Under the Oak Tree-Chapter 294 -
294 Chapter 55
Maxi’s hair stood on end, and she instinctively grabbed Riftan’s forearm. The terrifying outlines of the monsters were visible even at such a great distance. Their hulking forms were encased in blackened iron armor, and they wore horned steel helmets. Each time they took a step, the massive axes slung over their shoulders glinted in the sun.
Her throat felt constricted. Barely managing to suck in a breath, she strove to quell her terror. Carefully assessing whatever was hidden beneath the black burlaps on their wagons, she surmised that the trolls were transporting monsters they had hunted. Some of the wagons were laden with bizarre apparatuses, which she assumed were tools to harvest their game.
Ulyseon was lying flat on his stomach nearby. He asked in a low voice, “Should we follow them?”
Riftan turned his head questioningly to Kuahel. When the Temple Knight gave him a nod, he turned to his two subordinates and warned, “We must move as quietly as possible.”
The knights slowly rose to their feet as the band of trolls grew distant. Maxi clumsily followed suit and tried to stop her legs from shaking. She pulled her hood over her head and slipped after Riftan, her heart racing wildly. She feared that at any moment now, the monsters would discover their presence. Though her feet moved forward, her chest shriveled in dread with every step.
Noticing her bleak expression, Elliot approached and whispered reassuringly, “Please do not worry, my lady. We will protect you.”
Maxi forced a smile. Riftan turned to look at her over his shoulder and furrowed his brow. Realizing he was concerned about her, she steeled herself as she climbed the slope.
As they neared the summit, Kuahel abruptly stopped in his tracks. “I want everyone to wait here.”
With that, he leaped onto a boulder to survey the other side. Maxi sank to the ground to take advantage of the short break. She sprinkled a pinch of salt into her mouth and flushed it down with water, ice-cold despite the leather wrapped around the flask.
After taking a few more sips, wincing at the iciness stabbing her brain, she looked down the steep mountain path they had taken. Snow-tipped summits and frosty valleys buffeted by gales filled her vision. Maxi took in the desolate landscape with a faraway look.
“Max,” Sidina whispered. “Come over here.”
Maxi tore her eyes away. Sidina was waving at her from a gap between two oblique rocks leaning against each other. Narrowing her eyes, Maxi crept into the narrow crevice. The first thing she saw was a precipitous cliff. Beyond it was a glittering snowfield upon which sprawled a vast city.
She stared, her mouth agape. She could not believe her eyes. The walled city was evenly packed with tight clusters of finely-built square houses. In the center stood a massive, square fortress and a castle tower as tall as those in Nornui. For a moment, she was utterly floored by how advanced it seemed.
“We finally found it,” muttered Ulyseon, who had walked up behind them without them noticing.
His face was set in sheer determination, an expression Maxi had never seen on him before.
After keenly assessing the large fortress, Ulyseon turned his gaze to her and said tensely, “Let us head over there, my lady. Sir Riftan should inform us of our next move.”
Maxi and Sidina followed the young knight to where Riftan was standing. Having seen the monster base as well, he was deliberating with Kuahel with a grim expression. Both men fell silent when the group cautiously approached. The grave atmosphere made Maxi narrow her eyes.
“W-What is it? Is there… a problem?”
“We were discussing ways to reconnoiter the city.”
Maxi’s eyes widened at Kuahel’s calm reply. “Y-You… intend to have men sneak into the city?”
“If possible, yes, but it certainly won’t be easy unless we can disguise ourselves as trolls or goblins.” After pensively stroking his chin, Kuahel turned to Geoffrey, who was catching his breath perched on a rock. “Is there a spell that could help us change our appearance?”
“There is a spell called polymorph, but I doubt it would be any good for deception. Many monsters of the Ayin race possess highly sensitive olfactory senses. They would easily pick up our human scent. What’s more… only Nevin and I are capable of polymorphing.”
Before Kuahel could say anything, Geoffrey hastily added, “And let me tell you now, neither of us is going to do something as heedless as sneak into a city of monsters.”
“Please rest assured that we would never send just the two of you in there,” Kuahel snapped before patting off the snow on his gloves rather irritably. “Is there any other way, then?”
“If we could get close to the city walls,” Sidina said cautiously, “we would be able to discern the city’s layout with search magic.”
Hearing this, Ulyseon flicked a worried glance at Maxi before returning his gaze to Riftan. “But, is it possible for us to move across such an open field undetected? Judging by those watchtowers, the monsters will have sentries on the lookout.”
“We would have to wait until nightfall,” Riftan replied, breaking his silence. “We can avoid detection under cover of darkness.”
Maxi gripped the drawstrings on her bag with trepidation. Just the thought of approaching the monster base in the dead of night twisted her stomach into knots. She quietly took in a deep breath to calm herself.
Elliot said gravely, “Though I agree it is important to investigate the city and the size of the enemy forces, we must also explore the geography around here. We must scout locations where we can station our army and make sure there are no other military facilities hidden in the area.”
“I concur,” said Kuahel. He studied each mage one by one. “We will split into two groups. One will investigate the city, and the other will go west to inspect the terrain.”
He shifted his gaze to the snowy mountain as if recalling their path.
‘We traveled east to the northwest through the border near Balto. However, the faster route would be through Livadon. It is vital that we reconnoiter the geography west of the city. ”
‘Yes, but who will do what?”
A strange silence fell over the party at Albern’s question. The mages did not offer their own solution. They merely glanced back and forth between Kuahel and Riftan, hoping that the knights — who had more campaign experience than they did — would possess better judgment on the matter. Kuahel’s brow furrowed in deep deliberation, but Riftan spoke before the Temple Knight commander could say anything.
‘We should search for a place to make camp for the night.” He picked up the pack he had tossed on the ground as he spoke, slinging it over his shoulder. ’11t will be sundown soon, so we must get to safety before then. It’ll draw unwanted attention if we set up tents in a place like this.”
“1 saw a place on our way up. Why don’t we head there now?” Kuahel said, gathering his pack.
Soon, they made their way to a gigantic boulder that appeared to be the product of a rock slide. The slanting rock was big enough to conceal two tents.
The party quickly erected tents behind the boulder and used magic stones to light fires. Afterward, they gathered by the flames to keep warm while they prepared supper. While everyone busied themselves, Riftan and Kuahel butted heads away from the party. It seemed to Maxi that they were arguing about the decision to split up.
The mages barely paid attention to the occasional expletive that floated over as they scooped snow for the bread and jerky stew. After adding a generous amount of liquid to bulk up their dwindling rations, the stew practically tasted like water. Even so, the meal tasted like a sumptuous feast to Maxi, who was ravenous after a day’s march.
Wrapped in a thick blanket, she sipped the watery stew from an empty beer vessel. Before she knew it, darkness had descended around them.
Looking up from his food at Elliot, Ulyseon asked with a hint of urgency,
‘Shouldn’t we investigate the city right now?”
The older knight shook his head. “Everyone will be tired from the climb. Better to rest for the night and scout around first.”
‘Delaying will only tire us out more. With rations running low, wouldn’t it be better to get this over with as quickly as possible so we can return— ‘Our lives are on the line, so we must act with caution.”
Ulyseon opened his mouth to argue, but he was interrupted by Kuahel and Riftan returning to the tents, their argument apparently concluded. Though both men appeared discontented, they seemed to have reached a compromise.
‘Have you decided on how to divide the party?” Ruth asked as he folded the parchment in his hand and shoved it into his bag.
‘We have decided that Calypse and two paladins will take a few mages to investigate the city.”
‘And who will those mages be?” quizzed Albern.
Riftan, who had plopped down in front of the fire, raised a finger to point at Albern before slowly moving his finger to Geoffrey and Sidina, respectively. ‘The three of you will come with me.”
‘The remaining two will come with me to reconnoiter the terrain around the city,” Kuahel said with obvious dissatisfaction.
After vacantly looking back and forth between the two men’s faces, Maxi shot to her feet when it dawned on her that she was one of the remaining two.
“W-Why am I not included in the group investigating the city?” she protested loudly.
The decision had taken her completely by surprise. Until now, she had firmly believed that she would be in the same group as Riftan.
‘Earth-based tracing spells can search wider areas than their wind counterparts!”
‘That is precisely why we need you to survey the terrain around the city,” Kuahel replied in his characteristically indifferent manner. He removed his gauntlet and placed it on the ground. ‘We require your ability to map the vast area surrounding the city. The Remdragon Knights’ mage was selected for that reason, too, after I was informed of his earth magic capabilities.
Ruth shrugged to express his nonchalance with the decision.
Ulyseon, who had listened in silence until now, muttered with a confused expression, “Then, who shall I go with? Am I to escort her ladyship as her guard or accompany Sir Riftan?”
‘You are to come with me,” Riftan said woodenly as he filled his flask with stew. “Charon, I want you to go with the Holy Sword..”