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Haven, City Hall Ballroom

Laughter and music filled the Ballroom of the City Hall while fireworks and other performances continued throughout the night of the city.

Commander Ford took a glass of sparkling wine from a passing waitress and joined Captain Blake and Princess Sherene. "Congrats on the engagement!"

He raised a toast to the smiling couple. "Finally you announced it officially, I think the people were gonna tear you apart for dragging your relationship for so long!"

Blake rolled his eyes while Sherene poked him in the chest. "Hmmm, I did wonder was I supposed to propose to you in your culture!"

"Ha!" Blake snorted, "Very funny!"

Sherene and Ford laughed at Blake's expression and they continued to make small talk while the party was in full swing.

"Greetings!" Megan suddenly appeared before them with Dijon and Akron in tow. "And best wishes to the Captain and the Princess for their ceremonial bond."

Blake and Ford raised their brows at the unknown term but mentally translated it as a marriage while Sherene smiled prettily and thanked her.

"This is Commander Ford, my second in command and Chief of Naval Operations," Blake introduced Ford to Megan and Akron whom they have not met before. "Fleet Master Megan and Fleet Master Akron of the Isles."

Ford gave a short bow as he was introduced and said in Common greeting, "Well met."

"Hmmm..." Megan gave a flirty smile and looped her arm into Ford's who smiled back uncertainly. "Tell me, Commander, what do you do as Chief of Naval Operations?"

Blake and Sherene laughed as they watched Ford getting led away by Megan. Dijon and Akron gave their congratulations and left to find their own entertainment.

Blake grinned as he watched Dijon walked away, "Well at least he took it well."

"You are so bad!" Sherene scolded. "He's not a bad guy!"

"Wow? Defending another guy now in front of your husband?" Blake teased.

"What husband!" Sherene snorted. "We are not married yet!"

"Hahaha," Blake hugged Sherene before asking, "Will my lady care for a dance?"

"Hmph! That's more like it!"

-----

Drake sat down to the silver haired girl and felt lost for words. The sense of feeling he got from her ever since he spotted her through his scope was something he couldn't put to words.

She was his only live target that he missed deliberately and the feeling he got from her confused him. She was someone that he was trying to kill at that time.

The girl sat watching him silently while he tried to put together words to break the awkward silence. Earlier in the day when they both met, she told him she will wait for him here till he come and they need to talk.

After his duty was over, he hurried over and saw her still sitting in the same stand while most of the crowd had left to celebrate in other places or gone for dinner.

Now sitting next to her, he felt uncomfortable in his combat gear and unsure what to say when she broke the silence.

"I have been trying to find you for some time," she said. "I wanted to thank you."

Drake turned and looked at the girl who stared back at him. The girl he remembered in his sights looked vastly different from what he could remember.

She no longer had that haunted look that he remembered and she was dressed casually in a human fashion, a large coat for the cold over sweaters and jeans.

"You saved me that day," She continued.

"B- But..." Drake stuttered. "I... I was aiming to kill you!"

"I know..." She leaned back on the bench and kicked her feet. "I was actually wanting to die."

"But... why?" Drake asked in confusion. "Why did you want to die?"

"Because the Empire enslaved me," She explained. "I was tired of all the dirty deeds the Empire used me for and how many lives were sacrificed each time they used my powers."

"There is always a cost of using large scale magic formations," She looked up at the blossoming displays of fireworks in the night sky. "Using the life force of hundreds and thousands of people, magic can be strengthened or super charged, which increases the potency of the spell."

"I lost count of how many people that were sacrificed over the years for my magic," She turned and gave a sad smile at Drake. "Until I sense the killing intent from you, and in my mind's eye, I saw you."

She reached out a hand a cupped Drake's cheek, "You were my Angel of Death, the one who could finally release me from the pain of living."

Drake was startled as he felt her cold hands on his cheek and realized that she must have been sitting here the whole time in the cold waiting for him! He quickly took her hand into his gloved palms and rubbed her cold hand. "Come!"

He pulled her up and led her towards one of the stalls selling hot beverages and snacks. He ordered a couple of hot drinks and hotdogs and sat her down next to an outdoor heater. "Eat and drink!"

She looked surprised but followed his words, sipping the hot drink and ate the hotdogs. Drake watched her face slowly regain a rosy flush before he introduced himself.

"By the way, my name is Drake, nice to meet you."

-----

The Kingdom of Foral, Border to The Great Ocean Plains

The morning sun brought some warmth to the half frozen men and women of the Last Company as they prepared to set out from their camp. Borse sipped the hot weak tea and felt better as the hot liquid warmed his belly.

"Captain," Taris looked tired and his appearance unkept, which is quite unusual. He was normally explicitly groomed even in a battle. This journey must be taking its toll on him.

"We got a dozen frozen to death over the night," Taris sighed as he gave his report. "Two of them were children and five were the more critically wounded."

"Also, there are more reports of people getting sick from the cold," Taris took the offered tea from Borse and disregarded the scalding hot tea and just finished it all in one go.

Borse nodded in silence as he expected the news. "We have to push harder to reach the abandoned village. The sooner we get to shelter, the better our chances of survival."

Taris nodded just as Lanser joined them. "The scouts are back. They report the way is clear but the snowfall last night might slow us down more."

"Good, take all the available mounts and send an advance party ahead to clear the way for the weak and ill," Borse replied. "Move all the weak and ill on the wagons."

Both Taris and Lanser nodded before they returned to the men, giving out Borse's orders.

It was nearly evening when the Company reached the outskirts of the village. The men and women cheered up visibility as they the village. As they entered the broken down palisade and gates, they saw dilapidated buildings and skeletons of burnt down houses.

At the village square, a ramshackle well sat forlornly while dozens of cook fires were raging, made by the advance party as they had come in earlier to scout and prepare for the arrival of the rest of the Company.

Borse watched the men and women enter the village and gratefully accepted bowls of hot soup and gave a sigh of relief, knowing that tonight, at least they have some sort of shelter.

"Divide the men up, have one party gather firewood, another party to fix some of those buildings up," Borse told Taris and Lanser.

He picked up a sign covered in snow from the roadside and brushed off the dirt and snow, revealing the name of the village <Dead Froniter>.

-----

UNS Singapore, Captain's Quarters

Blake gestured the Intelligence Officer to start his report as he sat down on his chair. Lieutenant Tavor removed a paper report from his briefcase and handed it over to Blake who skimmed through it quickly.

"Our operation to insert agents into the Adventurer's Guild in the City of Falledge has borne us some fruit," Tavor reported. "We have two agents working inside the Guild and also managed to contact the merchant, Otoro to help us facilitate the transportation of freed slaves."

"In return for his services, we are providing him with several trade goods that can't be traced back to us," Tavor said. "With his connections, we are able to form a more comprehensive picture of the Empire."

"So what's the latest update on the Empire side?" Blake asked, his eyes still reading the documents.

"As of current intel, Falledge currently has a garrison of four thousand regular and auxiliary troops," Ford recited from memory. "Also one dragon corps remained stationed at the city."

Blake raised his eyebrows at the numbers. "Isn't it a bit low?"

"It's winter season, so it is normal for the local lords to stand down their troops since they can't afford or unwilling to feed or support them over the winter," Tavor explained. "And rarely any army fights a winter campaign due to increases supply difficulties and higher demand of resources at home."

Blake nodded in understanding and gestured for Tavor to continue.

"Other reports state that the Empire top commander, The Rock, has successfully pushed all the way into the interior of the Foral Kingdom and the Meccan Kingdom," Tavor said. "We do not have an exact location on the outdated maps that were provided to us by Magister Thorn, but reports say that they are suspected to be within 200 kilometers away from both the two kingdom's Capitals."

"They are now waiting for the winter to end and the roads to open up before taking the final battle. After which it will just a mop-up operation for the Imperials."

Blake put down the documents in his hands and asked, "So what is the estimated time we have before the Empire turns its eyes over to us again?"

"We estimate that if they are successful in conquering both the Capitals within half a year by early summer," Tavor said. "After that another three to four months to pacify the area and mop up remnants of the two Kingdoms. Following that another three months to move their troops back and retrain, recover, and resupply."

"Counting all that, the fastest time they can raise their armies against us is in a year," Tavor said. "But we also have the advantage of a natural barrier of heavily forested terrain which houses deadly monsters and creature. That would give us a buffer of another month or so."

Blake nodded, "One year. A lot can be done in one year."

"Good work," Blake praised Tavor for his efforts. "Keep expanding the spy network. In terms of funding, I will have Accounts to approve the funds you need to expand."

"Thank you, Sir," Tavor replied. "Also another thing, Sir. If you look at the last part of the report."

Blake picked back up the document and skimmed to the last portion. "Operation Freedom?"

"Yes Sir," Tavor started to explain the operation. "We gathered enough information to identify a major slave trade hub that supplies the entire south region with slaves."

"It's based on this city called Orwell's Point," Tavor displayed a map with the city's location next to the inland sea. "Slaves gets transported to the city via river ships and get distributed all over the southern region including Falledge. It is also located at the border of what they call the Great Ocean Plains and is also a major trade hub for the Orcs."

"Hmm," Blake read the details of Operation Freedom. "You want to gather intelligence and have the Marines liberate the city and free the slaves?"

"Yes, Sir," Tavor replied. "On the success of this operation, we can deal damage to the Empire."

"The lost of the slaves will affect the economics of the Empire while we can increase our manpower with the freed slaves."

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