked.

  “For now,” Randall admitted.

  “How many do we still have with us?”

  “About two hundred.”

  “How many wounded?”

  Randall slumped his shoulders and sighed tiredly. “Most have some scrapes, cuts, and bruises. We were forced to leave behind the rest of the wounded.”

  “So they’re still out there?” Freya spoke up.

  “...I’m afraid not, young mistress,” Randall admitted.

  “They’re dead, sister. Or do you think the valley savages are kind enough to spare our wounded stragglers?” Cedric said.

  “That’s not what I meant. I just—”

  “Enough, Freya,” Cedric sighed. “So, Commander. 200 abled men and women?”

  “Yes, young master,” said Randall.

  “What’s the landscape outside like?” asked Cedric.

  “From what I’ve managed to gather, the Commoner District is in ruins. The common folk are being killed by the hundreds, whether from trebuchet bombardment, golem attacks, or valley savages. It’s chaos out there. The magestone lanterns lining the streets have almost all been destroyed. It’s dark. It’s raining.”

  “We’d be fighting blind out there?” Cedric surmised.

  “Yes,” Randall agreed grimly.

  “What of the medical encampment?”

  “Our scout managed to make contact with them. The encampment still stands, mostly thanks to their red mages’ wards.”

  “And my brother?” Cedric whispered anxiously.

  Freya’s heart clenched at his words. She looked at Randall, worry filled her golden eyes.

  The old dwarf cleared his throat and wrung his hands at his side. “Lord Aric is still in charge of the encampment, but he’s unconscious…”

  “What? What are you talking about!?” Cedric yelled.

  “It seems Lord Aric has been injured. Nothing life-threatening, but… it’s his back. He can’t be moved, not for another few hours, until the healing magic has done its work.”

  “Can’t be moved? On whose authority?” Cedric growled.

  “Lady Celica Skeller.”

  “Skeller? That’s a minor House. Orcs, was it?” Cedric recalled.

  “Yes. Lady Celica is a powerful white mage and the most skilled healer in the district. If she says your brother cannot be moved, then she means it.”

  “Ugh. How on earth did he even get injured?” 

  “Stray boulder shrapnel from a trebuchet bombardment,” Randall said quietly.

  Cedric’s anger drained from his face. He stared at the golden hammer in his hands, blood still staining the weapon. 

  “First our father and now our brother? The gods hate our family,” Freya whispered.

  “We’ll get Aric out of there,” said Cerdic resolutely. “Commander, rally the men. We’re heading to the encampment now.”

  “Young master, the roads leading to the encampment are riddled with the enemy—”

  “We’ll fight them off.”

  “There is more,” Randall said hurriedly. “The scout said she saw a large force moving towards the direction of the medical encampment. I think they mean to murder our healers and cripple our army’s support.”

  “How could a scout see this? You said the streets were in darkness?”

  “She is a vampire and a black mage at that. I trust her word,” Randall answered.

  “Is the encampment aware of the threat?”

  “Yes. They are moving the ones they can. Lady Celica and a few of the other healers are staying behind to care for the ones that cannot be moved.”

  “Like my brother…?”

  “Yes.”

  “How many?”

  “Young master?”

  “How many barbarians did the scout see?” Cedric asked.

  “Around half a battalion’s worth.”

  “No!” Freya gasped.

  “How long do we have?” Cedric whispered.

  “Not long, young master.” Randall bowed, “Whatever you decide, the men and I will be with you.”

  Cedric licked his lips and swallowed hard. He stared at the ancestral hammer in his hands. “...If we go to the encampment, we will die.”

  “What are you saying?” Freya frowned.

  Cedric glanced at her. There was a glimpse of shame in his golden eyes, but he quickly buried it. “Commander, gather the men. We head to the Goldelm Manor in the Villa District. We will fortify what we can at the manor, until daybreak.”

  “Cedric, you can’t be serious!” Freya shouted.

  “And Commander, send another scout to my brother. If he has any last wishes, have him tell the scout.”

  “As you wish, young master,” said Randall.

  Freya jumped to her feet. “Cedric—!”

  “What would you have me do, sister?!” he snapped.

  “Save Aric! Honor Dad’s last wish! He entrusted Oginum to you so that you could deliver it to his firstborn, his heir, our brother!”

  “You think that was Father’s last wish?” Cedric shook his head. “Father's last wish was the same wish he always had. The prosperity and continuation of the Great House of Goldelm. Aric is the most fit to lead us. He is Father’s heir. That’s why he wanted me to deliver Oginum to Aric. But if we go to the encampment now, it won’t just be Aric that dies. It’ll be all of us. Father wouldn’t want that.”

  “So what, you’re just going to keep Oginum to yourself? Is that it?” Freya sneered.

  “You think I care about ruling? I never wanted the Goldelm Lordship! ” Cedric hefted Oginum, “My duty isn’t to our father or this hammer, it’s to our House! Our family!”

  “Then why are you abandoning it?!”

  “I’m not! Think, sister! Our mothers and younger siblings are hiding at the manor.”

  “They’re in the Villa District. They’re safe!”

  “For now. But the city has been breached. We need to get to the manor and protect what we can. Not throw our lives away for something we cannot stop. …We can’t save Aric.”

  Freya bit her lip. “You don’t know that.”

  “Half a battalion is marching to the encampment right now.”

  “That’s only around 500 men. We can fight that.”

  “Only 500? Gods, listen to yourself! Our soldiers are wounded and tired. The enemy is over twice our size! Even in the best of circumstances, it would be a losing battle.”

  “So we’re just supposed to give up on everyone at the medical encampment? Let them all die, without even a fight?”

  “...Yes,” Aric said coldly.

  “You’re just scared,” Freya spat.

  “Of course, I’m scared!” Cedric yelled, his voice shaky. “We almost died out there, Freya! If we had just been a few steps closer to Father when that boulder hit we wouldn’t even be here!” 

  Freya stared at him in stunned silence. She had never seen her brother like this. Cedric had always been calm, collected, and unwavering. He had always been strict with her and though she resented him for it, she had always looked up to him.

  “You’re right, I’m afraid. But my fears don’t change the truth; We can’t save Aric,” Cedric admitted.

  “...We could try,” she whispered.

  “We’ll die. If Aric was here, he’d tell us to leave him behind.”

  Freya balled her fists. The sight of the soldiers at the wall being cut down as they fled the gate flashed in her mind. And then for a moment, she was back there, not at the gate, but far from the city, on a lonely cliffside, surrounded by valley barbarians. Stryg and Clypeus stood alone in front of her and her classmates.

  “...I’m done leaving people behind,” Freya whispered. “If you won’t come with me, I’ll go by myself.”

  “Stop being stubborn, little sister.” 

  Freya ignored him and walked to the door.

  Cedric sighed and stepped in front of the doorway. “I know you’re angry, but you’ll thank me after this is all over.”

  “Get out of my way,” she said in a strangely calm voice.

  “I’m not asking you to stay, Freya. I’m ordering you.” 

  She glared at him. “Get out of my way. I won’t say it again.”

  Cedric lifted Oginum and pressed it against her chest. “Neither will I—”

  With a deft hand, Freya pushed Oginum aside and socked him in the gut. Cedric gasped and doubled over, dropping the hammer with a heavy clang.

  “Young master!” Randall called out.

  Freya grabbed the golden hammer and lifted it. She stumbled back a step, it was heavier than she thought.

  Her brother staggered to his feet. “What do you think you’re doing!?” Cedric spat through clenched teeth.

  “I’ll deliver Oginum to Aric myself.”

  “You insolent, little—!” Cedric channeled Orange and conjured flames over his hand.

  Freya hefted Oginum and pointed it at him without hesitation. 

  Cedric stiffened and frowned, “This won’t end well for you. If you go out there alone, you’ll die.”

  “I know,” she smiled weakly. “But I won’t let that stop me from protecting those who need it most, not again. Not ever again.” She bowed her head, “Thank you for everything. Goodbye.”

  Freya turned on her heel and walked out.

  “Commander, stop her! Get our men and stop her!” Cedric ordered angrily.

  “Yes, young master!” Randall rushed out of the room and followed after Freya.

  Cedric grabbed his sister’s hammer that she had left behind and hurried after them. Walking outside, he spotted Randall and several soldiers standing in the rain.

  Cedric frowned. “Why are you all just standing there—!?” his voice trailed off.

  Freya walked alone through the courtyard. Her back was straight, her stride was filled with purpose, and her eyes were focused on the dark street in front of her. The soldiers stared at her wide-eyed and gave way as she drew near.

  “The stories are true.” Tears welled up in Randall’s eyes. “I never thought I’d live to see it.”

  Freya walked unimpeded through the crowd of soldiers and into the dark. She hadn’t noticed; small motes of golden light trailed behind Oginum.

  “It cannot be…” Cedric mumbled. “The Light of the North…?”

 

 

 

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