Under the Oak Tree

Chapter 342 - 103
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Chapter 342: Chapter 103

Pride swelled in Maxi’s chest as she gazed at her husband. Wiping her hand with a towel, she hastily arranged her disheveled hair and smoothed her crumpled tunic. Though she doubted such efforts would improve her appearance, she could at least avoid looking like a vagrant.

“Has… the search already finished?” she asked, watching Riftan glance around the infirmary.

He turned to look at her, and she flushed as his gaze raked over her. Even though he had seen her in worse states numerous times, she still felt awkward and embarrassed.

She covered the blood stain on her sleeve, coughing lightly. “1 heard that we are to leave in a week. Have you found anything regarding the dark mages?”

“Let’s take a walk,” Riftan said brusquely, turning to the tent entrance.

At first, Maxi was baffled, but she quickly reached for her cloak when she realized his suggestion could be an excuse to have a private moment with her.

Her heart began to race. They had not had the opportunity to speak until now. He had been busy searching the city, and she had been occupied with the wounded. After informing the mages sitting in front of the brazier that she would be leaving her post for a moment, Maxi followed Riftan outside.

To her surprise, the sky was already turning red. They circled a building with a collapsed wall and made their way toward the square lined with tents of various sizes. They cut through a group of soldiers lugging and loading wooden crates onto wagons, the contents of which knights meticulously recorded into ledgers. Maxi surmised they must be tallying up the spoils of war.

“1-1 was told that we would be staying in Osiriya for some time… to settle the distribution of the spoils. Are there many items of value?”

“Far more than we expected,” Riftan replied tersely, leading her toward the city’s outskirts.

They entered a narrow alleyway between two buildings that appeared to be repositories. A steep flight of stairs rose at the end of it, and Maxi glanced up with curiosity. Where was he taking her?

Riftan motioned for her to follow, saying indifferently, “A mountain of mana stones and artifacts made of wyvern hide, basilisk bones, and scales. All found in an underground cellar. There was even orichalcum.”

Maxi’s eyes grew wide. “Orichalcum?”

“Indeed,” Riftan replied, a sardonic smile curling his lips. “Its discovery has spurred a few tiresome arguments. The possibility of finding orichalcum veins somewhere in this frigid hell seems to have driven everyone mad with greed.” “Do you not… want it yourself? 1 heard orichalcum is hundreds of times more valuable than gold.”

“That is only true for the smelted kind,” Riftan replied flatly, “but the method of smelting orichalcum ore has been lost since the fall of the Roem Empire. The ore is useless if you cannot extract the metal, and the cost of developing a mine would be greater than the profit.”

“Then… why are the others fighting over it?”

“Because of greed. Not many in this world can let go of such valuable treasure. And there’s always the possibility that someone might discover the smelting method again someday.”

The climb had left Maxi breathless, bringing an end to her questioning. They now stood in front of an arched tunnel.

Maxi peered uneasily into its depths. “W-Where are we going?”

“I want to show you something.”

Riftan draped an arm around her shoulders and led her into the narrow passageway. It was difficult to gauge how long they walked through the darkness, but when they emerged from the other side, the brilliant sunset was blinding. Maxi’s eyes were squinted shut, and she gasped when she opened them.

“H-Heavens… it’s so beautiful,” she muttered in awe, stepping into warm beams of light.

Never in her wildest dreams had she imagined a place of such beauty in this city of monsters. Slowly turning in a circle, she took in the magnificent circular hall. It might have been a temple, but she could not be sure as she had never seen anything like it.

The stained-glass walls illuminated the spacious hall in breathtaking colors, the light dancing across the marble floor. Looking up, Maxi saw stained-glass windows on the ceiling, and the purple sunlight shining through made her feel as if she were surrounded by fire.

Though it was cold enough for her breath to mist, her entire body relaxed in the gentle sunlight. Maxi closed her eyes to savor the sweet sensation.

“No one ever said anything about this place.”

“That’s because I haven’t told anyone yet.”

The hint of restraint in his voice snapped Maxi out of her euphoria. Opening her eyes, she saw Riftan standing in the light with her, his dark hair now tinted in spellbinding hues of purple, blue, and dark brown. The sunset cast his skin in fire and gold, and his eyes glinted like the night sea reflecting the stars.

Desire ignited in her chest. Her fingertips tingled with the urge to caress him.

She wanted to become one with this beautiful man. Her need was so intense that it momentarily terrified her. Her whole body growing tense, she gazed up at him with burning eyes.

“I wanted to show you before the others could ransack it,” Riftan said, looking around the room. “For months now, you’ve seen nothing but monsters and corpses. You’ll need something to replace those memories.”

When he turned to face her again, she saw no emotion there. A strange sadness washed over her.

Riftan seemed to be avoiding her gaze, staring at the light playing over the floor. His voice cracked slightly as he said, “I pray that the memory of this place will protect you. If you’re ever tormented by nightmares, a beautiful memory can be a great solace.”

“Were you?”

Riftan’s eyes snapped up at her question. A desire to understand his inner thoughts rushed over Maxi.

“W-Were you ever tormented by nightmares?” she pressed. “Did you have to recall beautiful memories… whenever you had one?”

Something akin to pain flashed across his face.

“Yes, I’ve had nightmares, and a lone memory helped me to bear them,” he replied flatly.

Before she could ask what the memory was, he stepped into the shadowed perimeter and began inspecting the pillar carvings. The realization that he was still trying to keep her at arm’s length hit her like ice water. She had thought that he had finally opened his heart to her. Had it been no more than a momentary flare of emotions in the heat of war?

Maxi walked up next to him and caressed his forearm. He tensed for a moment, then wrapped his arm around her shoulders. She felt his reassuring warmth melt away her anxiety.

Riftan was merely being vigilant. Once they left this battlefield for safer quarters, he would fully accept her again. Reassuring herself, Maxi wound her arms around his waist.

“Thank you… for bringing me here,” she muttered, her face against his chest.

His arm tightened around her, and she let out a sigh as she watched the fading streams of light. When the nightmares came, she would remember him standing in the brilliant sun.


Maxi’s workload markedly reduced once the clerics started tending to the wounded. Soon, all those of the Mage Tower, including Maxi, were tasked with investigating the city. It did not take her long to realize that Anton had not been exaggerating β€” the Temple Knights were indeed watching them.

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Under the pretext of acting as their escort, the paladins followed the mages’ every step, and any discovery was kept under a watchful eye. Maxi was unsettled by the paladins’ behavior. With their common enemy gone, she wondered if their next foe would be the Temple Knights. ο½‚ο½…πšπš—ο½ο½–ο½…πš•οΌŽπš—πšŽπš

After an anxious glance at the Osiriyan soldiers, Maxi went to join the mages. The coalition army was currently set up outside the castle due to concerns that there may be traps inside. Maxi wove through the tents crowding the square, stopping near the haphazardly stacked wooden boxes at the entrance to the mages’ quarters. Nevin, Albern, Miriam, and Geoffrey sat around a fire. Maxi took the leather scroll she had pinned to her side and handed it to them.

“I’ve finished with the east wing. Is the search of the main castle complete?”

A strange expression rose on their faces at her question.

Maxi looked at them in puzzlement. “W-What is it? Did something happen?”

Miriam, who had been poking the fire with a stick, replied tersely, “They ordered a stop to the search. They will start demolishing the city once everyone’s cleared the buildings.”

Maxi’s eyes widened. “B-But we have yet to find any leads on the dark mages, and… there are still places we have yet to investigate.”

“We are running out of time.”

Maxi jerked her head up at the unexpected voice. Kuahel Leon was walking out of the tent accompanied by one of his aides. They seemed so intimidating that Maxi reflexively took a step back.

Kuahel regarded her sharply and continued, “We must depart before we run out of provisions, or we will starve to death. We cannot delay any longer.”

“The buildings in this city… are made of stone. It will not be so easy to destroy them.”

“We must at least tear down the walls of the main castle. If we do not, the monsters may return to use this place as their base again.”

Maxi studied the paladin’s face. Though his argument was sound, something told her that the man was only telling them part of the reason. She concealed her misgivings and chose her next words carefully.

“As you know, the ramparts are fortified with magic. They are also inscribed with runes that negate any spell aimed at them. T-To break down the walls, we must first deal with the runes.”

“It is precisely for that reason that 1 am here, to ask the mages to nullify the runes as quickly as possible.”

It sounded more like a command than a request. Kuahel’s eyes β€” a piercing, gold-flecked green β€” passed over the mages.

“You can hear the full details inside,” he said, then strode off toward the rows of tents without waiting for their answer.

Geoffrey shook his head as he watched them go. “That fellow seems to think that we are obliged to obey his every command.”

“He is the supreme commander. We have no choice but to follow orders until this campaign is over,” Nevin muttered bitterly as he rose to his feet. “Come, we should head inside and hear what Master Celric has to say about it. Whatever they would have us do, 1 just want to get it over with so we can finally leave this place..”

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