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In the Depths of the Mountain

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The journey into No Man's Land wasn't what concerned Representative Soldier, it was the destination that concerned her the most. Something told her that it would not be a routine trade treaty like all the others they had done. For one, she was the only Representative that was visiting these people, as if the other Representatives had conspired behind her back to make it this way. When she returned, she would have to have a long discussion with them, so that such behavior does not happen again.

Joining her on this mission was five of her most well trained female officers, as she was told that the people she was visiting did not look favorably towards men. That did not concern her much at all, to be honest, as the moonglow mushroom potion had its ways of making one forget about trivialities like gender, when it rips your gender away from you. While she understood the need for the transformation the potion gave her, sometimes she would look in the mirror and wonder if she would ever feel like a woman once again. Now however, she would push away those thoughts, making sure the hood on her grey robes was well over her bald head. Looking oit at the expanse of barren land, it would only be a matter of minutes before their ponies brought them to the mountain in which the witches lived.

Soldier had faced down many different enemies in her time as the military leader of Tazarek, so she felt no true fear for this coven she had heard so much about. While they may be gifted in the arts of magic, the dwarf was still certain that she could match them in combat, though she did not want for there to be any reckless violence during these proceedings. They were of a different mindset than her, which she would have to consider as they started the negotiations, hopefully they would go well. Slowly they approached the entrance to the mountain, the grey skinned dwarf leading the other five normal looking dwarves on her pony, each one dismounting in order to enter.

"We are from the nation of Tazarek" Soldier called out, hoping to get anyone's attention so that they may be shown the proper way inside. From what she had heard, only a witch of this coven had the ability to navigate these caverns, which was something she would have to remember to tell the others later, in case they wanted more details. Looking over at her officers, she felt confident in their ability, having handpicked them herself for this mission. 

They all wore different variations of chain mail and plate armor, with a variety of weapons on their sides for personal protection. Vowing to die before they would allow their leader to come to harm, Soldier felt a special connection with them, not quite a maternal one, but a feeling of oride to know how far the loyalty of her own people went. With a whole army like that at her command, there was no enemy that could stop Tazarek, not if she had any say in it.

@Fallen Joy

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No Man’s Land was not welcoming. Its cracked skin and blistering heat rained upon visitors like the skies of Hell and its breath was as harsh as the devil's husk sigh. Ridged rocks jutted with fissured arches through the depths of the valley like the desolate bones of what was once a beating heart. It seemed like every orifice of this sanction was dead, demented, or both. The witches' mountain was near the head of the valley, tallest of the immediate range and held a presence that made even the heat sweat in its atmosphere. But strangely it was beautiful. Unlike the suffering sierra below its peak, the eminence held a thin sheet of lush emerald. It wasn’t much in terms of great meadows and flora, but compared to the starved world around it, it was a definitely magic.

The caravan of ponies approached, closer like insects through the invisible eyes of the mountain. The entrance? Difficult to see.  Cancerous rocks spread and speared vision from the base of the mountain. At this point the terrain would be too treacherous for the hooves of bulky ponies, and the torched rays of the sun transformed into unwelcoming shadows. The breath of the wind became loud through their broken tunnels with premonitory howls and moans.

As they neared, linear streaks flashed across the sun. The heads of five arrows plunged into an even row upon the ground. The accuracy of neatness but clear miss was indicative of it barring intention and skill of the archers.

“Dwarves,” came a husky voice from the darkness of the palisade. A charcoal orc transpired into the sun. She was tall and hardened with skin so blended with ash that at a perfect still she could be one of the rocks themselves. Her barbarous carmine eyes glowed like a pit of lava through smoke and glowered upon the intrusion. Upon her knuckles were four bladed gauntlets as long as her thigh and tainted with the layers of blood it drank over the years. She had little armor, plates heavy on her shoulders, shins, hips and breasts, but all else nude. The sheer stoic appearance of her body made it appear unnecessary against common blades. In truth, it was. The orc stood not where the arrows originated, meaning there were more hidden above on the mountainside.

“I know not of Tazarek,” she said with an accent like grinding sand. “Speak purpose lest I learn what dwarf meat taste like tonight.” Her tusks suddenly leaked with drool, showing she was truly considering the possibilities. She slapped it away with her tongue and her muscles trembled with ache. The subtle quake hinted her restraint—greeting invaders clearly wasn’t in her normal nature. She resembled the rabid watchdog that was she, looking for an excuse to attack.

“Purpose,” she repeated. “Now.”     

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As expected, her soldiers reacted to the events that transpired with military efficiency, shields raised and in front of their leader, a wall of iron protecting Soldier from the orc before them. Soldier was certain of her people's ability, but this was not the time for bloodshed, as a fight between them now would only cause an unneeded war between the two. "We are here to negotiate a trade pact with your masters, we have no wish nor want to speak with you any longer. Retrieve someone in charge or we will leave, as I am needed elsewhere and do not wish to waste my time with trivialities."

Downplaying the importance of this meeting was a tricky play on her part, but she needed to diffuse the situation before things turned ugly. Her bodyguards were elite soldiers, but they could not take on all of the possible orcs that could be hiding in this mountain, who seem to be tougher than the average variety. The battle would be bloody between them, and Soldier wasn't entirely confident of their odds of making it out of there alive. Looking back, she could see the large expanse of barren nothing, knowing that making a return trip now would be difficult without resupplying. 

It was strange to look upon the orcs, after seeing the more traditionally green skinned variety in field reports, and on one occasion a dissection of an orc male. Their strength was impressive, the rippling muscles on the female before her alone spoke of a great physique. Their weapons, while appearing crudely made, would most likely have fine craftsmanship in them, making them an adversary Soldier would not take on likely. Her face remained calm and impassive, awaiting their response as her soldiers stayed in their defensive positions. 

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Emma walked purposefully through the cavern, her frowning, confused face buried in a book perched precariously on top of the pile of astronomical measuring devices that overflowed her arms. Orcs and sisters alike struggled to dodge aside, lest they be barreled into by her inattentive strides. 

"This can't be right!" she muttered. She managed to sneak a hand up to turn her book to the next page. "Deals and pacts? Tense negotiations? Possible fortune? All at the midheaven in Capricorn? I must have botched this chart!"

She turned left, taking the path that led to a tiny outcrop on the side of the mountain where she took most of her readings. She had to double-check, even if she could only get a rough idea of the positions of a few of the major bodies in the daylight. It should be at least enough to tell her where she had gone wrong.

Nothing like this was on the official agenda today. No meetings at all, in fact, graced today's square in the Sisterhood's gorgeously appointed calander, created and lovingly maintained by Emma herself. She wasn't sure if she was more worried that she had misplaced a planet, or that she forgotten to schedule a state dinner.

Loose papers fell from her arms and drifted along behind her for a moment, before giving up and resigning themselves to being abandoned by their distracted creator, as Emma flipped another page and made another left-hand turn. Those with other business passing her in the halls, after ensuring they would not be overrun, gave her not even a second glance; seeing the Archivist rapidly traversing the paths of the sanctuary while muttering to herself was not at all an uncommon event. 

She reached the thick stone door to her makeshift balcony and set her back to it, shoving it open without the use of her overloaded hands, and stepped into the open air. The door, cut to be nearly indistinguishable from the mountainside, swung smoothly closed behind her, and she set her payload gently on the short, tough grass that covered the outcrop.

Emma frowned more deeply for a moment as she inspected the grass; her ritual had been intended to give her a soft, deep emerald carpet on which she could comfortably lay and experience the stars. Instead it was wiry, rough, and bore more resemblance to a ruglike weed than it did to anything grassy. Another failure for her ever-growing list.

And it was literally a list. Emma regretted not having thought to grab it along with her telescope, filters, and sextant. Now she'd have to wait until she got back to her room to record this one.

Emma picked up her hand-held telescope and took off the blue filter before beginning her search for the polarized solar filter that might let her get a bead on Saturn in the daytime sky. As she sifted through the messy pile of scientific-looking implements, a flash of light from the ground below stabbed out at her, and she turned to examine its source. 

The young-looking woman gasped as she spied what looked like armored men gathered around the entrance to her mountain home. She abandoned the search for a filter and instead aimed her telescope at the disturbance beneath her perch.

"Oh, shit," she said, her frown deepening to a nearly catastrophic degree. "Dwarves! I wasn't wrong! They want to negotiate something! I'm sure of it! Wait, were we expecting them? No, no, obviously not, the orcs would be friendlier. Or... less... unfriendly? Maybe? Dear Goddess, I hope so. I don't need to add two failures to my list today! I think that one in front is a girl. Aren't they supposed to have beards? Does she have a beard? They're too close, it's all blurry, I can't tell! I need to get Luna!"

Emma raced back to the door and flung it open, then paused, looking back at her untidy pile of celestial measuring tools. She grimaced, torn between finding Luna, and gathering up her things first. What if it rained?

She took a step back towards the outcrop, then checked herself and turned to head down the passageway... then checked herself again, turning once more towards her mess. 

"Graah!" she exclaimed. Clenching her small fists, she ripped herself away from the door and hurried down the hallway. "Luna! Has anyone seen Luna? We need her at the gate! Somebody get Luna! Does anyone know if we're expecting rain? But anyway, Luna!"

 

 

 

Edited by Charli Foxtrot

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The words that spilled from the female dwarf seemed to trigger a violent seism within the orc. Not only her, but the shadows behind her also quivered with an inflamed intensity of animosity. Moments ago she looked stoically tensed; now her sinews bulged and tightened with pulsating black veins swelled from anger.

“Understand this.”

Intrepid of their shields, she took a single menacing step forward and glared down upon them, the loose dust lifting and settling under her weight. The orcs already had a seething hatred for the witches they were forced to control under their enslavement—but for a stranger to rub their ‘masters’ in their face was warrant for suicide. These dwarfs were protected by only a loose command.

 “You come to our land, dwarf,” she said through a trembling snarl of restraint, the words practically stuttered as she tried to hold herself back. “Your worth without weight is small like your head is short. I trade my blade to your throat for a piss on your head to prove it.”

There was no way they would know this orc, but the signature bladed gauntlets, fathomless temper, and adapt language skills indicated this was the general of the warrior brigade, Natasha. She was one the most intolerant of the orcs and had the notorious reputation for slaying her own out of mere vexation. And she was easily annoyed, particularly by pompous dismissal. The witches, being mostly women of diplomacy, ordered the orcs not to slaughter or maim strangers without immediate threat.

Natasha was capable of speaking more than her native tongue and was thus responsible for leading such initial meetings. She spat at the ground as the ‘hold-fire’ order rang through her mind and chained her body back. It left the anger screaming through bars in a way she was sure would eventually drive her insane. For now, all she could do was reject them and hope (oh and she definitely hoped) they were bold enough to persist.

“Your unweight time nothing to me. Be gone or give me excuse to tear you apart.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Emma would find Luna lingering near the main gate of the orc fortress, staring off down the pools of lava and stalagmites that distanced them from the entry way into the tunnels. The fiery hues of the atmosphere danced down her emerald tresses and heat waved their nature so the currents of her locks resembled seabed flora. With the constant clanking and grunting of sweating orcs saturating the fortress, her beauty was hardly outspoken. Though she managed to steal a hair of the ugliness surrounding her. 

At the call of her name, Luna turned her head obliquely over her shoulder, mauve eyes taking in the sight of her rushing sister and transpiring a soft smile upon her lips.

“Merry Meet, Emma” she said in greeting with her soft British accent . “As sprightly and busy as ever, I see.”

Her demeanor was  as calm and jubilant as always was when she greeted her sisters. In the moment, it was a perfect balance to Emma’s frantic nature and settled the air between them. When her sister drew close with the clear intent of spewing a rushed explanation of what she witnessed, Luna’s leather gloved hand rose and touched her shoulder with a waves of comfort.

“Calm yourself. I’m aware of what is occurring outside the mountain. The orcs spotted them approaching a mile back and sent a hound to inform me. Though they are not expected, and I fear being too forward  with Natasha and her guard may lead to unnecessary violence.”

She sighed deeply. She had no feelings of compassion or sympathy for her orcs, but she favored Natasha’s intellect. Unfortunately, it also made Natasha also the most capable of finding loopholes to her command just to ease her poorly controlled temper. She knew dwarves were stubborn and brusque, they never blended well in relations with high-tempered creatures such as orcs. Admittedly Luna wasn't fond of dwarves either, the males sometimes clashed with her more prominently than human men. Normally the Matriarch would handle such relations in her stead, but she hadn't returned from her mission with Morwenna yet. She had no choice and her curiosity was high.

“I  preemptively sent the hound back to engage them and attempt to calm the air before it gets too thick. But would you accompany to me greet our guests? I’d very much like to know if your divinations have foretold anything of this day. Tell me as we fly?”

Giving her a small squeeze, Luna awaited for Emma’s agreement then waved her fingers in a subtle gesture, leading to the appearance of her metallic staff. She settled on it, waiting for Emma to join her. The witches had efficient and quick methods to bypass the tunnels, it wouldn't take long to get there.       

~ ~ ~

Nastaha sharply turned away from the dwarves, fully intent on returning to the shadows.

 A low wine vibrated from the palisade and drew her to a stop. From the darkness next came a lupine creature, black as night and brandishing three heads with equal sets of three eyes. They kept their heads low, one slightly higher than the other and whining deeply at Natasha. The other two kept their eyes on the dwarfs, small lifts of their muzzles and slimy drool making their range of fangs shine at them. 

The back of Natasha back tensed even more, her shoulders even growing beating veins from the building pressure within her.  She was dangerously still until the creature touched her with its nose and she exploded out viciously at it. The hound released an echoing high pitched cry as her metallic boot kicked it to the ground and once more for good measure. Though miserably, the hound recovered surprisingly quick and rushed back into the shadows. Natasha sharply turned herself to the side with eyes back on the dwarves.

“Luna see you. Wait here.”

Clearly still pissed off, she trudged back into the shadows with her business as an communicator done.

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Emma joined Luna on her transport, settling stiffly behind her. She wasn't used to being in such close contact with people... well, not with people she actually cared about, in a social setting, anyway. 

"Well," she began, squirming a little, "I'm not really a seer, I just chart the movements of the stars and scientifically observe how the correlate to earthly events, there's really a big difference. Anyway, take it with a grain of salt, because it's subject to interpretations that are entirely different from actual divination-- woo!"

The staff banked a sharp turn, and Emma was forced to wrap her arms around Luna's waist to stay aboard. She was glad the coven matron couldn't see her blush. 

"Uhh, anyway... my charts, which I went out to double-check when I saw the dwarves.. or is it dwarfs? I can't ever get it straight, and I don't want to offend anyone, so I should really look that up before I actually talk to any of them. Oh, what was I saying? Right, charts."

Emma was dangerously close to babbling; the motion of the staff had straightened, but Emma's arms hadn't left Luna's waist. She wasn't sure how she felt about that. She pressed on.

"Charts. Anyway. I had to double-check my charts because the stars were saying something about a tense negotiation with the implied possibility of great fortune. I panicked because I thought 'that can't be right, there's nothing on the calendar for today!', and then I thought maybe I'd forgotten to record an important meeting.. oh, drat, my equipment! It's still out on my observation platform! We're not expecting rain are we? It's delicate equipment, maybe I ought to go back for it-- ooh!"

Another sharp turn, and Emma tightened her grip lest she be flung from her seat altogether. As it was, the thought of rain exited her mind and slammed face-first into the cavern wall, not to be revived until the coming negotiations. 

"Ohh, ok, so.. um.. anyway, Mars was debilitated, so it's not going to be overly hostile, but the fact that it was present at all indicates that things will be tense, especially since it was in the sign ruled by the Greater Malefic, so things could go very badly, but if they do, that's on them... or us, I guess.. because nothing external is pushing them that way, and the Part of Fortune calculates to the sign of Pieces, which means that if we can come together on something, it'll be good for everyone."

Emma took a deep breath; she hadn't noticed that she was about to run out of air until she finished her rapid, wandering sentence. She glanced at her arms around Luna's waist, and blushed again.

"Uh.. are we there yet?"

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Although it was as natural as breathing to her, Soldier realized that a militaristic approach to this meeting was not necessarily the best. Sometimes people could be easily made anxious and cowed through implied superiority of arms..... but other people would see such threats as a challenge, and quickly rise to meet it in kind. The last thing she wanted was to come all the way out into the middle of nowhere just to end up getting into a pointless fight and going home empty-handed. The rest of the Assembly would not be pleased, and Soldier wanted to maintain every shred of influence among them that she could during this time of great change for Tazarek. So she kept her mace in its harness at her waist, and waved for her soldiers to relax.

Soldier waited patiently for this "Luna" to appear.

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“With your skill, Sister, it is your interpretation that I will taking to heart.”

She felt soft hands tightened around her waist line, and merely smiled at it. Likewise, she gripped her hands tighter upon the rod and sailed them across the magma pits into the one of the caverns. Immediately as they entered, torches awoke with blue flames that lit their way.

“I suppose it depends on the literature.”

She paused to listen more.

“There’s no rain today, sister. Unless we are the ones to cast it.”

Emma’s babbling made for a very entertaining ride, not to mention her miniature squeals when the tunnels abruptly shifted and their metallic steed shifted accordingly.  

After the first time, Luna might have did it on purpose.

“I imagine Mars would be quite invigorated yet repressed during any encounter the orcs are destined to have. Our ruler ship over them has by definition doused their natural violence.”

There almost a tinge of pity within her voice. Luna always rolled along the lines of guilt when she committed any less than moral act upon another person, slavery being one of those. However, in remembrance of the orcs attempting to burn one of her sisters and the overwhelming benefits of their service, she was able to ignore that guilt under vindictive ambition.

The staff slowed down and Luna brought a thumb to her mouth. When she removed it, a small bead of crimson was on the flesh and with impressive accuracy, she hit a mark on the tunnel’s ceiling. As soon as she did, a wave of magic cascaded over them and the darkness vanished into skylight. Cool air alleviated the lingering heat of the mountain's body, which now brushed a few inches from their toes.

“Yes, love. We are here.”

Luna and Emma would transpire above the dwarfs, perhaps dwarves, the staff descending neatly where Natasha had disappeared. Soldier only had to wait but a few additional minutes, emphasizing how easily the witches could transpire outside the mountain if needed. It was the beauty of magic.

Luna came off her staff and approached, but not too close. Still a horse’s length between them. Her youthful and aesthetic features made her appear kind-hearted and carefree, a clear contrast the rough featured orcs slowly revealing themselves in a group of four behind her. It questioned of how she could not fear her back towards them. However, the mauve brilliance of her eyes made her seem focused and strict whilst her old fashioned jade dress, fitted with a corset and assented with a feathered large hat and buckled shoes, made her appear wizened and old-fashion. A mother. Perhaps thee mother, might be a good way to describe her. She layered her palms and laced her fingers elegantly at her pelvis, offering a very small nod of the head.

“Blessings, dwarf,” she said with a softened accent-filled voice. “Don't mind the vulgarity of my orcs, kindness is a rarity. What brings you to my mountain?”

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Emma hung back, but couldn't hang back as far as she wanted because of the orcs that converged from the mountain. She couldn't imagine being in a worse place; literally surrounded by a crowd of people, none of whom she knew well and none of whom she could afford to look uncertain or fearful in front of. She swallowed hard, choking down her rising anxiety, and did her best to straighten her shoulders and look regal and important.

Her best wasn't very good. She mostly looked like a scribe who was trying desperately to seem important. But it was better than just skulking in the background; she knew how orcs viewed weakness, and thought maybe dwarfs (dwarves?) might see it the same way. She didn't know for sure, because in her hobby of reading every article and book in the library systematically, she hadn't gotten to the "D" rack yet. She was still on "B". Specifically "The Bandersnatch and You: Promoting Understanding and Empathy for Reality-Challenged Creatures". It was a big library, after all, and the old archivist, curse them straight to hell, had alphabetized everything that started with "An" or "A" in, well, "A". That had made the first section the longest. She was just happy that her current read hadn't been filed in "T" for "The"; she might have burned the place down altogether if that had been the case.

Trying to banish her nervousness, she took the opportunity to closely study the dwarves (dwarfs?); she'd never seen one in person before, and now there was a whole crew standing right in front of her. Emma took note of their armor, their weapons, the clothes that peeked out from under the armor, their hair styles, and every detail she could absorb. Details were important. 

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"We have come for a proposal of trade, one that could be lucrative for both of our people. I understand that you have a successful breeding program with these orcs, so I have come to ask if you would be willing to create a stock that we could purchase for a set price. If this goes well we could also set up a trade route from here to our city of Tazarek, where we can trade more frequently without the need for all the ceremony."

It was important to make this deal happen, a workforce was required if their larger construction projects could be finished on time. While they had success rounding up the orcs that made residence in the surrounding mountains, the dwarven empire needed more workers to continue expanding. Expansion was a matter of life or death to her people, a challenge of her and the other Representative's leadership skills. History would remember these moments as the times they had either succeeded in bringing about prosperity or ruin upon their people. Soldier was not about to be thwarted in her attempts at advancing their nation just because of trifle things like a low workforce.

"If you would allow us entry into your home, we could discuss things in greater detail, where both parties could be more comfortable."

Soldier was trained for harsh conditions, as much as her bodyguards were, who maintained a cool composure even in full armor. They made certain to stay hydrated through specially enchanted waterskins Scholar had gifted them for the journey, which would always have water for them. While their immediate needs were met, Soldier still had a job to do, and she didn't wish to come off as someone with equal footing to their hosts. 

Dwarves are commonly underestimated, many times considered lesser than other races because of their diminutive stature. Soldier resented this sentiment, but was determined to use it to the fullest advantage she could take from it, as long as it meant she could better help her people. For now she would come off as just a dwarf, a woman that while she held the station of ruler, did not appear to come prepared to handle the challenges of an extended visit in the wastes of No Mans Land. This would be a useful facade to keep their hosts guards down, allowing her the advantage for when the time was right to reveal her true self. Most wouldn't think of her as the embodiment of combat that she had trained herself to be, a rippling mass of muscle that was always poised to fight. Given the chance, she could be a truly deadly foe to go up against, a predator who has found their next meal. 

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Trade?” The voice came not from Luna but from Natasha, exposing herself from the shadows at her rear. Her face was twisted and gnarled like a tree from her immense anger. She tromped forward with her sinews coiled like springs ready to lunge for the dwarf's throat. “We are not to be sold like cattle for slaughter!”

Luna rose a single finger to freeze the angered orc in her place, taming the aggression with a silent strike seen quivering from the orc's crown and into the earth at her toes into waves of  tension. Natasha’s bloodied eyes boiled with hatred but she nonetheless forced her head to the side.

Luna had not taken her bright eyes from Soldier. In her experience with dwarfs, numerous in her wizened years, what stood before her was a rarity. The pale sheet of skin, though swelling with sweat from the beating sun, was so washed of color that the witch expected her to burst into flames. The color was not smooth like cream but ugly like the undead. At first, Luna thought the undead was what she was encountering and it swirled on her tongue bitterly. However, the bouquet of burnt wood from earth’s energy radiated from Solider vigorously. As if every chapter of her life was smudged in deep loam. Only dwarfs carried that essence.    

Gradually she lowered her finger, curling it to her slender chin with a thumb in thought. She remained there so serene and unchanging like the essence of Zen itself. The wind crept between them during her lull of thought, its dry cough playing  with her emerald tresses and rich cloth. Finally those coral lips curled into a small smile that reached her eyes lustrously.

“I cannot allow you into my home so armed, ye dwarf of no name.” A hint of banter was within her tone, but the point was nonetheless clear—she had no name from this individual requesting on trade and entry into her mountain. “If negotiations are to be made, consider your surrender of weapons a sign of good faith. You may keep your shields, but…”

She waved her hand and two orcs approached.

“Surrender the rest. I promise, my sister dwarfs, no harm will come to you under my charge.”

It wasn’t a request, it was terms. Though she spoke politely and gently, there was little leeway in her voice. The dwarfs would be vulnerable without their weapons—that was good. They were in her home, sitting in the palms of her hands, and under her rules. There would be no disrespect within her walls, not even from dwarfs of Tazarek.

The witch turned with her sister beside her, neither waiting for their rejection or acceptance. If they handed their weapons over to the orcs, they would be permitted to follow them. If not, Luna suffered no loss.

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Her conditions were acceptable to the Dwarves, who could respect the want for non hostile negotiations. As they followed into the home of the coven of witches, they would surrender their weapons, leaving Soldier's bodyguards with only their shields. This was not a particularly concerning matter for the Representative, as dwarven combat training required a soldier to be able to use his shield as effectively as a weapon as they would a defensive tool. What she was most glad for was to finally be out of the heat of the wasteland, which was starting to take its toll on her body.

The cave system looked rather interesting to her, she making note of its twists and turns, curious as to whether or not what they saw was real or an illusion cast by the witches. Either way they would hopefully arrive at their host's domicile in a matter of moments, their business just moments away from starting. With her bodyguards taking up positions all around her, she would be well protected from any assault by the orcs who seemed angered by the purpose of their meeting here. Soldier didn't care for the opinions of savages, but she did care about how precariously controlled theybwere by the magic of their masters. If even for a moment their hold over them wavered, she was certain the angry female would rip Soldier's head clean off her shoulders, at least she could attempt to.

Dwarves were always prepared for the worst, so Soldier had informed the rest of the Representatives that if she didn't male contact with them and utter the secret password, they should consider her killed by the hands of the coven. While Soldier knew it wouldn't be their intent to cause harm to the envoy, she refused to give their pet army a pass for their aggression, just because it wood seem like an accident that theybhad lost control of them. Honor was an important belief to her people, a belief she had helped instill especially into the military forces that she reshaped in the time of her coming into power. One of the worst sins of this code of honor, was the killing of a guest within your home, with the punishment being a heavy price to pay.

"Everything here looks very fascinating, it reminds me much of the deeper tunnels of Tazarek, where the earth gives way to molten rock." It was a passing comment, one meant to give her a moment of time to properly speak about her lack of a name without giving away the secrets of her people. Moonglow Mushroom potion was a tightly held secret, one that the Representatives were prepared to kill in order to protect. If it became a commonly known product of their people, there would be no end of thieves looking to steal some for themselves. This was something that gave them an edge, something that cleared their minds and gave them unparalleled focus, at a high price it would seem though.

"I have no name because I cast it aside to better lead my people, it is a requirement when one ascends to my rank in the government. We are also required to sever our ties with our family, give up any material wealth or holdings we may have had, and take up the name of those whom we represent. This is why I have no other name, but Representative Soldier, because I am the leader of the military of Tazarek, and possibly her strongest warrior."

This was said in a matter of fact manner, because in her mind it was indeed fact that she was the strongest warrior so far. Others were great warriors in their own right, one Gustav Songhammer being an exceptionally talented fighter if not for his wishes to be a musician. Soldier was not one to boast of her abilities, she merely recognized that her prowess in combat was unmatched by anyone else in their ranks so far. If they wished for proof, they could read of her exploits in the battle that ensued between Tazarek and the draconian monsters who wished to destroy them entirely.

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The boundless tunnels within the eminence were an elaborate complex of such intricacy that the hands of Daedalus himself seemed to father their vigor, and the heat within was like the breath of the great Minotaur fuming through the umbra. Luna and her sister were hidden from the dwarfs by the imposing darkness and stature of the orcs between them. Though were torches upon the cavern walls, they did not light. Only a white luminescence from the witch's staff led the way. The reasons for this were left for them to wonder.

“Is that so?” she responded. “I personally find the tunnels dull and dreary, but I imagine they can be quite homely for your kind. This is good, as we will be experiencing for this some time. It is not as easy to enter the mountains as it is to leave it.”

The journey was not welcoming. Howls of wild beasts rang through the tunnels, resembling the cadence of Hallows Eve. Crimson optics of shadow creatures watched them through unexplored maws of twists and turns. Once the white light cascaded upon them, and thick ebony fur glistened with silver hues as three headed beasts melted into vision. Orc hounds they called them. They vanished as quick as they appeared.

“You swore to a life of fidelity, sacrificing all this you for that is that them.” Luna said as she continued, ignoring the beasts. "This surprises me."  The dwarfs of this world were different than her experience had taught her. Dwarfs were known for their ravenous desire of worth through material possessions. Treasure defined them. It was odd to encounter a culture of dwarfs that had such a great sense of unity that they abandon their individual possessions and riches for others. ‘Sharing’ as it were.

“I would praise your society’s acceptance of great female warriors, but I suspect you’ve given up such forms of pride as well.” Soldier couldn’t see it, but the witch frowned a tad. “I will respectfully call you Soldier of Tazarek, if that is your wish.”

Left, right, left, left, right, or was it left? The twists were not only flat forks, but rising quadruples, descending triplets, and swirls of singles that seems to unproductively reverse their direction. They had to endure this puzzle for an hour.

Eventually Luna paused in the middle of a tunnel. The light lowered, suggesting she knelt down, and moments later a ring of red light transpired in runic art around the burrow.

“We are here, please step through the gate. I warn you though, the temperatures of the land outside are naught compared to what you are about to endure.”

As the orcs intrepidly stepped through, the witch waited for the dwarfs to travel as well before she followed behind them. Her words were unpleasantly true—they had stepped into a great underground cavern of a volcano. Magma pools spread the next mile in the distance, leading in amber rivulets to a great fortress of brimstone in the distance. The magma pools breathed heavily and made the air wave into ripples of distortions, painting the fortress like a great mirage. Yet despite the sheer unpleasantness of the environment, the temperature was less than one would expect within the heart of a dormant volcano. The feverish temperature was doused by the influence of magic.

“There will be accommodations within. Let us continue.”

After the final stretch of their travels, they reached the great gates of the stronghold.  Craquelure designs on doors several feet high were smoothed and polished into raven diamonds reflecting their approach. They opened silently and paved the way into a great courtyard permeated with hundreds of laboring beasts. Most of orc denizens were tinted coal and as rigid as stone; compact coils of sinews bulging and rippled as they carried great pieces of decalescent gravel and bedrock. Workers traveled to seemingly simplistic structures under construction whilst others carried weapons and armory. The hustle and bustle of the environment was like a hive of procrustean insects, never resting and harnessing a consistent dudgeon driving them forward. Outbursts of violence towards one another were not uncommon; the orcs lived for it.

When the queen of their hive entered the scene, the humming of snarls and grunts settled around her. The brutes, hovering at least two feet over the witch, lowered her heads in bitter submission as they passed by. Some of their architecture was low, but many ascended high above the walls of the garrisons and built into the mountain, suggesting the fortress extended in and through it. More orcs crouched on rocks in the distance walls, clipping pieces that fell into the awaiting hands of others. It was clear they were expanding.

Luna led the troupe to one of the greatest towers within the fortress, consuming a great fragment of the rear and adorned with crystalline doors that opened with a wave of her head. Several of the orcs ceased to follow them at this point; only Natasha and one other unnamed continued. As they entered the witches’ tower, it was as if they entered a different world.

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It was the pure manifestation of magic, the dreams of a great coven transpiring before them. The once blistering temperatures faded away into a cooling zephyr permeated by crisp sensations of water fusillade upon flushed cheeks. This phenomenon was the result of the Coven Soul. It existed at an intangible sun that lived within these walls. With the increasing amount of witch souls existing within it, the blessings of their influence shrived the blemish of the ugly scorched earth into a world of pulchritude and fantasy. At first, it was impossible to believe that this encapsulated forest was the inside of a volcanic tower. However, the runic structures gave birth to a spiral of stairs that ascended up and beyond the canopy of the trees. If one looked closely, walls existed beyond and between the bark of the wood. Luna’s exquisite beauty sang loud in this storybook setting, her locks becoming emerald weaves of silk and her mauve irises glittering like the tears of galaxies.

“One day all of No Man’s Land will have this magic,” she said fondly, giving them a moment to admire her pride and joy. The more witches that joined the coven, the more power they gained and more this would spread into the land.

Within one of the ruin structures, built by the more competent orcs of the fortress, a great stone table and surrounding chairs awaited them. Upon the surface was a spread of water filled chalices, breads and fruits. Light but refreshing. The witch settled in a large chair, the others notably smaller (perhaps she prepared for them).

“Help yourselves before we start.”

When they did, and finished, she got straight to the point.

“So tell me, Soldier of Tazarek, what need do you have for my orcs? And how many are you suggesting? Most importantly, what do you have to offer for them?” Her eyes narrowed mildly. "Mind you, I have no interest in gold."

Natasha stared at Luna, her fist tightening and trembling, but she said nothing.

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Soldier was the first to admit to two things as they made their way through the inner bowels of the mountain in order to reach their destination. The first was that even the stubborn resolve of the dwarves had difficulty standing up to such heats for so long. Tazarek was a place of much cooler climates on the outside, with the inside carefully climate controlled in order to make the people content. Her warriors were having a difficult time making their way, their strained breaths easily heard as they shouldered both the weight of their heavy armor as well as the brunt of this oppressive heat. It seemed that a show of military proficiency was failing her, proving more of a weakness as she began to realize a second fact about this coven.

They were far more powerful than she could have realized, and it was a sort of power that frightened her greatly. From the hellish extremes of the volcano to the serene beauty of this emerald paradise, Soldier was certain that this was not someone to make an enemy of. Scholar would certainly be very interested in what was here, so she made mental notes of everything that could be seen or heard. There would have to be much study into this witch soul and the extent of its power over the land, in case a worst case scenario came to being.

Allowing her soldiers to be at ease, they hungrily dug into the bounty before them, drinking deep of the water that was offered. No amount of willpower could get over the fact she had been sweating bullets the entire way here, and her body was beginning to feel the effects of her headstrong recklessness. The food tasted so sweet, so nourishing that Soldier couldn't help but feel frustrated over how much her plan had failed. Painter would have been far more suited to this than her, but she did her best to push down the resentment that seemed to grow for her fellow Representative, so that she can focus on the task at hand.

"Tazarek has many projects that requires workers to complete on schedule, for our population is always increasing, requiring us to expand or die." What she said was true, that her people were constantly growing in number, though not by conventional means of reproduction. Before the great battle between the Dwarves and the drakkos, a group of explorers discovered a strange set of artifacts in an uncharted tunnel in the Fourth Level. Discovery of these items was followed by the conception of the Stoneborn project, which proved to be the leading contributor to the sudden boom in population Tazarek was experiencing. 

"Our people can offer far greater gifts than gold or gems, for we Dwarves are innovators and craftsmen." With a glancing look at the female orc, she recalled the crude look of their equipment, how disgusting it looked to her. Any proper dwarven blacksmith would tell someone to be wary of orcish craftsmanship, as it lacks the careful elegance that sets dwarven smithing apart from all the rest. Sometimes when a military expedition returned from capturing a group of orcs, they would take whatever shoddily made metalwork they had and proved the superiority of their steel. Public records were made of how quickly their hammers sundered the orcish weapons and armor, another nail in the coffin that was the orc's supposed proof of being a civilized society.

"We are beginning to corner the market with magitech, our inventors producing machines that could easily triple your work output. That, along with the means of powering these devices, should prove ample enough for a trade in an orcish labor force. We already have means of lodging them, as we have established internment camps in the mountain range to keep them safe from their more savage behaviors. By rule of law they held no legitimate claim to their land, which is why we are relocating them so it can be utilized for further expansion." 

She would gauge her response after that, seeing what she would need to do should the initial offer be declined. Much of her body felt the need for a good night's rest, but if they were declined and shown the exit, they would not hesitate to make their way home again. Hurt pride was nothing compared to having to stay in a place that was so filled with power one couldn't be sure just how altruistic this coven's intents were. "You seem to already have excellent workers already, perhaps if given some time you could breed more that we could purchase at a later time."

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Folding her slender nails neatly under her chin, the witch watched the dwarfs indulge themselves. The ill-mannered sounds of fruit juices and bread crumbles rolling from their smacking lips didn’t seem to faze her. She only smiled softly with patience until the last bit was devoured. Then those twinkling mauve hues focused upon Soldier as their meeting began and she stretched the still of lips until the dwarf finished. Her emerald brows quirked and furrowed a half inch.

“Magic? In technology?” she said indigently.

If the witch were anything less than her elegance, she might have snorted at this comment. Witches were magical from the moment of birth, it streamed through their blood as much as it pulsated within their souls. While one of the Luna’s specialties and much utilized witchcraft was rune inscriptions, the idea of merging something so mundane with something so surreal sat bitterly on her mind. 

“Mmm,” she hummed in contemplation and listened the tense shifting of Natasha in her rear. The orc was restless at the thought of being traded for common labor. Luna understood the tribulation. Her orcan warriors were capable of physical labor, but they were primarily soldiers. Sending one to the stables for the rest of their life would put a sword in any knight’s honor. Though the majority of them had none, they were still raving beasts. If left caged too long, they’d likely become uncontrollable from the bottled blood-lust. Still the witch considered their promise of magically inept artifacts and armor. Fortifying the mountain and the wall defenses, not to mention providing her more intelligent orcs with greater armory and weaponry, was appealing for the price. Providing such a blunt minded species with magic was the equivalent of letting a child run around with scissors, but there were a few exceptions. One of which was over her shoulder. As those wheels in her mind continued to turn, she thought of the new dragons that needed armor powerful enough to harness and enhance their magical potential as well.

“I am interested.” She finally said and Natasha gave her an incessant but silent protest with her eyes. As if the witch felt it, a certain intolerant glint shone with her eyes. “...But there are several things you must understand about my orcs. Natasha.”

Natasha blinked from her glare and shook her head. “Yes, Luna.”

“You seem to have a sense of aggression. In fact, I would almost fathom that you’re glaring at me.” She paused just long enough for Natasha to start to look nervous. “So I want you to take your gauntlet and place it to your neck. Apply the pressure until I tell you to stop.”

 Natasha eyes were instantly full of hesitation but her body was not. Immediately she placed the sharp blade of her crimson stained gauntlet to her vein woven neck and applied pressure. The ink etched skin was like marble, not even blending to the blade initially. Natasha struggled through drawn silence, squinting her eyes and grunting against the blade. Her bicep then tensed with unexplained determination even as her eyes dulled with the beginnings of agony. The blade suddenly pierced and drew spilling black ink mere moments before Luna spoke out.

“Stop.”

Natasha pulled an half inch of metal so rapidly from her neck that it was as if it burnt her. She bent over, instead stabbing it angrily into the dirt ground so she could breath. From the depth of the pierce in her neck, more blood was expected but it only a small stream manifested. It demonstrated the harsh thickening of her skin whilst proving Luna’s discipline and next point .

“My orcs are forced to obey everything I say without hesitance of compliance. It is an unyielding loyalty imprinted into their minds though mechanisms I care not to explain, and it does not change between generations or hands of ownership.” Luna turned her eyes sharply over her shoulder. Natasha kept her eyes away from the witch, her demeanor completely doused from the protest held earlier. Luna turned her eyes back to the dwarfs without a beat.

“I can only remedy this through one method. Sister,” she addressed Emma. “We’ll need a binding magical parchment, did you bring them?”

Though clumsy and absentminded on the social aspect, Emma as the scribe of the coven was incredibly efficient in all her paperwork. The witch drew a vanilla parchment from her stack with a quaint crimson quill and bottled ink. Luna unfolded one of her hands as she waved at the paper and it whisked into her influence, orchestrating across the table and before the dwarfs. Next the carmine-tendril quill hovered above and dipped into the glass bottle. When it removed itself, beautiful arrays of amber glimmer and dust streaked across air in its wake. It were as if the quill was held by a muse of creation. The magic faded from vision and the quill hovered patiently between them.

“This is a magic-binding contract and ink, the parchment was crafted from the practiced art of summoning beings from worlds beyond our reach. It is also the same magic that demons use to transfer power of possession of souls from their victims as payment. It is very ancient magic, and it is enough to pull my influence from the orcs as part of the terms of a deal. The quill had been enchanted with the essence of a phoenix feather and the ink ground from its ash. It is eternal and binding through life while the contract exists. Because the orcs belong to me indefinitely, they are my property and I can trade them magically. Normally lives cannot be bargained through third parties. So…

I will breed a species of orc hybrids from the more gracile tribes over the mountainside to do your labor. These orcs will be more intelligent and capable of constructing advanced architecture suitable to your needs. They will also be less aggressive, but still quick to anger. That will be for you to tolerate.”

As she spoke, the quill set to work. It never touched the parchment but instead wrote into the very air. Golden words transpired, describing Luna’s terms for them both to see.

“The orcs will be under your responsibility and relinquished from my control so long as this contract remains valid. However…” Luna narrowed her eyes. “If the orcs provided are used in any present or future endeavor to harm or disrupt my coven's ambitions, their obligation and possession will instantly be returned to me with all your secrets."

Pausing only to allow the dwarfs to imbibe the solemnity of her words, she then continued.

“In return for my services, I request the craftsmanship of your kind more than magitech. Magitech..a curiosity of mine but until I witness the usefulness of it myself, I have no interest. But your reputation is more valuable. Your blacksmiths are well adapt to creating vigorous armor, artifacts, and weapons of all sizes. I will send you blueprints of what I require and you will create it without questioning the purpose. As my orcs are already durable, I expect the finest from such skilled dwarfs. I will need material that can withstand great enchantment and protect creatures that radiate with it. It will not only be for orcs…but for creatures that live within this mountains as well. For a lifetime of servitude, I request consistent compliance so long as it is within your resources. I too, will only provide for what I can afford. Our values must never exceed our production. We will exchange upon need and request, allowing adequate time for production.

“If either party attempts to dismantle or change the contract without permission of the other, their life will be void." Another serious remark. "And under the agreement of both parties, the contract may be terminated or altered at anytime.”

Finally she stopped speaking, allowing the quill to write the last of it.

“Is this acceptable? And will you be adding anything? I understand you may speak for your king or queen, but I will only accept their signature. As the life of a solider means little for clout.” She smiled. "I hope you understand." Luna was a queen by all means of her kingdom. If she were to be entering any deal, it would be with someone of her standing. His signature would do. The quill wrote at part in as well.

 

Edited by Fallen Joy

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