Under the Oak Tree-Chapter 295 - 56
Chapter 295: Chapter 56
‘Me?” Elliot glanced at Maxi hesitantly before nodding. “Yes, sir. Please leave it to me.”
Maxi dumbly opened and closed her mouth in disbelief. From the looks of it, the men had already decided she would go with Kuahel Leon. She swiveled her head to the mages, hoping for support, but none seemed inclined to argue with the knights’ decision. They all avoided her gaze.
After eyeing her companions, Maxi latched onto Sidina, who was roasting a piece of bacon on a long skewer. ‘W-Won’t you switch places with me, Sidina? I’m sure… you’d rather not go somewhere so dangerous.”
Shaking her head, Sidina said with a grin, “I really don’t mind.’
She appeared to be tipsy from the wine she had been sipping.
’11t would be a lie if I claimed not to be scared, but I’m sure Sir Riftan will keep us safe. I intend to get a good look at this city of monsters so I can brag about it later to Anette!”
‘We are not going on holiday,” Riftan said incredulously, furrowing his brow.
Sidina paid no attention to his cold retort and continued cheerfully, “Now that
I’m going, I prefer to be optimistic about it. A glum face makes only makes things more difficult.’
“I think a little apprehension would do you good,” Geoffrey said with a sigh.
‘Such blind optimism will get you hurt.”
Sidina shrugged and shoved the crispy bacon strip dripping with grease into her mouth. She washed down the food with her remaining wine and said primly, “I shall do everything that’s expected of me, so enough of your needless worrying. ”
Seeing that the others were set on following Riftan and Kuahel’s decision, Maxi slumped her shoulders in disappointment. Riftan, however, rose to his feet after having finished his food in short order.
‘You should all go rest now. We will be facing greater challenges in the morning.”
When his eyes briefly landed on her, Maxi looked down with a sullen expression. She could not help but be greatly upset that he had chosen to go somewhere so dangerous without her. After quickly draining the rest of her tepid stew, she got to her feet and crawled inside one of the narrow tents. There, she curled herself into a ball and burrowed beneath her blanket.
Before first light the following day, the party cleared all traces of their stay behind the boulder and began their descent. To their great dismay, snow began to fall not long after. Groans erupted from the party one after the other. The knights, on the other hand, seemed to welcome the harsh weather.
‘The snow makes the climb down more difficult, but it helps us avoid detection,” Elliot explained, gazing at the city shrouded in mist. “Still, you must be careful not to slip, my lady.”
Maxi bobbed her head. The squall was so fierce that it was difficult even to open her mouth. Her joints felt frozen solid. Pulling her hood lower to block the wind as much as possible, she picked her way across on the rocly ground.
They had been moving without rest for quite some time when a gentle slope finally emerged. They stopped to rest at the foot of the mountain, allowing a brief moment to catch their breaths. Soon, it was time for the party to split up. They divided the remaining provisions and travel equipment in two.
‘Since there are five of us and seven of you, this should be enough,” Kuahel said, handing Riftan a sack.
Riftan opened the sack to check the contents, then passed it to Ulyseon. “When are we to meet up again?
‘All investigations must be completed within five days.”
‘That’s hardly enough time.” Riftan brushed off the snow on his coat and knitted his brow. “It’s going to take a while to reach the city without being detected. We’ll hardly have enough time to look around the ramparts.”
‘How unlike you to complain. I suggest you do your best, then,” Kuahel said frostily. “Whatever the case, it would be risky for us to drag this on any longer than that. We must return in five days even if nothing substantial is found.” Riftan stood immobile for a long time before looking at Ruth, Elliot, and Maxi in turn.
She waited for him to come up to her and say something, though she did not know what she wanted to hear. Gentle reassurance would have been enough.
However, Riftan looked away wordlessly and picked up his bag.
‘Then, let us meet back at the cave where the horses are,” he said flatly.
With that, he motioned with his head at Ulyseon and the mages. Forgetting that they were on awkward terms, Maxi furiously glared at him. She could not believe that he was about to leave without a word of goodbye. Feeling rather devastated, she was standing stiffly when Ulyseon walked over to her.
‘We’re off, my lady. Please be careful,” he said brightly. Turning to Ruth and Elliot, he added, ‘Please be careful as well.”
‘You, too,” Elliot replied.
Ulyseon’s lips curled into a self-assured smile before he ran after Riftan. Their figures soon grew distant, and Maxi felt the discontentment that had been building inside her crumble away like sand, fear taking its place.
What if they failed? It was impossible to tell how many monsters dwelled inside such a vast city. What if their little group were discovered? Even Riftan would not be able to fight tens or thousands of monsters all at once. She bit her lip.
‘We should set out as well,” Kuahel said, turning to Maxi and Ruth.
With great effort, Maxi managed to pry her eyes away, but she could not stop herself from looking back after only a few steps. She could not bear to part with him like this.
“P-Please wait!” she exclaimed. “I-I won’t be long. Please, wait a moment!”
With that, she shot across the snowy hill like an arrow.
He turned his head at her voice, his blue-black hair buffeted by the wind. Maxi ran straight into his arms. A heartbeat later, a stunned Riftan wrapped his arms tightly around her waist and lifted her off the ground.
She clung to his neck and cried, “You must return safely. P-Promise me you won’t do anything reckless.”
She felt a faint tremor run down his nape.
When she rubbed her cold cheek against his, Riftan released a shaky breath and said gruffly, “I should be the one saying that.’
His arms around her waist tightened.
‘You must also promise not to endanger yourself, that you will think of your safety above all else. If you do that, I’ll give you my word as well.”
‘IA-AII right. I give you my word.’
Riftan slowly closed his eyes before opening them again. His face, etched with concern mere moments ago, morphed back into the stoic face of a knight.
He pulled her hood over her head and said calmly, “You should get back now.”
Maxi looked up at him with teary eyes before nodding. He glanced at Elliot, who had come after her, and turned around. The wind grew more violent. Soon, his figure disappeared beyond the flurry of snow.
They moved west along the base of the mountain. Kuahel once again led the ascent, and Maxi had to clamber up the rugged terrain until her thigh muscles were stiff. Even with Elliot’s support, it was difficult to trek the rocly path in the increasingly strong wind. Ruth must have found their relentless march strenuous as well, as his complaints seemed neverending.
‘How much farther are we going? The sun is going to set soon! Don’t tell me you’re trying to freeze us to death.”
Kuahel paused for a moment to look up at the gray sky. Maxi plopped down on a flat rock and took a moment to catch her breath. Her feet ached as though nails were rammed into her soles, making it painful for her to remain standing. Though it seemed as though Kuahel wanted to continue a little further, he relented with a sigh when he saw that both Maxi and Ruth were at their limits.
‘Let us set up camp back there.”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth that the knights promptly started setting up a small tent on an even surface. Meanwhile, Ruth summoned a barrier to block the wind while Maxi lit a fire with a magic stone.
Crouching in front of the flames, Ruth grumbled, “I doubt we’ll be able to conduct a decent reconnaissance at this pace. It will be a miracle if we don’t freeze to death.’
‘IS-Still, we should try to do as much as we can,” Maxi mumbled despondently.
While the physical exhaustion was debilitating enough, her concerns for Riftan drained her even further. She strove to banish the terrible thoughts from her mind as she watched Ruth take out some parchment from his bag. During their entire trek, he had immersed himself in studying the runes they had discovered at the ruins at every opportunity.
‘Come to think of it… shouldn’t you have gone with Riftan, Ruth? W-With Master Calto’s request and all.”
Seeing him blink rapidly, Maxi surmised that he must have forgotten all about it.
He gave an apathetic shrug and said, “There’s a limit to how much they can learn about the city from the outside with magic. It is unlikely they will uncover some great secret.”
‘Should you be so unconcerned about it? If what you told me before is true… it is a serious matter. We must do something before anyone else—”
“What are you talking about?”
Maxi jumped at the sudden voice that came from above her head. Kuahel’s piercing green eyes looked down at her. She frantically waved her hands as she felt a chill run down her back.
Kuahel furrowed his brow in suspicion but did not pry further. He lowered himself before the campfire and handed them a sack containing their food.
‘We will need you to use search magic starting tomorrow. How wide an area can you cover?
’11t depends… on how tightly we weave the mana net. With a loosely woven one, we can survey this whole side of the mountain… but you can expect little precision.’
Kuahel stroked his chin, looking lost in thought, and Maxi mused that it must be a habit.
The Temple Knight produced a map, which he opened on his lap. “For now, I think it would be best for us to scout the route our army can take.”
Elliot sat next to him. “We will need siege engines to take the city, which means we must find a wide and gentle valley to transport them.’
Maxi recalled the towering walls that enclosed the monster city. The impressive ramparts had looked sturdy even from afar. If the dark mages had also reinforced them with defensive magical devices, they would not be able to take the walls down with magic. They would have to rely on brute force.
‘There is also the problem of supplying the army with provisions and firewood,” said Kuahel. “The supply route will become our lifeline if the war drags on. To efficiently supply our troops, we will have to secure several routes just in case.”
He drew a long line on the map with a piece of charcoal and added, “Let us focus on this area for now.”
Elliot looked down at the map, his head tilted, and nodded in agreement..