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Duke Sturm freshened up as much as he could in a side room after he landed riding the courier dragon onto the dragon platform of the top of the castle. The past three-five days of traveling by flying had been taxing for him, as he was flying non stop from one way station to another, switching the tired courier dragons for fresh ones.

The ornate double doors, flanked by two of the Emperor's Lifeguards stared impassionately at him as he approached deeper into the inner castle. The doors opened admitting him into the study of the Emperor, making him sweat more as he walked in to face the consequences of his defeat.

Duke Sturm bowed and went down on his knees and greeted the Emperor, "Long live the Emperor, your humble subject has returned."

"In defeat, no less," The Emperor snorted, "Your blunders had made the 3rd Lancers suffered so many casualties, that they might as well ceased to exist anymore!" He pounded the ironwood table in fury. "What do you have to say?"

Sturm did not dare to look up, keeping his head lowered to the ground, "The rebels had a very powerful mage and strange magical artifacts with them, my Majesty! Level 10 spells and artifacts as powerful as level 5s!"

"My Spies reported that you lost two heavy war dragons, over a thousand fighting men, and of course the entire 3rd Lancers of over two thousand men!" Emperor Varacen read from a roll of parchment. "You even had the enemy attack your headquarters!"

Sturm hearing the report cursed inwardly. He wanted to report directly to the Emperor, downplaying the loses and defeat. "Your Majesty, the enemy hit my troops constantly with Level 10 spells, we couldn't do anything about it!"

"This lowly servant managed to survive by using up a family heirloom artifact if not, this servant would have perished too!" Sturm explained as sweat gathered around his brow.

"I know what your artifact is capable of," Emperor Varacen leaned back against his throne. "Show me!"

Sturm dug into his inner chest pocket and removed out a piece of finely wrought crystal pendant attached to a silver chain. A eunuch approached Sturm with a piece of silk cloth set on a tray, and Sturm placed the cracked crystal pendant onto it.

The eunuch carried the tray with the crystal pendant and bowed to the Emperor, who picked up the pendant. The design of the pendant was made out of several runes carved out on the delicate silver wire, while a large diamond-like stone was set in the middle.

Emperor Varacen lifted the pendant up against the light from the windows, seeing the stone had turned dull and a crack had split the stone in half. "Level 10 spells you say?" He continued to examine the stone closely.

"Yes, your Majesty! The spells killed the dragons with a single strike and also the 3rd Lancers! I was lucky I had a light stone for protection!" Sturm explained. "The rebels have allied with some inferior creatures, who possessed some kind of weapon, an artifact that can constantly cast fire and thunder spells, each spell kill scores of men, in less time taken for a turn of a glass!"

"Hmmm," The Emperor leans against his throne lazily with an arm propping his head, "What happened next? I thought Sir Kean was leading the Knights, could he have failed too?"

"H-he had fallen in battle with the creatures," Sturm explained, "We set a trap for the rebels, hiding Lord Kean and his men with the slaves we released into the rebels. He was supposed to attack at night but we lost his magical life link and with the level 10 spells destroying our camp, I-I ordered the troops to retreat..."

"You meant you got scared and ran away with your tail between your legs?" Emperor Varacen mocked. "All these efforts and nothing to show at the end of it all. And you still have the guts to appear before me?"

"My Emperor! I deserve death for failing you!" Sturm frantically bows and bang his head against the gold inlaid marble tiles, causing blood to flow from his forehead.

"Enough!" Emperor Varacen waved Sturm to stop, "Don't dirty my floor."

"Th-thank you, your Majesty," Sturm straightened back on his kneeling position wobbly.

"What to do now?" The Emperor tapped his finger on the armrest of his throne as he watched Sturm kneeling in front of him. His main army is currently preparing for a spring offensive to invade Meccan once winter is over.

"Return to your lands, I want you to raise another army. and prepare for a spring offensive against the rebels," Emperor Varacen finally said. "Do not fail me this time, it's your last chance. I will send someone along with you, SHE will help you to wipe out the rebels and their allies."

Sturm kowtowed to the Emperor, praising him for his wisdom and leniency. He climbed up to his feet and retreated out of the room.

"Bring the witch here," Emperor Varacen spoke and returned to his work.

"Yes, my Emperor," A voice appeared out of thin air, followed by a slight breeze as the presence that
spoke disappeared.

A short moment later, the doors opened again and a hooded woman dressed in an oversized dark blue trench coat, flanked by two of the Emperor's Lifeguard walked in.

The Lifeguards bowed and shoved the individual forward to her knees and stood next to her, ready for any threatening moves she might make.

Emperor Varacen with his head propped against his hand spoke, "I have a task for you, satisfy me with your work and I will release more of your people."

The hooded female kept quiet, watching Varacen with her wavering golden eyes.

"Ha! Good, I like your defiant spirit," Emperor Varacen smiles wickedly, "Go with Sturm and settle the rebels, I want you to bring to me the Level 10 spells and the magic artifacts. Do it, and some of your people will be freed."

The hooded female, stood up, ignoring the Lifeguards' attempts to stop. Emperor Varacen waved the guards away, "Go and complete your tasks, I am sure you will not fail. You know the price of failure!"

She glared at Varacen for while before turning and walking out of the room, with the guards bowing to the Emperor and chasing after her.

"My Emperor, why do you keep someone like her," The mysterious voice appeared out of nowhere. "Just place a slave controller choker on her and she will do your bidding easily."

"Haha, then where's all the fun in that?" Varacen grinned, "I want to slowly break her spirit bit by bit."

-----

"SARGE!" Someone yelled, "I got a heartbeat reading here!"

"Squad one, on me!" SGT Collins yelled, running over to the voice. "What do you have?"

"There, 40 meters away in that direction!" The security crew pointed to a clump of dense tree roots in the distance. "No movement but picking up heartbeats. The signal is weak."

Collins turned and directions his men to spread out, before approaching the direction of the signal. He brings his own tracker up and the "Beep, beep, beep," audio grew faster and faster in his ear beads as he neared the target.

Collins paused and ensure everyone is in position and waves a couple of the elves forward into a flanking position. He gestures another elf to follow him and together they circled around the tree roots, finding claw marks gouged most of the roots into shreds.

He peers through the cracks to find a body slumped, half hidden in the dense roots. "Sir? hello?" Collins called out, but there was no reply nor movement from the body. "Go, pull him out slowly, he might be wounded."

The elves put away their crossbows and climbed over the roots, slowly and gently pull the elf out. An elf with greying brown hair was gently lifted out and placed on his side on the forest floor. His salt crusted clothes stuck to his back were a bloody rip could be seen.

The medic standing at the back rushed forward when they placed him down and started to check his vitals. "Breathing is shallow, the heartbeat is weak, no fever needs an immediate blood transfusion."

He pulls out a plasma transfusion from his kit and inserted a catheter into the arm of the wounded sailor. The rest of the elves hovered over, watching the medic do his work, marveling at the magical "tek-no-logee" of the hoomans.

"Quit standing around like some idiots!" Collins yelled at the milling elves, "Spread out and watch the surroundings!" Collins shooked his head, as the elves jumped to his command and dispersed.

"How is he doing?" Collins asked the medic.

"He's stable for now, but we need to get him to a medbay to fix his part." The medic held up the drip and waved for his assistants to bring a stretcher over. "He's lucky that the salt in his clothes is helping him in preventing infections and clotting most of the wound."

"Good work, send him back on the jeep" Collins stood up and walked back to the site, "Alright, everyone keeps searching around, it's gonna be a long morning!"

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