Under the Oak Tree-Chapter 291 -
291 Chapter The back-and-forth with the Remdragon Knight commander must have been particularly tiring, as Kuahel looked fed up. Riftan appeared far from pleased as well. No doubt he had wanted to take more of his own men with them. With their limited provisions, however, it had been decided that the party could accommodate no more than fifteen.
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Evidently preferring to pad the numbers with his Temple Knights, Kuahel refused to budge. In the end, Riftan chose Ulyseon and Elliot to fill the two spots allowed to him.
“Are you all right with this?” said Garrow. “We can try to go with—”
“That won’t be necessary.” Riftan shook his head and secured his luggage to his saddle. “You and the rest of the knights are to wait for us here. And pass this to Nirtha.”
He took a small piece of parchment from his coat and gave it to Garrow.
The young knight glanced sideways at Ulyseon before sighing in resignation. “Yes, sir. Please stay safe, then.”
Watching them from a short distance away, Maxi hunched her shoulders as a strange sense of guilt washed over her.
Ulyseon looked up quizzically from polishing his sword. “Is something the matter, my lady? Are you feeling unwell?”
“N-No. I was just… f-feeling sorry. If I hadn’t foolishly accepted Royald’s challenge… the three of you wouldn’t have had to take on this perilous mission.”
“That’s not true, my lady,” Elliot replied in his usual calm manner. He talked as he saddled his dark brown stallion. “The commander was always going to join the scout party, even if you weren’t. If war broke out, the Remdragon Knights would be called to battle as well. We must prepare by gathering as much information as possible. To come up with a proper strategy, it is crucial we understand the strength and nature of the enemy as well as their territory.”
He turned his gaze to the Temple Knights packing their travel equipment on the other side. “We cannot leave such an important task to the paladins alone.”
Maxi swallowed dryly. It appeared that the knights were already preparing for war. After sweeping her eyes over the gleaming armor beneath Elliot’s open coat and the longsword hanging at his side, Maxi nodded. Her heart felt heavy at the thought that a terrible war awaited them at the end of this arduous undertaking. However, if they failed to bring down this city of monsters, the people of the Western Continent would have to live in fear of an invasion all their lives.
Her face set into one of grave determination. Since matters had come to this, she resolved to do her best. After all, this mission could determine the outcome of the war. Gritting her teeth, she secured her belongings to Rem’s saddle. Just then, a familiar voice rang above her.
She jerked her head up, her eyes growing wide. Sidina was slowly making her way down the rock face, lugging a bag that looked as big as her.
“Max! I’m so glad you’re all right!” the girl cried, waving excitedly.
Overjoyed to see her friend, Maxi ran over. As soon as Sidina nimbly landed on the ground, she grabbed Maxi’s hands, her words tumbling out in a single breath.
“Forgive me for running away and leaving you behind! You’ve no idea how shaken I was when I heard you’d fallen off the cliff!”
“Y-You have nothing to apologize for, Sidina. It’s my fault for not making it out on time.” Maxi patted the girl’s shoulder with a flustered expression. “But… why the luggage? Don’t tell me you were selected to join the scout party as well.”
Sidina nodded, dabbing her sleeve on the corners of her red eyes. “Just my luck to draw the short straw.”
“It seems you and I are both terribly unlucky,” Maxi said with a bitter smile.
Albern, who had descended the cliff after Sidina, looked Maxi up and down. “What’s this? You’re going as well?”
Maxi awkwardly bobbed her head.
Albern seemed to have expected Anette to be in the party. He wistfully eyed her crouched figure by the campfire before turning his gaze back to Maxi. “Which reminds me, where’s the traitor? Master Calto has asked me to pass on a message.”
“A message?” Maxi asked, eyeing the parchment he took out from his clothes.
After glancing around the camp, Albern started toward the carts when he spotted Ruth perched on one of them. He promptly swung back around and handed the parchment to Maxi.
“Would you mind giving this to him for me? I’d rather not interact with the fellow.”
Maxi rolled her eyes and accepted the message with a small sigh. The yellow parchment was filled with Elvish. After taking a peek, she gave up on translating its contents and walked over to Ruth.
The sorcerer looked up from the stack of parchment in his hand as she approached. “Can I help you?”
“I’m here… to give you this message from Master Calto.”
Ruth regarded the parchment in her hand with a sour look before reluctantly taking it. “What does it say?”
Maxi shuffled behind him and craned her neck to read over his shoulder. After skimming the contents, Ruth folded the parchment and slipped it inside his clothes with a melancholy sigh.
“Half of it is irrelevant nagging and castigation.”
“And the other half?”
The sorcerer hesitantly glanced at the Temple Knights before leaning close. “It appears they have uncovered records left by the dark mages that the church… might use as ammunition against mages in general. He has asked me to destroy any findings during the investigation that might prove problematic.”
“What could they have possibly found?”
‘He did not expound on the matter, but I can roughly surmise what it is,” Ruth said, furtively showing her the parchment he had been reading. “It seems the dark mages were looking for a way to save human souls.”
Maxi’s eyes grew wide and automatically darted to the Temple Knights. As always, they moved about in perfect order as they gathered and packed supplies and weapons, their faces unreadable. In her periphery, Kuahel Leon stood supervising his men with an expression as cold as ice.
Leaning closer to Ruth, she said in a hushed voice, “I-IS that true?”
‘We can’t be certain yet, but it’s highly likely.” Ruth pointed to some of the complicated runes on the parchment with a troubled expression. “Although it would be impossible to interpret fully, the dark mages appear to have attempted to recreate the purification spell used by the clerics. I’ve found similar records supporting this fact all over the ruins.”
Stunned, Maxi stared dumbly at the record. Though the runes were beyond her ability to decipher, she could tell even at a glance that there was something unusual about them. She let out a quiet groan.
If Ruth was right, this was a grave matter indeed. The salvation of souls was a prerogative bestowed only to the church and the apostles of God. People could be burned at the stake for attempting to dabble in that field of magic.
“W-Why would the dark mages try to learn divine magic?” Maxi asked, her voice quivering. ‘ID-Do you think... they were trying to challenge the church?”
“1 suspect a more fundamental reason than that,” Ruth muttered glumly. He rolled up the parchment and shoved it inside a leather bag. “The dark mages were banished here after being excommunicated, and excommunication is a death sentence on the soul.”
Ruth turned a cynical gaze on the Temple Knights. ‘Even the dark mages wouldn’t have wanted to roam this wasteland forever as an undead. They would have needed a spell they could use in place of the church’s purification rite.” ‘Il-If the church... were to learn of this...”
‘They certainly wouldn’t turn a blind eye. It would be fortunate if we could put an end to the matter by getting rid of all the records currently in our possession. But if worse comes to worst, this may lead to an even bigger problem.”
Maxi bit her lip. She did not dare ask what he meant. The hairs on her arm stood on end, and she glowered at Ruth resentfully. How could he burden her with such a big secret when she already had enough things to worry about?
‘Sh-Should you be telling me such things so readily?”
‘Might I remind you, it was you who asked first?”
‘E-Even so! You should be more careful! What if someone were to hear you?
“What are you two whispering about?”
Maxi jumped like a startled frog. Only a few steps away, Riftan stood glaring at them. She nervously glanced around to make sure no Temple Knights were nearby, then gave him a stiff smile.
‘N -Nothing. I was just... asking Ruth for advice on how to better control mana.’
Riftan’s eyes narrowed at her stammer. His look was probing as he stared down at her. “We’ll be departing soon. Go and find your horse. And remember to stay close to me, Elliot, or Ulyseon at all times.”
Maxi promptly walked over to where Rem was tethered. The other knights and mages gathered to see them off, and the scout party began their journey north with only a single wagon. Much to their relief, the weather was on their side.
Brilliant sunlight shone over the snowfield, and the wind was unusually gentle. The party meticulously marked their path on the map as they traversed the frozen terrain.
Confirming the location of the monster base was not their sole mission. Another important task was to map out routes in advance to help the coalition army in their future invasion. They scrupulously measured distances and marked the map with detailed observations of the landscape. Though it slowed them considerably, it was a prudent choice. It would save them from having to circle back just to map the terrain.
When night fell, the once-mild wind began to blow fiercely. They rode through the gust, stopping their horses when they came upon a large boulder. Kuahel Leon gave the order to set up camp after carefully scanning the vicinity, and the knights executed his command with perfect efficiency.
Meanwhile, the mages erected barriers to serve as windbreaks and lit fires around the camp to keep the horses warm. Though drawing monsters with the light was a real possibility, they could not afford to have their precious means of transportation freeze to death.
Returning from his patrol of the area, Riftan said to Kuahel, ‘Let’s have one man stand watch in turns.”
Before the Temple Knight could reply, Geoffrey, who was warming himself in front of the campfire, cut in. ‘IIS that really necessary? We can cast a barrier around the camp so everyone can get a good rest.”
‘You would be better off conserving your mana. You will need it later,” Kuahel replied firmly. “And there are monsters here resistant to magic. We would still need to stand watch even with a barrier.”
“1f that’s settled, let us take turns every three hours,” said Riftan.
While the knights decided on the order of the watch, the mages prepared supper. Sidina and Nevin prepared a potful of stew while Maxi and Ruth sliced bread and cheese into bite-sized pieces. Once the food was ready, the party gathered around the fire.
As she roasted her frozen bread on a skewer, Maxi watched Riftan eat. From time to time, he shared bits of his bread with Talon sitting beside him. She was pouting in jealousy when his eyes flew to her. “Why aren’t you eating? Your bread’s burning.”
‘Il-I was just about to.”
Maxi hastily withdrew the skewer from the fire and saw the bread was already black-brown. She was staring at it in distaste when Riftan abruptly took it from her and gave her his.
‘You should eat now so you can go rest inside the tent. Tomorrow’s weather will not be as nice. You will struggle if you don’t get enough rest..