Under the Oak Tree-Chapter 296 - : Chapter 57

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Chapter 296: Chapter 57

‘We’re short on time, so we’ll have to set out early tomorrow,” Elliot remarked, then regarded Maxi and Ruth with a worried expression. ‘Will that be all right with both of you?

‘Would you turn back if we said no?” Ruth said flatly as he prodded the fire with a long skewer. “It’s do or die, I suppose.”

Elliot replied with a bitter smile. Soon, the group filled their stomachs with bread porridge and retired for the night. Since they had only packed a single tent in an attempt to travel light, four people had to sleep crammed inside while one kept guard. Having slept next to Sidina thus far, Maxi felt a little on edge in a tent full of men. However, she settled herself in the corner without betraying her discomfort. This was not the time to be worried about propriety.

Ruth was next to her, swaddled cocoon-like in a blanket, and the knights lay beside him with their backs turned. With only her face poking out of her covers, Maxi wordlessly blinked up at the magic stone hanging from the tent ceiling. The stone warmed the air inside, but the ground was still as cold as ice.

Huddled in her coverings, she listened to the howling wind outside. She was too tired to lift a finger, but sleep still eluded her. She wondered what Riftan was doing right now. Knowing they needed to start their reconnaissance that very night, she could not help but worry about how he was surviving this bitter cold. What if the monsters discovered them? As her imagination spiraled into darker speculations, she squeezed her eyes shut to drive the terrible images away.

He gave his word he would return unharmed. He will be all right. I need to focus on my mission.

She repeated these words to herself, trying to induce sleep, but her gnawing uneasiness refused to subside. She tossed and turned late into the night and ended up sleeping only a few hours.

When she sluggishly got up at dawn, she heaved a heavy sigh as weariness weighed on her. Her back and hips ached as though she had been beaten, and her feet were still sore. She took a restorative herb from her bag and chewed it while she packed up her bedroll. With that complete, she stepped out of the tent to fill her flask with snow.

Elliot was outside clearing the traces of their campfire. He regarded her with concern as he said, “You look tired, my lady. You must have had a difficult time falling asleep.

‘Il-I am all right. I’m just... not quite fully awake yet.” She tried to give him an awkward smile as she rubbed her haggard face. Complaining when the knights had to take turns keeping the night watch felt disgraceful. ‘Tm sure I’ll feel better as we walk.’

‘Allow me to cast restorative magic on you.”

Maxi jerked her head up at the unexpected interruption. Kuahel had come up to her undetected. Having already taken off his glove, he lay a hand over her face and began muttering in Roemian. An invigorating, ice-cold energy seeped into her. She stiffened as it brought with it memories of all the divine magic healing she had received after beatings by her father.

“Th-Thank you,” she managed to say respectfully while trying to shake off the repulsive feeling.

‘There is no need for thanks,” Kuahel replied indifferently, slipping his glove back on. ’11t is a necessity to ensure the running of the mission. We would only be delayed if you were to lag behind.” With that, he nodded to his aide.

‘Gather your belongings. Let us head out.’

Everyone collected their packs and promptly set off. The sky was bright before long. Holding up a cupped hand, Maxi shielded her eyes from the blinding sunlight. The snow-covered mountain path shimmered. It was turning out to be one of those rare, sunny days.

‘Where do you want us to start the search?” asked Ruth.

Kuahel keenly surveyed the landscape and said in a low voice, ‘IA little further

The group resumed the trek in silence. Maxi carefully maneuvered her way after the Temple Knight, taking care not to slip. The wind was much calmer than yesterday, allowing an easier journey across the mountain.

Finally arriving at their destination, Kuahel stopped and said, “This should be a good spot. Please start the search here.”

Maxi wiped the sweat off her brow as she glanced around. On their left rose the steep slopes of the snowy mountains, and on their right ran a row of dark, irregularly-shaped rocks.

After marking something on his map with charcoal, Kuahel pointed right, then left with his thumb. “1 want you to survey southwest and northeast.”

Slumped on the ground and catching his breath, Ruth said irritably, “Look here. You’ll have to be more specific. These search spells are not all-powerful. You have to tell us at least what to focus on.’

Kuahel stared at Ruth, a single brow arching upward. ‘Were you not listening to the discussion yesterday? For our army to reach the monster base, we need a thorough understanding of the region’s geography. We must scout all possible routes to the city and check for other monster habitats or facilities in the area.”

Maxi gazed bleakly up at the towering mountain peaks. After scratching the back of his head, Ruth let out a sigh and began using an earth-based tracing spell. She watched him in fascination. Wind and earth magic were not a compatible combination, yet Ruth was using a spell of Nome Hall with such As she looked on in envy, she felt Kuahel’s demanding gaze on her. Coming to her senses, she hastily cast her spell as well.

The task went more smoothly than she expected. They surveyed the terrain of a particular plot and made sure to mark everything on the map. Once they had cleared an area, they moved on to the next.

“Th-There are... hardly any other monster habitats around,” Maxi muttered, cocking her head as she drew a detailed illustration of a valley.

Ruth raised a brow as if to say there was nothing surprising about that. ‘Monsters have their own ecosystem. Weaker creatures tend to stay away from more powerful predators.’

“P-Powerful predators?

“1f you recall, there is a population of Ayin monsters near here that managed to build an entire city,” Ruth said, pointing east with his thumb. “From the size of it, we can safely assume there are legions residing there. How do you suppose these creatures feed themselves? I would not be surprised if they’ve devoured all the other monsters that used to dwell in this land.’

Maxi thought back to the trolls and their wagons. The memory never failed to send a chill down her spine. Barbaric and bloodthirsty, the monsters of the Ayin race were known to commit fratricide. The fact that such monsters had established such a grand city was proof of the dark mages’ involvement. Still, the mystery remained — how had they managed to subjugate the monsters?

‘We should keep moving.”

Maxi was roused from her thoughts by Kuahel returning from his short exploration of the area. She rolled up the parchment she had been recording her findings on, pushed it into her bag, and followed the Temple Knight.

The group traveled north. Though they encountered no monsters, climbing up and down the rugged mountain all day long was a ruthless battle on its own. Maxi used all her energy to keep up with the knights’ unrelenting pace.

When evening finally arrived, she was too spent to lift even a finger. Falling asleep that night proved easy. The next day, however, an even more strenuous excursion awaited. Gray clouds converged over the clear sky, and the snow started once again.

‘Does the sky out here have holes?” Ruth exclaimed, clearly fed up. “I’ve never seen so much snow in my whole life!

‘The wind is going to pick up. Why don’t we stop here for today and look for shelter?” Elliot suggested.

Kuahel shook his head. ‘We don’t have much time. We should at least scout one more area.’

His resoluteness forced the group to keep going. With a sigh, Ruth followed him with a disgruntled expression, and Maxi trudged along after. When they reached the target destination, Kuahel motioned with his head, and Maxi bent down to touch the ground. She was sending out her mana when she suddenly felt a dissonant sensation.

Noticing the change in her expression, Elliot asked with a worried expression,

“What’s the matter, my lady? Are you unwell?”

Maxi shook her head to reassure him it was nothing and tried again. As her mana reached a certain point, she sensed it growing weaker.

‘Ruth, could you come over here for a moment?” she called, knitting her brow.

The sorcerer had already finished searching his area and was sketching something on the map. He looked up in surprise at Maxi’s request.

‘IIS something wrong?

“1 sense something strange around this area... Could you check what it is? Somewhere here,” Maxi said, pointing to a spot on the map.

Furrowing his brow, Ruth got down on one knee beside her and placed his hands on the ground. When he ended the tracing spell, he cocked his head and said, “1 couldn’t detect anything strange.”

‘IR-Really? It felt like something was disrupting my spell...” Maxi said, her cheeks growing red from embarrassment.

She grew disheartened, concluding that it was her incompetence to blame.

‘Il-I’m sorry. I must have been mistaken.’

‘Even so, we should check the place to be certain,” Ruth suggested after pensively studying the map. “The tracing spell I use is merely an imitation of that used by the mages of Nome Hall. Only earth mages are able to forge an intimate agreement with the gnomes. If this thing you feel is buried underground, you are more likely to sense it than me.”

Kuahel walked over to them and looked down at the map. “That is not too far from here. Let us go.”

Maxi gulped. It would be terribly embarrassing if they found nothing there.

Noticing her lack of confidence, Ruth clicked his tongue. “Please be precise, my lady. Did you sense something or not? You are also a full-fledged mage. Feel free to state your opinions clearly.

‘Il-I did!”

‘Then, we should go,” Ruth said blandly, picking up his bag.

Maxi looked at Kuahel, but the knight simply stared back at her, prompting her to lead the way. She began to trudge on.

They climbed upward until they came across a large boulder. After circling it, the landscape opened up in front of them, and in the distance stood the monster city. Maxi was staring at it when she heard Ruth.

‘My lady, come look at this.”

She whirled away and pushed through the knights to get to Ruth. As she approached, she saw a white stone among the ice and rock. It was inscribed with a rune. Her eyes widened as she spun around. What was it doing out here? ‘ID-Do you know what it is?”

’11t is a rune to suppress magic,” Ruth said after carefully inspecting the intricate pattern.

“What do you mean?” Kuahel probed, stepping next to him.

“1 mean just that. It weakens magic. Such runes are usually used during experiments to prevent a spell from getting out of control.’

‘Now that you mention it... I do remember seeing a similar one at the Mage Tower,” Maxi said without thinking.

When she realized her slip, her eyes nervously darted to Kuahel. She feared she might have given the Temple Knight the impression that the Mage Tower was engaging in dangerous experiments.

Kuahel appeared unconcerned. He said with his usual indifference, “There must be something here. Let us make haste.]’