Chapter 899: Negotiation? : Ultimatum

By the eve of the second day, Vahn had done a cursory exploration of three of the Undercities, gaining a decent understanding of their social structure. Most of the wealthiest Dwarves, many of which belonged to the eight most influential houses, were located towards the heart of the Undercities. Surrounding these tall stone structures, it was possible to find numerous [Master Smith], [Master Craftsman], and even [Master Metalwright]s. In total, Vahn had discovered more than forty workshops belonging to such capable individuals, validating the claim that the Dwarves were the most ‘skilled’ artisans in the world. Even in Orario, excluding gods, there were only seven [Master Smith]s, two [Master Crafsman], and zero [Master Metalwright]s. Since the disparity in their population was massive, with Orario having several million residents compared to the Iron Hills only having around four-hundred thousand Dwarves, it really put things into perspective.

Vahn’s purpose for investigating these shops, other than getting a better understanding of the critical infrastructure of the Undercities, was in an effort to find Tsubaki’s father. Though she had long since claimed it no longer mattered, Vahn still wanted to seek answers on her behalf. He didn’t believe the Sakuya, a proud warrior and [Master Smith], was a foolish woman who would have opened her heart to a truly cruel man, even bestowing Tsubaki his last name after coming she was born. This showed there was a deeper connection between the two and, given Tsubaki’s nature, Vahn knew she must have realized her understanding of events was lacking. It was perhaps her fear that there ‘was’ a reason behind his leaving that she was truly afraid to learn…especially after having harbored resentment toward him for decades in her youth.

Unfortunately, even after poring over several documents and exploring three Undercities, Vahn was unable to find any trace of Tsubaki’s father, or anyone named Collbrande for that matter. Since he couldn’t exactly come out and ask questions openly, Vahn was left having to wait until he dealt with the Elder Council before pursuing the matter further. Presently, he was coming up on the eve of the second day so it was time to seek them out for their response before he had to teach them an even harsher lesson. Fortunately, things should be settled if he dealt with them directly, even if there were great instabilities introduced in the Iron Hills as a result…

Instead of returning to the surface, Vahn decided to cut to the chase and head directly for the Ironheart residence. Most of the Patriarchs of the eight families had been staying there since the first day, with only the Stormhammers sending out men to search the premise of their Undercity for a bomb. In truth, Vahn didn’t have nearly enough time to make a second Sub-Space orb to use as a weapon, meaning he would have to take matters into his own hand if the Dwarves didn’t acquiesce. This would also allow him to avoid greater casualties to the slave population, so Vahn didn’t mind getting his hands dirty.

With that mindset, Vahn arrived on the stone steps of the fortress-like residence belonging to the Ironhearts before unequipping his [Shadow Visor Mk. 2]. There were quite a number of guards patrolling the residence while shiny gold and white ballistae were interspaced atop the stone ramparts. When they saw him appear, there was an immediate response from these troops who, upon realizing exactly who had just shown up within their defensive line, became slightly pale as a series of commands echoed about. Vahn was a little surprised that none of them outright attacked him, showing commendable discipline and bearing instead of inviting destruction unto themselves…

After a few minutes, instead of a slave coming to guide him, there was a rather tall Dwarf, 166cm, who came out to ‘greet’ him. He was wearing ornamental golden armor, as Dwarves, in general, had a habit of wearing ornate and powerful equipment to show off their status. With his dark beard, filled with lines of grey, Vahn knew he had to be either a Patriarch or something like a Captain of the Guard. His power was around the peak of Level 4 while a resolute light glowed in his eyes, even though he didn’t make any motion to attack. Instead, after approaching within twenty meters, the man stopped and said, “Vahn Mason, can’t say you’re welcome within my home, but I don’t exactly have a choice this time…hmph…!”

Without showing any change in his expression, Vahn simply asked, “Are you Kanav…?” Leaving out the full name and title of a person, especially in a diplomatic situation, was considered an extreme gaff. However, as Kanav had failed to mention his titles, Vahn knocked him down a peg by not even mentioning the man’s full name. This caused the proud Dwarf to inhale deeply, a fierce look in his eyes as he stroked his own beard in a self-calming gesture. Then, in a voice that sounded like it escaped the very earth below, Kanav rumbled, “I am indeed Kanav Mun Ironheart, Patriarch of the Great Ironheart Noble Family and Ruler of this majestic Ironheart Undercity…!”

Understanding the ‘game’ Kanav was trying to play, Vahn adopted a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes as he raised his chin slightly and said, “Very well, Kanav Mun Ironheart, I, Vahn Mason, Sage Aldrnari, Captain of the Hestia Familia, Supreme Commander of the Alliance, and future destroyer of the majestic Ironheart Undercity greet you, with all due respects…” Following his words, Vahn gave a theatrical bow without breaking eye contact with Kanav for even a moment. If the old man wanted to play politics with him, Vahn didn’t mind ‘reminding’ him about the reality of the situation. He wasn’t here to play games, nor were they going to be negotiating…

Upon hearing the words ‘future destroyer of the majestic Ironheart Undercity’, Kanav had become statuesque for several seconds without even breathing. Part of him wanted to call Vahn’s ‘bluff’ but, considering what was at stake, there were no benefits in doing so. The man before him possessed an unfathomable amount of power and, even if his nature wasn’t the type to indiscriminately kill, he did indeed possess the power to destroy an Undercity. In a way, though they could hold their large slave population ‘hostage’, Vahn was already holding their entire nation hostage…if they truly set him off, there would be no coming back from the destruction that he could rain down upon them.

By the time Kanav had started breathing again, he reminded himself of why he had been the one to come out and ‘greet’ Vahn. Thus, after a slight bow, he said in a slightly uneasy tone, “Well, let us hope things do not reach that point. I’m certain we can come to some form of agreement that will benefit both parties…” To this, Vahn gave a small nod before saying, “So long as the Elder Council is willing to acquiesce, I’m certain such a travesty can be avoided. It ultimately depends on how much you are willing to sacrifice in exchange for keeping a pretense of pride…” Without even waiting for Kanav to lead the way, Vahn began walking forward, passing the middle-aged Dwarf as he made his way to the interior of the residence.

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Resisting the urge to try and cut Vahn down, Kanav gnashed his teeth before falling into pace and ‘guiding’ Vahn to where the other Patriarchs were gathering. Things were beginning to play out in a similar way as to when he dealt with the Nobles of Orario, though Vahn knew there would be greater resistance since he was in a foreign country. They would likely believe themselves to possess some form of leverage against him but, regardless of their demands, Vahn had already hardened his heart to do what it takes to make sure future generations are not born into slavery. Even if the Dwarves tried to hold the lives of their slaves hostage, Vahn would simply go around slaughtering every Dwarf with a dark aura until they surrendered, starting with the Elder Council.

After passing through various corridors, Vahn found himself in a room with seven individuals, each around Level 4 in strength, while several powerful forces remained hidden nearby. Vahn gave them each a cursory glance, noting that each of these aged Dwarves had stern and cold expressions on their face, sculpted through decades of looking down on others. The most ‘neutral’ aura amongst them was a very dark grey, intermixed with furious reds and avaricious oranges. As for those who were on the criminal list Vahn had issued out previously, their auras were pitch black, a strong desire for Vahn’s death deeply rooted in their hearts and minds.

The moment everyone was in the room, Vahn brought his domain to bear upon each of them in an instant as he tilted his head upward and said, “I have shown you leniency in allowing you to discuss the matter, but that doesn’t mean I have come here to negotiate. The moment you declared War or Orario and had the audacity to target my home, the place where my children are, you lost any right to negotiate with me. I have grown weary of your games and will accept nothing short of absolute surrender. You will acquiesce to my demands and begin to implement my reformations or, without any exception, each of you will die…!”

At the end of his words, Vahn gestured towards the Dwarf with the blackest aura, the Patriarch of the Deepsbane Noble Family. In the distant past, they had been the family to pioneer the slave trade within the Iron Hills, leading to the suffering of countless millions over millennia. As a result, the Deepsbane family had become the fourth most influential of the Eight Noble Houses. Vahn had intended to bring the man to trial and execute him for his heinous crimes but, wanting to punctuate the severity of his words, his life would serve as an example to the rest.

Unable to resist the force moving his body through the air, Ashram Tru Deepsbane found himself before Vahn as a powerful pressure began to press in on his body from all directions. He had several S-Rank equipment to serve as protection but, as if they served no purpose at all, Ashram found his joints twisted as a bloodcurdling howl escaped his hoarse throat. Then, after his arms and legs were shattered, Ashram found his body supported by several black spears that had pierced through his body. Most of his vitals had been avoided, leaving him to bleed out slowly while Vahn exchanged gazes with the other Patriarchs within the room…

Adding to his previous statement, Vahn’s cold voice sounded throughout the room, “I’m certain everyone here should have a basic understanding of my character. In general, I am not a cruel man and acts like this bring me absolutely no satisfaction…” As he spoke, Vahn had a genuine expression of disgust as he pulled out his [Mercy] and finished off Ashram. After stowing the nondescript black blade into his Inventory, Vahn continued, saying, “You will publically announce your surrender and immediately begin taking action to follow my previous demands. All slaves, without any exception, will be liberated from the cruel lifestyle you have forced upon them. In the future, the institution of slavery outside of criminal context will be banned within the Iron Hills. The Eight Noble Houses will be stripped of their titles and authority while a representative will be assigned to govern in your stead. Henceforth, you will become a vassal nation under the rule of the City-State of Orario…”

There was a long list of terms that the Dwarves would have to acquiesce to, many of which would take several years to fully implement. However, they didn’t have a choice in the matter as, unlike most countries, the Dwarves of the Iron Hills had established a system that was corrupt from the very roots. They didn’t even have a general labor class within their society, entrusting farming and the collection of resources to slaves. Their privileged lifestyles would become a cancerous existence that would make true reform impossible unless it was addressed immediately. In the future, there may very well be members of other races working on their farms and within their mines, but it certainly wouldn’t be as slaves. They would be actual farmers and miners, paid well for the work they had done by selling their produce and ores, instead of having them seized. The fact that farmers in the Iron Hills would have their teeth pulled out if they were caught ‘stealing’ some of the produce they themselves had cultivated was ridiculous…

For nearly a full hour, without easing up his pressure at all, Vahn listed out his ultimatum before allowing the six surviving Patriarchs to fall to the ground. Then, without waiting for their response, Vahn turned his back and said, “I have numerous forces within the Undercities to observe if you have taken my words seriously. Your first action should be to announce that slavery is no longer a legal institution within the Iron Hills. Everyone, without exception, must absolve their slave contracts while all slaves will be required to congregate near the central plaza of each Undercity. Transportation to Orario will be granted to them while my teams investigate criminal activities and other forms of dissidence. Those that attempt to harbor slaves, or unjustly claim the lives of their servants out of spite, will suffer the same fate. Even if I have to put half the Dwarven population to the blade to ensure that future generations are not corrupt at the very foundation of society, I will do so…”

During his exploration of the Undercities, Vahn noticed that more than a few of the more successful Dwarves had grey or black auras. Their pride caused them to flaunt their power and authority at any opportunity, often at the expense of less reputable Dwarves and slaves. Though things got markedly better at the lower rungs of society, the treatment of Slaves was still terrible. Because of the way they were treated by the more affluent members of the Dwarven community, those from smaller houses had a tendency to take it out on the slave population. Even women and children weren’t exempt from this behavior as Vahn had seen examples of Dwarven youths stoning slaves while laughing in glee, all while the adults that should have been correcting their behavior simply watched in amusement…

By removing the slave population entirely, the Dwarves would be left in a closed community with only each other to exploit. Though laws would be implemented to regulate things and introduce reforms, there would undoubtedly be a number of hiccups along the way. They would have to delegate part of their population to agriculture and mining operations just to maintain their businesses while their merchant caravans would have to pass through customs before being allowed to leave the Iron Hills to conduct trade. Because of this, Vahn fully expected that many Dwarves, especially those that would be ‘selected’ to become farmers, would likely try to migrate to other Cities with their ill-gotten wealth. This, however, would become completely illegal in accordance with the terms forced upon the Dwarves during their surrender. Vahn didn’t want them to simply escape the repercussions of their actions by trying to flee to other countries…no, the Dwarves now had to face their comeuppance, one way or another…

(A/N: I honestly have no idea how many chapters will come out and when over the next few days. There are a lot of things going on and, until my real world commitments have been dealt with, I don’t have that much time to sit at a computer. To be fair, I generally write upwards of 10-12 hours a day, making my work weeks between 70-84 hours at times. That is time I typically need to allocate well if I want to avoid becoming too stressed out, making it very difficult to write when I have other things going on. Don’t worry as, even when I go away for work in a few weeks, there will ALWAYS be a least one chapter a day. Thank you for your patience and understanding.)

(A/N: Alternate Titles: ‘Seeking Tsubaki’s Father…’,’When the Emperor Speaks, Everyone Else Listens’,’It is going to be a rough transition…’)

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