Under the Oak Tree-Chapter 128C367
367 Chapter 128
The howling gale drowned out the last part of Ruth's explanation. Maxi hunched her shoulders against the cold, chilled to the bone, the hair on her nape standing on end. She could not tell whether it was due to the lashing snow or the shocking revelation she had just heard.
"I must report my findings to Sir Riftan, so let's resume this discussion at the guest quarters," Ruth said, placing a hat on his half-frozen head. He nodded toward the lodgings on the other side of the courtyard.
Maxi tried to organize her muddled thoughts as she followed him in silence. There were no vengeful dark mages; all that remained were the horrifying monsters they had created.
Was this good tidings for the mages? Objectively speaking, it was a positive development that the monsters, not the disgraced mages, had orchestrated the invasion three years ago. Furthermore, the enemy's base was now no more, diminishing their threat.
The thought provided some solace, if only slightly. Maxi calmed herself and determinedly strode across the snowy grounds. As they neared the knights' accommodation, she noticed men rushing out the door, torches in hand.
Where are they going in such weather?
Baffled, she watched their hurried movements through the snow before running after Ruth, who had forged ahead without her. 11 There was more unrest within the building. Dozens of knights were gathered at tables around the spacious hall, their heads bent in grave discussions. Attendants rushed up the stairs hauling pigeon cages.
Maxi watched them in bewilderment. Surely they could not be trying to send pigeons out in such conditions.
A few steps ahead of her, she heard Ruth groan. "Something must have happened."
Maxi's stomach twisted into knots. It was evident from the tense atmosphere that some serious matter had arisen.
Without exchanging a word, Ruth and Maxi broke into a run across the chaotic hall. Just as they were about to ascend the stairs, they noticed Elliot Charon making his way down.
Ruth halted the knight. "Sir Elliot. Has something happened?"
"Mage Ruth." The surprise on Elliot's face promptly turned to deference as he spotted Maxi hovering behind. "Greetings, my lady."
"L-Let us put formalities aside for now! What is going on? Is there a problem?"
Elliot's expression grew troubled at her flurry of questions, and Maxi realized he was reluctant to share any bad news with her. She fixed him with a piercing look, ready to rebuke him, but Ruth spoke first.
"Where is Sir Riftan? I have an urgent report for him."
"The commander has gone to see the king," Elliot replied. Then, finally deciding to disclose the truth, he added with a heavy sigh, "We have received word that a large number of undead have spawned all over the eastern regions. Several castles and villages have already been ravaged, and we're scrambling to send an army as soon as possible."
Maxi was so shocked by the unexpected news that she momentarily ceased breathing. She shuddered as though drenched with icy cold water.
"Forgive me, my lady, but I must go send word to Anatol and organize our men," Elliot said, his expression grim. "If you will excuse me."
With a polite nod, he strode out of the hall and into the raging snowstorm. Maxi turned to look at Ruth, her face ashen.
"D-Do you think the monsters are behind this as well?"
Ruth nodded. "Most likely."
"B-But how? Even if they possessed powerful magic, creating enough undead monsters to cause such destruction is no small-"
"We should not be discussing this here," Ruth interjected.
Maxi hastily closed her mouth and glanced around. Fortunately, no one seemed to be paying any attention to them. Ruth sighed softly and turned toward the door.
"Let us head to the Roemian palace. The monarchs of the Seven Kingdoms are staying there, so I suspect that's where we will find Sir Riftan."
He retraced his steps out of the building. Maxi followed along after him, confused at his urgency. Was it that pressing to inform Riftan that the enemy was the monsters and not the dark mages? While this information held great significance for the mages, surely it made little difference to the monarchs or the feudal lords whether the fiends laying waste to their lands was human or monster.
In fact, the pope might even welcome this revelation, as it would absolve him from the accusations made by the Orthodox Church for concealing the dark mages' existence.
The more she pondered it, the more perplexed she grew. What was Ruth so concerned about? Did he harbor an even greater secret? 12 Maxi swallowed, unsure if she truly desired to uncover what that was. She had already endured a decade's worth of ordeals. She had grown weary of wars and monsters. All she wanted was to escape the hardships with Riftan by her side.
"You may find yourself embroiled in a troublesome matter if you choose to accompany me into this room," Ruth suddenly remarked as if sensing her hesitation. "If you wish to spare yourself the headache, you should return to your chamber."
Maxi bit her lip. She knew without a doubt that Riftan would never forsake his responsibilities, and she could hardly ask him to sacrifice his honor and spend the rest of his life in shame. She had to remind herself that all her efforts thus far had been to earn the right to stand beside him.
Now, she possessed the strength, courage, and wisdom to confront adversity. Maxi raised her chin and said calmly, "Enough of this nonsense. Lead the way."
Ruth shook his head, breaking into a grin, and proceeded through the arched entrance. They cut across the spacious hall where the nightly banquets were held and climbed the marble stairs.
A surge of nobles had already gathered in front of King Reuben's chamber, which could only mean that the problem was far more serious than she had initially anticipated.
"Sir Riftan must be meeting with the king," Ruth sighed after scanning the crowd. "We will have to wait until he comes out."
They took a seat on the vacant marble benches. Though Maxi felt the weight of the nobles' gazes on her, she paid them no mind, keeping her eyes fixed on the closed door. She was currently in no mood to be sociable.
When Riftan finally emerged from the king's room, Maxi sprang to her feet. The familiar sight of his blue cloak and silver-gray Remdragon Knight armor instantly eased the tension gripping her body, and she hurried over to him.
Riftan, walking down the corridor with a pensive expression, seemed slightly taken aback to see her there.
"What are you doing here?"
"I-I heard about what happened in the East. Has His Majesty ordered you to combat the monsters?" Maxi asked anxiously.
As she observed his eyes narrow slightly, she worried he might dismiss her again, claiming it was not her concern.
Contrary to her fears, however, Riftan regarded her in silence before shifting his gaze behind her to Ruth.
Indicating a dimly lit corridor with a nod, he suggested, "Let's find somewhere more private."
He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and started down the stairs. A surge of joy overcame Maxi. He had truly meant it when he said he would face anything alongside her. Filled with confidence, she descended the steps in high spirits.
When they entered an empty room, Ruth abruptly broke the silence.
"How extensive is the damage?"
Riftan calmly walked toward the window as he replied. "The entire northeastern region, including the Duchy of Croyso, has been left in ruins. The Duke of Croyso's messenger is here seeking military aid."
Maxi flinched. In her efforts to erase her father from her life over the past three years, she had not thought of him once since hearing of the turmoil in the East. She nervously studied Riftan and saw a glint of resentment in his otherwise composed face.
"The duchy is not the only place affected," he continued coldly. "Thousands of undead appeared around the Lexos Mountains and have been attacking nearby human settlements. Dristan and the southern regions of Arex have also suffered significant damage, and legions of undead have been spawning sporadically in other areas as well."
Riftan's intense gaze landed on Ruth.
"Can you explain to me how this is possible?"
"I can, but it would take days," Ruth replied flatly. "Since the minutiae of necromancy isn't your primary concern, what I can tell you now is that the enemy has been planning this for a long time. They have been planting dark magic across the continent while the coalition army fought in the Pamela Plateau. It could have started even earlier."
"Th-Then..." Maxi said, gulping in fear.
Turning his head to look at her, Ruth continued calmly, "The invasion three years ago was likely a strategic move to lay the foundation for this."
Maxi clenched the sleeve of her robe in her fist. She found it difficult to believe the monsters could plan so far ahead. Perhaps Ruth was overestimating their capabilities. She was about to say as much when Riftan spoke.
"What do you believe their objective to be?"
Ruth's gaze fell to the floor, his lips sealed tightly. After a moment of silence, Riftan pressed him further.
"I highly doubt they're seeking revenge for the exiled mages or that they want to occupy the territories they've ravaged. You must have some idea of their ultimate goal."
"I do have an inkling," Ruth said stiffly. "But before I tell you what I've discovered, I would like to request a private audience with the pope."